Hear “Grown-Up” Children’s Stories Written by Tom Waits, Nick Cave & Other Artists, Read by Danny Devito, Zach Galifianakis & More

Ten years ago, Jeff Antebi, the founder of the record company Waxploitation, asked musicians and contemporary painters to collaborate on a collection of children’s stories for grown-ups. Today, you can find the fruits of their labor collected in a new, 350-page book project called Stories for Ways & Means. The book features tales by Tom Waits (above), Nick Cave, Bon Iver, The Pixies’ Frank Black and other artists. (Note: the stories contain “outre art, weird images, graphic displays of nasty stuff and cuss words.”) Also, you can now watch a series of short promo films where celebs like Danny Devito, Zach Galifianakis and Nick Offerman read items in the collection.

As a quick weekend treat, we’ve highlighted some of those readings on this page. More readings can be viewed here. Proceeds from Stories for Ways & Means (purchase a copy here) will support NGOs and nonprofits advancing children’s causes around the world, including Room to Read, Pencils of Promise, and 826 National.

Danny Devito Reads “Doug the Bug” by Frank Black 

Zach Galifianakis Reads “Next Big Thing” by Gibby Haynes

“The Lonely Giant” by Nick Cave, Read by Andre Royo (aka Bubbles from The Wire)



“Wishing Well Fountain,” Written and Narrated by Alison Mosshart

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you’d like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Tom Waits Reads Two Charles Bukowski Poems, “The Laughing Heart” and “Nirvana”

Nick Cave Narrates an Animated Film about the Cat Piano, the Twisted 18th Century Musical Instrument Designed to Treat Mental Illness

Tom Waits Makes a List of His Top 20 Favorite Albums of All Time

900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

Inspiration from Charles Bukowski: You Might Be Old, Your Life May Be “Crappy,” But You Can Still Make Good Art

Now more than ever, there’s tremendous pressure to make it big while you’re young.

Pity the 31-year-old who fails to make it onto a 30-under-30 list…

The soon-to-graduate high schooler passed over for YouTube stardom…

The great hordes who creep into middle age without so much as a TED Talk to their names…

Social media definitely magnifies the sensation that an unacceptable number of our peers have been granted first-class cabins aboard a ship that’s sailed without us. If we weren’t so demoralized, we’d sue Instagram for creating the impression that everyone else’s #VanLife is leading to book deals and profiles in The New Yorker.

Don’t despair, dear reader. Charles Bukowski is about to make your day from beyond the grave.

In 1993, at the age of 73, the late writer and self-described “spoiled old toad,” took a break from recording the audiobook of Run With the Hunted to reflect upon his “crappy” life.

Some of these thoughts made it into Drew Christie’s animation, above, a reminder that the smoothest road isn’t always necessarily the richest one.

In service of his ill-paying muse, Bukowski logged decades in unglamorous jobs —dishwasher, truckdriver and loader, gas station attendant, stock boy, warehouseman, shipping clerk, parking lot attendant, Red Cross orderly, elevator operator, and most notoriously, postal carrier and clerk. These gigs gave him plenty of material, the sort of real world experience that eludes those upon whom literary fame and fortune smiles early.

(His alcoholic misadventures provided yet more material, earning him such honorifics as the ”poet laureate of L.A. lowlife” and “enfant terrible of the Meat School poets.”)

One might also take comfort in hearing a writer as prodigious as Bukowski revealing that he didn’t hold himself to the sort of daily writing regimen that can be difficult to achieve when one is juggling day jobs, student loans, and/or a family. Also appreciated is the far-from-cursory nod he accords the therapeutic benefits that are available to all those who write, regardless of any public or financial recognition:

Three or four nights out of seven. If I don’t get those in, I don’t act right. I feel sick. I get very depressed. It’s a release. It’s my psychiatrist, letting this shit out. I’m lucky I get paid for it. I’d do it for nothing. In fact, I’d pay to do it. Here, I’ll give you ten thousand a year if you’ll let me write. 

Related Content:

4 Hours of Charles Bukowski’s Riotous Readings and Rants

Hear 130 Minutes of Charles Bukowski’s First-Ever Recorded Readings (1968)

Rare Recordings of Burroughs, Bukowski, Ginsberg & More Now Available in a Digital Archive Created by the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Rick Wakeman’s Prog-Rock Opera Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984

We’ve seen sales of George Orwell’s dystopian nightmare scenario 1984 peak in recent months. Millions of readers seek to understand the brave new world we live in through Orwell’s vision. Parallels abound. We might reasonably ascribe to the ruling party in the U.S. and its media apparatus the slogan “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.” But our experience of reality never fails to validate that old saw about truth and fiction. As Case Western Reserve professor of history John Broich writes, “2017 is stranger than Orwell imagined.”

