Saturday, January 1, 2011

Idiot With A Tripod (2010)

I have the bare bones of a new year’s post all ready to go. I’ve been composing it in my head for days, in bits and pieces, while I do boring things like brush my teeth or vacuum.

I wanted to write about what a great time it is to be a silent film fan. In 2010 we were blessed with a flourish of important restorations, from Metropolis to the Keystone Chaplins to The Battleship Potemkin; the re-discovery of American silents in vaults in New Zealand; the availability of services like Warner Brothers’ online store, allowing even more silents to reach eager viewers’ hands. And I wanted to write, again, about the feeling I get seeing brand-new silent films. It’s why I do this.

I could’ve rambled on about all that. But there’s a more fitting tribute to 2010, and that’s to write about a film that captured public attention just as the year closed out: Idiot With A Tripod. The silent film that has, to quote many sources—some quoting one another—“gone viral.”

If you read my blog, I bet you’ve seen Idiot With A Tripod. It’s the work of filmmaker Jamie Stuart, who ventured into the snow-accursed white wastes of Astoria, NYC, about a week ago to capture images of a great blizzard and its effects on a population determined to keep going… somewhere. The result is a three-and-a-half minute, silent homage to Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929), and the human spirit. And in one case, the canine spirit.

Spare me the po-mo faux humility of Stuart’s title—in fact, he’s anything but an idiot, and he knows it. His editing, particularly in the first minute, is sure and focused. And he was confident enough in the final product to send it to Roger Ebert, who gave it as thorough a blessing as anyone could. Ebert, a celebrity with both credibility and reach, and a major voice in the blogosphere, has made Stuart’s little movie very famous, very fast.

When enough BFD’s call a thing great, you’re apt to second-guess your own feelings about it. You might find yourself liking the thing that would otherwise have come and gone for you. Or you might recoil from the hype, asserting your independence in the face of popular taste, no matter how venerable its flag-bearers. I’m a contrarian by nature, so I tend to the latter position. And so I must be careful. I never claim to be a critic per se, but I want people who visit this blog to know, if nothing else, that I’m unafraid to love something popular.

I don’t love Idiot. I do appreciate it; or at least, I appreciate Stuart, who produced something that speaks to people. Probably 1% of those who’ve seen Idiot have seen Man With A Movie Camera, but that’s OK. And I do, unreservedly, love that opening minute, a world imbued with journeys planned and paths travelled. The iron bars of a fence, rows of unused shopping carts, criss-crossed tire tracks in the snow, hydro wires: Stuart’s conveyance of energy here is simply fantastic; though the elements themselves are mostly static, and photographed after the storm has already begun its crippling work, we can clearly see that this is a busy community used to moving forward and unlikely to give it up easily. Stuart’s use of line is comparable to Mizoguchi’s in his wonderful silent, The Water Magician (1933). You probably haven’t seen that one either, but I hope you will, some day.

These elements share little besides a common time and place. It’s Stuart’s editing that emphasizes their alikeness, or rather, encourages us to notice it, then form patterns in our minds. Man With A Movie Camera was all about that, too—and because of it, the film has always struck me as a tease; prompting us to search for stories and meaning, then reminding us it has none, like singing an essay or something. I don’t love Man With A Movie Camera either, though I do appreciate it.

Stuart brings something to this movie that Vertov didn’t bring to his, however. Something that will make Stuart’s three-minute piece better loved, at least in terms of aggregate number of lovers, than Vertov’s ever could be. It’s sentiment. And because of it, the number does not include me.

It starts with those darkened buildings, each with the single lit window. Perseverance in the face of chilly wrath. The triumph of good wiring and prayer. I get it. But see, I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada. In cottage country. On a road among the last to be graced with the plow come wintertime. (That’s singular, ‘plow’.) The scenes Stuart shows us are intense, yes, but readers (and I’m appealing in particular to those of you in California, where, Google Analytics tells me, I have a lot of fans): it gets worse than this. And typically, everything turns out alright anyway.

I’m not writing this to diminish what New Yorkers went through. It was no light dusting. But it wasn’t the city’s first, either, and Stuart knows that. And so I, veteran of winter, was less than awed, even when Idiot reached its dramatic apex: the medley of stalled and snowed-in cars, beaming headlights through the snow while their owners (or strangers, enthralled by the communal spirit) push their back-ends; and further, the man on his scooter, spinning his wheels but smiling, and the dog (a pug, I think) wading, it seems, hopelessly, while its owner stands there, unwilling to pick the thing up. All we get is the poor pug’s shivering rear, and folks, anyone who holds a camera on a dog’s ass for that long is secretly making a comedy.

To scooter man: The Weather Network is one click away.

To dog owner: You know a good shot when you see one, but your dog suffered the whole time.

To dog: You’re a star now. Milk it. Get an agent. Get a new owner.

Maybe Idiot will win an Oscar. I don’t know what winning an Oscar really says anymore, but as a silent movie fan, I’d sort of dig it. There’s an irony to the film’s appeal though, and winning the biggest award on earth would only make it more pointed. Man With A Movie Camera, for all its detachment, contained within it a profoundly humanistic message: that the seat of meaning is within ourselves; that objects and events gain profundity only through communion with the mind. Idiot With A Tripod, so deftly packaged and beamed en masse to instant acclaim, seems more about delivering meaning to an audience in need of it. Which is fine as an act of good will, but far from what Vertov was about.

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