Snore & Guzzle header image 1

Essays & Articles

September 24th, 2008 · No Comments

Archived below you will find selected essays & articles published by Snore & Guzzle.

1. The Sun in the Apricots: The Story of Hurd Orchards – A brief history of a family-run farm in Western New York.
2. “Mother Superior: the Story of Nancy Dupree” - Essay about Rochester musician and activist.
3. “The Films of Charles & Ray Eames.” Piece about the film output of these two famous designers.
4. “Who Does Jens Lekman Like?” Short article about the samples used in Lekman’s songs.
5. “Saul Bass & the Art of Title Design.” Regarding credit sequences, graphic design and narrative.
6. “Jumpology.” Transcription of photographer Philip Halsman’s foreword to his book on the subject.

→ No Comments

The Sun in the Apricots

September 20th, 2009 · 1 Comment

The Story of Hurd Orchards

 
Amy Machamer is a tall woman in her mid-40s; she wears her curly hair tied back, dresses in clothing that seems to match the landscape around her, and has bright, observant eyes. When she was just a teenager, her parents held a family meeting and posed a question to her and her sisters much more difficult than most children that age are accustomed.

For over 170 years, Amy’s family has been running a farm in Holley, New York, called Hurd Orchards. The family has been in the United States for 13 generations, and their relationship with agriculture runs deep. However, in the 1960s, the farm started to become a problem. Operating a 160 acre farm was an enormous strain, physically and financially. WWII had transformed agriculture into an industrial enterprise and completely transformed the way farmers did business. Many members of the Hurd family had pursued careers outside of farming, and agriculture was getting pushed to the fringes of their lives. Land is expensive to maintain, and the temptation to sell their acreage must have been alluring. These were all things that must have been on the family’s mind when they assembled their children for a discussion.

At the family meeting, Amy’s parents asked Amy and their teenage children: Is it important to you that the farm be here?

The children took very little time to deliberate and precociously determined that, yes, it was very important.

They may not have fully understood the responsibility they would one day undertake, but they were ready for the risk. Without that youthful pluck, it’s entirely possible the land would’ve been sold, the orchards ploughed under, and suburban land tracts developed in their place. Instead, the farm veered off in another direction that no one could have foreseen.

Hurd Orchards is now a thriving fruit farm and canning company situated in the rich plains of Western New York between the banks of the Erie Canal and the shores of Lake Ontario. They have an unusually well appointed farm-stand and historic barn that serve as a show-room for their wares. However, the path taken for Hurd to achieve their current manifestation is atypical for New York state farmers.

Amy and her mother Sue Hurd-Machamer assumed responsibility for the farm in the 1980s, after both had pursued careers in other fields. When they work together, they seem to know one another’s next move without ever actually discussing it out loud. They work together like synchronized swimmers swim together. Over the past couple decades, Amy and Sue have developed Hurd Orchards into something more than just a working farm. At Hurd, work, life and art blend together like a puree until they are indistinguishable from one another. When you behold a jar of their preserves, whether it be Peach Marmalade or Sour Cherry Almond jam, you can feel their personality being channeled through their product.

The farm held a certain romance for Amy even at a very young age. The family only lived on the farm during the summer, but Western New York summers offered a battery of colorful characters to encounter and places to explore. One summer, the Hurd sisters determined they’d like to pretend to be anthropologists. Across the property were several decrepit barns, and inside those barns were a century’s worth of relics. They proposed to their family they be allowed to comb through the barns and make a list of all the artifacts inside. Their grandparents approved the plan, under the condition they check in with the family at least once a day. And so, for a summer, they became collectors of the bizarre and antiquarian.

When they weren’t cataloging antiques, they helped out in the fields, and worked side-by-side with the farm-hands, who left an indelible impression on them. Amy remembers Sadie, a 300 lb woman from Georgia. Sadie wore a ski cap all year round (even in July), kept a pouch of redman tobacco constantly in her hip pocket, and belted her pants with a piece of baling twine. At the time, the large number of seasonal and itinerant workers made for a seedy, slightly volatile environment, and Sadie served as de facto security on the property. Amy recalls her mother doling out cash payroll to the dozens of workers on payday, and by her side stood Sadie, brandishing an exposed switchblade and a leery eye.

Sadie was just one of many storybook characters the children met. One gets the impression that life on the farm was not unlike a chapter out of a Mark Twain story.

It was during this period that the children learned there is a component of great social depth when working on a family farm. “Here was a richness, a variety, a sense of community within a farm.” Amy says, “And an interdependence — which is one of the most beautiful things about agriculture. There is a wonderful dependence you have on one another, and therefore, a community and family that builds around that core of need that bridges life experience, color — it bridges everything. Because you need one another. And that’s it. You need one another.”

The gateway to Hurd Orchards is through their roadside farmstand on Ridge Road, which is generally aquiver with activity. The farmstand is not your average farmstand. Freshly baked goods are presented in oak and glass display cases; dried flowers canvas the ceiling; homemade vinegars rest on shelves attached to the windows and sunlight refracts through them like a prism. An ancient cash register is still used to ring out customers, and it makes itself audibly known with ornery clings, clangs, whirs and dings. In the rear of the store, preserves in mason jars cover nearly every visible surface, like books in a library. No matter what season you visit the Hurd homestead, it always feels a little bit like Christmastime.

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

Behind the farmstand is the barn, where the Hurds do most of their hosting. It is here that patrons can experience a true farm-to-table experience. Throughout spring, summer and fall, the orchards host a weekly luncheon offering a 3-course meal of fresh and seasonal dishes. Prior to the luncheon, Amy and Sue offer a brief talk to supplement the meal. Sometimes it is directly related to the food about to be served and sometimes it’s not. I’ve attended luncheons where they gave advice about trimming lilac bushes, read poetry from one of their great great Uncles, and offered thoughts on the soil chemistry of Western New York. Meals are made using generations-old heirloom recipes and served on antique china. Tables are decorated with freshly cut botanicals from their garden, or gathered from the woods. During meals, one of the barn-doors is generally left wide open and a big rhombus of light illuminates the space.

Hurd Orchards is about 5 miles, as the crow flies, from Lake Ontario, and almost exactly equidistant between Rochester and Buffalo. The Hurd forefathers chose the location because of its proximity to the Erie Canal, and for many years, the farm shipped out boatloads of fruit and produce to all the major east coast cities. The precise coordinates of the land they have staked, and the geology of that land, has a critical impact upon the fruits grown on the farm. Stone fruits do especially well in this particular region. The cherry, plum and peach trees all produce best-in-show caliber fruits. Also in the orchard’s repertoire are strawberries, blueberries, raspberries (red, purple and black), currants (red, white and black), and apples (almost 50 varieties). As a pomologist, Sue Hurd can rhapsodize about the proper growing conditions for such fruits, and why their farmland is so perfectly suited for orchards.

The farm’s proximity to Lake Ontario has an interesting effect on the growing season. Lake Ontario is 950 ft deep and because of its depth, it does not freeze. Therefore, the orchards are blessed with a surprisingly moderate temperature compared to the rest of the state. It is this temperate climate that allows for the cultivation of the fickle stone fruits. The land on which the orchards sit was once the beachfront for prehistoric Lake Iroquois, and while the real estate value of their property may have gone down since the lake receded, the land’s capacity to grow fruit has gone up. With stone fruits, one wants a climate that prevents the trees from blooming too early, and facing risk from a late frost. “It’s freezing cold in May,” Sue Hurd says, “So those prevailing breezes keep the sweet cherry trees from blossoming. The closer you are to the lake, the later they blossom. That keeps them from getting literally nipped in the bud.” Glacial deposits have created a rich layer-cake of loam that the trees respond exceedingly well to. “Treefruits don’t like wet roots,” Sue says. “They like sandy loams, they don’t like clay, or heavy soil, they don’t like rocky soil. And the they like a higher ph of around 6.5. – 6.8.”

Apples at Hurd are different than the apples at most orchards. One feels almost as if the apple orchards have been curated, and there isn’t a single tree that hasn’t been scrutinized and cared for. Staff at Hurd speaks about apple varietals like a sommelier would speak about wine. In describing their unique Wealthy apple, Amy says, “They are a crisp, beautifully sweet tart apple with a warm summer taste and a gorgeous cherry red and leaf green finish.”

There is a row of unlabeled trees in the orchards where a different variety grows every few steps. Cornell Cooperative Extension works with the Hurds to cultivate experimental strains of apples, and it is here you can try the results. Mixed in with the experimental are more traditional apples like Pound Sweet, Snow and Rhode Island Greening apples. If you visit this row in high Autumn, you are free to sample all the unlabeled varieties. You walk down a tunnel-like path where the apples hang so heavy, it’s hard to imagine how the slender branches can hold the weight. The fruit is so redolent it looks as if it were were lit from within. You taste one apple after another, never knowing quite what to expect. It’s not unlike a scene out of Willy Wonka: some are super crisp and clean tasting, some are shudderingly tart and some have a body so firm it nearly knocks your teeth out. Hurd still ships out their finest apples in Autumn for resale at Dean & Deluca in New York City, where they are presented like rare jewels for Manhattanites.

Amy and Sue have been stewards of the farmland for around 20 years, and the farm has evolved under their ministration. Both Amy and Sue went to school to study disciplines outside the field of agriculture, but both have returned to the land. Sue pursued English at Cornell, and also studied biology. Amy studied fine arts at a liberal arts college and pursued painting. The influences on the Hurd way of life are not what you might expect. They might very well be aware of new agrarian authors like Deborah Madison, Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver, but the influence on the farm comes from a different source.

