Edge of Darkness


Thanks to my late father-in-law, I have a mountain of VHS recordings from TCM, now piled in a separate corner away from the already excessive "library" of video’d films I’ve amassed on my own over more than a decade of film reviewing and home-video reportage. It’s a blessing, of course, but also a cautionary tale to cinephiles: when do you stop acquiring? How many films can you see, and then see again (the only reason to own, right?)? Guy Maddin once bemoaned to me his acquisitive achievements after a gracious run through The Criterion Collection’s freebie closet: "How much life do I have left?" My father-in-law saw only a fraction of the films he so conscientiously recorded and indexed, well into his ‘70s, and crating them up and moving them all (alright, not all – I left hundreds for his widow, not my wife’s mother, to toss in the trash), along with all of his books (many of which he could not have read, either), has been chastening.  They remain boxed and stacked in my house, hundreds of pounds of raw recrimination. I no longer record off of cable (my area only recently got TCM in any case), I no longer buy DVDs, and am very stingy about buying books (whereas I used to be a slut). I don’t think I’ll live long enough to see and read everything I already have.

But I’ve recently begun to dip into my father-in-law’s collection, finally seeing William Dieterle’s hauntingly sad The Last Flight (1931), some 30 years after reading about it in a piece by Tom Shales in an AFI book I stole as a kid and still have, The American Film Heritage, and also seizing the chance to watch Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo (1959), not because it was in fact much worth watching on its own, but to answer a recent controversy about "the tracking shot in Kapo," a single camera movement deemed revolting and amoral by Cahiers du cinema critic Jacques Rivette (the filmmaker, he opined, "was worthy of the most profound contempt."), and made famous in an anthemic essay by critic Serge Daney, who hadn’t even seen Kapo but only read Rivette, which for him was enough. As it should be for us all. But who has seen Kapo since? Not many of us; why would we need to, when we have Rivette? But in the June ‘07 issue of Sight & Sound a Swede named Jan Aghed slammed into the estimable Jonathan Romney and his discussion of Daney et al., claiming that Rivette has misremembered the shot, which doesn’t in fact exist. Well, I’ve seen it, and it does: about 75 minutes in, the camera catches a shot woman falling onto barbed wire and nudges forward just a smidge to reframe her figure, just as Rivette had said. It’s not a long tracking shot, just a lurch, really, but it is nevertheless just as Rivette had described it. Our faith in Rivette, Daney and Romney can continue unshaken.

Also pulled from the pile: Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness (1943), a bald-faced propaganda piece about a small Norweigan town (filled with American actors) covertly resisting Nazi occupation, that, largely thanks to a screenplay by Robert Rossen, fairly seethes with a sense of tense, robust community. It’s a quality Renoir perfected and which old Hollywood was often good at (Ford, Capra, Hawks, Borzage, Sturges, etc.), and here, in a stunning 8+-minute scene in a crowded Protestant church in which more than a dozen characters debate their future – rise up or bide time? – while they’re ostensibly attending service, the movie takes on bewitching breadth and depth, in a way that is uniquely cinematic. Even polished hero Errol Flynn is merely a mediating figure in a thick, thoughtful crowd, including laissez-faire doctor Walter Huston, his rebel daughter Ann Sheridan, hardline innkeeper Judith Anderson, pacifist pastor Richard Fraser, bookish codger Morris Carnovsky, testy farmer Art Smith, etc., each given time and room to act and react and contemplate moral relativities. The bullnosed flag-waving ("If there’s anyone who doubts why this war is being fought, look to Norway!" the coda narration bellows) and even outright Wagner soundtrack thefts notwithstanding, it’s a disarmingly rich experience, not just another Flynn rabble-rouser, a studio subgenre that has traditionally garnered only disrespect.

 

 

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  • 7/18/2007 1:24 PM Dave McDougall wrote:
    Michael -
    Happy to have you joining the internet film conversation.

    I'm slowly gaining the discipline to cut back on acquisition; it is a battle. I'm still struggling with the feelings of loss for things not yet discovered; one part of being a cinephile is an irrepressible optimism that this film will change your life, become another landmark experience. But life gets in the way (or vice-versa?); I think it's important -- as an artist, an aesthete, a person -- to situate oneself in the real world.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/18/2007 3:58 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:

      Thanks, Dave.  Yes, the real world is something I've usually seen lacking in American film criticism, and something I've always sought to drag, kicking and screaming, into my reviews.  As for acquisitionism, it is a struggle, particularly in our culture, but for me, as I implied, it's my impending death and the years I have left -- 35?  40, if I'm lucky? -- that daunt me. With all that I haven't seen and have yet to see, will I really want to see, say, Goodbye Dragon Inn or 2046 or Inland Empire or Cache even one more time before I die?


