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

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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entertainment
13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


Getty Images

There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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