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11 Fictional Works of Art (in Other Works of Art)

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From the film in Infinite Jest to Margot's plays in The Royal Tenenbaums, here's a look at some famous fictional masterpieces.

1. The film in Infinite Jest

The title of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 near-future epic refers to a fictional film of the same name, the disappearance of which plays a major role the novel’s action. The final film of filmmaker James Orin Incandenza Jr. (also called simply “the Entertainment” or “the samizdat”), it is a masterpiece so wholly engaging, it causes its audience to forsake all other life-giving activities in order to view the film, causing a scramble for the missing film cartridge that extends all the way up to the “United States Office of Unspecified Services.” In Wallace’s imagined overly commoditized, existential reality, even great art carries dire consequences.

2. Gully Jimson’s paintings in The Horse’s Mouth

Though his body of work was small, novelist Joyce Cary dealt with big ideas like, you know, art, life, morality. In The Horse’s Mouth, his anti-heroic protagonist Gully Jimson is a brilliant-but-aging painter who has fallen from a once prosperous career into poverty and drunkenness. Ever-proudly spouting William Blake, Jimson embarks on a series of blackly comic attempts to recover and sell his surviving masterpieces, recreated in the 1958 film adaptation by Kitchen Sink school artist John Bratby.

3. The screenplay in Barton Fink

The Coen Brothers began writing Barton Fink, a film about a screenwriter with writer’s block, while themselves suffering writer’s block on Miller’s Crossing. The titular character (played by Jon Turturro, of course) has trouble finding the humanity in his first Hollywood assignment, coming off of the success of his hit Broadway play Bare Ruined Choirs. The lines between art and reality grow increasingly blurred for Fink, and eventually he finds himself in the thick of a “real” human drama. When he eventually produces a script for a boxing film called The Burlyman, the final line is almost identical to the last line in his play, “We’ll hear from that kid...and I don’t mean a postcard.”

4. Suspicious movie pitches in The Player

Robert Altman’s 1992 love letter/hate mail to the movie industry follows the story of studio exec Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who—unlike Barton Fink—loves his industry and everything it stands for. Until, that is, he receives a death threat from a spurned screenwriter. The film is chock-full of fictional movie pitches and screenplay seeds, most notably a legal drama called Habeus Corpus, whose deeply artistic, morosely idealistic screenwriters are forced to watch it slide through the Hollywood machine and into hackdom. Which pitches come from Mills’ would-be murderer, and how does the “movie” end?

5. The picture of Dorian Gray

In his classic meditation on art vs. reality, Oscar Wilde tells the story of a portrait whose image grows old and putrid while its inwardly hideous subject remains outwardly beautiful and young. 122-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT: The painting’s “truth” begins to take over Dorian’s consciousness, and when he tries to destroy it, he destroys himself. Wilde’s horrific descriptions of the painting were brought to life for the 1945 film by artist Ivan Albright.

6. The triangle painting on Seinfeld

“The Junior Mint” episode is better known for such hijinx as dropping movie candy into an open body cavity and rhyming names with female body parts (Mulva), but it also features an unseen piece of art by Elaine’s once-and-again boyfriend “Triangle Boy” Roy (Sherman Howard). George buys a piece of Roy’s “triangle” art for $1,900 after he believes Roy is going to die from his Junior Mint infection. Roy recovers and George experiences buyer’s remorse, but “the triangles” appear on the wall of George’s apartment in subsequent episodes.

7. The sculpture in “The Marble Woman”

Louisa May Alcott frequently wrote on the artistic process: In Little Women, protagonist Jo’s first published story, “The Rival Painters,” shares a title with Alcott’s first published story, and Jo’s novel is considered by most critics to be Little Women itself. Alcott’s novelette “The Marble Woman” (alternately titled “The Mysterious Model”) is a sordid tale of adventure, deceit, near incest, and forbidden love. Much of the plot revolves around a huge marble angel, carved by the brilliant and famous sculptor Bazil Yorke. The angel’s face resembles the young ward whom he claims not to love but keeps sequestered in his mansion.

8. The painfully modern painting in Aria da Capo

Better known for her poetry, feminist and writer Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote this short play to reexplore the Comedia dell’arte style of classical Italian theatre. The classical clown Pierrot attempts to impress his love interest, Columbine, by claiming that he is at once a pianist, a philanthropist, a socialist, and a painter. For the last, he describes the painting that he is making for her: “six orange bull’s-eyes, four green pinwheels, and one magenta jelly roll. The title, as follows: 'Woman Taking in Cheese from Fire Escape.'”

9. The film in The Stunt Man

Based on the novel by Paul Brodeur, this cult hit takes place on the set of a WWI film, where a crazed director (Peter O’Toole, who was nominated for an Oscar for the role) hires a Vietnam vet/convict (Steve Railsback) to replace a stunt man whom the convict has accidentally killed. Without giving away any plot points...that art vs. reality theme? Yeah.

10. The play within the play Light Up the Sky

Moss Hart’s 1948 comedy isn’t a play within a play, per se, but a play nearby a play: Several thespians meet in a hotel room outside of their theater on opening night. Having expected a tremendous reception for the new work, they are shocked to hear silence as the curtain falls, and the blame game begins. The second act sends egos running wild, before the ensemble learns that the play was so moving, the audience had forgotten to applaud. By act three, the artists funding is lost—not because of the show, but because of the actors. The cautionary tale, ye artists, beware.

11. Margot’s Plays (and Eli’s book) in The Royal Tenenbaums

Unlike Max Fischer’s play Heaven and Hell, a large portion of which actually appears in the film Rushmore, the audience knows little of Margot Tenenbaum’s works of theatrical genius. We know there are at least three, including Erotic Transference, Nakedness Tonight, and Static Electricity, one of which features animalian characters seen during their curtain call. Before the film is over, Margot writes another play, this one about her family.

Margot’s neighbor and spurned lover, Eli Cash, is an author as well. His historical fiction novel, Old Custer, famously “presupposes” that Custer did not die at the Battle of Little Big Horn, and has a series of (real-life) reviews on Goodreads.

HONORABLE MENTION: Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation is also an exploration of writer’s block: Kaufman writes himself into the very script he is supposed to be writing, based on The Orchid Thief, a real-life nonfiction book by Susan Orlean. Surely Adaptation is fiction, though—making the work of fiction itself fictitious...? Oh, Charlie Kaufman. Keep the art-in-art coming.
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Okay, art fans—this list could obviously be a lot longer. Share your favorite fictional art with us, and maybe we'll include it in Art-In-Art II: The Reckoning.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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