Thursday, 27 July 2017

Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Dance of Reality

The Dance of Reality is a very weird film. By that, you must understand that it’s very strange, bizarre and extreme, because I think I have a high tolerance for weirdness. It’s a stew of a film—a quasi-biographical film, reminiscent of Fellini’s Amarcord, mixed with surrealism and metaphor. With a tremendous imagination and a talent for crazy allegories, Jodorowsky creates a film full of striking images, bold colours and grotesque scenes: a boy throws a rock into the ocean that causes a wave dumping thousands of sardines all around him; a woman urinates over her husband to cure him of a fatal infection; a man decides to die, walks down to his grave and draws his last breath; a woman ties a stone to some balloons to carry her message; a man, with fear, becomes paralysed in the literal sense, etc. It’s no wonder that Jodorowsky said “I did not want LSD to be taken. I wanted to fabricate the drug's effects.”
However, it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. Even though the film has its longueurs, partly because the mother sings every single line like an operatic aria, and it’s not something I’d like to watch over and over again, it’s a very poignant film. Jaime the father, a Stalin-obsessed Jewish man, goes on quest to assassinate the Chilean dictator Ibáñez, only to realise later that Ibáñez and his hero Stalin are the same, and that Jaime himself is a tyrant. It’s not Ibáñez, but the tyrant in himself, that he has to destroy—that gives the film extraordinary emotional power. The Dance of Reality is, in a sense, a fantastical coming-of-age tale where it’s not the child but the father that learns and grows. The film is grotesque, but fascinating, and wonderfully human.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Robert Altman's 3 Women


Brief summary: Pinky Rose (real name Mildred) is enamoured of her colleague and roommate Millie (another Mildred), who is perfect in the childlike eyes of Pinky Rose and in the eyes of Millie’s clueless self. Everything becomes bizarre as Pinky Rose, after an incident, starts to “steal” Millie’s identity. In the background there’s a mysterious pregnant woman named Willie who rarely speaks and paints unsettling and haunting murals. Which is reality? Or is it all a dream? Are the 3 women separate, or part of the same person? 
3 Women is an avant-garde film that came from Robert Altman’s dream and got some inspiration from Persona. If you haven’t watched it, you should read Roger Ebert’s review. If you have watched it, read it too—it is one of his most insightful articles. 
Having watched it only once, I can’t write about its many hidden meanings, so I will only write about Mildred “Millie” Lammoreaux, which is probably Shelley Duvall’s best performance (even though people usually think of The Shining). Millie seems to be in a constant state of preparing for dates and dinners that never happen; she imagines that everyone enjoys her company and men are crazy about her, and babbles on about anything without noticing that people ignore or even laugh at her among themselves. Never have I seen in films any woman so desperate and deluded. The awkward silences, the ramblings, the cheerful greetings that are always ignored, the unnoticed laughs, the ridiculous one-piece suit, the sheer inability of the character to see herself and to perceive other people’s reactions, etc.—many moments are so cringy that I feel uncomfortable. This is certainly one of the most interesting and memorable female characters on screen. 
Interestingly, when Pinky starts to steal her identity and take over her world, the persona she adopts is not the real Millie, but the person Millie sees herself as—fun, confident and popular with the men. As Millie, Pinky’s better than the real Millie. 
This film is a must-watch.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

On Persona, Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander, and the genius of Ingmar Bergman

Sometimes it’s sad to think about the reputation of some great artists. Ingmar Bergman has always been seen as the gloomy Swede, forever dealing with God’s silence, people’s inner demons, and hateful relationships; his films have a reputation for being difficult and challenging, and in the eyes of detractors, are seen as pretentious and self-indulgent or boring and depressing or both; at the same time, his films, Persona especially, are much analysed and written about, and they deal with religion, psychology and philosophy. All these things combined make it seem like his works are inaccessible and uninteresting—tedious, heavy in ideas, misanthropic and depressing in tone, dry, devoid of life, perhaps even dated and visually boring. At least that was the misconception I had before I watched Bergman, and the impression I got when I first approached his works without having the right mindset.
Now that I’ve got into the world of Bergman, everything has changed. Before being a psychologist and a thinker, Bergman’s a master technician, a great visual storyteller, and a true artist who saw cinema as a serious art form, who tested and expanded the possibilities of cinema, and who constantly reinvented himself even while dealing with the same themes throughout his career.
Speaking of visuals alone, his black-and-white films are magnificent, especially his collaborations with Sven Nykvist such as Persona, Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly. I don’t understand people who refuse to watch black-and-white films—colour can be a distraction, the absence of colour draws the viewer’s attention to the composition of the frame and the lighting, and helps notice the contrast and all the shades.

Then when he makes colour films, he makes the best use of colours. Cries and Whispers is the best example. The film is dominated by 3 colours, red, white and black. The main colour red conveys passion, hatred, blood, violence, death and extreme emotions, effectively used not only in production design and costumes but also in fade-outs (instead of black or white fades), a daring choice, and the few (2, I think) scenes with green grass in the film, by contrast, create a strong sense of claustrophobia in the indoor scenes, which heightens the intensity and at the same time makes the viewer feel that the sisters are somehow imprisoned by the way they are.