Amy cites classical American writers like Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson as influences on their philosophy. “All over what they are writing is what I think is the base for our world. And the base of our world is appreciation.” There is a poem by W.S. Merwin, called The West Wall, that she finds especially poignant. “It’s not necessarily a poem he wrote about agriculture,” she says, “even though he uses apricots as his symbol, it also talks about awareness, and awareness about the qualities of our environment. It’s a beautiful poem, and there’s a lot of influences like that. Those influences shaped our view of how we wanted to share. Not a writer who might say, ‘you’ve gotta rethink how food is eaten.’ ”

West Wall

W.S. Merwin

In the unmade light I can see the world
as the leaves brighten I see the air
the shadows melt and the apricots appear
now that the branches vanish I see the apricots
from a thousand trees ripening in the air
they are ripening in the sun along the west wall
apricots beyond number are ripening in the daylight.

Whatever was there
I never saw those apricots swaying in the light
I might have stood in orchards forever
without beholding the day in the apricots
or knowing the ripeness of the lucid air
or touching the apricots in your skin
or tasting in your mouth the sun in the apricots.

In the world of agriculture, Amy and Sue, and Hurd Orchards at large, occupy a space that is at a cultural crossroads. They exist somewhere between the public and the private realms, the old guard and the avant-garde. The new agrarianism, and renewed interest in organics have brought revived attention to local producers, but it’s a song that – in the words of Amy – they’ve been singing for a long time. In spending many afternoons at the farm, and in speaking at length with Amy and Sue, I found that there is a certain matter-of-factness about what they do. There is very little grandstanding, sermonizing or tub-thumping about the values of agrarianism or a rural way of life.

Hurd stresses accessibility, and interaction with the public through CSAs, public luncheons, and their farmstand, but simultaneously, they practice and live an ancient way of life that is isolated from most perspectives. “We also occupy a more traditional agricultural world,” Amy says, “And that is quite closed to the public. It’s very private. It is completely misrepresented by the media. It is grossly maligned, and not understood, and there are very few people who take time to ask questions about what happens behind those closed doors. It’s a lot easier to ask someone, who – as a second career, has decided to go back into growing organic mushrooms what they’re doing than it is to go to a tight-lipped northern sixth generation apple grower, and ask, What’s really happening in your world?”

In the end, it all comes back to appreciation. It’s a simple word, but the Hurd’s imbue it with a poetic, almost prophetic value. It’s their polestar, and one might even presume it to be tied up in religion. But if that’s the case, I never detected it. Appreciation is their own special brand of holiness.

~Michael Neault, May 2009

hurd orchards

hurd orchards

→ 1 Comment

Mother Superior

September 29th, 2008 · 17 Comments

The Story of Nancy Dupree

nancy dupree

~by Michael R. Neault

This article has been published in YETI 07, which is available at Powell’s, Barnes & Nobles and most fine music stores. You can also purchase a copy online at the YETI website. If anyone has further memories of Nancy Dupree, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.

PART I

Nancy Dupree was an exuberant educator whose career in education was cut prematurely short because of her radical methods. She was also a poet, an outspoken activist, a playwright, an actress, a musician, an insomniac, a Christian-to-Muslim convert, a Black Panther and a loving mother. She lived in Rochester, NY for the last 16 years of her life and left an indelible stamp on the community. The impression she left was so deep that now, 28 years after her death, many of her friends and students still remember her character with crystalline clarity.

The path that led me to the art of Nancy Dupree was unexpectedly labyrinthine. In 2005, a friend of mine at Nonesuch records recommended a mix by Canadian musician Koushik. I listened to the mix, which was filled with bizarre library music, downbeat soul and esoteric funk. However, none of the songs were labeled, leaving the listener to wonder at the origins. Among these selections was a song that stood way out from the bunch. The song was a small choir of children, who sounded (to me) like African American kids from the south and they were rhapsodizing about James Brown, with a spare, melancholic accompanying piano track. The kids sang about his transition from a process to an afro, called him “the king of soul,” and imitated his emphatic “uh-huhs” and “good gods.” I tried a couple lyric searches to track down the song, but I could feel the internet laughing at me in my endeavor.

His hair was slick and shiny
His hair was slick and shiny
James Brown
Now he sports his afro
He’s thinkin black, Lord oh Lord I’m proud
Now he’s the king, the king of soul
Hey hey hey
Uh! With your bad self, Uh! It’s funky Uh! I can’t stand it! Uh! Good God!

Needless to say, nothing came up. I posted the song on my website with a plea for listeners to help me i.d. the song.

Fast forward one year to 2006. It’s February and James Brown has just passed away. James Brown remixes, tributes, covers and classics are flooding the radio waves. I received a note from a friend in New York city who reported that he had just heard the James Brown song on WFMU and the musician responsible was named Nancy Dupree. I immediately looked up the artist and a profile popped up on Smithsonian Folkways, along with a file containing the liner notes. The full title said, “Ghetto Reality: Composed and sung by Nancy Dupree with a group of Rochester, N.Y. youngsters.” The album was released in 1970. I immediately grabbed a phone book and flipped to the “D” pages. I was surprised when the musician finally turned up, but even more so when I realized that the recording was made in the town where I live. The phonebook had nothing on Dupree. So I started looking up all the names listed on the credits. However, most of the singers were girls, which meant they had probably changed their last names. Again, nothing.

The public library had the record in their stacks, so I went to retrieve the vinyl. I started to explain the background story to the librarian, and asked for advice for further research. This librarian didn’t have any suggestions, but another woman overheard the conversation and she said, “Wasn’t she a playwright or something?” This resulted in a call to the local history department where a folder was located containing newspaper clippings about Nancy Dupree. I anxiously read the clippings and discovered that Nancy Lorraine Dupree passed away April 23, 1980 at the age of 44. She died of leukemia and had kept her illness a secret from family and friends until just a few months before she succumbed to the illness.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t locate a single person mentioned in any of the articles, and the story stalled for another year. In the meantime, I asked everyone I knew about Nancy Dupree. I even played the record repeatedly in the movie theater where I work, hoping to bait someone who may have known her. The trail eventually led to her daughter, Tia Dupree Barnes, now living in Brandywine, MD and the story opened up from there.

Nancy Dupree – Introduction Song from Sweet Thunder

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

PART II

The liner notes from her record of poetry, “Letter to Young Sisters” provides a good background on her life, and was most likely written by Nancy Dupree herself, but in the 3rd person:

“She’s a southerner who did her growing up in Sumter, South Carolina. She graduated three times: from Lincoln High School in Sumter, from Virginia State College in petersburg, and from Mills College in Oakland, California.

These three graduations convinced her that she was qualified to announce to the world, “Get ready, ’cause here I come!” She came and found out that the world was truly ready … had been ready for a long time … and the wrestling match was on. Wrestling with money, marriage, motherhood, divorce; wrestling with reality…wrestling with life. She looks back and wonders how she survived because she knows now that she was not EVEN ready.

What she has to show for it all is her own personal individual sanity, a child most precious to her, a few worldly possessions, and some poems. You are invited to take the poems, fold them neatly, and tuck them away in the corner of your soul reserved for food.”

Nancy Dupree was born to a middle-class black family in the South, her mother was a beautician, and her father was a bricklayer. Nonetheless, Nancy was able to steep herself in literature: “As an only child, with both my parents working I would read anything I could get my hands on. And we always had lots of books and magazines around the house. Reading was my entertainment and my escape, and to this day I have always been interested in reading from a wide spectrum of areas. A writer must read.”

The reference to food in the last sentence of her mini-bio — urging the listener to tuck her poems away in the corner of of your soul normally reserved for food — is a pretty good indication of how important the arts were to Nancy. They were not relegated to the margins of life, they were essential to survival, and enmeshed in quotidian affairs. Nancy Dupree was endowed with an extraordinary sense of purpose in her life, and her work. She is frequently described as strong-willed. However, that may very well be an understatement.

The confidence is palpable in her eyes when you observe photos of her from the 70s. She wore a well-patroled afro, simple, comfortable clothing and kept her chin at a slightly-above 90 degree angle — daring anyone to disagree with her. In fact, she had so much self-confidence that she was always working to imbue those around her with confidence. It was this very confidence that got her into trouble later on.

Nancy arrived in Rochester, NY in the summer of 1964. Coming from the South, she had an image of the North as being a region free of the hatred and discrimination rampant in the South. However, the summer of ‘64 in Rochester was anything but peaceful. Full-scale race riots erupted during a block party after black residents reacted to a routine arrest of a black man.This was followed by three days of violence in the streets of Rochester. Eventually, the National Guard was called in for damage-control. This was the first time they had been called to a Northern city during the civil rights era. It was amidst this tense atmosphere that Nancy Dupree touched down.

She was hired as a music teacher in the public school system and took up residence at School no. 4, between Genessee and Jefferson Streets, on the west side of Rochester. In the 1960s, the school was composed of a predominately white teaching and administrative staff, and a black student population.

Nancy would’ve been in her late 20s. She was naive, but optimistic about her new position. She explained the situation in the notes for Ghetto Reality. “When I came to Rochester in 1964 I thought that the whole business of teaching music to elementary school children would be breezy, uncomplicated, and probably very boring. After all, they were LITTLE CHILDREN. Little children were a bit energetic, but the gentle voice of an adult would bring them to a screeching halt, whereupon they would rush to their seats with their angelic ‘Yes, Ma’m’ blowing in the wind. Well…as they say down South, ‘Not hardly!’”

