Friday, 25 September 2015

Four aspects of Vincente Minnelli

The terror of darkness. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

A woman and her sexual fantasy. The Pirate (1948).

Film noir as ballet. The Band Wagon (1953).

The violent sadness of a child. Meet Me in St Louis (1944).

In the films of Minnelli reality is inherently unstable, life is filled with loneliness and pain, and we alternated between nightmares and dreams. There is nothing quite like it.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Feedback on Ekman

A special post today because the Hasse Ekman retrospective at MoMA is now over, and I am overwhelmed by the response it got. Sold-out screenings, lots of good articles about it (some links below), and an engaged and passionate audience. I had a lovely time in New York and I want to thank both MoMA (and Dave Kehr in particular) and all of those who came!

I would also like to get some feedback about the films. If anybody who reads this was at the MoMA screenings, or have seen the films some place else, you are more than welcome to write down your thoughts in the comment section below. I am thinking primarily of non-Swedes now, I have already had much engagement with Swedes about Ekman, but rarely with people from other countries because they would not have seen the films. But now some have, and others who were not at MoMA might have seen some films too, elsewhere, so bring it on.

Ekman was very prolific, and there are enough good films for another retrospective. The ten films shown at MoMA were not chosen because they are my ten favourite Ekman films; some of my favourites were not available. These are the ten films I think are the best:

Royal Rabble (Kungliga patrasket 1945), with Eva Henning
Wandering With the Moon (Vandring med månen 1945), with Eva Henning
While the Door Was Locked (Medan porten var stängd 1946)
The Banquet (Banketten 1948) with Eva Henning
The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden 1949), with Eva Henning
Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och hyacinter 1950), with Eva Henning
The White Cat (Den vita katten 1950), with Eva Henning
We Three Débutantes (Vi tre debutera 1953)
Gabrielle (1954), with Eva Henning
The Heist (aka Rififi in Stockholm) (Stöten 1961)

Of the four not shown at MoMA, While the Door Was Locked is one of Ekman's multiple-character narratives, this time about the various people who live in one apartment block and what happens there during one night. The White Cat is like a Freudian nightmare, visually very striking (Göran Strindberg was the DP), with the usual Ekman actors and characters, although unusually conflicted and disturbed. We Three Débutantes is about three young poets, two men and one woman and each from a different class, who try (and fail) at being friends. It is also a suitably poetic depiction of Stockholm, shot by Gunnar Fischer. The Heist, finally, is about two young criminals, adrift, alone and very unhappy.

As you can see the bulk of his great work was in the first half of his career. But the second half is good too, only not as good. Of the 41 feature films he made I would say that more than half are really good, and even those that are unsuccessful are often interesting.

Here is my earlier post about the ten films that were shown at MoMA.

And here are links to some of the articles about Ekman:
Farran Smith Nehme for
Kristin M. Jones for Wall Street Journal
Nick Pinkerton for Artforum

Friday, 11 September 2015

The other Vertigo - Sebald and Kafka

All the writings of W.G. Sebald are essential, and in particular the astonishing Austerlitz. Today however I will quote from Vertigo, first published in 1990. Its original German title is Schwindel. Gefühle and translated by Michael Hulse. The quotes below are from part III, "Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva", and concerns K, who is unhappy in Verona and consoles himself with a visit to the cinema:
Perhaps it was the bills, still posted throughout the city, announcing the spettacoli lirici all'Arena that August and the word AIDA displayed in large letters which persuaded him that the Veronese show of carefree togetherness had something of a theatrical performance about it, staged especially to bring home to him, Dr K., his solitary, eccentric condition - a thought he could not get out of his head and which he was only able to escape by seeking refuge in a cinema, probably the Cinema Pathé di San Sebastiano. In tears, so Dr K. recorded the following day in Desenzano, he sat in the surrounding darkness, observing the transformations into pictures of the minute particles of dust glinting in the beam of the projector.
Dr K. is Franz Kafka and the time is the 1913, when Kafka left Prague for a trip through Italy to Switzerland, for health reasons. In Switzerland he had an affair with a young woman, before returning home again.

But let's get back to that day in Verona, where Sebald wonders what it was that Dr K. saw:
Was it the Pathé newsreel, featuring the review of the cavalry in the presence of His Majesty Vittorio Emanuele III, and La Lezione dell'abisso, which, as I discovered in the Biblioteca Civica, were shown that day at the Pathé and which are both now untraceable? Or was it, as I initially supposed, a story that ran with some success in the cinemas of Austria in 1913, the story of the unfortunate Student of Prague, who cut himself off from love and life when, on the 13th of May, 1820, he sold his soul to a certain Scapinelli? The extraordinary exterior shots in this film, the silhouettes of his native city flickering across the screen, would doubtless have sufficed to move Dr K. deeply, most of all perhaps the fate of the eponymous hero, Balduin, since in him he would have recognised a kind of doppelgänger, just as Balduin recognises his other self in the dark-coated brother whom he could never and nowhere escape.
The German film The Student of Prague opened in late August of 1913 so it is a possibility. In any event Sebald describes the story of the film, up until its melodramatic ending with a bullet in the heart of Balduin, and speculates as to why it might appeal to Dr K.:
Final contortions of this kind, which regularly occur in opera when, as Dr K. once wrote, the dying voice aimlessly wanders through the music, did not by any means seem ridiculous to him; rather he believed them to be an expression of our, so to speak, natural misfortune, since after all, as he remarks elsewhere, we lie prostrate on the boards, dying, our whole lives long.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Hasse Ekman at MoMA