Lately, I’ve just watched Fanny and Alexander, the 5-hour version. As in Cries and Whispers, the cinematographer is the wonderful Sven Nykvist. It is 1 of the most visually beautifully films I have ever seen. Every single frame is like a painting (there’s only another film that makes me feel that way, Barry Lyndon, but the film as a whole is hollow). The colours and lighting are perfect, Fanny and Alexander looks magical in all the scenes at the Ekdahls’ house, and there’s a kind of balance and harmony in every frame that I can’t quite explain—I can only say it’s very pleasing and even exhilarating.
More importantly, Ingmar Bergman experiments and reinvents himself. Persona, written when he was in the hospital, was unlike anything he had previously made; and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s new and interesting on many levels, but 1 of the most discussed things is the film reel at the beginning and ending of the film, and how the film cracks and burns in the middle—Persona is a film that reminds the audience that it is a film. However, it doesn’t make me feel the way I feel about Godard sometimes—breaking rules for the sake of being irreverent and experimental. The reminder of the artifice of film goes with the mental breakdown of the actress played by Liv Ullmann, and her silence because of her feeling about the crudeness of art, the artificiality and insincerity of her profession as an actress, and all the masks she wears in real life. The crack in the middle of the film denotes the breakdown, the dissociation of the nurse—when she on the 1 hand betrays the principle of her profession, and on the other hand, loses her sense of identity.
Together with Persona, Cries and Whispers is another film where Ingmar Bergman felt he went as far as he could go. A film about dying, and death, and people who are alive but inside already dead, and about a person who has died but is stuck halfway, Cries and Whispers is his most painful and intense film. As Roger Ebert has put it, “to see it is to touch the extremes of human feeling”. His use of the colour red is not merely symbolic—it creates strong emotional and dramatic impact, heightens the intensity, and makes us feel confined and claustrophobic. Nevertheless, it’s not as negative as it sounds—the selfless love and devotion of Anna, the servant, negates the selfishness and heartlessness of the sisters, and in the end, Cries and Whispers, despite everything, is life-affirming.
Then, after about a dozen films, when I thought I knew Ingmar Bergman, I watched Fanny and Alexander. The themes are the same, but the film is different, not only because the film has children and many things are seen through the eyes of an imaginative 10-year-old boy, but also because it’s warm, exuberant and magical, like a fairytale, and Dickensian in many ways (with children, a cruel stepfather that is a bishop, a Jewish art-dealer and money-lender…). It’s a wonderful farewell to cinema. It is full of life, and magic. 

Ingmar Bergman is the greatest of filmmakers.
14/7 was his 99th birthday, and 30/7 is the 10th anniversary of his death.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

18/7/1817- 18/7/2017

Jane Austen died 200 years ago today.
Why do you like Jane Austen? Which of her works are the best in your opinion, and which are your favourites?

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive, which I’ve just watched the 2nd time, is for me the kind of film that is much better afterwards, when I think about it, than when I was watching it.
Do I agree with BBC’s choice of Mulholland Drive as the greatest film of the 21st century? Probably not. But it’s an unusual film, a daring film—David Lynch plays with the form and experiments with narrative. The key moment of the film is at Club Silencio: a man says “No hay banda. There is no band.”, which is followed by a beautiful and mesmerising performance in Spanish—we are captivated, we are swept up by it, then the singer drops dead onstage whilst the song continues playing, shattering the illusion. We are thrown into reality. The film reminds me of the Ingmar Bergman quote “When film is not a document, it is dream”. There can be other ways to interpret Mulholland Drive, such as alternate realities, but I go with the interpretation that the 1st 2/3 of the film is a dream—Diane’s dream, the rest is reality. As Diane is a failing actress, depressed and destructive after abandoned by the glamorous but selfish and opportunistic Camilla, Betty is the person she dreams to be, an aspiring actress welcomed and praised by everyone in fairytale Hollywood, and Rita is the person she wishes Camilla to be, a distressed person who follows her, has to depend on her, and loves her.
This is an important film.

Monday, 17 July 2017

A review of Woody Allen’s films

Love and Death? Watch Bergman’s The Seventh Seal instead. 
Stardust Memories? Watch Fellini’s 8 ½ instead. 
A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy? Watch Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night instead. 
The Purple Rose of Cairo? Watch Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria instead. 
Radio Days? Watch Fellini’s Amarcord instead. 
Alice? Watch Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits instead. 
Husbands and Wives? Or Scenes from a Mall? Watch Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage instead. 
Shadows and Fog? Watch Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, The Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel instead. 
Deconstructing Harry? Watch Bergman’s Wild Strawberries instead. 
Crimes and Misdemeanors? And Match Point? Read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment instead. 
To Rome with Love? Watch Fellini’s The White Sheik instead. 
Blue Jasmine? Watch Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire instead. 
Interiors? Just watch any Ingmar Bergman chamber drama instead. 