The state doesn’t need a Ministry of Truth to censure the information that reaches us. We are simply overwhelmed with “alternative authorities and realities” who delegitimize the facts and accelerate “the decline in standards of evidence and reasoning in the US electorate.” A sad state of affairs. But in every decade since the publication of Orwell’s novel, critics, journalists, and pundits have seen evidence of his dire forecast. In the titular year itself, Manhattan College professor Edmond van den Bossche summed up the general tenor in The New York Times: “In our 1984… the warnings of George Orwell are more than ever relevant.”




Van den Bossche wrote of NATO and the UN. But he might have written about MTV and CNN— both in their infancy—who birthed 24-hour cable news and reality TV.  What Orwell understood about state power, later thinkers like Guy DeBord, Roland Barthes, and Jean Baudrillard built careers writing about: the importance not only of surveillance, but also of spectacle that blurs the lines of truth and fiction as it overwhelms our senses. It’s largely this key theme, I’d argue, that has rendered 1984 so attractive to some of the most spectacular of musicians, including David Bowie—whose attempts to make an Orwell concept album formed part of his Diamond Dogs—and Rick Wakeman, the virtuoso prog-rock keyboardist of Yes fame.

After releasing as a solo artist such rock-literary adaptations as 1974’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and the following year’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Wakeman turned Orwell’s classic into a rock opera. The 1981 production is an extravaganza of musical excess, with lyrics and vocals by Tim Rice, riveting performances by Chaka Khan (above) and Wakeman’s former Yes bandmate Jon Anderson, and eclectic orchestral instrumentation woven in with Wakeman’s battery of keyboards and synthesizers. The record has become a fan favorite and Allmusic describes it as one of Wakeman’s “most well-rounded albums.”

The perfectionistic Wakeman himself looks back on his 1984 with embarrassment. “In retrospect, a mistake,” he has said. “The wrong album at the wrong time, with all the wrong people around at the time…. I formed the wrong band, (the worst I have ever had), the deal for the stage show fell through and all in all I listen back to the music with my head in my hands.” Luckily, we are not bound to respect an artist’s assessment of his work. Wakeman’s music and Rice’s lyrics take the leaden, gray world of Winston Smith and Julia and turn it into a carnival, moving from soaring ballads to rockers with the sneering vaudevillian satire of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (See especially “The Proles,” above, the penultimate number before the final title track.)

Orwell’s novel is not what one would call an entertaining book; it is gloomy—though not without its own kind of dark humor—and its monochromatic tone was perfectly captured by Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. But it heavily suggested the world to come, one constantly illuminated and obscured by mass media, with screens in every home and pocket, forever broadcasting some colorful distraction. In the videos above, you’ll see excerpts from the movie mixed with dazzling live performance footage of Wakeman and band playing their 1984 live, synced to the studio recordings, courtesy of Youtuber ROLT (Ronaldo Lopes Teixeira.) Watch his full project at the top of the post. The mash-up suitably shows how these very different interpretations—the more straightforwardly dour and the prog-rock operatic—somehow both do justice to Orwell’s prescient novel. Just above, you can hear Wakeman’s full album on Spotify (whose software you can download for free here).

Related Content:

David Bowie Dreamed of Turning George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musical: Hear the Songs That Survived the Abandoned Project

Hear the Very First Adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Starring David Niven (1949)

George Orwell’s 1984 Staged as an Opera: Watch Scenes from the 2005 Production in London

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Metamorfosis: Franz Kafka’s Best-Known Short Story Gets Adapted Into a Tim Burtonesque Spanish Short Film

In one sense, given their spare settings and allegorical feel, the stories of Franz Kafka could play out anywhere. But in another, one can only with difficulty separate those stories from the late 19th- and early 2oth-century central Europe in which Kafka himself spent his short life. This simultaneous connection to place and placelessness (and also, per David Foster Wallace’s interpretation, playfulness, or at least humor of some kind) has made Kafka’s work appealing material indeed for animators, some of whose work we’ve featured here on Open Culture before.

When filmmakers try their hands at live-action Kafka adaptations, though, they tend to find themselves performing acts of not just artistic but cultural transplantation. Just last year we posted Dominic Allen’s Two Men, an award-winning short film that relocates Kafka’s parable “Passers-by” to a remote section of Western Australia. Working with a much longer and better-known piece of the Kafka canon, director Fran Estévez’s Metamorfosis brings the tale of Gregor Samsa’s sudden transformation into a large insect to Spain — or into the Spanish language, anyway.

