Friday 28 August 2015

Hasse Ekman at MoMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I initially wrote that Åke Dahlqvist was the DP on Wandering with the Moon, but that was of course wrong. 

Wednesday 19 August 2015

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

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


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

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

The dynamic duo and Ms. Vikander.

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

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

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

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

Friday 14 August 2015

George Cukor, Hasse Ekman, Jean Renoir and a subject for further research

Initially I had planned to write about George Cukor in my thesis on Hasse Ekman, as the two have several things in common (and knew each other); for example their view of actors/acting and life as a theatre stage. But in the end that darling had to be killed, a thesis cannot cover everything, although I do invoke Ernst Lubitsch and Jean Renoir in my analysis of Ekman. But Cukor was and remains a favourite, one of the very best of directors, with an exceptionally fine sense of staging and framing, which I wrote about a few years ago in La Furia Umana (#2). Cukor's style is like that of someone who is slightly amazed and intrigued by what is going on in front of the camera. He does not want to disturb, so the camera stays at a distance, he does not want to interfere, so there are few cuts, and he does not want to impose, so there are not so many close-ups. Sometimes a shot lasts for over five minutes, sometimes without the camera even moving. Here too there are parallels with Ekman's style of filmmaking.

Once when I sat and studied a Cukor film, a fellow scholar came by and I mentioned that I thought that Cukor was perhaps the master of framing. He replied that Renoir was his favourite. The other day I was reminded of this because Joe McElhaney, an uncommonly sharp scholar, said that he thought that Cukor was among the best when it came to framing, and likened him to Renoir. It seems that we have come full circle... Of course, for Jean Renoir acting, actors and the theatre were also of great importance, and the connections and similarities between Cukor/Ekman/Renoir are definitely a subject for further research, or for future essays.

It is important to remember that framing is something dynamic, it is not a question of one perfect shot, or formal beauty, but the balancing of space and emotions, set design and actor, and of creating nuance and meaning out of the combination of these aspects of the shot. Even a slight camera movement might completely alter the emotional tone of a scene, so still images do not necessarily do justice to the framing in a particular film.

In Cukor's Little Women (1933) there is a scene when a girl sneaks away at a party and talks to a boy among some flowers. It is nothing special about the scene in itself, but the framing of it, the distance of the camera from the actors, the leafs of the flowers getting between us and the actors, makes it something extra. Here are images from some of his best films.

A Star Is Born (1954)

Adam's Rib (1949)

Holiday (1938)

Born Yesterday (1950)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

It Should Happen to You (1954)

Les Girls (1957)

Here is a whole scene from A Star Is Born, when Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) is talking about her alcoholic husband, in the dressing room between takes. It is remarkably good.

In his book about Ingmar Bergman, Robin Wood compares Bergman to Cukor and says that "Bergman's handling of actresses in his more relaxed films is strikingly like Cukor's."

I should add that on both A Star Is Born and Les Girls, and a few more films in colour, Cukor worked closely with George Hoyningen-Huene, a fashion photographer who became Cukor's visual, and colour, consultant.