The Discreet Bourgeois

Possessed by an urgency to make sure all this stuff I love doesn't just disappear


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Have You Tried Mikio Naruse?

Mikio Naruse

To celebrate the Akira Kurosawa centennial in 2010, TCM showed almost all of his films.  This appealed mightily to my completist personality, so I taped and watched them all.  I had previously seen some of his famous jidaigeki (historical) films such as Rashomon, Throne of Blood and Seven Samurai, but I had never seen any of his gendaigeki (contemporary) films. Stray Dog, Ikiru and especially High and Low were revelations.

I loaded up my Netflix queue with the Kurosawas that TCM did not show, and in the process became a full-fledged Japanese film obsessive.  I was familiar with Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi films, so I followed up my Kurosawa study with as many of their films as I could find.  Whenever I would add a film by one of these masters to my queue, Netflix would make its inevitable ‘If you liked {fill in film name}, why not try ……..’  The film that kept popping up as a suggestion was When A Woman Ascends The Stairs by Mikio Naruse, a director then unknown to me.  The title sounded ghastly so I kept putting it off until it arrived one day in a wonderful Criterion edition.  I watched it and was astounded.  In fact, I watched it twice in a row, the second time with Donald Richie commentary.

When A Woman Ascends The Stairs tells the story of a ‘mama’ or manager of a nightclub in the Ginza district of Tokyo. The main character, Keiko is relatively young, but is beginning to realize that her days in this profession might be numbered.  We watch her work to find financial and emotional security, before the inevitable day that she is ‘too old’.   This film was my introduction to the luminous Hideko Takamine, who is Naruse’s muse the way Setsuko Hara and Kinuyo Tanaka fill that role for Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, respectively.

hideko takamine

The film combined the restrained sense of Ozu and the feminist sensibility of Mizoguchi and the grittiness of Kurosawa’s gendaideki films, but it was something else again.  After watching it several more times, I was hungry to see as much Naruse as I could.  I was stymied because all that was available in Region 1 format besides When A Woman Ascends The Stairs were Silent Naruse, which I devoured immediately.

The trail for more Naruse went cold until, miraculously, the University of Chicago’s Doc Films had an 11-week series spotlighting the collaboration of Naruse and Takamine.  I was in heaven. Every week was a revelation.  I was amazed and frustrated that such wonderful films were unavailable to the  general public (at least, unavailable to the general public in Region 1!).

Please don’t be annoyed if I recommend a few of these hard-to-see films.  I do have copies of all of them, so you are more than welcome to stop by my place and watch them with me.

1- Lightning (Inazuma)  – 1952

Inazuma

Based on a novel by Fumiko Hayashi, an author that Naruse often turned to, Lightning tells the story of how Kiyoko (Hideko Takamine) subtly but definitively extricates herself from her highly dysfunctional family and finds an idyllic life on her own. The move from her crazy family’s home to an almost magical apartment of her own, next-door to an angelic brother and sister, is depicted so richly.  I love this film

2- Flowing (Nagareru) – 1956

flowing

Takamine plays the daughter of the owner of geisha house that is slowly going out of business.  The mother is played by legendary Isuzu Yamada, best known as the terrifying Lady Macbeth equivalent in Throne of Blood. Kinuyo Tanaka is also on hand to provide a Greek chorus for the action.

The unwillingness of the mother and her geisha to come to terms with the fact that the house’s days are numbered, makes for an experience as wrenching as Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard.  A moving film.  Takamine has more of a secondary role here.  The film belongs to Yamada.

3- Daughters, Wives and a Mother (Musume, Tsuma, Haha) – 1960.

This film came out the same year as When A Woman Ascends The Stairs. It is similar in richness and it is in color. The film shows the slow dissolution of a once prosperous family through the negligence and selfishness of the children. The end is heartbreaking. Ozu’s muse Setsuko Hara plays an atypically passive character and Takamine has a small role as a daughter-in-law.  There is one particularly funny scene that comes at the most emotional part of the film.  It involves eating crackers.  That’s all I’m going to say.

So,  please try Naruse.  Some of the other films might be hard to track down but you have no excuse not to see (and love) When A Woman Ascends The Stairs.

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Have You Tried Val Lewton?

