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3000 years of art in just three minutes

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 27, 2018

This short film from 1968, set to Classical Gas, shows 3000 years of fine art in just three minutes. As the final frame of the film says:

You have just had all of the Great Art of the World indelibly etched in your brain. You are now cultured.

As mesmerizing as the film is, especially for 1968, the backstory is perhaps even more interesting. Mason Williams, who wrote and recorded Classical Gas, saw this film by UCLA film student Dan McLaughlin and arranged, with McLaughlin’s permission, to have the original soundtrack replaced with his song and to have it aired on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS, then the number one show on TV in America.

The impact of the film on television opened the door to realizations that the viewer’s mind could absorb this intense level of visual input. It was a double shot of a hundred proof music and video that polished the history of art off in three minutes! It was also the beginning of the fast images concept now called kinestasis (a rapidly-moving montage technique set to music) that has over the years been exploited so effectively by television commercials, documentaries, etc.

Curiously, a similarly produced film called American Time Capsule also aired on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour that year. Directed by Chuck Braverman, it showed 200 years of American history in less than 3 minutes:

McLaughlin’s film was produced and aired first (he made it in 1967) and was the inspiration for Braverman’s film (see the relevant snippets from David Sohn’s Film: the Creative Eye) but Braverman made a career out of the technique.

I was actually working in the same building as [Tommy Smothers], at CBS as an assistant — really as a messenger — trying to get into the cameraman’s union in the news department. They literally made the Comedy Hour just upstairs. I called, made a meeting, and Tommy looked at my other work and we discussed doing a film on the history of the United States — American Time Capsule. I made it and it aired on the weekend before the November ‘68 election and it was a huge hit. It catapulted me into a career. Not only did it appear on the Smothers’ Brothers Show, which was huge, but it appeared on The Tonight Show within a few weeks and then 60 Minutes picked it up. So I got a reputation right away for being the king of the fast-cut montage. I ended up doing dozens of commercials and lots of title sequences.

My favorite use of the technique is in the trailer for A Clockwork Orange:1

But anyway, getting back to Mason Williams and Classical Gas, after the success of the 3000 years of art video, he wrote a sketch about video jockeys playing music videos on TV:

As a result of the response to the CLASSICAL GAS music video, in September of 1968 I wrote up a piece for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, projecting the idea that someday VJ’s would be playing hit tapes on TV, (as well as DJ’s hit records on radio), a prophesy of what was, 13 years later, to become MTV.

All this film and media history, just barely surviving in YouTube videos, video descriptions, partial scans of out-of-print books, and interviews & obituaries scattered willy-nilly all over the we, what a mess. What a fascinating mess. (via open culture)

  1. Who made this trailer? Kubrick? His editor? Braverman? A Warner Brothers employee who was in charge of making film trailers and was a fan of Braverman? I couldn’t find any info on this.