Tuesday, June 30, 2009



* Away We Go, the Sam Mendes-helmed comedy with John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph is mostly good, but the literary pretensions of authors Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida sometimes get in the way.

* Chéri, the lacklustre reteaming of Stephen Frears, Christopher Hampton, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

* Easy Virtue, Colin Firth rises high in this Noel Coward adaptation, but other problems get in the way of this simple pleasure.

* Food, Inc., an illuminating look at how food became big business and what's wrong with that development.

* The Hangover, a good, raunchy comedy made all the better by Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis.

* O' Horten, a quietly involving portrait of a changing life from Norwegian director Bent Hamer.

* Year One, Jack Black and Michael Cera starring in the worst movie of the year so far. Avoid at all costs.

Also, keep your eye out for more reviews of summer movies that are already in limited release. I should be posting my thoughts on the Oscar-winning Japanese film Departures, Moon, and Woody Allen's Whatever Works to DVDTalk.com this Thursday.


* Au Bonheur des Dames, Julien Duvivier's 1930 silent adaptation of Emile Zola is visually stunning but a little weak in the end.

* Brief Encounter (1974), a BBC remake with Richard Burton and Sophia Loren that holds its own against the older David Lean version.

* Diary of a Suicide, a lost French film from the early 1970s that was better off not found. With Delphine Seyrig and Sami Frey.

* Eastbound & Down - The Complete First Season, the latest release from HBO's TV division is the perfect vehicle for comedian Danny McBride. Dirty, mean-spirited fun! Includes three episodes directed by David Gordon Green.

* Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, an electrified portrait of the influential writer, a singular personality if ever there was one.

* Lonely are the Brave, a fantastic forgotten gem with Kirk Douglas as the last cowboy to stand against the modern world. With Gena Rowlands, Walter Matheau, and a script by Dalton Trumbo.

* Lookin' to Get Out: Extended Version, a little-known later work from Hal Ashby gets a new airing.

* Two more 1980s films from Alain Resnais, even more disappointing than the last two: Life is a Bed of Roses and I Want to Go Home, Resnais' flaccid collaboration with Jules Feiffer.

* Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, an incredible music documentary profiling an enigmatic performer.

* The Strange One, a 1950s drama penned by Calder Willingham and showing hazing at a military college. Features a stand-out performance by a young Ben Gazzara in his first film.

* The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, notable for being Paramount's first color picture, but a bit dull. With Henry Fonda, Sylvia Sidney, and Fred MacMurray; directed by Henry Hathaway.

* Une Femme Mariée, Godard's 1964 will-she-or-won't-she portrait of a married woman torn between husband and lover. Features a fantastic performance by Macha Méril.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


A couple of years ago, I reviewed the re-release of Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, the influential and iconic chronicle of his 1965 British tour. The new boxed set was called the 65 Tour Deluxe Edition and it featured a new film by director D.A. Pennebaker called Bob Dylan 65 Revisited. Essentially, Pennebaker did look back, digging into his archives and pulling out unseen footage from the same trip and making a new movie out of it. While exciting at the time I first watched it, this new documentary doesn't really measure up to its more famous older brother. Fine, sure, as a DVD extra, but given that I can't remember hardly anything about it, there is no way it stands alone as a companion or as a sequel or anything of the kind. Really, it's just scraps, and trying to determine whether or not they deserved to be scraps is a little too much like trying to get the egg back into its shell after the omelet has already been seasoned. Though I haven't watched it yet, I understand that the Maysles pulling a similar move with The Beales of Grey Gardens has yielded similar results. Whatever instincts led them the right way the first time should have been trusted.

Though Vilgot Sjöman put his two versions of I Am Curious together at the same time, turning one four-hour film into two films half that size, it's obvious that Yellow [review here] got all the best bits, and Blue the leftovers. Maybe I'd think differently if I had seen them in the other order, Blue would be the trailblazer and Yellow the mentally deficient little brother running to catch up, but I doubt it. I Am Curious - Blue doesn't just lack the surprise of Yellow, but the structure and the purpose, as well. These are the scraps.

Continuing to borrow from Godard's playbook, Sjöman opens I Am Curious - Blue with talking head interviews with women discussing their sex lives and what gives them pleasure, bringing to mind the relationship talk of Masculin féminin. These are part of the interviews that our heroine, Lena Nyman, began in Yellow, though now rather than just asking about class issues, she will talk about sex and religion, as well. Blue relies more heavily on these public studies, sending Lena on a road trip where she meets new lovers and new interview subjects. We learn a little more about her history--what bearded creep of a college professor did she screw? who did her mother screw and where did she go?--and we see her fall into the same intellectual traps she had supposedly already learned her lesson from. Yet, while Yellow had a point, Blue does not.

In fact, I'd say Blue almost goes out of its way not to make a point, but only if I were feeling more kind. The passion for genuine information, no matter how misguided or rhetorical, has been replaced by an off-putting smugness. Lena's sense of rightness borders on entitlement, and it is hard to swallow after her failed quest in Yellow. Haven't we watched a character arc already where her liberal naïveté comes down with a case of scabies? Well, Sjöman is attempting to turn back the clock, seemingly weaving around the scenes in his other movie, even taking us back to the casting of Lena and Börje. The latter never really adopts his character in Blue, he's always the actor, timid and lecherous, never the Crown Prince or the boyfriend. Like everything else, the metafictional elements, the movie behind the movie/within the movie, has over ripened. We've been here, and coming back to it teaches us nothing new. Neither do meeting the swinging couple who gave Lena her scabies or the constant references to the "Socialist Itch" make up for the fact that we end up in exactly the same place we ended up last time, but lacking the same emotional investment. What with Börje being a non character, and Lena's new relationships fleeting, and her epiphany of failure being so effective in Yellow, what here are we meant to glom on to? Especially when the more fun stuff, like playing with on-screen text, is all but absent.