For nine years, starting in 1942, a remarkable string of low-budget films were produced at RKO Studios.  They were produced by Val Lewton, a Russian-Jewish emigre born as Vladimir Ivanovich Leventon.  He was the nephew of Alla Nazimova, the scandalous actress who played in Camille opposite Rudolph Valentino, as well the title character in the insane, all-Gay 1923 film of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which you can see here.

After working for David O. Selznick, even contributing a scene or two to the script of Gone With The Wind, Lewton moved to RKO to head a unit charged with making B-pictures, i.e., movies intended for the second half of a double-bill. He was instructed to create films that would be competition for the horror classics coming out of Universal Studios (Frankenstein, The Wolfman, etc.) He was given a minuscule budget, sometimes as low as $100,000. He and his crew would tell the powers-that-be that the were working of projects like I Walked With A Zombie or The Curse of the Cat People.  Satisfied that Lewton and company were churning out cheap horror programmers, the money men left them alone.

This was perhaps Lewton’s  greatest stroke of genius.  By supplying lurid titles and, more importantly, delivering the movies on-time and under-budget, he was free to exercise a great deal of artistic freedom. The result is a group of surprisingly literate Hollywood films suffused with a magical Gothic sensibility.

Lewton’s early death from heart disease in 1951 at the age of 46 prevents us from knowing what A-pictures he would have surely been given to work on. However, what we do have are treasures.

The first of these movies is the landmark Cat People. Much has been made of the fact that limited funds forced Lewton to create his horror effects more by suggestion than by explicit special effects.  True, much is done with sound and shadows, but I think it would be selling Lewton and company short to suggest that economy was the only reason for the films looking and behaving the way they do.  Of the string of films we are discussing, Cat People is  one of the few with overtly supernatural elements. Up until the very end, whether what is happening is happening due to unearthly or psychological causes.  The story it tells ties the horror elements with an unmistakable sexual component.  However the treatment of the sexual component is much more subtle than the hilarious, over-the-top marketing of the time would suggest.

cat people

The walk through the park at night with its ominous footsteps, as well as the magnificently edited scene in the swimming pool makes this 73 minute a classic of the genre. It was directed by Jacques Tourneur, perhaps most famous for directing Out Of The Past, a film which is to Film Noir what Cat People is to horror.

Cat People  was a huge success and the money men asked for more of the same. Lewton delivered a sequel a few years later, not surprisingly called The Curse of the Cat People. Who knows what grisly images that title conjured up for the audiences of the time? Instead of more sexually-related cat delerium, we are given a touching story of a very misunderstood and confused child.  The horror here is not from another world. It comes from adults who fail to understand the child’s world and their complicity in creating the self-preserving fantasies she has created for herself.  It is extremely moving.

Once again the marketing folks had a field day with the title, basically ignoring what the film was about.

 

curse of the cat people

The films appeared quickly one after the other.  The best of them is probably The Isle of the Dead with a magnificent performance by Boris Karloff as a brutal Greek general whose superstition leads to tragedy when he is trapped on a cemetery island that is quarantined due to an outbreak of plague. No supernatural horror here, just the human horrors of prejudice and small-mindedness, with a dash of narcolepsy thrown in for good measure.

By far the strangest and most Gothic of the series has to be The Seventh Victim, a very strange and somewhat messy story of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village.  It contains a creepy shower scene that presages Psycho by a good 15 years. The meditation on suicide and living with your burdens, along with quotes by John Donne, ensure this is not your typical B-movie horror film. It looks gorgeous, too.

The most famous of the films, outside of Cat People, must be I Walked With A Zombie, a title to warm the hearts of the RKO moneymen. “That should pack ’em in!”  In actuality, it is a moody story of voodoo and family trouble in the fictitious Caribbean island of San Sebastian.  The night-walk through the sugar-cane to get to the voodoo temple is one of the most haunting sequences I know of. The movie doesn’t entirely work and though you will often hear that it was a variation of Jane Eyre, I don’t see it.  There is enough great stuff in this film. It doesn’t need the Bronte imprimatur.

Along with the so-called horror films, Lewton also produced a film based on a Guy De Maupassant story (Mademoiselle Fifi) ,  a spiffy Western (Apache Drums) as well as a the-trouble-with-kids-today film (Youth Runs Wild).

A complete list of the films follows.

All the films are worth trying.  I am curious to hear what you have to say.

If you found this interesting, please have a look at my general intro to Horror.

