Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

DVR alert: Drunk History is back tonight!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

The new season of Drunk History premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 EST. I’ve been a loyal viewer since it was on YouTube and while the transition to television was a little awkward — a sketch on the short-lived Funny or Die HBO show — it has found its footing on Comedy Central and is now heading into its third season.

In the first two seasons of the Comedy Central show, each episode revolved around a city as a unifying theme. Three comedians told a story each about, say, Detroit or New York City of Nashville, and it worked because hometown yarns are always good fun, and anyway history is so dense and rich that there’s no chance of so broad a range as an entire city feeling limited. Still, I missed the theme shows of the olden days, so I was delighted to see a few of them in season two (First Ladies, American Music) and they’re back this season. The first episode has a theme, in fact, the history of science, one of my favorite subtopics.

If you haven’t seen it before, I envy you, because you can watch every episode of the first two seasons on Comedy Central’s website with enthralled new eyes. The episodes are just over 20 minutes long, so you can totally marathon through all 18 of them in less than seven hours. I’m not saying you should call in sick, but you should probably call in sick. Priorities, man.

Drunk History co-creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Connor, were on a panel at this year’ Comic-Con. Waters talks about the inception of the show — Otis Redding was involved — and how it took off, the processes of narration and reenactment, topics they thought would work but turned out to be buzzkills, ie, the Donner Party and serial killer H.H. Holmes. Fun fact: the first season they made narrators tell two stories which means they were drunk non-stop from 3:00 in the afternoon until after the wee hours of the next morning. Oh, and the narrators have to blow in a breathalyzer regularly throughout filming to ensure they are efficiently but not dangerously wasted. Guest stars this season include Octavia Spenser, Parker Posey, Will Ferrel, Josh Hartnett and Maya Rudolph.

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll wish the panel video were longer. More showing how the sausage is made!

The follow-up Q&A is, alas, very brief, but it still manages to cover a couple of key questions I’ve been curious about, most significantly how are the stories chosen and by whom.

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1,000,000 minutes of historical news on YouTube

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Remember when British Pathé uploaded their archives to YouTube last year and I was all “Smell ya later, guys. I’ma be watching newsreels for the next 48 hours straight.”? Well, those 85,000 historic films comprising 3,500 hours of footage were a modest little rabbit hole compared to this one. The Associated Press and its partner British Movietone are putting their entire archives on YouTube. That’s a grand total of more than 550,000 videos and 16,500 hours of footage filmed from 1895 until the present. The British Movietone channel will host the oldest pieces, footage from 1895 through 1986. The AP channel has plenty of historical news as well, but also focuses on current events with new film from its breaking news channel added daily.

They’re also bringing together the past and the present in a very clever way. In the wake of the publication of that video of the future Queen being taught how to do the Nazi salute in 1933 when she was seven years old, British Movietone put together a collection of videos showcasing pre-World War II attitudes to Nazism and Fascism in England. Even polar bears were being taught the Nazi salute in 1934.

In happier memories, English football fans won’t want to miss the glorious conclusion of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany in color for the first time. (The whole match is available in black and white here for comparison.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, filmed almost 110 years ago:

I remember this clip like it was yesterday:

The AP has been very slow to adapt to the brave new world of free online content. It wasn’t that long ago that they were issuing cease-and-desist letters to bloggers who quoted too much of an article. They’ve had their video archives available on their own website for some time, but only unembeddable, painfully low resolution previews. The good stuff had to be paid for, which left it the province of documentarians and big budget news outlets. It’s nice to see the AP finally catch on to the fact that they’ll get more licensing requests by opening up their archives to the place pretty much everyone goes to look for videos rather than by keeping them squirreled away on their website.

Alright guys, smell ya later. If you don’t hear from me in a month, send food and water. I won’t be needing soap BECAUSE I’M NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN.

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Millions of Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

When African Americans research their genealogy, they often hit what is known as the wall: no records to be found before the 1870 United States Federal Census which was the first to enumerate former slaves. Before that number of slaves he owned was noted under the master’s entry, but it was purely statistical. There were no individual names listed. The first federal census since emancipation recorded the name, location, age, birthplace, familial relationships, marital status, occupation, ability to read and write, the total value of a person’s estate and more. That’s rich information, but it doesn’t link former slaves to their past so it’s usually a dead end for genealogists.

