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.
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.
John Ford’s final western film, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), has not received the critical or popular reappraisal that many of his other films were to achieve. Even the most favorable reviews tend to be measured in their praise, and mostly regarding the Oscar-nominated photography of William Clothier. This film was released in an era of overlong widescreen epics, many of whose runtime exceeds their value. But it is still a disappointment to witness the ambling structure of the episodic narrative coming from John Ford, whose best films are so often perfectly proportioned. A mere two years before Ford had released The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, a film that is vastly superior in pacing, characterization, and exploration of its chosen theme. Though Liberty Valance did not benefit from the majestic location footage in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, it still manages to give a greater and more epic story in a similarly elegiac mood.
Winsor McCay, center, in the prologue to Little Nemo.
I’m willing to bet that many of my generation first discovered the work of Winsor McCay in the same way that I did: through Bill Blackbeard and Martin Williams’s important catalog of artistry known as The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Presented amongst dozens of other comic strip creations, both forgotten and celebrated, the full page colorful splendors of “Little Nemo in Slumberland” stood out even alongside such luminaries as Gottfredson’s “Mickey Mouse” or Segar’s “Thimble Theatre.”
The Rushmore Academy sign…
…based on the many similar signs at the real Rushmore, St. John’s School.
Rushmore is one of my favorite films from writer-director Wes Anderson. It was released in 1998, but I probably didn’t see it until about 2004, when I was living in the Houston Heights neighborhood. I had stopped in at a local, old-fashioned barbershop for a haircut, and the barber struck up a conversation with me. He asked me if I had been there before, and when I indicated that I hadn’t, he told me a bit about the place, including how it had been used as a filming location for Rushmore. After I paid for my haircut (cash only, even more than ten years later) I headed straight down the street to the local Blockbuster Video (RIP) to rent the movie.
I had previously seen Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, though I don’t know that I even made the connection at the time. So Rushmore was my gateway into Anderson fandom, and now I consider The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou probably my favorite film period. I love all his films, though I am a contrarian to popular opinion in that I feel The Royal Tenenbaums to be his least successful work.
It wasn’t only the quaint barbershop that was used for filming, though. Rushmore was shot on location in many places throughout Houston. I decided this week to revisit three of them that I have become personally familiar with since seeing the film.
The Music Room, which dominates the fate of its master, looms large over his figure in this striking composition.
The great Indian Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, released one of his most renowned masterworks, The Music Room, in 1958, just prior to the third film in his Apu trilogy. This film, based on a short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay, is in a completely different mode of storytelling than the epic and realistic style of the Apu films. Though it contains no elements of magic or mysticism, The Music Room is essentially a fable, packed with symbolism but nevertheless remaining grounded and humanistic. Mirrors, a chandelier, insects, a cane, all play a role as powerful visual symbols in Ray’s story. But the role of sound and music is most important of all, with some of the most absorbing musical performances I know of in the movies.
For a synopsis of the plot, I invite you to read Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” review. For myself, in watching this film though I was very aware of the cultural gaps between myself and the world portrayed in the story, I still was moved by the essence of the human drama and the universal themes that Ray explored. In his essay for the Criterion release, Philip Kemp writes, “Ray himself, believing it too culturally specific to attract non-Indian audiences, ‘didn’t think it would export at all.'” Ray was mistaken, of course, since this has come to be a film beloved around the world. But still, there is some truth that there would undoubtedly be more depth of feeling if I could understand the art of the film from the inside, rather than as a foreigner.