I Am Curious - Blue actually stops dead more than once. A scene where Lena debates Christian morality goes on way too long and its ideas are pretty worn out for 2009. A tryst between Lena and creep-beard professor (Hands Hellberg) at the top of a phallic tower, its elevator car rising up and down in time with their pelvic thrusts, is vulgar in its obviousness, both for the comic editing and for the blunt satire of the old liberal being impotent. No surprise, then, that he resorts to violence later. Maybe had Sjöman given more time to the story of Lena's abandonment by her mother and the possible reunion, there would have been a better emotional counterpoint to stack against this disconnect from her "intellectual father." It would have also played nicely with Lena befriending the young single mother, Sonja Lindgren. Instead, it's a footnote that becomes an easy out with an ending that is too lazy to even be manipulative.

Rather than the color differentiation in the titles, Vilgot Sjöman could have played off of I Am Curious a little more, make the titles fit together. Like, given how this one was so much of the same, it could have been a duo of I Am Curious and But Not Surprised. Or, I am Curious and But Not Very Interesting. I Am Shamefully Predictable. I Am Too Shallow for Two Movies. I Have Already Found Out Everything I Will Ever Find.

I Am Curious but I Am Out of Ideas.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The I Am Curious set has been sitting in the "next" position in my queue for a while, having come up in the sequential numbering of my personal viewing (in other words, the first 178 down with no gaps) after I covered My Life as a Dog fifteen months ago. It came to mind again after my review of In the Realm of the Senses, this movie's scandalous reputation seeming to make it a good match for Oshima's porno. I particularly considered it as a good choice after some of the mail I got regarding my opinions about Senses, partially because I expected I Am Curious to be another tempest in a teapot. My personal prudishness and my belief that it would be boring, that age would have rotted its teeth, were the main reasons I kept working around it, and maybe it was time to confront that head on.

So, I start here with the first in the set, I Am Curious - Yellow.

Swedish director Vilgot Sjöman's 1967 film is infamous for the protracted legal battle that its American distributor undertook in order to exhibit the picture, using I Am Curious - Yellow as his bludgeon to whack at U.S. obscenity laws. His crusade failed, then it succeeded on appeal, and then he pushed it too far and got close to a draw, but ultimately lost, and the result is that I Am Curious remained contraband. It's a film known more for its reputation than its content, and watching it now forty years on, the explicitness is incredibly tame (particularly compared to the smut of Oshima). The sex scenes comprise only a small part of the running time, and the details we see are far from gynecological. I Am Curious - Yellow isn't even about sex, it's about so much more, and the what sex there is serves a purpose. The long-dead controversy has done Sjöman's work quite a disservice.

I Am Curious - Yellow is a fun, adventurous film, the Swedish extension of the French new wave, a self-reflexive slice of agitprop that would rest comfortably on a shelf next to Godard's La Chinoise in the way it satirizes trendy young idealists while also giving tribute to their marvelously misguided ideals. The focus of Sjöman's movie is Lena, a girl of 22 playing herself between the blurred lines of fact and fiction. I am sure the question of how much of I Am Curious - Yellow was documentary added to its shock value. Sjöman appears as himself making the film, and though some of the early shots are obviously staged, they are quickly offset by clips of Lena taking to the streets and interviewing her fellow citizens about the class system in Sweden. When Sjöman unceremoniously slips from this to scenes of narrative fiction, the change is imperceptible. It's only later when the film crew returns that we have cause to question what we have been seeing, when we finally see the jealous director choreographing Lena's life and demanding she redo some of her lines.

Sjöman constructs his film by balancing it between various conflicting ideals, not just fact and fiction. There is the argument of class, the haves and the have-nots, the young and the old, conservative and liberal--there is even an implicit disparity between director and star. One scene has them questioning who is using the other more. Is it Sjöman for wanting Lena to star in his film and share his bed, or is it Lena for using her sexual wiles to get the lead? It's an interpersonal clash, and also one between art and commerce that brings to mind the similar portrayal of a young woman in a money-oriented world in Steven Soderbergh's latest, The Girlfriend Experience. This dynamic is also mirrored in the lover Lena eventually takes. Depending on what point of the story we are in, Börje Ahlstedt either works in men's wear retail, sells cars, or is the last crown prince of Sweden. A divergent scene shows he and Lena ushering his father out of the castle, putting an end to the monarchy. Leading up to this, they have public sex in front of the royal palace as a barely adult guard watches. The commentary is clear. Such disrespect!

This collection of background elements makes I Am Curious - Yellow as much a portrait of the changing face of Sweden as it is of Lena. The socialist nation was at a crossroads, the youth questioning the success of the ideology as they embraced the newfound freedom that would come to define the decade. Lena is the liberated 1960s woman, free with her body, demanding of her rights, and politically motivated. She is concerned with justice and nonviolence, equal pay for equal work, and global consciousness. She wants the U.S. out of Vietnam and urges her fellow Swedes to stop taking holidays in Spain until Franco is deposed. Her father (Peter Lindgren) went to fight against Franco, but chickened out and ran back home. Ashamed for him, Lena keeps a running tally of the days he has been AWOL in her bedroom under a portrait of the Spanish dictator, surrounded by images of concentration camps and U.S. atrocities in East Asia. It's under this morbid collage that she has sex with Börje, informing him that he's her 24th lover--though the first nineteen didn't count because they were no fun. So far, that is the only price she has had to pay for her convictions; it's easy to have such strident beliefs when faced with so little opposition.