If there was a state curriculum in place for elementary school music, Nancy probably didn’t adhere to it. Over the 5 or 6 years that she worked at School No. 4, she introduced Afrocentric ideas and black history into her classes. She exposed the students to musicians such as Odetta, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Ella Fitzgerald, Miriam Makeba and Leontyne Price — especially Leontyne Price. Price was an opera singer, but also explored African American folk music. Her commanding voice was on heavy rotation in the classroom. However, she also had a strong respect for classical music, and could just as well be caught listening to Beethoven. She cultivated a highly respected school choir that performed at local functions. And it was with this choir that she decided to make a full-length LP, with songs that the children themselves had written, to be called “Ghetto Reality.” But Nancy didn’t want the album to be something that only the students and their parents would hear. She wanted distribution.

But how does one sell a home-made recording of school-children singing songs they have written, with only a piano for accompaniment? The project had little glamor, and even less commercial appeal. Nancy somehow secured a deal with Folkways records. While Folkways was by no means a major label, it had respect in the 60s, having distributed the records of Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Nancy’s daughter Tia recalls how a deal was struck with Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways records. “I’ll tell you how she ended up on Folkways. She was on an airplane going somewhere, and Moses Asch happened to be on the airplane also. And she basically talked him into allowing her to do this record Ghetto Reality. She told him all about her students. She told him how she had these songs — and she kept pushing him. She wouldn’t let it drop until she got this project done!”

The power of persuasion was another instrument in Nancy’s repertoire, and she would readily wield it for the sake of her students. Asch was not the only personality that she charmed. Over the course of her relatively short teaching career, Nancy Dupree brought B.B. King, Muhammad Ali and Roland Kirk to her school to speak to the children. Nancy was very fond of jazz, and Tia recalls that these characters would often show up at her house to catch a hearty Southern meal before moving on. “She was very tenacious, she had a very strong will. She was willing to go and do almost anything. She wasn’t afraid to step out there. She was always trying to show her students a different side of life and a different angle on music. She didn’t want to just show them Mary Had a Little Lamb. She wanted them to see their own music. And she wanted to them to see people who were doing well, performing their music. She just wanted to broaden their horizons.” Nancy would approach these artists after a show and convince them to visit School No. 4 with very little to offer in return, other than their personal satisfaction. “She didn’t care,” Tia said, “she was like — I’m Nancy Dupree, I’m just as good as you are!”

nancy dupree

Nancy & B.B. King

nancy dupree

Nancy & Muhammad Ali. Photographs courtesy of Tia Dupree Barnes

The recording of Ghetto Reality began in 1969, and the project was a collaboration between the students and their instructor. However, Nancy merely guided the project, and allowed the students to communicate their feelings. I found one of the lead singers, Hilda Moore — originally Hilda Gause — still living in Rochester, and able to remember the recording as clear as day. She would’ve been about 12 years old when the record was made.

“That was such an experience. I remember when it was first brought to us as students. It was just so overwhelming for us to be asked to do an album. When she presented it we were just, ‘Oh my god!’ We were falling all over the place. That just doesn’t usually occur… I can remember it like it was yesterday. That’s because it was so exciting. And it was something that I don’t think any of the kids in the city would have the opportunity to experience, and at such a young age…to go to a recording studio!? I mean, we were flabbergasted.”

Hilda even remembered singing the song about James Brown. “He was someone we could look at and say, OK he’s someone who’s the same skin color as us. He’s making music and we want to share something about him. We want to sing about him.” Nancy had a few comments about it in the sleeve notes for the record: “My children idolize James Brown. His Rochester performances are usually on Saturday night, and the following Monday finds them still full of the sight sound and feel of him. It was on such a Monday this song was created.”

“She just wanted to find out how we expressed our views of him,” Hilda said. “It was where he was born, how he wore his hair, stuff like that. Things that kids would say. You know, you’re looking from a kid’s perspective. And that’s what made it so much fun and enjoyable for her to work with us on it. It was how we were expressing ourselves about different things.”

Nancy Dupree & Rochester School-children – James Brown

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Nancy was able to tease out the student’s feelings, and fashion them into punchy songs with depth, humor and relevance. In an interview with the Democrat & Chronicle in 1977, Nancy said about the recording process, “I tried to help them with songs. Most of the songs in the books they gave us didn’t make sense, didn’t relate to their lives. So we got together and started changing some of the songs around and eventually we started composing songs on our own.”

Throughout the album, Nancy’s Afrocentrism and black pride was exhibited prismatically through her students. Think back to the James Brown lyrics: “His hair was slick and shiny / Now he sports his afro / He’s thinkin black, Lord oh Lord I’m proud.” Nancy was a proponent of natural African beauty, and it was an ideal she preached to her students. Linda Murray, a later pupil who worked under Nancy’s tutelage at a local community group, remembered the message well. “When I first met Nancy, if a young lady came to work for the organization, or if I see a young man, I would say, ‘Nancy, did you see the new guy? I say, he’s got good hair!’ ‘Whadyou mean baby?’ ‘I say, he got good hair.’ ‘She’d say, you mean he’s got caucasian hair?’ ‘I say, well yeah.’ And she said, ‘Well why do you say he got good hair, and your hair is bad hair?’ I was taught somewhere that the straighter your hair was, or the closer your hair to a Caucasians, that was known as good hair, but natural hair on a native African, was deemed as ugly. Nancy was walking around everyday with a message that said: ‘Stop thinking like that. We gotta stop that right here. We gotta tell our daughters to cut it out.’”

Other songs on the Ghetto Reality embedded progressive notions into the lyrics. A song about what the kids wanted for Christmas started by listing tangible objects, but evolved into the following line: “I want my freedom; I want it now. Don’t tell me about tomorrow. I want it now.” Another song, called “What Do I have,” reinforced the black-is-beautiful message, and cited important moments in black history. The album was recorded shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and “Docta King” is a reminiscence about the man, with lines like: “The man was as pure as baby’s breath. His words were love and brotherhood.”

Another song, “Call Baby Jesus” evoked the image of Jesus Christ from the perspective of a young black student. Hilda explained, “It expressed what Baby Jesus looked like to us — what did we picture Baby Jesus as? Again it’s a description from kids.”

Call baby Jesus, Call baby Jesus, big brown eyes
wooly hair, choc-olate, choc-olate, choc-olate face

“The way we did choc-o-LATE. We didn’t just do chocolate. We added some little consonants. He has big brown eyes, so we were describing ourselves. I get all warm inside when I talk about it.” Nancy added her own introduction to the song in the notes: “Reverend Jesse Jackson called for a black christmas. After doing our homework, we complied.”

Nancy Dupree & Rochester School-children – Call Baby Jesus

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Almost all traces of Nancy Dupree have disappeared from School no. 4. Their library doesn’t even carry the recording she made with the school choir in 1969. No one at the school remembers Nancy, or that the record was even made. The album would have to sit more than 30 years before people started to dust off the album once more.

nancy dupree

PART III

Any public reaction to Ghetto Reality has been lost to time. What we do know is that the album was released in 1970, and the very next year, Nancy Dupree was fired from School no. 4. What should have been a time of satisfaction and achievement quickly turned to misfortune. The circumstances surrounding Nancy’s departure from School no. 4 are muddy and the story varies, depending on who you ask.

One story is that Nancy insisted on wearing soft-soled sneakers rather than high heels, as was the decorum of the day. Sneakers proved to be a deal-breaker with the administration and neither Nancy nor the administration would back down. Linda Murray worked under Nancy’s guidance for many years in the 70s and got the story from Nancy herself. “I remember her being fired from no. 4 school because she refused to walk around — 10 and 12 hour days — with high heels on. The female teachers, they were the enemy too. When in fact, they should’ve gotten behind her and said: Now look, Nancy’s right. My feet are killing me at the end of the day from walking around in these high heels. Nancy was right, but she was persecuted because of it. In looking at Nancy, Nancy always told the truth, and I think there those in the system that hated her for being so johnny-on-the-spot. And then there was this group that loved her too, for daring to go and say it in public.”

The shoe story is probably true, but it was only part of the larger conflict at hand. Carolyne Blount, executive editor of About…Time magazine for 35 years, was a friend of Nancy’s and worked with her as an editor in the 70s. In relation to Nancy’s situation, she observed that “public institutions are not as accepting to black oriented issues.” Ghetto Reality was a radical, political record that involved very young students in the black community. In class, Nancy was insinuating topics from black history into the curriculum. Her teaching methods were unorthodox and progressive, and it was unlikely that she was consulting with administration before unleashing her thoughts in class.

Tia Dupree was quite young when her mother was let go from the school, but she remembers it like this: “She stopped working in 70 or 71. I just remember the circumstances. And as I understand it – now this is just what I remember my Mom talking about – the principal did not like what she was doing. I guess it was too black for him. They basically fired her.” The students did not take Nancy’s departure lightly. “The day that she was supposed to leave,” Tia recalls, “the students found out, and the students were in an uproar. Because the students loved Ms. Dupree! The students were crowding around the front of the school because they didn’t want her to leave. And the principal — or whomever — called the police…on elementary school students!” More than anything else, this is what disturbed Nancy Dupree — that the administration would call the police on children who were still in grade school. Nancy was like a mother to many of these children, worked hard to educate them as she saw fit, and it must have been deeply hurtful to see her congregated students disbanded by the cops.

Hilda Moore, who was in 5th grade at the time, recalls the confusion surrounding her departure from School no. 4. “I distinctly remember it was a very sad occasion. I was one of her favorite students. She mentored me a lot, with music and history – black history, in the music world. We cried. We cried to our parents. It fell on deaf ears. We had a lot of questions.”

