Tribute to the opening credits of A Shot in the Dark by Flixwise artiste Emma Guerard
Greetings, loyal reader. You now have the singular opportunity to hear me talk about a film I have loved for a long time, A Shot in the Dark. Host Lady P. and her co-producer Martin Kessler graciously allowed me to pitch the film for inclusion into the Flixwise Favorites list. Flixwise is a podcast which in regular episodes makes its way through the Sight and Sound top 250 films list. On the Favorites episodes, they set aside that venerable and canonical list and turn to other, perhaps more neglected or less critically praised films, and discuss whether they should be honored as Favorites by the podcast. Take a listen to my pitch on A Shot in the Dark to see if Lady P. and Martin find one of my favorites a Favorite of the podcast.
What follows is an expanded and revised version of what I pitched on the podcast, summarizing my feelings about the film.
Akira Kurosawa’s 1949 film, The Quiet Duel, is one of his least seen works, partly due to some obscure rights issues that has kept it from being released by Criterion or any other major home video label. The lack of visibility can’t really be blamed for the lack of acclaim the film has generated: it is a relatively minor achievement for Kurosawa. But is still worth seeking out for any fans of the Japanese master filmmaker.
One might assume that the “duel” referred to in the title was between the two major stars of the film, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, who had squared off the previous year in Drunken Angel, and would later famously be paired in such films as Seven Samurai. However, the title actually refers to an internal moral battle and struggle against a disease contracted by Mifune’s character in the course of his work as a doctor.
I was privileged to attend a screening of Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, two weeks ago. It has stayed with me and occupied my thoughts for much of the time since. I can’t respond to this film as a dispassionate critic reviewing the merits of an art object, as this is a film that reaches in and grabs at the core of my own Catholic faith. I will assume for the purposes of this post that my readers are familiar with the basic outline of the scenario; if not, I will refer you to Alissa Wilkinson and Steven Greydanus’s reviews to begin with.
I would also like to share, and in part respond to, a couple of other perceptive pieces that I have read which I have been meditating over. In these cases, I have serious disagreements with the interpretations offered, but I feel that they are also thoughtful, serious, and important points of view to reckon with. I don’t think a “review” works for films like this, if by review you mean a take that can be summarized in a thumbs up/down, or given a star rating that can be crunched into an aggregate to determine its percentage of freshness. So I won’t share any of the more shallow or dismissive reviews I have read, which, sadly, have come from Christian writers of various backgrounds.
Silence, by Shusaku Endo
The film is about as perfect of an adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel as I can imagine. Two missionaries, Fr. Garrpe (Garupe in the film) and Fr. Rodrigues, as they face torture, betrayal, and the testing of all that they believe and stand for, represent the extreme physical limits of the faith trials that most of us Americans experience only internally, or even theoretically. But additionally their intrusion into a politically motivated purging of the Western influence in Japan represents a clash of cultures that requires a complex and sensitive response even from this historical distance. These issues have not been resolved in the intervening centuries from the 17th century setting of this story.
Is it really a story worthy of Star Wars?
I typically don’t post reviews of current films, but as a long time Star Wars fan, I wanted to put down some thoughts on Gareth Edwards’s new entry in the film canon, and the first standalone film (assuming you don’t count the 2008 animated entry The Clone Wars): Rogue One. So here we are!
I read Steven Greydanus’s review for his site, Decent Films, prior to seeing the film, in which he persuasively argues that this new film, subtitled “A Star Wars Story,” is a major change in the mode of the storytelling from the numbered Episodes of the main Saga. There is a shift from the fairytale like quality of the original trilogy, into a slightly more mainline sci-fi style. Not only is the violence more visceral than in most of the films, but also the heroes and even possibly the Rebel cause itself, are tainted with war crimes and murders that are made a central part of the story. The mythic mode of storytelling has had the bright lines between the “good guys” and “bad guys” smudged. For some, this is a welcome change, a more “realistic” look at the horror of war. For Greydanus, it’s basically a dealbreaker, in that he feels this form of storytelling betrays what is essential about the original Star Wars fantasy, with its archetypal presentation of the story of the triumph of purity and idealism over the evil forces of mechanical domination.
