Wednesday, July 12, 2017
BABY DRIVER is, quite simply, as astonishing achievement, part supercharged chase movie; part love story with a sweet center (rather like those noir classics, Gun Crazy and They Live By Night); and all things Hollywood dance musical. But for all that it stands on its own. For those like me, relatively unfamiliar with director Edgar Wright and actor Ansel Elgort, it’s a declaration of sorts. Here am I, it seems to say, where have you been???
When he’s not driving like a canny maniac, when he’s not paying off debts to a local gangster (Kevin Spacey), when he’s not falling in love with the pretty waitress (Lily James)—he’s taking care of an aging deaf and dumb black man, confined to a wheelchair. There’s a telling moment early in the film when the old man advises Baby (for that’s his name, until it’s finally revealed to be, tellingly, “Miles”) to “spread the peanut butter to all the edges of the bread.” Remember that. It’s a handy way of describing how director Edgar Wright has crafted this movie.
Indeed, BABY DRIVER spreads its events, dialogue, songs, and dance choreography right to the edges of the frame. They demand our eyes and ears pay attention, lest we miss some detail, gesture, and song lyric. In a way, it’s a live-action throwback to the great Disney cartoon shorts of the 1930s, where the entire frame—every character, every stick of furniture, every flower bud—anthropomorphically ticks and throbs to a musical beat. That tempo is the powerful engine that drives Baby Driver. Baby’s mix tapes propel his car and provide the downbeat for everything he does and everything that animates the world around him. Baby’s traversal of the city streets at the beginning—an amazing uncut take—is tightly choregraphed to the music of “Harlem Shuffle.” Two heist sequences are timed to the beats of “Bell Bottoms” and “Neat Neat Neat.” And you won’t believe how “Tequila” figures in to the action. . . . The songs denoting Baby and his girlfriend, Debora, Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” and Simon and Garfunkle’s “Baby Driver,” are leitmotifs throughout that surround and animate the lovers. Right in the middle of the action, he and the other characters will suddenly lip-synch, right on cue, a few words to a song that’s been running all along, either as a diegetic or non-dietetic event. The world is in thrall. Heck, even the windshield wipers sweep along with the beat.
The story is conventional enough: Baby is a young, preternaturally gifted wheelman who will be free of his handler if he’ll just do one more job. But the heist goes bad and the thugs turn on each other. Everyone is ultimately blasted to kingdom come, ultimately—
—except Baby. From first to last, at the wheel of the waiting getaway car in the beginning, and waiting out his last days of a prison sentence at the end—he’s the silent, rather stoic still point of the film. Ear buds attached to his ears, a mix tape at the ready, sunglasses hiding his eyes (he seems to possess an endless supply of sunglasses), he’s a Sphinx, tuned in to an auditory Other World. Except that Other World of pop songs is Our World, too. His interior acoustic universe is also our own exterior experience. The two are joined. And it’s a miracle.
THE MUMMY, directed by Alex Kurtzman, starring Tom Cruise as Nick, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wellas as Jenny, and Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll
THE MUMMY is presumably desiccated—I mean, dedicated— to all you Mummy fans out there. You’ve been loyal through numerous movie exhumations, from the Karloff classic in 1931, through serials and sagas from Hammer Films in the 60s, to the recent Brendan Fraser trilogy at the turn of the new century. Now Tom Cruise appears in the newest incarnation; and if he wears a perpetually perplexed expression at the goings-on, who can blame him? Or us?
The story is about an unearthed ancient Egyptian queen in quest of a bejeweled dagger with which she can impale Tom Cruise and transform him into her unholy partner as a “Living God.” Indeed, for some fans (most obviously Cruise himself) it’s always been a short hike from Tom Cruise Movie Star to Tom Cruise Living God.
As if those ambitions aren’t dubious enough, film makers and screenwriter David Koepp have ripped off the “Waking Dead” and zombie genres in general. Queen Amunet’s minions are shambling, murderous piles of deadly ash shambling hungrily after every human in sight. And for reasons entirely inexplicable to me, the script introduces Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll into the fray. Dr. Jekyll??? He shows up and gnashes his fangs momentarily before retiring back to his lab.
