Saturday, June 17, 2017

On "Silence"

I began this blog some years ago when I was writing and thinking a lot about silence--not as the absence of sound but as the presence of a spiritual reality that comes to those who practice contemplation.  I was, at the time, studying the work of Thomas Merton.

The silence in Martin Scorsese's film of that name, which I recently saw, is rather different, although the soundtrack is marked by quiet.  Rather it is the silence of God found in those who struggle with their faith amid terrible suffering.   As one of the Portuguese Jesuits says in this stunning film, set in 17th century Japan, "I would die for you if I knew you were there."

The interplay of faith, doubt and  temptation, rather than its characters, makes "Silence" distinctive. It could only be made by a director like Scorsese, whose Catholic faith underlies his work in subtle ways.  "Silence" is a three-hour, often bloody meditation on religious faith.

No wonder it received minimal attention at the box office and among many reviewers. I postponed seeing it until I could do so at home, via Netflix, because of its intensity and violence.  My first impression was to be struck by the beauty of the cinematography, which, with its light and dark contrasts, reminded me of Caravaggio, whose paintings are filled with Gospel stories illuminated by dark, sordid reality.

Here I found the converted villagers more moving and fervent than the actors portraying the Jesuit missionaries. These are peasants willing to suffer and die to protect the last priests in Japan, which was then repressing all foreign religion with violent executions.

Scorsese's film raises many questions for people of faith to debate: why is belief so often interwoven with doubt?  Why do people of faith often feel abandoned by God?  How can men of faith be seen by some (the church) as traitors to God (by apostatizing) yet heroic to others?  Why must human suffering be so terrible?

And finally, the cry from the Cross: "O God, why have you abandoned me?"

I recommend this beautiful film to all who want such religious questions presented in unforgettably striking images.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hemingway and Writing

Three new biographical studies of Ernest Hemingway are out, even though they may not be needed.  The life of this overly celebrated writer has been thoroughly researched by many others.  I am more interested in the writer than the man who became a brand name.

Hemingway remains, says Fintan O'Toole in the current New York Review of Books, a fascinating object of study: behind his "outlandish public image," O'Toole says, is a trauma caused by World War I and a complex sexuality that resulted in a hypermasculine swagger that I have commented on before. He became, in the words of his third wife, a "loathsome human being."

But was he also a genius?  How influential is he today as a writer?  Well, he has been a major influence on the modern short story, especially its style; he was a master of the story form and produced at least three significant novels (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Old Man and the Sea) that reflect his cold-blooded view of human life in memorable tough-guy prose. Although he re-defined American prose fiction in the mid-20th century, he also wrote much that was disappointingly mediocre, the result probably of his drinking and multiple injuries.

Still, in his prime, Hemingway was a serious reader and fine craftsman who gave some valuable advice to writers.  Having revised the ending of A Farewell to Arms 39 times, as he said in an interview, he reminds us of the importance of crafting each sentence carefully and revising the resulting paragraph.

Revise endlessly, he said: "The main thing is to know what to leave out."
He mastered the iceberg theory of literature whereby three-fourths of what happens in a story is unstated, implied, as in his famous six-word story: "For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

"The way you can tell if you are good," he said, "is by what you can throw away."  He claimed to throw away nine out of ten stories he wrote.

Since all style is personal, he said, "don't ever imitate anybody."  Writers, of course, steal ideas freely from one another but not style, which has to suit the subject, as it does in Hemingway; it also reflects the author behind the words.

I think the wannabe author can learn many techniques from reading Hemingway, such as the use of dialogue to carry the action and the value of concise, understated sentences. His work is a reminder of the axiom that suggestion is more powerful than statement.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On Hitchcock

"I am never satisfied with the ordinary," Alfred Hitchcock said in his famous interview with Francois Truffaut in 1962.  This desire to be innovative in his cinematic style is one of the things that the French filmmakers of the Sixties admired and why they elevated the Anglo-American director to the pantheon of artists, not mere entertainers.

To be sure, several of Hitchcock's Hollywood features are mediocre or uneven; watching his final movie, "Family Plot," recently was a chore since neither the characters nor the plot had much appeal. I saw few signs of what I most value in the master of suspense: wit and the sense of having our leg pulled by a naughty, clever director.

It's the wit and ingenuity in "Strangers on a Train" or "Rear Window" that, along with tight editing and a striving for perfection in each scene, make these films among his best, along with "Psycho," "Notorious," and "Rebecca."  Also great are "North by Northwest" and "Vertigo," but here the characterization, often a weak spot in Hitchcock, along with the overly complex psychodrama involved, make it one of my least favorites.

Watching the DVD "Hitchcock/Truffaut" I was struck by how much more of an artist he was than "the master of suspense."  He exploited fears masterfully in images that, with painstaking precision, are memorable and original.  He mentioned the sad loss of silent films since, for him, the image is paramount, the dialogue quite secondary.  Some humor and motivation would be lost if his films were shown with music and no other sound, but they would remain great.

I watch my top "Hitch" favorites at least once a year and never tire of them. I can't say that for the work of other directors, and I believe, if Truffaut had not emerge to canonize Alfred Hitchcock as an "auteur" and master craftsman, others would have done so.