Disclaimer: I do like Woody Allen, especially Annie Hall, Love and Death, Manhattan and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Ingmar Bergman's note on Cries and Whispers

I’ve just watched Cries and Whispers again. It’s 1 of Ingmar Bergman’s most accomplished films; not sure why I can’t write about it.
But I’ve just found this in Irving Singer’s book Ingmar Bergman’s Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity: in his notebooks, Bergman calls Cries and Whispers a “poem: a human being dies, but as in a nightmare, gets stuck half way through and pleads for tenderness, mercy, deliverance, something. 2 other human beings are there, and their actions, their thoughts are in relation to the dead, not-dead, dead. The 3rd person saves her by gently rocking, so she can find peace, by going with her part of the way.”
That is beautiful. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Tarkovsky’s Solaris

Not a review. This is a post for people already familiar with the film. 

1/ At the beginning of the film, there are some long nature shots. The scenery is to “reappear” at the end, in a different setting. They are long, but you must take it all in, you must really feel it, in order to see the difference between Earth and Solaris, and to understand the feeling of emptiness and nostalgia of the astronauts. Kris Kelvin appears detached and cold, and doesn’t seem to particularly care for nature, but even he attaches strips of paper to air vents to create the sound of rustling leaves.
2/ Speaking of which, dead silence is intolerable when ears are used to noise. There must always be some sound, in the background, hardly noticeable because taken for granted—absolute silence would be noticeable, and awful. There is no life on Solaris, only a roaring, formless sea. 
3/ The detail about the sound of rustling leaves also makes me think about things in life I take for granted. 

4/ Most interesting in Solaris is the character of Hari—a person that isn’t a real human being, an alien that doesn’t look alien, a being that is no more than a materialisation of Kelvin’s conception of her.
5/ She is Hari but she isn’t Hari. She is a materialisation of the Hari in Kelvin’s head—she has no secrets because he didn’t know her secrets, she is suicidal because the real Hari committed suicide and that’s how Kelvin always thought about her.
6/ Gibarian (the astronaut who commits suicide) mentions the word conscience. That seems to apply for Hari—kill her, she appears again; she destroys herself, then revives minutes later; she’s like an old guilt, never forgotten. 
7/ Roger Ebert wrote, in his review of the other Solaris (2002)
“In other words, Kelvin gets back not his dead wife, but a being who incorporates all he knows about his dead wife, and nothing else, and starts over from there. […] The deep irony here is that all of our relationships in the real world are exactly like that, even without the benefit of Solaris. We do not know the actual other person. What we know is the sum of everything we think we know about them. Even empathy is perhaps of no use; we think it helps us understand how other people feel, but maybe it only tells us how we would feel, if we were them.” 
Of course it’s not exactly the same. Because Hari is a materialisation of Kelvin’s conception of her, she’s incapable of shocking him, or even changing. Her self-destructiveness is part of the conception. 
But it’s an interesting thought. People can never know each other fully, completely. (Sometimes) we love not the actual person, but our conception of them. 

8/ At the same time, Hari is so interesting because she’s becoming real—she becomes so real that she knows she isn’t real. She has self-consciousness. 
9/ Solaris is sci-fi so that the genre provides with the planet, but it’s really about psychology and philosophy. 
10/ In the end, the scenery we have seen earlier appears again, but it’s not the same place—it’s on Solaris. The entire place is formed by Kelvin’s consciousness alone. What do I think about that? I don’t know. I don’t think I got much out of Solaris after 1 viewing.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

On rewatching Persona; some other remarks on cinema

1/ After the 2nd viewing of Persona, I’m more inclined to go with the literal interpretation—a story between 2 women, as what we see on the screen, instead of the interpretation that they’re 2 sides of the same woman.
2/ Of course, not everything that appears on the screen does happen. Persona is a blend of reality and fantasy. This time, it becomes clearer which sequences are real and which not.
3/ The women are alike. The repetition of the exact same scene, from another angle, creates an effect, makes us feel something different—the 1st time, Alma is trying to speak for Elisabet, analysing her; the 2nd time, she seems to be speaking about herself.
4/ The women are alike; both have been hiding behind a mask (persona) and now cast it away—Elisabet as a loving wife and mother, Alma as a good nurse and happy engaged woman.
5/ A good nurse she is not. Alma lacks the necessary detachment, she lacks the stability and mental strength for the job. She lets bitterness and resentment get the better of her, and betrays the principle of her profession.
6/ Between the 2, Alma is weak, Elisabet is stronger. The nurse herself knows it requires some mental strength to remain silent, refuse to speak.
7/ Ingmar Bergman says, in an interview by Charles Thomas Samuels, “The monk scares her because his conviction is so enormous he is willing to die for it”. That is a much greater mental strength.
6/ Perhaps she realises that that is real suffering, as is the tragedy of the Holocaust. What does she think of? The smallness and insignificance of her own suffering? The catastrophes and injustices of the world? The unfairness of life in general? The falsehoods of all things, which make her fall silent so as not to say a lie?
7/ Of course, the words of the doctor should not be seen as the key to understanding the film.