The Films:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Mademoiselle Fifi (1944)
Youth Runs Wild (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)
Apache Drums (1951)

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Have You Tried The Criterion Collection?

criterion

When I first started reading classic literature, I got to know the indispensable Norton Critical Editions. These wonderful volumes contain the text of the work with copious footnote. In addition, they provide supplementary material like criticism contemporary to the work and from today, original source material, etc. The Norton version of War and Peace contains the text with footnotes, a ton of maps, letters by and to Tolstoy which shed light on the novel, along with a wealth of essays from the time the novel was published and later. Armed with the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace, you are ready with for a thorough and completely satisfying encounter with Tolstoy’s epic.

Criterion appeared in 1984 with the advent of laserdiscs. While several of the great ‘art house’ classics had appeared on VHS, now a huge number of previously unavailable classics of world cinema were now available in breathtaking editions.  The random-access capability of the laserdisc  was conducive to the concept of ‘extras’, and the Criterion editions really went to town with them.  In addition to beautifully restored prints of the film, we got the option of additional soundtrack, often a running commentary on the film by the director or a film expert. Relevant shorts, storyboards, poster art and other goodies were crammed into these discs, providing for film the same kind of experience for films that the Norton Critical editions provided for literature.

When DVDs replaced laserdiscs, the amount and quality of the ‘extras’ grew exponentially.  Multiple soundtracks, full-length documentaries, shooting scripts, production stills, interviews with the directors, stars and/or technicians who worked on the film provided a treasure chest for the film lover.  You could now encounter Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, for example,  armed with an apparatus similar to that which the reader of the Norton Critical edition of War and Peace had. Needless to say, the arrival of Blu-ray kicked the storage capacity through the roof.  You could now have a disc featuring a film that would also have a complete two-hour documentary as well as various historical TV interview, alternative soundtracks, music scores and the like all on one little disc.  The learning these discs afford you is seemingly infinite.

In addition to the Criterion label, the company has two subdivisions:

1- Essential Art House offers the quality Criterion prints of the films, but in a bare-bones presentation, i.e., no ‘extras’. So, you can buy the super-duper editon of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast with all the goodies, or just get the film itself without the frills in a beautiful print from Essential Art House. 

2-Eclipse offers bare-bones editions in box sets of films that aren’t featured on the main label or Essential Art House, but that the company feels should be out on DVD.  This gives us wonderful editions like a 5-disc edition of Late Ozu featuring films by that master not available anywhere else.

To give you a taste of the Criterion selections I have particularly loved, I went to my shelf and pulled off the first five that jumped out at me.

1- The Flowers of St. Francis (Roberto Rossellini)

 flowers of st. francis

Perfection. Gem-like. Hilarious. Reverent. Gorgeous. Raucous. Meditative.  All this in only 87 minutes. A good example of Criterion preserving a film that might otherwise have been forgotten. Should be pretty relevant viewing nowadays considering all the hub-bub surrounding the new guy in the Vatican.

2- Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi)

ugetsu

The greatest film ever made? Many say so.  Definitely one of the most exquisite looking and most heartbreaking. The Criterion edition is an embarrassment of riches. The two disc set comes with the film, another disc with wonderful interviews as well as a 2-hour plus documentary about Mizoguchi. There is also a 72-page booklet with essays on the film as well three stories that the film is based on.

3- Fanny And Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)

F& A

Do you also feel that the 3-hour theatrical release of Fanny and Alexander was way too short? Then this is the set for you! Along with the disc of the theatrical release, there is a two-disc set featuring the original 5-hour version that Bergman made for Swedish TV.  Five hours of pure heaven! In addition, you get a disc with a documentary on the making of the film, countless interviews with the stars and crew of the film as well as introductions that Bergman give for  11 (count ’em 11!) of his greatest film. That should take care of you!

4- The Music Room (Satyajit Ray)

Music room

The service that Criterion provides was brought home to me last week.  I had watched this DVD a few weeks ago and for some reason our local PBS station showed it in a very old, beat up print. Because the film is so magnificent, its greatness came through even in the bad copy. But then reviewing the DVD I realized that we can’t take Criterion’s curator role for granted!