What results is one of the worst movies of this or any year. It lumbers around like Tom Tyler and Lon Chaney in those terrible “Mummy” movies of the ‘40s. Bereft of anything new to offer, it shamelessly exploits every Horror Trope known to man. It’s in tatters like the Mummy herself.
However, credit the makeup staff for providing Sofia Boutella a sexy shroud bikini in which to strut her stuff.
As for Cruise, he somehow avoids Queen What’s-Her-Name‘s clutches, only to die himself and arrive, resurrected, an Arab chieftain traversing the Burning Sands in search of—what? I’m not sure. The movie concludes with him on horseback, racing toward the Hollywood horizon.
Footnote: It’s interesting to remember that the whole “Mummy” saga was fashioned long before Hollywood, in the delicate hands of a 19th-century teenaged woman, one Jane Webb. She wrote the Grandmummy of all mummy stories in 1827, a scant decade after her Sister in Horror, Mary Shelley, reanimated her own creature in the novel, Frankenstein.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Directed by James Gray. Starring Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett, James Pattinson as Costin, and Tom Holland as his son.
Combining a story about a Lost City with the music of Maurice Ravel proves to be useful. Several times the music from Ravel’s ballet, Daphnis et Chloe, underscores visions of the tangled forests and rushing rivers of Bolivia and Brazil. Just as the music evokes Greek myths of Paradise, so THE LOST CITY OF Z likewise envisions its own primeval world as it plunges its protagonist, British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett, into his ill-fated search for a fabled City of Gold.
Make that three expeditions, in 1902, again in 1912, and finally in 1924. In the first two, after privations of starvation, disease, and near-death risks at the hands of indigenous peoples, Percy has to turn back short of his goal—but not before discovering some shards and fragments of pottery, suggestive of the remains of a former civilization. In the third, the obsessed Fawcett and his intrepid son, Jack, again nearly reach the goal, but. . . well, what happened after that is “lost” in its own myth and speculation. The film’s dreamy epilogue shows that the two men were captured by natives and, after being subjected to a mysterious ritual of food and drink, were subjected to a fate unknown, possibly cannibalism. Or, maybe they did not die at all, but remained there for years, peacefully living with the natives. Significantly, perhaps, Fawcett’s compass, which he had foretold would arrive back in England as a sign that he had reached his goal, did indeed find itself in the hands of the president of the Royal Geographical Society.
At two and a half hours, THE LOST CITY OF Z at times seems as endless and twisty as Fawcett’s expeditions. As one expedition follows the other, there’s an intervening episode of World War I., where Fawcett barely survives a charge in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Several times as the film just keeps on trucking along, hacking its own way through the thickly-forested narrative, I found myself, asking, Are we there yet? Moreover, forgive me if I found Fawcett’s arbitrarily tacked on preachments to the Royal Geographical Society about the nobility of civilizations that pre-existed Merry Olde England—not to mention his warnings that “civilized” men endangered those pre-historical civilizations—tiresome and arbitrary.
The film is decidedly Old School, straight out of Haggard and Kipling. Early on, Kipling’s poem, “The Explorer” (1898) is quoted, and its message resonates throughout:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—And we go there, all too willingly, even if we are not sure of our destination.
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!...
Over yonder! Go you there!”
Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, Jennifer Ehle as sister Vinnie, Duncan Dugg as brother Austin, and Keith Carradine as father Edward.
Unlike Emily Dickinson’s famous lines (1830-1886) that Death “kindly stopped” for her, the death that is described in A QUIET PASSION comes only after a series of cruel, unrelenting scenes of suffering. Seldom has the very process of death in its gasps, heavings, and prostrate convulsions been depicted so graphically under the unrelenting eye of the camera. In this respect, the life and death of the fabled Woman in White is stripped of any sentimentalizing. The “Belle of Amherst” does not lie quietly in her grave. Nor does she rest easily in posterity.
