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.