The Common Toad Theory of Life . . . and Film

After I published “The Windmill or No Windmill Theory of Life . . . and Film” a few days ago, I got a call from a charming English gentleman. He told me he thought I was ”onto something.”  However, he said, I had chosen the wrong name for my theory.  I ought to call it the “Common Toad Theory of Life”

“Hmm,” I said. “I sort of like the windmill thing. It comes from George Orwell—“

“Yes, yes –quite,” said the caller. “But this is Orwell, too.”

“Really? Do tell.”

“Well, you see, it comes from an essay the old boy wrote. It’s called “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” In it Orwell describes the lifestyle of a common toad.  He describes how the toad looks in the spring, when it emerges from its hole, after having slept through the entire winter: At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look, like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent.Common_Toad_Portrait

“That’s rather a nice bit, though I suppose you Americans don’t understand the Anglo-Catholic comment. They went in for fasting and self-mortification, the Puseyites. But at any rate, Orwell goes on to describe all these lovely charming details about the male common toad — how he eats and swells up, how he gets to feeling a bit randy and couples with a female. And so on and so forth.

“Then Orwell asks a question:

‘Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable reference to ‘Nature’ in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually ‘sentimental’, two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous. This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a foible of urbanized people who have no notion what Nature is really like. Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers, except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the warmer times of year.

“May I read another paragraph or two?”

“Please do!”

‘This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance, including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and Japanese centre always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains. The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and — to return to my first instance — toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.

‘At any rate, spring is here, even in London N. 1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.

“Well, then; what do you think?”


“Yes, it’s not half bad, is it? And, as I was saying, I think it’s rather a more sensible outlook than Benjamin’s in Animal Farm. Old Benjamin is too pessimistic by a third. He seems to think no political scheme can ever do the slightest bit of good. That wasn’t Orwell’s view — and it’s not mine. Perhaps it shouldn’t be yours either. It’s not that nothing can ever come from a political scheme such as erecting a windmill. It’s rather that there ought always to be a space outside of politics. Life needn’t be all about windmills. It can be about toad-watching as well.”

“I quite agree. And films, too. Why can’t they be about toad watching?

“Yes, by all means. Let us have toads.”

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The Windmill or No Windmill Theory of Life . . . and Film

Listen, Doc-lands Dude, what is this windmill theory you’ve been running on about lately?

It’s not a windmill theory. It’s a windmill-or-no-windmill theory.

Windmill or no windmill, which is it, man?

Whichever. Either. Both. Possibly neither.


Let me try to explain. This theory of life derives its name from George Orwell’s delightfully wicked beast fable, Animal Farm. In the book, many of the farm animals believe that their lives will be transformed utterly if only the farm can build a windmill. Some of the animals emphasize that the windmill will save time and labor. Others say that’s true, but the best thing about the windmill is that it will boost food production. The two factions shout back and forth at each other, like the guys in that old Lite beer commercial: Tastes great! Less filling!

But there is one animal who stands apart from the enthusiasm about the windmill altogether. His name is Benjamin. Benjamin is a donkey, and possibly a cousin of Eeyore from the Thousand Acre Wood. Here is how he is described in the book:

Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on–that is, badly.

Now that’s not just a notion. It’s an entire philosophy of life — and not a naïve one, either. For “windmill” substitute whatever political initiative is all the buzz now.  The true believer – q.v. Erich Hoffer’s book on the subject — truly believes that our lives will be radically transformed and our nation redeemed if some beloved political project (windmill) favored by his or her party could only be undertaken.  Me, I tend not to believe it. I think, with Benjamin, that, windmill or no windmill, life will probably go on as it has always gone on – that is, rather badly. And yet some aspects of life are quite interesting, and cheerfulness will break in occasionally.

Now this is an outlook that I find separates me from folks on the Left. When Obama was elected I did not believe that his election heralded the coming of a New Age of Awesomeness (though I was pleased that the country had elected an African-American president). But this view also separates me from people on the Right. I don’t believe that Obama is the minion of Satan, or that his presidency is a sign that the end times are near.

I bring this windmill-or-no-windmill theory of life into the theater as well, and that’s why, sometimes, I get a little annoyed with very political documentary films. Some people seem to view documentary film as a wing of the Democratic Party, but the films I like best are the films with no overt political bias. They may touch on subjects of political interest, but they are not organized around political divisions. They are not based on a juxtaposition of good people who support the building of windmill and bad people who oppose it. These films are humane rather than political.  They resist the premature polarizations that politics encourage. There are a lot of films like this out there. Rich Hill, the subject of my last post, is one of them. But, alas, these films don’t seem to get a lot of attention.

What’s that? Did you say this is getting a lot of attention? Are people tweeting about it?

I doubt it.

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Rich Hill

I saw a number of excellent films at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival last weekend, but nothing any better than Rich Hill, directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo.

It’s a film about three boys growing up in a depressed small town in rural Missouri. All three of the boys are bright but troubled. Two of them smoke. Two are struggling in school. One has a mom who seems to be zonked out on some kind of painkiller: she goes to sleep on July 1st and wakes up on July 4th.  Another has been molested by his mother’s latest boyfriend, whom his mother subsequently attempted to kill.  Two have anger issues. One has a drifter-dreamer dad who has moved the family fifteen or twenty times in the last few years. But the boys are all likeable, and you find yourself rooting for them — and for America to live up to the American Dream.

One of the boys, Andrew, has a kind of luminosity of spirit I have seldom seen on screen. He has a life that would make most boys despair or lash out, but, in spite of a hundred adversities and twenty changes of residence, he continues to smile and clown around with his dad and love his adorable little sister.


Andrew and his sister in Rich Hill

It’s a beautiful film — sometimes heart-wrenching to watch, but magnificently humane in its approach and effect.

I was struck by a remark Tracy Droz Tragos made during a Q&A after the film. She said that she and her collaborators paid a good deal of money to buy a certain kind of camera – I can’t recall what sort – and that they did this to avoid any visual suggestion that they might be condescending to or exploiting their subjects. Now, camera-naïf that I am, it had not occurred to me that a cheap camera could produce an image that suggested exploitation. But, then, if you think about the images you see on “Cops” and shows of that sort, you can see what she means. There is something exploitative about these shows. They look to catch human beings at their worst, drunk, disorderly, and disagreeable. They allow us to set the subject on a lower plane than ourselves, cross our arms, and say tsk-tsk. And, I suppose, the grainy camera images contribute to the overall impression in ways that are not easy to describe. Nobody looks luminous on a police surveillance video.

There’s a moment in the film where the filmmakers seem to be tempting the viewer to make a snap judgment concerning one of the moms. Or, at least, I felt the temptation myself. We see a single mom, with a Big Gulp in her hand and a cigarette dangling from her mouth, yelling angrily at her son. It’s very tempting to categorize the woman as “bad parent who doesn’t give a rip” and “white trash.” However, as the film goes on, you see that the woman does love her son. There is a very touching scene in which she and the boy ride in an elevator. They are on their way up to a courtroom, where the boy is going to be sentenced to some sort of juvenile detention center or psychiatric evaluation center. It’s not a happy situation, and yet cheerfulness somehow breaks in. And even giggles. Mother and son nudge each other and smile, as if the adolescent were still just a kid, and you realize that the mom really does love her son. She just gets frustrated by him sometimes – as which of us parents does not? Anyway, you realize this, and you see that you were wrong to want to place the woman in the “bad, white-trashy parent” box. She needs to be unboxed; and perhaps others do, as well. The film encourages the viewer to accept these people as real people, with virtues as well as vices, without any of the mingled pity and judgment that, all too often, are produced when Blue-state journalists go looking for meth-crazed hillbillies in Red-state America.  This is why I say Rich Hill is a very humane film. I think that’s one of the best things that can be said about a documentary.

Rich Hill won the jury award at Sundance. I’m sorry to report it didn’t win anything at Full Frame. It should have. (I’d like to have a word with the rest of the jury.) You can learn more about the Rich Hill on the film’s website.

If you’d like to read what some other bloggers and journalists have to say about this year’s Full Frame festival, check out the wrap-ups on,, filmbabble blog spot, and nextprojection.

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Full Frame 2014

The folks at Full Frame have announced their 2014 program, and it looks terrific. Tickets are on sale now, and several shows have already sold out. So don’t wait too long! Click here for more information.

As I have mentioned in this space before, this one of my favorite film festivals. I try to go every year. The film festival is all docs, for four days, and therefore better than festivals that have a lot of second-rate fictional films. (Q.E.D.) Also, Durham is a lovely town. And this is one of the nicest weeks of the year to visit. Everything will be in bloom and winter will (presumably) have given up the ghost, even if it still drags on where you live.

In my opinion, there’s only thing wrong with Full Frame — and that is that it is beginning to get to be too popular. I used to go in the early years of the festival, and the films were just as good, but there were many fewer people. Many.  I’m glad they’re succeeding. Or so I keep telling myself. Actually, I’m a little grumpy, like a man who finds his favorite restaurant overrun with new customers after it gets reviewed in the paper. But my loss is your gain.

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Tim’s Vermeer

Wow! What a story!

I hope this film wins lots of awards. I would vote for it to win best documentary – at least I haven’t seen anything better so far this year. And I’d like to see Penn Gillette get some kind of award for producing the film (and narrating it). Gillette saw a fascinating story where many people would have seen nothing but an eccentric rich guy.  But the main person who deserves an award is the subject of the film, the eccentric rich guy himself – Mr. Tim Jenison.  Let’s hear it for Tim Jenison! If you haven’t seen the film, go and see it and you will understand what I mean.

Jenison is the painter/experimenter/hobbyist/re-enactor at the center of the film. If there’s an award for “Most Awesomely Dedicated Inquirer in a Documentary Feature,” Jenison ought to win it hands down, for he spent the better part of a decade learning to paint in the way he thinks the Dutch painter Vermeer probably painted. He also deserves an award for “Most Scholarly Use of a Fortune Accumulated in Business.” Many businessmen spend their money on food and wine, women, yachts, and other sybaritic pleasures; Jenison has spent a good chunk of his recreating a seventeenth century room and its furnishings and then painting that room using seventeenth-century equipment.

Jenison did these things, and the result looks to me like an important breakthrough in our understanding of Vermeer and Dutch painting. I’m not an expert on the subject, but if a total amateur like Jenison – he had never painted before he began studying Vermeer – can paint a faux Vermeer of the sort he paints in the film, I think there is probably something to his method.

Jenison’s hypothesis, briefly, is that Vermeer used optical devices – a camera obscura and a mirror — to achieve the astonishingly realistic look of his paintings. Jenison focuses, in particular on the mirror. He sets up a mirror so that he can compare two patches of color. One is the color on his canvas and the other is the color from a tiny section of the scene he is painting, as reflected in the mirror. As he adjusts the color on the canvas, it comes to look more and more like the color in the mirror.

The mirror has to be carefully positioned so that the reflected image seems to be right next to the portion of the canvas that is supposed to match it. Then the painter can glance back and forth between the canvas and the mirror and see if the color on the canvas matches the color in the mirror. When the colors in these two frames are different, there will be a visible line, or seam, that separates the reflected image from the painted image. However, when the color on the canvas matches the color in the mirror perfectly, this dividing line vanishes.

This transforms the whole way the painter thinks. No longer is he thinking “I have to draw that porcelain jug and make it look like a real jug.” Instead, he is using his mirror set-up to try to match shades of color on various parts of the jug. As a result, he is no longer painting an object in the way he imagines it must be. He is painting shades of color and trying to make those pesky seams vanish. And, paradoxically, by not thinking about the juggishness of the jug, he is able to create a more realistic image. He achieves realism, but not by applying formulas like the formulas of perspective. He achieves it by switching off the macro-level task of “painting a jug” and switching his attention to the micro level task of matching tiny patches of color.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is encouraged to “use the Force.” As he makes his final approach to the Death Star, he switches off his targeting equipment and relies on his own senses to take the crucial shot. The film wants us to believe that this is the better way to do the job. The approach to painting Jenison demonstrates in this film is almost exactly the opposite. The goal is not to see the object whole, and with one’s own eyes. It is to see the object as tens of thousands of tiny zones of color, making systematic use of the painter’s targeting equipment – that is, the mirror. The goal is not to switch off the technology and accept the image in the mind’s eye. The goal is to switch off the mind’s eye and trust the technology. The goal is not to “paint what you see,” but to match the color. Luke! Don’t use the force! Use the mirror!tim-vermeers

There has been a lot of controversy about the idea that Vermeer relied on optics. Some art critics think that the use of technology, if proved, would diminish his achievement.  When we say somebody did something with “smoke and mirrors,” we don’t usually mean is as a compliment.  But it’s not clear that there is anything to worry about in this regard; and, even if there is, the more important task is determining how Vermeer actually (or probably) made his paintings.

This is a fascinating film and I would encourage everyone to see it.

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Readers of this website are sure to like, a new(ish) website administered by Christopher Caldwell, Daniel Walber, and a handful of their colleagues from Film School Rejects.

The website, which seems to have opened in the late summer or early fall,  while I was napping, describes itself as “a destination for nonfiction enthusiasts.” The editors take a capacious view of what might qualify as nonfiction film, entertaining the possibility that it might include fictional depictions of real-life events — at least occasionally,  if the editors find the films interesting.Nonfics

The website reports on new releases — both in theaters and on DVD — but also (wisely) works to draw attention to older films that will (alas) be new to most filmgoers. The editors report on top-grossing documentaries for the week and for the year-to-date, thus providing a service that A.J. Schnack used to provide on his (inactive, lamented) blog All These Wonderful Things. (I hope they will also revive the year-end summary Schnack used to do where he tallied up all the prizes and festival awards for docs for the calendar year.)

The editors document festival happenings. They also  review films and produce podcasts in which they discuss documentaries. I have found much of interest on the website, and I suspect that you will, too.

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Uncovering Vermeer’s Methods

Usually I don’t write about a film until I have seen it. But I am very excited to see Tim’s Vermeer, and wanted to draw readers’ attention to a couple of articles on the subject of the film, Tim Jenis0n, and his quest to recreate the methods the Dutch painter Vermeer used to create his astonishingly realistic paintings.

Jenison has been investigating a hypothesis put forward by David Hockney — that Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, or some similar optical device, to create his paintings.

I read a few articles about this issue some years ago, and Hockney’s idea struck me as at least plausible. After all, the Netherlands was a hotbed of optics back in Vermeer’s day. The philosopher Spinoza was a lens grinder. Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope, was a Dutchman, too.  And, although it is not well known, the evidence suggests that Galileo got the idea for his telescope from the Netherlands, though he seems to have improved upon the Dutch design. Might it also be the case that Vermeer found a way to make paintings look more realistic using lenses and optical equipment?

Jenison thought it might be possible, and he decided to put Hockney’s hypothesis to the test by creating a device of the sort he thinks Vermeer might have used and then seeing if he could use it to paint a new version of one of Vermeer’s best-known paintings — even though he had no previous experience as a painter. You can see his re-creation of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson below.

The theory that Vermeer used lenses has not gained widespread acceptance yet, but it sounds to me like Jenison may have achieved a breakthrough. If he manages to convince scholars his theory is correct, it will be one of the great scholarly achievements of the modern era, comparable to what Schliemann achieved by uncovering the ruins of Troy; or, what Parry and Lord achieved, when they showed that The Iliad and The Odyssey were almost certainly oral productions, composed by illiterate bards and only written down many years later.

You can read about Jenison and his quest in this article from Vanity Fair.  I also recommend this interview with Jenison from

Tim Jenison's recreation of Vermeer's The Music Lesson

Tim Jenison’s recreation of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson


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IDA Nominees and Award-Winners 2013

The International Documentary Association has announced its nominees for Best Documentary Feature and Best Documentary Short for 2013, as well as this year’s recipients of several annual filmmaker awards. You can read the list of nominated films and victorious individuals here.

Reading these lists is always somewhat bittersweet for me, because there are always a number of films that didn’t come to a theater near me. I do look forward to the day when I will look at the nominees list and have seen virtually all of the nominated films in a theater.

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Virginia Film Festival Highlights Docs

The 2013 Virginia Film Festival is coming up — November 7-10 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The folks who plan the programming for the VFF don’t make a big noise about documentaries, and they seldom put a documentary in one of their prime time slots, e.g. at 7PM on Saturday, but for the past two or three years they have been filling many of the less-prominent time slots with excellent documentary films, so it is now possible to attend this festival as if it were a documentary film festival.

This year looks to be no exception. The schedule for this year contains an impressive selection of documentary films, including Lion Ark, Running From Crazy, Brave Miss World, Computer Chess, Medora, Tales from the Organ Trade, Pride and Joy, The Gettysburg Story, The Armstrong Lie, Last Ferry Home, William and the Windmill, The Kennedy Half Century. Remote Area Medical, Autopilots, Caucus,Vannin’, Our Nixon, In God We Trust, and First Cousin Once Removed.

I hope to see several of these and will write about the ones that make me feel like writing. Readers of this blog who plan to attend the festival may be interested in a scouting report of the festival I wrote for the 2012 Festival, which includes restaurant recommendations.

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Musings on the Miniplex

A few weeks ago I went to see “Twenty Feet from Stardom” at the Bow Tie Cinema on Temple Street in New Haven, Connecticut. I arrived a few minutes late, and the film had already begun. It was very dark in the theater when I entered, but I could make out a couple sitting in the second or third row.  I made my way up the aisle to the row just behind them and quickly found a seat near the aisle.

While I was watching the film, I had the sensation that there was something behind me — something very close behind me. I turned my head to see what might be back there and was surprised to find it was a wall. Although I was in the fourth row, I seemed to be in the last row in the theater.

After the film, I inspected the theater and found that it contained just a few rows, and perhaps 40 seats. It was one of the smallest movie theaters I had ever been in. It was not the very smallest, however. That honor would go to a theater at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, in London, which is barely bigger than my living room and seats, perhaps, 30 people – provided those 30 people really like one another.

I was curious about the floor plan and had a chat with the manager on duty. She told me that the theater had been built a few years ago with “mixed audiences” in mind.  It contained several large theaters of the standard megaplex variety – and I could hear the booming sounds of explosions echoing down the hallway that led to these larger theaters.  But it also contained two smaller theaters which had been built deliberately, to allow the venue to screen documentaries and independent films — films that attract a niche audience.

I was pleased to discover that this theater had opted not just for megaplex but for megaplex-plus-miniplex, and that they had done so thinking that they had a chance to make money on the miniplex theaters as well as the larger theaters. Of course, what many of us doc-lovers hope to see someday is that the best documentaries are showing in the megaplexes, attracting mega-audiences, and making mega-bucks, thus allowing for the funding of more documentaries. But this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Perhaps documentary film can survive in the independent movie theaters and miniplexes until it attracts a wider audience.minplex

So I say, two cheers for the Miniplex! And I hope to see you at a miniplex someday soon – but don’t bring too many friends, or they may not be room for all of us!

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