Saturday, May 03, 2003

Some Hard Questions about "Hard Questions"

In the New York Times last Tuesday, columnist and erstwhile economist Paul Krugman suggests oh-so-delicately that the Bush administration's statements regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were all a ruse. Krugman writes, "Does it matter that we were misled into war? Some people say that it doesn't: we won, and the Iraqi people have been freed. But we ought to ask some hard questions — not just about Iraq, but about ourselves."

I'm not calling attention to Krugman's bizarre notion that if we haven't found Hussein's entire bioweapons program within two weeks of liberating Iraq, it must mean that we've been duped and that the war was some sort of charade. I'm not even calling attention to the insufferable self-loathing and narcissism in Krugman's assertion that any analysis of the many factors behind this conflict must ultimately point to (guess who?) us.

No, gentle reader, a thousand times no. Doubtless other bloggers have dissected Krugman's pretzel logic far better than I could. Besides, I'm much more interested in a peculiar turn of phrase -- some might even call it a verbal tic -- embedded within the passage. For the past several months I've noticed it circulating at near-viral levels among my liberal and left-wing neighbors. You see, they're all starting to tell me that "we ought to ask some hard questions."

The words vary only slightly from carrier to carrier. The "questions" may be "hard," "tough," or "difficult." But there are always "some" of them, never just one, and either "we ought to ask" or "it's time to ask" them.

For example, when the Twin Towers came crashing down on that horrible September morning, and the Bush administration vowed that terrorists would be brought to justice, a leftist friend in San Francisco promptly wrote in his column that "we ought to ask some hard questions" about our next move. When U.S. forces sent an unmanned drone to blow up a few terrorist leaders on Yemeni soil, a liberal friend of mine e-mailed me with the message that "we ought to ask some hard questions" about what we had just done. When France, Germany and Russia refused to join our coalition against Iraq, liberal pundits and protesters said it was time for "some hard questions" about American unilateralism. When we heard reports of fierce fighting outside Basra, I heard my liberal neighbors muttering something about "hard questions." When American troops surrounded Baghdad for what could have been a tough, bloody fight, there were "hard questions;" when Baghdad fell -- well, same thing.

Of course, there are exceptions. Liberals don't claim that we ought to ask some hard questions when they want to raise my taxes. But when a conservative wants to cut them, we ought to ask -- dear God, how we ought to ask. Most left-liberals, Christopher Hitchens excepted, don't claim we ought to ask some hard questions when some totalitarian despot murders millions of his own people, stockpiles biological and chemical weapons, and attempts to develop a nuclear program. After we've tossed out this despot, ah, that's when we ought to start asking.

I think we ought to ask some hard questions about "hard questions." Or rather, I think we ought to ask only one question: Whatever do leftists and liberals mean when they say this? (I can half-imagine them perusing a restaurant menu, or browsing at a video rental store, when they suddenly purse their lips, give a low clucking sound and grumble, "Now we ought to ask some hard questions.")

One thing they must mean, though not the only thing, is that people who don't agree with them, including but not limited to conservatives, are insufficiently reflective. Perhaps these benighted souls have been misled, deluded, or seduced by the nefarious forces of Fox News. Perhaps they're heartless, or just plain stupid. But in any case, they are not asking questions. Or at least, they are not asking "the hard questions" -- which is to say, "the hard questions" that "we ought to ask."

Still, when you ask real questions, be they "hard" or "easy," you do so not because you think you already know the answers, but because you haven't made up your mind. To take Krugman's case as an example, does anyone think that waging war is ever an easy question? People die in war, after all, and among those people there just might be someone you know and love. Still, a majority of Americans, after asking plenty of "hard questions" about the war in Iraq -- whether it was really necessary, whether it would increase or decrease our security at home, whether we might not have some obligation to people under the iron heel of a tyrant we helped sustain -- decided at last that we didn't have a problem with it. We've also asked "hard questions" about terrorism, and decided that if a Department of Homeland Security can make our country safer, it's worth a good college try. We're asking questions about Bush's tax cuts, and a majority of us seems to think that since our economy needs a pick-me-up and tax cuts are good for growth, we should probably go ahead with them.