There is one other federal source for precious information on formerly enslaved Americans that predates 1870: the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was a federal agency created in March of 1865 with the end of the Civil War in sight to help the freed slaves in the 11 states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia), border states Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and the District of Columbia. With four million people free but destitute, the Freedmen’s Bureau ran a relief operation providing food, clothing, medical care and temporary housing in camps. Over the course of its seven years of operation, the Bureau helped freedmen locate family members separated by war and the sale of human beings, founded and supported schools, performed marriages (slave marriages were illegal so the Bureau often solemnized and legalized couples who had been de facto married for years), provided jobs and banking, oversaw labor contracts between former slave owners and former slaves, resettled freedmen on abandoned lands, represented former slaves in court, helped soldiers and sailors secure their back pay and future pensions.

The records generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau therefore cover an immense amount of ground. They include key information like the name of former masters and plantations that would allow genealogists to delve into the pre-Civil War history of African American families. The National Archives has preserved FB records on microfilm and made them available to researchers at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, and at regional archives in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington State. Some of the microfilm records have been digitized, but only a fraction of them and without name indexing which would allow people to look up individual family members and pull all their records.

FamilySearch, a non-profit genealogy organization run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has already digitized some of the Freedman’s Bureau records — 460,000 records of the Freedmen’s Bank, 800,000 records from Virginia — but on Friday, the 150th Juneteenth, it announced a major initiative to digitize and index the names of freedmen recorded in 1.5 million Bureau records. In collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum, the project seeks to mine raw records for names of freedmen and refugees and make the searchable database available for free online.

In order to complete so vast project, FamilySearch is enlisting the power of the crowd. There’s a dedicated website, Discover Freedmen, where volunteers can learn more about the digitization project. If you would like to help digitize the Freedman’s Bureau records, you must first download FamilySearch’s dedicated indexing program and then register an account. A quick introductory video explains how to use the program, but it’s fairly intuitive and user friendly. Once you’re registered and the software is up and running, click the Download Batch button, click Show All Projects and scroll down to US – Freedmen’s Bureau projects. Here’s a list of all the FB batches. There are labor contracts, education records, court records, hospital records, land records, records of complaints, employment, military service claims and rations issued. Only the indexing of the medical records is close to completion; most of the batches have barely been touched.

After you’ve selected a batch, the image of a record will appear in your software. Your job is to scour it for name of anyone who is not a Bureau official and enter any names you find in the appropriate data entry fields. If you have any difficulty reading handwriting, you can view the next and previous documents which might have associated information written more legibly. You can also use the Share Batch feature to enlist the aid of other indexers. If you just can’t make heads or tails of it, you can Return Batch to give it to other indexers.

To get started, download the indexing program here. When you open it up after installation, it will prompt you to register. After that, wade into the records of your choice. If all goes well, the project is expected to take a year after which the records will be exhibited at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in late 2016. You can search by ancestor name right now on the Discover Freedmen website (click Discover in the header menu), although of course there are many fewer names in the database than there will be next year.

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Explore the Revolutionary gunboat Philadelphia

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

In the early days of the American Revolution, the northern border with Quebec was of great strategic importance as a potential entry point for British troops. After some initial successes like Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga on May 10, 1775, the Continental Army launched a pre-emptive invasion of Quebec. They captured Montreal on November 13th, 1775, and moved on to attack Quebec City where they were soundly defeated on December 31, 1775. By spring of 1776, the Continental Army had retreated out of Canada back to Fort Ticonderoga.

Licking their wounds and anxious to prevent the British from traveling south via the Hudson into New York, Continental Congress ordered the construction of a fleet of 15 ships to replace the ones Arnold had destroyed to keep them out of British hands. At Skenesborough (present-day Whitehall) in upstate New York at the head of Lake Champlain, Hermanus Schuyler, the assistant deputy commissary general of the Northern Department, oversaw the construction of four galleys and eight gundalows, larger and armed versions of the flat-bottomed cargo boats used for transportation across the lake. It was the summer of 1776 and this was the first American Navy.

