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.
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:
- Day for Night (Truffaut) [carried over from 2016]
- Intolerance (Griffith) [carried over from 2016]
- The Quiet Duel (Kurosawa)
- Drums Along the Mohawk (Ford)
- Othello (Welles)
- Ivan’s Childhood (Tarkovsky)
- The King of Comedy (Scorsese)
- Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
- M. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati)
- Late Spring (Ozu)
- The Lodger (Hitchcock)
As my thoughts are posted, links will be added to the list above. Here’s to a great 2017 of movie watching!
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.