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!

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


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.

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 its most brilliant, and it is also such a feast of a dialogue that it is almost impossible to get it all in one go. As so often with Hawks, slightly subversive gender games are being played out, and it is 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 gets 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 is not only Grant, there is a lot of good acting in here. Rosalind Russell is simple marvelous.

It is 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 have not been able to find that scene, so below you will get another instead, which is also pretty damn good.

For those who want to read David Bordwell's take on His Girl Friday, look no further than this link.

Wednesday 9 December 2009


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.

Friday 27 November 2009

Favourite films

The other day I attended a rather formal lunch here in St Andrews, and there were eight at the table. I didn't know any of the others but after a glass of wine and some bread we all got along just fine. They were of course most interested in the fact that I was teaching and studying film and after a while the inevitable question came. "So, what is your favourite film?". I can't answer that. My usual reply is "It used to be Rear Window but not anymore. Not because I think any less of it, it's just that I've seen other films which are just as good, or even better." And then I usually mention some titles I feel will be appreciated in the particular setting I'm in. What I mean is that I mention films that I think they will have some knowledge of. So if I'm for example asked by kids I mention other films than I would when asked by people in their late 50s. And I can do this without cheating because there are so many films I can truthfully call favourites.

Friday 20 November 2009

Breakfast at Tiffany's

I love the book Breakfast at Tiffany's deeply and unquestionably (as is the case with must of Truman Capote's writing). And I wish I could feel the same way about the film version from 1961. But I can't.

Most of the film is irresistible. Enchanting. It has whitewashed much of the book, but there's still enough risky business going on, for example about them both having prostituted themselves. Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard make an adorable couple, both as friends and as lovers. Blake Edwards' patience and lingering camera work is very good, especially in the scene when Holly comes to visit Paul in the middle of the night, and they talk and eventually she falls asleep in his arms. It's a beautiful scene, how it's written, directed and acted. Tender and sweet, but with teeth and innuendo. And on top of that, Henry Mancini's music is also beautiful. When I saw it at a cinema yesterday night, I even discovered a new thing about it, concerning Holly's jewellery, even though I've already seen it more times than I dare to mention.

But then there's Mickey Rooney's role as Holly's neighbour Mr Yunioshi. It's a crude stereotype of a Japanese man, and it involves much slap stick, which is only in bad taste and so unnecessary. I wish it wasn't there. If it wasn't for that, I'd love the film with all my heart. By all means, there should be a mr Yunioshi, but made with a little less bad taste.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Chaplin lost and found

A man in Essex bought a box on Ebay for £3.20 , and when it arrived he found there was a Charlie Chaplin film inside. A 7 minutes long film on 35mm nitrate called Zepped, which apparently is a film nobody knew existed. But further research will discover whether or not Chaplin was actually involved in making it, or if it's some kind of compilation film.

Here's an article from The Guardian with more info.

A month ago I saw a Norwegian silent film which had been discovered not long ago at a market place in Prague, Historien om en gut (1919 - The Story of a Boy). I love stories like this. What will be found next? Maybe in an attic in Kyoto?

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Howard Hawks, scene 3

It is time for my third favourite scene from a film by my favourite director, Howard Hawks. Hawks is not usually known for his long takes, but if he wanted to he was no stranger to it, and this is a remarkable example. The opening shot of Scarface (1932), with the great Lee Garmes as cinematographer. And, as an added bonus, here's a link to the article on Hawks that Jacques Rivette wrote and that I mentioned in my previous post.

The two previous postings with favourite Hawks's scenes are here and here.

Monday 2 November 2009

Jacques Rivette at the circus

I've been travelling, hence the low activity here.

When I was in London last week I had the chance to see Jacques Rivette's latest film Around a Small Mountain (36 vues du Pic Saint Loup 2009) at the London International Film Festival. It's nice to still have the ability to see a new film by Rivette, he's 81 years old after all. I've long had a peculiar affection for Rivette, even though I haven't seen all that many of his films. This is just my sixth. (The fact that he's written one of the best articles on Howard Hawks naturally makes me even more favourable towards him.)