I must affirm, nonetheless, that in the final analysis, A QUIET PASSION is a very quiet film, a prolonged silent cry of protest, recriminations, anger, and resentment. The soundtrack is bereft of music, save for a song at the film’s opening of a song by Schubert [“Nacht und Traume”], and a scattering of ditties like “The Last Rose of Summer,” a few phrases of Stephen Foster’s “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and finally, as a valediction after her death, the long, slow, quietly winding phrases of Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question.” This last wraps the story and its characters in a quietly enduring enigma that is, finally, Emily Dickinson herself.
From our first view of her amidst the stifling moral recriminations hurled at her by the awful headmistress of Mt. Holyoke School, high-strung Emily is confined and pinned to the mat by the disapprovals and recriminations of her family, friends, neighbors, and a repressive Massachusetts middle-class society. The claustrophobic mise-en-scene confirms the horror of her entrapment in its several 360-pans that limns the starchy gallery of characters clustered around her in the lifeless, and dim interiors. (Indeed, Terence Davies once again proclaims himself as the “Poet of Interiors.”) And Emily, herself, at the end, as her own room implodes upon her, famously refuses to appear outside her door. She must endure the ongoing horrors of Bright’s disease with scarcely a sound from her grimly tight lips. Claustrophobic, yes, with scarcely a sense in its last half of any world outside the Dickinson house. Ironically, the closing credits disclose that some of the film was shot on location in Emily’s beloved Amherst, Massachusetts. They could have been shot in Timbuktoo, for all the visual import they have.
Emily Dickinson’s drama is revealed as something straight out of Eugene O’Neill. A QUIET PASSION becomes a sort of A Long Day’s Journey into Amherst. The dialogue is self-consciously studied and posed. Everyone hurls aphorisms and witticisms, by turns wicked, clever, and dangerous, at each other, like combatants lobbing grenades in a No Man’s Land. At times, the archness of these exchanges gets too precious, and you would be forgiven for wearying of the artful intelligence and cynicism everyone, not just Emily herself, wields with surgical precision. Particularly tedious are the extended dialogues between Emily and a character that has been inserted into the story, her proto-feminist friend, the wily Vryling Buffam. Indeed, the script at times is insufferably arch and precious. But, yet, all is forgiven, for there is Cynthia Nixon’s Emily, lurking above the fray atop the stairs, glaring at the world, her round face perched precariously atop a long neck, hair severely drawn back in a bun, eyes sometimes glittering with mania, voice scratching and abrasive. Here she is in all her petty feuds, righteous anger, grim frustration, and spiritual confusion. “She scrapes against the grain of the movie’s decorum,” writes critic Anthony Lane, “and asks, What kind of soul did you expect, at the root of poems like these?”
And yes, the poetry. A QUIET PASSION belongs to a select genre of movies about poets and poetry, from D.W. Griffith’s quotations of Robert Browning in Pippa Passes, to Glenda Jackson’s tender declamation of the poetry of Stevie Smith in Stevie, to the lush lyricism of the blighted love between John Keats and Fanny Brown in Bright Star. Here, in A QUIET PASSION, Dickinson’s lines are voiced by Nixon herself at strategic moments, a quiet counterpoint to wordless scenes, and, at other times, deftly slipped into the very dialogues. At one point, her lines are heard with only the image of a closed door before us.
Terence Davis is one mighty brave director to pull all this off with scarcely a concession to romanticizing Emily’s story. The one exception comes during Emily’s lines about the Death that awaits her as visualized in a shadowy male figure, silhouetted in the doorway of the house, who moves slowly up the stairs toward her door. But this tender and shadowy vision is quickly offset by the very material horrors of her decidedly unvarnished sufferings.
