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Archive for the category “Film”

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Revisited in 2011

My experience with Atari 2600 has taught me how to deal with these things.

This evening, asteroid YU55 will pass by Earth, coming so close as to actually cross into the Moon’s orbit. I have seen the asteroid described as “the size of an aircraft carrier” (why not “the size of an average Wal-Mart”?). This event (which apparently presents no danger to life on Earth) is really quite amazing, in my opinion. It lets us imagine the type of mass extinction-level event that killed the dinosaurs and paved the way for the gradual rise of the mammals (including primates like you!). It is also a reminder of how tenuous life can be on a lonely little planet–we don’t even need anything from outer space to threaten us; we continue to do that to our own planet ourselves from within, even though it is the only one we have.

Frame from the Prelude to Melancholia

Also slightly disconcerting is how reminiscent this situation is to that in the film Melancholia, which I only viewed two weeks ago. [Disclaimer: I must say that I never imagined that I would ever again have any recourse to watch a Lars von Trier film after struggling through his previous horrifying fraud of an “art film”, but the lure of yet another treatment of an apocalyptic scenario was too strong to resist–the genre is somewhat of a delectatio morosa (or, perhaps, a gusto picaresco) for me.] The film, in any case, was so visually stunning and emotionally jarring that I felt that it at least warrants mentioning in reference to something. The maelstrom of the Richard Wagner soundtrack added to its intensity as well. I am not sure whether this film would be helpful or harmful for a person struggling through depression or related issues, so I best leave my tentative recommendation to those who consider themselves to be in possession of a robust state of mind.  Read more…

Ingmar Bergman, the ‘Solemn Swede’

Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) is considered by many prominent film directors and critics (and me) to be the greatest film-maker in cinema history.  He directed 63 films, from 1946-2003, and wrote 68 screenplays, including for all of his own films.  He was even more active as a theatre director, first in Malmö and then Stockholm, and initially directed many of his films only during the theatre’s ‘off-season’.  His films are often considered quite cerebral and sober, if not outright depressing (Bergman himself even said this in his last interview in 2004).  They often deal with existential questions of mortality, loneliness, religious faith, and family relationships.  However, there is always to be found intense emotion, and exploration and celebration of all aspects of the human condition.  His visual mastery and cinematography only adds to the profundity and intensity of his scripts.  In this post, I will rank and discuss 24 of his films, which I think should be considered his “best” 24.  The rest of his oeuvre is obscure, and difficult to find on the internet– either his early films of the ’40’s (the earliest movie of my list, from 1955, is actually his 15th), or productions made for Swedish television.  It was hard to decide on a specific ‘rank’ for each film, and it would be better to consider them to be grouped in ‘tiers’ of 3-5 films each.

1.  The Seventh Seal (1957)
I don’t think it is a cop-out to rank his most famous film as his best.  It was the first film that he was able to make with complete artistic and financial freedom, after the success of “Smiles of a Summer Night”.  It features Max von Sydow, in his first of 13 Bergman films, as returning crusader, Antonius Block, who competes against Death with a match of chess.  Gunnar Björnstrand, who appeared in 23 Bergman films, plays the devoted and rational squire, Jöns.  There are many things to enjoy about this film, and if, after viewing, you still do not fully appreciate it, consider more deeply how the characters themselves are part of an ongoing chess match (black vs. white).  In a 2004 interview, Bergman narrated the following: “Not a day has gone by in my life when I haven’t thought about death.  Or when the thought of death hasn’t touched me in some way.  I wrote a film about death.  It was “The Seventh Seal”.  It was excellent therapy.  Sometimes the things you do, the things you write can be therapeutic.  Is this what death is like?  You’re a light that’s lit.  And then one day it’s extinguished.  There’s nothing, no flame left.  So death is nothing to be afraid of.  It’s something exceedingly merciful.  Something magnificent.  So having understood that, I lived a contented life…”
2.  Fanny and Alexander (1982)

This colorful epic was both Bergman’s return to Sweden after a self-imposed 8-year exile (he fled in a rage after being falsely accused of tax evasion and suffered a breakdown), and his last feature film (though he continued to make television films and direct the theatre).  Max von Sydow is still furious to this day for losing out on the role of the evil bishop because his agent rejected the part without consulting the actor.  Liv Ullman also greatly upset Bergman by turning down the role of Emilie Ekdahl, which he called her “birthright”.  It was the last of Björnstrand’s performances in a Bergman film (he died two years later).  The richness of the scenery, costumes, and characters make this the liveliest, and most life-affirming, of Bergman’s work.  There is a feature-length documentary, “The Making of Fanny and Alexander”, which shows the master happily at work behind the scenes.