Börje isn't the smartest match for Lena. He's dishonest and unfaithful, with conservative political leanings. He has no problem with class imbalance, nor does he feel women should make as much money as men. He's all sweetness when he wants something, but he's also forceful, almost brutal, when he wants it a certain way. In other words, he's the living embodiment of the real world, as opposed to Lena's hippy-dippy idealistic one. When she retreats to her own personal commune, where she eats tiny vegetarian meals and indulges in topless yoga, he comes crashing back into her life, shattering the peace, and ultimately making her forsake her beliefs. In one comically irreverent scene, Lena apologizes to Martin Luther King, Jr., who appears in footage Sjöman had filmed the year before, telling him she is sorry, but she is going to get violent all over Börje's cheating ass. This scene is sandwiched between multiple come-ons from men passing her on the road and Lena binging on cake. The girl is a mess.

She's also a pleasure to watch. Lena Nyman does more than play herself here, she manages a complete screen character that I couldn't help but root for despite her naïveté. It made me all the more sad when Börje's abuse pushes her to forsake the little life she's cultivated for herself, and even worse when she relies on his masculine posturing. The actor gets into a tussle with the director, even attempts to hijack his control of the movie--which is really grabbing control of Lena. At one point she had gotten away from both of them, but she's back up for grabs. Her father, her director, and her co-star are all disappointments to her, as modern life apparently was for many a young Swede coming of age back then. The social experiment wasn't all it was cracked up to be, the progression wasn't progressive enough, and too many people--particularly the older ones like her dad, but the younger generation, too--were content to carry on with the status quo. The reward for those who would ask for more? VD!

For all the points he is trying to make, for all the cinematic and philosophical balls Vilgot Sjöman is juggling in I Am Curious - Yellow, he never lets the film get bogged down. His technique is facile, moving between the verite and the more formalistic scenes with determination and control. He does occasionally make a clumsy cut from one element to the next, but his style and the soul of his piece remain potent, unlike say the unmannered clutter of Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism. Sjöman's playful experimentation with sound and words on the screen recall Godard's pranks, while his sense of confined drama recalls Ingmar Bergman--whom Sjöman quotes at the outset of the movie. Given that he directed Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie several years before I Am Curious, I think we can safely surmise that Sjöman picked up a few tricks from his countryman.

In the introduction Sjöman recorded for this disc, he explains how I Am Curious arose out of his discontent with the strictures of the Swedish studio system. He somehow convinced a producer to give him some film, some money, and the freedom to shoot whatever came to him. There was no supervision and no script. Eventually, his initial efforts proved not to be enough, and he had to return to the well for more film. Once he was done, however, he had enough footage to make two separate but compatible movies, extending the experiment further by taking Yellow in one direction, and then Blue in another (the colors being the same as on the Swedish flag). I am sorry I took so long to get around to checking out I Am Curious - Yellow, because I was definitely pleased with what I found waiting for me; whether its sibling will offer the same pleasures is a question that will have to wait just a little longer for its answer. [And here it is...the review of Blue.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


At the end of Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest's Corky St. Clair returns to New York from the Missouri burg where his dreams of a life in the Legitimate Theatre were dashed on the small-town rocks and opens up his own memorabilia store. Guest fills the shop with all kinds of ludicrous, non-existent movie tie-ins, including My Dinner with André action figures. The joke is, of course, that they should probably be "inaction" figures, because Louis Malle's 1981 movie is about as far from action as you can get, at least in the physical sense. There's plenty of mental action, but one doesn't really needs dolls to act that out. Maybe a better toy would be Wallace Shawn and André Gregory masks, and kids could fight over who gets to be the forceful André and dominate the conversation, sort of like getting to be the cop instead of the robber.

My Dinner with André is the brainchild of its two stars, actor/playwright Wallace Shawn and theatre director André Gregory. Of the pair, most moviegoers probably recognize the very recognizable Shawn from his roles in films like The Princess Bride and Clueless; he is currently playing Blair Waldorf's stepdad on Gossip Girl. The entire movie is an extended conversation between the two men, who wrote the screenplay and play versions of themselves. It's a heady movie, covering art, psychology, and philosophy via esoteric anecdotes, mostly coming from André, who shares some of his bizarre experiences from his worldwide search for authentic meaning and experience.

It's one of those left-field concepts that sounds boring but is so very much not boring it's almost shocking. I recall it being a picture that Siskel and Ebert championed back in the day, which is weird because I wasn't even ten when the film came out. Was I really paying attention to those guys back then? I guess so. I suppose it could be a trick of memory, the sort of illusory trap André might call into question in the film, that I could have just heard those famous TV critics talking about it much later. Then again, André would also probably encourage me to get rid of my TV altogether, in which case he would have cut off my cable to spite his own face.

It's weird considering a film like My Dinner with André in 2009, because the cultural landscape has changed so much since Louis Malle set up some cameras and filmed two New York intellectuals debating over a helping of quail. There is an intentional obscuring of the barrier between fiction and reality in this film, like a window that has been washed but the soap streaks are intentionally left on the glass. This is before shows like The Hills and its fake ilk, before reality was packaged and falsified and sold back to us as something genuine as an increasingly standard business practice. When I saw this movie in my late teens, for the first and only time until now, it didn't even occur to me to question whether it was real or not. I assumed it was a true conversation caught on the fly, not a scripted event made to look like it was really happening. I suppose that speaks to how far the film went over my head, that I spent at least twenty years thinking it was a documentary and not a piece of fiction. I suppose, though, that it's a better truth than believing anything that comes out of Heidi Montag's mouth. Even so, the caveats keep rolling; My Dinner with André would probably also reject the notion that any one illusion is quantifiably good in comparison to another.

