The haunting crying instrument that you’ve heard in thriller / horror movies.

Invented around 1968 by Richard Waters, the waterphone is an atonal musical instrument which has vertical metal rods of different lengths attached to a metal resonator pan/bowl. Inside the resonator is a bit of water, similar to a water drum, so when the vertical rods are played (with a mallet or more frequently with a bow) the resonator can echo and bend the sounds. The effect ranges from spacey to creepy.

Given its haunting sound the waterphone has been used to create tension and uneasiness in a variety of TV shows, theatrical productions, and movies. You can hear it in ALIENS, Poltergeist, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, etc. It’s used for jump scares such as in The Matrix when Neo’s new cellphone rings. It’s been used in multiple productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead has used the waterphone, Tom Waits has used the waterphone, as well as a host of contemporary classical composers.

Waterphones aren’t all scary though. Composer and activist Jim Nollman used the waterphone on Playing Music With Animals, where he played a waterphone to orcas.

A demonstration of the waterphone.

Tippi Hedren’s Nails

Tippi Hedren helped Vietnamese immigrants become manicurists, who eventually dominated the American nail salon industry

Tippi Hedren began her career as a model and moved into acting. Her big break was being discovered by Alfred Hitchcock and was cast in the lead of 1963’s The Birds. The two worked together again when she starred as the titular Marnie in 1964. While Hitchcock was a great director he was not a great person (particularly to Hedren) and they never worked together again. His bitterness over being rejected by her led him to use his movie studio clout to prevent her from working on other films for years, from which her career never really recovered.

Fast-forward several years and Hedren is working on smaller movies but has also more time for her political activism. She became an animal rights activist, famously living with a lion named Neil, and eventually started the Shambala Preserve as an animal sanctuary for a variety of big cats. Shambala is also where Michael Jackson’s two tigers (Sabu & Thriller) ended up. Hedren also became involved with the charity Food for the Hungry, which gets us to her nails.

Tippi Hedren and her pet lion Neil

Vietnamese Manicurists

After the Fall of Saigon in 1975, with the charity Food for the Hungry, Hedren volunteered on a rented Australian battleship in the South China Seas rescuing Vietnamese refugees. She then went to help in Sacramento at Camp Hope, a Vietnamese refugee camp. As she was trying to help the women of the camp start new lives in the United States as seamstresses or typists, she noticed that what the women were really interested in were her nails and she hit upon an idea.

Hedren had her manicurist Dusty Butera flown up to Sacramento to begin teaching twenty Vietnamese women how to be manicurists. These lessons continued for a few months and eventually those women enrolled in the local Citrus Heights Beauty School. Those twenty women would go on to teach other Vietnamese women, and those women taught other women, and so on.

In 2015 it was estimated that 51% of all manicurists in America were of Vietnamese descent. In California it’s estimated to be almost 80%. This Vietnamese domination of the American nail salon market is directly tied back to Tippi Hedren’s efforts to help immigrants start new lives. In 2019 Tippi Hedren was honored at the Vietnamese American Nail Appreciation Gala in recognition of her activism that started an industry.

White Hats & Black Hats

The heroes and villains in westerns had reliable looks

In old black & white westerns of the 1920s-40s, the heroes and the outlaws generally followed pretty standard looks. Our heroes would be in white hats, our villains in black hats. This is largely because of (geographically) western culture’s semiotic associations that the color white represents good while the color black represents evil. Also, white & black standout more in the colorless mediums of early movies and tv. The show Westworld carries this forward when visitors to the park choose which color hat they want, which informs their experience in the park of being a good guy or bad guy. This distinction of white hat or black hat has become a metaphor more broadly for good guy or bad guy. In the hacking community white hat hackers hack ethically in order to find security flaws and work with companies to improve their defenses, while black hats villainously hack to steal information.

Beyond just how they look, some westerns also had the heroes and villains move in certain directions during pivotal scenes. Because most people are right handed, heroes would walk from left to right across the screen with their gun hand visible to the viewer, keeping their intentions known at all times. Villains would approach from right to left, with their gun hand hidden from the viewer, as if hiding their intentions from the audience.

