In the interview book Scorsese on Scorsese, discussing his 1984 film The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese talked about his reaction to people telling him Raging Bull was so visually beautiful: “I decided my next picture was going to be 1903 style, more like Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman, with no close-ups.” An eccentric decision, arguably, but one that it takes someone who is both a cinephile and a cineaste to make. Scorsese then recounts Sergio Leone telling him at Cannes that The King of Comedy was Scorsese’s most “mature” film. “I don’t know if this was his way of saying he didn’t like it,” Scorsese muses. He continues: “[O]ver the years my friends and I have had a running joke about slow movies, where the camera doesn’t move, as being ‘mature.’ I read in the Village Voice that Jim Jarmusch , who made Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law, said something like ‘I’m not interested in taking people by the hair and telling them where to look.’ Well, I do want them to see the way I see. Walking down the street, looking quickly about, tracking, panning, zooming, cutting and all that sort of thing. I like it when two images go together and they move. I guess it might not be considered ‘mature,’ but I enjoy it.”
It’s worth remembering that this portion of the book was recorded in the late 1980s, around the time that Scorsese was making Goodfellas. He has made almost twenty features since them, some fiction films, some documentaries. He has also aged, of course. So maybe he’s “matured” in ways of which that he’s not aware. I still believe he’s committed, as a filmmaker, to sharing his vision, the way he sees things, with the viewer. In his new film Silence he does so in a way that seems, at first viewing, rather different from his customary method. In terms of cinema style, it’s a movie whose story seems rather simply told. And that’s true. But the simplicity of the telling is the result of a remarkable distillation. Everything that Scorsese knows about filmmaking is in this movie. Nothing that is unnecessary to his vision of both the narrative and the questions that inform it—no, that fuel it, with a consistent restless passion—is included here.
The opening title, with its sounds of nature followed by absence of sound, constitutes an arguably almost literal-minded demonstration of the movie’s theme, but that plainness is purposeful. The movie opens with a tense conversation—more than torture and depredation, this movie is about verbal exchanges, what they can achieve and what they cannot—and after it conclude in an interior setting, goes outside, where a quiet but meticulous eye-of-some-kind-of-God high angle shot of three priests descending sets of outdoor steps contextualizes the place of this exchange in their immediate settings.
Yes, there is moving camera in this movie—see the following scene, when Fathers Rodrigues and Garupe are led through the marketplaces and into a bustling inn to meet their constant-sinner guide to Japan, Kichijiro. The camera snakes with them though dank alleyways. But there are cuts also; this camera movement is not of the sort that immediately awes with its virtuosity, like the celebrated Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas. (It’s important to remember that as much as critics and analysts and armchair film buffs get caught up in reacting directly to that sort of style, Scorsese himself is not a style-for-its-own sake filmmaker. As he stated, he puts his films together to reflect how he sees things, and the Copacabana shot has the dramatic effect of impressing on the viewer just the kind of high life young Henry Hill was treating himself to on a fluid and constant basis.
For all its attention to detail in depicting the trappings of 17th century life in is settings, Silence is shot and edited with a directness and immediacy of the sort that Scorsese has not brought to bear on his prior period films. The Age of Innocence, from its narration outward, applies a cinematic equivalent of high literary irony to its approach. Kundun has a detachment, a sense of the filmmaker trying to find his way into the story, which yielded a kind of magic-lantern magic realism. With The Last Temptation of Christ Scorsese has explicitly stated he was trying to immerse himself in a timeless feeling of antiquity, which led to the liberal use of ultra-slow motion in some of its desert scenes. There is almost no slow-motion in Silence. One shot, another overheard view that bobbles into an almost 360 degree view resolving with a gorgeous skyscape, of the boat to Japan making its way over the sea, is the only such shot I discerned on a second viewing of the movie. [UPDATE: It was pointed out to me after I posted that OF COURSE there's another, very prominent use of slow-motion, in one of the film's most crucial scenes. Weirdly, it did not register for me as such both times I watched the movie, so had Scorsese built my willful suspension of disbelief; it felt as if my eyes and ears were genuinely registering it at the slower speed because that's the speed at which it was actually occurring, not that the filmmaker had manipulated those factors. Another exhibit in favor of the film's mastery, I reckon.] (And of course the film is quite a bit different tonally from Scorsese’s prior fiction feature, The Wolf of Wall Street, whose high energy made it a little easy to ignore/miss its near-Swiftian rage, which Scorsese, who as an artist has always distrusted the perspective of the moralist—Travis Bickle was something of a moralist as we recall—casts in the mode of sardonicism.) The directness brings home the movie’s ideas in a terrifically full-bodied way.