PART IV

Nancy bounced around from job to job in the 1970s, not staying at any one place for long. Poetry became an expanding force in her life. She made two solo poetry records, both again released by folkways: Letter to Young Sisters, and Sweet Thunder. She performed her poetry all over town — churches, libraries, community groups, coffee shops — she even performed at the Attica Correctional Facility. “Nancy was all over the joint,” Linda Murray said. “She went to schools and she read her poetry — I don’t think there’s an organization in the city of Rochester that hasn’t had a poetry reading by her. Nancy made an impact everywhere she went. There was not too many people who did not know Nancy. What she didn’t make in funds, she made in exposure.”

nancy dupree

Her performances and recordings were never read word-for-word, they were recited from rote memory. When I asked her daughter about this, she said, “She would never ever read a poem. She insisted on reciting her poetry from memory. Because she wanted it to be conversational.” Her recordings are unlike other poetry records. There is little reverence for a stoic atmosphere. An audience was invited into the studio and encouraged to respond to the poems. The result is dynamic, and not unlike witnessing a church sermon. And in some ways, Nancy Dupree was sermonizing. Only, it was her own unique credo she was preaching.

She took up with her second husband, who was a Black Panther. The relationship did not last long. However, Nancy continued to be involved with the party. Her involvement with the Panthers was well concealed, and not much is known about her activities with them other than that she was associated with the group. Linda remembers her speaking about it, but says, “She was always real vague about it. I do know some things. It was told to me on the down-low. And Nancy was like, ‘Don’t you ever have this conversation with anybody.’ And I didn’t. Cus I was afraid myself. She was involved with some underground activities… She never carried it to a level where she risked being incarcerated.” However, she didn’t conceal her support of her contemporary, radical black leaders. The walls of Nancy’s home were decorated with portraits of Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Huey Newton.

Nancy’s relationship to men was thorny. She had two failed marriages, and she expressed her feelings about men in her poetry. There was no symbol or subtlety in her thoughts on the matter. Occasionally, the tone comes off as bitter, but it’s likely that her anger was a protective mask for her disappointment. It’s best to hear it from the woman herself:

Nancy Dupree – The Brothers

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The language and tone of Nancy’s poetry was natural as day. She wrote, spoke and sang — without apology — in the patois of black Americans. In the notes to Ghetto Reality, she made a clarification about the title of the song, “Docta King.” She said, “We don’t say doctor.” The word doctor was emphatically underlined by hand.

Usage of the black vernacular was still a controversial issue in the 1970s. Linda Murray remembers a story that illustrates this. “She did a newsletter for Action for a Better Community… At first when started doing her newsletter, it had a real white feel, a real European, Caucasian feel to it. And when you read it, you said, Oh, this is like something a white woman wrote. Nancy changed the flavor of the newsletter because she wasn’t pleased with the contents of it. And it was changed to, like: Wassup y’all. So she began to write it in a Southern dialect. White folks was mad. And the black folks was madder! Nancy was doing ebonics 30 years ago. The black folks were more pissed than the white folks were — thought she was makin us look stupid! I think she was 30-40 years ahead of her time. If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, maybe God will send her back 10 years from now and she’ll come back and she’ll say, ‘See! I told y’all!’”

Nancy Dupree took the black language and worked to re-appropriate it to the status of art. In the poem, My People Is, Nancy put it this way:

“I have all due respect for proper grammar / I can proper the grammar anytime, anywhere, anyplace / However, I do not feel this is the time or place / I’m going to speak the language the way my peoples speak it, Yes I is”

Sherry Tshibangu worked at Action for a Better Community with Nancy, and was taken under her wing. Nancy guided her on to college after high school, and they kept in communication. Sherry described her language as, “absolutely colorful.” Here is a letter Nancy wrote to her in November of 1975, after she had just arrived in Georgia for school.

Hey Sugar,
You is there! Praise the lord Sherry. I am glad you are in Atlanta. I could jump through Dan’s hat-band. Things were so shaky that I was actually kind of scared. But you is there – wonderful, absolutely wonderful, fabulous! You ain’t seen nothing yet. Just wait until you dig on them radiant fall colors set against their delicious blue skies washed with golden sunshine. Or til you smell the warm spring breeze heavy with freshly cut grass and fragrant flowers. Or til you wallow in them summer nights washed with moon and full of cricket songs. You in the south honey! The south is sweet. You will be especially sensitive to it because you lived here in the toilet so long. One good thing about living in the toilet is that it sho nuff teaches you to appreciate the open air…

~Nancy

Sherry credits Nancy as being a major influence on her life. “She was a dynamite woman!” She said, and described her personality as “electrifying.” If there’s one consistent thread I keep hearing about Nancy Dupree, it was that she was tirelessly encouraging to people – especially young black women. In the same interview I quoted earlier, done for the Democrat & Chronicle, she was speaking about her newest album, Sweet Thunder. She said, “My purpose is to communicate to folks that they are not by themselves in their pain. My people need to be soothed because our souls are rubbed raw from the pressure we are forced to endure… I see us as a magnificent people and we need to be told that, we need to hear that.”

Linda Murray said Nancy would say to her, “Look in the mirror and see a black woman, and stretch 2 or 3 inches higher, and push your chest out, and be glad that you was born black. That’s pride in your heritage! ”

PART V

Nancy Dupree became ill around 1978. She concealed her illness from others until her sickness became obvious to those around her. While Nancy was very outspoken about her feelings in her poetry, she was simultaneously secretive and mysterious about certain aspects of her life. She never discussed her age, rarely discussed the Black Panthers, and would not divulge any information about her illness.

Sherry Tshibango recalls when she realized that Nancy was sick. “I distinctly remember when she fell ill. And I would not consider myself an outsider, I was almost a part of the family, but she would say “Baby I’m fine. Sugar, I am fine.” Her stomach started swelling, and I would say, “Nancy, what’s going on?” “Sugar, I said I’m fine.”

When news of her illness seeped out along the wires in early 1980, the community was initially upset, but rallied to show support. Not knowing how long she had to live, a group of artists set about to actualize a play she had written over the past couple years. Called Ebony Roses, it was a slice-of-life play about women waiting at a bus-stop and talking.

On February 25th, 1980, the Rochester Times Union carried a story by Angela Dodson, who acted in the play Ebony Roses. “Eleven women had come together out of love for Nancy Dupree and her work. We struggled to get to know one another, we fought sometimes, we cried sometimes, we laughed, we talked, we worked. And Saturday we saw the fruits of that work and that love. I felt it most deeply when I heard Nancy Dupree holler ‘Preach!’ after I did one of her lines.”

In the article, Dodson shared some of her personal feelings about the playwright. “Dupree is critical of black men and shows no great love for white people. From time to time, we wondered how black men would react to the play… Dupree’s work was also rawer than most of the poetry I liked. Most of it was more like long passages of prose than short spurts of verse. Did I like her poetry? I didn’t know. There were rumors that there might be a demonstration against the production. The play presented black men negatively and was divisive, some said. We asked ourselves: Is it too negative? Is it saying things I didn’t endorse? Is it good poetry? Is it stage worthy? Is it divisive?”

The production was finished in time, and staged with Nancy in attendance. She was brought to the theater in a wheelchair. Dodson describes her presence: “She was just grinning from every pore, and wore a long black Qiana dress and handsome flowered cape, with matching clutch bag.”

After the play, Nancy Dupree wept.

She lived two months longer.

CODA

After James Brown died in 2006, Nancy’s ode to the Godfather of Soul leaked out into cyberspace and could be found on a bevy of blogs and independent radio shows. In 2005, NPR did a featurette on Ghetto Reality as part of a longer story about children’s funk records. The album is now available on Amazon, the Smithsonian Folkways website and several other boutique distributors have also picked up on it. The prestigious Dusty Groove records in Chicago had this to say about the album: “Nancy Dupree was one of the most righteous music teachers you could ever have — and here, she’s working with some young kids from the rough side of Rochester, in an album of simple tunes that have a surprisingly soulful edge to them. Nancy plays piano, and the kids sing either solo or in ensemble format. The record’s got a starkness that’s extremely compelling…”

The well-informed Waxidermy.com also took note of Ghetto Reality, and described it like this: “Absolutely compelling music made by little black school children. I often see this described as a “funk record”, but I feel that is somewhat misleading and probably has some people expecting a Jackson 5/Sylvers type thing, which it isn’t. What we do have here is far more interesting. Just Dupree on piano & the kid’s singing give this record a sparse, yet intense sound that ranges from jubilant on tracks such as the tribute “James Brown”, to harrowing and mournful on “Docta King” – a lament to the late Martin Luther King Jr. A great record that will capture the imagination totally. I smile just thinking about it.”

Nancy Dupree would not let the wicked rest, but for those pure in spirit, her art could arouse an overwhelming sensation of warmth and comfort. Even 39 years later, the Waxidermy reviewer says, “I smile just thinking about it.” Her old friends remember her fondly. Juanita Reed said, “She loved laughter. She liked talkin’, loved singin’ and poetry.” When I asked her friend Iris Banister if she had ever heard her poetry, she replied, “She was walking poetry.” Linda Murray said, “All I know is that when I think of her, I smile. I wanna say, thank you Nancy. Thank you for bringing me into the fold and letting me see some things at a young age that have served me well until age 55.” Maya Angelou’s, Phenomenal Woman has been likened to Nancy Dupree, and I think it’s appropriate to end with an excerpt from her poem.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.

nancy dupree

→ 17 Comments

The Films of Charles & Ray Eames

September 11th, 2008 · 12 Comments

This emptiness is normal.

The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.

~ Powers of Ten

eames film

Charles & Ray Eames were artists adept at an astonishing number of disciplines. They produced museum exhibitions, architecture, logotypes, toys, slide-shows, furniture, books, photography, paintings and over 100 films. However, their films are the least discussed of their output. One of the main reasons is the sheer difficulty in acquiring access to them. Only about a quarter of their films have been released on home video. They are one of the few American artists with an entire era named after them, but their films are rarely placed on a level with their furniture or architecture. And yet their films contain some of the most generous, sincere and original ideas of the century.

