Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Sjöström and Bergman

It's a wellknown fact that Victor Sjöström was an important figure in Ingmar Bergman's life, and not only artistically.

When Bergman was a young boy, his father took him to see Sjöström's Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage 1921) in a church, and the screening had an immense effect on young Ingmar. The film, which Sjöström wrote, directed and starred in, is based on a story by Selma Lagerlöf. It's about David Holm, an alcoholic and abusive man who on New Year's Eve dies, and is collected by a servant of Death, riding in to town in an old carriage. Then, in flashbacks, David Holm's sorry story is told.

Here's a clip from the beginning of the film:


The special importance Körkarlen had for Bergman can be seen not only in the references to it in his films, but also in the fact that in 1998, Bergman directed P-O Enquist's play Bildmakarna (The Image Makers) for, first, the stage and then for TV. It's about Selma Lagerlöf, Victor Sjöström, Tora Teje and Julius Jaenzon and the making of Körkarlen.

When Bergman became a director Sjöström was head of production at SF, Svensk Filmindustri, where Bergman was employed. The actors in Bergman's first film Kris (Crisis 1945) came to Sjöström and complained about the fact that Bergman was intolerable on set, angry and cruel, so Sjöström took him for a walk around the studio sets, trying to talk some sense into him, moderately successful.

Then, five years later, Bergman gave Sjöström a part in his film Till glädje (To Joy 1950). Sjöström was rather good, but the film in itself isn't particularly striking, although it can be seen as a dress rehearsal for Bergman's first truly great film, Sommarlek (Summer Interlude 1951).

The most famous collaboration between Sjöström and Bergman is of course their last film together, Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries 1957), where Sjöström is playing the lead. It's a wonderful performance, full of warmth, depth and wisdom. He carries the film from start to finish, and positively glows.

He was, though, already old and fragile, and in the last two years before he died January 1960 he moved back and forth to hospital.

Körkarlen is perhaps the film of Sjöström's which had the most profound effect on Bergman, but others films of his are equally good, or perhaps even better. That's especially the case with the early film Ingeborg Holm (1913), which is very moving and socially daring, as well as with a clever, complex use of deep focus, and a film Sjöström did during his successful time in Hollywood, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), a cruel story of humiliation, with a circus setting, which quite possibly influenced Bergman, and not only before making Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel / The Night of the Clowns / The Naked Night, 1953).

A book could and should be written on Bergman and Sjöström. I might do it myself some day. For the moment though, I leave you with this clip from He Who Gets Slapped:

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cameron at Christmas

I have yet to see Avatar, but I wonder if it'll be able to compete with the first two Terminator (1984 and 1991) or Aliens (1986). Soon I'll know, but for the meantime, why don't you read my musings on Terminator earlier at the blog (here).

And Merry Christmas! Or Happy Holidays, should you not be celebrating Christmas!

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Hmm, I hope I can take it for granted that reader of this blog knows that the connection between Avatar, Terminator and Aliens is that they were all made by James Cameron.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Death

I was preparing a talk about Bergman, death and light a month ago, and while doing that I felt that I couldn't possibly talk about death without talking about Only Angels Have Wings (1939), so I begun there. What else I couldn't possibly leave out was Robin Wood's writing on Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), and his criticism of it. In fact, mentioning Wood, like Sarris or Agee and a few others, is something I like to do as often as I can.

When I got the news on Friday that Wood had died, I felt surprisingly sad. I had never met him, just read his books on film, but since they're so personal, and so good, I felt like I knew him. Sort of at least. And I wish I had been able to meet him.

Wood once thought he was about to die, and as he was being taken to surgery, he thought about Hawks and the attitude to death in Hawks's films, especially Only Angels Have Wings, and it gave him strenght and peace. I hope it worked this time as well.


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Someone who has met him is David Bordwell, and he writes here about Wood. On Dave Kehr's blog there's also a lot about Wood.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

L'enfer by Clouzot

Today I saw the new French documentary L'enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot, about Henri-Georges Clouzot's unfinished film L'enfer (1964). The documentary in itself wasn't particularly stimulating, and the praising of Clouzot was to me a bit annoying since I think he's a director with some clear weaknesses, such as a self-inflated gloominess which might be sincere but sometimes comes across as mere posing. (Hasse Ekman did a very good parody of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur 1953) in his film from 1956, Ratataa.)

