Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

10 Filmmaking Lessons from Kim Jong-Il

Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
Detail of a mural at the Pyongyang Art Studios. John Pavelka via Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery, somehow as intriguing as it is tragic. Reports of famine wiping out a significant portion of the country’s population in the ‘90s, a seeming disregard for anyone outside the elite in the capital city of Pyongyang, and the total suppression of information from outside sources make it a difficult place to get to know, not to mention live in. Yet the country seems enraptured by its leaders: When Kim Jong-Il died in 2011 citizens lined the streets, many weeping uncontrollably.

The Kims have a lot of tools at their disposal to help deify them, but none have harnessed it better than Kim Jong-Il. Kim was a film obsessive, the proud owner of one of the largest private film collections in the world, with reportedly over 20,000 movies—almost all of them bootlegs, since it was illegal to import western media into North Korea. He experienced the power of cinema first-hand, and knew he could exploit it for the benefit of his and his father’s regime.

Infamously, he kidnapped South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife actress Choi Eun-hui in 1978, forcing them to make North Korean propaganda films for years before their daring escape in 1986. But even before that, in 1973, Kim Jong-Il published his propaganda manifesto On the Art of the Cinema, a 300-page, quasi-impenetrable opus filled with musings about what it takes to make a great film. The book was instantly a must-read among North Korea’s filmmaking studios—meaning they were literally forced to read it, not that it was a hit—and shaped North Korean cinema for many years. It also offered some (occasionally quite obvious) lessons to filmmakers around the globe, including these:

1. “THE SEED IS THE CORE OF A LITERARY WORK.”

Cover page of the On the Art of the Cinema's English edition. Image credit: Finnusertop via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
It might seem that talking about literature would be a bit of a sidestep for a book on filmmaking, but Kim Jong-Il dedicates the first 100 pages of his book to “Life and Literature.” He discusses literature as a source material for great cinema—combined, of course, with the great struggle and life experience of the North Korean people. In subchapters laced with clumsy metaphors, Kim likens a written work to a living thing and tells us that “in order to build the organic structure of a literary piece, it is necessary to have a clear vision of the fundamental principle which permeates all the elements of an artistic image and welds them into an integral whole.” Which, plainly speaking, means that story is everything. Without a compelling story with a clear goal (or “seed”), a film falls flat at the first hurdle.

2. “THE MOOD MUST BE EXPRESSED WELL.”

This lesson boils down to one thing: make us look good. Is the film set in the “exploitative society” of the West where “the majority of the population live in low spirits, plagued by worries and anxiety because they are poor and have no rights”? Well, make sure the mood of the scene reflects that. Irony aside, a real lesson for filmmakers here is to develop their craft, because “mood can only be correctly expressed by artists who have attained a high level of creative skill.”

3. “EACH SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”

Posters for movies participating at the 12th Pyongyang International Film Festival in Pyongyang. Image credit: Getty Images

 
A rookie mistake for filmmakers and screenwriters is forgetting that their scenes serve to propel the narrative forward, or to reveal more information about a character. “A film has to compress a considerable amount of narrative into a small space,” Kim points out, and meandering through a scene without any clear conflict (relating back to the “seed” from lesson one) could mean that “the film as a whole [would] have no dramatic structure, and dramatic description [would] be impossible.” (Other filmmakers might note that’s not a hard-and-fast rule—Quentin Tarantino famously plays with this idea in Pulp Fiction’s “Royale with Cheese” scene.)

4. “BEGIN ON A SMALL SCALE AND END GRANDLY.”

You could never accuse Kim of being a fan of subtlety and nuance (this, after all, is a man who claimed his birth was heralded by a double rainbow and whose favorite movies were said to be Friday the 13th and Rambo), and his musings on story arcs reflect this. “First impressions are important in a film,” the Dear Leader says, before elaborating: “if the beginning is too complicated, it will be difficult to follow the development of the story.” Solid advice: ease your audience into the narrative adventure you’re about to take them on.