Scorsese the director lets the dialogue of the screenplay, by himself and Jay Cocks, really breathe, and gives his wonderful actors all kinds of room. One of the most crucial sequences is the conversation between the frustrated, but still possessed-of-his-wits, Rodrigues, and the inquisitor Inouye (a really magnificent performance by Issei Ogata), in which the two bat around metaphoric terms—“concubine,” “ugly woman,” “barren woman”—in an argument over whether Japan needs, or can even bear, the Church. In its staging and shooting, it rather resembles a scene in Scorsese’s Casino in which a Western good-old-boy played by L.Q. Jones expresses some complaint to Robert De Niro’s casino boss Rothstein. Differences in camera placement aside, both scenes are simple shot/reverse shot exchanges in which Scorsese lets the verbal stresses determine the cutting. In Casino, Jones’ character tells Rothstein, “You people will never understand the way it works out here.” (!!!!) while in Silence Ogata pulls off a truly inspired and comic bit of acting by seeming to literally deflate with disappointment at Rodrigues’ intransigence. People who insist on skepticism concerning the director’s role might argue that in both cases Scorsese was merely letting the actors do their jobs, but in these movies the viewer feels the judgment inherent in both the blocking and the cutting that’s not present in the work of less inspired/conscientious filmmakers. So too is there added value in the way Scorsese breaks up his frame with wooden beams, in the quick cuts in close up of Rodrigues as he begins to go mad (I ought to mention that second time around I appreciated Andrew Garfield’s layered performance a good deal more than the first), in the judicious use of dissolves in the movie’s epilogue. And of course the most virtuoso filmmaking of the piece, the scene where Rodrigues comes to his most crucial decision. It’s just crushing, not least for the way it’s set up. Liam Neeson’s Ferreira, speaking to his former student of “a suffering only you can end,” tells Rodrigues his sacrifice will be “the greatest act of love ever performed,” and Rodrigues’ Japanese interpreter (Tadanobu Asano, great) tells the priest, “It’s just a formality.” Which is it, for God’s sake? And then the soundtrack drops out for the second time.
There are stray scenes and shots in Silence that overtly recall those of Scorsese’s influences, mentors, friends. (Scorsese has always been resourceful in the way he uses his influences; the close-up of Travis’ diary reading “they cannot touch her” is so perfectly and aptly executed that one would never have thought it was inspired by a similar—albeit very fleeting—shot in Contempt had Scorsese himself not pointed it out.) The lighting and color in the scenes in which the priests land in Japan have traces of Powell and Pressburger, specifically of course Black Narcissus. The lessons of Scorsese’s friend and collaborator Paul Schrader’s Big Three of “transcendental style,” Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, are all shown to have been fully absorbed here, but not always in expected ways. The fog during the boat trip to Goto brought to mind Dreyer’s Vampyr, not an explicitly religious film in terms of theme but a strangely spiritual one nonetheless. Some of the dual close-ups have a definite touch of Bergman. And the film’s final shot struck me as a macro-to-micro reverse of the last shot in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but of course it hearkens back to Citizen Kane as well. In the end Silence is remarkably only itself, and a great film in a great film tradition.
Ryan Gosling's "Seb" meets John Legend's "Rockit"-era Herbie Hancock as jazz convert Emma Stone looks on.
The largely buoyant movie La La Land was enjoyable enough that I wasn't compelled to go all Jazz Police on it, as I was for writer-director Damien Chazelle's prior effort, the ridiculous Whiplash. But this disinclination is not shared by many in The Discourse, as my friend Tom Carson addresses here, and others address elsewhere that I'm too lazy to search and link to. But a lot of the complaint I've come across really make me nostalgic for the days of "it's only a movie."
To wit: Ryan Gosling's character Sebastian doesn't "save jazz" at the end of the movie. He opens a fucking club. This maybe HELPS save jazz, but does not save jazz in and of itself. But wait there's more, he's a White Man Who Saves Jazz. Having dispensed slightly with the notion that the mere opening of a club does not itself suffice to Save Jazz, well, it is simply a fact that lots of white folks, from Leo Gordon to those three wacky former schoolteachers who had a go at Sweet Basil (well do I remember one night in the early 90s when some German tourists talked loudly through a Jimmy Giuffre Trio set, thus killing jazz) have opened jazz clubs. But wait, Ryan Gosling as a white man should not be portraying a player of jazz at all, because cultural appropriation and all. Well. It's true that jazz is an African American creation, but it's also true that, much more so than with rhythm and blues or rock and roll, that whites, from Mezz Mezzrow to Bix Beiderbecke to the Boswell Sisters, were Present At Its Various Creations. It's kind of funny to read writers who wouldn't be able to make it through Side A of Monkey Pockie Boo get haughty about this. Not even Amiri Baraka was this doctrinaire; he didn't ask Roswell Rudd to leave the bandstand before getting up with the New York Art Quartet to read "Black Dada Nihilismus."