What was interesting though was the scenes that were shown in the documentary which Clouzot had actually shot before filming was cancelled. They are striking, and also highly erotic in a voyeuristic way. There was one scene of a naked Romy Schneider tied to a railway track with an approaching train stopping just a few centimetres from here. Clouzot was in this film aiming to visualise the subconscious, with use of weird colours, distorted angles, shapes and forms. It looks good, but it might not have worked for an entire film, in the sense that too much distortion and weirdness might have a numbing effect. I did also remind me of Stanley Donen's Arabesque (1966).

One scene in particular was interesting because it was a seamless juxtaposition of two faces in to one, just as Bergman does two years later in Persona (1966), with the faces of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman. Here it was the faces of Serge Reggiani and Jean-Claude Bercq, and of Schneider and Reggiani, and it was even more startling than in Persona. Is it possible that Bergman had seen things from or heard about Clouzot's film?

One thing puzzled me while watching the documentary. Everything about Clouzot's script was so familiar, and halfway through the film I understood why. Claude Chabrol made a film called L'enfer in 1994, with Emmanuelle Béart and Francois Cluzet, which I saw a few years ago. And it's based on Clouzot's script. But this film wasn't mentioned in the documentary. Why not?

(By the way, today's Liv Ullman's birthday. I hope it's been a happy one!)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

La Captive

It's taken me the whole of the decade but now I've finally seen La captive (2000), Chantal Akerman's updated take on Marcel Proust (the fifth book of Remembrance of Things Past or À la recherche du temps perdu), shot like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Manoel de Oliveira.

It's about a man, Simon (Stanislas Merhar) who's constantly following his girlfriend, Ariane (Sylvie Tetsud) or, when he's not following her, asks her friends what she's been up to and if they think she's going to leave him. The whole relationship is obviously deeply flawed, but at the same time there does appear to be genuine love between them.

The connection with Hitchcock is most strongly with Vertigo (1958), there are even shots of Simon following Ariane in a car which is almost exactly like scenes from Vertigo where Scottie (James Stewart) follows Madeleine (Kim Novak), the difference is that it's now in Paris instead of San Francisco.

It's a slow and slightly offbeat film, and almost as good as Chantal's early film Je tu il elle (1976), one of the truly great films. La captive has a haunting quality, which sucks you in to its own world, and creates an eerie feeling, which gets stronger and stronger as the films progresses. It's very well done.

It's a pity though that I've not yet read all of Remembrance of Things Past, as I would've liked to compare the original and the interpretation. But that's the kind of thing that can wait.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Howard Hawks, scene 4

His Girl Friday (1940) is storytelling at it's most brilliant, and it's also such a feast of a dialogue that it's almost impossible to get it all in one go. As so often with Hawks, slightly subversive gender games are being played out, and it's full of in-jokes. Perhaps the most famous one is when Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, says on the telephone, "The last person who said that to me was Archie Leach before he cut his throat." The joke is that Grant's real name was Archibald Leach. Grant also get's to say "Sounds more like a guy I ought to marry." at one point. This might actually be Grant's greatest performance, and hence, one of the greatest performances of all. And it's not only Grant, there's a lot of good acting in here. Rosalind Russell is simple marvelous.

It's also a cruel and angry film, which exposes the media and the politicians and their corruption and indifference. My favourite scene is the one in the press room, after the poor Mollie Malloy throws herself out of the window, and a silence sinks over the room, like a wet blanket of shame.

But I haven't been able to find that scene, so below you'll get another instead, which is also pretty damn good.

For those who wants to read David Bordwell's take on His Girl Friday, look no further than this link. I don't agree we all that he says there, but it's a good read. And a personal story.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

1959

2009 is still up and running so I feel it's too soon to make a list over the best films of the year, or the decade for that matter, that'll have to wait until January. But until then why not have a look at 1959, surely one of the more spectacular years in cinema history. I will not go deep, just present the best films, and urge you to watch them if you haven't already. Some of them, though, will be analysed in more depth next year.

1959 is the year one of my top five favourite films were made, Rio Bravo. It's basically Howard Hawks discussing all his themes and letting his actors have a good time whilst doing it. Gilles Delueuze called it a "chamber western" because it's an indoor piece, where people talk and talk and talk, but it also has some great set pieces, both outdoors and indoors. It's effortless but brilliant. In the film Chance (John Wayne) says about Colorado (Ricky Nelson) "He's so good he doesn't feel he has to prove it." and that for me sums up Hawks as well.