5- When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (Mikio Naruse)

when a woman

This single disc had the greatest effect on me out of all the Criterion discs I have watched.  This came to me via a Netflix suggestion (‘If you liked The Seven Samurai why not try……’). It was a revelation. It set me off on my obsession with Naruse’s films and Japanese film in general.    Naruse is a master, up there with Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa. Unfortunately this is the only one of his sound films available in Region 1 (US) format. There is a 5-disc Eclipse set of Naruse silents.  We can only hope that more of this master’s work will be available soon from Criterion!

And while we’re at it, how about a Criterion edition of Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating?


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Have You Tried The BRD Trilogy?

fassbinder

German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was amazingly prolific – over 40 features and shorts in just 13 years. Between 1979 and 1982 he wrote and directed three films which are probably his masterpieces.  Collectively, they are known as the BRD (Bundesrepublik Deutschland) Trilogy: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola  and Veronika Voss. At the same time he also produced a gigantic 14-part television series based on the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, as well as two other features.  As I said, amazingly prolific.

The films differ greatly in style, but they have much in common.  They are all set in 1950s Germany during the time of the Wirtschaftswunder (the economic miracle), which saw Germany change from a defeated, humiliated country into a financial and political powerhouse.  They all center on three extraordinary female characters who are interesting in themselves, but also are fascinating in how they become symbols of what Germany was going through.  They all also demonstrate a profound love of Hollywood films of the 1950s, especially the works of Douglas Sirk.

The Marriage of Maria Braun

Arguably the most celebrated of the three films, this was the film that turn Fassbinder from an interesting, quirky local German filmmaker into an internationally acclaimed artist. The story begins toward the end of WWII.  Maria Braun’s husband Hermann has gone off to war and is presumed killed.  As the war ends, Maria’s keen sense of self-preservation leads her into a relationship with an industrialist that teaches her to become a powerful businesswoman. The problem is that Maria is losing her soul in the process.  Much like Germany of the time. What motivates Maria and keeps her moving forward is the hope that Hermann will return.  He represents all that was kind and human and loving from before, and which Maria has suppressed in her ascent.  Much like Germany of the time. The result of her reunion with the idealized husband shows Fassbinder’s most devastating critique of what Germany had become. Romantic from the past, bloodless and mercenary in the present.

In the title role, Hanna Schygulla gives an iconic, endlessly interesting performance.  She was part of Fassbinder’s troupe and he casts her here to supreme effect.

Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun

Hanna Schygulla as Maria Braun

Lola

Undeniably evoking the title character of The Blue Angel, Lola also tells the story of seductive, dangerous woman.  However, unlike the character played by Marlene Dietrich, this Lola is clearly depicted as not being motivate by sexual thrall over men, but by a clear-eyed need to be financially independent. Much like Germany of the time. Played by Barbara Sukowa, Fassbinder’s star of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, this Lola, a high-class prostitute and sometime (awful) singer in a local bordello-cum-nightclub, seems to be on a moral collision course when a new government building inspector arrives in town, determined to clean up the corruption that has led to its economic boom. This kind and gentle, Ming dynasty loving man, played heartbreakingly by Armin Mueller-Stahl, seems to evoke the character played by Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel.  But what Fassbinder has in store for both of them is quite different and quite consonant with his socialist critique of postwar Germany and the effect that rampant capitalism has on it.The echoes of Sirk, especially in the lighting and in the subversive undermining of all that the 50s held dear are yet another level of pleasure to be derived from this rich film.

Barbara Sukowa as Lola

Barbara Sukowa as Lola

Veronika Voss

Taking his cue from the noirish atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard, Veronika Voss tells the story of how a faded film star of the Nazi era who tumbles into the life of a simple sportswriter, and how both there fates are altered not, alas, for the good. The inspiration comes from the legend of UFA star Sybille Schmitz who committed suicide in 1955 under very mysterious circumstances. She may or may not have been Goebbel’s lover. Fassbinder fleshes out this story using it to  continue his exploration of the moral cost of postwar Germany’s denial of and romance for the past.   As played by Rosel Zech, Veronika Voss is evocative of the vampiric Norma Desmond with the sportswriter standing in as a poor man’s version of the William Holden gigolo from the same film.  But she is much more than that.  As the plot unravels, we come to understand that Veronika Voss’s situation might very well be a result of not looking squarely at what happened during the war and, even worse, making it the stuff of a private fairy tale.   Rosel Zech is tremendous.