The film does cover a range of topics, but they all eventually come back around to the concept of self and how one views the world. After a brief intro following Wallace Shawn through New York, listening to his thoughts as he explains the set-up of this dinner, we get into the thick of it relatively quickly. Yet, that set-up also gives us a fundamental understanding of the two character constructs we are working with. Shawn is a playwright concerned with his own failure and how he will make ends meet; André is a successful enough director that he was able to drop out of the business. Even so, there is a sense that he is no longer what he once was, that he is now a failure, as well, and rather than wishing to avoid him because of some social imbalance, Shawn seems scared that his companion might reflect his own insecurities back at him. His failures are Wallace Shawn's failures, too.

In a very abstract way, there is a case to be made for André representing God and Shawn humanity. André instigates the dinner, and he also begins the conversation with stories of how he learned to manipulate reality and control people through improvisational acting exercises. It is an anecdote that sets the stage both for the topics to follow and introduces the notion, false as it may be, that this is also improvisation. André's example is an event where actors were pushed to play themselves rather than invented characters, just as they are seemingly doing here. Life is performance, so performance is no different than life. Like the anti-Keyser Söze, André's trick here isn't making us believe he's not real when our experience tells us otherwise, but that he is, even when the strings are showing.

As the night wears on, though, André's tales take on an increasing weariness, a despair that all situations can be manipulated and people can't be pushed to act for themselves, as if the Supreme Being were sick of governing the minutia of our nowhere lives. Neither Malle nor the authors really set up any of this divine argument, and to be perfectly honest, it was a total afterthought on my part, but it does have a certain sense to it. André is trying to find a way to be an enlightened being, and he is searching for meaning wherever he can find it, placing great mystical importance on coincidence and his own perceptions of an interconnectedness. Be it art or activity or what have you, people need to come together and create moments of purity, reminding themselves that they are alive by creating illusions that paradoxically will force us to acknowledge that all life is a dream. If everyday experience is lacking in sustenance, then there must be something transformative to free our souls from the existential abyss that is modern living.

It's a self-indulgent argument, and it's hard not to look at André as a self-involved white man of privilege, a position I think the filmmakers are fully aware of. In a way, André is being set up to be knocked down, with Wallace Shawn given very few interjections--acting being reacting, Shawn doesn't sit idly, the amount of listening may make his the more difficult performance. Most of his thoughts are saved until his cathartic third-act speech (right on cue, right when it's needed*) in defense of day-to-day living, of the importance of surviving and the strength of the individual and the few real bonds one makes. This is enough, this is important, life is in the details. In a way, this, and the fact that My Dinner with André exists at all, supports Shawn's earlier argument that art should reflect life and the common experience; yet, it also supports André, who says that people know enough of their own lives and don't need to see their personal dramas played out for them on stage or screen, they need something else to transport them.

Which is just what My Dinner with André does for its running time. For nearly two hours you are likely to forget whatever else is around you, what bills aren't paid or that you need to put your laundry in the dryer, because you'll be wrapped up in this conversation. It may not be as important as André would have us believe, that this entertainment, no matter how intellectually stimulating, is merely a distraction from our own mortality, but each of the men does end up proving that art can be what he wants it to be without canceling out the other. Being both a reflection and a distortion, it can show us our personal reality while also showing us a different one; we see ourselves in what is separate from us. It may only be a magic trick, but it provides succor via entertainment, while also changing one's frame of reference and, therefore, one's perception. At one point, André asks if maybe the only art that will work anymore is the art that is geared toward an audience of one. Though this was still true in a darkened Cineplex, where each audience member sat alone with his or her thoughts and these two dinner guests, it's now even more valid in the age of DVD. And yet, that once very public private act of going to the movies was still communal in that a group of people engaged in it at the same time; are we now more disconnected as we enjoy more and more of life in the confines of our own homes? Does it make us better or less equipped to replicate the unheralded victory that sneaks its way into the voiceover at the end, when Wallace Shawn informs us that he goes home and tells his girlfriend all about his meal? He carries the torch for the conversation and passes it to someone else. I guess our new challenge is to get out of our easy chairs and do the same.

For those who want to go behind the curtain and learn more about how the reality informed the film and how Malle, Shawn, and Gregory built a piece of fiction out of actual lives, the lead feature on DVD 2 should satisfy your concerns. Filmmaker Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) spends about half an hour each with Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, and the interviews explore who these men are and how they came together to create My Dinner with André. It digs into what parts of their own lives served as source material and how the two of them cobbled it all together, and then how they hooked up with Louis Malle and the ways the director shaped them into actors and their script into a movie. Baumbach is a good interviewer, sparking a dialogue that does service to the film and those who appreciate it.

The tables--and the camera--are turned in the other program, a 1982 episode of the BBC magazine show "Arena." Titled "My Dinner with Louis," it's a 52-minute portrait of Malle, based around an interview conducted by Wallace Shawn. The full scope of Malle's movie career is explored, complete with clips, in an attempt to divine the director's artistic impulse and the themes of his work. It's a great insight into the man who would read the script for My Dinner with André and think, "This is a movie I have to make."

Louis Malle

* Though, arguably, it's actually a second-act shift, this not being a by-the-book third act film. (I can hear Charlie Kaufman in my head, "Don't say ‘third act.'")

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


"I live now in a world of phantoms, a prisoner of my own dreams."

Ingmar Bergman's 1957 Swedish production The Seventh Seal is the poster child for foreign films. It more than any other movie is what the average person thinks of when they think European cinema, and it's the first one other filmmakers go to when they want to make a parody of pretentious, depressing art house flicks. The most obvious and extended lampoon that comes to mind for me is the second Bill and Ted movie, though I think one of the more recent examples of someone using The Seventh Seal is Stephen Colbert's fake health segments, "Cheating Death," on The Colbert Report. The intro to those pieces shows Colbert playing a chess game with the Grim Reaper, which is the standard image, and by its ubiquity, you'd think that it was a far more substantial part of the movie. The actual chess game begins in the first two minutes of the picture, and it comes up twice more, yet is finished by the climax of the movie. I suppose this speaks to the power of the image that Bergman created that half a century later all you have to do is say "chess game with Death" and most people will immediately think of The Seventh Seal, whether they know that's what they are thinking of or not.