Whether Americans are left-liberal or not, we seem perfectly capable of rational thought and decision-making in the face of "hard questions." Still, we don't seem to have answered the "hard questions" to the satisfaction of liberals and leftists -- else why would they insist that we have yet to ask them? Perhaps it's because they're not really questions at all. If we were asking "hard questions" -- which is to say, questions for which they have already provided the correct answers -- then we could have come to their conclusions all by our little selves.

As is often the case with Krugman and his fellow left-wingers, a fig leaf of civility barely conceals deep, rankling bitterness and condescension. With their Euro-socialist and anti-American biases, they have good reason to be bitter: Since the end of the Cold War, they've found themselves ever more alienated from mainstream political discourse. Even Bill Clinton, whom they supported and who they hoped would revitalize their movement, turned his back on them in the end. So, lacking any clear target for their rage, they're taking it out (or desperately trying to) on the ranks of Americans who have left them far, far behind.

Which probably means that we ought to ask some hard questions about ... oh, never mind.

Friday, May 02, 2003

Review: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (with celebrity cameo!)

The Sideshow Opera Company of Charlottesville, VA has managed a minor coup de theatre with its first production, Christoph Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. I'm not referring to the oddball direction, the bare-bones sets, or the surprisingly strong vocal performances from the leads. No, I'm referring to the celebrity cameo in Act II, scene two.

Did you know that Lauren Ambrose, star of HBO's Six Feet Under, could sing opera? Her voice isn't quite up to professional standards, but she steals the show nonetheless. When, as leader of the Blessed Spirits, she dances across a row of chairs, brandishing a flute like a baton, the production suddenly escapes its highbrow aspirations and takes on a wonderfully demented life of its own. Moments like this are all too rare in the stolid world of opera.

Alas, I didn't enjoy the rest of the evening nearly as much, mostly because of director Margaret Bell's offensive staging. Bell -- who I suspect wants to be Peter Sellars on a very tight budget -- eschews mythological characters and supernatural machinery, placing the opera in the more prosaic, contemporary milieu of mental illness and psychiatric care. This necessitates several changes, some of them interesting, but many more just pretentious and silly. Euridice doesn't die, but has a nervous breakdown; she is taken not to Hades, but to an asylum; Orfeo must overcome not a chorus of Furies but a crowd of paper-pushing bureaucrats. Naturally, when Orfeo enters the Blessed Realm in Act II, he's inside the mental institution. (If Bell honestly believes that an insane asylum resembles Heaven in any way, she needs to put down her Ken Kesey novels and see the inside of one for herself.) The show's nadir comes when these "Blessed Spirits" perform a Lithium-induced ballet with hospital staff, Titicut Follies style. Ugh.

However, the individual vocal performances are always compelling and frequently astonishing. Mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson dominates the opera in the "breeches role" of Orfeo. She maintains a dark vocal tone with carefully nuanced expression, and her "Che faro, senza Euridice?" (the opera's most famous aria) is nothing short of breathtaking. Patterson handles the demanding vocal runs of Act I and the tender melodies of Act III with equal elan and sensitivity, and one gets the sense that her considerable interpretative gifts are even better suited to chamber music and art songs than opera. In any case, I hope to hear more from her in future.

Soprano Sarah Wolfson is every bit Patterson's equal as the unhinged Euridice; I adored her clear coloratura, and only wish she had more to sing. Rebecca Myers also gives a solid performance in the supporting role of Amore. Still, even though her technical facility is enviable and her soprano voice excellent, I thought I detected in her high notes a shrillness ill befitting a goddess of Love.