Rio Bravo was late Hawks, but one of his biggest fans, François Truffaut, made his first feature film in 1959, The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups), and that of course is one of the most influential of films. It's also a warm, tender, sad, poetic and genuine film, rather autobiographical, which makes it all the more sad. The music by Jean Constantin is beautiful and, in fact, it's impossible for me to think of the film without hearing the music.

The other French cinematic masterpiece of 1959 is Pickpocket, an austere philosophical inquiry into the life of a pickpocket, which is probably Robert Bresson's greatest film. It's short, concise and deserves multiple viewings. The film alters between discussions between the pickpocket and a police officer who likes him and scenes when the pickpocket is "working", i.e. stealing wallets and watches and other things. Those scenes have a certain magic grace which makes them wonderful to watch.

And there's more. Billy Wilder, together with script writer I.A.L. Diamond, made Some Like It Hot. Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are running wild in Chicago, on a train and then in Florida, in a more and more outrageous fashion, which asks questions about gender and personalities. It's cruel, and sometimes vulgar, but at the same time sweet and tender, and it's a pure joy to watch it.

Another Austrian in Hollywood, Otto Preminger, made perhaps his ultimate statement of his objective cinema, Anatomy of a Murder with James Stewart as the lawyer, and Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott among other actors. Who is guilty? What is truth? Preminger provides the questions, but where are the answers? And it's all shot in long, opaque takes with a great depth of field, and Duke Ellington provides the soundtrack. The title sequence is by Saul Bass of course.

In India, Satyajit Ray made the last part of his Apu trilogy, Apur sansar, the previous two films are Pather Panchali(1954) and Aparajito (1956), and although it might be argued that they work best seen as a whole, they do function separately as well. Apur sansar is about Apu as an young adult, getting out of University and getting married. Like The 400 Blows it's a tender film about real life being lived, and we're just lucky to have been given the privileged to be a part of these characters everyday activities.

Fred Zinnemann made The Nun's Story, about a Belgian girl who decides to become a nun, and then struggles with her faith. It's perhaps Zinnemann's most Bressonian film, especially in the beginning and end, and it's quite fascinating. It also has one of Audrey Hepburn's best performances, as the nun.

Alfred Hitchcock made North By Northwest. It's written by Ernest Lehman, shot by Robert Burks, edited by George Tomasini, with a music score by Bernard Herrmann and titles by Saul Bass, and can be seen as a summing up of all the major themes of Hitchcock's films until then, especially the theme of the "innocent" man and the transfer of guilt, and along the way mother issues, duplicitous blondes and paranoia are thrown in for good measure. And with Cary Grant and James Mason battling it out in the most civilized of manners.

John Ford was perhaps not at his best in 1959, but The Horse Soldiers is still a very good film, autumnal and sad, with a few scenes which are among Ford's best. It's about the American civil war and its terrible costs.

Sam Fuller also went to war, as he frequently did. This time World War II in Verboten!, about an American soldier being sheltered by a German woman in the aftermath of the war. It's all aggressive politics and exuberant tracking shots, and in the end, when Fuller juxtaposed real archival footage, it becomes something else, angry and tragic, and moving, in unexpected ways.

Two excellent thrillers were made in Britain. J. Lee Thompson's Tiger Bay, about a polish immigrant on the run from the police and who ends up with a mischievous little girl as company. It's got a rare feeling for the lower aspects of life in postwar Britain, and the photography by Eric Cross (a break from Thompson's usual collaboration with Gilbert Taylor) has a gritty feel to it, and a good use of deep focus. Val Guest's Hell is a City, a realistic thriller set in Manchester, has a surprisingly existential feel to it, with an ending worthy of Michelangelo Antonioni. Two overlooked gems.

And, finally, there's the Russian war film, or rather a love story in a war setting, Ballad of a Soldier (Ballada o soldato), written and directed by Grigori Chukhrai. It's a bit uneven but the love story between the soldier and the young girl he meets on a train is heartbreakingly powerful and it's poetically shot. It pairs well with that other Russian war film of the 1950s, The Cranes are Flying (Letyat zhuravli 1957).