Around a Small Mountain stars Jane Birkin and Serge Castellitti and is set at a circus. She's at the circus, he's just passing by, helping her when her car breaks down. She offer him free tickets for the show, he decides to go, and then he stays, trying, much as he did with her car, to fix everything that's wrong. It's very leisurely shot, and although it touches on themes such as death, guilt and betrayal, it's light on it's feet. It has a weird off-handedness to it, I was about to say that it has a liquid feel to it, if I was sure I know what I meant by that.

Rivette is the kind of filmmaker who is always playing games, not least with the audience, and the films often revolve around artists and actors, of some sort. The films are also rather mysterious, not to say enigmatic. This one is rather straightforward though, at least until the end, when it's trying to reach a closure which takes an unexpected form.

The most beautiful and most fully realised of the six films I've seen is La belle noiseuse (1991). It has the same leisurely pace and lingering shots as Around a Small Mountain, but it's much more interesting and poetic. It's just a painter painting a painting of a woman, and still the film is four hours long. It's just one of the greatest films I've ever seen, for its pure beauty. Céline and Julie vont en bateau (1974) is also a magnificent movie, but for very different reasons. But it's to complicated to discuss here and now. It's a movie I will be returning to. As is Rivette. The knowledge that there are so many films still out there that he's made, and I haven't seen, is a joy.

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


On some levels you'd think that realism in art would be a fairly straightforward concept. Art that looks as much as the world around the artwork as is possible. But that is 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".

Take Neorealism. It has been celebrated as the very essence of screen realism but 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. 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. It's a good film, 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 way.

Today realism is often equated with grainy, blurry photography, shot with a camera in perpetual motion. But when we 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 itself 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 excels 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 André Bazin wrote "realism in art can only be achieved in one way - through artifice".


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.

This post was amended and a few errors corrected 2014-05-01.

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.

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".)

Friday 25 September 2009


To my mission statement the other day I'd like to add that I'm also interested in aesthetics, besides film history. I just realised that today actually. When asked by another student here which film was my favourite from an aesthetic point of view I was first flabbergasted, and said that I couldn't possibly answer that. But then I said Heat (1995). Then I corrected myself and said instead Great Expectations (1946). And then it dawned on me which the right answer to the question was. And now I do stand by that answer.

My Darling Clementine (1946). John Ford at his most magically poetical. Pure perfection. Here's a scene (unfortunately it's not complete, there's a scene in the hotel lobby which is missing, but still...)

Thursday 24 September 2009

St Andrews and Sergio Leone

I have finally arrived in St Andrews and my three year spell on Scottish soil will commence! Now I will start to blog regularly again, and let me begin with airing my despair over all the nonsense which is so often presented as film historic fact. The examples are all too many, but the latest I've encountered is that Sergio Leone was the first director to challenge the Hollywood convention of never showing the killer and the person killed in the same shot. If for example a man with a gun would shoot a man to death, you would, according to this theory, first see the killer fire the gun, and then there would be a cut after which you would see the other person falling to do ground. But Leone broke this rule and for the first time showed the killer and the victim in the same shot, without a cut breaking up the action.

It's not 100% clear what the purpose of this convention would be, but what is 100% clear is that I've seen endless examples of Hollywood films, made before Leone began, where the killer and the victim are seen in the same shot, without any cuts. So there was hardly such a convention, and consequently Leone did not break any rules (at least not that rule).

Monday 14 September 2009

Howard Hawks, scene 2

Perhaps the most important thing about Hawks, and one of the things which make him not only so good, but also so unusual, is how he does not really care about story, plot, genre conventions or other superfluous things. Watching people's behaviour under stress is what he is interested in, and making scenes that are playful, personal and improvised, scenes which do not drive the film forward but are only there because they are fun, and explains and deepens the characters. Here is a brilliant example from The Big Sleep (1946). Bogart is Philip Marlowe, private detective, and Bacall is Vivian Rutledge, suspect and love interest.

Bergman for sale

Next weekend in Stockholm (when I'm not there) the big Bergman auction will take place. Here's a link if you're a collector: http://bergmanauction.com/

Sunday 13 September 2009

The Uglier Truth

I find it difficult to find enough time to write here, but that'll soon change. Until then just a quick follow-up.