There is a clever visual device Davies employs twice to convey both the passage of time and Emily’s identity as myth and reality: I refer to an early scene when the camera moves slowly into the posed figures of the Dickinson family members, each subtly altered from youthful faces to the more set and stern expressions of advancing age. And at the very end, Davis repeats the procedure, this time prolonging a shot of Cynthia Nixon’s face as it dissolves into the familiar portrait of Emily herself. The technique speaks of time and identity. It is its own poetry.
Monday, March 27, 2017
Add LIFE to the selective list of science fiction’s most harrowing exercises in horror. The mantra that “survival means destruction” is amply demonstrated here. It’s kill or be killed as the crew members of a space ship engages in an apocalyptic struggle against an invading life form.
The crew of the International Space Station has been assigned the task of retrieving and bringing back to earth a capsule from the Martian surface containing a dirt sample. On board, a multi-celled organism emerges and quickly grows into a complex life form. Dubbed “Calvin,” it’s a diaphanous, tenticular, flower-like creature that relentlessly seeks out and envelopes its quarry. Impervious to flame, able to survive for prolonged periods without oxygen, it clambers around inside and outside the space ship, darting and slithering its way toward any opening or orifice, human and otherwise, affording its hideous entry. It’s a pure biological imperative, without emotional or psychological qualification or moderation. In short, it’s an eating machine
Every attempt to foil or contain it fails in a series of masterfully staged and horrifically escalating encounters. Only two crew members are left facing a desperate decision. If the monster is to be prevented from reaching earth, they must sacrifice themselves and propel their ship back into deep space. The resulting suspense and moments of purely visceral horror sustain a terrific, unflagging momentum. It’s as if the movie itself becomes an inexorable life form of its own, relentlessly and craftily attacking the viewers’ vulnerabilities.
An important element in the film’s Escher-like disorienting effects is the deployment throughout of a gravity-free ship’s interior. Crew members shoot in and out of hatchways, right side up, upside down, sideways and every way. Floors, ceilings, and walls afford no stable spatial sense. It’s the first film since 2001 that is so determined to confuse us in this way. Do not be surprised, therefore, if you emerge from the theater walking sideways along the corridors.
Yes, critics are pointing out the numerous references to other classic SF films, including ALIENS, GRAVITY, INVADERS FROM MARS, etc. There are even “Watch the Skies” and “They’re coming!” warnings at the end, issued by a desperate ship’s commander. So be it. LIFE is a science fiction and therefor subject inevitability to certain generic conventions. Deal with it.
Those warnings to “Watch the Skies!” may be too late. In a breathlessly nihilistic ending, the ship’s capsule containing the creature splashes down in the ocean; and several ships are seen approaching it from the point of view of a high-angle shot. It’s as if we are viewing through a microscope the encounter, which is nothing less than the fertilization of an egg... and the birth of the End of the world.
Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, Allison Williams as Rose, and Catherine Keener as Missy.
SPOILERS ALERT! The most interesting film of the new year is this serio-comic parable about race in America. It’s an amazing directorial debut from a man known primarily as a comedian. A weird cauldron of subtle creeps and outright guignol horror, it comes across as a kind of racist STEPFORD WIVES and true-life GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER. Sprinkle in a few shock cuts, some quirky slapstick, and an unexpected tribute to the Transport Security Administration (!). And yes, the great Catherine Keener is here, the evil matriarch of a family straight out of a Grant Wood painting in a crooked frame. (She first showed us how purely evil she can be as the suburban housewife who holds a young girl hostage in AN AMERICAN CRIME.)
On their way to the Armitage family home, tucked away in rural Alabama, Chris and Rose are your ideal interracial couple, comfortable in their black and white skins and committed to each other. Any apprehensions Chris might have about being accepted by Rose’s upscale whitebread family are quickly erased at the ease with which he is accepted into the family circle. . . Until. . . He begins to notice things. Several black servants appear, smiling, rather vacant. They wander about the house and grounds like vagrant ghosts. Stray dinner table remarks seem subtly racist; a few visiting relatives seem to be sizing him up (like that odd remark about his “genetic physical gifts”); and a strangely unnerving undercurrent flows through the house. Like all self-respecting gothic houses, there’s that locked door to the basement rooms.
