Dipping into the thousands of ephemeral films in the Prelinger Archives.
There’s a scene in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic of the director of Glen or Glenda, that has always struck me as profound. The young Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is doing thankless work as a stagehand on a Hollywood-studio lot where he kills time watching stock footage of bomb detonations and rampaging bison. Visibly rapt, he asks what’s to become of these clips, only to be told by the kindly clerk, “Probably file it away and never see it again.” He replies, “If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s scaring all the buffalo!”
Since 1982, the archivist, filmmaker, and open-access advocate Rick Prelinger has curated the Prelinger Archives, which comprises upward of sixty thousand sponsored, ephemeral, and industrial films. Some six thousand of these are available for free viewing on the Internet Archive. Like Ed Wood, I can while away hours watching these movies, many of which were originally made to be shown before feature films, as part of expos, or in classrooms. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take a journey by cable car in “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906), which captured downtown San Francisco just before the fire and earthquake reshaped the city; or to observe the industrial constructivism of the Chevrolet-produced “Master Hands,” (1936) where the toil of autoworkers converts the assembly of machine parts into a kind of proletariat ballet. Read More
- You know times are hard when you find yourself looking forward to reading the nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Maybe their heinousness will be the ultimate distraction from Trump—in the same way that you can divert your attention from a headache by punching yourself in the arm repeatedly, forcefully. Here’s some bad sex from Tom Connolly’s Men Like Air: “The walkway to the terminal was all carpet, no oxygen. Dilly bundled Finn into the first restroom on offer, locked the cubicle door and pulled at his leather belt. ‘You’re beautiful,’ she told him, going down on to her haunches and unzipping him. He watched her passport rise gradually out of the back pocket of her jeans in time with the rhythmic bobbing of her buttocks as she sucked him. He arched over her back and took hold of the passport before it landed on the pimpled floor. Despite the immediate circumstances, human nature obliged him to take a look at her passport photo.”
- Impersonation is a hot ticket in China—with practice, chutzpah, and a little bit of luck, you can make a good living pretending to be a famous politician. (And they say America is the land of opportunity.) So now a national search is on for an ersatz Donald Trump, a swaggering caricature who can really channel that bigoted je ne sais quoi. Zou Dangrong, who runs an agency of impersonators in Beijing, believes he’s found the perfect ringer: a retired music professor named Tang Xinhua. But can they get his skin to look orange enough? “The goal is to get Mr. Tang looking enough like Mr. Trump that he can impersonate the president-elect and entertain at lucrative company debuts, shopping mall openings and New Year’s galas … It is all good, clean fun with high artistic standards, [Mr. Zou] said … ‘The hair color can easily be changed with dye jobs—temporary color, not permanent, keeping it in for an hour or two,’ [Mr. Zou] said. ‘We’ve asked tailors to make the same clothes that Trump wore in his campaign, though maybe from less expensive material.’ ”
The eeriest and most gravid of today’s new emoji is this guy: the so-called Man in Business Suit Levitating. In Apple’s rendition, he cuts an imposing figure, like a rich kid who’s just aced his LSATs—a simpering, dubiously pompadoured fella in polarized glasses and a natty suit. His tapered silhouette hangs above a blip of a shadow. He’s a superhuman exclamation point. He’s the floating face of capitalism. And if literature has taught us anything, it’s that he brings nothing but bad news wherever he roams.
I’m prepared to advance an entirely unfounded argument based on an hour of Googling: that this levitating businessman is the latest, most accessible form of a character who has haunted literature for more than a century. Sometimes wily, sometimes unscrupulous, and sometimes merely misguided, he’s held aloft by Adam Smith’s invisible hand only to be flung earthward again. Join me, won’t you, on an impromptu whistle-stop tour of THE LEVITATING BUSINESSMAN IN LITERATURE. Read More
My brief acquaintance with Barnaby Conrad, one of the bon vivant-iest of all modern bon vivant writers, happened because a stranger decided to wear a certain necklace one evening last fall. I’d been invited to a Fashion Week trunk show in one of New York City’s trendier hotels. I almost didn’t go. I hate trunk shows. But I did go, and the designer greeted me at the door. There was a lovely starkness about her: those gaunt cheekbones and long hands and limbs; Modigliani likely would have loved her. Dangling from a chain around her neck: a charming little brass charm in the shape of a bull.
“My father was a bullfighter,” explained the designer, who’d created the charm herself. “American. You’re an author, right? Then you probably know him: Barnaby Conrad, the writer.”
I did not, as a matter of fact, know Barnaby Conrad. Shame on me: as it turned out, Truman Capote had known Barnaby Conrad. So, for that matter, had Noel Coward and Eva Gabor and William F. Buckley. Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Alex Haley, and James Michener: they all knew him well. And Hemingway too—although, at one point, he apparently wished that he’d never even heard of Barnaby Conrad.
The first thing that you learned about Mr. Conrad, even when you met him in abstentia: he was charming and very appetite-driven. Two weeks ago, he died at the venerable age of ninety, having authored more than thirty-five books detailing, among other topics, his descent into alcoholism, the secrets of Hemingway’s Spain, and the hijinks of the international bon ton in midcentury San Francisco. He was a Renaissance man with a talent for dwelling at epicenters of rarified, exclusive realms: as one of history’s few high-visibility American bullfighters (while in Spain, he went by the name “El Niño de California,” i.e., the California Kid), the proprietor of a who’s-who nightclub, and also as an accomplished artist (several portraits of his famous friends hang in DC’s National Portrait Gallery). Read More
“No one wants to be called a penis with a thesaurus. For an English-language novelist, raised and educated and self-consciously steeped in the tradition of the Anglo-American novel, in which female characters, female writers, and female readers have had a huge part, the prospect of not being able to write for female readers is a crisis. What kind of novelist are you if women aren’t reading your books?” Elaine Blair on DFW, sexual humiliation, and that obscure object of desire, the woman reader. —Lorin Stein
I’ve been reading and rereading galleys of The Poetry of Kabbalah, an anthology of Jewish mystical verse translated (and massively annotated) by Peter Cole. This is ambitious poetry. It combines liturgical solemnity with outrageous flights of metaphor, and Cole’s versions match the originals step for step. About the Poems of the Palaces, a series of hymns from the first millennium, Cole writes that it is “a poetry written for men who would become like angels, serving and praising God. It is not a poetry of ‘personal voice’ or ‘a meter-making argument’ with a ‘self.’ Rather, it is a verse rooted in the magical power of letters and words.” —Robyn Creswell
Here’s an example of why some people need actual bookstores: if I hadn’t seen it sitting there at the Strand, I’d never have picked up Babbitt—and what could be better for a bad mood on a Saturday night with a cold? —L. S.
If you are like me and springtime puts you in a whimsical, dancing mood, try The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Though I am too timid (and clumsy!) to dance like that myself, I live vicariously through their twirls and sashays through Central Park. —Elizabeth Nelson
The huge, knotted automobile parts now on view in the John Chamberlain retrospective at the Guggenheim each look like brushstrokes made massive, three-dimensional, and wonderfully kinetic. —Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn
The Wilder Quarterly is the perfect thing to read in these early days of spring: the Brooklyn-based magazine is a stylish paen to all things green and growing and donates part of proceeds to the Fresh Air Fund. —S. S.