Saturday, April 05, 2003

A few movie reviews to toss out, James Agee-style:

The Brazilian import City of God has been touted as the film Gangs of New York should have been but wasn't. I don't think this comparison is exactly fair, but the critics do have a point. Scorsese's film was hamstrung by a script that followed the most threadbare conventions of historical epic. In contrast, City of God director Fernando Meirelles liberates himself from his source novel with visual flourishes and jumps in chronology worthy of Tarantino ... or, for that matter, Scorsese himself. The film's sole weak point is its overuse of voiceover narration, annoying enough when the film is in your own language, but doubly so when subtitles are involved. The City of God website features a statement from cinematographer Cesar Charlone (alas, available only in Portuguese) that explains the power of its jumpy, jittery, deliberately grainy style far better than I could. Apparently the film was shot on several different stocks, including 35mm, 16mm and hi-definition digital video, but the editing is so rapid-fire that for the most part I couldn't tell the difference.

Now that Spirited Away has won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the Walt Disney Company has finally seen fit to give it an honest-to-Mickey theatrical release before dumping it onto video in another week and a half. Animation guru Hayao Miyazaki has stated that this will be his final film (although I should note that he has said this before). Spirited Away isn't quite up to his best work, but it's still good. And if this really is Miyazaki's swan song, few directors have left us with better. Disney recruited several voice actors from this summer's Lilo and Stitch to provide an English dub that is several cuts above the norm. If you can find it, see this film in a real theater, where you can get the full effect of the lush backgrounds and subtle awareness of light.

Michael Moore's Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine has been playing all week at UVA. Apparently it's a part of the Left's ongoing attempt to indoctrinate the young at our universities ("Look, kids, free movie!"). The film itself is great propaganda, on par, I think, with Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. But everything, and I mean everything, in Moore's alleged documentary is either a distortion or an outright lie. To Moore's credit as a filmmaker, he has ceased to mouth his falsehoods himself. Instead, he lets his images and montage lie for him. In awe and admiration, I've seen the film twice -- once on my own, and once with a '60s-radical friend of mine. You should see it, too, if you haven't already. But for a little deprogramming, click here, here, and here first.

April 6 update: Roger Ebert finds a few more web sources discrediting Bowling for Columbine. Strangely, he doesn't seem to mind. In fact, Ebert even suggests that Moore preface his next film with a quote from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: "There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." I humbly suggest a different epigraph, this one from Pudd'nhead Wilson: "One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives."

My Stupid Dog gets its first review

The pseudonymous "Michael" at the culture blog has given My Stupid Dog its first real review. And to paraphrase Sally Field, he likes it. He really, really likes it.

In the interests of fairness and objectivity, I should note that Michael encouraged me to take up blogging, so there may be a "mutual admiration society" at work. Still, in the case of, there's a great deal to admire. You should check it out.

Friday, April 04, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: Sherlock, Jr.

This is Part IV of an ongoing series. To read Part III, click here.

On looking back over my original "ten greatest movies" list, I notice the biases of a humanities scholar and critic. In keeping with my academic training in literary and filmic appreciation, I tend to value visible style over invisible style, avant-gardism over mainstream art, innovation over refinement, abstraction over representation, self-critique over storytelling. You can see those biases at work in several of my selections: for example, Man with a Movie Camera, Citizen Kane, and Tati's Playtime. But nowhere does my academic elitism feel more apparent to me than in my choice of silent comedy, Buster Keaton's 1924 film Sherlock Jr.

This is ironic, because Sherlock Jr. is about as far from elitist or academic as you can get. Any eight-year-old can find it uproarious fun, but a film professor could write on its puzzle-box complexity for weeks. No film before or since has more effectively or intelligently captured what it's like to be a permanent spectator in thrall to the Hollywood dream factory. Sherlock Jr. is a movie about how we watch the movies.

The film's wisp of a plot serves as an excuse for one brilliant sight gag after another. A small-town cinema projectionist, played by Keaton, is wrongly accused of theft. This puts him on the outs not only with his girlfriend, but with her entire family. He returns to the theater, falls asleep on the job, and dreams he is the great sleuth "Sherlock Jr." in a film of his own making. Meanwhile, his girlfriend discovers that his romantic rival was responsible for the theft, and Keaton's name is cleared literally while he sleeps.