This year is the centennial of Hasse Ekman's birth and this made it possible for me to entice Museum of Modern Art in New York to do a retrospective of his films, the first in North America I believe, MoMA wanted ten films so I made a short list of some 15 films and of these some were not available due to either rights issues or damaged prints. The ten films that remained on the short list are those you will be able to see if you are in New York, 9 - 17 September. (Here is the program.)

Ekman had been an actor already as a boy in the 1920s, but he wrote and directed his first film in 1940. In all he made 41 feature films and one TV-series, Niklasons (1965), before he retired. He was at his best from 1943 to 1954 and the majority of the chosen films were made during those years. There are also two earlier films and one late film (which is also the only one in colour). I thought I say a few words about why I have chosen these ten in particular.

Första divisionen / The First Division (1941) was Ekman's second film, set on an air field in the north of Sweden and it is a tense drama with exhilarating flying sequences. It is not a war film, and no other countries are mentioned, instead it is focused on the lives of the pilots. I chose it partly because of the quality of the cinematography and partly for it is unusual for Ekman to make a film not set in downtown Stockholm. It shows the range of his talents. It is also well-acted.

Lågor i dunklet / Flames in the Dark (1942) is a psychological thriller about a cruel, sadistic Latin teacher, played by Stig Järrel, which makes it impossible not to compare it with Hets / Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), where Järrel plays almost the same character. While hardly Ekman's best film, it is a showcase for Järrel (who acted in most of Ekman's films during the 1940s) and it shows Ekman trying to find his style.

Ombyte av tåg / Changing Trains (1943) is the film I consider Ekman's artistic breakthrough. It is when most of what is typical of his work first came together, a theatre setting, a sombre mood, a subtle love story and with an autobiographical background. It is not a linear story but fragmented and open, moving between different characters and back and forth in time. It was also the first time he worked together with writer Walter Ljungquist. In addition, Göran Strindberg's cinematography shows the influence of French poetic realism.

Kungliga patrasket / Royal Rabble (1945) is based upon Ekman's own family and a life at the theatre. It was the first film of his in which Eva Henning played a role (although they had acted together the year before in Stopp! Tänk på något annat (Åke Ohberg 1944), a fine film too). The acting and the compassion with which all the various characters are portrayed is wonderful and while there is tragedy here, it is primarily a love letter to the theatre, and all those people who are part of it.

Vandring med månen / Wandering With the Moon (1945) might be my favourite of all of Ekman's films. Working closely with Walter Ljungquist, it is also the Ekman-film which most resembles the films of Jean Renoir; a lyrical tale of assorted people crossing paths during a few summer days. The spectre of Nazism is there, as a dark force in the shadows, but mostly it is a celebration of the loners and oddballs that live outside the mainstream of society, and Eva Henning plays a young actress exploring her sexuality with an immature young boy played by Alf Kjellin. Åke Dahlqvist's cinematography help bring out the film's lyrical aspect, with the sun and the moon glittering on the water or the leaves and the grass.

Banketten / The Banquet (1948) is one of Ekman's darkest films about a wealthy family slowly unravelling. The father is tired and frustrated with life, his wife is living in denial about the problems they face, the older son is a decadent drunk, the younger son a communist and the daughter (Eva Henning) is trapped in a wretched marriage (her husband is played by Ekman). With the imagery of a film noir, it is both a domestic horror film and a comment about a changing society after the war.

Flickan från tredje raden / The Girl From the Third Row (1949) is yet another of Ekman's loosely structured films about multiple characters who accidentally cross paths and with a theatre setting. It is also the film which Ekman called his "anti-Bergman film", a direct response to Bergman's Prison (1949), and intricately told. Henning plays the title role, and the film moves effortlessly from tragedy to comedy to nail-biting suspense. There really is no other film quite like it.

Flicka och hyacinter / Girl With Hyacinths (1950) is undoubtedly Ekman's most famous film, beautifully shot by Göran Strindberg and brilliantly acted by especially Eva Henning. A feminist film, a film with a complex narrative structure and dealing with a number of sensitive issues, including Sweden's ambivalent role during World War 2 and its appeasement of the Nazis. A very sad film, it was Ekman's own favourite, a film he could barely talk about without getting tears in his eyes.

Gabrielle (1954) is also a dark film, of a marriage falling apart due the jealousy of the husband. Told in flashbacks, both real and imaginary, it was made after Ekman and Henning's own marriage had ended in divorce. Henning plays the wife in the film, and Birger Malmsten the husband. The cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer.

Med glorian på sned / The Halo is Slipping (1957) is something rather different. It is in colour and Ekman's first film in widescreen and it is one of four comedies Ekman made in the late 1950s with Sickan Carlsson, whom could be called Sweden's Doris Day. The last of the four is dreadful but the other three are a lot of fun, and while Fröken Chic / Miss Chic (1959) is my favourite this one comes second. They are about stuck-up men and independent-minded women, the commercialisation of radio, TV and publishing, and they have glorious set-pieces, The Halo is Slipping even has some surreal dream sequences. It is a lot more cheerful than the others in this retrospective and quite charming.

So those were my ten. They are not his ten best, but most of his best films are among them and all ten are unmistakeably Ekmanesque. They show all aspects of his art; the style, the ear for dialogue, the love of the theatre, the view of life as a tragic comedy and the ability to draw out the best of his fellow actors.

Would I be able to do another Ekman retro at MoMA in the future I would especially want to show Eldfågeln / The Fire-Bird (1952), if it has been properly restored by then. It was Ekman's first film in colour, a ballet film and an experiment with colours too, shot by Göran Strindberg.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

This is an unscheduled post, part of a number of posts published today about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Links to the other posts to be found at the end. My next post will be Friday next week as usual.


On occasion I watched the TV-series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when I was a kid, as it was often broadcast at odd hours. I was never much of a fan, but it did have some appeal to me. I have at times tried to watch again, now, as an adult, with limited success. It has been hard to come by, not even YouTube is forthcoming. I think my main interest in it back then was that Ian Fleming was involved in its creation. But it was also a twist to see an American agent, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), and a Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), working together under the United Nation's flag (sort of) at the height of the cold war. (It is called The Man from U.N.C.L.E. instead of The Men from U.N.C.L.E. because originally it was only meant to be about Solo. But Kuryakin became so popular with the TV-audience that the part was expanded to become equal to Solo.)

The new film, directed, and co-produced and co-written, by Guy Ritchie has none of the topicality of the original series, and it is rather silly and shallow, but fortunately it also has oodles of laid-back wit and it is rather cool at times. There were some action sequences that had plenty of panache, but I especially enjoyed the scene in a fashionable clothes store where the two male agents have a debate about whether this particular belt go with that particular dress, and whether colours match on the outfits to be worn by the female agent. With the name dropping of fashion labels and the confidence with which they speak of such matters, they would not be out of place in a 1963 version of Sex and the City. Both Henry Cavill (as Solo) and Armie Hammer (as Kuryakin) seemed to have a good time, and they had chemistry. Hugh Grant was also a treat, in the part played by Leo G. Carroll in the series. Elizabeth Debicki as the master villain was also great. But for some reason Alicia Vikander did not seem to fit in. It was not that she was bad and she did manage to look as stylish as Audrey Hepburn at times, one especially fun scene was when she was dancing in pyjamas and sun classes, but while all the other worked well together, and had a connection, she seemed to be at a distance. Participating in the activities but not really being there, perhaps thinking about something else. Aloof.

The dynamic duo and Ms. Vikander.

So I did have fun will watching The Man from U.N.C.L.E. but I was also annoyed at times. For example the last car chase, on an island, was overblown and weird, with no sense of spatial awareness. The film varied from sequence to sequence, and from the delightful and inspired to the awkward and off-putting.

It is not immediately obvious why there is a film based on this particular series. Back then it had some impact but that was a long time ago, and unlike Mission Impossible, which first came out as a series around the same time as U.N.C.L.E., it has not left any well-known quotes or famous music behind. I suspect that the kids these days have not even heard of it. Perhaps this is why it has been kicked around for quite a while, with several different directors attached to it and then un-attached. One of them was Steven Soderbergh and I can see why he might have been attracted to it, and, actually, the finished film did remind me at times of Soderbergh. While Ritchie is nowhere near as good, or as important, as a filmmaker he is in some ways similar, but less nimble and intelligent. He is more draught beer and Soderbergh more vintage wine. (Soderbergh also has a more serious edge and capable of making films with a depth which Ritchie does not seem to have any interest in.) But with U.N.C.L.E. Ritchie comes closer to Soderbergh than before in the feel of the film. And like Soderbergh's Oceans 11, 12 and 13, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is primarily interested in digressions. It is not that they have lost the plot; there was never any interest in actually having a plot.

After Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), the only one of Ritchie's films I have really liked is Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows (2011). The U.N.C.L.E.-film made me wonder if he wants to make a Bond movie (Henry Cavill played Solo in a way that might have pleased Ian Fleming) but I hope he never does. Although I suppose he would not do a worse job than Lewis Gilbert did.

The other bloggers who have written (in Swedish only) about the film: Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, Fiffi, Jojjenito, Fripps filmrevyer, Har du inte sett den?