The Discreet Bourgeois

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


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You Can’t Escape Me

 

NOTE: If you haven’t yet seen Fanny and Alexander you might want to wait to read this post.  But the question is: why haven’t you seen Fanny and Alexander yet???

 

 

 

Watching Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexanderespecially in the complete, five-hour plus television, is the closest cinematic experience to reading a good, juicy 19th century novel.   Since this is Bergman, though, there is much more than plot and sumptuous scenery.

Bergman is the supreme film psychologist.  I don’t always like what he comes up with, but I can’t think of any other director whose work so plumbs the minds of his characters and lays them bare.

Fanny and Alexander is considered his last film although it was followed by some more television work. I remember at the time of its release the common thread of the critiques was that in his last work Bergman gave us a sprawling, life-affirming, exuberant work that dispelled the tragic world-view of his previous films, much in the way that Verdi’s glorious comedy Falstaff was a reversal of that master’s long string of tragic masterpieces.

Well, yes and no.

First of all, many of Bergman’s previous works do ultimately give us a reason to live, even after, say, playing chess with Death for two hours. Also, many of his previous works are outright comedies.

In Fanny and Alexander there are many depictions of love: familial love, romantic love, sexual love,  love of theater and love of life.  But there are demons that are dealt with, as well.

After leaving the nurturing womb of the Ekdahl family home when their mother remarries, Fanny and Alexander find themselves in a very different world. The austere Lutheran aesthetic of the Bishop’s house stands in unsettling contrast to the Victorian splendor of the Grandmother’s home decorated for Christmas from the first part of the film. The children very quickly find that there will be no comfort in their new life.  Alexander rebels and becomes locked in a struggle for self-determination with his new step-father.

Through the magic ministrations of the loving and mysterious Isak Jacobi, the children are spirited away from the hell of the Bishop’s house and are soon to be united with their loved ones. But not right away, and here is where the psychoanalysis comes in.

The children are taken not to their grandmother’s house, but to Uncle Isak’s strange shop.  There are echoes of the Ekdahl home in that Uncle Isak’s house is also filled to the brim with ‘things’, but not the lovely, ornate Victoriana we find in the grandmother’s place.  Instead, this is a world of magical things, of puppets and costumes. In fact, it seems to be a cross between the two worlds that the children grew up in: the comfort of the Ekdahl home and the other-worldliness of the theater that was also a huge part of their family.

It is important they come here first, because Alexander has healing he has to do. It is not a case of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother being cut out of the evil wolf and living happily after. There is work that needs to be done.

I was always baffled by the long static scene between Alexander and the purportedly mad and dangerous Ismael, Isak’s strange nephew who is locked up in the maze of the paraphernalia of the Jacobi’s magic dwelling.  I didn’t understand why Alexander and his sister could not be brought right back to their grandmother’s after the horrendous ordeal they survived.

This time around it became crystal clear to me what is happening. Before you meet him, Ismael (for some reason played by a Finnish actress – perhaps to add to his strangeness?) is describe as extraordinarily dangerous.  However the man we see is a beautiful, calm, seductive creature.  What is terrifying about him is that as soon as he is alone with Alexander, he can read his deepest thoughts and emotions.  Ismael reveals to us (and perhaps to the boy as well) that Alexander is frightening to Ismael because he is willing a man to die. Of course he means the Bishop and of course we don’t blame Alexander one bit for feeling this way.  But we have the feeling that this revelation and purging of this feeling has to happen before Alexander can return to a healthy, loving Ekdahl world.

The Jacobi shop is a kind of Cognitive Behavior staging area before he can rejoin the world.  He needs to be cleansed of the damage that was done to him.

At then end of the film we see Alexander once again integrated into the world of his grandmother and the theater.  He is cockily walking in the halls munching on box of cookies, the golden prince restored. But as if to counter the relief we feel that Alexander is finally home free, from behind him out of the dark comes a figure, wearing a prominent gold crucifix. It is the Bishop.

He knocks Alexander to the floor.  Alexander peer at him from his prone position, and before the Bishop leaves forever, he turns to Alexander and says, “You can never escape me.”