But no one who sees Sherlock Jr. mentions that plot. Instead, they talk about a dream sequence that occupies nearly the entire second half of the film. First, Keaton walks through the movie theater and into the motion picture screen. Instantly the film begins to "cut" from one location to another, although Keaton remains in the same position within the frame. A merciless, unseen editor sends him tripping over rocks, falling down hills, and getting the worst of cinema's imaginary geography. The sequence is a triumph of visible style.

Cameramen of the time studied the film over and over, just to see Keaton pull off such an elaborate sight gag. Most of them couldn't figure out how he did it, and if I were in their place I don't think I could have figured it out either. According to Robert Knopf, author of The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton (an excellent and well-argued book), Keaton would develop each shot as soon as it was filmed. He would then use a developed frame from the end of that shot to position himself for the next shot in the sequence. The process was painstaking, but the illusion was flawless.

The dream culminates in a famous chase in which Keaton is perched on the handlebars of a motorcycle. His driver falls off the bike, and our hero careens through a carefully calibrated series of near-disasters, blissfully unaware that the driver is missing. But before this happens, we see other, equally bizarre situations: Keaton, now as hyper-competent as the heroes he worships on the screen, lands his convertible into a river and promptly converts it into a sailboat. Keaton steps straight through a mirror, just like Alice in Wonderland. In a startling optical illusion, Keaton jumps headfirst into a peddler's shoebox. Keaton climbs out of a boxcar and gets liberally soaked by a railroad water tower. (He actually broke his neck performing the water-tower stunt, but never noticed anything until a doctor examined him years later.) And then there's that absurd exploding billiard ball, about which the less said, the better.

If I'm making the film sound like one wild joke after another, with little regard for plot, character or continuity -- well, that's pretty much what it's like to watch Sherlock Jr. The surrealists in Europe loved it, audiences still love it, and film scholars can't get enough of all that self-referential hocus-pocus. Every movie about the movies since, from Harold Lloyd's Movie Crazy, to Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo, to John McTiernan's Last Action Hero, has borrowed something from Keaton. His Sherlock Jr. is the first, most influential, and most popular critique of the cinematic experience.

To be fair, it's not really possible for me to choose a single Keaton comedy as my favorite. Roger Ebert wisely avoided the problem by covering the lion's share of Keaton films with one "Great Movies" review. Perhaps in lieu of something as seemingly esoteric as Sherlock Jr., I could have picked the straightforward stories of The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr., with their well-integrated gags and more traditionally developed characters. Some critics prefer The Cameraman, Keaton's final comedic masterpiece, which features astonishing double-exposed images (including one of an ocean liner steaming up a New York City street). There are even some good arguments for Keaton's lesser films like Seven Chances or Battling Butler. Although they're not as visually astonishing as the others, they can still leave audiences (me included) in stitches.

Clocking in at a mere 44 minutes, Sherlock Jr. is the shortest film on my ten-greatest list. But I don't think anyone can get enough of Keaton's great stone face.

Is Rape Worse Than Murder?

Today National Review Online has not one, but two articles about why women soldiers should be barred from combat. Both of them use the recent rescue of Private Jessica Lynch to examine "why we should be moving toward more restrictions [on women in the military] rather than fewer," to quote David Frum. Their answer: We should keep women away from combat to protect them from enemy troops.

Now Frum is a rather sensible fellow, and his arguments carry some weight. Ramesh Ponnuru, the author of the other article, is a bit less weighty, but still formidable. So when they both get an issue as completely wrong as I think they got this one, it's worth a closer look.

Both Frum and Ponnuru mention Pfc. Lynch's injuries and the torture she received at the hands of her Iraqi captors. They even insinuate, as other news sources have, that she may have been raped. Although we have no evidence to confirm or deny this, we know that Iraq's Ba'athist paramilitary groups and secret police have sexually assaulted women as a routine form of torture. It is not improbable -- indeed, it is likely -- that Lynch's horrifying ordeal included something similar.