And there’s Missy, the matriarch, a practicing therapist whose specialty is hypnotism. She loses no time in locking eyeballs with him and, with a slow twirl of a spoon in the coffee cup, puts him under. I mean, puts him UNDER. A nightmarish image shows him falling, falling, into a dark pit. He moves about, only half awake, shifting between conscious and unconscious states.
Her hypnotic influence is everywhere. This house is a modern-day plantation, a pressure cooker of tensions in liberal White America. This is the crux of the film: Racial sympathies are only skin deep (as it were) and bigoted cruelties are only lying in wait. The first revelations of this come when the click of Chris’s camera momentarily releases the tortured slave identity that lurks beneath the servants’ placid exterior. And so the time comes when all the masks are off and Chris’s beloved Rose and her family are revealed as rapacious slave masters. Rose, in particular, like other family members, has been “recruiting” young black men for sex all along, and then consigning them to some unknown fate (are some of them now the sleepwalking servants?). Chris is the newest. The whole household has been collecting these black folks for a variety of purposes, as servants, sex slaves, even as subjects for some sort of surgical brain procedures and mysterious medical experiments—a sort of medical miscegenation with the white folks. At this point, late in the film, the action in the underground laboratory explodes in an all-out guignol of mad scientists and hideous surgical experiments.
Now entrapped in that locked basement room, Christ manages to get free and exit the house, killing Missy and other family members. He’s out on the highway speeding away—until Rose appears, shotgun in hand, ready to mow him down. But at the last minute, Chris’s buddy, whom we met earlier in the film working in the Transport Security Administration, comes to the rescue. Despite his broadly humorous antics, the tone of the film is not damaged, but, curiously enough, enhanced.
The most haunting images in the film are the smiling, placid faces of the black housekeeper and farm hand, the epitome of those “happy black folks” working for the Massa. “I told you not to go into that house,” says Chris’s TSA friend (LilRel Howery). Indeed, if you venture into what seems the possibilities of racial equality and harmony—you do so at your risk.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Directed by Andrea Arnold, starring Sasha Lane as Star, Shia LaBeouf as Jake, and Riley Keough as Krystal.
The final images of AMERICAN HONEY sum up the lives of this gypsy-like tribe of teenagers on the road. Amidst the rising flames of a twilight campfire, the kids—teenagers mostly, a few in their 20s—twist and somersault over the fire. Sparks fly upward, framing their celebration of the moment. They dance free of the blaze, while they court its destruction. This is no coming-of-age narrative. It’s only ongoing. It’s a vision of America, of a sweetly violent apocalypse consuming itself. And all the while Lady Antebellum’s song, “American Honey,” proclaims an elegy:
There's a wild, wild whisper“There’s only one rule to selling,” Jake explains to his new friend/ protégée, Star. They’re knocking on the door of a home in wealthy Mission Hills, Kansas City. “And that’s the first moment they open the door. Everything depends on that first moment. They look at you and you have to know right away who they want you to be.”
Blowin' in the wind
Callin' out my name like a long lost friend
Oh I miss those days as the years go by
Oh nothing's sweeter than summertime
What are they selling? Whatever their “customer” wants. . .
We first see Star digging through a dumpster, tossing a turkey down to her little brother and sister. A flurry of incidents quickly follows: one moment she’s trying to hitch a ride; the next, she catches the eye of a guy in a van full of kids; then she’s dancing with a strange man in a home; now she’s chucking her clothes out the window; at a dance hall she leaves her brother and sister behind with her mother out on the dance floor; and now she’s back in a Motel 6 where she joins the van full of kids, bound for Kansas City, where they’ll team up to knock on doors and sell their wares. Life is like that in this American road trip, a series of chance encounters, rambles, casual acquaintances, and knocks on the next door.