Outside the western

Our association of black hats and villains extends beyond tv & movies. A study of 25 seasons of NHL hockey found that players wearing black are penalized more frequently than players in lighter colors. Whether the players in black really are more villainous and commit more penalties or just that the referees are biased by black clothes and think the players to be more villainous and probably deserving of more penalty time, is unclear.

One notable exception with our connotations to the color black is of course is the Man In Black, Johnny Cash, who sang that he wore black as a visible symbol of his solidarity with the marginalized people who our society has ignored & abandoned.

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.

Bond … James Bond, ornithologist

James Bond’s name was taken from a Philadelphia ornithologist

Ian Fleming was living in Jamaica while writing what would become his first James Bond novel, 1953’s Casino Royal. What he needed was a good solid name for his protagonist, a name that very flat and quiet. Fleming was an avid bird watcher and had a copy of Birds of the West Indies by Philadelphia ornithologist James Bond, which he felt would be the perfect name. Fleming later said that:

“I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, and ‘James Bond’ was much better than something more interesting, like ‘Peregrine Carruthers.’ Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure — an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.”

The real life James Bond was a celebrated expert in birds of the Caribbean and worked for decades at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He was unaware of his name’s new found fame until the 007 books became popular in the United States. Bond and his wife paid Fleming an unannounced visit in 1964 while in Jamaica, and presumably things went well because Fleming gave a first edition of You Only Live Twice dedicated to Bond, “To the real James Bond, from the thief of his identity”. In 2008 this dedicated copy sold at auction for $84,000.

Added info: in 2002’s Die Another Day, Bond’s Birds of the West Indies appears in the film being held by, well, Bond, but with the real life author’s name obscured. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond later identifies himself as an ornithologist.

Dogie, Not Doggy

In American Western slang, a dogie is a calf (not a dog).

The 1937 film Git Along Little Dogies features the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. He and others sing a variety of classic western songs such as Red River Valley, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Oh! Susanna, and others. They even sing some of them as a medley with lyrics on the screen for the audience to sing along.

The movie’s title though, may leave some wondering exactly what a “dogie” is. The movie was named for a song of the same name, which existed as early as 1893. In the American West a dogie is slang for a stray or motherless calf. Nobody is exactly sure where the term came from but in the book Western Words, author Ramon Adams speculates that because small calves who are weened from their mothers too soon are unable to properly digest coarse grass, the resulting swelling of their bellies resembled a batch of sourdough starter in a sack. This became “dough-guts” and eventually just “dogies.”

Indiana Jones and the Letter “J”

The letter “J” was the last letter added to the alphabet and probably wouldn’t have been part of the crusaders’ trap.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to retrieve the Holy Grail in order to save his father. Between him and the Grail however are a series of traps constructed by knights of the First Crusade. One of these traps is a floor with flat stones individually marked with various letters of the alphabet. He is “to proceed in the footsteps of the word” and step on only the floor stones that spell the name of God. The name of God in this case is Jehovah but Indy makes the mistake of stepping on the letter “J” whereby the floor crumbles. He then remembers that in the Latin alphabet the first letter in the name Jehovah is actually an “I”.

the last letter of the alphabet

Jehovah in Latin was originally spelled “Iehouah” with a capital “I” because the letter “J” hadn’t been invented yet. This also means that Jesus’s name wasn’t “Jesus” in his lifetime. In Hebrew he was Yeshua or Yehoshua, or in Aramaic he was Isho or Yeshu. For a long time the letter “J” was just a fancy way of writing the letter “I”. It wasn’t until 1524 that Italian grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino proposed separating the two letter forms to become two separate letters with two separate sounds, and in so doing made the letter “J” the last letter added to our alphabet.

This raises a typographical problem with the film. The letter “J” is part of the trap but it didn’t become a part of the alphabet until after 1524, a few hundred years after the First Crusade which was from 1096-1099. So we have to conclude that either:

  • the knights didn’t build the trap for more than 400 years after the First Crusade, or …
  • every now and then the immortal knight of the Grail updates the trap to include new letter forms over the centuries to keep the trap up to date with the times, or …
  • the writers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade didn’t do much alphabet research and incredibly audiences were willing to overlook such a flagrant error.