And my directors? Well, Bergman didn't make any films in 1959, but he did become director at Dramaten, the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. Hasse Ekman made a film, but he was past his peak, on his way out. Fröken Chic, a gentle satire on television and consumption, is sometimes funny, but on the whole inconsequential.

Now, I'm sure I've forgotten one or two great films, and if so, apologies all around. But surely the above mentioned are more than enough for one year?

If you're wondering where Breathless (A bout de souffle) is, it came out in 1960 so it doesn't count, otherwise it would have been here for sure.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

On directors and their reputation

I read an article in The Guardian yesterday about the new film from the Coen brothers, A Serious Man. Or rather, A Serious Man was the starting point for a wider argument about filmmakers who suddenly makes a film which comes as a surprise because it's so very different from what they've done earlier. The writer Joe Queenan argues that A Serious Man is such a film, and then continues with the mentioning of The Age of Innocence (1993) by Martin Scorsese, The Bridges of Madison County (1995) by Clint Eastwood, Green Card (1990) by Peter Weir and Hulk (2003) by Ang Lee, among other films. It's an interesting angle, rather a good one. Perhaps the gist of Queenan's argument is in this quote "It is as if the film-maker abruptly decided to take a holiday from his own personality and make a film in somebody else's style." Now, I haven't seen A Serious Man yet so I won't talk about it, but I've seen the other films Queenan talks about and in hardly any case do I agree with him, which I think is interesting.

I agree that Age of Innocence is different from, say, Goodfellas (1990), and I haven't seen it for a long time so I won't dwell on it. Queenan says that there's "nary a gangster in sight", but it's not the first time Scorsese has left the world of the gangster, in fact, he's made a lot less gangster movies than you might think. When he did Age of Innocence he had made a film about a struggling single mother, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), far from the streets of New York. He had also made the musical New York, New York (1977) and a Biblical epic, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and various other things. So in a way, Age of Innocence may or may not have been different, but regardless of which it shouldn't come as a surprise that Scorsese would try a new genre.

Hulk was made three years after Ang Lee made the material arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long), and after he made a western, Ride With the Devil (1991). So he isn't all about Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Ice Storm (1997), which, incidentally, begins with Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) discussing the finer points of the comic book heroes Fantastic Four, closely related to Hulk. And Hulk, like so often in Ang Lee's films, is about family and father/son relationships.

Green Card on the other hand is a very typical Peter Weir-film and not in the least bit off. Most of Weir's films is about a man who finds himself in a completely alien environment where he doesn't fit in and so has to leave in the end. Which is exactly the story of Green Card, where the man this time is a French bohemian artist suddenly in a posh New York society. Visually Weir's films differ from one to another, depending on the milieu, which is fitting, because perhaps the most important theme in Weir's films are the effects the environment has on the individual, and how space has a personality of it's own.

As for The Bridges of Madison County, this is where I very strongly disagree with Queenan. Queenan talks about the fact that nobody dies, that it's "the only truly romantic picture he [Eastwood] has ever made" and that it has "absolutely nothing in common with Unforgiven, Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, White Hunter Black Heart or even Bird" All of this could be argued concerning Eastwood, yes, but not any more, not in reference to The Bridges of Madison County in 1995. Let's take the case instead to 1973, when Eastwood made Breezy. It's a very sweet and touching film about a young hippie girl, Breezy (Kay Lenz), who is looking for some love and guidance, and perhaps a father figure. She finds it in the bitter, late middle-aged man played by William Holden. There isn't a horse or a death in sight, just two lost human beings looking for love and companion and finding it where they least expected it. And Eastwood has also made films such as Bronco Billy (1980), about show people travelling the country with a rodeo, and Honkytonk Man (1982), about a country singer dying of tuberculosis. And so on and so forth. (And isn't the basic set-up in The Bridges of Madison County actually rather similar to, say, Pale Rider (1985) and High Plains Drifter (1971). A stranger comes to town, played by Clint Eastwood, stays for a while and then leaves, never to be seen again. There are obvious differences of course, such as the fact that the preacher in Pale Rider and the stranger in High Plains Drifter are ghosts coming back for revenge, but I feel there's a western air to The Bridges of Madison County.)

In the article Queenan also mentions other films and directors, but I'll not go on any further. It's partly a question of interpretation, but I also feel that a part of the reason why he argues that these selected films are so different is because he doesn't really compared them to the directors' other films, but to the popular myth of these directors. Which is perfectly fine I guess.