What about the grand ending? Well, make sure it has meaning. Kim talks at length of grounding the story in a relatable human struggle rather than anything fantastical, and claims that “introducing some stunning occurrence or the total impact of something completely strange and unheard-of, in the hope of evoking meaningless exclamations of wonder, is a vulgarity which is incompatible with art created for the people.” That’s big talk for somebody who would go on to produce an absurd Godzilla rip-off that gained so-bad-it’s-good cult infamy.

5. “LIFE IS STRUGGLE AND STRUGGLE IS LIFE.”

Pyongyang, North Korea 
“Art presupposes life,” Kim says. “Without life there could be no artistic creation. An artistic work which does not mirror life honestly is useless.” (We’re guessing he’s not a big sci-fi guy.)

The end goal of North Korean cinema was, and is, to instill an exaggerated sense of national pride in the audience, and watching characters struggle—plus, crucially, overcome their struggles—on the big screen is one big way to create that pride. Of course, stories about overcoming struggles aren’t limited to North Korea alone (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrates in this clip). Identifying with a lead protagonist’s struggle helps keep the audience rooting for them.

6. “IN CREATIVE WORK ONE MUST AIM HIGH.”

When Kim says “aim high” here, he’s referring more to creative standards than commercial success (ignoring the fact that state-produced films are always a commercial success in North Korea because viewing is often mandatory). According to Kim, “even if certain individual scenes are quite impressive, an able director will be concerned if the work as a whole appears vague and unconvincing” and ultimately a sincere belief in the work you’re making will help, as “the force of the passion he experiences when nurturing an excellent seed fuels his activity.”

7. "THE SECRET OF DIRECTING LIES IN EDITING."

Pyongyang, North Korea 
Again, Kim isn’t breaking any ground here—the Russian filmmakers of the early 20th century were among the first to harness the power of editing. Look no further than the Kuleshov Effect (an editing technique based on the idea than an audience will derive more meaning from two shots in a sequence than one shot shown in isolation) to see the kind of impact their work is still having on cinema today.

“Throughout the whole course of making the film, the director must constantly consider the work from the point of view of editing,” Kim says. He has a point: Considering how a scene is going to be stitched together in the edit is vital, but can easily be forgotten about on set. Kim goes on to say that the director “must always seek, by exploring new possibilities, to enhance the role played by editing.”

8. “FILMING SHOULD BE REALISTIC.”

Kim’s ideas of realism are tailored toward the camera as witness to the honorable workers’ struggle. He says that “there is nothing in society and nature, in human life or the physical world, which cannot be captured on camera,” and in doing so one can create “a rhythmical flow of imagery which will evoke a tapestry of emotions.” However, his understanding of cinematography and composition is clearly limited, with statements littered throughout the chapter such as “the camerawork of a film should portray everything clearly and concisely” and “the cameraman should portray life in a natural and realistic way”—none of which are elaborated upon.

He does, however, acknowledge that movement plays a vital role in the visual makeup of a film, explaining that shooting “should create cinematic movement by combining the movement of an object with that of the camera.” In other words, don’t just leave your camera sitting motionless on a tripod unless there’s a very good reason for it. Life, after all, rarely stands still.

9. “BEFORE ACTING [THE ACTOR] SHOULD UNDERSTAND LIFE.”

A movie poster in North Korea. Image credit: BRJ INC. via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 
When he kidnapped the director Shin Sang-Ok, one of Kim’s major complaints about North Korean film was the melodrama. He bemoaned that actors were constantly crying in the movies—and I mean really crying. Which is why he emphasizes the importance of a non-theatrical realism: “The actor should not ‘act’ before the camera but behave as he would in real life,” Kim instructs, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about how the actor and character should become one and the same. (One wonders if he’d appreciate Jared Leto’s method acting.)

10. “MUSIC SHOULD BE APPROPRIATE TO THE SCENES."

This is another lesson that seems so painfully obvious it’s hard to believe Kim managed to spin it out to seven pages, but here we are. Using the wrong music is still a mistake you see today—filmmaker and YouTuber Darious Britt touches on recent examples of it in this 2015 video. One key mistake: You can’t just throw a piece of dramatic music over your scenes to add drama if there’s none there already. “Only when film music both conforms with the spirit of the times and suits the specific situation depicted can it pluck at the people’s heartstrings,” Kim says.

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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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iStock

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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