What lingers in the mind is the color. A reddish-pinkish hue, the hue of dying embers. And the glow of the fireflies who rise up with a dreamy slowness like sparks floating upwards. The fireflies die quickly—their lifespan may be a season—and they are easily crushed even by a small child, which is a giant to them. Children, like the fireflies, are also the victims of forces much larger than them—war, hunger, the banality of bureaucracy, the general indifference of the adult world.
“Watch the road, dear!”
In Frank Nugent’s original 1939 New York Times review of John Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk, he observed, “The Revolutionary period, oddly enough, has been one of the least exploited epochs in our national history—by the screen, that is…” If we are discussing war movies, I would add World War I to the list under-served by the cinema. While we seem to get a new movie about World War II almost every year, these pivotal eras are rarely charted by filmmakers. So it is with great interest that I took a look at Ford’s film, which stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as a pair of newlyweds trying to make a life in the frontier when war against the British breaks out around them.
It’s not really a war movie properly speaking, but like most of Ford’s best loved pictures, a story of a family and a community. There are some battles, but most of them are off screen, or only spoken about. Ford is more concerned with the aftermath of the battles, and even the preparation for them, than on rousing footage of the actual skirmishes. The focus remains on the ways that the encroaching realities of war shapes and transforms a community. As one of the few wars fought on our own soil, this sort of story is very different than the ones where soldiers bleed and die across the ocean. Homes are burned by Indians allied with the British. The women and children of the frontier are forced to retreat to the relative safety of the nearby fort, abandoning their homes and lands. The militia is formed from the able bodied of the area, and drilled in preparation to defend the territory.
Dystopias never really go out of style. Since at least the early 20th century, every generation produces its fair share of dystopian literature and films. It seems that regardless of the political climate we live in, it is possible to detect the seeds of what might grow into a future where society is a frightening place. Artists seem to feel the need to express their discontent with contemporary trends through these futuristic nightmares, and readers and audiences continue to show an appetite to experience these brave new worlds. One of the earliest epic science fiction dramas was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a dystopic silent film that has influenced countless films since. Two of the best known novels in this mode, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World, have served as models and inspirations for many of the dystopias which followed, up to the recent Hunger Games series.
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.
Last year, I attempted the Blind Spot series, a project where you watch one new-to-you classic film, and blog about it. This project is hosted by Ryan McNeil at the Matinee blog, and I encourage you to follow his blog for his own entries and those of the other blogs participating. I was not fully successful in getting 12 posts up last year, but I did achieve 9 from my list. I also saw lots of other new-to-me movies that I didn’t get to write about, so altogether I feel my 2016 film watching was a success.
I’m going to make another attempt in 2017 using this list. As before, I reserve the right to revise the list, but here’s the initial resolution:
As my thoughts are posted, links will be added to the list above. Here’s to a great 2017 of movie watching!
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.