Commanded by Benedict Arnold, who as a civilian had captained his own ships as a successful merchant in the West Indies trade, the small fleet patrolled Lake Champlain getting in the way of the British invasion. On October 11th, 1776, most of the fleet met its end at the Battle of Valcour Island, but not before fighting the larger and much fancier British fleet to a standstill. One of the fatalities was the Philadelphia, a 54 foot, 29-ton gundalow armed with one 12-pounder cannon, two 9-pounders and mounts for up to eight more swivel guns. It was struck by a British cannonball and sank to the floor of Lake Champlain.

For 160 years the Philadelphia rested in the frigid embrace of the northern waters. In 1935 civil engineer and World War I veteran Lorenzo F. Haggulund, who had discovered Arnold’s flagship the Royal Savage in 1932, found the Philadelphia sitting straight up on the bottom of the lake. It was in excellent condition, considering the beating it had taken a century and a half earlier. The mast was missing its top but was otherwise still in place, as were the timbers of the hull. So much of it remained that there were three clear holes shot into the hull, one of them with the 24-pound cannon ball still lodged inside it. That was the proverbial smoking gun, the actual hit that took down the ship still in place after all those years. Hundreds of artifacts from tools to clothes to cooking gear and human remains were also found.

Using a system of slings and spreaders, Haggulund raised the wreck on August 2, 1935. Here is footage of the raising of the Philadelphia, its incredible white pine mast standing proud:

Haggulund put the Philadelphia on a barge and exhibited her at various places on Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. He continued to search for other wrecks from the fleet but only made one more find: a gunboat he raised in 1952. He was unable to secure funding to maintain and display the gunboat and it soon decayed and was picked away at by looters until there was nothing left to display.

In the wake of that sad loss, Hagglund approached the Smithsonian Institution to see to the long-term safety of the Philadelphia, and in 1961, bequeathed her and associated artifacts to the SI where they were thoroughly studied. When the National Museum of American History opened in 1965, the Philadelphia was on display.

Conservation of the wreck is an ongoing problem, and since visitors to the museum can only observe it from the front and over its decks, in 2013 the Smithsonian made a digital 3D model of the Philadelphia. For curators, it gives them the tools to ensure the ship’s stability and preservation. For the rest of us, the model gives us the opportunity to virtually explore the floating gun platform that was deployed against the might of Britain’s navy.

You can click and drag to change the angle of the model. Scroll to zoom in and out. Be sure to click the dropdown menu on the top left to view the model fullscreen. Once you’ve done that, click the globe icon of the expanded left menu and select “#1 Gunboat Philadelphia Overview” to kick off the guided tour. It takes you through the different parts of the ship, its design, its weapons, the cannonball that took it down and more.

Edit: I’ve removed the embedded 3D model because it may cause mobile devices to crash. Here again is the link to it.

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TCM’s summer film noir festival and online course

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015


Clear off your DVRs because they’re going to need all the space they can get this summer. Turner Classic Movies is running a film noir festival every Friday of June and July called, appropriately, Summer of Darkness. A full 24 hours of films noir will air starting at 6:00 AM each Friday. It begins on June 5th with Fritz Lang’s chilling 1931 masterpiece M and ends on August 1st at 3:00 AM with Hitchcock’s 1956 based-on-a-true-story mistaken identity picture The Wrong Man. In between are iconic films you’ve probably seen many times — The Maltese Falcon, Murder, My Sweet, The Big Sleep, The Third Man, Blue Dahlia, Strangers on a Train — others you’ve heard of but not seen, ones you’ve never heard of and a smattering of modern classics like LA Confidential and Blue Velvet. Browse the full schedule here (pdf). The grand total by my count is a pantagruelian 121 movies.

But wait, there’s more! TCM is leaning into the fact that it’s already to all intents and purposes a film school that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year, 366 on leap years, and will be airing this treasure trove of film noir in conjunction with a massive open online course The Case of Film Noir.

In this nine-week course, we’ll go back in film history to investigate the “The Case of Film Noir” — the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas, arguably their greatest contribution to American culture.

