Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Hasse Ekman in São Paulo

While my friends at the Swedish Institute are doing the online film festival mentioned yesterday, my friends at São Paulo's international film festival have taken my word for the splendour of Ekman's films and are doing a five film retrospective. (Here's the link to the Ekman films shown.) So if you're in Brazil, just go for it. The festival starts on Friday.

Actually, there are a lot more Swedish films than just Ekman at the festival. Jan Troell, Arne Sucksdorff and new Swedish cinema are also celebrated. But of course I feel more responsible towards the Ekman-retro. It was my idea, I chose the films (among those that were available) and wrote all the material. I hope it'll be a success.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

More on realism (and lying)

There's more to be said about realism then what I wrote the other day.

One interesting thing about it is that it's so closely associated with, how shall I put it, poverty and misery. It doesn't really matter how realistic a romantic comedy which takes place among the upper class is, it will never be discussed in terms of realism. But if it's a story about depraved immigrants or a struggling working class mother, it will almost by default be praised as realism, or at least realistic. One might wonder why actually. Is it because film critics (and people in general) are rather gloomy and thinks that "real" life sucks, and that it's unrealistic to be rich and happy? If you compare a glossy romcom like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and any film by, say Ken Loach, is there really any difference in actual realism, by which I mean, is there anything in Four Weddings and a Funeral that could not happen in real life?

Isn't the term "realism" more than anything else an ideological statement? Either used consciously to state a preference for a certain kind of film (regardless of whether or not it's actually more "real" than any other film), or used unconsciously because you think it's the culturally acceptable thing to like.

Another thing about realism is that it's sometimes confused with explicitness, or with showing everything. It's often used as a reason (or excuse) for showing graphic violence or graphic sex scenes. It has nothing to do with realism though. It isn't more realistic to show something than not to show it. If person A is slaughtered with a sledge hammer, it might be shown in depth, with blood everywhere, very realistically. But it might also be done with person B raising the sledge hammer over person A, and then there'll be a cut, and in the next scene we see person C saying "Person A has been killed." That isn't less realistic. It's just less blood.

There's a parallel here to lying. Very often being completely honest is equated with telling everything. But it's not the same thing. If I ask you "How are you feeling?" you might answer "I'm feeling very bad." because you are feeling very bad. So you're telling the truth. The reason why you're feeling bad might be that your cat just died but you don't have to say that in order to be honest. Only if I ask you "Why are you feeling bad?" do you have to tell me about the cat. Or, you could also answer "I don't want to say." and if you don't want to talk about it, that would also be true. The film The Invention of Lying (2009) has made this misconception the basis of the whole film, and it's a flaw. If you tell people things which you haven't been asked about, the issue isn't that you're honest, the issue is that you always tell people what you're thinking all the time. That has nothing to do with honesty. If I say "Hello" to you, it's not more honest of you to answer"You are extremely ugly." instead of just saying "Hello.", even if you think I am extremely ugly.

And so it is with realism. Showing everything isn't more realistic than showing nothing, or part of something. Again, realism isn't what you show or how you show it, it's the characters, situations and motivations.

Swedish film festival online

There's of course more to new Swedish cinema than Let the Right One In and Roy Andersson. Have a look at this for example, a short film festival online. A click and you're there.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Realism

On some levels you'd think that realism in art would be a fairly straightforward concept. Art which looks as much as the world around the artwork as is possible. But that is just not the case. No, realism in art, or, as this is a film blog, realism in film art, is more like fashion. It changes from one year to another. What might once have been regarding as the essence of realism might later be considered fake or forced.

Of course, realism isn't something that is fixed, or objective. It has been debated over the ages. But that philosophical debate we can leave aside for the moment. Instead let's look at a few particular examples of screen "realism".