3.  Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

This was one of three of his films to win the ‘Best Foreign Film’ Oscar.  It is also the first of at least 6 of his films to be shot on the captivating island of Fårö, where he would buy a house and live the rest of his life (except during his exile).  This film is the first of an apparent trilogy of ‘faith’, in which the central theme is the existence of God.  It is full of religious imagery, and ends with a powerful discussion between the Father and the Son characters, in which the Father gives an account of the ‘Argument from Love’ to reassure the fears of the Son.  “Suddenly the emptiness turns into abundance, and despair into life.  It’s like a reprieve…”  The disconnect between these words and all of the preceding action only confirms the ambiguity of the film’s message (and our place in the world).

4.  Persona (1966)

Bergman considered this one of his three best films (along with “Cries & Whispers” and “Winter Light”).  It is his most ‘experimental’ film, and also marks the first appearance by Liv Ullman, who would appear in 10 of his films (and gave birth to a child fathered by Bergman the same year of this film–the child herself, Linn Ullman, would later appear in two of her father’s films).  The action is almost entirely limited to the haunting dialogue of Ullman’s and Bibi Andersson’s characters on an isolated house on Fårö Island.  There are many themes and interpretations either overt or just under the surface, and I cannot say that I understand it all.  But it is psychologically intense and almost breathtaking at times.

5.  Winter Light (1963)

The second of his ‘faith trilogy’, this is also one of Bergman’s most personal.  His father was a Lutheran minister and strict disciplinarian, though the younger Bergman lost his faith at the age of 8.  It was only during the making of this movie that Bergman came to terms with his guilty conscience for his lack of faith.  Gunnar Björnstrand delivers another understated, but excellent performance as the minister of a small church who is undergoing a deep existential crisis.  The dialogue between Björnstrand and another Bergman regular, Ingrid Thulin (who appeared in 10 films), is powerful and shows the depth of the characters.  The hunchbacked church ward questions the minister about the Passion of Christ, wondering how such relatively short physical suffering could have redeemed the world.  He realizes that God’s rejection and silence towards his Son must have been the greatest part of the suffering, to which the minister can only weakly reply, “Yes.”  The film, which began with the ending of a noon mass, ends with the beginning of an afternoon mass with Thulin as the only attendee.

6.  Shame (1968)

This is Bergman’s only ‘war’ film.  Two characters, von Sydow and Ullman, live on a quiet farm on an island and occasionally sell fresh berries on the mainland.  They find themselves caught in the middle of a civil war which knocks them out of their blissful ignorance of the outside world.  There is great black and white cinematography, which is an underrated mainstay of all Bergman films.

7.  Wild Strawberries (1957)

This masterpiece was released only 10 months after The Seventh Seal.  It stars Victor Sjöström (one of Bergman’s greatest film influences), in his last performance, as a 78-year-old, grumpy and egotistical doctor traveling to across the country to receive an honorary degree from his old  university.  Along the way he meets vivacious young hitchhikers, reminisces about his old childhood country house, visits his ancient and pitiless mother, has dreams and nightmares, thinks about his own death, and finds himself in the middle of a conflict between his estranged son and his daughter-in-law.  By the time he arrives to receive his award, he has already changed quite a bit, as have we, the viewers.

8.  Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

This five-hour production was originally a six-part TV miniseries, which won many awards and also dramatically increased the divorce rate and number of marriage consultants in Sweden (according to Bergman).  It portrays the changing relationship of husband and wife, Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman, over the course of 10 years.  Ullman especially delivers a typically impressive performance, which Bergman highlights with his penchant for facial close-ups and intense dialogue.

