There Is No Cat

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Saturday, May 4, 2002

Geeking out on documentaries again

A couple of weeks ago, I was bemoaning the lack of classic documentaries available to the average Joe, preferably on DVD. I probably should have looked a little better, because it turns out there are quite a few of the classics available, although there are more that aren't than are. The Criterion Collection, beloved of cineastes everywhere, has some real gems, particularly the work of the Maysles brothers, including Grey Gardens, their controversial portrait of the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy, living in a dilapidated old mansion on Long Island. I didn't see this one in college; I'm looking forward to seeing it after reading about it for so many years. Salesman, their classic 1968 portrait of a door-to-door Bible salesman (and when was the last time you saw one of those?), is another well-reknowned film I'm looking forward to seeing. The original full length feature documentary, Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, is also available. And coming up are Barbet Schroeder's film General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, which I was previously unaware of but which sounds fascinating, and the notorious 1974 Oscar-winning anti-war film Hearts & Minds will be coming out later this month and next month, respectively.

I ordered the first three of those the other day from DVD Planet, which has a sale on DVDs from the Criterion Collection right now. The discs are 35% off, which brings many of them down to about the price of an average DVD, which is nice. DVD Planet can show you all 800 or so documentaries they carry, over 80 screens. I looked at them all, and while most are the usual World War II part 7, the Latrine Cleansing Corps type things that show up on the Nazi Chan... er, the History Channel, there are quite a few interesting films out or soon to be released. One that I'm really looking forward to seeing again soon is The Atomic Cafe, the classic look at America's relationship with The Bomb in the 1950s and 60s. I bought the soundtrack to that back when I was in college, and to this day I'm bound to bellow out a rendition of "Jesus Hits Like an Atom Bomb" at the slightest provocation.

Two DVDs of the Frank Capra-helmed Why We Fight documentaries are being released this coming Tuesday. I saw a number of those when I was in school, and they're fascinating propaganda. But what really excited me is an upcoming release of the British equivalent of Capra's films, Listen To Britain And Other Films By Humphrey Jennings, which will be released a month from today. Some of the films are short, between 8 and 18 minutes. Fires Were Started was 74 minutes long. It's been a long time since I've seen any of these, but they were really wonderful, and really gave an insight into how the British coped with the early defeats in the war. Finding that these were being released on DVD was an unexpected treat. And a number of spectacular depression-era documentaries from the US, including Pare Lorentz's hymn to the Mississippi, The River, are available on a single DVD called Our Daily Bread & Other Films of the Great Depression.

Current D. A. Pennebaker-related films on DVD include The War Room, which I saw at the Film Forum in NYC when it first came out, and Startup.com, which tracks the rise and fall of a small company in those halcyon days when almost anything went. Just the thing an unemployed webmaster like me wants to see, yes? Well, actually, yes, I do.

There are a bunch of interesting looking music-related documentaries available. Generally these are boring puff pieces and the like, but there are a few that transcend the genre of music documentaries. The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack, about folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliot, got good reviews in Folk Roots magazine a year or two ago when it first came out. High Lonesome, about the origins of bluegrass, is supposed to be pretty good, and was excerpted in the excellent series on roots music that PBS did last year. Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King was tipped as an affectionate portrait of one of the oddest rock bands ever. I remember playing selections from their debut record, a triple album set that included Bruce Springsteen covers, on my radio show back in college. Damn, they were odd. Songs for Cassavettes looks at indie rock bands. I don't know how good a film it is, but the bands include Sleater-Kinney and Dub Narcotic Sound System, so that's potentially interesting. I remember reading reviews of it in the indie rock press when it came out.

One oddball documentary that I'd really like to see (actually two, since they both come on the same DVD) is Dziga Vertov's Kino-Eye/Three Songs About Lenin. Vertov was one of the seminal innovators in film, crucial to developing the Soviet theory of montage, the creation of meaning through the juxtaposition of unrelated images. That should sound familiar to any webmaster who has read Scott McCloud. :-) I saw Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera in college (and use his self-portrait from that film to introduce my own page of still photographs). It was a difficult film to follow. I think that the opportunity to own his films on DVD would be worthwhile, because I think they repay repeat viewings.

There are a lot of gaps still; Frederick Wiseman appears to be completely unrepresented, and the work of John Grierson's stable of filmmakers in Britain in the 1930s is missing (though the Jennings DVD helps there). Flaherty's other work, like Louisiana Story and Man of Aran, deserve release. But the situation isn't as grim as I thought. Now I just need to get a job so I can buy some of these.

Posted at 9:32 PM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


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[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

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