There are a number of things that are sad about the fact that a large segment of the population is scared of foreign films, but the misconceptions about what The Seventh Seal is supposed to represent is pretty high on the list. As a viewer, I wouldn't blame you for going into the movie thinking it is going to be pretentious and depressing, that the criticism inherent in the parodies is right; coming out of it, however, you'll probably be surprised by how far from the truth it all is. The Seventh Seal isn't a work so shallow that it can be deconstructed in a single perfume commercial, nor is it a film so self-involved as to make the mind feel pained or bloated, like you'll survive its 97 minutes but feel like you've been engorged. The surprising thing about The Seventh Seal is how light it really is. Yes, it deals with some important subjects--faith and doubt, mortality, religion, compassion--but it's never burdensome, never pushy. Rather, Bergman's script is so well constructed and his themes so expertly integrated into the overall narrative, the philosophizing never overtakes the story, and there is never a scene where the momentum of the action is lost amongst heady exposition. Nor is it an overly serious affair. Rather, The Seventh Seal is regularly funny, sometimes lusty, and often touching.

The Seventh Seal is set in medieval times, amidst plague and Christian crusades, both of which contribute to an overwhelming pallor of death that is permeating the land. Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), a knight and his squire, have just returned from ten years fighting the heathens in Africa. Their spirit is broken, their eyes opened by what they have seen. Jöns is more practical about it, life is what it is and one just carries on, but Antonius is in the midst of an existential crisis. His relationship with God is suffering from a sense of abandonment that is about to give way to not believing in a Supreme Being at all, and he is desiring of some proof that all of this fighting has not been in vain. So much so, that at the outset of the picture, when Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim his immortal soul, Antonius stalls him with that famous chess game, saying he has something he needs to do before he can shuffle off this mortal coil. On the surface of it, that task appears to be returning home to his wife, but this is more Odysseus by way of Camus and that goal is really more of a red herring. It's more like returning to the source of his belief to see if it's still there.

Perhaps this is why he takes the acrobat family under his protection, he sees something in their unit that reminds him of why he wanted to side with the good and not the bad. In particular, he admires the forthright and caring nature of Mia (Bergman-regular Bibi Andersson), who cares both for her flighty husband, Jof (Nils Poppe), and their one-year-old baby. Mia is down to earth and practical, though practical in a common-sense way, still open to experience, and not as cynical as Jöns. You could even argue that the woman and the squire represent two sides of Antonius' conscience, one imploring him to remain open to life and the other suggesting he close up and wait it out. At the same time, Jöns also provides the example for personal redemption by saving the unnamed girl (Gunnel Lindblom) from the corpse-robbing rapist, Raval (Bertil Anderberg)--though Jöns' insistence that the girl serve him in return shows how badly mangled his sense of Christian charity has become now that he has rejected the church. Then again, there is also no more potent symbol than the attacker, in that Raval is the one who convinced Antonius and Jöns to join the Crusades a decade ago. The man who sent believers off to their death is now picking over their bodies.

Bergman provides many examples of how topsy-turvy the world is. The second scene of the movie, right after the knight meets and challenges death, is our introduction to the performance troupe that Mia and Jof are a part of, and their third partner, Skat (Erik Strandmark), emerges from their trailer wearing a Death mask. They are on their way to a religious festival. The monks running it have hired them to perform a play that will scare the audience into repenting, propaganda along the lines that the plague is punishment against sinners. The current prevailing message of the Church is that doom is the only possible reward anyone can hope for, and they will scare you into accepting or burn you at the stake (which we see, actually, when they fry a young "witch" (Maud Hansson) for not getting on board). Hordes of religious thugs are as pervasive as the disease they claim to fight, and this seems like the wrong kind of salvation to the returning warriors. Antonius and Jöns have become symbols for life themselves, the death bringers now challenging the end of all things and offering sanctuary to the tormented, whereas by taking the job at the festival, the entertainers, whose job it is to lighten people's loads, are now the ones piling on the gloom.

The plague state is akin to an apocalyptic nightmare, and so imagery in The Seventh Seal resembles the end of days. From the corpse that Antonius and Jöns find in the road--and whom the squire amusingly seeks directions from; his speech after the fact is one of his many funny chunks of dialogue--through the hooded monks who so resemble Death that after Antonius accidentally gives confession to a disguised Reaper you're never quite sure where he'll pop up again, to the knight's isolated castle, there is a sense that everything is being laid to waste. When Raval catches up with the caravan 2/3 in--the way characters enter and exit in The Seventh Seal are a tell-tale sign of its theatrical roots--on his last legs, having caught the plague himself, it suddenly seems that they are all merely staying one step ahead of the devastation the way Antonius is managing to stay one step ahead of Death. The world they have left has ceased to exist.

Bergman is aware of how thick he is laying it on, and there are a couple of self-reflexive moments where the author lets us know the potential for misunderstanding and parody is not lost to him. Some of the things the acrobats say about what audiences will sit through are like a wink forward to the critics who would say similar things about The Seventh Seal. The artist played by Gunnar Olsson, whom Jöns meets early in the picture, the painter who is creating a mural about death, even says that sometimes the common man needs to have a little depression foisted upon him so he will consider serious things, as if the director of Smiles of a Summer Night was worried he'd have to explain to a bewildered public where all the fun had gone. That same artist also admits that when the money runs out, he will paint the more sunny subjects that people pay for, a sly explanation of the trade-off pattern of tragedies and comedies that Bergman would make in the 1950s and '60s. One for me, one for them. Though, it's also a ratio existent in The Seventh Seal. It's a comic tragedy, or a tragic comedy. How else do you explain the subplot of the blacksmith (Ake Fridell) and his wife (Inga Gill), who runs off with Skat and then weasels her way back into her husband's good graces when caught? Jöns provides a running commentary on women, stoking the blacksmith's flames of anger the way Groucho might ignite the ire of one of the other Marx boys. And when Skat gets his, set upon by a gleeful Death, it's probably the funniest scene in the whole movie. No reason a guy can't go out laughing, is there?