9.  The Virgin Spring (1960)

This medieval morality play/anti-fairy tale was the first ‘Best Foreign Film’ winner of his career.  Von Sydow leads a great cast as the wealthy and doting father of a spoiled young girl.  The girl goes off with her jealous maid (or half-sister?) into the forest to deliver flowers to the church.  The beautiful landscapes and the typical use of shadows in the forest add to the mystery and power of the film.  Director Ang Lee has cited this film as the reason he wanted to be a film-maker.

10.  Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

This was Bergman’s first worldwide success, and also one of his most light-hearted films.  A funny and colorful series of relationships plays on similar themes as “A Midsummer Night’s Eve”.  There is no way you cannot enjoy this one.

11.  Cries & Whispers (1972)

The terminal condition of Agnes (Harriet Andersson, who was the first of Bergman’s many affairs with his leading actresses) leads to a bubbling up of intense, long-suppressed emotions from her two sisters (Ullman and Thulin), as well as the housemaid.  Exquisite performances all around, but don’t watch it if you are going through your own emotional issues (advice that could possibly be applied to most Bergman films, though they are just as likely to help your condition as to make it worse).

12.  Autumn Sonata (1978)

This is the only appearance of famous actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in Ingmar Bergman’s films.  She plays a professional pianist and absentee mother of Ullman.  Her visit to see her daughter stirs up a whirlwind of emotion, as well as some great music.

13.  The Magician (1958)

Von Sydow has an impressive screen presence even with hardly any dialogue.  He is the central figure in a struggling group of traveling magicians.  The local gentry, led by rational doctor Björnstrand, decide to expose the group as charlatans, but with unintended results.  Great all-around performances by everyone (as usual).

14.  The Passion of Anna (1969)

Von Sydow is a solitary widower on Fårö, where he encounters another local couple (Josephson and Andersson) and their relative, Anna (Ullman).  Anna is a disturbed person, and at one point she recounts a dream she had, which is actually a continuation of the vague ending of Bergman’s previous movie, “Shame”.

15.  Hour of the Wolf (1968)

This has been called Bergman’s only horror film, though it hardly qualifies for such a category.  It is quite macabre, but in an almost comical way.  It is mostly an experiment in light surrealism, while also exploring his common themes of madness and human relationships.

16.  Saraband (2003)

This TV production was the sequel to “Scenes from a Marriage”, and also Bergman’s last work (he was 84 when he made it).  It is led by typically strong performances by the now-aged Josephson and Ullman, and has a great soundtrack of Bach’s Cello Suites.

17.  The Silence (1963)

The last of the ‘faith trilogy’ and, to me (obviously) the weakest.  Two estranged sisters travel through a strangely foreign country with the son of one of the sisters.  They all interact with each other in unnatural ways, and ultimately the message is meant to be a sort of ‘follow-up’ to the implications of his conclusions in the first two films of the trilogy–‘the silence of God.’

18.  After the Rehearsal (1984)

An elderly theatre director (Josephson) is confronted backstage by his young new lead actress (Lena Olin).  During the conversation, he reminisces about similar a past dialogue with the mother of the actress (Thulin).

19.  The Rite (1969)

This strange piece is symbolic of the act of drama itself, as a small acting troupe is summoned before a bureaucrat in a foreign country to explain a controversial performance they have just delivered on the stage.  The climax emphasizes the ancient Dionysian power of drama.

20.  The Magic Flute (1975)

The Mozart opera was directed by Bergman in a nice TV production.  The sets and cast are great, and the minor changes Bergman makes actually improve the story, in my opinion (such as making Sarastro the father, rather than the lover, of Pamina).

21.  So Close to Life (1958)

Three women share a room in the hospital maternity ward, each in a different stage of life-giving.  The three lead actresses are typically great, but the story is a bit weak/shallow for Bergman.

22.  Face to Face (1976)

Ullman plays (yet again) a troubled character, this time a psychiatrist who is herself having a mental/nervous breakdown.  Josephson is her colleague/husband.

23.  All These Women (1964)

The inferiority of this film cannot be held against Bergman, since it was written by him and Erland Josephson to thumb their noses at critics.  A Fellini-esque harem of women surrounds a mysterious cello maestro, and a pretentious critic aspires to gain access to the maestro to write his biography.  Taken as a joke, it is watchable.