In its treatment of Pfc. Lynch, the Iraqi military has inspired a moral epiphany at National Review. Ponnuru writes, "It's worth knowing, in deciding whether female soldiers should be treated the same as male ones, whether the enemy does so." Frum adds that "The enemies America now confronts seem to make a habit of treating female captives with special cruelty." I confess I don't see how this conclusion follows from their evidence. Inasmuch as terror and cruelty are the linchpins of Hussein's police state, it's difficult for me to say that Lynch received a greater or lesser dose of them than her fellow captives.

But let's take the writers at their word, at least for the moment. Frum writes that "it is disturbing, at least to me, that nobody much seems to think that this systematic abuse of American women in uniform is worth any special attention or outrage." He may have forgotten that of the handful of coalition troops that the Iraqi military has captured, so far Pfc. Lynch, a woman, has also been the only POW yet to be brought out alive. Iraqi TV, with the help of al-Jazeera, has proudly broadcast footage of other, male POWs who were slaughtered by their captors. Still, Frum notes that the "special cruelty" Lynch likely received is worthy of "special attention and outrage."

Which brings us to the $64,000 question: Is rape worse than murder?

If it is, then Frum and Ponnuru are right to claim that women should be kept out of ground combat in Iraq because enemy troops will be especially harsh to them. But if murder is worse than rape, it would make much more sense to argue that men should be kept from ground combat. After all, from what we know, all but one of the American POWs murdered at the hands of Ba'athite troops so far have been male.

For my part, I've known my share of women in the military. Despite what Frum and Ponnuru have said, they're tough soldiers, and when given the chance, they fight hard. I'll bet more than a few American women are itching to go over to Iraq and avenge the torture that Saddam's troops have inflicted on all our POWs, male and female alike. And unlike Frum or Ponnuru, I see no reason -- moral or physical -- to keep them away.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Take Back the Night, Just Leave Me Alone

UVA is having a Take Back the Night combination march-and-vigil tonight. The idea, such as it is, is to protest sexual assault. At some point, someone is going to ask me if I attended, and I'll say no.

"But why?"

At this point, the conversation could take several different turns. I could say that the American feminist establishment lost its credibility on the issue of sexual assault back when Bill Clinton was accused of rape and feminists connected to the President claimed the accusation was politically motivated. I could say that these feminist marches are crypto-Victorian spectacles that do as much to degrade, infantilize and objectify women as the crimes they protest. I could say that, historically speaking, the women who organize these marches have been slower to recognize or cultivate the presence of Gays, Lesbians and persons of color than the Republican Party. And all of these things would be true.

But frankly, the real reason I don't go to these marches is because I consider their central issue a fait accompli. When "Take Back the Night" was started, many states didn't have laws against wife-beating or marital rape. Anything a husband could do to his wife, short of murder, was considered legitimate and proper. Unmarried victims of sexual assault had to bear the social stigma of someone else's crime, and, if they were women, were regarded for the rest of their lives as "damaged goods."

Thanks to feminists' activity, neither state nor local law enforcement hold these positions anymore. Husbands who beat their wives are subject to punishment, and marital rape is treated pretty much like any other sexual assault. Most rapists, married or not, are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and if they are convicted they will go to jail. Meanwhile, victims of sexual assault have full access not only to the criminal justice system, but also to a variety of extralegal social services, psychological counseling, and support groups.

Isn't this enough? Can't we say that this particular battle is truly and fairly won? Well, contemporary feminists would claim that no, we can't. They want tougher laws, greater latitude for prosecutors and increased enforcement powers, because they believe that if the criminal code is tough enough on potential rapists (and by this term they very often mean "men") then this sort of crime just won't happen. Never mind that laws -- or at least, laws in a free society -- are designed to punish crime, not to prevent it. You can punish a criminal action as harshly as you want, but unless you institute some totalitarian surveillance system that reaches into the human soul, you can't stop a crime that exists only in someone else's head.