As a survivor of an abusive childhood this scene resonates with me. Yes, Alexander can move on and enjoy the love that he is surrounded by. However, the hell he went through will always be there.  It won’t overwhelm him, but it will always be a part of his make-up and will always be part of his future, no matter how joyous it will be.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Secrets of Women (Ingmar Bergman)
  2. The Princess from the Moon (Kon Ichikawa)
  3. Brother (Kon Ichikawa)
  4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
  5. All is True (Kenneth Branagh)
  6. Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
  7. Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg)
  8. The Red Badge of Courage (John Huston)
  9. The End of the Affair (Edward Dmytryk)
  10. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)

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1- Early Ingmar Bergman can be very disconcerting, but so can later Ingmar Bergman. In both cases you are waiting for the sparks of genius. In the later works you sometimes have to sift through a ton of murky symbolism to find it. In the earlier films, you have to sift through a genius finding his voice and making some cringeworthy art along the way. Secrets of Women (or Waiting Women as the Swedish title is better translated) is firmly in the early camp. It is a bunch of vignettes strung together around a flimsy story. Some of the sequences are good, especially the most famous one about jaded married couple Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Bjornstrand getting stuck in an elevator. There is a pretty bad sequence taking place in Paris (this is the 1950s after all) that is way too arty for its own good.

2- TCM has a weekly feature late night on Sundays called TCM Imports which showcases foreign-language films. Quite often they will have a double bill of the same director. A few weeks ago they showed two by Kon Ichikawa back to back. They showed Brother from 1960 and The Princess from the Moon from the 1980s. The former was a classic ‘story of today’ depicting the cruelty of a dysfunctional family and was good enough. The latter was just insane. Obviously Ichikawa had seen and studied Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind very closely. What starts out as a classic rendering of a fairy-tale of a mysterious girl who fell from the moon, quickly winds up in Spielbergland down to the exact kind of spaceship as seen in CE3K. This is one nutty movie and, alas, one of the last appearances of Toshiro Mifune.

3- I know I am supposed to be enraptured by the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer, but they bore me to tears. Day of Wrath even has sex and I find it dull. Yes, The Passion of Joan of Arc is genius and I seem to remember being swept away by Ordet, but the others….yikes. Gertrude – yikes.

4- The Red Badge of Courage and The End of the Affair are excellent specimens of how to adapt and how not to adapt great works of literature. The Red Badge of Courage apparently has as thwarted a production history as The Magnificent Ambersons. It was originally twice as long as the current version and in its entirety it was supposed to be the greatest war film ever made. I can definitely see that. The screenplay really captures the ambiguity of the wonderful Crane novel. The acting is uniformly super.

The End of the Affair is another story. I had just finished reading the Grahame Green novel and years earlier I had seen the beautiful Neal Jordan adaptation. This version was from the 1950s and I don’t know what the screenwriters were reading but nothing of Green’s ruminations on sex, and God and sin survive. Plus Van Johnson (!) is perhaps the best example of miscasting I can think of!


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Black Girl (Sembene Ousmane)
  2. Far From The Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger)
  3. All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
  4. Till The Clouds Roll By (Richard Whorf)
  5. The Mummy’s Ghost (Reginald Le Borg)
  6. Persona (Ingmar Bergman)
  7. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
  8. Rasputin, The Mad Monk (Don Sharp)
  9. The Mysterious Doctor  (Benjamin Stoloff)
  10. Le Rayon Vert (Summer) (Eric Rohmer)

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1- I had seen clips from Black Girl on TCM when they did that terrific series on World Cinema.  They were so haunting. I was glad to get the chance to see the whole film.  Powerful, poetic, tragic and very beautiful.  That mask, wow!

2- In my last post, I decried turning great novels into film. Well I was a little wrong. Far From The Madding Crowd is a very commendable attempt to turn Thomas Hardy’s novel into a film.  The book, of course, is way better, but the movie hits on all of the book’s main points and really gets to the emotion behind it all.  Pretty arty camera work by Nicholas Roeg considering that this was a typical big-budget prestige project. I want to read more Hardy.

3- I am currently teaching a course on the Great American Songbook and this weekend I will be speaking about Jerome Kern.  I figured that it would be a good time to watch Till The Clouds Roll By, even though I knew that its ties with reality were very tenuous.  It turns out that they were ridiculously tenuous.  This had hardly anything to do with Kern’s life, the way that Night and Day has nothing to do with Cole Porter’s life and Rhapsody in Blue has nothing to do with George Gershwin’s life.  What this film really is, is an excuse to have MGM’s musical stars do star turns singing or dancing to Kern songs, which is fun enough.  But what a stinker of a movie.