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      1. 7/18/2007 5:10 PM John wrote:
        My stash of TCM dub tapes and DVD's, most of them unseen, is spending at least one year in a storage bin while I am 1000 miles away, on leave to see about my parents: your concession to actuarial realities rang several bells at once. How's this for a dialogue subject?: a film you have enshrined as the possible masterpiece you haven't gotten around to seeing for so long that now it serves a purpose in its unseen state-- the potentially great experience you postpone repeatedly.
        I am enjoying your postings a lot.
        Reply to this
  • 7/18/2007 4:54 PM Peter Martin wrote:
    A friend once looked at my books and asked me if I'd read them all. Some, I said. Why do you keep them once you've read them? she asked; "I just get rid of them." And thus the difference. For me, just seeing a book or DVD on a shelf can bring back memories of what I read or saw, like hearing a song from my youth or seeing my childhoood home. That being said, when I moved cross country last year I finally left behind my videotape collection; we all have limits.
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  • 7/18/2007 10:57 PM Carl Russo wrote:
    As sexy as a Criterion box may look on a living room shelf, I prefer to spend the bucks at my local video rental store to keep them open and ever-expanding! Here in San Francisco, Le Video stocks 90,000 titles (that's 10,000 more than Netflix!) available whenever I jones a Janus or a giallo.

    "Collectoritis" is a clinical condition according to no less an authority than Robert Crumb. It should be about enjoying, not owning.

    Though I don't regret owning a bookcase full of old film texts, it's liberating to kick the DVD acquisition habit. I've fallen off the wagon only once in two years, springing for all four volumes of the Looney Tunes. But I consume them sparingly: just one cartoon before the (rented) feature film. That's what they were made for, I justify.

    And if you must buy, commit a political act: order it from your locally-owned video store!
    Reply to this
  • 7/19/2007 2:01 PM Stephen Bowie wrote:
    This is always an entertaining (or embarrassing topic) among cinephiles. I've mostly put a lid on the "acquisitionism" too, except for "really rare stuff and imports I can't just go out and rent," which still adds up to more DVDs or tapes than most people ever see in their lives. I still go on an occasional TCM recording jag, but I've learned that most of those get upgraded (on DVD or just rerun via a spiffier cable setup) before I ever watch them. "Kapo," for instance, has run on TCM enough times that I've had it on tape, on a DVD-R, and (probably, after it repeats again this month) on my hard drive, and I still haven't seen it.

    However, I was secretly pleased when a friend who binge-buys a bit more than I do looked over my slimmed-down shelves and said quietly, "Wow, you must think I'm just ridiculous."

    For a mind-bogglingly hilarious catalog of convoluted rationalizations for spending your every last dime on DVDs, make your way this discussion: http://p075.ezboard.com/The-one-with-the-most-DVDs-when-he-dies--wins/fmonsterkidclassichorrorforumfrm45.showMessage?topicID=1071.topic.

    As for video stores, I'm with Carl Russo, except that Netflix has more or less wiped them out in lower Manhattan: within the last year or so Tower Video, the great Evergreen Video on Carmine, TLA Video on 8th St., the Hollywood Video on 3rd and 11th, the Kim's Video on Bleecker Street, and the Video Stop on 3rd Ave. & 26th have all closed. I am literally able to rent only by mail now, which might actually force me back into DVD-buying recidivism....
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  • 7/19/2007 6:14 PM Bill Sorochan wrote:
    Hello Michael:

    Perhaps you (or one of your readers) is able to answer this question. I recently saw (on TCM) W.S. VanDyke's 1933 film "Eskimo" which was one of the most extraordinary films I've ever seen come from a major Hollywood studio. Little, if anything, is either written about the film, the man's filmography, or his life (which has a remarkable and unfortunately tragic scope). Do you know of any articles, books or any online postings that sheds light on this amazingly talented but unknown director?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and continued success with all your endeavors.

    Kindest Regards:

    Bill Sorochan
    Reply to this
    1. 7/20/2007 3:52 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      A true ellipsis: the only mention of Eskimo was in Paul Rotha's The Film Till Now, which in its 1949 revision featured an off-hand comment, amid a few lines about Van Dyke, of Eskimo being "a synthetic Nanook."  As if Nanook wasn't synthetic enough.  It's out there to the crowd -- let's see what the tide brings in.











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