YouTube / swererbob
YouTube / swererbob

Alone in the Wilderness

YouTube / swererbob
YouTube / swererbob

Dick Proenneke "retired" at the age of 51 to a patch of bare ground in Twin Lakes, Alaska. On that ground he built a remarkable log cabin completely by hand (and alone), and proceeded to live there, alone, for more than three decades. During this time he kept a journal, filmed himself, and recorded environmental factors around him (snow depth, lake temperature, etc.). Friends visited him sometimes, but his life was largely solitary -- and he liked it that way.

Proenneke's journals and photographs were edited into a book called One Man's Wilderness, released just four years before he died. His film was made into a documentary called Alone in the Wilderness (the latter with fellow Alaska filmmaker Bob Swerer reading journal entries as narration). Alone in the Wilderness is a public TV staple, often aired during pledge drives out here in Oregon. It's an extremely peaceful film, showing Proenneke quietly going about his business, but performing amazingly elaborate tasks -- like building a fantastic log cabin from materials in the area, using tools that he also makes himself, all on camera. It's the kind of thing I watch and think, "There is no possible way I could do that. It's amazing."

You can watch a ten-minute clip mostly from the beginning of the documentary below. If you enjoyed Survivorman, now you know where that came from!

If you enjoyed that, there's way more where it came from -- an hour from the original film, a "Part II" that I haven't seen yet, plus several other films that have been put together recently. You can read more about Proenneke, and also order the films (which were all made by Bob Swerer). If you're not into buying direct, the films are also available on Amazon for way more than they cost direct from Swerer himself.

Production note: it's clear that in a handful of shots, Proenneke is not alone (for example, when the camera pans to follow him while he's hiking). I suspect those were shot during the various supply trips in which Proenneke's friend Babe lands a light aircraft on the lake to deliver a Sears order. If anyone knows the full story there, I'd love to hear it!

Getty Images
Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)


Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.


You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)


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