I have now seen The Ugly Truth (my previous post about it is here) and I was wrong because the the guy was not driven away by the brazenness of Katherine Heigl's character, but rather attracted to it. But the rest I got right. I must also admit that after the first half hour, which was rather bad, it improved and I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Mission Statement

I'm primarily a film historian, not a film theoretician. That doesn't mean I don't have some thoughts and ideas about film as such, how a film is made, which message, hidden or open, a film might project and what effect it has. But it does mean that I'm more interested in the when than the why and the how. Partly because a theory is just that, a theory, more or less applicable on the world we live in. In my experience, often less applicable than more.

So this here blog that I'm writing is mainly concerned with film history, something you may already have gathered. But new films, which after all are future film history, will also be discussed. When it comes to genres, countries, eras, styles or themes, I have no special preferences. I like anything that's good. You will never hear me say things like "but it's just a western" or "I can't stand French films". If it's good, it's good, and that's all there is to it.

Since I'm doing research on Swedish cinema, and since I've spent the last three years working with preserving and spreading Ingmar Bergman's legacy, there will be a lot written on those subjects. I know there's a big interest in all things Bergman out there and I want to satisfy that interest to the best of my abilities. And the neglected parts of Swedish cinema history, and in particular the work of Hasse Ekman, will also be written about, as well as the rest of world cinema.

And I want there to be an ongoing discussion, so feel free to comment and ask questions.

Monday 24 August 2009

Archival stuff

I'm currently working at the Swedish Film Institute's archives in Rotebro, just outside of Stockholm. Today I browsed through Bergman's personal film collection, which he had in his home at Fårö. A lot of Chaplin and Keaton films, various Fellini films and many other things. A good selection, although not particularly surprising. But among the films are also a lot of animated short films by the Swedish cartoonist Victor Bergdahl, from 1915 and 1916. Bergman was a fan.

A new addition to the archives is Julius Jaenzon's camera. Jaenzon is of course the inventive Swedish cinematographer from the 1910s and 1920s, who worked with Victor Sjöström on, among other films, Körkarlen (The Phantom Carriage 1921). It's a special feeling, touching it. Although it doesn't look like much:

Here's a film by Victor Bergdahl. It has some rather crude stereotypical portraits of black Africans in the end. It's a symbol of its old age, although it's got a sweet ending, with the Swedish sailor and the African princess kissing romantically at sunset.

Friday 21 August 2009

The Ugly Truth

Are films so often so predictable for the same reason that children want to hear the same bedtime story over and over again? Because it's safe and stable and you can watch without having to be nervous? But regardless of the reasons, what would happen if films started to be unpredictable? I don't mean in the "oh, we're so clever, we have a twist in the end which you never could guess"-way, which is, in its way, just as predictable because if you know you're in for a surprise, nothing that happens really actually surprises you. (Or shouldn't at least.) No, what I mean is real unpredictability. Take the new film with the lovely Katherine Heigl, The Ugly Truth (2009). I haven't seen it yet, just the trailer, but I believe I've got the gist of it. A woman (Heigl) is interested in Man A. She has a colleague (Man B) whom she finds disgusting. But she agrees to let him help her get Man A. Now, I'm guessing that Man A will be repelled by the forceful style of her dating manoeuvres, and that she instead will fall in love with Man B, a love which he will reciprocate. I could be very wrong, and I hope I am, because it would be so very interesting and brave should the film take a different turn. Let's say that Man A is promoted and moves to another city, and she ends up alone, having a fling with the janitor. And she and Man B remain only friends, and barely that, because, after all, he's pretty disgusting. Now, how would the intended audience react? Would they be upset? Feel let down? Disappointed perhaps? Would it damage the film's box office figures? Now that's the real unpredictability here.

When I've seen it I'll tell you whether I was right or wrong.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Tarantino's favourite films

No, I will not now make my own list of my 20 favourite films since 1992, I just want to defend Anything Else (2003). Quentin Tarantino put it on his list of the 20 best films since 1992 (the year he became a director) and in the blogosphere people have been flabbergasted by this. But why is it only Tarantino, me and my dear cousin Sofia who has noticed that it's one of Woody Allen's best films (and I've seen all of them but two). It's witty and intelligent and apparently Allen himself thinks so since he borrowed so much from it when he made Whatever Works (2009). It's also the perfect companion piece to Annie Hall (1977). Allen's character Dobel in Anything Else is so clearly Alvy Singer from Annie Hall, only 25 years later. I love it.