Neorealism (which by the way might be the most overrated and/or misunderstood -ism or style in cinema history) had many fans when it appeared in Italy in the middle of the 1940s. It continue to cast its spell to this day. The great film theorist André Bazin was infatuated with it "Ladri di biciclette is without a doubt the ultimate expression of neorealism" he wrote in What is Cinema. But yet, if you look at a film like The Bicycle Thieves (1948), it's a fairly conventional story, sentimental, with many scenes obviously shot in a studio, and with fake rain in certain scenes. And on top of that, the whole concept is fake. Had this been in real life, this man's life wouldn't have been dependent on one bicycle, and one bicycle alone. He would've got a new bike, and even if he hadn't, surely, among his many clever friends, a bicycle would've been found, built, purchased. But all these things aside, it's still hailed as a milestone in screen realism. It wasn't. It's a good film, that's not what I'm arguing, and it says a lot about Italy in the years after the war and after Mussolini. But it's still a manipulative film which alters reality when reality gets in its the way.

Today, for some obscure reason which I fail to understand, realism is equated with grainy, blurry photography, shot with a camera in perpetual motion. If I look at the world, it's fairly stable and clear. Nothing grainy about it. In fact, it looks the very opposite of how "realistic" film looks. I suppose one reason for that choice of filmmaking is that it's supposed to look like home movies, what it would look like if you'd made it yourself in your home. Only, even then, we try to hold the camera as steady as possible, we don't shake it on purpose.

I'm not implying that this way of filming is something new, John Cassavetes for one did it in the 1960s, but the last 10 years it's become fairly mainstream. And it's got nothing to do with realism, it's only a style among many styles, and one that more often than not draws attention to it self as such. Among the many strange demands made by the Danish Dogme 95 movement, the one about the camera being handheld was one of the strangest.

In Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), the director John McTiernan excells with a handheld camera. That doesn't make it a particularly realistic film. No, realism in cinema, as in all art forms, has very little to do with style, and more to do with feelings, characters and situations. And, as Bazin wrote "realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice".

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For notions of realism, have a look here.

The Bicycle Thieves have been released under different titles. In the US it was called The Bicycle Thief.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Thomas Alfredson wins Hasse Ekman award

Not much to add to the title really. Thomas Alfredson, who has directed Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In 2008) and Fyra nyanser av brunt (Four Shades of Brown 2004), was last week given the Hasse Ekman award. It's given to artists who work in the tradition of Ekman, and Alfredson is the third recipient so far. He's at the moment directing a play at Dramaten (The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm) and will soon start to work on a version of John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as well as directing Nicole Kidman in The Danish Girl.

Does this mean that I in my thesis should compare the films of Ekman with those of Alfredson? Well, we'll see about that.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Comments on my thesis (1)

I'm here at University of St Andrews to write a Ph.D. thesis. I'm only just beginning, although I do know my subject very well, and I know what it is that I want to do. It's well-known in cinema circles that there was a golden age of Swedish cinema from the mid-1910s to the mid-1920s, and then that in the late 1940s Ingmar Bergman appeared. What happened after that is also relatively well-known. But between Gösta Berlings saga (1924) and Hets (aka Frenzy or Torment, 1944) there wasn't 20 years of darkness. A lot of good films were made, and my thesis will bring some of them to light. Especially those written and directed by Hasse Ekman, as the focus of my thesis is Hasse Ekman and the Swedish cinema landscape of the 1940s and 1950s. I will at least cover the years 1940 to 1955, the years when Ekman was doing his major work in film.

It will partly be a study of Ekman's film from an authorship perspective. Are there common themes and stylistic motifs? Is it fair to say that his body of work has a consistent personal tone? But I will also be looking at the films in the context of Swedish cinema and society.

Ekman and Bergman were rivals, locked in battle, egged on by the critics. Ekman was the better filmmaker in the 40s, perhaps the most naturally gifted storyteller Swedish cinema has ever known, but Bergman gained ground and the contest exhausted Ekman. This I will also discuss in my thesis. But don't take what I'm saying today at face value. During these three years a lot might change.

If any readers know anything about Ekman or Swedish cinema, or have any questions, don't hesitate to write me a comment.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Michael Bay, Manny Farber, James Agee and John Ford

On Dave Kehr's blog I've been debating the men in the title above. You can read for yourself at http://www.davekehr.com/?p=414#comments

What I've argued, in a nutshell, is that Michael Bay's films, though awful on many levels, sometimes reaches an abstraction and visual extravaganza which is exhilarating, a kind of cinéma pur.