Aye, there's the rub -- a consensual rub, one hopes, but a rub nonetheless. What this march has now become is a cry to remove protections for the accused and extend the veil of secrecy over due process. The right to confront one's accuser? That would be traumatic for the victim -- all right, alleged victim, but you know what I mean. The right to a fair trial? Perhaps, but let's be sure this menace -- I mean, the criminal ... er, the accused -- is kept off the streets so he can't do this again. Reasonable doubt? Well, all right, but if the case comes down to "He said, she said" testimony, you know whom to believe. (After all, everyone knows that a victim would never lie.) The use of character witnesses and unrelated evidence? It's certainly not kosher when it's against the victim, because if a woman it would suggest that she was unreliable or sexually promiscuous. But it's perfectly acceptable when it comes to the accused, because how else are we to prove that he was capable of doing the dirty deed?

I have a major problem with feminism when it ceases to advocate individual freedom and becomes a tool to expand the power of government. Feminists should be suspicious, too, and the more radical they are, the more suspicious they should be. After all, if we live in a corrupt patriarchy, fundamentally hostile to the needs and desires of women, then women ought to be especially wary of giving that system greater power over all our lives -- no matter how much protection that system may promise them, or us.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" poll: Birth of a Nation

This is Part III of an ongoing series. To read Part II, click here.

D.W. Griffith's landmark film Birth of a Nation has been difficult to discuss ever since it was first screened some eighty-seven years ago. Roger Ebert is making a valiant attempt to deal with the film in his latest "Great Movies" column, but so far it isn't going very well. (I agree that Birth is a great film in the service of great evil. But when he writes that America "has a stain on its soul," my first impulse is to run to K-Mart and buy some Tide with Bleach.)

Still, anyone who writes about the film must note its pervasive race hatred. Even American poet and progressive Vachel Lindsay, an unabashed admirer of Griffith, wrote that "Whenever the screenplay shows traces of The Clansman, the original book by Thomas Dixon, it is bad." Of course, Griffith's sources are far more complicated than that, ranging from period Harper's Weekly illustrations, Thomas Nast cartoons, Mathew Brady photographs, and even his previous Civil War films for the Biograph studio. But the primary source was the novel -- and play -- by professional White-supremacist Thomas Dixon.

The really shocking aspect of Birth, for anyone familiar with the bottomless race hatred of the early twentieth century, is that compared to Griffith's literary and historical sources, his film is actually a bit on the soft side. Birth of a Nation derives its narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction from the long-discredited "Dunning School," the same group of historians who influenced and inspired Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind. Woodrow Wilson was among that group of historians, and certainly thought Griffith's film was accurate in every detail. However, his remark that the film was "history written with lightning" is apocryphal at best.

The Dunning School's vision of American history is faithfully reconstructed (pardon the pun) in the film and the Dixon novel, except that many of the outrages that Black characters perpetrate in Griffith's literary and historical sources are merely implied or "toned down" for the film. The best example comes with the Black soldier Gus -- played in the film by a White actor in blackface, possibly (in part) because if a Black actor had portrayed this character, he would have suffered the same fate as his character. Gus is present in Dixon's novel and Griffith's film. In Griffith's film, he makes a hesitant advance to a white woman, who runs away and jumps to her death in a sort of race panic. In the novel, however, he actually rapes the woman, who commits suicide over her lost honor. In both sources Gus is promptly hanged for his crime, which led the film audience to believe that lynching a Black man was justified even when his threat to White supremacy was purely imaginary. The horrifying result -- the national rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan -- shocked and surprised even Griffith, who still had a few things to learn about audience psychology.

In the same year that Birth of a Nation swept through American theaters, Vachel Lindsay wrote The Art of the Moving Picture, the first book-length critical study of the cinema as a serious art form. He noted that "On the films, as in the audience, [Birth] turns the crowd into a mob that is either for or against the Reverend Thomas Dixon's poisonous hatred of the negro." Thus Lindsay became the first film critic to study the reflexive nature of cinema. When cinema shows a crowd, or an audience, the image automatically refers us to a different audience -- the one watching the film. We'll come back to that motif a bit later, when I talk about Sherlock, Jr. and Man with a Movie Camera.

Birth of a Nation was not the first "feature-length" picture by any means. (There are several extant examples of prior features, including the Italian epic Cabiria, and a production of Richard III.) But for the most part, prior to Birth, the cinema was dominated by what we would call "shorts." Three or four one-reelers would be shown, one after the other, in an hour-long program reminiscent of the "acts" presented on a typical vaudeville stage. A musical assistant would accompany the films; Lindsay writes with consternation that frequently these assistants were untalented and their musical selections were inappropriate.