The weakest link vocally is the Chorus, which at only nine people is much too small for Gluck's grand intentions. The triumphant Act III finale feels incredibly threadbare, with only a handful of people performing onstage and the women's voices drowning out all the men. I did, however, appreciate the director's ending the opera with a tea party, in which chorus members eat a slice of cake to celebrate Euridice's return from the dead. (Yes, Gluck gives the tragic myth of Orpheus a happy ending.) If only there were a dozen more singers and the cake were slightly larger, the finale would be just about right.

On the whole, this production is a mixed bag, though not in the way one might expect from low-budget opera. Individual vocal performances are excellent, sometimes superlative, though the chorus -- usually the strongest suit of community theater -- is sorely lacking. The piano accompaniment, along with welcome intrusions from a string quartet, doesn't do justice to Gluck's revolutionary symphonic orchestrations, but for a local effort it's acceptable. (I've learned the hard way that I'd rather hear a good pianist than a bad orchestra any day of the week.) My only major problem with this production is the direction, which is too clever by half and deeply distasteful to boot. That said, if you're anywhere in the vicinity of Charlottesville, this show is definitely worth seeing.

The second and final performance of Sideshow Opera Company's Orfeo ed Euridice will be at 8 p.m. this Saturday (May 3) at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Tickets range from $5 for students to $20 for front-row seats (cash or check only!) and can be reserved over the phone at (434) 293-5950. (Just leave a message on their answering machine and someone from the opera company will call you back.) Or, if you prefer, show up at the door without a reservation, because if tomorrow night is anything like last night, there should be plenty of good seats available.

The opera is sung in Italian, with frequently malfunctioning supertitles.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

Mistah Kurtz, he dumb

Only yesterday, Stanley Kurtz wrote an article for National Review Online addressing the "libertarian question" of Gay marriage. (In case you're wondering, he's against it.) Now I may not be a true blue libertarian, but I know a straw man when I see one.

According to Kurtz, libertarians favor same-sex marriage because they want the government to stop policing private morality altogether. Yet, he asks, if the government is utterly uninvolved in matters of private morality, how can we legislate against incest, rape, polygamy, adultery or bestiality? Thus, the leave-me-alone crowd really favors a society in which sexual license of all kinds is permitted, even encouraged -- and in which the family unit consequently dies. Now if you don't want that, gentle reader, you'd better not join up with those nefarious libertarians to advocate Gay marriage.

Well, first of all, libertarians who believe that the government shouldn't get involved with private morality at all don't support same-sex marriage. Rather, they argue that heterosexual marriage should be abolished, because it constitutes an unwarranted intrusion of state power into private life. Since most heterosexual libertarians I know are (or have been) legally married, I think I can assume that they don't take this particular idea very seriously. And even if they did, this objection wouldn't address the most basic problem with Kurtz's argument.

For Kurtz seems to believe that libertarians want to erase social taboos along with governmental regulation. This isn't necessarily true, either. In fact, a libertarian might advocate replacing governmental coercion with more extensive social taboos, if only because taboos are far less likely to involve jack-booted troopers with big guns and permission from the State to hurt or kill you.

Left-wing social engineers and nanny-state neocons alike fail to understand that taboo and law are far from the same thing. For example, marijuana use is illegal, and if you're caught with the stuff you'll go to jail. But since no one is really shocked when someone says he smokes marijuana, we can hardly call the act taboo. In the converse, an Amish woman who wore pants and used an electric curling iron would violate two, possibly three, major taboos. Even though her religious community would shun her, she would still be a law-abiding citizen.

What really gets Kurtz's knickers in a twist, so to speak, is that we Americans have greatly relaxed our social taboos over the past several decades. Perhaps one could say that our relative indifference in matters like homosexuality is the product of big-government politics, and that we simply expect the government to perform the moral policing we're too lazy to do for ourselves. It's much more likely, however, that we no longer believe that homosexuality, divorce, adultery or interracial marriages require something as drastic as community or legal intervention. They don't seem to threaten our well-being, so we figure we ought to leave well enough alone. And those of us who would have been considered "deviants" half a century ago are much less miserable as a result.