4- The Mummy’s Ghost – it is Hallowe’en season and I must watch as many classic horror movies as I can, many of them bad.  Like this one.  How can a 61 minute movie feel like it is three hours long? At least it had that classic Universal horror-romance atmosphere.

5- Thanks to Kathleen Rooney and Martin Seay, true friends who helped be to wrestle with just what the hell Persona is. I have seen and loved this movie many times but could never articulate what I felt it was. Thanks to K & M I’m a little closer to that goal.  All three of us are pretty convinced that it is a masterpiece sui generis.

6- Mike Leigh is a giant who walks among us. I may through the word ‘masterpiece’ around too much, but his films really deserve the name.  Peterloo is an epic yet intimate depiction of one of the first labor rebellions in English history, and its terrifying suppression. I hope it gets wide release.  I saw it at the Chicago Film Festival and I hope it doesn’t disappear.

7- I get such perverse pleasure from All That Heaven Allows. I love showing it to new people, because by the end it is not what they expected.

8- Please see Le Rayon Vert and read my post about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Magnificent Obsession (Douglas Sirk)
  2. Danton (Andrzej Wajda)
  3. I Fidanzati  (Ermanno Olmi)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
  5. A Woman’s Face (Gustav Molander)
  6. The Steamroller and the Violin (Andrei Tarkovsky)
  7. That Forsyte Woman (Compton Bennett)
  8. The Catcher Was a Spy (Ben Lewin)
  9. Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears)
  10. Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir)

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1- The Steamroller and the Violin – A tender film from Andrei Tarkovsky? Well, it was a student project, but it is really lovely.   No indication at all of the strenuous films to come

2- I was obsessed with the BBC version of The Forsyte Saga when it played here in the 70s. Because of that, I turned my nose up at the MGM version That Forsyte Woman.  First of all, what a silly title. Second, Errol Flynn as the homely Soames Forsyte?  But watching it now it is a solid MGM adaptation, a good example of their ‘Tradition of Quality’.  I wonder why there weren’t more films of these books.  The story and characters are so rich

3- I think we take for granted how talented and multi-faceted Meryl Streep is.  Her output is an embarrassment of riches.  What can’t she play.  Each character is uniquely conceived and not like any other.  Bette Davis was as brilliant, but she was always playing a Bette Davis character.  Streep as the infamous Florence Foster Jenkins is poignant, hilarious and infuriating.  Another work of genius.


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
  2. The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith)
  3. Room and a Half (Andrei Khrzhanovsky)
  4. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
  5. I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
  6. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan)
  7. The Navigator (Donald Crisp/Buster Keaton)
  8. It’s a Wonderful World (W.S. Van Dyke)
  9. Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer)
  10. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey)

1 – I am often more interested in cinematic technique, i.e., how the filmmaker conveys the plot than in the plot per se.  I know Hitchcock felt the same way – see his concept of ‘MacGuffin’.  But, with certain filmmakers you just can’t ignore content.  The French critics considered Hitchcock the most personal of the personal auteurs. His fetishes and private fears appear all through his oeuvre.  One of his great themes, and probably one of his great personal concerns, is the concept of guilt and sin. No one makes the audience feel more complicit in the actions of characters than Hitchcock.  We assume their guilt.  Remember the scene when Norman Bates is trying to sink the car containing the murdered Janet Leigh in a pond? It stops sinking midway and we all think ‘Oh no! Norman and his mother will be caught now!’  Then the car resumes its downward descent and disappears underwater and we are relieved. Then to our horror we realize ‘We were just rooting for a man abetting a murder committed by his mother!’ Later on, we find out there is much more to be horrified by.  Sabotage is a film reeking with the notion of complicity and guilt and, perhaps, original sin.  What is it that causes Sylvia Sidney to do what she does at the end? She achieves a makeshift absolution by the mechanics of the plot, but does she really?  A terribly unsettling film in so many ways, and in many ways the first ‘Hitchcock film’.

2- I wonder why Room and a Half  is not better known.  Based on works of the poet Joseph Brodsky, this is a wonderfully inventive fantasy memoir about events that never happened.  Apparently, Brodsky never went back to Russia, so this depiction of his reunion with his (possibly dead) parents is all the stuff of imagination.  The combination of animation, raucous humor and the depiction of what it must have been like to be an intellectual in the latter days of the Soviet Union are entrancing.  There are moments of great lyricism mixed in with great humor.  I wish I knew more of his work, since I would probably understand more of the poetic tropes in the film For instance, his dead parents live on in two crows that come to the adult Brodsky. Is this part of his body of work?

