This 'n' That

If there is a more important active American documentary filmmaker than Frederick Wiseman, I don't know who it is. (Don't you dare say Michael Moore.) Wiseman's career spans exactly 40 years and from Titicut Follies to his most recent work, State Legislature, no one has offered more eloquent documentation of the institutions that govern the world in which we live -- in the broadest sense of "govern." Wiseman examines the disconnect between the individual and the large corporate body, whether it is in the private or public sector, with great incisiveness and insightfulness. But until very, very recently it was prohibitively expensive for an individual to own his films.

So I was delighted to receive an e-mail last week from his company, Zipporah Films, announcing that they are releasing 23 of his titles on DVD for the general public. Prices on the disks range from $29.95 to $39.95, and they can be purchased from Zipporah's website. I was going to suggest you start out with Near Death (1989), his six-hour film about the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital and a great favorite of mine, but that happens to be one of the titles not included in the initial bunch. If you are looking for something a little less fraught for a first foray into Wiseman's cinema, perhaps you'd be better off with Ballet, one of the best films of 1995, a riveting three-hour look at the American Ballet Theater.

On one level, DVD is really an ideal format for Wiseman's films. You can get a lot of information into a small physical object, and his best work defies the boundaries of feature-film running times. Visually, most of his films look good, but retaining the visual nuances of 35mm isn't as important for his work as it might be others, so the drop-off in visual quality between theatrical projection and your home entertainment center isn't crucial. Of course, the great advantage of seeing the films in a theater -- even though many of them were conceived for public television -- is the communal nature of the experience and the overwhelming size of the image. You can't have that in your living room and it's a shame, given the thematic focus of Wiseman's work. But this is certainly better than not being able to see them at all.

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If you have an hour to kill while you're sitting at the computer, take a look at the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, where there's an interesting discussion of the group's recent survey of its members on issues of reviewing ethics. You can also get to the actual questionnaires from that page. Most of what is debated has only a slender relation to the ethical issues facing film critics; the day that I have the same agent as Tom Cruise (or Manoel de Oliveira, for that matter), one of us will be in big trouble. But it makes for piquant reading.

(Heck, I just wrote this item so I'd have an excuse to use the word "piquant.")

Come to think of it, if you have an hour to kill, why don't you read a book?

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Okay, you're too tired/lazy/ennervated to read a whole book. Let me make a suggestion. From the many, many literary blogs one finds on-line -- we won't talk about film blogs, just look at the links on this page if that's what you want -- which would be worth a look? Of course, there are plenty of answers to that question, but let me pull your coat to a few that I think are worth your attention.

Scott Esposito's The Quarterly Conversation is an excellent compendium of essays and reviews that ranges widely in its focus, but is filled with many works in translation. I take that to be the hallmark of a civilized litblog in an era in which the American people (who I assume are my primary readers) are as oblivious to the existence of other languages and literatures as the English were at the height of their empire. Of course, the main drawback for readres of a quarterly is that it's a quarterly. You want more than four issues a year if the publication is good. Happily, there's a blog here also.

I've extolled the virtues of Words Without Borders on more than one occasion here. So I will merely note that their December issue is about partings and farewells. Nice choice for the end of the year.

Finally, the Literary Saloon is the blog of The Complete Review and it's a must-read for its clever, occasionally snarky rundown on book news and the like. Plus, the two publications review a host of literary fiction from all over the place that you won't find in the pages of the New York Times Book Review.


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