In charge is a young woman named Krystal. She plans their motel stops, delivers pep talks, collects a percentage of the money, and enjoys casual sex with a series of strangers who mysteriously appear in her rooms. Okay, she seems to be in charge; but who is really pulling the strings of these kids? What is this selling operation really all about? We don’t know. This is no Death of a Salesman, with its Shakespearan resonance and tragic finality.
The passing scene westward, through Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas, is mostly glimpsed through the van’s windows: from the luxurious homes of Mission Hills to the dusty back roads, gas stations, seedy motels, strip malls, oil fields, and shanty shacks. The kids rattling away in their van have no past and no future. Neither does the aimless, wasted lives they see on the road. And certainly not in the country that is their America. At the center of it all is Star. She is part of the group, yet she stands slightly apart from it. She seems naïve at times but sexually experienced at others. She is neither victim nor victimizer. She makes love with Jake, she parts from Jake; again and again. She objects to selling door-to-door, yet she sells her body to a passing trucker. Periodically, she pauses to rescue a beetle, a turtle, watching their escape. But there’s no escape for her as she clings to the huddled bodies in the van, belonging, yet not belonging, as it hurtles on and on...
The film itself is like all of this, with its odd gaps in the narrative, characters who come and go, incidents that don’t resolve, and a repetitive quality that risks monotony. It’s overlong at more than two and a half hours, and frequently baffling in its narrative sense. . . Yet, and yet, there is an extraordinary sense of being in the moment throughout. There scarcely seems to be a camera anywhere. You don’t sense any of this is calculated or contrived. The surface is absolutely naturalistic and unstudied. There is a remarkable sense of life in the raw, with all its loose ends and frayed edges.
Friday, January 27, 2017
Directed by Jim Jarmusch, starring Adam Driver as the bus driver Paterson and Golshifeth Farahani as his wife Laura.
PATTERSON is a quiet miracle. Writer-director Jim Jarmasch has fashioned a gentle and poetic evocation to a decent city and its people.
One day while walking home from his daily work as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson (for that is also his name) stops to listen to a poem written by a 10-year old girl waiting for her mother. “Water falls,” she recites, reading from her little notebook, and the simple lines compare falling water to hair falling across her shoulders. “That’s good,” says the admiring Paterson.
He should know. He too is a poet. While waking up over his bowl of Cheerios, while driving the bus, during his lunch breaks, down in his workroom, he thinks about his own poems tucked away in his own notebook. His words, halting and tentative, limn themselves across the screen as he thinks and writes. And if the little girl’s poem sounds like William Carlos Williams, well, then Paterson greatly admires William Carlos Williams. And Paterson the town was once the home of William Carlos Williams. Not that the city boasts of the fact. Rather, another local celebrity, Lou Costello, is privileged with a park and a statue.
But the whole of PATERSON is like a poem by Williams. It celebrates the details and simple incidents in the daily lives of the citizens of Paterson. There’s the local bar owner who plays chess against himself, the lovelorn barfly suffering from unrequited love, the bus manager with his daily recitations of woes, the rapper declaiming in the laundromat. Paterson’s daily routine itself is like a poem, a litany, as it were. He rises in the morning, checks his watch, kisses his wife, eats his cereal, arrives at the bus station, listens to the small talk of the passengers, arrives back home, straightens out the tilting mailbox, and exchanges quizzical glances with Marvin the pug dog. His wife, delicately portrayed by the lovely Golshifeth Farahani, bakes cupcakes for the local farmer’s market and sings “I’ve been working on the railroad” with her new guitar. She decorates her life: She decorates the cupcakes, the guitar, her dresses with an odd black-and-white motif of white circles against a black field.
Nothing much happens in Patterson, New Jersey. There are no big events and conflicts in the town and in the movie, just quiet moments that come and go, hardly noticeable, but cumulative in their collective power. But there is this odd way that the film rhymes itself. By that I mean incidents have a way of repeating themselves. A chance remark by Laura to Paterson about maybe having twins someday is echoed in later moments when twins arrive in Paterson’s bus. The little girl’s “Water Falls” poem repeats itself in moments at the city’s water park. Laura’s dark, rather exotic beauty finds its counterpart in the movie she and her husband attend one night, ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, with its “Panther Woman” character. And while the quiet, rather stoic Paterson himself is something of a cipher, we remember the picture of him in a Marine uniform at the moment he disarms the lovelorn barfly after a lover’s spat.