When you enter the property of Charles & Ray Eames in Santa Monica, California, you pass a stacked cord of firewood, a shed of old tools, potted plants in clay jars, and a multitude of mulch-covered paths. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the landscape but, by virtue of their very proximity to the Eames’ house, everyday objects acquire a unique charge that can only be described as Eamesian. The Eamesian touch is tempting to describe, but best left for the images to speak for themselves.

The film House (After Five Years of Living) (1955) documents the structure Charles & Ray designed, and lived in from 1950 until their deaths. The film is a series of 35mm stills, and by shooting over a period of several years, Charles was able to capture very precise moments and perspectives in and around the house. You see the house as Charles might have seen it and get a sense for the spatial relationships and how light interacted with the architecture. Some of the more subtle details are highlighted in these photographs: a window with butterflies pressed between the glass; a small black and white photograph of trees on the facade; the spiral staircase from multiple angles. House was produced using a unique system of optical fades, which Charles invented especially for this film. Charles & Ray had a knack for invention, and it’s a quality they share with Stanley Kubrick – when confronted with a technological constraint, they would not be discouraged, they would innovate.

eames film





Considering their knack for invention, one of Charles’ most famous quotes seems counter-intutive: “Innovate as a last resort.” This quote only makes sense in the context of their research and methodology. The Eames’ had a keen sense of history, and spent a good deal of time researching before they committed to a project. If they could build upon their pedigree, rather than create anew, they would. They wouldn’t innovate just for the sake of innovation.

Charles & Ray moved to California from Michigan, where they met at Cranbrook Academy of Art. Charles was teaching and practicing architecture with Eero Saarinen and Ray was a student of fine arts. Upon arriving in California in 1941, they began experimenting with molded wood, using a machine they had crafted to pressure-treat wood. After finessing the technique, they were contracted by the US Army to produce splints and stretchers made from a single mold. The molded plywood experiments would ultimately develop into their best known furniture designs: the plywood chairs and later, the Eames lounger. The assembly of the Eames Lounger is documented in Lounge Chair (1956), a simple, black & white promotional film made for the Herman Miller furniture company. Elmer Bernstein made an improvised score on this film, and worked with the Eames on nearly all of their films. Even though Bernstein was working on the score for the epic The Ten Commandments (1956) at the time, he found time to work on a small film made in a workshop.

The manipulation of plywood was revisited and refined into many forms throughout the life of the Eames Office. The original premise behind the plywood chair was to make an organic piece of furniture with the least possible components. There is a general stratagem in science that says the best solution to a problem is often the simplest, and therefore the most elegant. Charles & Ray Eames applied this concept to their furniture designs, and later, their films.

The first chairs were designed without upholstery, and therefore exposing the base plywood. This represented an important ideal for Charles & Ray. Objects and materials should be appreciated for their intrinsic worth, and should not be disguised as anything else. This ethos is displayed in Toccata for Toy Trains (1957), made the same year the Eames Lounger was produced. The introduction to the film contains a narration by Charles: “In a good old toy there is apt to be nothing self-conscious about the use of materials. What is wood is wood; what is tin is tin; and what is cast is beautifully cast. It is possible that somewhere in all this is a clue to what sets the creative climate of any time, including our own.”

This statement feels somewhat out of place in a film that is ostensibly made for children, but it was common for Charles to smuggle ideas in unlikely places. For the Eames, honesty was a virtue applied not only to human emotions, but projected onto all materials and inanimate objects.

Toys occupy several of the Eames films, including Tops (1969), a purely visual film that documents the short life span of a spinning top. It’s essentially a silent anthropological film and captures tops from different cultures and eras. The Eames Office contained a menagerie of toys, and it was Charles who once asked rhetorically, “Who would say that pleasure is not useful?” Both Toccata for Toy Trains and Tops are shot from the extreme perspectives of close-ups – an expressionistic technique that lets the audience experience toys as if from the eyes of a child.



Toccata for Toy Trains was actually inspired by director Billy Wilder, who gave the Eames a precious miniature locomotive called the “Grand Duke.” Wilder and Eames met on the MGM lot, and were introduced by Alvin Lustig (a California based graphic designer). They maintained a close relationship and Charles & Ray accompanied the newlywed Audrey and Billy Wilder on their honeymoon. Charles produced a montage sequence for Wilder’s Spirit of St. Louis (1957), which featured images of a subject dear to his heart: airplane craftsmanship. (This film is notably the only foray into Hollywood filmmaking. It is telling that Charles & Ray were never seduced by the glamour and money of the studios.)

eames film

eames film

eames film

Later, Charles designed a reclining lounge chair for Billy, and also gave him the first Eames Lounger off the assembly line. Wilder even commissioned a house to be designed by the Eames, but it was never built. Charles Eames introduced Billy Wilder to designer Saul Bass, who later designed the colorful patchwork titles for Wilder’s Seven Year Itch (1955). Bass would ultimately become Hollywood’s foremost graphic designer.

One of Wilder’s closest collaborators, writer I.A.L. Diamond, is credited as a co-writer and consultant on View From the People’s Wall (1966). This film is a condensed version of Think (1964), a multi-screen presentation played at IBM’s pavilion during the New York’s World Fair in 1964-1965. The “people wall” is a reference to the stacked stadium seating of the Ovoid theater. The Ovoid Theater was the centerpiece attraction of the IBM Pavilion, designed by Charles and Eero Saarinen. It was an egg shaped structure that stood 90 feet above the ground. Inside was a bewilderingly complex set of 22 screens, of varying shapes and sizes, where 35mm projectors played a synchronized film presentation. The film is essentially a lesson in problem solving. Although it was experienced by fair-goers for the sensational entertainment, it was not unlike taking a short college class. The lesson was simple. Problem solving was not reserved for elite scholars and engineers. If one could approach familiar problems in the same manner as complex ones, solutions could seem more within reach. It’s a provocatively simple and positive idea.

The film IBM at the Fair chronicles the architecture and exhibitions of the pavilion, with a breeziness that barely hints at the amount of effort that went into its construction. Within the film there a several cameos of Eames furniture, and a brief glimpse of Ray herself, who looks directly into the camera.

Here, it is important to note that Charles & Ray were active at an pivotal juncture in the history of design. They were working in post-war America, where business was experiencing unprecedented growth, and the American public had acquired a taste for good design (for just one bit of evidence, see the film American Look (1958), sponsored by Chevrolet). They were working for IBM — one of the most affluent companies in the world, and a company helmed by Thomas J Watson, Jr, an exec who was famously concerned with the image of his company. Paul Rand was employed as creative director at IBM for many years.

It is not entirely clear at first how IBM, as a client, would benefit from an extremely expensive film on problem solving, and one that didn’t even highlight IBM products. Thomas Watson has stated that his company had an ongoing self-interest in cultivating a well educated American society. Eames Demetrios, in his book Eames Primer, saw it like so: “Charles tried to put it in a more hard-nosed context of genuine value for the company over the longer term — not just the notion that a well-educated public would in the long run be a healthier society and a better market for IBM’s products, but also that a society with deeper understandings was a better one for IBM to operate within.” When you take into account the technology that IBM was developing and marketing, this becomes a very progressive notion. And at the same time, one gets the impression that Charles was putting a wicked spin on the situation to further his own interests. He once said about IBM, “I think I could even persuade them of the value of the toy films if I had to.”

The Eames’ films are frequently lumped into a category known as “classroom” films or “sponsored” films (which are exactly what they sound like: films shown in a classroom setting, and films funded by corporate sponsors, respectively). And while neither is technically false, it isn’t entirely accurate either. While Charles & Ray were frequently contracted by corporations like Polaroid, Westinghouse, and IBM, they never made films on demand. Nearly all their films represent a symbiotic relationship between the artist and the client, and they only made films when there was genuine interest. Witness Westinghouse ABC (1965), which is essentially a montage of the Westinghouse product line (note that the Westinghouse logo was designed by Paul Rand). Even here there is a spirited interest in the subject. In the film, Charles & Ray focus on the technology and typography at a break-neck tempo and transform what would otherwise be an incredibly dry subject into something rich and lively. Also, in SX-70 (1972), intended as a promotional film for the newly released Polaroid SX-70 camera, the Eames’ take advantage of the opportunity to discuss optics, transistors and to display their own polaroid photographs.

eames film

eames film

Charles & Ray Eames used film as a “tool,” and asserted that their films were vessels for an idea. For them, the idea was more important than the medium. When one interviewer proposed that their films might be interpreted as experimental, Charles replied, “They’re not experimental films, they’re not really films. They’re just attempts to get across an idea.” Paul Schrader, in the lone academic article about their films, “Poetry of Ideas,” published in Film Quarterly in 1970, said, “The classic movie staple is the chase, and Eames’ films present a new kind of chase, a chase through a set of information in search of an Idea.”

If you think of ideas as a product, the films were simply the most effective method of delivering the ideas to the public. And considering the Eames’ appreciation for mass production, you might even consider their film output to be ideas produced en masse. There are few filmmaker analogues to the Eames’, and while they made non-fiction films, they’re not really documentaries, they’re more like film essays — a genre most people think to be occupied exclusively by Chris Marker or Agnes Varda. Yet, while Marker is often sprawling, Charles & Ray crafted a visual language as spare and precise as that of Hemingway’s. Rarely do their films exceed a single reel of film, which is roughly 10 minutes.