This would have been a hit if we still lived in the days of the Art House movie theater.

3- All I can say is that I will be happy to watch Wild Strawberries every few months for the rest of my life.

4- I Confess is widely considered lesser Hitchcock.  I had seen it decades ago and didn’t remember much about it.  But having just watched Sabotage and The Lodger, I hoped that it would prove to be a pleasant surprise. It didn’t.  I think the big flaw is having Montgomery Clift in the lead.  He just seems to be in a different movie the whole time.  I think that he was probably doing his Method actor thing, but Hitchcock’s plan did not catch what he was doing. Hence, he looks like he is just stumbling around Quebec.  Anne Baxter seems very miscast as well.  The plot has all the trapping of a classic Hitchcock film, but it never really gets off the ground. I think Hitchcock himself is dismissive of it and seems to blame Clift, too.

5- I am so glad that I finally made time to sit down and watch the complete, three-hour version of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret.  I always loved his You Can Count On Me, and was amazed to see that Margaret was only his second feature.  It was plagued by creative and legal woes and never really had a theatrical run.  It is pretty much forgotted but it is a work of profound genius and creativity.  More to come on this one.

6- It’s hard to believe that I can actually say, ‘I haven’t seen that movie in over 35 years’, but such is the case with Seven Days In May.  It really holds up as an exemplar of cold-war paranoia.  It was directed by the master of screen paranoia, John Frankenheimer, who gave us such other delicious, cinematic nightmares as The Manchurian Canditate (yikes!) and Seconds, which has the most terrifying film of any film I have ever seen. OK, the Dutch version of The Vanishing has a worse ending, but Seconds is a very close second.

 


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The Last Ten Films I’ve Seen

  1. Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
  2. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper)
  3. A Lesson in Love (Ingmar Bergman)
  4. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali)
  5. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel)
  6. Yoyo (Pierre Étaix)
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night (Ingmar Bergman)
  8. I Was Born But….. (Yasujiro Ozu)
  9. As Long As You Have Your Health (Pierre Étaix)
  10. Baby Face Herrington (Raoul Walsh)
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1- It is almost a cliché now to hear the films of Douglas Sirk referred to as feminist and subversive.  I agree they are. However, I need to stress that Now Voyager got there before Sirk did.  This film, depicting an unloved and abused child triumphing over adversity by her own inner strength, is astounding for the period.  Sure, Charlotte Vale does get great insight from the psychiatrist played by Claude Raines, but he merely puts her on the right track and gives her the shove she needs.  From then on, it is all her own doing. Yes, there is a love interest, but amazingly, as Charlotte Vane reintegrates her damaged psyche into her life, she finds that she has moved beyond the need for a man to save her. Of course, only Bette Davis could have played this.

2- In the early 50s it would have been hard to predict that Ingmar Bergman would turn into the profound artist of the later 50s and beyond.  So many of his early films are light, slightly risqué comedies of manners.  It is interesting to watch an early film like A Lesson In Love and then compare it to Smiles of a Summer Night. Both star the magnificent Eva Dahlbeck and dapper Gunnar Bjornstrand.  Both deal winkingly with the notion of sexual attraction and fidelity.  The early film is nice but very slight.  The latter is light but profound, evidence that Bergman is broadening his scope.

3- Do I change or do films age badly?  I used to adore The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I even named this blog after it.  Rewatching it proved a bit tedious.  The shaggy-doggedness of it wore thin way before the film ended.  I noticed the same feeling when I rewatched The Exterminating Angel. However, Un Chien Andalou holds up in all its insane and anarchic glory.  Could its short length work in its favor?  Just how long should a shaggy dog run for?What about it, David Lynch?

4- I am rewatching the films of Pierre Étaix in order to write a Have Your Tried  post about him.  Stay tuned. What a delight.

5- TCM continues to be a source of cinematic bounty. No one would accuse Baby Face Herrington of being a classic in any sense of the word, but it gives you a great idea of what a solid B-picture comedy was like in the early 30s.  It was an adaptation of a Broadway play, so you get a glimpse into that world as well. Plus you get an appearance by the always-delightful Una Merkel.  What’s bad about that?

 Una_Merkel_-_still


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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?