8/ I shall not attempt to decode the opening sequence of Persona and reduce them to a series of symbols: sexual desire, horror, sacrifice, etc. Film is a visual medium—it’s about image, and how we intuitively respond to it, how we feel about it. 
Ingmar Bergman remarks in his essay “Each Film Is My Last”: 
“Film is not the same thing as literature. As often as not the character and substance of the 2 art forms are in conflict. What it really depends on is hard to define, but it probably has to do with the self-responsive process. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act and in connection with the intellect, and little by little it plays on the imagination or feelings. It is completely different with the motion picture. When we see a film in a cinema we are conscious that an illusion has been prepared for us and we relax and accept it with our will and intellect. We prepare the way into our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings without touching the mind.” 
He says again in the introduction to Four Screenplays
“When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings. Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my great source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.” 
Andrei Tarkovsky expresses the same idea in Sculpting in Time:
“A literary work can only be received through symbols, through concepts — for that is what words are; but cinema, like music, allows for utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work.” 
Many literature lovers speak of films with disdain because, they argue, reading requires you to use your own imagination whereas a film already gives you images which you take passively. That is the mistaken view of people who neither know truly great films nor understand the nature of cinema and what it’s capable of. The 2 media have different strengths and powers (and different limitations). The 1st films I think of as a response to people who think film is an inferior art, or not a serious art form, would be: 8 ½, Persona, Three Colours: Blue and 2001: A Space Odyssey
9/ I also found, on the internet, this quote by Ingmar Bergman: 
“When film is not a document, it is dream. That is why Tarkovsky is the greatest of them all. He moves with such naturalness in the room of dreams. He doesn't explain. What should he explain anyhow? He is a spectator, capable of staging his visions in the most unwieldy but, in a way, the most willing of media. All my life I have hammered on the doors of the rooms in which he moves so naturally. Only a few times have I managed to creep inside. Most of my conscious efforts have ended in embarrassing failure – The Serpent’s Egg, The Touch, Face to Face and so on.
Fellini, Kurosawa and Bunuel move in the same fields as Tarkovsky. Antonioni was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness. Melies was always there without having to think about it. He was a magician by profession.
Film as dream, film as music.” 
Not commenting on Antonioni (who, when I watched a few years ago, didn’t quite get), I agree about Fellini, and a bit more tentatively (because I haven’t seen much) about Tarkovsky and Bunuel. It also applies for Ingmar Bergman. But I’m not quite sure about Kurosawa—that doesn’t sound right to me. 
10/ After Ingmar Bergman, I intend to check out Tarkovsky. I’ve seen Solaris.

Friday, 30 June 2017

My new 10 favourite films

Persona by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman 
Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder 
Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini 
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring by Kim Ki-duk 
Ran by Akira Kurosawa 
Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese
The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola
Casablanca by Michael Curtis 
The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme 

(replaced 1 film on the list on 17/6/2017) 

Some remarks on cinema; and 2 video essays on Akira Kurosawa

For quite some time, I’ve been intending to write about many self-proclaimed cinephiles and film students’ ignorance of many masters such as Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa…*, and their contemptuous disregard for the legacy of cinema. Related to it would be, on the 1 hand, the fallacious argument that art is subjective and it all comes down to taste (as I said “Ingmar Bergman’s 1 of the masters of cinema”, a friend and classmate of mine said “So is Joss Whedon”), and on the other hand, the charges of elitism or pretentiousness against anyone who takes cinema seriously and likes classic films and/or arthouse films.
Ignorance is fine (I, for example, have no knowledge of silent films apart from Charlie Chaplin). It’s a lack of desire to know that is problematic. Most harmful is philistinism and anti-intellectualism—there is no cure.
However, I’m not going to bother. It’s their problem if they stay in their comfort zone and limit themselves (watch only new films, colour films or English-language films, etc.) and don’t know what they’re missing out on. As in literature, it’s not worth an effort. I’m just going to continue what I’m doing, and explore more great directors.

Here are 2 brilliant video essays I found on the art of Akira Kurosawa (I’ve seen Ran, Rashomon, Dreams, Ikiru and The Bad Sleep Well; am watching Stray Dog).

Akira Kurosawa - Composing Movement from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) - The Geometry of a Scene from Tony Zhou on Vimeo.

Note to self, after watching The Bad Sleep Well (a perfect film): try the axial cut.

*: Some film students not only haven’t watched them, but haven’t even heard of them.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wild Strawberries and Ingmar Bergman's concern with love (or the inability to love)