I found myself in neither camp, really. Years of dipping into the well of the now-defunct Expanded Universe off and on has primed me for an incredible variety of storytelling modes set in this universe that, God help me, I can’t help but love. Greydanus’s argument that the core, canonical (film) stories are betrayed by Rogue One in a way that wasn’t the case with the peripheral books and comics is legitimate—and nagged at me—but I still found more to appreciate than he did.
Back in June, I watched my Blind Spot selection, but due to a busy schedule, was unable to write about it at the time. A similarly busy docket led me to delay writing on my August selection. It was more than just an overloaded schedule, however, that prevented me from writing about the two pictures. Both films gave me a visceral, moving, and in some ways unspeakable experience that has resisted my efforts to begin formulating in words. The films in question were Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthasar in June, and in August the Wim Wenders picture Paris, Texas.
We first see Marie through this window, our view distorted by the imperfections in the glass.
Despite great differences in setting, visual style, language, and the context of their era, both films have at their center a vulnerable and abused young woman, whom we find in heartbreaking circumstances. Each film has an oblique way of approaching the emotional and physical traumas that the women undergo. In both cases the indirect presentation of their experience creates emotional echoes within both the world of the film and within the viewer. Rather than distancing us from these women, the emotional experience is intensified and made more acute by seeing them through the lens of other characters. In Bresson’s film, we follow a donkey and a town drunk through struggles that reflect the central character’s at an angle. In Wenders’s film, the young woman only appears in person in about the final hour of the film, so that we know her only through the conversations and reminiscences of other characters. In both films, such scenes discussing an absent third character give perspective and nuance to what we see of them, and inject an ambiguity which inspires compassion and restraint in our interpretation of the choices made by the young women. Both Bresson and Wenders seem to show a generosity to the women in their stories which inspires an empathetic response from the viewer.
A very Russian vision of the Crucifixion.
For October’s Blind Spot post, I watched the Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky’s epic medieval story of art and faith, Andrei Rublev. The film is an episodic rumination on the connections between faith, art, and suffering as seen through the life of the the title character, who was one of the greatest painters of icons in the Orthodox church. There is more scripture recited in this film, through the mouths of characters and in voice-overs, than in any other film I can recall seeing. Faith is an integral part of Andrei Rublev’s world, but his faith is never a simple proposition to assent to, but rather a struggle with the reality of God’s encounter with a sinful world.
Andrei, his face scratched by Nature.
The early 1400s in Russia, as depicted in Andrei Rublev, is a time where political leaders are vicious and duplicitous, and the authority and influence of the Church is pervasive, until it comes up against violence that it cannot resist. Andrei is an artist and a monk, a man of deep faith and conflicted relationship to those around him. His singular devotion to his artistry leads him to wound others indirectly on multiple occasions. Early in the film he slights his artist companion Daniil with his presumption. In another episode he confronts a group of forest dwellers he encounters celebrating a pagan ritual, chastising them for their idolatrous behavior. Later, when he has been commissioned to paint a church with the Last Judgment, he delays for months, leaving his crew of workers to restlessly await his inspiration to return to work. His conflict with his society reaches a head when he kills a soldier during a raid who is attempting to carry off a woman to rape her. After this, he remains silent for years as penance for killing a man, and even gives up his painting to perform menial labor in the monastery where he lives.
I am watching a Roger Corman-helmed B-movie called The Terror. An elderly Boris Karloff in period costume descends stone steps in a castle to open a tomb. Another man bashes in a door to follow him. There is an appartion of a woman. A breach in the wall leads to an inrushing of water. Some characters fall into the water. A man dives in to retrieve a woman—I’m not really certain just what is occuring. The images trade in cliched horror tropes, and I feel that I have seen this movie before, even though I really never have. The opening credits are being rapidly superimposed over the fairly incoherent sequence—but they are for the wrong film. The credits proclaim that this is Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. Though I have just begun the film, the title card comes up: “The End.”
And…cut to the image of a screening room. On the front row is Boris Karloff, or as he is known in Targets, Byron Orlok. Behind him, with a characteristic head-in-hand gesture, is Peter Bogdanovich, the writer-director of Targets, playing writer-director Sammy Michaels. Cut again to a close-up of Karloff as the lights slowly come up, and with a slight twitch of the mouth, and a bowing of the head, I see that Orlok is weary, disappointed, and ready to end his acting career.