These moments of laughter greatly offset Antonius' existential emptiness. He is a forebear of the 20th-century man seeking some kind of sense in a senseless world. He is not ready to admit that his beliefs are gone, so much so that his main gambit in the chess game, a combined knight-bishop attack, symbolically represents how he has always seen the world as being governed. At one point, he states his own fundamental problem, saying, "Faith is a heavy burden, you know? It's like loving someone out in the darkness who never comes no matter how loud you call." In the same conversation, shared with Mia, he refers to a betrothed that he lost, and if we read between the lines, he's referring to Jesus, once again indicating that his homeland mission is not all it seems. At the witch burning, the knight is juxtaposed with the accused, and he wants to know how she can retain her belief on the way to the pyre. She sees what is not there and trusts that it will carry her through, whereas he desires something tangible, something he can put his hands on. Overhearing all this, a ghastly looking monk asks him, "Do you never stop asking questions?" and when Antonius confirms that he does not, the monk lays him low with the futility of his plight: "You get no answers."

Placed against the unknowable, the simple pleasures of life with the acrobats, of playing with the baby and eating wild strawberries, is its own kind of paradise. The fact that they can have such tiny joys, or that the blacksmith can get so worked up about his wife's wanton ways, means that petty human drama is still important. That's the scintilla of hope, the last refuge in a meaningless wasteland, the thing one would hang onto in a post-apocalyptic world: the ability for man to continue. Even when others behave like beasts, be it the cruelty they inflict on Jof or Skat rutting with the blacksmith's wife, quite purposely scored by Mia and Jof singing a song about animal behavior, there is still the sustaining bond of mother and child. It's not for nothing that Mia and Jof in some translations are called Mary and Joseph, making their little Mikail the source of all tomorrows. (And, you know, you do kind of wonder how the lovely blonde ever got hooked up with the nerdy juggler. A virgin conception explains a lot.)

You can also see some remaining compassion in the girl that Jöns rescued. She silently watches everything, and she is the only one who is willing to help the disease-ridden Raval. Things reach their portentous apex around this time. In the forest, there is a point where everything goes quiet, where the world grows still. Bergman has used the natural landscape throughout The Seventh Seal, even opening up on a raging sea, and so the sudden lull is a little chilling. Plus, as voiceover at the start of the movie and a prayer at the end informs us that, in the Book of Revelation, when the Seventh Seal is opened, leading the way to final judgment, the world does go quiet this way. Though Bergman is never heavy-handed enough to have any of his characters openly acknowledge this connection, they do mark the moment, and it does seal their fate. This and some cryptic remarks by Death make Antonius realize that the game has gotten larger than him, that more is at stake, and so he must take action to rescue those in his charge. That, too, is an existential solution: salivation in man's action. He has retained some of the compassion that the nameless girl sought to hang on to, and so it is also she who prepares them to accept what cannot be avoided. She is the first to move toward Death, to lead the way to eternal peace, repeating Christ's final line, "It is finished."

At the end of the film, only the actors are left alive, and Jof, who is prone to mystical visions, spots the lost group up on a hill with Death, a chain gang in service to the bitter end, engaged in what he sees as a kind of dance, a new troupe destined to put on a show for the ages. Another self-reflexive moment, to be sure. With the movie now ended, Bergman's own troupe is, in its way, now enslaved to perform this play over and over thanks to the Hell of Celluloid. It's also the dance of life, the endless performance of being amongst the waking world that we are all engaged in.

The final scene reminds me, as well, that I would be remiss were I not to consider the performances, because really, the actors play an essential role in keeping The Seventh Seal from crumbling under the pressure of its own artistic aspirations. There is a convergence of styles here. Some of the comedy routines (as well as some of the music by Erik Nordgren) call to mind classic cinema traditions. The banter between Gunnar Björnstrand and Ake Fridell, the routines put on by Nils Poppe and Erik Strandmark--these polished performances appear so effortless, it is like watching the professional funnymen that moved from Vaudeville to Hollywood, like they've spent some time studying Abbot and Costello and the like. On the other hand, the more serious parts have a naturalism that is very much of the 1950s and the emergence of method acting and other less mannered styles. Max von Sydow is often called upon to play the creepy roles in horror movies, but his turn as Antonius Block has a thoughtful gravitas and a quiet nobility. When coupled with Bibi Andersson's earthy, unglamorous portrayal of Mia, Sydow also takes on calm and sweetness. Andersson is seductive without doing anything sexy. She is more sensual, a mother whose warm and open manner inspires a more primal desire. Given how gorgeous Andersson can be in movies that call for fancier dress, the "no make-up" look she wears in The Seventh Seal is almost more glamorous by how rare and beautiful it is. Antonius even tells Mia, after seeing her for the first time off stage, that she looks better without "all that paint" on her face.

The new two-disc edition of The Seventh Seal is the second that Criterion has released. It's been eleven years since that fist disc, and the decade of improved technology really shows. The new transfer is stunning, flawless, and whatever other superlative you care to toss at it. There are also a bunch of new extras--including the Bergman Island bonus DVD--with my favorite being the short tribute Woody Allen put together for Turner Classic Movies. In it, Allen discusses why he likes Bergman, making the distinction between the perceived artistry and the inherent entertainment value in Bergman's films. He speaks of The Seventh Seal as a suspense picture and a fairy tale.