Here's what others have said, and here's the list:

Sunday 16 August 2009

The best of times. British cinema of the 1940s

Now, where to begin? As mentioned before, there's a film festival in New York celebrating Brit Noirs, and British cinema has since my early teens been very dear to me. It all started when TV3 in Sweden was screening British postwar classics every afternoon. I suppose they must've got a good deal with some distributor, or possible they had to buy these films in order to get newer, juicier films. But for whatever reason, there they were, and I watched most of them. Both acknowledged classics such as Brief Encounter (1945) and much lesser known films such as The Red Tent (1956).

And probably since then I've considered this particular era, the British postwar cinema (actually, it began already during the war) as one of the true golden ages of cinema. Not just British cinema but world cinema. It's so happens that there was something like a perfect storm for filmmaking. There was a lot of cash at hand, both from the government and from wealthy producers such as J. Arthur Rank, and there were a lot of exceptionally creative, inventive and forceful personalities, writer, directors and cinematographers, who were given at lot of freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. Public attendance was also very high.

There were of course David Lean, Carol Reed and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and there were the brilliant Alexander Mackendrick, the cynical Robert Hamer. There were also directors such as Alberto Cavalcanti, Thorold Dickinson, and Charles Crichton. The brothers Boulding and the writer/director team Frank Lauder/Sidney Gilliat. And they were all in it together, with Lean editing films directed by Powell for example, or Crichton directing scripts written by Mackendrick. And there were also the extraordinary writer T.E.B. Clarke, as well as Angus MacPhail and John Dighton, and cinematographers such as Jack Cardiff, Christopher Callis, Robert Krasker and Douglas Slocombe. And the many wonderful actors at that. None more so the Celia Johnson, whose performance in Brief Encounter may be the most heartbreaking I've ever seen.

They were all different of course, with various themes, styles and temperaments, from the extravagant dreamlike passion of Powell/Pressburger to the quiet realism of Lauder/Gilliat. Much more varied than conventional wisdom would have it. All in all, those years, say between 1940 and 1955, were awe-inspiring, still not really appreciated as much as they should. Things started to unravel after 1948, with less money, more competition from America and the internationalisation of both films and filmmakers. And then came the kitchen sink realism, which took much joy out of British cinema. Although The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) is very good.

For prospective connoisseurs, here's a list of my particular favourites, in chronological order (and I'm sure I've forgot a few):

The 49th Parallel (1941) Powell & Pressburger
In Which We Serve (1942), David Lean and Noel Coward
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Powell & Pressburger
Champagne Charlie (1944) Alberto Cavalcanti
A Canterbury Tale (1944) Powell & Pressburger
I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) Powell & Pressburger
Dead of Night (1945) Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Cavalcanti, Basil Dearden.
Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean
A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Powell & Pressburger
Great Expectations (1946) David Lean
Odd Man Out (1947) Carol Reed
Black Narcissus (1947) Powell & Pressburger
Oliver Twist (1948) David Lean
It Always Rains on Sunday (1948) Robert Hamer
The Red Shoes (1948) Powell & Pressburger
The Passionate Friends (1949) David Lean
The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed
The Queen of Spades (1949) Thorold Dickinson
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Robert Hamer
Passport to Pimlico (1949) Henry Cornelius
The Small Back Room (1949) Powell & Pressburger
The Man in the White Suit (1951) Alexander Mackendrick
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) Charles Crichton
Hunted (1952) Charles Crichton
Mandy (1952) Alexander Mackendrick
The Cruel Sea (1953) Charles Frend
The Man Between (1953) Carol Reed
Hobson's Choice (1954) David Lean (yes, I admit, Lean's second only to Howard Hawks in my very own pantheon of directors. And then Michael Powell.)
The Dam Busters (1954) Michael Anderson

Well, that should keep you occupied for quite some time.

A few other directors are also worth mentioning. One is Val Guest, who made his first film in 1943, but I know very little of his big and varied output. But I do know that he made the weird science fiction/horror film The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), the musical Expresso Bongo (1959) and the very good crime thriller Hell Is a City (1960), which is rather like Ealing studios meets the existentialism of Michelangelo Antonioni.

Two other directors, J. Lee Thompson and Seth Holt, are also worthy of consideration, but they didn't start to direct until the 1950s, and are therefore not part of this timeframe. But I might return to them later on.