Sometimes a miracle will find its way into the quiet streets and rundown shops of Paterson. They don’t announce themselves with a shout or with shafts of heavenly light. They just come and go, while we’re not looking. One day, while Paterson is sorrowing over the loss of his notebook (Marvin the dog ripped it up one night), he sits disconsolately on a bench in front of the waterfall. A little Japanese man in a business suit sits down next to him. He carries a satchel of notebooks. He asks Paterson if he writes poetry; if he likes William Carlos Williams. And then he gives Paterson one of his notebooks. It’s pages are blank. Paterson thanks him. Renewed, perhaps he will write again. The little man, meanwhile, departs, bound, he says, for Osaka.
From Paterson, New Jersey, to Osaka, Japan. Try to connect those two.
You can do it, but only in a poem.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver.
THE SILENCE is Martin Scorsese’s Heart of Darkness. Unlike Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, who journeys toward “The Horror” in search of the renegade Kurtz, Scorsese presents two Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who infiltrate the anti-Catholic savagery of 17th-century Japan in quest of the apostate Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson). Scorsese purportedly has been trying to bring to the screen this story, based on Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, for 25 years.
"If God hears our prayers, does he also hear our screams?" That question not only dominates a movie filled with the screams of tortured Christians, but it insinuates itself into the entire history of Christianity. Like a modern-day Job (about which more later), Martin Scorsese dares to ask this. But is there an answer . . . or just silence?
The subject in SILENCE of the Jesuit struggle in the 17th century to convert the Japanese to Christianity is not a topic we know much about. Not only was such an incursion resisted, it was savagely denounced. In another context, Bruce Beresford tackled a similar subject in his magnificent BLACK ROBE, wherein the Jesuits’s attempts to bring Christianity to the Indian tribes of Quebec resulted in the disastrous decimation of indigenous cultures through warfare and disease. In both films the introduction of Christianity is nothing less than the overthrow of one world-view and the replacement with another. SILENCE attempts to examine the conflicts and the negotiations in several key debates. The first transpires in a battle of wills between the Portuguese priest, Father Rodriguez, captured and threatened with torture, now fighting for his faith and his life with the wily Japanese Inquisitor. The priest’s attempts to counter the Inquisitor’s enigmatic taunts are rendered foolish. In the second Father Rodriquez finally confronts the apostate priest, Father Ferreira, who is now living with his captors as a Buddhist priest. In what is bound to create controversy among many viewers, Ferreiara defends his apostasy and demonstrates how selfishly indulgent, narrow, and presumptuous are Rodriguez’s arguments. A congruence of the two philosophies is impossible, argues Ferrera. For example, Christianity declares that Jesus came back from the dead after three days. The Japanese view is that God is the sun, which rises every day! Any Japanese person who converts to Christianity is only converting to his own version of the faith, inevitably inflected by his cultural grounding. Christianity may take root in the nourishing soil of the West but it only poisons the soil of the East.
Too many of us are trapped between the Heaven and Hell of our dilemma. I agree with one critic that the most relatable character in the film is neither the priests nor their inquisitors, but the one called “Kichijiro,” who continually appears throughout, begging confession and absolution for his betrayals of the priests. Back and forth, back and forth he goes, acting when it suits him out of faith one moment and renouncing that faith the next. He waffles back and forth between belief and self-preservation; renouncing his religion when it suits him, The effect is almost comic. Kichijiro is enacting the tragedy of being human. And I’m convinced that Scorsese loves him. So do we.
Meanwhile, I wonder if some viewers will come away from the film’s graphic depictions of Japanese tortures convinced that Scorsese is delivering a hate-sermon against the Japanese culture. And if other viewers will conclude that a God seemingly indifferent to human misery is not a God worthy of our faith and devotion.