Rosel Zech as Veronika Voss

Apparently Fassbinder was at work writing a fourth film in this series, when he died at the age of 37.  It was to be a film on the life of Rosa Luxemburg and it was to have starred Jane Fonda.   Imagine!

In any event, we do have these three remarkable films which act as supreme history lessons and lessons in supreme filmmaking.

Please try them and let me know what you think!


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Have You Tried The Marseilles Trilogy?

The critics of the Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s developed the theory of auterism in which the value of a film is determine by how discernible the mark of the author, usually the director, can be sensed.  For these critics, many of whom went on to be directors themselves, America had such auteurs in abundance.  There was no mistaking a John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock film.  In their eyes, the indelible mark of the creator elevated a film from mediocrity to art.  We can now debunk this theory many ways.  We can point out that film is the most collaborative of artistic endeavors, requiring the skills of cinematographers, writers, actors, costumers, editors and many more.  Each of these people leave a mark on the final product. I guess what the Cahistes were lauding were the directors who, even within the restraints of the Hollywood studio system, were able to create something with a personal vision.

They praised these American films by using as a negative example the French directors of the preceding decades,  directors who made ‘well-made’ films but did not betray any burning individuality.

In my opinion, there is a lot to be said for excellent craftsmanship.  A film can be, I would almost say should be, enjoyable without the audience having to know who made it and why it is identifiable as a film by so-and-so.

Marcel Pagnol, I fear, might have been one of their whipping boys. I did find an article from the Cahiers somewhat praising Pagnol (along with Sacha Guitry) as being filmmakers in spite of themselves. Both men, the article points out, were originally men of the theater, and seemed to view cinema as simply a medium to get a wider audience for their works. There seems to be little doubt that this is the reason why Marcel Pagnol got started in film.

Marcel Pagnol

Marcel Pagnol

Lest you think of him as merely a hack, you need to know that Pagnol was the first film maker elevated to a fauteuil in the Académie Française – one of only six to date.  In fact, he occupied the same fauteuil as Prosper Merimee, author of the novel upon which the opera Carmen was based.  Not bad.

I have loved the films of Marcel Pagnol in the same way that I love the novels of Anthony Trollope.  They both are works that reveal themselves leisurely, allowing you to spend time with characters who you come to care about more than many people in so-called ‘real life’. The plots are very simple, mostly excuses to allow time to get to know the world the characters inhabit.

The best place to start is with his stupendous Marseilles Trilogy. These are three films: Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936). The first two originated as stage plays and were directed by Alexander Korda and Marc Allegret respectively.

Actually shot en plein air on the docks of Marseille, the Trilogy, tells the simplest of stories while introducing us to people that we will never forget.  Since so much of the wonder of these films is the story they tell, I feel it would be a betrayal of your future enjoyment for me to spill the smallest bean as to what they are about. Instead I will give you some teasers that I hope will get you to spend six of the happiest hours of your life:

1- Renowned cook Alice Waters named her legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in honor of Honoré Panisse, one of the most lovable characters of the trilogy because she felt that he embodied the joy of life that her restaurant was striving for.

Honoré Panisse

Honoré Panisse

2- The card and bocce games that occur throughout the trilogy are among the funniest scenes in all cinema

La partie de cartes

La partie de cartes

3- No less an authority than Orson Welles said that Raimu, who plays César was the greatest actor in the world. I agree.

Raimu as César

Raimu as César

4- Pierre Fresnay, who plays Marius, is one of the handsomest men ever to grace the screen and Orane Demazis, who plays Fanny, creates one of  the most lovable characters ever.

Marius and Fanny

Marius and Fanny

So please try the Marseilles Trilogy.  If you are a friend of mine, I have probably shown it to you already, more likely than not in one sitting.

No need to thank me.

 


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Have You Tried Ingmar Bergman?

bergman

When I first conceived of these ‘Have You Tried……’ articles, I imagined I would concentrate on obscure directors. For example, I have been planning posts on Mikio Naruse and Marcel Pagnol. Not exactly household names, alas.  These articles were intended to be about directors that might not have had the popular currency of the ‘Pantheon’ directors.  What I began to realize while planning those other articles is that it is my notion of the ‘Pantheon’ no longer seems to have currency.