This course will run concurrently with the Turner Classic Movies “Summer of Darkness” programming event, airing 24 hours of films noir every Friday in June and July 2015. This is the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network), and provides an unprecedented opportunity for those interested in learning more to watch over 100 classic movies as they investigate “The Case of Film Noir.”

Both the course and the associated films will enrich your understanding of the film noir phenomenon — from the earliest noir precursors to recent experiments in neo-noir. You will be able to share thoughts online and test your movie knowledge with a worldwide community of film noir students and fans.

Taught by Ball State University film noir and online education expert Dr. Richard L. Edwards, the course will provide links to public domain films noir so if you don’t have Turner Classic Movies, you can still participate. (Seriously though, get TCM if you can. In terms of sheer consistency and density of material, it’s the greatest channel on cable, bar none.) There will be live discussions on social media, but if you can’t attend you’ll be able to view recordings of them.

This is an amazing opportunity to explore a genre of film in the kind of depth that even college film classes can only dream of. Click here to enroll in the course.

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Explore the 18th c. consultation letters of Dr. William Cullen

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Dr. William Cullen was a chemist, surgeon, apothecary, physician, botanist, university lecturer and prominent figure in the Scottish enlightenment who was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the University of Edinburgh Medical School as the top medical school in Britain, if not the entire continent. Philosopher David Hume was a patient and friend. Physician and pioneering chemist Joseph Black was one of his students and remained a close friend throughout their life. The young William Hunter, the distinguished anatomist who brought us Smugglerius and whose collection formed the nucleus of the University of Glasgow’s famed Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, was Cullen’s student and partner for four years before striking out on his own. Anatomist Alexander Monro II, father of that Alexander Monro who dissected William Burke’s body after his execution, was another student and friend.

Cullen lived a long life working almost up to his last breath, only retiring as a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 1789 when he was 80 years old, just a few months before he died. During his years in Edinburgh, he established his own private practice which was highly successful even though much of his work was conducted not in person but in letters. Physicians often consulted by correspondence at that time, and Cullen did us the great favor of keeping most of the letters he received from the 1760s onward along with copies of his replies, either handwritten or, after April 1st, 1781, made using the pressure copying machine invented by James Watt of steam engine fame.

That remarkable archive is now in the possession of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) and it is unique in its importance and immensity. There are 17 boxes of letters and 21 bound volumes of Cullen’s replies. Consultations were mainly the province of the wealthy (the cost was a whopping two guineas), but there are a wide range of patients and problems. There’s even a letter from James Boswell asking for help for a very ill Samuel Johnson. To make this treasury of medical history more widely available, the RCPE is working with the University of Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies to digitize the collection and make it publically available to everyone from scholars to people who love falling down research rabbit holes (not that we know anyone who answers to that description here).

[The Cullen Project] will not only render this material viewable as high-quality digital images and readable as diplomatic and normalised transcripts, but the texts will be fully searchable. Internal references to ingredients (materia medica), symptoms, conditions, treatments, preparations, actions and body-parts are being tagged using XML mark-up. Additional metadata for each item, including all associated dates, persons and places is being recorded in the edition’s innovative database.

For example, here’s a featured letter sent to Dr. Cullen by a colleague, Dr. John Cairnie, seeking advice on the treatment of a patient suffering from erectile dysfunction. The young man had suffered from numerous bouts of venereal disease starting when he joined the Navy at 12 years of age. He was now 27 and was unable to get an erection but was nonetheless experiencing unfortunately frequent ejaculations. Cullen replied a few days later and the prescription he suggested to cure the poor fellow was written on the back of the letter to the right of seal: “Take half-a-drachm of Camphor; half-a-drachm of prepared Steel; two drachms of Gentian extract, and a sufficient amount of Gum Arabic mucilage to form pills of nine grains each. Three to be taken every morning and every night.”