And yet, and yet . . . For a film whose repeated and graphic scenes of Christian torture and martyrdom will test even the strongest stomachs of viewers, it’s fascinating how so many of the so-called “lost priests” of the Jesuit mission find that the denial of their faith is the only way to spare the horrific tortures of threatening members of their endangered flock. Now there is a true paradox. Indeed, our last view of the burial of the ageing Father Rodriguez, now an apostate living peacefully among his Japanese captors, is of the tiny crucifix secretly concealed in his robes . What are we to make of that?
As I said, Martin Scorsese is his own Job, questioning, like the beleaguered Job in the Bible (and like the captive Jesuits in the film) how God can allow Evil in the world and witness in silence mankind sufferings. The very inscrutability of this becomes its own answer. Are God’s ears deaf to our voice; or are we deaf to God’s voice? Has the silence been broken at all, either way?
In one of his finest works, G.K. Chesterton’s “Introduction to the Book of Job” tackles the problem. He speaks out in words that I believe Scorsese takes to heart: Job’s questions are answered only with more questions. “He is told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” As Chesterton notes further, “This deepening of the mystery is, paradoxically, what actually comforts Job – not only has no explanation been provided, but the world is shown to be even more perplexing than Job had even first thought, and yet he recognizes in this deepening of the mystery of creation some kind of assurance of divine providence.”
Thursday, January 5, 2017
Directed by Mike Mills, starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann, and Billy Crudup.
Destined to become a new American classic, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN looks back to the late 1970s and forward to the beginning of the new century. All that transpired in between, feminism, group encounters, social change, drugs, and challenges to gender identity are here, captured in this epic and touching story of a 55-year old single mother, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), coping with cultural change, shifts in relationships with her teenaged son, Jamie, and hesitating about future relationships with men. Bening’s performance is a miracle, an intricately nuanced portrait of a woman that is wry, confused, gentle, angry, and distraught by turns. Sometimes the mother, she is otherwise the child in the ways of a changing world; sometimes the teacher, she is more often the student. It is certainly among the finest performances of the year. I wonder if Bening, who was very much a young lady in the ‘70s, isn’t drawing upon her own experiences during those years; yet here she is, playing a mature woman coping with that world. In short, she meets herself coming and going, the young lady, then, and the older woman, now. This could mean that this film can connect with audiences of both groups.
Although the film is centered in 1979, Bening’ narrative voice keeps flashing forward to the end of the century, anticipating the fates of all those herein. Her large house is populated by several boarders, including Julie (Fannng), an independent girl trying to differentiate between love and sex; Abbie (Gerwig), a punk artist photographer coping with cervical cancer; and William (Crudup), the mechanic below stairs with a hankering for Dorothea. Her son, 13-year old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), has a long way to go in understanding his mother, the young ladies (with one of whom he is desperately in love), and his own budding adolescence. He is, in short, surrounded by women, with all the confusions that can entail for a young boy. In the pressure cooker of that house, everyone crowds in upon another.
The wealth of incident and detail defy brief analysis here. Music, books, movies, and television shows (including a prescient Presidential Address by Jimmy Carter (“A Crisis in Confidence”) dot the cultural landscape. There are times when I think in its intelligence and compassion, this is the greatest movie I’ve seen in a longtime, the sort of intricately-tooled tapestry I remember from the 70s movies of Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and John Cassavetes. But at other times, I must admit, the dialogue and situations become too precious, the characters too precocious, when I can’t recall ever meeting characters like this back in the 70s (unless it was in those movies back in the 70s!).
With the compassion of a Jean Renoir, director Mike Mills shares his love for these characters with us. At the end, we can only shrug our shoulders in recognition of our commonality, and remember with affection the time we have had together. In that regard the rendition by Rudy Vallee of “As Time Goes By” on the soundtrack resonates with a sweetly nice poignancy.