The recipient of quite a few awards itself in South America and Europe (including a festival in Kafka’s own birthplace, the current Czech Republic), Metamorfosis combines Kafka’s still-startling man-turned-bug first-person narration with both stark black-and-white footage and illustrations to create just the right claustrophobic, askew atmosphere. The set design, which at certain moments feels right out of early Tim Burton, underscores the fairy-tale aspect of this grim work of imagination. But then, at the very end, the aesthetic ceiling lifts, widening the viewer’s perspective on not just the movie’s foregoing sixteen minutes but on the nature of The Metamorphosis, Kafka’s original story, itself — though, alas, things still don’t end particularly well for poor old Gregor Samsa.

Metamorfosis will be added to our list, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

Related Content:

Hear Benedict Cumberbatch Read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

Four Franz Kafka Animations: Enjoy Creative Animated Shorts from Poland, Japan, Russia & Canada

Franz Kafka Story Gets Adapted into an Award-Winning Australian Short Film: Watch Two Men

Franz Kafka Says the Insect in The Metamorphosis Should Never Be Drawn; Vladimir Nabokov Draws It Anyway

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The First 100 Days of Fascist Germany: A New Online Project from Emory University

From Emory University comes The First 100 Days of Fascist Germany, an attempt to document online what happened on each day–from January 30, 1933 through May 9, 1933–when Hitler was named Reichskanzler of Germany.

As you can perhaps imagine, the motivation for the project isn’t entirely divorced from current events. The grad students behind The First 100 Days explain:

During the highly contentious political climate in this country, the terms “fascism” and “Nazi Germany” have been tossed around quite freely by both sides of the political spectrum. As a response to this and in an effort to provide some clarity of what fascism in Nazi Germany actually looked like, we at the Emory University German Department initiated a research project that aims to document the first 100 days of National Socialism- from the day that Adolf Hitler was named Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933 until May 9, 1933.

They continue:

The general plan for our project is that our research team will work its way through the 100 days, investigating and documenting the events of each day and then posting the findings on a daily basis for public consumption.

As the daily calendar shows, Hitler didn’t waste a lot of time. By Day 51, Dachau–one of the first concentration camps–opened and received its first prisoners, notes Emory News. By Day 60, all new stories critical of the government were censored. And, by Day 88, the press expelled from its ranks all Marxists and Jews. That was just the beginning.

Meanwhile, on Day 88 over here, Trump’s initiatives (some relatively innocuous, some alarming) have met civil, judicial and political resistance, or collapsed under their own weight. The concern of January has given way to comedy in April. So far, it’s more farce than fascism:

But don’t get complacent, terror might be the operative word in May.

You can learn more about Emory’s historical project here.

via John McMurtrie

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you’d like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

Harvard Students Launch a Free Course on How to Resist Trump

Hitler Was ‘Blitzed’ On Cocaine & Opiates During World War II: Hear a Wide-Ranging Interview with Best-Selling Author Norman Ohler

Fritz Lang Tells the Riveting Story of the Day He Met Joseph Goebbels and Then High-Tailed It Out of Germany

How Did Hitler Rise to Power? : New TED-ED Animation Provides a Case Study in How Fascists Get Democratically Elected

The New York Times’ First Profile of Hitler: His Anti-Semitism Is Not as “Genuine or Violent” as It Sounds (1922)

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Wasn’t a Cinematic Masterpiece; It Was a Staggeringly Effective Piece of Propaganda

Artist is Creating a Parthenon Made of 100,000 Banned Books: A Monument to Democracy & Intellectual Freedom

With the rise of Far Right candidates in Europe and in America, along with creeping dictatorship in Turkey and authoritarianism in the Philippines, the idea of democracy and freedom of speech feels under threat more than ever. While we don’t talk about political solutions here on Open Culture, we do believe in the power of art to illuminate.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.




Minujín chose the Parthenon—one of the great structures of Ancient Greece—for its continuing symbolism of the enduring power of democracy throughout the ages.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500. You can browse that list here, but for less eye-strain, try this shorter list of 170 or so titles. New titles can be suggested for the project here.

Some of the books that have been banned over the years include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (banned in Argentina), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (banned in China), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (banned in Canada).

Minujín constructed a similar Parthenon in 1983 after the fall of her country’s dictatorship. The original El Partenón de libros featured the books that the former government had banned, and, at the end of the installation, Minujín let the public take what they wanted home. (She will be allowing the same thing to happen this time.)

