It Started with Muybridge

Maria Popova of BringPickings brought this to my attention. It’s another documentary that explains how Eadweard Muybridge’s early explorations of motion photography helped pave the way for the Atomic age. While it’s not as interesting as Zoopraxographer, this film does serve as a nice compliment to it.

In 1965, more than half a century after Muybridge passed away, the U.S. Department of Defense commissioned It Started with Muybridge — a fascinating short documentary, currently in the public domain, tracing how Muybridge’s motion studies contributed to the science and technology of the Atomic Age, from testing the safety limits of nuclear reactors to measuring the speed of supersonic missiles.

Maria Popova – Brianpickings.org

It Started with Muybridge   YouTube Brainpickings.org

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The Net – The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet

Some people love a good horror story. Some people love a good science-fiction story. I love a good conspiracy. I don’t love them because I believe them, I love them because they present fantastical, paranoid “what-if’s”. The Net weaves its web around the anti-technology terrorist acts of Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), mind-control experiments of the 60’s, and a group of cyber-hippies who would help build the Internet.

Conspiracy theory aside, The Net provides an interesting glimpse back to a time when art and technology collided for better or worse. There are great interviews with Stewart Brand, Robert Taylor, Heinz von Foerster, and then their is the interview with John Brockman. Brockman is the first interview subject and the one who becomes so offended when director Lutz Dammbeck wants to talk seriously about the Unabomber that he all but kicks Dasseman out of his office. Or does he? The film is cut in a way that makes it look like Dammbeck asks Brockman about Ted Kaczynski and Brockman refuses to talk about him, labeling Kaczynski a murdering madman and a poor writer to boot. The interview ends when Brockman says, “Let’s change the subject,” and then there is a shot of Dammbeck’s hat and a water bottle on desk in Brockman’s office. Underneath the shot we can hear Brockman’s voice, off camera, saying, “Call a car.” The documentary then cuts to Dammbeck exiting the building as a car pulls up. Seen this way it makes it appear as if Dammbeck’s questioning so flustered Brockman that Brockman terminated the interview right there and sent Dammbeck packing. This may have happened, but whether or not it occurred this way does not matter for the sake of the story Dammbeck is setting out to make. Here, early in the film, he is presenting himself as a tireless investigator looking to dig deeper into the story of the Unabomber and what better way to win the audience’s trust and support than to make it appear like he’s willing to press hard for the deeper answers.

The interview with Brockman is the most contentious one and it not only makes it appear as if Dammbeck has touched a nerve, but that he may have uncovered something hidden. While being interviews Brockman drops the names of many others that Dammbeck will interview. The most interesting of these is Heinze von Foerster. A disciple of Wittgenstein, a contributor to constructivism, and a developer of cybernetics, Foerster spends his time talking to Dammbeck about unanswerable questions and the multiple theories that attempt to answer such unanswerable question. During his interview he offers this gem of a line, “…all that is relevant is how interesting the story is that someone invents…” He’s actually talking about the origin of the universe, but what Foerster says could equally apply to conspiracy theories. Most present a wide, sometimes seemingly impossible, set of facts and then try to align those facts into an interesting, usually frightening, narrative. The Net does just this and assuming that its facts are correct and not taken wildly out of context or distorted beyond reason it presents a chilling depiction a world that must choose between pushing itself headlong towards uncertain technological domination or towards a regressive notion of utopia.

It’s a scary thought and it appears to be what scared Ted Kaczynski first to pull himself out of society and then to attack and kill some of those people he thought were pushing society in the wrong direction. Now, Brockman may be right. Kaczynski may just be a bad author and a worse human being, but Dammbeck sympathizes enough with Kaczynski to correspond with him and to find out more about what drove him to terrorism. What Dammbeck discovers is no definitive answer, but Dammbeck does appear to relate to Kaczynski’s point-of-view that we need to return to a physical reality and not a virtual reality. This is best displayed at the very end of Dammbeck’s interview with Heinze von Foerster. When Foerster asks Dammbeck, “Where is reality? Can you show it to me?” Dammbeck  has the film cut to a shot of some portraits on a wall in Foerster’s home, a shot of Foerster’s deck with lush trees in the distance, and finally a shot of some red flowers that tilts upward to revel a densely forested mountain side. Right after this sequence a match cut is made to a computer monitor, with video of  a similar mountainside on the screen. The image dissolves to a photo of Kaczynski standing infront of his hand-made cabin in the woods. Dammbeck has answered Foerster or at least he’s presenting Kaczynski’s life as an answer.

Do I believe it? Not fully. Does it make a chilling late night story. Yes. It’s strange to think that all the people in this film have their lives intermingled in such a grand fashion and that behind it all greater powers that be may be pulling certain strings. While a lot of what is presented looks factual, facts can be distorted. Which brings me to a small side-tangent. Maybe documentaries should be required to have footnotes. Perhaps, documentary filmmakers should cite their sources. Or, does it even matter? Our we really in pursuit of hard answers or simply an interesting story that seemingly explains things we’ll never get to the bottom of? Obviously, Dammbeck is not content, like others to believe that Kaczynski is mad. For him there must be more and if you connect the right dots in the right way you can see that their is more, at least that’s the story Dammbeck is telling.

Edward Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

Someone has posted this rarely seen documentary about Eadward Muybridge, the forefather to motion photography. The great American film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called this one of the Top 100 American Films of all time. However, the film is rarely screened and not something you will find on DVD or on demand. Take advantage of this opportunity to indulge in a most fascinating and meditative examination of cinema’s earliest images and the personal history of man who brought still imagery to life.

ZOOPRAXOGRAPHER João Enxuto on Vimeo.

One of the best essay films ever made on a cinematic subject, Thom Andersen’s remarkable and sadly neglected hour-long documentary (1974) adroitly combines biography, history, film theory, and philosophical reflection. Muybridge’s photographic studies of animal locomotion in the 1870s were a major forerunner of movies; even more interesting are his subsequent studies of diverse people, photographed against neutral backgrounds. Andersen’s perspectives on Muybridge are multifaceted and often surprising (characteristically, the film’s opening quotation is from Mao), and he presents Muybridge’s photographic sequences in various ways to spell out the many meanings of this fascinating precinematic work. – Jonathan Rosenbaum