In a discussion a short while ago, my friend Himadri called Wild Strawberries Ingmar Bergman’s Christmas Carol.
Look at this passage from Harvey R. Greenberg’s essay “The Rags of Time” (Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky with Joseph F. Hill):
“… A lesser artist would have cast Borg in the likeness of Scrooge, waking from troubled dreams to spread good cheer until the end of his days. But Borg is an ancient man with an extremely rigid character. Miss Agda and Evald, though they have been hurt by him, believe nothing else possible at his hands; they are actually as inflexible after their own fashion as he. Brilliantly, Bergman portrays the rejection of Borg’s tentative efforts to soften his behavior towards the old housekeeper and the stinging rebuff he receives from Evald, so much his father’s son. People such as these do not give up their defenses with such facility. And Borg’s self-description in the opening scene is written after this memorable day has passed; the mask he turns to the world would not seem to have altered that significantly.”
Whilst seeing some similarities between Wild Strawberries and A Christmas Carol, I agree with this view—the spiritual journey in Ingmar Bergman’s film (as opposed to the physical journey) doesn’t quite lead to any real transformation; it’s about self-understanding and understanding of people close to him, resulting in a slightly changed outlook but no significant change in person. The film is no parable, nor fairy tale. At that age, people don’t change; Isak Borg can’t be like the protagonist in Kurosawa’s Ikiru. For years, he has been living like a dead man, all of a sudden he’s shocked by Marianne’s admission of her dislike of him, into re-examining his whole life, and through memories and dreams, comes to see his own egotism, rigidity and coldness, and to realise that whilst he has been successful in his career, he has failed in his private life. What makes Wild Strawberries a life-affirming film rather than a cold dissection of a man’s personal failures and his loneliness, is Marianne—the life of the film. She has feeling, she has love, she chooses life—she has seen coldness from Borg’s old mother going down to Borg and then her husband Evald, but somewhere it must end, and she will end it. 
Now, after many films, I’ve concluded that Ingmar Bergman’s main concern, even in the films that thematically deal with the question of God, is sympathy and love, or rather, selfishness and the inability to love and see beyond oneself. Through a Glass Darkly isn’t about God and the vision of God as a giant spider, as much as it’s about a woman’s struggle with schizophrenia, her inability to respond to the love of her husband, and her cold, distant father’s use of her mental disorder as material for his novel. Winter Light deals with faith, but placed at the centre of the film is a cold pastor who can even be unnecessarily harsh and cruel. As Roger Ebert put it:
“There is more silence here than the silence of God. Tomas' late wife is wrapped in the silence of the grave. Tomas is silent to the need of the fisherman. He cannot respond to Marta's love except by stern silence and rejection. Fredrik, the church organist, is silent in the way he pays no attention to the service and wishes for it to be over. Those who are not silent, such as the fisherman and his wife, ask for help and receive none.
But then there is Algot, the crooked sexton. He alone of all these people seems to have given more thought to the suffering of Christ than to his own suffering. His insights into Christ's passion are convincing and empathetic, but the pastor cannot hear him, is wrapped in his own cold indifference.” 
Even The Seventh Seal is not really about the existence of a God. 1 of the 1st images we associate with the film may be the knight playing chess with Death, but Antonius Block isn’t the centre or the only important character of the film. The Seventh Seal must be understood by placing him next to his squire Jons and Jof the actor, both of whom live instead of wasting time searching for answers. Ingmar Bergman’s view is most manifest in the character of Jons, who appears realistic and sceptical, even mocking and cynical, and doesn’t bother himself with metaphysical questions, but throughout the story, we see him act and help others. His actions make Antonius Block’s questions meaningless. The knight’s too wrapped up in himself, till the end. 
I think Ingmar Bergman’s the greatest of filmmakers, because of his mastery of techniques and understanding of human beings, and more importantly, because of his vision and humanity. 

I forgot to mention that I am now back in Oslo for the summer :D 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Hour of the Wolf

1/ Wikipedia says Hour of the Wolf is part of a trilogy with Shame and The Passion of Anna. I see it as a companion-piece to Persona
2/ At the centre of Persona is Elisabet, an actress who casts off her role as a wife and as a mother, withdraws into herself and refuses to speak. In Hour of the Wolf, there is also an artist—Johan Borg is a painter who lives on a remote island and struggles with his own demons. In Persona, Elisabet slowly takes over Alma, her nurse—the 2 women merge into 1. In Hour of the Wolf, Johan slowly loses grasp of reality, becoming more and more insane, and after a while his loving wife Alma also starts to see his demons.   
3/ Both films remind us they’re a film: Persona starts with a film projector and a series of images like cartoons and silent films; Hour of the Wolf starts with the voice of Ingmar Bergman, over the opening credits, giving instructions to his crew. However, Hour of the Wolf creates the illusion of a real story by stating that it’s based on Johan’s diary and his wife’s account of what happened. Then Alma speaks to the camera as though telling the story to a documentary filmmaker. 
4/ Robin Wood points out, in his essay “The World Without, the World Within”: 
“… In view of his often expressed admiration for Fellini the film’s close relationship in subject, structure and method to Giulietta degli Spiriti is perhaps not surprising, any more than is its complementary self-sufficiency (Bergman clearly needn’t fear accusations of plagiarism). What is surprising is Bergman’s use of the traditions of the American horror film, from Whale and Browning to Hitchcock. Not only does the Birdman (as Tom Milne has pointed out) bear an unmistakable resemblance to Lugosi’s Dracula, but the face of Baron von Merkens, especially when photographed from below, as at the dinner party, distinctly recalls in its contours Karloff’s original Frankenstein creation. The minuscule but apparently human Tamino in the Birdman’s ‘Magic Flute’ performance recalls Ernest Thesiger’s homunculi in The Bride of Frankenstein. The general framework, with an outsider being initiated into a close-knit, isolated and highly abnormal society, and especially the ending, where in the darkness and mud its members hideously exact a communal vengeance, suggest Freaks. The old woman who peels off her face to reveal a decomposing skull and gaping eye-sockets evokes at once the 2 Wax Museum films and Mrs Bates in Psycho. The pecking and jabbing Birdman suggests both Psycho and The Birds, and the shot of von Sydow passing through a corridor thick with sparrows and other wild birds looks like overt reference (hesitate as one is to associate such seemingly incompatible directors). There are further more generalized references: the castle interiors, for instance, especially in the later sequences, are strongly reminiscent of Hollywood Gothic, from Whale to Corman; the ‘cannibal’ family suggests vampires, particularly in the way the lips of the father-figure’s huge mouth draw back, and there is a reference to their ‘fangs’ during the nightmarishly edgy and disquieting dinner-table conversations.” 
5/ Hour of the Wolf can also be seen as a companion-piece to Through a Glass Darkly, in which it’s not a male character but a female character who struggles with mental illness—Karin, played by Harriet Andersson, has schizophrenia. The sane, loving and patient husband in the film is played by Max von Sydow, who in Hour of the Wolf sees demons and can’t distinguish between reality and hallucinations. In both films, the loving spouse can do nothing to help. 
6/ Robin Wood argues: 
“Some have seen those demons as representing the artist’s imaginative creations over which, Frankenstein-like, he loses control; or as the side of his personality out of which his art develops. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point is made quite unequivocally that the demons are inimical to artistic creation—their emergence in the 1st stretches of the film corresponds to a decline in Johan’s art. What is more, their destruction of him as an artist is closely paralleled by their destruction of his marriage relationship.” 
7/ In a section about Wild Strawberries in the essay “Sexual Themes in the Films of Ingmar Bergman”, Richard A. Blake, S. J. writes: 
“[In a dream], [Isak Borg] is asked to examine a woman whom he pronounces dead. With that she opens her eyes and laughs derisively in his face. He has so drawn away from woman, from the source of life, that he has lost his ability even to distinguish life from death…” 
There’s a similar scene in Hour of the Wolf—Johan walks to the naked corpse of his former lover Veronica Vogler and touches her body, then she wakes up and laughs in his face. Does it happen? Do the people in the castle even exist? That doesn’t matter. The point is the humiliation, as in Wild Strawberries. However, if in Wild Strawberries, it only shows that Isak Borg, despite his career success, is a failure as a person, and little more than a dead man, in Hour of the Wolf, the scene culminates in Johan’s ultimate humiliation—everything is shattered, and Johan now knows he cannot defeat the destructive forces within him. He must surrender.