Her people, as she says in the video above, didn’t know what democracy was after years of military rule. We might be on the opposite side of the spectrum: we won’t know what democracy is until we lose it.

Related Content:

It’s Banned Books Week: Listen to Allen Ginsberg Read His Famously Banned Poem, “Howl,” in San Francisco, 1956

John Waters Reads Steamy Scene from Lady Chatterley’s Lover for Banned Books Week (NSFW)
Read 14 Great Banned & Censored Novels Free Online: For Banned Books Week 2014

The Cover of George Orwell’s 1984 Becomes Less Censored with Wear and Tear

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Read Cormac McCarthy’s First Work of Non-Fiction, “The Kekulé Problem,” a Provocative Essay on the Origins of Language

Few English writers of the early twentieth century had the rhetorical zest and zeal of novelist, journalist, and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, and few could have so ably taken on the formidable intellect of H.G. Wells. Chesterton wrote one of his most influential books, The Everlasting Man, partly as a refutation of Wells’ popularization of Darwinian evolution in The Outline of History. Wells had contemporary science on his side. Chesterton, the wittier and more philosophical of the two, had on his side a healthy skepticism of pat explanations, though he would endorse his own religiously orthodox theory of everything.




We need not draw Chesterton’s conclusions to find his arguments compelling. Take, for example, the first chapter of The Everlasting Man, in which he argues that prehistoric humans were totally, inexplicably distinct from animals. Consider, he writes, the experience of an early discoverer of cave paintings: “What would be for him the simplest lesson of that strange stone picture-book? … that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.” The explorer “might descend to depths unthinkable” and never find, nor expect to find, such a thing. “Art,” Chesterton wrote, “is the signature of man.”

Almost a hundred years later, scientists of all kinds agree with Chesterton’s aphorism: painting and sculpture distinctly made humans human. So too did something equally abstract and nowhere else in evidence in all the animal world: Language. In a new essay, another witty and perceptive novelist—though one with a much darker view—takes on evolutionary explanations of language and advances an unorthodox view, full of provocations and curious observations. Cormac McCarthy—who for much of the past two decades has written from an office at the scientific research center the Santa Fe Institute—begins his essay, “The Kekulé Problem,” with some very Chestertonian ripostes:

There are influential persons among us… who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness…. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

No barrier of “mountains and oceans” slowed the spread of language, nowhere in any human community did it wither away for lack of use. But “did it meet some need?” McCarthy asks. “No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.” Against the linguistic consensus of “influential persons,” McCarthy claims “there is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.”

For some background on the idea of a primitive “ur-language,” see our previous post on the centuries-long quest for such a thing—as yet an elusive and wholly speculative entity that may be no more than a myth, like the story of the Tower of Babel. Does McCarthy mean to call this tale to mind? Does he, like Chesterton, pursue a line of argument that leads us back to some old-time religion? No. But “while his thoughts on the unconscious are framed as scientific reflections,” writes Nick Romeo at The New Yorker, “they also creep toward theology,” or at least a personification of impersonal forces, though McCarthy is no believer in supernatural agents.

Here, instead of a god implanting souls in humans, evolution has given us an unconscious mind, which Romeo characterizes in McCarthy’s essay as an “ancient, moral agent interested in our wellbeing and given to revealing its intentions through images.” Yet, while the soul may be the source of art in Chestertonian logic, McCarthy’s unconscious is most certainly not the source of language. “The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not… the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” not a speaking being. No, in fact, McCarthy argues, the unconscious is more-or-less at war with language, or at least in a very deep sulk about its existence.

The unconscious toys with us; it knows things we don’t, but gets very cryptic about it. (The title of the essay refers to German chemist August Kekulé’s discovery of the structure the benzene molecule in a dream about a snake eating its tail.) Language is an intruder, like a virus, except “the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not.”

….the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

The hand of the artist moves behind McCarthy’s scientific arguments. His essay is in large part a kind of prehistory of intuition as well as language. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us,” he writes, and it has been doing so for much longer than humans have been marking up cave walls. Language came much later—“a hundred thousand [years] would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.” There, in a eureka moment, “some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing….”

When I think of the image of a “chap waking up in a cave” in McCarthy’s fiction, I think of the disturbing serial killer Lester Ballard in Child of God, and suspect that in the novelist’s imagination the sudden appearance of language may have been a very bloody event. But while McCarthy’s novels are filled with subtle allusions to his scientific interests, the existential bleakness of his fiction doesn’t make its way into his first published work of non-fiction. The essay is, however, Romeo writes, full of the writers “folksy locutions and no-nonsense sentence fragments,” not to mention his nonstandard punctuation and lack of apostrophes. Like Chesterton, McCarthy concludes that the origin of symbolic systems of reference is a mystery. But he offers no divine solution for it.