From the Fifties on, that is, from the time that people began to write seriously and analytically about film, it seemed that consensus formed around a group of directors who were deemed to be essential to one’s film literacy. John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles were masters working in the US, while on the international scene Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir were revered. There were others here and abroad, but the important thing was that familiarity with their work was a requirement to become a well-rounded cineaste.  This idea was developed in France by the authors of the magazine Cahier du Cinema, many of whom became important directors in their own right: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette.  The concept of the director as auteur of the film was championed in America by the critic Andrew Sarris in his important and useful book The American Cinema. An auteur, usually a director, is an artist whose personal style is indelibly stamped on the film. For example, you don’t need to watch more than two minutes of a Hitchcock film to know who directed it.  In many ways,  Bergman is the epitome of the auteur. He wrote and directed all of his major works, cast them with many of same actors (many of whom were at various times his wives and/or lovers). He had his preferred stable of cinematographers who gave almost all of his films an unmistakable look. Several of his later films were even shot on his own island!

Being someone whose aesthetic is more about explaining the classic as opposed to ferreting out the new, I failed to notice that the Pantheon itself seems to have slipped off its base.  Most contemporary writing on film is concerned with the new, perhaps rightly so. A contemporary Pantheon is being erected, enshrining the likes of  the Coen Brothers and (*shudder*) Quentin Tarantino. I fear that what will prevent these new(ish) directors from taking their place among the immortals is the ironic stance they often take toward their characters. The Coen Brothers’ A Simple Man depicts an existential crisis in the life of its main character, but there is so much condescension in the depiction of that crisis that it is hard to feel any identification with the character – we feel compelled to deride him. This creates an intellectual distance between the film and the audience which I believe eventually leads to indifference on the audience’s part.  In the films of Ingmar Bergman, there is no condescension toward existential crises of the main characters. In fact, existential crises are exhalted!

I will admit that much of middle-late Bergman is filled with obscure (or maybe just personally resonant) symbolism that is difficult to engage with. His bleak view of interpersonal relationships, especially marriage, can be grating after a while, no matter how masterfully it is portrayed. However, when one considers his whole output, there can be little doubt that his body of work contains more essential masterpieces than the work of any other filmmaker, or any other artist for that matter. What makes it all worthwhile is the absolute seriousness and integrity with which everything is treated. This makes the decline in popular regard all the more troubling.  It reached a low point with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s shockingly Oedipal, idol-killing New York Times Op-Ed piece a few days after Bergman died.

So, then what accounts for Bergman’s slide in popularity? Several things come to mind:

1- Decades of successful parody, even by rabid admirers such as Woody Allen, tarnished his reputation by making his supposedly self-indulgent seriousness an object of ridicule. As an example, perhaps no iconic film image has been parodied more than the knight, Antonius Block, playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal –

seventh seal chess

When taken out of context, it seems grim, medieval and ponderous. In context, there is much lightness and humor in the film. For example, after Death chooses black in the above scene, he smiles and remarks on the appropriateness of the choice. This humor leavens the more serious aspects of The Seventh Seal. The problem is that the lightness of touch is almost always missing in any parody of his work. Since parody has a way of presenting itself as something you need to agree with or you run the risk of being as foolish as that which is being parodied, the parodies of Bergman have solidified a false reputation for ponderousness and self-importance. This is unfortunate because The Seventh Seal is quite funny in places and even ends on hopeful note – sure there is still The Black Death ravaging Sweden and almost all the main characters are dead, but the good and innocent live to enjoy another day.  Even the dead ones get to dance with Death:

dance of death

2- Another reason is that Bergman’s films deal with religion in a serious way. He is engaged in titanic battle with God. It manifests itself in the yearning for God on the part of his characters, which is rewarded by God’s silence. Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister who practiced a very severe form of his faith.  His son engaged with, rejected and engaged again with this Calvinist version of the faith. He is perhaps the angriest Christian who never became an atheist.

The problem with all this is that modern audiences cannot handle a serious, gut-wrenching meditation on matters religious.  Religion is O.K. in film if it is either being ridiculed or if it dealt with in a transcendent, elusive way, such as in the films of Robert Bresson. Neither happens in a Bergman film. He and God are in it for the long count.

3- As stated above the male/female relationship is unsparingly dissected. No one comes out looking good. The mastery of character analysis is superb, but the findings wear the viewer down after a while.