Robin Wood on the opening sequence of Persona

How do you interpret the opening and closing sequence of Persona? And the fact that in the middle of the film, the frame freezes, cracks and burns?
Persona is a film that constantly reminds the audience that it’s a film. Also, as I wrote in the earlier post, through Elisabet Vogler, Ingmar Bergman expresses his own concerns and anguish as an artist, and his inability to respond authentically to large catastrophes.
I’m currently reading Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky with Joseph F. Hill, and here’s another interpretation, in Robin Wood’s essay “The World Without, the World Within”:
“… Bergman himself acknowledges the crudeness of art beside the complexities of existence in the film’s very 1st images. After the film projector shots, we see a silent cartoon of a fat woman in a bathing costume washing her hands, framed as on a screen; the cartoon flickers jerkily, breaks down, starts up again. Bergman then cuts in a shot of real hands washing themselves, the image now filling the whole screen (i.e. the cartoon is shown as a film, the hands as reality). A way, surely, of admitting, at the outset of 1 of the most complex films ever made, that, beside reality, art is as crude as the jerky movements of the cartoon beside of the flexible, organic motions of the real hands?

More than this, the breakdown constitutes Bergman’s admission that he can’t resolve the problems the film has raised. The last 3rd of Persona gives us a series of scenes of uncertain reality and uncertain chronology; all are closely related, thematically, to the concerns established earlier in the film, and all carry us deeper into the sensation of breakdown due to full exposure to the unresolvable or unendurable. They come across as a series of tentative sketches, which are from tentative in realization, of possibilities offered by the director who, because of his own uncertainties, denies himself the narrative artist’s right to dogmatize, to say ‘This is what happened next.’ Given the universal implications of the subject matter, the fact that we can no longer think in simple terms about ‘Alma and Elizabeth’ (despite the fact that the characters keep their fictional identities to the end) compels us to feel what we are shown with unusual immediacy, as if naked experience were being communicated direct, instead of being clothed with the customary medium of characters-and-narrative. It is not a question of vagueness nor of artistic abdication, but of an extreme and rigorous honesty; each sequence is realized with the same intensity and precision that characterized the straight narrative of the 1st half…”

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

You, the Living and Roy Andersson

It’s the same for everybody—once in a while there’s a highly acclaimed film that you think is mere rubbish. I think The Tree of Life is all style and no substance. I think Boyhood is no good and would not have got much attention if the film hadn’t been filmed over a course of 12 years. I think Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is weird, pointless, nonsensical for the sake of being strange and obscure. Etc. Etc. 

