Friday 23 July 2021

Jan Troell 90 years today

One of the most celebrated of Swedish filmmakers is undoubtedly Jan Troell, who today turns 90. He is still active, re-cutting one of his films, Bang! (1977), for a re-release, and participating in exhibitions and retrospectives, at home and abroad, about his work and art.

His first feature-length film, after years of making short films, is Here is Your Life/Här har du ditt liv (1966). It is set in the far north of Sweden during the years of World War 1 and focuses on a young man, a boy at first, who leaves home to travel around the country looking for jobs, discovering sex and socialism, and finally getting a job as a projectionist at a cinema. There he eventually sees newsreel footage that the war is over, and he quits, finally buys that hat he has been wanting for so long, and leaves, potentially heading for Paris.

It was probably the longest Swedish film made up until that point, over 160 minutes, and it is certainly among the most beautiful. Troell's cinematography, primarily black and white but at times in colour, and with some sequences even animated, captures the far north like few, if any, other Swedish films, both the deep snow in winter and the short and ethereal summer. He mixes all kinds of techniques, as if thrilled by the amazing possibilities of the camera and the editing board, and not wanting to leave anything out. And every character is played to perfection by many of Sweden's best actors, often in small parts. I particularly like Ulf Palme as a foreman at a sawmill and Gunnar Björnstrand as the owner of the cinema. The film is an endless source of pleasure, including Eddie Axberg in the lead role.

Troell is his own editor and cinematographer (from the late 1990s together with Mischa Gavrjusjov), and his style is impressive. A combination of raw realism, lyrical interludes, and expressionistic touches, and where the natural world plays an important part; trees, grass, insects, water given as much attention as the characters. The narrative often consists of vignettes and sketch-like scenes, capturing a mood or a significant moment, without necessarily highlighting its importance. In that regard many scenes do not forward the story in a conventional sense but work together to create an impression, or impressions, of the main character. This main character, as so often in Troell's films, is a person who is a dreamer and seeker, who wants to unleash him- or herself from a quotidian existence, and they are often people from Swedish history, real historical figures. Because another theme of Troell is Sweden itself, its past and its present.

All of the above is present in Here Is Your Life, and they would remain central aspects of his later films, even though not necessarily all at once. Some other films by Troell to mention are the nightmarish Who Saw Him Die/Ole dole doff (1968), about a primary school teacher (as Troell had been); the epics The Emigrants/Utvandrarna (1971) and The New Land/Nybyggarna (1972), about Swedes emigrating to the U.S. in the mid-19th century; Flight of the Eagle/Ingenjör Andrées luftfärd (1982), about a failed expedition by balloon to the North Pole in 1897; the documentary Land of Dreams/Sagolandet (1988), Hamsun (1996), about the Norwegian writer who during World War 2 embraced the Nazis; As White as in Snow/Så vit som en snö (2001), about the Swedish aviation pioneer Elsa Andersson; and Everlasting Moments/Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (2008), about a hard-working woman with a brutal husband who finds solace in photography during the 1910s. The everlasting moments are the images that she captures with her camera, and in that she is a kindred spirit of Troell.

But this post is not meant to be a critical evaluation of Troell's oeuvre, in all its strengths and weaknesses, but a celebration of a remarkable filmmaker on his 90th birthday!

Friday 9 July 2021

1930 to 1945 by the numbers Part V (adaptations or original stories at the box office)

One of the more common complaints about contemporary Hollywood is that they have run out of ideas and are only recycling already well-known materials and doing remakes and adaptations. It is not only a common complaint now, but it has almost always been a common complaint. Some claim that this is what ruined Hollywood in the late 1970s, that pre-packaged films based on famous books/comics/shows took over what had once been a place of original ideas. But as I pointed out in one of my articles about "New Hollywood" it has always been the case that Hollywood bought the rights to whatever was big and successful and made a film adaptation of it. There is nothing wrong with that, and it is not something that is unique to Hollywood, or to mainstream films. Cinema as an art form is to a large extent built on adapting stories already told in some other art form, whether novels, plays, short stories, songs, poems, essays, or other films. Bergman, Fassbinder, Akerman, Kurosawa, Visconti, Zetterling, Hitchcock, Ford, Tarkovsky, Hawks, Troell, Denis, Truffaut; they have all made films based on other material instead of original stories. That is not particularly interesting. It is what they do with the material that matters. And so it is in Hollywood at the height of the studio era. Continuing my project of investigating the period 1930 to 1945 (read introduction here), I will now take a look at this topic. How many of the box office hits from those years were adaptations, and what were they adapted from, and how many were original stories?

Here are the lists of all films, year for year, and what their source material was. (All the necessary caveats are presented here.) I make a distinction between novel and book, and use the latter when it is a work of non-fiction. The first list is 1930 to 1935, then 1936 to 1941, and then 1942 to 1945. Films marked with yellow are those I believe should be counted among the top ten box office hits of that year but I have not had it confirmed. The many films made in 1943 and 1944 explicitly to boost the morale of troops during World War 2 are difficult to classify.

Out of 166 films, 42% were original stories (70 films), making it the most common form. 50 were adaptations of books, 17 of plays, and 15 of short stories or novellas. The rest were based on other things, like radio shows or operettas. Most of those 17 adaptations of plays were made in the first half of the 1930s, after which they almost disappeared.

One thing to consider is that there is not much point in making distinctions between original stories and adaptations. The quality or originality of a given film is almost completely unrelated to that factor. It is not always easy to decide whether a film is an original story or not, as there are many layers and various factors involved. If a film is based on a novel but entirely rewritten so that all that remains are some characters and the setting, is it even relevant to call it an adaptation. What is an original story anyway? Above I have marked a film as an original story only if it has not got any specific source of any kind. But that does not mean that those stories are more original or that the others are less interesting or daring.

In an upcoming post I will compare the figures presented here with the Academy Award nominees for best film and see whether there are more, fewer, or the same amount of adaptations among them. 


Previous posts in the 1930-1945 project are: