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This Week's Attractions: Voices in Wartime

by Tim Appelo

Voices In Wartime
Opens Fri., April 15, at Guild 45

When it's good, it's very, very good, and when it's bad, it's incoherent. But Rick King's documentary is one of the most original war movies ever made. It's replete with alternately ghastly and galvanizing combat footage, benefiting from the paradox Truffaut defined: It's impossible to make an antiwar movie, because war is such an exciting cinematic subject. It also riskily focuses on words as much as images. Much of the film consists of interviews about poetry and recitations of masterpieces (and so-so pieces) by everybody from Homer to Auden to the startlingly eloquent 12-year-old Michigan poet Cameron Penny.

The project is Northwest-made. Executive producer Andrew Himes' background as a poet and a Microsoft Internet pioneer positions him to put his literary education to social use; his wife and co-producer, Alex Wilber, is a Seattle novelist (and was my erstwhile Amazon.com colleague). The project originated, ironically, with that archenemy of the American mind, Laura Bush, who summoned poets to the White House for a January 2003 symposium honoring Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. Irascible Port Angeles invitee Sam Hamill launched a poets' revolt to turn the evening into an Iraq-bashing antiwar extravaganza. So Laura canceled the fete; Hamill et al. triumphantly relocated the event to New York, and enlisted Whitman, Hughes, and lots of living poets in the fight against Bush warmongering.

King and editor Daniel Loewenthal whip the footage documenting this satisfying fracas into pretty good shape. Far better is the film's extended treatment of World War I shell-shock poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. The superimposition of war scenes and Owen's handwritten death poem "The Last Laugh," complete with scribbled revisions, is literary explication on a par with Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory.

There are other high points, but nothing else in the movie approaches the structural integrity of the Bush vs. Hamilland WWI passages. The narrative hops from poet to poet and war to war almost at random; the nice joining of the segues can't conceal the lack of logic. Much ofthe verse is movingly intoned, especially Garrison Keillor's profound and basso profundo reading of Whitman's CivilWar dirges. But a sympathetic cause and an inspiring subject, such as Seattle poet Emily Warn, do not always spell aesthetic success. Warn's touching story of her D-Day hero dad's tragic end does not prevent her poem about him from sounding like warmed-over Wordsworth.

Despite such longueurs and hiccupping rhythms, Voices is well worth seeing. And if the truncated versions of the poems vex you, you can check out their entireties on the Web at www.voicesinwartime.org. Men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. (NR) TIM APPELO