Thursday 13 August 2009

Howard Hawks, scene 1

Howard Hawks is my favourite filmmaker, above and beyond anyone else. It is partly something I can discuss and explain, but there is an extra level of personal connection which I can neither discuss nor explain. Today I want to show a scene from Only Angels Have Wings (1939). It is probably my favourite scene from any of Hawks's films. And it is also the quintessential Hawks scene, visually as well as thematically. The focus on music for teambuilding. The woman showing the man that she is his equal. The easy interaction among all involved. Grant saying "You better be good." to Jean Arthur, and later asking for a match. And it is so warm and tender, with the underlining tragedy not visible if you do not know the story, but so very palpable if you do know it. These are things (as is the low hanging lamp in the foreground) which are repeated again and again in the films of Hawks. And it is all there, these two minutes being perhaps the most complete auteur statement in cinema history.


Monday 10 August 2009

The Pope on Film

The late Pope John Paul II (who as Pope's go was rather progressive) was also into films, and The Vatican produced a list of 45 favourite films in 1995, to celebrate cinema's 100th birthday. I know I'm a bit late writing about it, but it wasn't until last week I finally took the time to go through the list. And the fact of the matter is that as film lists go, it's pretty good. It's not some kind of Catholic kitsch, but really good films, religious or non religious. And it's broadminded enough to include films by Fellini, Pasolini, Bergman and Buñuel. But, what I'm most happy about is the fact that it also includes The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), the wonderful Ealing comedy with Alec Guinness. It's got one of the best scripts ever written, by T.E.B. Clarke, and the fact that it's on the list is an even more depressing sign of how much I miss the previous Pope.

Yes, it's not hyperbole, the script is to clever, witty and rich and nuances and humour, it really is one of the best ever written.

I give you the trailer:

Friday 7 August 2009

John Hughes will never die

The man who was the 1980s is dead. John Hughes, the producer, writer and director of Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) as well as the writer and producer of Pretty in Pink (1986) and Some Kind of Wonderful (1987). These films are smart, sweet, funny and sometimes rather brilliant. None more so than Ferris Bueller's Day Off, to these eyes one of the best films of the 1980s, even if it doesn't star Hughes star actress, Molly Ringwald.

Unfortunately Hughes vanished in the 90s, only sometimes writing scripts of inferior quality. That's a pity but maybe it's just as well that he didn't direct anymore because if he had continued he wouldn't be so definitively of the 80s. It's too much to call him his generation's Preston Sturges, but there are similarites. R.I.P.

The New York Times obituary
The Guardian obituary and collection of youtube clips

Howard Deutch directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. After that he's made episodes of tv-shows and various sequels. I think it's safe to say that Hughes was the creative force behind those two films.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Paris, France

Have been in Paris for a couple of days. One of the many reasons I like Paris more than any other city in the world is the overwhelming abundance of cinemas, films, retrospectives and festivals that are on offer, every single day. During my five days this time I had to choose between a Woody Allen retrospective, two Michael Mann retros, one Douglas Sirk retro, another one on Robert Ryan. There was one celebrating Vittorio de Sica, and another for young Russian cinema. And so on and so forth. It's easy to get out of control. They also have many films released on DVD which you will not find anywhere else, such as early Richard Fleischer films. Among them Child of Divorce (1946), Follow Me Lightly (1949, written by Anthony Mann who also co-directed) and Armored Car Robbery (1950). I've long had a soft spot for Fleischer and I will enjoy watching them. His The Narrow Margin (1952) is a brilliant little film and The Boston Strangler (1968) is extraordinary as well. Anyway. More on Fleischer to come.

Another thing about Paris is that it makes me feel closer to Truffaut. And, as usual, I went to visit his grave.

When I wrote about Le Trou the other week I said it made me want to watch Casque d'or (1952) again. Well, now I have. It was so much much better than I remembered it. It must rate as one of the best films I've ever seen. It's done so lightly and tenderly, with a poetic grace, and yet the story is so cruel and tragic. Both the writing and directing of Becker is outstanding, as are many of the performances. Magic!

Thursday 30 July 2009

Chinese interference

According to the Melbourne International Film Festival, China has been angered by the fact that the festival is showing a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer and that she has been invited as a guest. (The Chinese don't like her because she's a leading Uighur.) That they are angry is one thing, but that they are actively trying to stop the event is quite something else. The festival's website has been attacked by hackers, and the Chinese contacted the festival, urging them not to invite Kadeer or show the film. The festival didn't budge though.