This is not to say we Americans have given up all sexual taboos. We're still appalled by rape and incest -- and rightly so, since they raise the issues of consent and (in the case of incest) the social costs of potentially deformed offspring. But even in such extreme cases, social taboos are not the same as legal actions. A man acquitted of incest or rape in a court of law may still feel the social stigma of these accusations. On the other hand, in the deepest, remotest corners of Appalachia, a man convicted of incest might actually earn the sympathy of his neighbors, who can't fathom why such an act would be considered abnormal, let alone wrong.

The current, more relaxed arrangement of laws and taboos, though not by any means libertine, still leaves considerable leeway for individual freedom. That's pretty much what Americans want, libertarian or not. Yet Stanley Kurtz wants the government to take up the resulting moral slack, even to the point of enforcing social codes that most of us have deemed obsolete.

Can't this guy think of better things to do?

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ

For my money, nothing Americans have done in religious cinema can approach Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew or Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc. Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ is as close as we've managed to come so far, but alas, this is pretty much by default.

Most American films on the life of Jesus are somber, turgid affairs, lacking either the narrative drive of the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) or the prickly, ragged edges of the Gospel of John. Neither Cecil B. DeMille nor Nicholas Ray could make an interesting film out of the too-pious King of Kings; Ray had the additional handicaps of sound and a woefully miscast Jeffrey Hunter. George Stevens's Greatest Story Ever Told was notable mostly because Max von Sydow's immaculate Christ always kept his robes sparkling white in the wind-swept desert -- a phenomenon which always left me wondering what brand of bleach he used. Even William Wyler's Ben Hur, which ranges from cinematic magnificence (the chariot race) to kitschy fun (any scene involving "acting"), bogs down in crummy, second-hand pieties during Jesus's crucifixion. (I refuse to discuss such boondoggles as Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell.)

In 1979, religious evangelicals, including the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, dramatized the Gospel of Luke in what for that time was the most expensive Christian movie ever made. The budget was about $6 million, and the producers made a big to-do over location shoots in the Holy Land. Jesus, the finished film, still feels low-rent by Hollywood standards. Everything in it was cribbed from the King James Bible, so the dialogue has that infamous "you-can-write-this-but-you-can't-say-it" quality which begs for a real screenwriter. Stiff and pedestrian as Jesus is, it does crank out "the greatest story ever told" in under two hours -- easily forty-five minutes shorter than its nearest competitor. But relative brevity wasn't enough; Jesus was still a box-office failure, though it has since been revived as a Christian missionary project for all those benighted folks who have never seen a sandal epic. I suppose this is yet another reason for the world to hate us.

Naturally, the same religious conservatives who failed to show for Jesus turned out nine years later to protest Scorsese's film. Also budgeted at about $6 million, Last Temptation was a "corrected" Bible movie, in the way that Raging Bull was a "corrected" boxing film, Gangs of New York a "corrected" historical epic, or Taxi Driver a "corrected" urban Western. (Most of Scorsese's films can be seen as "corrected" genre pictures, when you think about it.)

The term "corrected" comes from Robert Ray's book A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, and refers to the way in which contemporary cinema takes paradigms and genres from classic Hollywood cinema and gives them a revisionist spin. Usually this is done by adding significant yet unpleasant details -- blood, grime, sex, violence or mental illness, to name only a few examples -- details which reinforce the assumed "realism" of the contemporary film as opposed to the artifice of classic cinema, even as they reinvent and revitalize the classic genre (assuming they are successful).

Even though Scorsese has made much of his personal research into first-century Jewish traditions, the corrections he sprinkles throughout Last Temptation seem a little by-the-numbers. Mental illness and instability are depicted in Jesus's spiritual torment, which from a distance looks remarkably like epilepsy. (Regrettably, Scorsese upholds the borderline-racist Hollywood tradition of casting a Jesus with piercing blue eyes, which in this case belong to Willem Dafoe.) Sex is depicted fairly explicitly through Jesus's relationship with Mary Magdalene, whose status as a prostitute is in accordance with misogynistic Church tradition, though not Gospel narrative. Grime and grit are well represented in the mise-en-scene; this is one of the few films about Jesus, and the only American one I know, that actually permits him to get dirty from time to time. Most important to the film, however, are blood and violence. Scorsese is quite forthright about the brutality of Roman occupation, and plays up the social tension between imperial Romans and their Jewish subjects. In addition, the ceremonies of second-temple Judaism, many involving animal sacrifice, are shown, with a special emphasis on gore.