On the Facsimile tab of the entry are photographs of the letter, back and front. You can hover over them to zoom in. The Normalized Text tab has a corrected transcript of the letter which replaces abbreviations and numerals with full words. The Diplomatic Text tab has a transcript which cleaves to the original syntax. Every ingredient, disease term, body part, syndrome, etc. is a link to a definition and other instances in which they appear in the good doctor’s correspondence. Care to know more about 18th century testicle doctoring? Click the link in the word “testicle” from the transcripts and you’ll find another 134 references in Cullen’s consultation letters to testes, stones and the scrotum.

It is truly a most alluring Charybdis of a database. I defy anyone to read just one letter without being sucked into the link whirlpool. If your family reports you as a missing person, don’t blame me; blame The Cullen Project.

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Starring Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday

Monday, May 4th, 2015

While frolicking through silent movie history yesterday, I came across a veritable treasure of a comedic short. It’s called The Mystery of the Leaping Fish and it stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday the “scientific detective,” a parody of Sherlock Holmes who was a cocaine aficionado albeit nowhere near as rabid a one as Mr. Ennyday. The character’s name isn’t the only shameless, even joyful, drug reference. Our hero is not only an avowed drug user, he wears a bandolier of syringes filled with liquid cocaine strapped to his chest and injects himself every few minutes. He also has a large round box labelled “COCAINE” in large print that he grabs fistfuls of powder out of that he then buries his face into with Scarface-like gusto. His wall clock eschews hour markers in favor of four words at the cardinal points: eats, sleep, drinks, dope. When the single hand points to drinks, Ennyday’s manservant makes him the beverage of champions: equal parts Gordon’s Gin, laudanum and prussic acid (a solution of hydrogen cyanide).

This is no Reefer Madness. There is no stern moral conclusion about the evils of drugs. Fairbanks is his usual gregarious, athletic self, just sillier than usual. This was filmed in 1916 when drugs like cocaine, cannabis and opiates were readily available from pharmaceutical companies. Many states had laws against the sale and use of coca and opium and in December of 1914 Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act which in theory made it a federal crime. Authorized companies (pharma) and individuals (doctors, patients) could still dispense and use cocaine and opiates, however.

Douglas was still a comparative rookie when he made this wacky picture, having moved to Hollywood in 1915 and signed a contract with the newly formed Triangle Pictures where he worked under the D.W. Griffith point of the triangle (the other two points were Thomas Ince and Mack Sennet). His first film was released in November 1915. The Mystery of the Leaping Fish was released just seven months later in June of 1916. By then, with fewer than 10 films under his belt, he already had above the title billing. It was the second time he worked with husband and wife writing team John Emerson and Anita Loos. Emerson directed the picture — very amusingly, I might add; there are some great comedic beats in there — and Loos wrote the intertitles with tongue firmly in cheek. Fairbanks made his own contributions to the script, something you see reflected in the beginning and closing sequences where he’s playing himself pitching the madcap story of Coke Ennyday to a studio writer who naturally tells him this is a ridiculous idea for a picture that will never be made.

(Loos would later go on to write the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a huge success in print, on stage and in film, with the most famous movie version starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Emerson would go on to be a huge parasite on his wife, sponging off her success, stealing her money, losing it all and stealing it again when she bounced back, all the while cheating on her and manipulating her with faked illnesses and endless drama.)

When Fairbanks rose to the loftiest heights of Hollywood fame, he reportedly came to hate this wild foray into drugged-out good times and tried to have it destroyed. With all the silent pictures we’ve lost to time and nitrate volatility and studios not giving a crap about their history, it’s remarkable that this bizarre little two-reeler survived even when the greatest star of the era wanted it gone.

Also of historical note is the relatively subdued racist angle. There’s a Chinese laundry guy/opium dealer stereotype, but it’s small potatoes compared to the blatant racism of the debate around the passage of the Harrison Act which was all about cocaine making black men crazy, aggressive, superstrong and driving them to rape white women, while the Chinese used opium to lure innocent white girls into drug addiction, illicit relationships and, inevitably, prostitution.

The movie really doesn’t care about any of that noise. It’s quite remarkable, because studios were consistently cowardly when it came to potentially controversial issues, even before the Fatty Arbuckle scandal and the later implementation of the Production Code. The story was by Tod Browning, best known today for his ground-breaking and still creepy as hell talkie Freaks. He had run away from home to join the circus when he was a teenager, so he was not easily scandalized.