This is obviously not the way to behave if you want to be regarded as a benevolent world power. The hacking of the festival's website is bad enough but that could have been the work of ordinary punks. But that Chinese officials are trying to decide which films the festival may or may not show is just plain wrong, and rather disturbing.

BBC reports.
The festival's website.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Ang Lee

As of now I've seen all of Ang Lee's films premiered so far! Today I've seen Pushing Hands (1992), his first, and my last. No, latest. It was not his best but good enough. The dialogue was over explanatory, which is always annoying, but anyway. It was about families and the difficulties of communicating, done with calm and restraint. No surprises there.

But here's a scene from a better film. His version of Sense and Sensibility (1995).

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Le trou

There's something special about the French cinema of the 1950s, before la nouvelle vague, when an austere, clean style was popular, most famously in the films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville. It's also very apparent in Le trou (1960), directed by Jacques Becker, and based on a true story about an attempt to break out of La Santé prison in 1947. It's similar in style and look to Bresson's A Man Escaped (Un condamné à mort s'est échappé 1956), which is also based on a true story.

Le trou is little over two hours, has no music and little dialogue. The actors are all amateurs, some even prisoners, and most of the film takes place in a cell shared by five men. There are just two scenes outside of the prison. But the tension and the atmosphere are remarkable. It's almost a zenlike experience to watch it. The quiet desperation of it all. It's a beautiful film.

I haven't seen enough of Becker's films to talk about his work with nothing more than generalizations, but of those I've seen Le trou is by far the best. And now I want to see Casque d'or (1952) again.

(All the films I've mentioned are available on dvd.)

Saturday 11 July 2009

Festival in Tbilisi

I had long wanted to do an Ingmar Bergman festival in Georgia, and it was of course very fulfilling that not only did it happen but that it was such a wonderful success. All screenings were sold out and the response was excellent. I had chosen five films, Summer Interlude (Sommarlek 1951), Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklarnas afton 1953), The Magician (Ansiktet 1958), Persona (1966) and The Autumn Sonata (Höstsonaten 1978), based on the theme "Portraits of Performers", to give a broad and varied overview of Bergman's work. The first two are my personal favourites among Bergman's films. Summer Interlude is seldom seen, and hardly known at all, and I was somewhat nervous of how it would be regarded. But the comments I heard put a shame to my fears. They thought it was very good, very moving, and they wondered why they had never heard of it before. A valid question. During the years I've been working in the world of Bergman, I've always tried to push forward the lesser known films, Some of them are among his best and it's somewhat boring that it's always all about Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957), The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet 1957) and Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander 1982), no matter how good they all are.

Speaking of unknowns, yesterday I for the first time saw his early film Music in Darkness (Musik i mörker 1948), Rather terrible, but with one or two good scenes. Mai Zetterling is the best thing about it and a hallucination sequence in the beginning which wouldn't have looked out of place in a film by Michael Powell.

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Karl Malden

I just learned that Karl Malden has passed away, 97 years old. He was one of my favourite actors, from The Gunfighter (1950) to a guest appearance in an episode of The West Wing.

I'm at a Bergman festival in Tbilisi, Georgia, for the moment and can't blog all that much. But when I'm back home, I can and I will.

Wednesday 24 June 2009


Jaws (1975) is a great film. It's much like the shark actually. Streamlined, efficient and focused. Steven Spielberg directs it with an extraordinary confidence, the dialogue is witty, the cinematograhy is beautiful and it's full of tricks and treats, like the beach scene where we see chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sitting in a chair watching the water and Spielberg uses the people passing by in front of him like wipecuts, moving closer and closer to him by each person going by.

It's also rich on subtexts and allegory, if you like. City vs island, intellectual vs primitive, corruption vs integrity, where the shark, white as it is, can be used as a canvas on which we can paint our own meaning. It's also somethink like the revenge of the nerds, as neither Brody nor Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) are particularly manly or heroic, but actually rather, well, nerdy.