Those were the days of quick, cheap pictures, when a producer was considered the "author" of a film, the cameraman ruled the set, and the director and stars were frequently unknown. Griffith would knock out about two or three pictures per week, and it is sobering to remember that his spectacular 1911 short "The Battle" (which Lindsay actually preferred to Birth) was filmed in a matter of days.

Birth of a Nation changed all of that, literally overnight. Suddenly, American movies began to last much longer, and told stories that lasted a full evening instead of a mere fifteen minutes. They got bigger, too, with sweeping spectacles that filled the screen, and they moved more rapidly, with shorter scenes and more editing. Much has been made of Griffith's "invention of film grammar" -- his shifts between close-ups, medium shots and long shots; his use of intercutting to heighten the tension of an action scene. All of these had been done before, but Griffith was the first to use them in a comprehensive system of visual signifiers, then sustain them through a full evening.

Once fairly cheap and quick to produce, requiring comparatively little skill of actors or directors, movies now became -- of necessity -- more elaborate, expensive, nuanced and time-consuming. Future directors would take weeks to make a film instead of days, and would be judged on their skill as cinematic craftsmen according to Griffith's own standards. Longer running times also meant that more ingenious forms of editing had to be used, to hold an audience's attention and keep the action from growing "static." It was no longer enough to point a movie camera, shoot a scene in one take, then move on to the next.

In the end, Lindsay was not sure that the change from shorts to features was for the better. He wrote that "Six-reel programmes are a weariness to the flesh." Certainly the twelve reels of Birth of a Nation can be a weariness to the flesh. For viewers not accustomed to the static camera of early silent cinema, Griffith's direction can make you feel as if you're experiencing Civil War and Reconstruction in real time. Yet the skillful use of editing and intercutting gives his camera the illusion of far greater fluidity, mobility and flexibility than the mechanism itself possessed.

Because the film marks the end of cinema's childhood and the beginning of its protracted adolescence, I've included Birth of a Nation on my own "Sight and Sound" list.

Of Quagmires and Liberation: Iraq and Grands Recits

For about a week now, left-wing criticism of the "War in Iraq" (granted, not a declared war, except in media coverage) has taken a peculiar, almost schizophrenic tone: "This immoral war should not be pursued any longer, and we should have taken Baghdad by now." Meanwhile, the New York Times, a useful barometer for the contemporary Left, has criticized Secretary Rumsfeld both both for sending troops to conquer Iraq, and for not sending enough troops to conquer Iraq.

Don't send any -- send more -- don't do it -- do it better -- let's take our time -- faster, kids, faster! And that's just from the Left, folks. No wonder we're turning off our televisions and throwing away our daily papers en masse. If you're not careful, this sort of cognitive dissonance could make your head explode.

Then, for what gag-writers would call the "topper," Vietnam media vet Peter Arnett gave an interview on Iraqi television, proclaiming (in so many words) that the American military had bogged down in a quagmire. Just like in Vietnam. Ah, Vietnam.

Which brings me to my point.

Jean-Francois Lyotard posits grands recits -- literally translated from French, "big recitals" -- which determine the character of knowledge. We can know and act because the linguistic shell-game that we call knowledge is bound up in this totalizing "big recital." Of course, for Lyotard the Enlightenment narrative ends in Auschwitz, and the alternative narrative (whatever it is) ends with inhuman industrial-capitalist bureaucracy. It's Jihad vs. McWorld, as they say in the academy.

If you suspect a grand recit at work in Lyotard's formulation -- perhaps a perverse variation on Hegelian dialectics where the two opposing principles, instead of advancing to a synthesis, simply fall apart by themselves -- bonus points for you.