Anyway, without further ado, here is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

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Watch Too Much Johnson online

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

Last night Turner Classic Movies aired the restored work print of Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson found in Pordenone, Italy, in 2008. It was the second film Welles ever made (the first was a short eight minutes long; the third was Citizen Kane) and had long been thought lost before the silent film experts of Cinemazero discovered the print that had been languishing forgotten in a shipping company warehouse since the 70s.

An adaptation of an 1894 play by William Gillette, Welles made significant changes to the original script of Too Much Johnson for an experimental staging by his Mercury Theatre company. The original plan was for the three reels of the picture to be introductions to each act, the first reel 20 minutes long, the remaining two 10 minutes each. The film was silent slapstick in the style of Mack Sennett’s early comedies and it would set the stage for a performance of the play done as a screwball comedy.

This was Welles’ first full experience of shooting and editing a movie. In 10 days of filming, he shot 25,000 feet of film. He took all 25,000 feet of highly flammable 35mm nitrate to his hotel suite at the St. Regius and edited it himself on a Moviola machine. Producer John Houseman and assistant director John Berry aided him in this slightly insane endeavor, and would later recall that nitrate film covered the floor of the suite reaching knee-high. There was at least one fire. Somehow, the men, the film, the hotel suite and the hotel, for that matter, survived this cockamamie scheme, and Welles managed to narrow down the 10 reels of footage to a rough working print just over an hour in running time.

He never did finish editing the movie. There may have been an issue with royalties — Paramount owned the film rights to the original play — and legend has it the Stony Creek Theatre, the theater near New Haven where the play was to have its trial run, did not have the fireproof projection booth and/or a high enough ceiling to show the film. However, Paramount has no record of sending Welles a letter asserting their rights and the Stony Creek Theatre started out as the Lyric Theater, a nickelodeon, in 1903 (the same year The Great Train Robbery altered the movie-going landscape forever) so even though it was purchased by a community theater group in 1920 and a proper stage and fly gallery added, it seems odd that it would have lost all its original film projection capabilities by August 16th, 1938, when the Too Much Johnson preview began.

Whatever the reason, the movie part of the Mercury staging of the play never did happen. Without it the play, which Welles had modified extensively assuming there would be introductory films, didn’t work and the New Haven trial was a flop. Although Welles made noises that the play would move on to Broadway, the debut kept getting postponed and ultimately dropped. The Mercury Theatre company had begun putting on live hour-long radio dramas in July of 1938, and in October of that year they pulled off the greatest radio drama caper of all time with the broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The huge reaction got them a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and two more years of weekly shows, so Too Much Johnson fell by the wayside.

The footage wound up in storage. Welles himself completely forgot about it until he found a print at his house in Madrid in the 1960s. He refused to show it publicly, saying that it made no sense without the play context, much like the play had made little sense without the companion film. When that print was lost in a fire, scholars thought this important transitional piece that had much to reveal about the development of Welles’ directorial approach was gone forever. That’s why the discovery of the second print in Pordenone was greeted with such joy by film nerds and Welles’ fans.

Too Much Johnson was restored by the geniuses at the George Eastman House with invaluable help from Haghefilm Digitaal in the Netherlands and had its world debut at a silent film festival in Pordenone in October of 2013 before making its US debut later that month at the George Eastman House. That viewing was for members only; the rest of us had to wait to get our eyeballs on it, so I was kicking myself for not realizing ahead of time that the movie would finally air on a widely accessible cable channel. It’s pretty great, too. I didn’t find it all that confusing, even though there are no intertitles and there are repetitive takes included.

The stand-outs for me are Joseph Cotten, who legs it over the rooftops of New York City with impressive gameness, grace and skill, the cinematography and the angled shots, surprising quick-cuts and close-ups that would come to define the Welles of Citizen Kane and after. Cotten makes Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, one of Welles’ inspirations for the picture, look like an accountant at a desk job. This was done with a shoe-string budget. There were no stunts, no carefully arranged shots that made a guy dangling from a clock a few feet above a platform look like he was dangling from a clock many stories in the air. Cotten and the man he has cuckholded, played with moustache-twirling zest by Edgar Barrier, scramble up and down Battery tenements, scooch around ledges and plank over chimneys with the greatest of ease.