4- His films, especially those from the late 60s/early 70s seem to come from a highly personal symbol world. This often thwarts the understanding, and hence the involvement of the audience.  Often the only audience response can be the ‘game’ response – “Let’s play the game to figure out what Bergman’s symbols represent and thereby find the key to the film, and thereby be able to ‘get’ the movie.”  Of course, this is no way to deal with a great work of art.  If it is all a cagey game on the part of the creator, then who cares? I doubt that Bergman is ever playing games with the audience. He is not a cynical artist. I believe that the films of this period, such as The Hour Of The Wolf, Persona and The Silence come from such a personal and troubled place, and instilled in Bergman such an urgency to express something, that it is small wonder audiences struggle with them.  I know I do.

So, why should we bother? Because, when it all comes together, nothing can compare to the impact a Bergman film has. It is cathartic, devastating, elating and confounding all at the same time.

If you are encountering Bergman for the first time, or if you have fallen away from the path of the True Believer and want to get reacquainted with his genius, let me suggest you sample the following films:

smiles of a summer night

1- Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955) – Bergman’s early works were often women’s films or comedies of manner.  Many of them are quite enjoyable, like Waiting Women or the quasi-neo-realist Summer With Monika, the film that single-handedly gave Sweden the reputation of being a sexy nation. The culmination of this first period was Smiles of a Summer Night, his international breakthrough, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is a wise romantic comedy in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier or Le Nozze di Figaro.  Perhaps best known today as the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, it is a good way to ease into Bergman’s oeuvre.  A sex farce, yes, but not without the meditations on aging and death that we have come to expect from Bergman.

virgin spring

2- The Virgin Spring (1960)- Of course, The Seventh Seal is Bergman’s towering achievement in evoking the world of medieval Sweden.  It is possibly the one Bergman film you have seen. Let me recommend this companion piece.  Also a tale of early Christian Sweden, it is quite distilled compared to The Seventh Seal, a chamber work compared to that great symphony of a film. A simple tale of violence and revenge resulting in grace, Bergman is working from the aesthetic of the medieval Mystery and Miracle plays. Stunningly photographed by longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist. The end of this film should generate a lot of discussion about whether or not Bergman’s world view is as bleak as reputation has it.

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3- Wild Strawberries (1957) – Perhaps my favorite film of all films.  It has been a beloved companion since I first saw it back in the early 70s.   Bergman deals here with the passage of time more effectively in the 91 minutes of this film than Proust does in the thousands of pages of his novel. Aged Dr. Isak Borg is to receive an award in Lund for his years of service. He makes the day-long drive from Stockholm to Lund with his frosty daughter-in-law Marianne. Along they way they pick up a young group of students going to Italy and a couple who are emblematic of Bergman’s sour view of marriage. As they wend their way south, they visit places that were emotional landmarks in Isak’s life. They visit his bitter ninety-plus mother, they stop at the family’s old summer house and as the film progresses the border between past and present, dream and reality dissolve. When the magnificent final image (see above) appears, you and Isak have travelled through life and time and have arrived at a dream past that always and never exists.

A beautiful aspect of this film is that Isak Borg is played by the great Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom.  He was a pioneer in both Swedish and American silent films and was both idol of and mentor to Bergman.

winter light

4- Winter Light (1963) – The middle part of a very loosely linked trilogy, Winter Light depicts in real time the crisis of a Lutheran minister who has lost his faith and is failing everyone who depends on him. The almost Hindu-like call to duty, (he will officiate at the next service regardless of his personal feelings!), is complicated and powerful.  A small and brutal film, with magnificent performances by Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Björnstrand.

fanny and alexander

5- Fanny And Alexander – (1982) As surprising as it was that Giuseppe Verdi ended his illustrious career as a composer of tragic opera with the gossamer comedy of Falstaff, it was also surprising that Ingmar Bergman, the gloomy master of Nordic angst ended his long film career with a sprawling, life-affirming Dickensian family saga. Watch either the three-hour theatrical release or the five-hour original television version, although I believe the multipart television is even more satisfying. Fear not!  Despite all the turn-of-the-19th-to-20th century trappings and the complicated family interactions, this is not Downton Abbey. There is enough meditation on good rewarded and evil punished to remind us that we are firmly rooted in Bergman’s Lutheran heaven/hell.   The opening Christmas sequence is one of the great set pieces of all cinema.