Contemporary journalism on the "War in Iraq" also seems to follow two grands recits, though in this case with overt analogies to recent historical events. On the Right, we have the story of European liberation: American military goes overseas, removes a tyrant forcibly from power, and marches through the cities greeted by grateful cheers and showers of rose petals. On the Left, we have the anti-imperialist narrative of Vietnam: Overconfident American military, expecting a quick and easy victory, sticks its big foot overseas where it doesn't belong, thwarts local attempts at self-determination, and ends up paralyzed and covered in muck. The Enlightenment narrative swings to the Right, and the Modernist narrative swings to the Left, and everyone gets caught in the echo chamber of popular history.

Most contemporary war correspondents got their start either in Vietnam (like Arnett) or in journalism school, with teachers who got their start in Vietnam. So it's no surprise that the anti-imperial narrative predominates in the media (though one major surprise for me has been the extent to which this very Western narrative has also found expression in non-Western media outlets like Al-Jazeera). In like manner, conservative sponsors and viewers of right-wing media outlets -- such as the Fox News Channel -- thrive on World War II nostalgia, and the liberation narrative prevails there.

What all of this means is that it may be impossible for us to discuss the very real phenomenon of postmodern warfare -- to talk about what may or may not be going on in Iraq, instead of what our "big recitals" have conditioned us to expect. For a postmodernist like Lyotard, this is no big deal: Knowledge is mere linguistic play, and so any application flies out the window with the notion of approachable reality.

I can't quite buy into that, though. In warfare, even when it's of the postmodern variety, real people really kill and really die. Now if anything could qualify as an approachable reality, this would be it -- which may be one reason old soldiers make lousy postmodernists. Given a choice between the two narratives, the liberation narrative seems truer to me (which marks me as "conservative" and "pro-war"). But I still suspect that it doesn't apply in this case. I don't see a possibility for synthesis, either: These two narratives are too radically opposed, even down to assumptions.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening, but I don't know what it is. (Do you, Mr. Jones?)

Why does everybody and his dog write about movies? Because we can ...

I live in a small college town in west-central Virginia. Like most of America, when I want a dose of art, I generally go to the movies.

Now, because I live in a college town, the movies are not my only option. I can go to the theater more than once a year, and I can even attend a symphony concert or two if I choose. I could see chamber music every few weeks, and there's no shortage of local bands. Charlottesville even has an art museum -- and a good one, unlike much of the country.

But for availability and convenience, no cultural institution can match the movies. Even when I lived in rural Arkansas, and cultural events were rare as hen's teeth, I could still count on the local cinema for some experience beyond the everyday. And now with the help of the local video store and DVD (the only option for home viewing as far as I'm concerned), I can have a private repertory film festival every night.

Why am I writing about movies? Because I can. And because maybe you'll understand, too.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll, part II: Why did I pick these ten films?

First of all, these films aren't my "desert island" picks. If I had to go to a desert island and could only take ten films along with me, at least one of them (and probably more) would involve muscular, clean-shaven twentysomething men who strip down to their skivvies, then boogie and screw each other all night long. Maybe I'd take Dirk Shafer's Circuit, Claire Denis's Beau Travail or Lifshitz's Come Undone with me, along with cheesy science fiction like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and some B-movie shocksploitation like Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor or Verboten! I'd also bring some Disney cartoons, like my personal fave 101 Dalmatians, or a lesser-known flick like Three Caballeros. The swirling colors and surrealist illogic make Caballeros a terrific flick to watch while stoned (or so I'm told), plus you see Donald Duck get horny for every woman in sight and experience full-blown "homosexual panic" in the final musical number. Then, of course, there are Krull and The Dark Crystal, two cornball fantasies without which my life would not be complete.

Most of the above films are not great, or even all that good. But they're what I would take with me, more or less, if I were going to be stranded on a desert island with a DVD player, a TV, and presumably a very efficient (and quiet) electric generator. After all, if you're going to be stuck somewhere, you might as well have your fun and your fantasies.

The films on my "Top Ten" poll, on the other hand, are the ones I would want around if I were dropped onto some distant but inhabited world with a camera, a Movieola, and a divine mission to rebuild cinema from the ground up. I tend to think that these ten films are foundational, in the sense that film today is (or should be) largely built upon their ideas and, above all, their styles.

One of my selections requires considerable explanation up front. I wanted to include Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, but replaced it at the last minute with Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. I made the change in part because I wanted to include at least one nonfiction documentary film. But another, more important reason was that Vertov is more of a formalist than Eisenstein, and I tend to think that a certain self-conscious formalism is often (as Martha Stewart would say) "A Good Thing."