It's too bad they couldn't also include Stephen Colbert's tribute to Bergman, made two years ago when the director passed away. I can't imagine Ingmar not smiling at the reverent irreverence of it.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Farewell Ingmar Bergman
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorStephen Colbert in Iraq

Thursday, June 11, 2009


The world lost Ingmar Bergman in 2007 when the 89-year-old director finally passed on into that good night. At the end of Marie Nyreröd's documentary Bergman Island, he talks about his experiences with death, how it had been an obsession of his for most of his life, and how a supposed near-death experience and the loss of his last wife, Ingrid, changed how he viewed the big switch. It's clear he had given some thought to what he should do with the time he had left, and it is probably why he allowed Nyreröd unprecedented access to his secluded island home, Fårö, in 2003. It would be the place he would spend the rest of his years, giving up all ties to the mainland not long after his sessions with Nyreröd were done.

Bergman Island is culled from hours of footage--and indeed, this 83-minute single episode version is about 90 minutes less than the three-episode version Nyreröd made for Swedish television. You may have seen pieces of this interview on other Bergman discs, where relevant portions have been turned into introductions for his various films. A reclusive personage who regularly poured a lot of himself into his movies even if he didn't share it with the public outright, Ingmar Bergman is not nearly the grave man one might imagine from watching his ultra-serious output. Very much at ease with Nyreröd, he sifts through his life with candor, indulging in laughter that is both bitter and genial, and allowing pride and regret to commingle.

In terms of technique, there is nothing revolutionary about Bergman Island. Good conversation is punctuated with film clips and photographs, including many from the director's personal archives. He also grants Nyreröd access to his private movies, including 16mm reels taken on the sets of many of his productions. See Ingmar Bergman laugh with his actors! See Ingmar Bergman scout locations on Fårö for the first time! See him sleep in the back of his car! For an artist who could find profound meaning in the mundane, who elevated the details of personal turmoil to mystical levels, there is something humanizing about witnessing him in his day-to-day activities. Not just in the past, either, but also in the present. Yes, that is the deeply intellectual Swedish filmmaker driving his jeep in circles around his workspace just to see if the cameraman could keep up with him. If the men who make heavy dramas are private cut-ups, does that mean those who make screwball comedies are dour when they go home? One suspects the affirmative to be true.

A good documentary of this kind is made entirely in the editing bay, in knowing what to leave in and what to take out. Marie Nyreröd makes good choices, sticking to the important moments, the crucial relationships and the pivotal films, giving the first real focus to 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night and taking us all the way to the recently completed Saraband, Bergman's last film as director. Saraband in particular yields a couple of interesting clips that give us some insight to what was on the author's mind in his later years. Bergman's films act as sign posts to his growth and development, markers along the evolution of his thinking. Nyreröd finds the appropriate moments in the cinema and couples them with the appropriate moments from the interviews, exposing how the man informed the art and how the art informed the man in ways no one else has.

Bergman Island is an intimate portrait of a man who, as it turns out, was the most intimate of auteurs. For Ingmar Bergman, life and cinema were never separate. He sacrificed toys for a film projector, familial contentment for career, and even some of his precious privacy when he saw another way to make us see his point of view. Marie Nyreröd was there at just the right time to capture it before it all went away, and for that, cinephiles everywhere should be eternally grateful.

Consumers should note that though Bergman Island is being sold on its own, complete with an individual Criterion Collection spine number and everything, the same disc, including the extras, also serves as the second DVD in the new edition of The Seventh Seal. If you plan on upgrading your copy of that movie, which I highly suggest you do, there is no need to buy the separate release of Bergman Island.

Also included is a new 35-minute video presentation put together by film scholar Peter Cowie. Titled Bergman 101, it is exactly what it sounds like: a primer on the work of the great director. Narrated by Cowie, it gathers photographs and clips to give an overview of Bergman's extensive filmography. It also serves as a minibiography, with Cowie noting each development in the subject's career and how it also corresponded with what was going on in his personal life. In addition to the more popular films, this short also gives recognition to the lesser-known lighter fare, making me wish there would be an increased effort to get some of these other features out in North America. Perhaps another Eclipse set? Bergman Comedies, anyone?

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Monday, June 8, 2009


Breaking from the norm to post a couple of cool Kurosawa-related items.

First is a gorgeous print of Yojimbo by one of my favorite artists, Paul Pope.

You can buy the print here.

Next up is a poster for the theatrical reissue of Rashomon, available in the Criterion store.

This painting is by the amazing Kent Williams, who pioneered using a painted style to create comic books back in the late 1980s, alongside Jon J Muth and Bill Sienkiewicz.

Erik Skillman has more on the story behind this.

If Kent's work looks familiar, it's because he did the cover for the Criterion DVD of Miss Julie.

Get 'em while they're hot! Kurosawa is always in style. In fact, this book isn't new, but if you've never read Scott Morse's graphic novel tribute to Akira Kurosawa, The Barefoot Serpent, do yourself a favor and seek it out.

Amazon has a look inside option so you can preview the book.

Scott is an amazing artist, having done a variety of comics over the years and currently working on the development team at Pixar. He designed, among other things, the closing credits for Ratatouille. I was lucky enough to be Scott's editor when I was at Oni Press, and he also contributed illustrations, in addition to publishing the first edition, of my debut novel, Cut My Hair.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


For the first quarter or so of Green for Danger, this little British war-time whodunit plays like a hospital soap opera, the direct ancestor of medical dramas like ER. Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) is engaged to Nurse Freddi (Sally Gray), but there is some trouble between them, and the opportunistic surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) wouldn't mind testing out his womanizing ways on the beautiful blonde. Naturally, he's blind to the affection held for him by Sister Marion Bates (Judy Campbell). Or perhaps he isn't and he's just callous to it, it's hard to tell. Eden isn't entirely bad, though, as he shows compassion to Nurse Sanson (Rosamund John), a nervous woman who hasn't been herself since her mother died from being trapped beneath the rubble of their home after a German bombing. In the midst of all this interpersonal shenanigans is Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins), the slightly plump outsider who observes but is never really invited in.