Paul Schrader developed an argument in his Film Quarterly essay that the Eames’ films practice a type of “information-overload,” wherein the audience is subjected to a surplus of information — “more data than the mind can assimilate.” While there is a good deal of data to be absorbed, I don’t believe it was designed to be overload. It’s hard to imagine that a designer as pragmatic as Charles Eames would’ve set out to boggle people’s minds. Consider one of the rare interviews Charles gave as a supplement to a French design exhibition. He was asked, “What is your definition of design.” And replied: “A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” The rest of the interview is so succinct that it almost feels terse.

Charles was pre-occupied with the idea of “noise” in communications systems, an idea explored in A Communications Primer (1953). Information overload would’ve resulted in an impenetrable wall of information.

If there’s one theme all the Eames’ films share, it’s clarity. Most of the Eames’ films can be understood and appreciated by audiences of all ages, and all backgrounds.

eames film

Powers of Ten (1977) is the Eames’ best known work and a culmination of many ideas and themes. It is also something of a skeleton key for understanding the rest of their work. It presents the profound idea of orders of magnitude, with the subtitle of the film being: A Film Dealing With the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. The film was originally developed in 1968 and was entitled, A Rough Sketch for a Proposed Film Dealing with the Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe. The “rough sketch” in the title is testament to the Eames’ penchant for perpetually iterative design. This is the case for many of their projects — Tops was initially made in black and white in 1957, and perfected 12 years later in color; the Eames Lounger was an idea 30 years in the making; Powers of Ten took so long to evolve that in the time it took to produce, science had broken through yet another power in the understanding of quantum physics.

The narrative of Powers of Ten uses the simple device of an imaginary traveler shooting out to the cosmos and then boomeranging back to the micro-cosmos. We begin with a couple having a picnic in a park, and as the man lies down for a nap, the journey commences. The camera rises like a ghost from his sleeping body and flies out to the far reaches of the known universe. It then returns to the man and proceeds to journey deep into the cell of the human body, finally landing on the micro-structure of a carbon atom. Measured in meters, it maxes out at 1025 and ends at 10-16. It is all done in a single, continuous, seamless shot. You might call it the most ambitious tracking shot in the history of cinema. The seamlessness in editing can be compared to the fluidity of a spinning top, the compound curves of the plywood chairs, or one of the many photographs Charles took of eggs. The film is narrated by Philip Morrison, a physicist at MIT, and a close friend of Charles & Ray.

From frame one, the audience is presented with what Edward Tufte would call, in relation to information design, a multidimensionality of information. There are numerous examples of multiplicity in image, where one design element is made to do the work of two or three. And not unlike reading a map, the audience is presented with signs and symbols to eliminate redundant information, and to compress data.

The first shot shows a man on a beach blanket (reading Voices of Time by J.T. Fraser, for good measure), and the left side of the frame is labeled 1 meter, which equates to the maximum height of the frame, and on the right, the frame is labeled 100 meters. As the journey progresses, the frame recedes systematically and becomes a measuring stick for space on the X and Y axis. As the camera moves away from the man in the park, we are informed that we are moving at a pace of 1010 meters per second, and that “in each ten seconds of travel the imaginary voyager covered ten times the distance he had covered in the previous ten seconds.” Rather than moving at an arbitrary pace, the film equates the momentum of the tracking shot with that of space, and so, the exponential series is charted on the Z axis of depth and time. Therefore, not only does one see the progression of space, one feels it in the progression of time. Simultaneously, the narrator is citing visual metaphors to further convey the relativity of objects — “104 meters, 10 kilometers, the distance a supersonic aircraft can travel in ten seconds.”

eames film

Powers of Ten has a cyclical structure, and could be played from tail to head with the same effect. The short mathematics film Alpha (1972), made for the museum exhibition “Mathematica,” was designed in the same manner. In classrooms, the teacher was instructed to run the film forwards, and then backwards to illustrate the point. The film form itself is as much a reflection of mathematical concepts as the film is a study of them.

Philip Morrison, as quoted by Tufte in his book Envisioning Information, once described the visually rich human history of charts, graphs and maps as “Cognitive Art.” Powers of Ten could also fit neatly into this category. It is perhaps the first map to incorporate the element of time.

Once the camera reaches its furthest vector, at 1025 or 100 million light years, the voyage pauses for a moment, and the narrator remarks: “This lonely scene – the galaxies like dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.” And once the voyage back to Earth starts, the narrator comments further: “Notice the alternation between great activity and relativity inactivity, a rhythm that will continue all the way into our next goal: a proton in the nucleus of a carbon atom beneath the skin on the hand of a sleeping man at the picnic.” He’s comparing the juxtaposition of galaxies and the vacuum of deep space, and the relatively vast distance between tiny particles at the atomic level.

While this is clearly practical information for the science student, it is also telling commentary on the Eames’ own artistry. Their films have a tendency to alternate between what Italian writer Italo Calvino might refer to as “lightness and density.” Most of their films are a careful balance of heavy information interspersed with refreshing bits of featherweight beauty and humor. In all of their short mathematical films, after a set of challenging equations, a small animated heart pops out just before the end of the film.

In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, Italo Calvino reminded the audience about the reciprocal relationship between lightness and density. He was speaking about literature, but used a metaphor that Charles & Ray would probably find appropriate:

“At this point we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well. So, too, we would be unable to appreciate the lightness of language if we could not appreciate language that has some weight.”

In the final and smallest stage of the film, we approach the carbon nucleus. The narrator says, “We are in the domain of universal modules. There are protons and neutrons in every nucleus, electrons in every atom, atoms bonded into every molecule out to the farthest galaxy.”

It’s one of the last statements Charles put on film, and it’s a comment — not about the difference of things, as one might think at the start of the film — but about the universal sameness of things. As such, you begin to understand Powers of Ten is much more than just a document representing orders of magnitude. And it all happens in 9 minutes.

Charles Eames died the year after Powers of Ten was released. After Charles passed away, Ray Eames spent the next ten years chronicling the expansive portfolio of the Eames office into a giant book called Eames Design. She also spent time preparing their materials for archiving at the Library of Congress. There are 800,000 photographs now stored at the Library. However, their films remain in a state of disorganization and disrepair. Films determined to be “classroom” films are infrequently granted the status of “art,” and therefore are given short shrift for care and restoration. Many of their films are faded, or in poor physical condition, and despite the fact they made over a hundred films, few are presently accessible.

Prints lack central housing, so when I curated a program of their films for the Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, the program was culled from no less than six different sources. Also, films like Think, Glimpses of the USA and most of their slide projections — while cutting edge for the time — now require obsolete technology operated by skilled technicians, and are nearly impossible to recreate. Tops and Toccata for Toy Trains only exist on film in faded 16mm copies. Eames Design is currently out of print. Powers of Ten was enrolled in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress, but at the present time is currently out of circulation due to damage to the preserved print.

Charles was once asked by the Royal College of Art in London to create a documentary about 901 Washington Boulevard — the headquarters and workshop of the Eames Office. Within the workshop was an integrated space that had darkrooms, cutting rooms, a theatre, a kitchen and a woodshop — basically everything the Eames’ needed to work self-sufficiently. It was also outfitted with an unusual musical invention. Charles & Ray crafted a musical tower made from metal tone bars, not unlike those you might find on a glockenspiel. They assembled the bars vertically, braced by a chute, so that when you dropped a ball into the tower, it would play a music-box-like melody. It was a fitting musical accompaniment for the space.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Charles documented 901 (as they liked to call it) through a kaleidoscope for the Royal College, giving the space a mysteriously fractured and colorful atmosphere, and totally obscuring any real clues about the space. Only years after Charles & Ray had passed away, and weeks before the Library of Congress came to cart away their materials was the workshop documented by their grandson, Eames Demetrios in 901: After 45 Years of Working (1990). As Gordon Ashby once noted, “901 was Charlies’ instrument – and he knew exactly how to play it.”

~Michael Neault

Editor’s note: This article was original written for an Eames retrospective exhibited at the Dryden Theater at George Eastman House. The following films were screened:

16mm

TOPS (1969, 7 mins)
TOCCATA FOR TOY TRAINS (1957, 13 mins)
LOUNGE CHAIR (1956, 2 mins)
KALEIDOSCOPE SHOP (1959, 4 mins)
SX-70 (1972, 11 mins)
VIEW FROM THE PEOPLE’S WALL (1966, 13 mins)
901: AFTER 45 YEARS OF WORKING (Eames Demetrios, 1990, 29 mins)

35mm

IBM AT THE FAIR (1965, 8 mins)
ALPHA (1972, 1 min)
EXPONENTS (1973, 3 mins)
WESTINGHOUSE ABC (1965, 12 mins)
HOUSE (1955, 10 mins)
POWERS OF TEN (1977, 10 mins)

Many thanks to the Library of Congress and the Eames Office in Santa Monica, CA.

→ 12 Comments

Who Does Jens Lekman Like?

August 31st, 2008 · 4 Comments

jens lekman

 
The following are songs that Jens Lekman has sampled or interpolated…

Van Dyke Parks – Steelband Music (used in Happy Birthday Dear Friend Lisa)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Arab Strap – Kate Moss

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Shangri-Las – Remember (Walking in the sand) (interpolated in A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Martha Reeves & The Vandell’s – (Love is Like) a Heatwave (interpolated in A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Television Personalities – Someone to Share My Life With (covered by Lekman, Someone to Share My Life With)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Beat Happening – Gravedigger Blues (sampled in Pocketful of Money)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Belle & Sebastian – Mary Jo

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Left Banke – I’ve Got Something On My Mind (from Black Cab)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Mamas and the Papas – Do You Wanna Dance? (from Maple Leaves, also used by The Avalanches in Since I Left You)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Left Banke – Walk Away Renee (strings used in Maple Leaves)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Blueboy – So Catch Him (used in A Higher Power, which itself is named after a song by Jonathan Richman)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Jerry Goldsmith – Theme from Sandpebbles

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

The Tough Alliance – Take No Heroes

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Gal Costa – Baby (used in Do You Remember the Riots – orchestral version)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Others

Willie Rosario – By the Time I get to Phoenix
Patrick Mkwamba & the Four Brothers – Dai Ndiri Shiri
Renaldo and the Loaf – Hamba Hadu
There’s a guitar line in I Saw Her in the Anti-War Demonstration that sounds very similar to The Byrds Mr. Tambourine Man, AND The Beatles What You’re Doing, but I don’t think either one is really a sample, they’re just very very similar sounding.