So,  please help me restore Bergman to his rightful place among the Cinema Gods.  Watch as many of his films as you can.   I look forward to discussing them with you!


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Have You Tried Von Stroheim?

Norma Desmond, the silent film star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard who has retreated into the dreams and confines of her Hollywood-Baroque mansion, is forgotten by the world. The shocking thing to realize is that the coming of sound, that event that severed the world of Desmond and Valentino and Fairbanks and Pickford from the ‘today’ of the film’s 1950, happened little more than 23 years before. Yet, the sundering of the two worlds is complete and final. The legendarily glamorous hey-day of the Silent Era seems as distant to the contemporary characters as the French Revolution.

Consider what was in theaters 23 years ago. Ghost, Home Alone and Pretty Woman hardly seem like relics of a distant past. Even the films released 23 years prior to that, such as The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde are still highly accessible and seem to be of our time.

The Silent Era is even more remote to us than it was in 1950. The giants of the era, such as Garbo, are remembered for their Sound Era films only , if at all. Yes, the silhouette of The Little Tramp is immediately recognizable, and we all have seen Harold Lloyd hanging from that clock in Safety Last, but the vast body of silent films are unknown.

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In the ensuing 86 years since the advent of sound, the vast majority of filmgoers have lost the skill of watching silent movies. There will be the obligatory viewing of The Gold Rush or Battleship Potemkin (alas, only the Odessa Steps scene) but no one knows classics like The Big Parade and Sunrise or even delightful, fluffy entertainments like My Best Girl or Show People.

My recommendation for activating an appreciation of Silents would be to watch and revel in the films of Erich Von Stroheim. Born to a lower middle-class Jewish family, Stroheim remade himself into a fallen Austrian nobleman, picking up the aristocratic ‘Von’ somewhere between Europe and Ellis Island.

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He learned the craft of filmmaking by working as an extra and assistant director to D.W. Griffith, and came of age as a director in the mid-1920s, the zenith of the Silent Era. He is best known for a film that no one alive has seen in its entirety. His ten-hour adaptation of Frank Norris’ realist classic Mcteague, shot under the title Greed, was continually whittled down by the studio until only about two hours of film remained. Not too long ago a reconstruction of the ‘complete’ Greed was created by splicing what remains of the film together with a treasure trove of recently discovered production stills. This, however, is ‘caviar to the general’ and will hardly be pleasurable for the Silent novice.

Instead, your starting point should be the stupendous Foolish Wives. Made in 1922, it is the perfect example of MGM luxury and glamor combined with Von Stroheim’s obsession with accuracy. It is said that his mania for detail even extended to insisting that his characters should be wearing correct underwear, even though it never appeared on screen! A full-scale replica of the casino at Monte Carlo is just one of the things that pushed the budget of this film past the one million mark, a first in film history.

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MGM made a virtue of necessity by bragging in the ads for the film that it was directed by Erich Von $troheim.

Foolish Wives is the story of an innocent American wife abroad, prey to the decadence of European aristocracy manqué. It is a strange theme for a film of 1922 since World War I had all but annihilated the very world that Von Stroheim was critiquing. The film is novelistic in its portrayal of character and plot. The fascinating Austrian Count Karamzin (Von Stroheim) and his ‘cousins’ inhabit a seaside vipers’ nest from which they cynically and ruthlessly prey on anyone naive enough to cross their paths. Watching their gleeful amorality and inevitable downfall is as satisfying as reading a big juicy 19th Century Novel by Trollope or Dickens.

The Austrian aristocracy also comes in for scrutiny in the heartbreakingly beautiful film The Wedding March starring a pre-King Kong Fay Wray.

Stroheim’s directorial career came to an abrupt end when Gloria Swanson had her boyfriend Joseph Kennedy shut down the production of the film Queen Kelly she was starring in and Von Stroheim was directing. Swanson finally had enough of the demands of this mad director and took exception to the creepy fetishisms of the film. Queen Kelly survives as a fragment and it is fascinating. An extra level of creepiness is that it is the film Norma Desmond is showing to Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. In a queasy-making confluence of fact and fiction, the butler Max von Mayerling, who is acting as film projector, is played by none other that Von Stroheim himself.

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So, please dig up a copy of Foolish Wives and let me know what you think. There is a nice edition on Kino that also features the interesting documentary The Man You Love To Hate. Then try The Wedding March.