This state of affairs becomes even more befuddling when one remembers the infamous Buzzfeed "What's The Deal With Jazz" listicle, in which all the visual examples of jazz practitioners were white people, the writer cannily saving her desire to puke at Miles Davis and Charles Mingus for her prose-only coda.
In any event, as somebody once said to somebody else, "Lighten up. Smoke a joint."
Some of my critical colleagues have been expressing dismay in social media that some prominent commentators have blinded themselves to Martin Scorsese's magnificent Silence on the grounds of "Meh, religion," or, more strongly put, "Religion sucks," or, "Both sides do it so why doesn't the movie show the depredations of the Catholic Church." This is unfortunate but I think actually more unavoidable than the La La Land nonsense. The La La Land detractors ridiculously blow up the movie's "chase your dreams" metaphors; the anti-Silence folks pick nits that are either non-existent or entirely beside the point, conveniently skirting the fact that this is an adaptation of a Japanese novel. My opinion on this may be suspect because I was raised Catholic but for me the specifics of the apostasy took second place to larger and even more moving themes. That is, I eventually intuited something beyond Catholicism versus the shogunate and vice-versa. Past faith, I felt Silence addressing issues of will, free will, and whether there really is such a thing as human freedom. The questions it presents, I thought, were more moving and unsettling for the cinematic form in which they were presented. If you're looking at it and going down a list of the things you think it should be showing you because of the cultural baggage you want it to carry (and I'm not saying that the movie is inconsiderate of that cultural baggage—it's not), then you're not going to get it, and too bad.
A lot of people on my side of the fence insist that the concept of "virtue-signaling" is entirely reactionary but I'm not so sure.
Glory arranged the day to her father’s specifications, and after lunch she helped him down the stairs and into the car. There was a ringing loneliness in the house with Jack always away somewhere, and it felt good to her to leave it for a while, to take her father away from it. She drove him past the church and past the war memorial to let him admire the gardens and the trees, and then she took him up to Ames’ house, and helped him again, out of the car, up the walk, up the steps. Ames seemed startled to find him at his door.
“Yes,” the old man said. “I thought you and I could look after each other while the women are out at the movies. I came over here in the DeSoto.”
Ames pulled a chair away from the table. “Unless you would rather sit somewhere else.”
Boughton said, “No, this has always been my chair, hasn’t it. My pew.” He sat down and hung his cane from the edge of the table and closed his eyes. Lila and Robby came downstairs, Robby with his hair neatly parted and his cheeks pink with scrubbing. Glory took them off to the musty little movie theater, where they watched good triumph over evil by means of some six-shooters and a posse. “Say your prayers!” said the bad guy to the harmless citizen trapped against a canyon wall. And in the moment he so graciously allowed his captive, horses came clattering up from behind him and he was made to drop his gun. Robby was amazed and gratified by this turn of events, which was as much as Glory could hope for. With previews and newsreels and a cartoon, and a short second feature in which good triumphed once again, more than two hours had passed by the time they came blinking out into the afternoon sun.
The old men were still sitting at the table, and Jack was with them. He looked at Glory and smiled. “There was no one at home, so I thought something must be the matter. I came here—“ She had not seen him for three days, except when he walked past her on the way to the door, saying nothing, tipping his hat as he left, or walked through the kitchen on the way to his room, saying only good night. It had never crossed her mind that he would come looking for them. If they had been there, it might have been the beginning of better times. Just the thought gave her a look of blighted joy. She wanted to look at him, to see how he was, but his smile was cool. He might be angry. He must think she had betrayed him. Well, she had betrayed him. Dear God, she hadn’t meant to, and what did that matter, when her father was here confiding in Ames again, telling him under the seal of old friendship what he suspected and what he feared, just as he had done in the endless, excruciating past. It was bad enough last night, the way he spoke to Jack. And now this. If her brother had one surviving hope, she knew it was that he could find some way to speak to Ames himself, in his own right. She was so glad to get her father out of the house, to give him the comfort of a visit to Ames’ kitchen—how long had it been? She hadn’t thought it through. Her father just sat there with his eyes closed.
Ames was visibly relieved to see the three of them. Robby scrambled into his lap full of the unspent energy the movie had summoned up in him. “You should’ve gone, Papa. You should’ve seen it.” He slapped the bottom of his Cracker Jack box and a few sticky morsels fell out on the table in front of his father. “I’m saving some for Toby.” Then he said, “Here,” and slid off his lap and went to Jack and dug out a few morsels for him. “There’s supposed to be a prize in there,” he said. “Do you see any prize?”