After Songs from the Second Floor, I’ve just watched You, the Living, another film by Roy Andersson, 1 of today’s most acclaimed Swedish directors. I now know his style. Almost no camera movement—in Songs from the Second Floor, the 1st time is when the camera’s in a moving car that is stuck in traffic jam, and the 2nd time is when the camera tracks a man walking at a train station (did I miss anything?). Almost all shots are wide shots. In a scene, the camera stays in exactly 1 place*, showing the entire place and all the people in it, generally looking towards or at the camera—no camera movement, no other angle, no close-up, no shot of what a character is looking at. It feels like watching theatre. Then another scene, again with the camera staying in 1 place. Then another scene. Then another scene. Consistent throughout the film. In You, the Living, each time there’s a new scene, we see new characters. According to Wikipedia, the film is a succession of 50 short sketches.
It feels like the director imposed constraints on himself in order to have a style.
Frankly I think his films are interesting only in that he makes films unlike anyone else; the films in themselves are not interesting. Because of the consistent stationary camera and invariable camera angles, his films lack a kind of rhythm that would make them absorbing. Sometimes there’s too much repetitiveness, and Roy Andersson goes for a tragicomic undertone and likes to employ deadpan humour but sometimes a joke carries on for so long that it’s no longer amusing. The film gets tiresome after a while.
More importantly, there’s a lack of real drama. I see that he depicts a surreal world that reflects modern society’s problems. I see that he wants to make a point about life (the 2 films are part of the Living trilogy). There are a few funny moments, and a few moments that make you think, but generally most individual scenes are not compelling, and they don’t build to anything.
Shall I watch the last film in the Living trilogy? Probably not. I’ve seen enough.

*: An exception in You, the Living is the scene of the moving house, made up of 2 shots from opposite directions.


Note on the blog: You probably have noticed that my blog is now turning into a film blog. Looks like it’s a film blog now. For a while I’ve been planning a Life and Fate read-along for June, and have started reading it, but somehow couldn’t quite get into it, and these days I’m focusing on films, so I don’t know what’s happening but for now the read-along is delayed. My apologies.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The best 10 films of every decade from the 1940s to 2000s- new list

My choice. 
Why? Because I love lists. 

- The 40s:
The Great Dictator (1940)
Casablanca (1942)
Gaslight (1944)
Brief Encounter (1945)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Killers (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Heiress (1949)

- The 50s:
All about Eve (1950)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 
12 Angry Men (1957)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
The Seventh Seal (1957) 
Vertigo (1958)

- The 60s:
The Apartment (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Winter Light (1963) 
8 ½ (1963)
The Woman in the Dunes (1964) 
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
My Fair Lady (1964)
Persona (1966)
Blowup (1966)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

- The 70s:
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Cries and Whispers (1972) 
The Godfather (1972)
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
The Godfather Part II (1974) 
The Conversation (1974)
Chinatown (1974) 
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Annie Hall (1977)

- The 80s:
Raging Bull (1980)
On Golden Pond (1981)
Sophie's Choice (1982) 
Ran (1985)
Rain Man (1988)
The Accused (1988)
My Left Foot (1989)
Monsieur Hire (1989)
Sex, Lies, and Videotapes (1989)
Dekalog (1989) 

- The 90s:
Goodfellas (1990)
The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Raise the Red Lanterns (1991)
Three Colours: Blue (1993) 
To Live (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994) 
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 
Happy Together (1997)
Festen (1998) 

- The 2000s:
Memento (2000)
The Pianist (2002)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)
2046 (2004)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Babel (2006) 
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007)

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Songs from the Second Floor

Roy Andersson is 1 of today’s most acclaimed Swedish directors. I’ve just watched Sånger från andra våningen, or Songs from the Second Floor
This is 1 of the most boring films I’ve ever seen—dreary and tedious with only a few moments of absurd humour. The long takes. The invariability of camera angles and shot sizes. The lack of camera movement. The “consistent” slowness. The lack of some kind of rhythm. The repetitiveness. The dry and bleak view. The black comedy that can be amusing at the beginning but becomes tiresome after a while. The incoherence.
The film is not devoid of ideas, it simply lacks the power to captivate.
It’s amusing that the man who made Sånger från andra våningen calls Ingmar Bergman a boring hack*
Maybe I’d like another of Andersson’s film.

*: This is something I wouldn’t even bother to refute. Ingmar Bergman’s genius speaks for itself.  

Friday, 16 June 2017

Ingmar Bergman's Persona

I’ve just watched Persona, making it the 12th Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen (after Autumn Sonata, The Silence, All These Women, Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Seventh Seal—in that order). And it’s the most difficult.

Some critic has said, if Wild Strawberries is the most plagiarised Ingmar Bergman film and The Seventh Seal is the most parodied, Persona is the one most written about. It’s a rich, complex and ambiguous film with multiple layers that can be interpreted in lots of different ways.
The most discernible meaning is that, like Through a Glass Darkly, Persona seems to reflect the director’s own concerns and anguish as an artist. In Through a Glass Darkly, the writer uses the personal experience of someone close to him (his own daughter) for his art. In Persona, Elisabet, an actress, feels like, as an artist, she can’t respond authentically to large tragedies like the Vietnam War or the Holocaust. Her art is helpless.
At the same time, everything seems false—Elisabet’s acting even when she’s not acting. Her being a wife and then a mother is just a persona; she’s tired; her refusal to speak is her way of discarding it all.
(It’s interesting to note that the only thing that can make her talk is fear, when Alma threatens to throw boiling water at her—like fear is the only real feeling left, the only trace of vitality in Elisabet).
That’s the most obvious meaning. How do you understand the film as a whole? 1 interpretation is literal—as we see in the film, Elisabet is silent and her nurse Alma does all the talking, then slowly she talks for Elisabet and starts to imagine herself as her. Alma is weak. When she lets her patient get hurt by the broken glass and later hits her, she allows anger, resentment and the sense of betrayal take over her and reveal her weakness—she abandons the discipline of her profession. Then she lets Elisabet take over her being, even when she tries to assert her own separate identity. The 2 merge into 1.