Lekman’s music has intrigued me ever since I heard Pocketful of Money, which samples Calvin Johnson’s baritone in a way that seemed to defy logic. Even though it’s a sample, there is an intimacy between the two male voices that gives the impression the two were recording together in the wee hours of the morning. And yet they were recorded more than a decade apart. Johnson’s vocals don’t come in until halfway through the song, but when they hit, they hit deep. It’s erotic in a way that—I’m pretty sure—Johnson never intended. But that! That is the beauty of Lekman’s sampling technique. I felt compelled to write this post because apparently, Lekman has had consistent trouble clearing rights for his music.

The following was posted on his website:

“Sample laws. Can anyone come up with something more retarded ? Here’s my philosophy: If I sample something that is in any way recognisable, I think it’s fair to ask for permission, credit the source and pay them a percentage of my record sales. But I can’t do that because when you clear a sample you have to pay for 100,000 to a million copies in advance. Clearing the samples for my new record has been estimated to cost at least $400,000. I would be in debt for the rest of my life. So I’m left with two options: risking it or replacing them…

The message from the court is plain and simple: ‘Get a license or do not sample. We do not see this as stifling creativity in any significant way.’ [ed. note: this is a verbatim quote] This was back in 2005, when Bridgeport Music Inc. managed to eliminate the de minimis doctrine. Since then I’ve heard rumours of software being developed with the sole purpose of identifying samples, no matter how small, hidden or unidentifiable. There’s money to be made by suing artists and Bridgeport and others have made it their business. So I don’t know about risking it.

Replacing them is also out of the question. The beauty of the collage technique is that you’re using sounds that have never met and were never supposed to meet. You introduce them to each other, at first they’re a bit shy, clumsy, staring at their shoes. But you can sense there’s something there. So you cut and paste a little bit and by the end of the song you can spot them in the corner, holding hands. The magic is in the mistakes, the scratches and dust from the vinylrecord, the echo from something that happened a few bars ago and most importantly the new context in which they are placed.

I hate to say it but most of all I’m upset with my record label Secretly Canadian. It was two weeks ago now that they said “Hey, we just had a meeting and decided that you’re gonna have to remove all the samples”. I love those guys and I’ve really enjoyed working with them and want to continue doing so. I also understand their concern. But they come up with this NOW ? When the record is already finished ?

I’m scared this record would become my own Chinese Democracy, eternally delayed or never released. So I’m gonna take a little while to figure this out and if I can’t find a solution I’ll just put the songs up here and move on. I have a lot of stuff to do cause when I was a teenager I went to a fortune teller who told me I would die young.”

Pocketful of Money is like the poster child for the legalization of samples. But on the other hand, Puffy’s sampling of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir in Come With Me is the antithesis. That is to say: unimaginative, obvious and unabashedly derivative. And yet, Puffy’s is the legal one. Mostly because he has a fatcat record label to back him up. Lekman is unfair to accuse Secretly Canadian, who doesn’t have the hundreds of thousands of dollars handy that it would take to clear this record. But imagine how great this record could’ve been, had Lekman been on Bad Boy records. This is also the likely reason that there are many Jens Lekman unreleased singles floating around. Have you heard the song that samples Paul Simon?

It’s sad to think that some of these songs almost didn’t happen. This post certainly does not contain all of the songs that Lekman has sampled, but it’s a start. Please chime in you’ve got some that aren’t on this list. Or, maybe it’s best if you don’t.

PS. On a final note, I’ve been desperately trying to ID a sample in one of Lekman’s songs. It’s from an earlier version of Someone to Share My Life With, and the sample comes within the first 10 seconds. It sounds like a cross between Prince and Boys II Men, but I don’t think it’s either. It’s a male harmony, and they sing, All I need now is a good woman. Following this is a beautiful aria from another unidentifiable source. Have a listen…

Jens Lekman – Someone to Share My Life With

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Update: 10/26/10

So, a major music sampling mystery has been solved. OK, major to me. I don’t think anyone else was too mystified by this. On a rare single by Jens Lekman, there is a sample that I hypothesized to be Boys II Men or Prince. It was neither. It was Ray Coniff. The sharp-eared Robyn York picked out the harmony, but refused to divulge the source of her knowledge. After holding her in a headlock for many hours, she conceded. Apparently, she was a Ray Conniff fan as a youth, and was deeply familiar with all his songs, esp. Rhinestone Cowboy. First the sampling song, then the sampled.

Jens Lekman – Someone to Share My Life With

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Ray Conniff – Rhinestone Cowboy

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If you’re interested in pinpointing the sample, here’s how. The chorus, “All I need now is to find myself a good woman,” drops in at about the 2 min 58 sec mark. This chorus is sampled in the Jens Lekman song right off the bat, and also returns later in the song.

→ 4 Comments

Saul Bass & the Art of Title Design

August 31st, 2008 · No Comments

The following essay was written in connection with a retrospective of Saul Bass’ work at the George Eastman House in Spring of 2008. This web version has been modified slightly from the original.

The first thing you will see in this article is work by Saul Bass for which he is infrequently, or sometimes incorrectly, credited. The shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is one of the most famous and iconic sequences of all time; Saul Bass is responsible for designing the storyboard for this sequence. This essentially means that he pre-configured the graphic structure for the scene, frame by frame. There is an overblown controversy that Bass claims to have directed the sequence (and indeed, he has made the claim on television and in interviews), but it is a claim that remains contentious (Janet Leigh has denied the claim on numerous occasions).

However, it’s insignificant who directed it because in this context, we’re more concerned with form and composition, than acting style – and if you compare the scene to the original storyboards, the underlying graphic structure is immediately evident. As is the case in Grand Prix and Spartacus, Bass is credited as pictorial, or visual consultant for Psycho, in addition to title designer. For the shower scene, it was Bass’ intention to create a “bloodless” murder, and he uses ingenious visual effects to achieve this.

I’ve broken up the scene into a slide show so that you can study it frame-by-frame. The sequence barrels by so rapidly that it’s difficult to absorb all the visual information unless you look at it in stills.

saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh saul bass psycho hitch janet leigh 

The shower scene is composed of 50 cuts in just over 2 minutes. The quickness of the cutting mimics the slashing of Norman Bates’ knife. The first noticeable visual device is his use of water from the shower head. The water is shot vertically, diagonally, and straight on – all in isolated close-ups – so that it creates a violent visual counterpoint (this is a technique some theorists might compare to Eisensteinian dialectics). Notice how there are two spouts of water, not one, like in most showers; this is a camera trick that allows the water to be foregrounded from nearly every angle. Next, you get a series of images that are fractions of Janet Leigh’s body – her hands, her face, her legs, her stomach – all of which are visually suggestive of dismemberment (the isolated hand motif is a favorite of Bass, and also appears in The Victors and Man with the Golden Arm). Check out the dead-on shot of looking up into the water spout. This is unusual because A) it’s something you could never do in a shower — looking directly into the shower head and B) it looks like a human eye. The whole scene is voyeuristic, and this hovering specter only compounds the deviantly voyeuristic tone. Lastly, you get a shot of water spiraling down the drain that dissolves to Janet Leigh’s terror stricken, bolt-open eyes. The camera spirals and pans out from her face, which is actually an optical still, not running film. Before the camera pans away, a single drop of water falls from her forehead. This is another counterpoint of extremes – the rush of water versus the single droplet. The disembodied eye and the spiral is a juxtaposition that reappears in Vertigo, when the eye in the credits dissolves to John Whitney’s computer generated spirographs. However, there is a key difference between the two. In Psycho, the spiral dissolves into the eye. In Vertigo, the spiral emanates out of the eye. The semantic difference is paramount – one suggests the dissolution of fear, the other, the projection of fear.

The credits for Psycho are a series of contrasting horizontal and vertical lines, not unlike the contrasting lines of water in the shower, and like most of Bass’ work, it is a strikingly reduced and radically simplified concept of the film. Although this approach to graphic art was not new to print design or the fine arts, it was brand new to Hollywood movies. Posters and credits up to this point had been highly sensational and pictorial based. The overarching graphic tendency for posters was big, bold and laden with star names, with illustrative, often exagerrated representations of those stars. Bass reduced the visual components to the absolute minimum and relied predominately on understated symbols and graphic illustrations. As Bass expressed in an interview in 1995, “The idea of having a film expressed within the framework of one single, reductive statement was a very daring notion in the 50s.”

This daring notion is best represented by Saul Bass’ work on Man with the Golden Arm, directed by Otto Preminger and released in 1955. Bass did 11 films for Preminger, and while it was a vitriolic relationship, it was also an extremely productive one. They first worked on Carmen Jones together in 1954, but Bass was only contracted to work on the posters. According to legend, Preminger liked the posters so much that he further contracted him to design the title sequences. At this point, Bass had been restricted to print, and had no experience in the world of motion graphics. It was a heavy job for a rookie.