Vertov worked with the same theories of montage that you see in Eisenstein's silent films, and, like Eisenstein, he stretches those theories to the absolute breaking point (even indulging in rapid-fire cuts of one frame each -- which means that you can get up to 24 "cuts" for a single second of film time). But in Vertov, the shrill propagandizing and epileptic editing of silent Soviet cinema take an unexpected inward turn. Vertov doesn't seem consumed by the need -- or rather, the imperative -- to glorify the Soviet state, as Eisenstein and to an even greater extent Dovzhenko are. Vertov chooses to glorify cinema instead.

So in justifying my selections, I'll discuss how and why I see these films as foundational -- even if, as in the case of Apocalypse Now Redux, I don't think anyone has managed to build on that foundation effectively or adequately to date.

Forget the vernal equinox; the true start of spring comes with April Fool's Day.

Winter staged a brief rally in Charlottesville the day before yesterday, spitting big, wet snowflakes from the sky and forcing us all to huddle by the heaters one last time. It marked the end of those few weeks when Mother Nature dithers at the closet door, wondering if she should wear white or green today. Now she seems to have made up her mind -- as she always does -- to make the change. Everyone I know agrees with her judgment, not that it would matter in the slightest to her.

It is time for green.

There is a period of about five weeks in the spring, and about three weeks in the fall, when Charlottesville and the surrounding Piedmont are just about the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. In the spring, the small plants show off their gaudiest outfits -- cherry blossoms, flower beds, those tiny pink and white buds that I can't name but I see everywhere. In the fall, the leaves of the large trees turn and droop -- fiery reds of sugar maples, yellows and soft greens from the other hardwoods. The old trees never get any attention the rest of the year (because they're always around, because they live so far above the rest of us, because they don't make a show of themselves most of the time?), but by autumn they are front and center. All things in nature will claim notice in their time.

Right now, of course, it's spring, time for flowers and budding trees. According to reliable Washington sources, the cherry blossoms will be out in full force this weekend; here, most of them seem already to have come and gone. But they were glorious while they lasted, and they were only the first of many, many blooming things.

In the interests of equal time, I'll link you to an anti-spring poem. Not T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," which everybody knows (or ought to), but a short piece by Edna St. Vincent Millay -- an underrated though sour poet who despite her limited emotional range should be read more often. Be sure to get to the last three lines, which contain one of the most highly charged images of twentieth-century poetry.

Monday, March 31, 2003

Every ten years, the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine publishes its Critics' Poll, which lists those films that leading critics and directors around the world respect and revere as the greatest ever made.

The last time the BFI conducted this poll was in the fall of 2002, and at the time, I wondered what my own picks for the ten greatest films of all time would be. As it turned out, my choices were pretty conventional, but I'll explain my reasons over the next few days.

Tim's "Sight and Sound" poll:

Apocalypse Now Redux (Coppola)
Birth of a Nation (Griffith)
Breathless (Godard)
Citizen Kane (Welles)
Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov)
Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
Playtime (Tati)
Rashomon (Kurosawa)
Sherlock, Jr. (Keaton)
Sunrise (Murnau)

Most of these films are currently available on DVD, so if something I say about one catches your interest, go to your local video store and give it a look.

Welcome to "My Stupid Dog": the weblog!

First of all, there are no real dogs here. I don't even own a dog. Any resemblance of this site to a stupid dog, real or imaginary, is purely coincidental.

Still, "Tim Hulsey's blog" was just too boring for words, and of all the other names I thought up, I liked this one best. It reminded me of John Fante's novella My Dog Stupid, which seemed like a good omen.

This is primarily a culture blog, although I'll make forays into politics when the spirit moves. But as a native-born American and a naturalized Virginian, I reserve the right to be just as political or apolitical as I care to be at any given moment.

As would be true for any loyal pet, this blog will be fed and cared for on a regular basis. Right now, of course, it's just a speckled puppy, but maybe it'll grow up big and strong.

Here's hoping you enjoy the company of "My Stupid Dog."

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