24.  The Touch (1971)

This one, however (as far as I can tell), was not a joke, and is not watchable.  It is one of two English-language films made by Bergman, and even von Sydow and Bibi Andersson cannot rescue it from the depths of mediocrity wrought by the unfortunate (and out-of-his-league) presence of Elliott Gould.

Max von Sydow in “The Virgin Spring”

The Tree of Terrence Malick

How fortunate we are, cinephiles, to experience the works of Terrence Malick–auteur, philosopher, and man of mystery. After writing/directing Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 70’s, he vanished from the world of film for 20 years. Since 1998, he has completed The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life, and is already finishing two more highly-anticipated films that will appear in the next two years. Malick is also famously camera-shy, giving no interviews, allowing no photographs, and refusing to comment on his work. What we do know about him is that he is from Texas, he studied philosophy at Harvard and then Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and translated a minor work of Heidegger as part of his thesis. I will discuss (rather: speculate on) this in greater detail momentarily. Each of his movies is seemingly more profound and beautifully photographed than the last, with the only cause for debate being in what order to rank the movies. I will present my personal rankings, as well as some quick thoughts about each movie.

1.  The Thin Red Line (1998)

There are several reasons I love this movie. It is Malick’s only war movie, and represents his triumphant return to cinema after two decades. The cast is stacked with big name actors, a fact which only Malick himself was unimpressed with. There is reportedly something like 20 hours of footage for this movie, which was edited down to 3 (there is an online petition for the release of Malick’s first 6-hour cut that was rejected by the studio). Apparently, within that footage lie entire undeveloped stories that did not make it into the final cut. Adrien Brody (not exactly the biggest star in 1998, or even today) only agreed to do the film because he thought he was one of the main characters, CPL Fife; he only had about 10 minutes of screentime and three lines of dialogue in the final cut. Malick also did not hesitate to leave entirely on the cutting-room floor the presence of such typically-headlining actors as Gary Oldman, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, and Bill Pullman. George Clooney made a two-minute appearance in the final minutes of the movie. Detractors of the film will show their disdain by saying things like “the grass was the main character.” TTRL also had the dubious distinction of being the second big-budget WWII film in the same year, and competing for the same Oscars. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was almost universally recognized as the better movie, and took home all the awards. I think there is no doubt that SPR is a good war movie, with good performances, and which elicits an emotional connection from multiple generations of audiences– Spielberg’s specialty.  But TTRL is more profound, and more truthful, by a couple orders of magnitude. It is gorgeously filmed, Malick’s specialty, though perhaps it is not his absolute best work in this area. The Hans Zimmer soundtrack is good, but the best songs are the joyful patois chantings of the local Melanesian villagers. The dialogue is somewhat sparse, interlaid with interior monologue of the characters’ true thoughts (again, a Malick trademark). The film opens with beautiful images of life on a utopian Pacific island. The inner monologue, from Jim Caviezel’s PVT Witt, the film’s ostensible protagonist, informs us about the themes of the film: war (in nature and in man) and death (in war, but representing all life).

What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two? I remember my mother when she was dying. Looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her is she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it. I wondered how it’d be when I died. What it’d be like to know that this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did. With the same…calm. ‘Cos that’s where it’s hidden– the immortality I hadn’t seen.

Witt represents grace and redemption in the movie. He senses his fate and wants only to find the courage to accept it. In his final scene, time seems to come to a halt– his life flashing before his eyes?– as he begins to understand the enormity, and the inconsequentiality, of his death. The real-life juxtaposition of these themes is interesting, as between Caviezel and Sean Penn, for example. In the Malick-themed documentary, Rosy-Fingered Dawn, Sean Penn describes how the relationship between 1SG Walsh and PVT Witt mirrored the one between the two actors. Penn asked Caviezel what drove him as a person, to which he was given the reply “Jesus Christ.” Penn was skeptical about his colleague’s faith, and saw nothing but cynicism in the world. One of my remaining questions about Malick’s films is how he justifies his philosophical beliefs (how much does he actually follow Heidegger, for example?) with his apparent Christianity (of the Protestant variety). I am not nearly well-read enough in Heidegger at this point, but if I understand it correctly, Heidegger describes the natural anxiety that accompanies our being thrust into the world and awaiting certain death; his answer to this anxiety is not to ignore it and retreat to the unthinking mass of men (the ‘They’), but rather to use this insight to give meaning and purpose to our life’s ‘projects’. These projects are free from conformity or outside opinions, and help us to embrace our freedom and purpose in the world. PVT Witt had a similar purpose, to help bring comfort to the suffering in the world, and to sacrifice himself with grace and calmness. Another main sub-plot is Ben Chaplin’s PVT Bell reminiscing about his wife, for whom he had already sacrificed his career. Their love scenes are narrated with inner monologue, and it is he who reads the final lines as the ship leaves the island, the scene of tragedy and death, which already becomes a memory and a dream for the survivors (in fact, the only thing that matters, in the end, is that they have survived):

Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. The friend. Darkness from light. Strife from love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.

2.  Badlands (1973)

This is quite an achievement for a directorial debut. Martin Sheen’s Kit Carruthers, a dispassionate killer, is perhaps his best career performance. The film suspends any and all moral judgment of the incomprehensible murders, and makes the murderer a refreshingly sympathetic character. The bubble-gum-pop sound of the interior monologue by Sissy Spacek only adds to this mood, as does the addictive soundtrack highlighted by Carl Orff’s music-class, zylophone-driven ‘Gassenhauer’. The exact mood, monologue, and song (slightly modified by Hans Zimmer) was copied in tribute in Tony Scott’s (and Tarantino’s) True Romance. The entire film oozes simple perfection, and should be enjoyed without any reductive or over-thinking discussion.

3.  The Tree of Life (2011)

While this qualified as a rare cinema experience for me (I only watch about one movie per year in the cinema), it is almost too soon for me to comment on it. I claim to have no certain understanding of much of it, and plan on a second viewing in the near future. I do know that this is, to date, the most autobiographical Malick piece, and one which he was writing and planning for several decades. The younger brother who mysteriously dies is clearly based on Malick’s own younger brother. It seems that the brother was a classical guitarist who went to Spain to study under the great Segovia, fell into desperation over his musical abilities, and broke his own hands. He killed himself sometime later, and the older Malick maintains a sense of guilt and questioning that manifests itself in TToL. Sean Penn’s character (though the actor himself has stated his confusion over his meaning) inhabits a modern world of unnatural buildings, and is overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic youth in 1950’s Texas suburbia. The photography is exquisite, and the long sequences of the birth and early life of the universe, derided by some critics, is actually one of my favorite aspects of the movie. Malick shows, once again, no lack of fortitude in making his own artistic vision however he wants, and the result is sublime, to be digested slowly, perhaps over a lifetime.

4.  The New World (2005)

I liked Colin Farrell’s John Smith. I think his haunting and taciturn portrayal is much better than he gets credit for. The visual images in this film are possibly the best of Malick, and it makes me long for some non-existent pre-European New World, free of disease, conflict, and death. It is like the Pacific island of TTRL, both before and after the European settlers (and American soldiers) invade. The opening sequence with the forest primeval and the growing waters of the Rhine, rendered by Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel of Das Rheingold, is moving. Overall, the film strangely feels too long, a rare trait for Malick’s work. It seems like he was trying to be too conventional, or please somebody in a studio, and lost some of the Malick magic. What remains is still better than the best possible work of lesser directors.

5.  Days of Heaven (1978)

Visually beautiful, called his masterpiece by some, but not my favorite. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone also did not impress me (though there are some who will think I’m crazy for such heresy). Since I don’t know what else to say about it, I will relate an anecdote about why Morricone is overrated. Two weeks ago in Vicenza, there was a big celebration planned by the city for the completion of the restoration of the Palladian Basilica in the central piazza. It is a monumental piece of architecture, and for four years it has been surrounded by scaffolding (and on its backside it is still being restored, though no one seems to care about this annoying detail). The party included a concert given by maestro Morricone on Sunday night. The maestro requested that all the shops in the city center be closed the entire weekend so that: 1) his rehearsals could proceed without disturbance on Saturday, and 2) so that no one will be distracted by such things as buying shoes and ice cream in Italy on the same weekend of a free concert by Morricone.

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