Far from a genteel vision of the Holy Land with British accents, pressed robes and harmonious interpersonal relations, Scorsese's Judea is tribal, unstable, unfamiliar, frightening -- in short, not unlike today's Middle East. That's a good sign. An even better one is that Scorsese bases his film not on the Gospels, but on a novel by Greek existentialist Nikos Kazantzakis. As a result, Last Temptation has an unusual approach suggested by Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-sixties: "If I were ever to film the life of Christ, I would film the scenes which are left out of the Bible." And this film is at its best when it focuses on what Kazantzakis includes, but the Bible leaves out.

The most dramatic scenes focus on the relationship between the political revolutionary Judas and the spiritually inclined Jesus. In particular, Harvey Keitel's Judas brings out the primary difference between the founding narrative of Christianity and the narratives of many other world religions: namely, that the central figure in Christianity experiences defeat in social and political terms. Other world religions are founded on successful people: military generals, national leaders, divine or semi-divine heroes. But Christianity, at least as we know it today, is founded on the experiences of worldly defeat and private sacrifice, which from a distance seem like a failure of divine power, not a fulfillment of divine purpose.

In stories where we encounter these basic character types, an active revolutionary like Judas would be our hero, and the neurotic Jesus would be his sidekick. Jesus's sacrifice would empower Judas to fulfill his revolutionary mission, reshape the world, and/or achieve his own self-actualization. Tellingly, Scorsese switches these positions -- Judas must make the conciliatory sacrifice so that Jesus, by dying, can fulfill a spiritual, counterrevolutionary mission. This unexpected role reversal highlights the unconventional, even subversive values of Christianity's Passion story, and to their credit, Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader milk it for everything it's worth.

But leave it to the film's finale to undo all of that. In the eponymous "Last Temptation," a young girl with a white dress and a British accent presents Jesus with the prospect of an ordinary life. We learn that if Jesus didn't have to die, he could have married Mary Magdalene, enjoyed a generally pleasant life as a carpenter, and not suffered more than the usual share of human misfortune. Of course, there are an embittered Judas and a cynical Apostle Paul to remind him of the destiny he foregoes by choosing life over death. Finally, as Romans attack Jerusalem and the great Jewish temple goes up in flames, Jesus repents of his normal life. Suddenly, he's back on the cross, and the entire film is exposed as a perverse variation of It's a Wonderful Life: "It's a Happy Death," perhaps.

I can't help thinking that something poisonous is at work here. If Scorsese is examining the conflict between carnality and spirituality, as he claims, the answer he's come up with is just lousy. Saul Friedlander calls it the "kitsch of death," and describes it as the desire to orchestrate one's final act thoroughly, so that one can enter history on one's own terms. (The Nazis were big fans of this idea, and turned it into a national ideology of suicide.) To be fair, Scorsese has conceded this flaw; the film is "too heavy on the Good Friday," as he puts it, and never quite gets around to the promise of Easter.

Given the nature of the project, I would have expected much more than a divine George Bailey pining for a second chance to die on the cross; the original George Bailey's prayer to live strikes me as both healthier and more profound. And even within the terms and values of traditional religious art, the idea of staging one's own martyrdom seems not transcendent, but self-destructive. Yet, despite the film's implicit nihilism, it was provocative enough to send all but the most liberal Christians picketing and protesting throughout 1988. Last Temptation was the must-see movie of its year, and the fact that it never received a public screening within the state of Arkansas only increased its appeal to a rural teenager like me.

