This 11-minute video on the neon craftsmen of Hong Kong has a lot to recommend it; for instance, how to bend Chinese ideograms so as not to burn your hands. I visited Hong Kong a couple years ago, and the neons signs are over the top.
I was reminded of this recently when I was in Philadelphia. We had dinner in Chinatown, which had several excellent multicolor signs. But also, I was inside the Center for Architecture, whose walls are adorned with some fine animated signs, like this excellent sign for Greyhound:
This is the story of the 1939 song “Mbube” by Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, a Zulu group who recorded in Johannesburg. The sang in a workingman’s style called isicathamiya that derives from a warning: “Tread carefully, boys”: that is, don’t ruin the stage with your traditional stomp-dancing. (Malan points out that Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s light-footed stage movements descend from this style.)
A 78 RPM record of “Mbube” landed in the hands of Alan Lomax, who gave it to his friend Pete Seeger, who misunderstood the underlying chant of “Uyimbube” and called his version “Wimoweh,” which became a 1952 hit for the Weavers just when they wer forced to disband due to Red Scare allegations.
“Wimoweh” was covered many times by many singers, eventually including a Brooklyn group called the Tokens, who had heard that the lyrics were about hunting lions. The Tokens’ producers didn’t want to record “Wimoweh” as is, so they asked for help from an orchestrator named George Weiss, who deconstructed the song. He wrote some new words and put the melody front and center. The recording included a tympanist mimicking “jungle drums” and an opera singer named Anita Darien doing that soaring countermelody. It became one of the biggest hits of all time, and still shows up in movies, cover versions, children’s records, TV shows, and more, all around the world.
And that’s just the first half of this article. Malan’s real goal is to follow the money from this megahit and figure out how much of it ever made it back to Linda’s impoverished family, which brings us to ideas about folk songs and copyright, public domain songs credited to fictitious songwriters (“Wimoweh” is credited to “Paul Campbell,” who also “wrote” “Rock Island Line” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”), and the wheeling-dealings of some real music-industry sharks. Eventually everyone gets into court on two continents, but all in all it’s an eye-opening account of the story behind a song that refuses to go to sleep.
Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters is a beautifully shot and edited documentary about a photographer who creates elaborately composed and lit compositions that seem to tell a story. Each photograph looks to be a moment taken from a film, maybe by David Lynch: often shot in deep twilight, giving us glow from the sky as well as exterior signs and traffic lights or interior rooms. Often the photos contain exterior and interior details, whether we look through an open door into a room or out to a yard, or even just the interior of a car. There are people, too, perhaps in some interior crisis of their own, though from Crewdson’s comments any narrative we create is our own — he doesn’t supply, or even care about, the before and after. There is just this painterly, pregnant moment.
Each shot is essentially created with the same care, equipment, and crew as a movie. Cranes, lights, assistants, makeup, and, in the shots that are created in purpose-built sets, construction crews and interior designers. Crewdson frets over every detail, and yet I really enjoyed him as a person. It was remarkable how even-tempered he is, even in the face of setbacks like a crying baby or a house-wrecking crew. He seemed to have none of the “I’m in charge here” bluster you’d expect to see in the midst of such elaborate direction, nor did he seem to need to convey what was in his mind’s eye (except, perhaps, to his director of photography). And yet he was still incredibly thoughtful about the process.
I enjoyed every minute, and really liked director Ben Shapiro’s choices, from the titleless opening (I went back: the title is at exactly 5:00 in) to the end, with Crewdson’s voiceover reflections on each artist’s central story while we look at the site of his new work (which I also went back to hear again). shapiro himself has a fine eye, and he manages to convey the complexity of Crewdson’s work without losing sight of his larger goals. The close of the movie is shot at Cinecittà, the famous studio backlot in Rome, where Crewdson is setting up for his next effort.
Vi Hart (a full-time mathemusician at Khan Academy) makes mostly short YouTube videos on a variety of mostly math and science subjects. She draws in a notebook while talking really fast, making insightful, surprising connections. She’s smart, funny, knowledgeable, and entertaining.
This brilliant video is, I think, a bit of a departure: a 30-minute piece explaining how 12-tone music works. Because of copyright law, she can’t play Stravinsky and Schoenberg, so she composes her own 12-tone versions of well-known tunes, with side-journeys into pattern recognition and the nature of art. By the end, she’s composed a four-part, 12-tone vocal version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” that she sings herself. It’s a tour de force of music, science, art, and explanation.
It was worthwhile for a look at a voice I knew little about, and for a reminder of a particular scene in the ’60s, but sad as well, not just for Ochs’s decline but for the repetition of the evil of the ’60s (JFK, Vietnam, civil rights, the Chicago convention, MLK, RFK), with the overthrow of Allende thrown in. There’s also lots of good music in here, and interesting discussions of the one-sided rivalry he had with Bob Dylan, whom he idolized. Here’s a clip from the move, of Ochs singing “When I’m Gone”:
In one period, he decided to travel the world and went to Chile just as Allende (a Marxist) was elected, and be befriended the protest singer Victor Jara. He eventually got to Africa, where he hit on the idea of recording in Kenya as a way to write off the trip. The song, Bwatue, has Ochs singing in Lingala (I think) and English and playing with Kenyan musicians in 1973:
He was later robbed in Dar es Salaam, in a strangulation attack that damaged his vocal cords and which he thought may have been planned by the CIA. Later that year, Allende was overthrown (CIA, again) and his friend Jara was tortured and killed, and this seemed to trigger a psychological break that resulted in heavy drinking, a personality change, and eventually death by his own hand.
As a movie, it’s a well-done documentary (by his brother, Michael Ochs) with lots of footage from the news of the time and words from many of the usual suspects: Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner (who has not aged well), and Ochs’s daughter, Meegan, who gives Ochs some redemption. In addition, Jello Biafra, Christopher Hitchens, Sean Penn, and Billy Bragg show up to say pithy things for largely unknown reasons. Bragg is al least his moral descendent, and Biafra covered Ochs’s cynical “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and only made a few changes to make it current.