Their next project, Man with the Golden Arm, had even higher stakes. The subject was riskier, and the talent bigger. Bass created an image of a mangled arm to represent the life of a strung-out junkie. The arm is a simple two-dimensional rendering in silhouette, illustrated with great economy, but its brilliance is that – even with such minimal detail – it is still an extraction of the visual essence of the film, and captures the tone of the story. At certain theaters, the icon was such a hit that the arm replaced the actual title on the marquee. Here you can see how Bass applied corporate branding to the packaging of a movie. The symbol of the arm created an identity for the film that was immediately recognizable, and packaged all the ideas of the film into a single logotype.

While the industrial influence is apparent, Bass also brought the sophistication and elegance of the fine arts to the screen. His work for Anatomy of a Murder is reminiscent of the paper cutouts by Matisse, the big blocks of color frequently used in the backgrounds of his posters are not unlike paintings by Mark Rothko, and the credits for Bonjour Tristesse are similar to the colorful line drawings by Picasso. While Bass drew from these former masters, he applied his own signature touch, generally identified by a bit of wit, humor or lightheartedness – even in a dead-serious movie like Vertigo, his design brings lightness to the picture.

Bass had also been exposed to the Bauhaus philosophy during his early years in New York City, where he studied with György Kepes, a Hungarian born painter who worked with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and was later an instructor at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. His flair for modernist design can be seen in the sleek titles for Grand Prix in 1966, where he used the typeface Helvetica in the credits. Even though Helvetica is now pervasive in our visual language, it was – at the time, a cutting-edge typeface, and was in the vanguard of cool European design. If not the first, Grand Prix was among the foremost to apply the clean, geometric typeface to a credit sequence. In previous credit sequences, Bass used other sans-serif types, mostly “Venus Bold Extended” or “News Gothic Bold,” unless he designed the type by hand.

venus bold extended

news gothic bold

anatomy typeface

Beyond title sequences, Bass also did television spots, corporate logos, (like AT&T, Minolta and Girl Scouts), and also “classroom,” or essay films. Why Man Creates is an essay film made with his wife Elaine, that explores the motivation behind creativity and won the academy award in 1968 for best documentary short subject. In collaboration with Kodak, Saul & Elaine made a film in 1964 called The Searching Eye, for exhibition at the World’s Fair of that year. Essentially it’s a mini-documentary about “intelligent vision,” and how the eye functions. Bass actually fancied himself to be a filmmaker even more so than a graphic designer, and referred to himself as such in interviews. His sole feature debut, Phase IV, released in 1974, was met largely with indifference by reviewers. The NY Times had this to say about the science fiction film, “The adversary—in this case, it’s the familiar, highly coordinated and indomitable ant—is less a threat than a problem created by a concept and a script that is initially spellbinding but then quickly turns into mystifying vacillations between fact and largely unconvincing fiction.” That said, the film has found a new appreciation with contemporary audiences and is slowly being dredged out from a critical moratorium. The online film site, Not Coming to a Theater Near You has not one, but two glowing reviews of the picture.

Saul Bass worked with many of the giants of Hollywood filmmaking: Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer, Billy Wilder, Robert Wise, William Wyler… but in the late 70s, he turned more to corporate branding, and reduced his output of title designs. (After doing the poster for Kubrick’s The Shining, and titles for Ridley Scott’s Alien, there was an 8 year lapse before he would do another movie). His career was restored in the 90s when Martin Scorsese approached him to do some titles. Together, they made Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Goodfellas, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, and finally, Casino, his last film before he died. Casino was a film set in the 70s and 80s, with graphic ideas Bass had perfected in the 50s and 60s, but the film was released in 1995. Despite the chronological whiplash, the credits are powerful and timeless, and a testament to the longevity of Saul Bass’ style.

Bass was an artist reluctant to acknowledge his influences, and was cagey about discussing work that he liked. In one late video interview, after being pressed by a graphic design professor, he admitted to being an admirer of Paul Rand – “He was so goddamned good,” he said. He has also cited Lester Beall and Will Burtin as influential designers. It is much more common to hear contemporary graphic designers cite Saul Bass as an influence than to hear him speak of his lineage. And indeed, the Saul Bass legacy is perpetuated in culture – both high and low – by a host of knockoffs and imitations. Once you recognize his style, replicas start popping up everywhere you look. But not just in movies. On the west coast, there is an oil-change chain called EZ LUBE, and their logo shows a dangling arm, very much in the style of Man with the Golden Arm, only the hand is holding an oil dipstick.

~Michael Neault

The program included:

Video:
NATIONAL BOHEMIAN BEER
MATTEL’S BABY TENDER LOVE
IBM ANIMATION
FRANK SINATRA SHOW
OLIN MATHIESON
SPEEDWAY 79′
SUN DETERGENT
MILLAR GOOSEBERRIES
ANDY WILLIAMS TV SHOW
THE YOUNG STRANGER (J. Frankenheimer, 1957)
WALK ON THE WILD SIDE (E. Dmytryk, 1962)
KITY channel 11 – Saul Bass Interview

16mm:
WHY MAN CREATES (Saul & Elaine Bass, 29 mins)

35mm:
ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Otto Preminger, 1959)
MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (Otto Preminger, 1955)
SECONDS (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
VERTIGO (Alfred Hitchcock,1958)
ADVISE & CONSENT (Otto Preminger, 1962)
SEVEN YEAR ITCH (Billy Wilder, 1955)
BONJOUR TRISTESSE (Otto Preminger, 1958)
SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
OCEAN’S ELEVEN (Lewis Milestone, 1960)
GRAND PRIX (John Frankenheimer, 1966)
CASINO (Martin Scorsese, 1995)

A note on the selections: Saul Bass made over fifty credit sequences, and an – as yet – uncatalogued number of short films and television spots. For this program, we limited ourselves to what was available on 35mm film in the George Eastman House archive, and in projectable condition. It is a generous selection, but does omit some classic titles, such as West Side Story, Around the World in Eighty Days, Exodus and Bunny Lake is Missing.

This program would not have been possible without the assistance of: Charlie Allen (Chief Projectionist at George Eastman House), Inés Toharia Torán (George Eastman House), Patti Doyen (Vault Manager), May Haduong (Academy Film Archive), Brian Meacham (Academy Film Archive), Roger Remington (for providing the Bass posters in the lobby), Charles Bigelow (for consultation on the typefaces), Dan Wagner, Kris Merola, Lynn Dell, Jim Malley, and Jennifer Bass.

Works Consulted
Haskins, Pamela. “Saul, Can You Make Me a Title?” Interview with Saul Bass. Film Quarterly, Autumn 1996:12-13.

Solana, Gemma and Antonio Boneu. Uncredited: Graphic Design & Opening Titles in Movies. London: Index Books, 2007.

Taylor, Rumsey. “Titles designed by Saul Bass.” Not Coming to a Theater Near You, 2008. http://notcoming.com/saulbass/index.php

→ No Comments

Jumpology

August 1st, 2008 · No Comments

Philippe Halsman was a staff photographer for LIFE magazine for much of his professional life. After being inspired by a whimsical notion to ask Mrs. Henry Ford to jump for her portrait, he became inspired to request jumps from all the important people he photographed. Halsman justifies “jumpology” and elaborates on his methods in the introduction to his collection of photographs, titled JUMP BOOK (1959). What follows is an excerpt from his introduction.

“Jumpology”

This book shows 178 jumps executed by some of the most prominent and important people of our society: political figures, leaders of industry, famous scientists, artists and writers, Nobel Prize winners, judges, theologians, movie stars, TV performers and outstanding athletes. I did not select these subjects. They were the people I was commissioned to photograph in the last few years.

I must, therefore, apologize to the many illustrious and deserving men and women who were not given the opportunity to jump. In no way does it mean that they were not worthy of joining the exclusive roster of famous jumpers. It only means that by some bad fortune their names were not lately in my appointment book.

Here the thoughtful reader- thoughtless readers skip introductions – will ask himself: all this jumping is good and well, but what for? How come? These two questions show such psychological depth on the part of the thoughtful reader that, in order to do them justice, my answer must plunge deep into the art of jumping.

“To be facetious, when serious –
or to be serious, when facetious?”

~ Unknown philosopher, “The Mask”

Many remember Prince De Talleyrand for saying that the tongue was given to diplomats to hide their thoughts. But who will remember the author for saying that the face was given us to hide our inner self.

Our entire civilization, starting with the earliest child education, teaches us how to dissimulate our thoughts, how to be polite with people we dislike, how to control our emotions. “Keep smiling” or “stiff upper lip” are new categorical imperatives. The result of this is: when we look at somebody’s face, we don’t know what he thinks or feels. We don’t even know what he is like. Everybody wears an armor. Everybody hides behind a mask.

But one of our deepest urges is to find our what the other person is like. The curiosity is to peek under other people’s masks is responsible for the success of gossip columnists, of magazines like Confidential and True Confessions, of tell-it-all autobiographies. It influences even our love life. How many romances started with the desire to penetrate the beloved’s enigmatic armor? And continued with the hope that in a cataclysm of passion the mask would fall as masks do fall – alas! – in the moments of other great catastrophies.

The urge of an ordinary person to find out our innermost secrets is called nosiness and is despicable. When it is done scientifically by a person with an appropriate college degree it is called psychology and is admirable. Psychologists have devised many methods to find out what we are hiding under our masks.

They use psychoanalysis or hypnotism or a truth serum; they apply tests like the Rorschach test, associations, etc. To this arsenal the author is adding a new psychological tool – the jump. He calls this new branch of science “jumpology.”

In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera. While the previous psychological methods were lengthy and costly, the jump is rapid and economical.

Halsman goes on for another 24 pages explaining the origins and finer points of jumpology. The book should be readily available at your local library. Go pick it up.

→ No Comments