The only thing to tip us off to the fact that Sidney Gilliat's 1946 movie is more than a love story set in a small-town hospital is the droll voiceover. Acting as a tour guide, the initially unseen narrator informs us who everyone is, and also tells us that the wounded postman (Moore Marriott) is going to die because of one of them. Only after this and a more violent death take place do we discover that our storyteller is none other than Inspector Cockrill, the hero of many of Christianna Brand's novels, including Green for Danger. Cockrill, an agent of Scotland Yard, is of the school of slightly bumbling but sharp as a whip private detectives, and he is played in Green for Danger by Alastair Sim, who would go on to play the title character in a 1951 production of Scrooge as well as star in The Belles Of St. Trinian's, written by Gilliat and his Green for Danger co-author Frank Launder. Launder would also direct.

Sim's turn as Cockrill is a magnificently complete performance, full of wit and wisdom that seems to bubble up naturally from the character. Had Gilliat cast a different actor in the role, Green for Danger would be an entirely different movie. Without Sim, it's kind of a run-of-the-mill drawing room mystery, line up the pins and see which ones get bowled down. Last one standing did it! Though Gilliat honed his writing chops on Hitchcock vehicles like The Lady Vanishes, he doesn't bring anything special to Brand's story, so that on the surface of the script, it's simply a pleasant diversion. The appearance of Cockrill, however, causes it to immediately spark to life, and the fire never dims from there.

Cockrill's investigative approach is to always keep his suspects off balance. He befriends none but is kind to all, never ruling out any one possible culprit--at least not publicly. Some of his maneuvers are intended to see if he can force a revelation of what he thinks might have occurred. Sometimes, it might also just be for the fun of it. Not much is revealed, for instance, when he gets his most explosive results, goading Barnes and Eden into a fist fight, but he does see how far the two men will go and uses that to challenge them into participating in his final gambit. A detective like this follows behavior--wherever it may lead.

One thing that is interesting about Green for Danger is its staid atmosphere. There is an aura of dread floating around the edges of everything. A party thrown at the hospital may provide a momentary respite from the turmoil of WWII, but it's also a bit forced, like whistling when walking past a graveyard. Life and death are two constant states at a hospital anyway, but the ongoing threat of German bombs adds even more gray to the pallor. It's no wonder that human connections are so frayed, that Barnes and Freddi can't seem to communicate, when conversations are regularly halted by the sound of planes overhead. Worse than that noise is the silence that follows, the signal that the deadly cargo has been released.

This is another behavior that Cockrill punctures, though this time unwittingly. The man goes into a comical mini-frenzy, scurrying and stumbling about, whenever he hears the enemy approaching. This little quirk suggests his knack for deflating hubris and lies is something he comes by naturally. He is like a mechanic who peers into an engine and sees what is where it should not be. As a director, Sidney Gilliat has a similar ability to spy the proper construction of a frame, and he and director of photography Wilkie Cooper come up with quite a few astounding compositions. In particular, it's hard not to get the willies when the first obvious murder occurs, the stabbing that causes Cockrill to arrive. Gilliat shoots through glass, peering in on the scene, and whip cuts to see the killer for a moment, cranking the suspense to its most taut and dangerous. He later echoes this at the point when the identity of the murderer is revealed. These are agile moves, notable as part of a style that is assured, but not very insistent. The director is content to get most of the job done without fanfare, saving the stunning stuff for when it counts.

Outside of the notable Inspector, the most interesting characters are the women. They have the most personality, the more serious hidden pasts. Sister Bates has a sinister side that is quite intriguing, and Judy Campbell gives the role a creepy edge. Her self-serving menace puts me in mind of the maid in Hitchcock's Rebecca--she has been slighted and underestimated, and she will get her own back.

On the other side of things, I found Sally Gray extremely crushable as Freddi. The only other movie I have seen Gray in has been in Alberto Cavalcanti's underwhelming They Made Me a Fugitive, also co-starring Trevor Howard, and I don't really remember her from that film at all. Freddi is a likeable character, self-reliant but also vulnerable, and fitting the blonde stereotype for films like this, the one most willing to do good. Sally Gray is a lovely actress with finely sculpted features, and she has a natural grace on film. It's a pity she didn't do more of note.

With all of these positive elements swirling around, Green for Danger turns into a fairly suspenseful thriller, and the solution to the murders ends up having a few twists that make it less obvious than one would think. While Gilliat pales next to his more famous former collaborator, he clearly picked up a few tricks from Hitch, and Green for Danger could nestle quite confidently on a double-bill with any of the master's British pictures.

Beyond the movie, I think the packaging for Green for Danger is of a particularly excellent quality. I quite like Geoff Grandfield's illustrations for the cover and interior booklet. The cover is a bit of a mystery in and of itself, the solid shapes and the relationship between the colors at first looking like a random collage of eyes, but the more you look, the image comes into plain focus and you realize you are in the position of the patient on the operating table looking up at the distracted, distrustful doctors working to cure your malady. Perusing Mr. Grandfield's website, I was not all that surprised to discover that he also did some covers for editions of Graham Greene novels that I've admired in the past, including the copy of A Gun for Sale (later made into This Gun For Hire with Alan Ladd) I have sitting on my bookshelf.