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8 Movies That Changed Movies

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While most forms of storytelling have remained unchanged over the years—painters still use oil, writers still use words—motion pictures have undergone frequent and radical transformations. Bit by bit, we went from static camera shots of canoodling couples to Avatar, a film that likely would’ve driven 1920s audiences into a mental institution.

Milestones like the introduction of sound, color, and CGI characters have been well-documented; here are eight lesser-known but equally significant evolutions in the art and business of movies.

1. Close Encounters—the Director’s Cut

Though not explicitly labeled “his” version, Steven Spielberg agreed to shoot new footage and restore excised content for a “Special Edition” re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1980. In on-the-nose ad campaigns typical of the era, posters promised “there is more” and that Spielberg “has filmed additional scenes,” marking the first time a film was promoted based on the fact that it was a revised work.

Columbia Pictures squeezed another $15 million out of Close Encounters with minimal effort: By the 1990s, home video consumers were flooded with “Director’s Cut” versions of popular films (Blade Runner, Aliens) that allowed filmmakers more leeway—and studios the opportunity to charge cinephiles for the same movie twice.

2. Marathon Man Runs—and the Camera Follows

Prior to Garrett Brown’s invention of the Steadicam—a handheld camera that could move as quickly and fluidly as the person operating it—roaming shots were accomplished using clunky dolly tracks or cranes. Brown wanted more mobility. One of the first films to use his device, Marathon Man, allowed Dustin Hoffman to sprint through city streets while the camera followed, adding a new sense of intimacy and realism to scenes. By the time the Steadicam chased a jogging Sylvester Stallone through Philadelphia in Rocky that same year, filmmakers knew they could take their audiences anywhere.

3. Billy Jack Goes National

Movies today open on thousands of screens simultaneously, but film distribution used to be markedly different: Even large “event” offerings would debut in major cities before slowly rolling out to other parts of the country. It might be months before a family in San Francisco saw what New Yorkers had already experienced.

That strategy annoyed Tom Laughlin, director and star of a series of independent features about a pacifist named Billy Jack who occasionally finds it necessary to kick people in the sternum. For 1974’s Trial of Billy Jack, Laughlin leveraged the popularity of the earlier installments and insisted the film open in 1500 theaters in a single day.

Despite poor reviews, the film raked in millions and major studios took notice. Jaws, opening the following year, rolled out wide and ushered in the concept of the summer blockbuster. Though it’s often credited with instituting the practice, it’s Laughlin who should get the credit—or blame—for vacuuming up revenue on opening weekend.

4. The Addams Family Merges the Small and Big Screens

The 1954 film Dragnet, a big-screen adaptation of the television series starring Jack Webb as stoic Sergeant Joe Friday, was a curiosity: Why should audiences pay for a premise they could see for free on television?

Star Trek had a profitable time in the ‘80s due to pent-up fan demand, but television adaptations were still few and far between until 1991’s The Addams Family, a kitschy homage to the 1960s series about a brood of eccentrics, made a tidy $113 million. In short order, movies based on The Fugitive, Twin Peaks, The Brady Bunch, and dozens of others hit multiplexes, ready to cash in on nostalgia and brand recognition. (Trek, however, remains the king: the 2009 reboot is the highest-grossing TV-to-movie adaptation to date.)

5. Taking Independent Film Out of the Shadows

Forget Kickstarter: Television actor John Cassavetes had to round up improvisational actors and use checks culled from series guest spots to mount Shadows, an independent feature released in 1959 that explored taboo topics like race and sexuality. What he lacked in polish he gained in complete autonomy from the studio system. That do-it-yourself mentality later fed the 1990s emergence of filmmakers like Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Spike Lee—knowingly or not, all of them informed by Cassavetes and his urge to express himself without a filter.

6. Snow White’s Creative License

The 1937 movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is mostly remembered for being both the first animated feature and the birth of Walt Disney as an entertainment powerhouse. Lost in the shuffle was the film’s foreshadowing of Hollywood’s savvy approach to merchandising tie-ins. A coordinated push was timed to the release for a series of Snow-centric goods like hats (modeled by a young Lucille Ball), bath powders, and even a soundtrack. If you get a kick out of your Darth Vader coin bank, you have Sneezy, Grumpy and the rest to thank for it.

7. Seeing More in The Robe

Movie theater attendance declined sharply beginning in the 1950s. Taking a bite out of the box office was the advent of television, which had grown from being virtually non-existent during the late 1940s to being in 33 percent of homes by 1952.

In order to maintain their business, Hollywood decided to expand horizontally. Though widescreen—a filmed image appearing approximately twice as wide as it is tall in various aspect ratios—had been invented decades prior, it wasn’t until 1953’s biblical epic The Robe was released that filmgoers noticed how a screen that filled their peripheral vision could be more immersive.

Fox marketed it as CinemaScope; unlike earlier, more expensive attempts, only an anamorphic lens was needed to film the effect. Viewers reacted positively and widescreen is now the industry standard. (Fox wasn’t so confident, though: They also filmed the movie in a standard ratio, just in case.)

8. Indiana Jones and the Target Demographic

When Jack Valenti took over the Motion Picture Association of America in 1968, he recognized an emerging maturity in film, with sex, language, and violence no longer prohibited by the puritanical Hays Code created in the 1930s. By 1984, the MPAA’s system had morphed to include G, PG, R, and X—a spectrum that deemed movies suitable for children, general audiences or people in trenchcoats.

There was a considerable gulf, however, between the innocuous PG (Parental Guidance) label and the violence and sexual content of an R film. That middle ground was on gory display in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg’s sequel to his blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Temple, Harrison Ford contends with monkey brain appetizers, whipped children, and a voodoo priest ripping the still-beating heart from a hapless human sacrifice. It received a PG rating. So did that year’s Footloose. Something was very wrong.

Spielberg suggested to Valenti that a new advisory be created to bridge the gap between family fare and ultraviolence. The result was PG-13, which gave parents a clue to reconsider how appropriate a movie may be for their teenagers. It was too late for Jones, though: 1984’s Russian invasion flick Red Dawn became the first movie to sport the rating.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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