Another interpretation is that the 2 are the same person—Elisabet is the external person and Alma is the inner turmoil, the self-conflict and self-loathing, the 2 of them making up the persona (Alma in Spanish means soul). At the beginning of the film, we see the images of them blending and morphing into each other. Near the end, their faces are merged. Elisabet studying Alma is her looking inward and examining her own life, her own dreams and longings, her own fears, her own selfishness, hypocrisy and cruelty. Alma’s story of the abortion is a denial, a way of hiding from the truth that she (Elisabet, the external person) has a son.
Both interpretations make sense. 
But then what do you think about the ending? Why is it that we see Elisabet packing but afterwards only Alma gets on the bus, apparently carrying the same suitcase? What’s up with the creepy giant sculpture at the end? What do you make of the opening sequence of Persona
I perhaps would never completely understand it, but this is a wonderful film.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On discovering Ingmar Bergman

I don’t know how to write about Ingmar Bergman.
There are good directors, there are great directors, and above them are the masters, the maestros, the visionaries. A few years ago I discovered Federico Fellini, for example. I had always loved films, but it was 8 ½ that made me truly realise the power of the medium and what a film could do, and forever changed my view on cinema.
Now I’ve found Ingmar Bergman.

This is a true artist, who deals with metaphysical questions, relationships, emotions, and human consciousness. He’s serious, very serious, without being solemn or lacking humour; he explores resentment, hatred, selfishness, anguish and despair without lacking compassion and humanity. My favourite Wild Strawberries is about a professor’s road trip, mixed with memories and dreams, during which he thinks about his career and relationships and reflects on his whole life. There were some failures, some resentments and regrets, but the trip helps him understand his daughter-in-law, who earlier finds him egotistical and cold, and understand himself, bringing them closer to each other. Ending with acceptance and a peaceful dream, it’s a compassionate and uplifting film. The most interesting part is that Wild Strawberries doesn’t employ the conventional flashbacks; instead, we see the old professor walking into his memories and watching (even seeing things his younger self couldn’t have seen), which Woody Allen copied. As Ingmar Bergman himself put it, “So it struck me — what if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives.” That is the idea behind Wild Strawberries.

Another favourite of mine is The Seventh Seal. The film tends to be associated with the iconic image of a medieval knight playing chess with Death, but it’s not really about the game, nor Death. It’s not even about God and religion. The Seventh Seal is about Antonius Block’s quest for meaning and his search for answers, not only answers to the questions he does ask, about God, the devil, knowledge and a sense of purpose, but also the meaning of everything—the plague, people’s extreme behaviours and the meaning of life. He prays, he talks to a priest, he joins the crusades, he reaches out to anyone who may know, from Death to the woman accused of being a witch and causing the plague, he looks for something certain and definite, he yearns for knowledge and wants to do a meaningful deed. In the end, the knight gets no answer, as there is none, but he finds meaning—he creates it himself. Is Antonius Block comfortable with dying at last? I don’t know. But I know, and he knows, that if he loses to Death in the chess game, he wins somewhere else.
Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light are also great films. Both touch on the theme of God’s silence, the question haunting Ingmar Bergman, who was brought up in a religious household with his father as a Lutheran minister. Winter Light is in a way a response to Through a Glass Darkly—a quote from the earlier film, about love as proof of God’s existence, is repeated, word-by-word, and mocked in the later film. However, these films are so deeply affecting to someone like me, not brought up religious and never really bothered about a higher power, because they’re not about God’s indifference or nonexistence as much as about the coldness of human beings, embodied by a character in both films portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand, and people’s inability to love, to connect to each other and to say something truly meaningful.
In Through a Glass Darkly, there’s a scene in which the writer talks to his son-in-law about his suicide attempt, but what we see is not the suicide attempt and his actions then, but the man’s face as he recalls and tells the story and the son-in-law face as he listens to it for the 1st time. Ingmar Bergman stays on the characters’ faces when another director might change to another image for fear of boring the audience. He’s especially interested in the study of the human face. He constantly uses close-ups. He sometimes juxtaposes faces on the screen to show characters talking without facing each other, conveying the feeling of loneliness or incommunicability. He sometimes lets a character look straight into the lens, and thus, directly at the audience.

His films are profound and thought-provoking. At the same time, Ingmar Bergman also shows what cinema could do and achieve. Before, I thought his films were just full of talk like plays, with nothing remarkable in visuals like Woody Allen’s films. I was wrong. His films are visually stunning, with lots of striking images such as the dream sequence with the handless clock in Wild Strawberries, Death’s appearance and the knight playing chess with him in The Seventh Seal, the king uprooting a tree and preparing for vengeance in The Virgin Spring, a woman mutilating herself and smearing her face with blood in Cries and Whispers, and so on. Ingmar Bergman didn’t merely tell stories and depict actions and relationships; he explored the inner life and human consciousness whilst playing with the visual medium and testing the possibilities of cinema.
Having discovered Ingmar Bergman, I’m now no longer the same.

A trip back to Victorian times

Abbey House Museum, Leeds. 
Photos taken by me. 

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