I've also written about my love for the films of John Ford. Many reasons why I love them, among them the poetic storytelling, and the scenes where Ford stops, takes a step back, and just lingers on a scenery or a character. The voice of Ben Johnson and the legs of Henry Fonda have also been discussed. With thanks to Kent Jones.


Nora and Meryl

There are not that many directors working today who's new film I want to see the very minute it opens. But one of them is Nora Ephron, and last Saturday I saw her latest film Julie & Julia, which has now come to Scotland.

Admittedly, I haven't seen Lucky Numbers (2000), and not much particularly want to either, but Ephron has a certain style and tone which I find bewitching, and that includes Bewitched (2005), although very few people liked it. She's got a delicate touch, and she makes her characters and images glow. Never more so than Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which, more than a romantic comedy, is a film about grief and loss, which it handles intelligently and very moving. Michael (1996) and You've Got Mail (1998) are also very good. I honestly couldn't say if I prefer Lubitsch's earlier version (The Shop Around the Corner 1940) or Ephron's.

And now there's Julie & Julia, which tells the kind of story that is so ridiculous that it has to be based on a true story. Which it is. It's the story of Julia Child, the tall American woman who, after having worked as a spy during World War II (if you google her you'll get links to CIA), went to France with her diplomatic husband, took a cooking class and then wrote a book which changed the way Americans cook their food. And it's the story about Julie Powell, who in 2002 started a blog, writing about how she cooked herself through Julia Child's cook book. Now, to be honest, which of these two stories do you find most interesting? Me, I couldn't care less for Julie Powell's blogging. And even though Amy Adams is good in the role of Julie Powell, it's just not why I bought the ticket. I wanted to see Meryl Streep as Julia Child. And I was not disappointed. That part of the film was tender, witty, moving and delicious, and these days that has gone since I saw it, the feelings it awoke in me has stayed on.

It's in many ways a Nora Ephron film, just as it is a Meryl Streep film. The Ephron part is for instance the little gestures and hesitations that tells so much but are so quiet and brief, like when Julie Powell mumbles her delight and affection for her husband, or the first scene which implies that Julia Child can't have children. There's also the very Ephronian concept of the film, of a person's life, unbeknownst to him or her, touching someone else's, of having the main characters hardly or never meeting.

The Streep part is obviously her performance. It's a complete makeover yet again, so rich in body language and syntax it's uncanny, without ever going over the top. She becomes the person she's playing, and gives the role so much depth and nuance. It's brilliant.

Here's Stephanie Zacharek review in Salon. (Good as always.)

And here's the real Julia, guest at Letterman:

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Partie de campagne (1936)

For many years Partie de campagne (1936) has been on top of my list of films I was most eager to see. There can be little doubt as to the fact that Jean Renoir in the 1930s had one of the most extraordinarily creative periods of his life, or for that matter any film makers life. I've seen most of his films, and my favourite by far is La règle de jeu (1939), but had for some reason not been able to see this one, often called his best.

Today I saw it on the DVD released by BFI and it was exactly as I had imagine it to be. Pure joy. It's based upon a short story by Guy de Maupassant, and is a special film in that it was never completed, due to different circumstances, such as the weather and lack of further finance. Also, that a host of various not yet established film makers were involved in making it. Jacques Becker and Luchino Visconti being among them, as well as the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. But in spite of all these things it's very much a film overflowing with the peculiar sensibilities of Jean Renoir. It's sensuous, erotic, free spirited and has as a main character a river (Renoir shares with John Boorman a special relationship with rivers, which frequently appears in their films, often symbolically).

The story is very simple. It's set in the past, the end of the 19th century. Four people, a man, his wife, the daughter and the prospective son-in-law, goes on a picnic in the countryside. When the men disappear to go fishing, the two women are seduced by two handsome young strangers. Then the men returns, everybody goes home again, but two peoples lives have changed, and they will live forever with the memory of what happened, with a mixture of sadness and tenderness.

With the only exception of the future son-in-law, who is too much of a fool, the film is flawless, and what's so remarkable about it is that it could've been made at almost any time. It was made in 1936, and released in 1946, but it could've been made in 1931 as well as 1969. It's the very essence of timelessness.

Here's an example. Notice the moment the two men open the window after about a minute. (It is also a scene that's worth discussing when it comes to issues of "the male gaze".)