For all his scientific perspicacity, McCarthy thinks like a writer, which gives him unique insight into some novel complications, though he may overgeneralize from the particular case of Kekulé. (“The vast majority of dreams and reveries don’t solve major problems in the history of science,” cautions Steven Pinker.) McCarthy concludes that the biological system of the unconscious may be all we need to guide us through the world. But it takes language to create culture, and make humans of us: “Once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.”

Read McCarthy’s full essay—with a short, laudatory introduction by the Santa Fe Institute’s president David Krakauer—at Nautilus.

Related Content:

How Cormac McCarthy Became a Copy-Editor for Scientific Books and One of the Most Influential Articles in Economics

Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Culture

Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

George Saunders Tries to Order One Mousetrap Over The Phone

This adventure in modern shopping is brought to you by Clickhole.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you’d like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

How to Tell a Good Story, as Explained by George Saunders, Ira Glass, Ken Burns, Scott Simon, Catherine Burns & Others

George Saunders Demystifies the Art of Storytelling in a Short Animated Documentary

10 Free Stories by George Saunders, Author of Tenth of December, “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

The News Is Broken, and Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Plans to Fix It With His New Site, Wikitribune

“The news is broken and we can fix it.” That’s the idea driving the creation of Wikitribune, a news platform being built by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Borrowing tools and concepts from the influential online encyclopedia, Wikitribune will be free and supported by readers, not ads. It will feature professional journalists and community members, working side by side, to produce fact-checked journalism that’s readily supported by evidence and sources. And anyone can flag mistakes or submit revisions for review.

Watch Wales outline the vision for Wikitribune in the Kirby Ferguson-made video above. Then, consider making a financial contribution to the new news platform here. They’re now raising money to get operations started and hire 10 journalists.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

How Jonathan Demme Put Humanity Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Making Sense

“My friend, the director Jonathan Demme, passed last night,” wrote Talking Heads’ David Byrne on his blog yesterday. “I met Jonathan in the ‘80s when Talking Heads were touring a show that he would eventually film and turn into Stop Making Sense,” the famous — and in the minds of many, still the very best — concert movie. “I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career.” Read just a few of the many other tributes to Demme made so far, and you’ll encounter the same words over and over again: love, empathy, compassion.

Few filmmakers manage to get those qualities onscreen as consistently as Demme did, and even fewer do it at his level of technical mastery. The two video essays here examine his cinematic technique, especially as seen in one of his best-known films: 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, the second in the ongoing series featuring refined career cannibal Hannibal Lecter. The brief episode of Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting at the top of the post breaks down how Demme handles the question of who “wins” the interaction in the first conversation between Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter and Jodie Foster’s young FBI trainee Clarice Starling — two characters who enter into this and all their subsequent interactions with their own shifting motivations, goals, and sensitivities.




In this and other scenes throughout his career, Demme made strong and influential use of close-up shots, to the point where Jacob T. Swinney could dedicate a supercut to “The Jonathan Demme Close-Up.” While “most filmmakers choose to employ the close-up shot during scenes of crucial dialogue,” Swinney writes, “Demme prefers to line up his characters in the center of the frame and have them look directly into the lens of the camera.” And so “when Dr. Hannibal Lecter hisses at Agent Clarice Starling, we feel equally victimized,” or in Philadelphia “as Andrew Beckett succumbs to AIDS, we feel an overwhelming sensation of sympathy. These characters seem to be looking at us, and we therefore connect on a deeper level.”

While Demme used his signature close-ups and other emotionally charged shots in all his features, from his early days working for legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman on, he brought his humanistic style to his various documentary and concert film projects as well. “Stop Making Sense was character driven too,” writes Byrne. “Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was — it made the movies something different and special.”

Related Content:

Every Frame a Painting Explains the Filmmaking Techniques of Martin Scorsese, Jackie Chan, and Even Michael Bay

David Byrne Plays Seven Characters & Interviews Himself in Funny Promo for Stop Making Sense

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


  • Great Lectures

  • FREE UPDATES!

    GET OUR DAILY EMAIL

    Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.



    FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA

  • About Us

    Open Culture editor Dan Colman scours the web for the best educational media. He finds the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & movies you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.


    Advertise With Us

  • Archives

  • Quantcast