Cinematographer Paul Dunbar pulled a rabbit out of a hat, making this two-buck-chuck of a film look way more expensive than it had any right to look. There are great shots capturing the geometry of the city (diagonal criss-cross fire escapes, stacks and stacks of boxes, background skyscrapers, hats covering the ground like confetti). Scenes set in “Cuba” were shot in a quarry over the Hudson River planted with palm trees Welles picked up at a local plant nursery. It’s downright eerie how well it all works.

But you don’t have to take my word for it just because I neglected to alert you to the impending airing. Thankfully the National Film Preservation Foundation has come to the rescue. When I posted about the restoration two years ago, the NFPF was raising money to digitize the movie and make it available for free on its website. Well, they were successful! You can watch the whole restored 66-minute work print online here. Being a particularly awesome organization, they have also uploaded an edited version which is an “educated guess” of how Welles might have pared down the footage for use alongside the play.

The NFPF version (I’ve only seen the work print all the way through) is actually better than the version TCM showed, in my opinion, because the score is so much better. They’ve added a proper silent movie score whereas the TCM version was a very repetitive, sloooooow, minimalist composition that doesn’t match the slapstick action at all. They’ve also provided phenomenal notes explaining the full context of the play, comparing the original to drafts of the Mercury version so it’s much easier to follow the story. So yeah. Two thumbs most enthusiastically up.

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Trajan’s Column up close and in stop-motion

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

National Geographic has devised some sort of doomsday mind reading device only instead of using it to enslave humanity like the rest of us would, they’ve chosen to hone in on one of my fondest dreams and make it come true: a proper close look at the helical relief that wraps itself around Trajan’s Column. Trajan’s Column, built in 113 A.D. to commemorate the emperor’s victories over the Dacians in two wars (101–102 and 105–106 A.D.), has a 625 foot-long frieze that winds around the 98 foot-high column shaft 23 times. There are 2,662 figures in 155 scenes plus scads of structures (pontoon bridges! forts!) and gear (weapons! army standards! exotic Dacian fashions!). The complexity of the carving, the density of characters and scenes, and, last but certainly not least, the monumental scale of the column make it an ideal candidate for digital exploration. Short of a surreptitious and illegal nighttime visit to Trajan’s Forum aboard a cherry picker, it’s simply impossible to see anything more than the pedestal close up in person.

Your best shot at a thorough look at the frieze in person is on the plaster casts in museums. The Museum of Roman Civilisation in the EUR neighborhood of Rome has a blessedly handy collection of casts of the relief separated into sections that are lined up in narrative order along three rows that you can walk through. Because the casts were made in the 19th century, the relief is in better condition than on the original column that has been exposed to an additional century and a half of pollution and erosion. The Victoria & Albert has plaster casts mounted on two central brick columns that makes them look like the column was cut in half. You can view it from ground level or from a gallery.

As far as digital options go, there are several excellent sites dedicated to Trajan’s Column. The University of St. Andrews has a phenomenal Trajan’s Column site that has a searchable database of images of the frieze that you can easily click through using a numbered map (after you click on a piece of the frieze, click zoom out to see all the images of that scene). It also has exceptional background information: explanations of numbering conventions used to identify scenes and figures, the drawings and casts that scholars have made to study the column, a detailed description of the column’s history, materials, construction method and more. The only problem is the photographs are small and it’s easy to lose your way in the details. There is no big picture view of the entire relief.

The German Archaeological Institute’s Arachne database has many images of Trajan’s Column, but they’re in black and white, watermarked and the interface is awkward, to put it mildly. Far more user friendly but still information-rich is the Trajan’s Column website created by Dartmouth College professor Roger B. Ulrich. The photographs are too small to quench my thirst. Google Art Project has a handful of good images of the plaster casts at the Museum of Roman Civilisation (this one of Trajan’s cavalry defeating the Sarmatian cataphract heavy cavalry is my favorite because you get to see the weird fish scale armour in detail), but nowhere near enough.