Now, fifteen years after all the controversy, I can see that evangelical Christians were perfectly right to hate this movie. They just hated it for the wrong reasons.

Monday, April 28, 2003

Tim's "Sight and Sound" Poll: Man with the Movie Camera

This is Part VII of an ongoing series. To read Part VI, click here.

Why did Soviet cinema need theory?

After all, the Americans managed well enough without it. D.W. Griffith, for example, made his movies by intuition, then gauged audience response with every showing (frequently making cuts as he went). Silent comics like Chaplin or Keaton were more concerned with belly-laughs than the rationale behind them. Even European directors like Dreyer or Murnau seem not to have bothered much with theory per se.

But film theory is the hallmark, sometimes even the raison d'etre, of silent Soviet cinema. Perhaps this is because from its inception, Soviet cinema was conceived as evangelical propaganda, devoted less to pleasing an audience than to conveying a visceral message about the workers' state. Lenin himself gave film a prominent place on the first Red "agit-trains" that crisscrossed Russia proclaiming the new Communist order.

There are five names to remember in 1920s Soviet cinema: Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Alexander Dovzhenko and Dziga Vertov. Kuleshov was the most influential of the group, less through his actual filmic output than through his theory of montage. He argued that a piece of film constructed its meaning through its relation to other pieces of film. The term he used, "montage," referred to a film's position within its pieced-together context. Montage can be used to depict a character's emotion or psychological state. It can be used to create an "imaginary geography" from different locations. It can even be used to make ideological points. The editor thus becomes vital in ensuring that a film conveys its intended meaning to an audience, or in ensuring that it succeeds on the state's (if not the audience's) terms.

Of the others, Eisenstein was the most ideologically pure, consistently eschewing individual characters in favor of collective actions. It's no accident that most of his finished, extant films are historical epics. Pudovkin, a closet humanist, was no less ideologically devoted than Eisenstein, but he compromised the USSR's collectivist vision by focusing on individual heroes and heroines rather than seething masses. I tend to see Dovzhenko as a far less effective ideologue than the others. His films possess intense, poetic visual images, but their messages (or frequently, the apparent lack of them) didn't please Soviet officials.

Dziga Vertov -- whose real name was Denis Kaufman -- specialized in newsreels, and was perhaps the most strident of all Soviet filmmakers. You can see his personality on full display in his film Man with the Movie Camera. This 1929 film (the Soviet Union was one of the last countries to embrace sound filmmaking) is a grand show of Kuleshov's theories taken to their logical extreme. In comparison, the attention-deficit-disordered editing of MTV looks positively placid.

On the surface, Vertov seems to present a typical day in the life of a Soviet city, sunrise to sunset. But this archetypal Soviet city is actually comprised of four separate cities, thus creating the montage-based "imaginary geography" that Kuleshov had discussed years earlier. Wax dummies seem to gaze out over cityscapes, and seats in a movie theater magically lower in preparation for a show.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous dictum that "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind" is nowhere truer than here. Vertov's film is relentlessly mechanical; entire reels of film are devoted to pounding, pulsing machinery and the workers who keep it running. One woman folds cigarette packs by hand -- pack after pack, in rapid, efficient motions. She becomes a human extension of the pistons, wheels, gears and engines in the factory.

What Fritz Lang's Metropolis decried as industrial nightmare, Vertov touts in a celebration of national modernity. Into this mechanistic wonderland steps the hero of Vertov's film: the eponymous Man with the Movie Camera. He is a cyborg of sorts. Half-man, half-machine, his human eye is augmented by the camera, and he brings his "Kino-Eye" -- to quote the title of Vertov's newsreels -- into the city to capture reality on film.

Unexpectedly, in mid-shot, the image freezes. Suddenly, we are in an editing room, observing a worker in the process of cutting the film we've been watching. Other storerooms house canisters of film, all dutifully labeled and categorized. This, too, is a machine shop, and the editor is yet another cog in the machine. The storehouse keeps all the footage captured by the "Kino-Eye," which is designed to reflect the reality of the Soviet state, and the editor, sorting through this footage, assembles it into an identifiable form. Vertov is here glorifying the art of cinema, not only because it captures the immediacy of real life as no other medium can, but because it is a filmic event in its own right. Urban chronicle has turned to manifesto; the film is laying bare its own cinematic devices.

By the film's end, machines have completely taken over, and Vertov's movie camera walks away on its own three-legged tripod (with the help of some ingenious stop-motion animation). Has it been freed from its operator, or has it assimilated him? In either case, left to its own devices, the camera indulges in ever more elaborate special effects. Double- and triple-exposed images of workers, streetcars, crowds and machines, recapitulate earlier images from the film in a symphonic finale of urban chaos. Rapid cutting between city streets and the eyes of the editor creates a composite image, almost like a child's thaumatope. The audience in a proletarian theater (a reflection of us) sits passively, without motion, absorbing the spectacle, while the camera stands above them, godlike, bending time and space on the screen.

Most Soviet films -- those of Eisenstein excepted -- derive their greatest merits from the disconnect between bureaucratic intent and artistic actualization. Dovzhenko's 1930 silent film Earth, for example, was meant to do to land-owning kulaks what Jud Suss would do to European Jews a decade later. Instead, to the annoyance of government authorities, the film became a hymn to the earth and the seasons. Vertov's Man with the Movie Camera operates under a similar, more grating disconnect, if only because his camera seems to catch too much urban reality for comfort. Through the "Kino-Eye" we can see alcoholism, homelessness, and general blight in the Communist paradise. The workers' apartments seem squalid in comparison to their Western counterparts, and their blank faces don't seem especially happy to serve the Soviet machine. Even the streetcars seem a bit dingy.

Yet from a strictly ideological perspective, Vertov's most glaring problem lies in the disparity between his educational goals and propagandistic message. In showing the power of image and montage to distort time, space and meaning, the film attempts to make its audiences more aware of the cinema as a created filmic event. The film presents filmmaking as an art, self-consciously manipulated for the masses in the theater, and by doing so it attempts to create a more critical, more skeptical proletarian audience better able to discuss the films they see and (Vertov's ultimate goal) to produce documentary footage of their own. At the same time the film attempts to be propaganda, convincing those same masses that life in the Soviet Union is a futurist's glorious dream. Vertov wants to have his cake and eat it too, creating a skeptical, self-critical audience that still accepts state-sponsored propaganda. Ultimately, perhaps inevitably in these circumstances, the individualist critical consciousness wins out.

Of course the Soviet intelligentsia were horrified by Man with the Movie Camera, accusing Vertov of formalism and virtuosity. And the accusations were true, of course. Vertov had created a film about cinema and its place within a dehumanized, totalitarian state, although he had done so in the name of a documentarian "people's art" within that state. Whether an art so thoroughly informed by theory can ever be truly a "people's art," I won't say here. But this film, which is the most doctrinaire-Marxist of the films I've selected (and also the sole documentary) is far and away the most avant-garde work on my list.

For its representation of documentary form, for what it tells us (albeit indavertently) about the Soviet state in its heyday, and above all for its ingenious technique and glorification of cinematic process, I've included Man with the Movie Camera.

This film marks the end of the silent era. From here on out, movies will provide their own sound.

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Sunday Update:

What with the Sam Shepard marathon at LiveArts, Shakespeare on the Lawn's production of King Lear, and the OffScreen series at UVA, I've been having a very busy weekend. I'll try to get the essay on Vertov up later this evening; the essay on Last Temptation of Christ will have to wait until tomorrow. I also have some thoughts on the Shepard marathon, which I'll post in a day or two.

Meanwhile, there's a staged reading of Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class tonight in the LiveArts lab. Since most theater companies can't afford to rent the sheep or create the full-scale working kitchen necessary for a full performance (and those who can generally prefer to produce Shepard's much superior Buried Child instead), this will probably be my best opportunity to see the first play in Shepard's "family" trilogy.

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