And then there's Quint (Robert Shaw) telling the story of the sinking of U.S.S. Indianapolis. Maybe the shark is sent as revenge for the sins committed during World War 2:

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Black and white in colour

Why is it that I find black and white films almost always better looking than colour films? I think it has something to do with the fact that the world is in colour, so when you photograph it in black and white it's unavoidable that you add a certain stylishness. Even if you are a terrible cinematographer (or a regular photographer), if you do it in black and white it automatically becomes artful and different, whereas if you shoot on colour stock, it doesn't look special in any way unless you really work hard and artistically. It's therefore more difficult to make something striking in colour. But of course by no means impossible. There are many colour films which have magnificent cinematography (I will not even try and list them all), but it doesn't come naturally.

And I'm not saying that all black and white films are equally goodlooking. Films shot by, say, John Alton or Stanley Cortez, or David Lean's films, are of course superior to the works of hacks. But still.

Here's an example from He Walked By Night (1948), with John Alton as cinematographer. Notice the striking resemblance to The Third Man made the year after.

Sunday 14 June 2009

The Terminator

I don't remember exactly which year it was but I remember the occasion vividly. I might have been 12 or something and a friend, Jonas, was telling my and another friend of this great film, The Terminator, he had seen. It was an awesome action film with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jonas told the entire story, and occasionally smiled a slightly embarrassed smile, such as when he said that a truck exploded but that this still didn't kill Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was a machine after all. I didn't think much of it, and I never saw it. Then many years later I was studying film at Stockholm University and, yet again, I was told the story of this film. This time it was our teacher Maaret Koskinen who spoke about it, in a lecture, and she was showing film clips as well. She wasn't embarrassed as Jonas, but almost as excited.

And still I hadn't seen it (but I had seen Terminator 2). It took three more years before, finally, I saw the original. 13 years after it was made. And how good it was! Now I've seen it again, and I believe I liked it even more. It has such a good storyline, and it's told with such confidence. It's thrilling and it has a very good ending. She did survive, but hardly anyone else did, and we all know what's going to happen next, after the end titles. Nuclear annihilation.

The story is that in 2029 there's a war between the few human beings left alive and the machines who have taken over the earth. A killing machine in the shape of a man (Schwarzenegger) is sent back in time to 1984 to kill a woman called Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). The reason is that her son, who isn't born yet, not even conseived, will grow up to lead the resistance against the machines. The humans send a man back (Michael Biehn) to protect Sarah Connor.

What's also so good about it, and what got Maaret Koskinen going, is the machine theme. It isn't just that in the future artificial intelligence has taken over. Our lives are already so caught up in machines of all kinds. Walkmans, answering machines, blowdriers, cars, trucks, drills. They're everywhere. And James Cameron, the director and writer (together with Gale Anne Hurd), makes many pointed references to this fact. Such as when the Terminator (Schwarzenegger) has killed a friend of Sarah Connor and suddenly there's a call to the friend and the answering machine answers and the voice says something like "Hey. No, just kidding, it's not me, it's just the machine". A machine. Not a killing machine like the Terminator, but still. The future may be in the future, but it starts here, today. And that's the point of the film.

Another highlight is when Sarah Connor, on the run from her assassin, hides in a club called Tech Noir. Since then the genre The Terminator is a part of is usually referred to as tech noir. And apparently that was Cameron's intention.

I sometimes speak rather unflatteringly about the 1980s when it comes to filmmaking, but it wasn't all bad. There's James Cameron for one thing. And Terminator 2: Judgement Day which he wrote and directed in 1991 is just as good as the first, or perhaps even better.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Meet Me in St Louis

There are so many great films out there, so many great directors. Meet Me in St Louis is definitely one of those films and its director Vincente Minnelli one of those directors. Smooth, complex camera movements and expressive colouring, exquisite tenderness and emotional frenzy, are the most obvious hallmarks of his films, but there's more. There's such passion, such depth of feeling, it's sometimes close to unbearable. But, as I said, there's also tenderness. Here's a beautiful scene with Judy Garland seducing the man she's after.

Andrew Britton has written about it, Geoffrey MacNab has written about it and it's on Stanley Fish's list of the "10 best American films". Yet I'm not sure everybody gets it, and its greatness. But it is there for the taking, in all it's warmth and surrealism.

(That Stanley Fish calls his list "The 10 best American films" is obviously just a way of inviting heated counterarguments. I will never understand how such a list can arouse such passion, anger and sometimes vitriol. Calling it "My 10 favourite American films" would of course have been more appropriate, but he would still have gotten angry comments and e-mails from people questioning his choices.)