Wikipedia user MatthiasKabel has probably the best photographs of the complete column in situ on the web. Massive panoramas capture each side in exquisitely high resolution. They’re beautiful, but they’re just images, no information or key to help you interpret the riot of people, equipment and action. See them at the bottom of the Trajan’s Column entry.

The detailed view of the scenes flowing from one to the other has heretofore been lacking. That’s the gap National Geographic has filled. Their interactive graphic has a brief slideshow of highlights you can click through, but most importantly allows you to wind your way around the entire column, zooming in to examine whatever detail catches your fancy. They’ve created a simple color-coded notation system that categorizes the scenes by subject (marches, speeches, construction, etc.) and makes Trajan easy to spot because he’s been tinted yellow in all 58 of the scenes in which he appears.

As if that weren’t cool enough, National Geographic raised the bar to infinity and beyond by making a stop-motion animated video of how the column may have been constructed. There are several competing theories on the question, but none of their advocates have made a stop-motion video of them, so, you know…

But wait, there’s more! Damn that video was awesome, you say to yourself. I wish I could see how they made the magic happen. Well your wish has already come true, because there’s a making-of video. :boogie:

Lastly, because they’re a legitimate magazine with articles and what not, National Geographic has a story accompanying the great graphics that gives an overview of the history behind the column and of the Dacian culture Trajan all but obliterated from a perspective that is not imbued with Roman propaganda.

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25th anniversary Gardner Museum theft virtual tour

Sunday, March 8th, 2015

March 18th marks the 25th anniversary of the theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In the early morning hours of March 18th, 1990, two men dressed as police officers entered the museum on the pretext that they were responding to a call. It was against protocol for the museum’s guard to let anyone past the security doors, but they talked their way in. They then proceeded to bamboozle the security guard so thoroughly that he all but tied himself up and gave them their pick of the priceless artworks on the walls.

Once inside, the thieves asked that the guard come around from behind the desk, claiming that they recognized him and that there was a warrant out for his arrest. The guard walked away from the desk and away from the only alarm button. The guard was told to summon the other guard on duty to the security desk, which he did. The thieves then handcuffed both guards and took them into the basement where they were secured to pipes and their hands, feet, and heads duct taped. The two guards were placed 40 yards away from each other in the basement.

The next morning, the security guard arriving to relieve the two night guards discovered that the Museum had been robbed and notified the police and director Anne Hawley.

The robbery took 81 minutes total. In the end, the thieves made away with:

  1. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Rembrandt’s only seascape
  2. A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) by Rembrandt
  3. Self-Portrait (ca. 1634) etching by Rembrandt
  4. The Concert (1658–1660) by Vermeer
  5. Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) by Manet
  6. Landscape with an Obelisk (1638) by Govaert Flinck
  7. La Sortie de Pesage, pencil and watercolor by Degas
  8. Program for an Artistic Soirée (1884), charcoal by Degas
  9. Program for an Artistic Soirée, Study 2 (1884), charcoal by Degas
  10. Cortège aux Environs de Florence, pencil and wash by Degas
  11. Three Mounted Jockeys, ink and wash by Degas
  12. Bronze finial in the form of an eagle, French, 1813–1814
  13. Chinese Bronze Beaker or Ku, 1200–1100 B.C.

The total estimated value of the haul is $500 million. The FBI is still on the case. As recently as two years ago they announced they’d narrowed down the suspect list to members of a New England or Mid-Atlantic organized crime family. The also found the thieves had made an attempt to sell some of the artworks in Philadelphia 12 years ago. That’s the last time they appear on the record.

The Gardner’s offer of a $5 million reward for the return of the 13 purloined pieces remains open, and on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the theft, the museum has created a virtual tour in collaboration with Google Art Project. It takes you on a walk through the museum using Google Street View technology and stops at every blank space where the stolen pieces used to be displayed. High resolution images of the artworks and historical photographs of the museum before the theft flesh out the story of the artworks and their loss. It’s a wistfully lovely look at one of the most charming, idiosyncratic and beautiful museums in the world.

Follow the Gardner’s Instagram account for individual images and stories about the stolen works from now until the anniversary.

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