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 © 2019 by James Clark

      Back in 2011, when (at Wonders in the Dark) I foolishly assumed that Ingmar Bergman was one of a small horde of filmmakers (including, Billy Wilder) after something very new, I was years away from comprehending what he had in store. Over the past year or so, I’ve wakened up a bit, to appreciate the momentousness of the range of his concerns, a range, despite good-will, leaving no impact where it really matters.

A constellation of conundrums of intent began to dawn upon me; and putting in place their dynamic has been quite a ride. But the elusiveness of the innovation has proven to be only slightly recognizable. Therefore, it’s time again to return to Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), which provides remarkable immediacy to those staying the course.

    Whereas oracular figures—in Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Winter Light (1963) and The Magician (1958)—would afford the thrill of seeing fit to trip up facile enforcement, the balance of power in the narratives remains so weighted against extreme change that understanding would almost absolutely trickle away. Similarly, the mea culpa, in Fanny and Alexander (1982), being brought to bear in terms of “the little world” (and its nagging spoiler, “the big world”), tends to be submerged by the Niagara of sturdy foibles. Then there is the perhaps too vague volcano of acrobatics and juggling, stemming from, The Seventh Seal (1957), and flashing over many subsequent entanglements the dark potency of which being lost on most viewers. The recherche dialogue between Eva and her muse, in Autumn Sonata (1978)—though a crucial clearing—becomes a victim of that protagonist’s hysterical self-importance. The action of silence (most salient in Persona [1966] but also on the move in, The Silence [1963] and Cries and Whispers [1972]), tends to be upstaged by the strong suit of survival. A mystical consummation, like that seen in, Wild Strawberries (1957), tends to maintain the status quo even more rigorously. Therefore, our second attention to this visceral production must be intent upon illuminating, as never before, the sensual structures and energies of players who live or die upon a cosmic scale. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

       I can’t, for the life of me, regard Ingmar Bergman’s film, Autumn Sonata (1978), as the flat-out domestic clash others choose to believe. What is the real fascination and entry-point here, to me, is that the film’s protagonist, Eva, played by actress Liv Ullman, is made to look like a carbon copy of the actress, Ingrid Thulin, in the Bergman film, Winter Light (1963). Whereas Ullman generally holds forth as a flakey dreamboat, Thulin forever relishes looking and behaving scary. And, moreover, the latter’s performance, as an off again/ on again lover of a rural clergyman, looms very large in Autumn Sonata. Arguably the most contentious and demanding of all Bergman’s films, Winter Light needs to be carefully fathomed, if nonsensical soap opera is to be avoided here. Thulin’s Marta, in that 60’s puzzler, perseveres as a fatuous humanitarian infatuated by an angst-ridden atheist priest. The latter has come to detest her ugly body and her even more ugly attitude. But he is very fortunate that the sexton of the church (a retired, hunchback railway man, named Algot) is a far deeper student of spirit than he (which is to say, a far better acrobat)—quixotically larding his sense of Jesus as a misunderstood, sensualist mortal (mortal, period)—and, as such, a slow-dawning supplement of the so-called expert’s long-held, heretical orientation. It is this ironic eventuality of risk-taking which opens the door to Marta being still in the picture and now a beneficiary of a regime of that “juggling” of opposites so dear to the vision of this film series.

The return of the aura of Marta within the orbit of Eva effectively messes up the facile supposition that we are here to deal with the dynamics and possible salvation of a family. One other inspired touch, apropos of the elephant in the parlor, is the choice of career-long wayward Ullman’s adversary, namely, Hollywood star, Ingrid Bergman, a career-long, banner sentimentalist, in her swan song, as Eva’s mother—light years away from all her other pleasing roles confirming eternal feminine wisdom. As if to lend a hand in clarifying where these rather abstruse landmines lurk, the first scene ignores “timeless truths,” in order to broach something quite new. Eva is married to another clueless preacher, Viktor (no less), who idolizes her imaginative—Algot-like—zeal, and his is the sermon of the day. With Eva at her desk in the blurred distance, there is Viktor, just outside the study, addressing us, in close-up, with some good news, pertaining to her apparently significant, individual source of reflection, salient in its disinterestedness. (A preamble, to that singularity we’re supposedly to buy into by means of the acolyte/ guide, is Victor’s sense of seeming miraculousness in becoming her husband. This would constitute a sort of inversion of Jof and Marie, from the mother lode that is The Seventh Seal. It would also constitute this Norwegian backwater being a vaguely subversive agency.) (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      We live at a time when athletic prowess abounds. Remarkable physical health races all about us, to our amazement. Such a state of affairs has been remarkably investigated by filmmaker, Claire Denis, in her film, Beau Travail [Good Work; Nice Going] (1999).

Here, however, we find neither specimens of professional athletes, nor amateur devotees of the limber and the inexhaustible. Instead, we find—in the very small-market presence of Djibouti, once known as French Somaliland, during the decade (the 90’s) when tempers were unsporting—a unit of the French Foreign Legion busting their butts in training for quelling hostilities. Whereas the contemporary athletes and devotees, mentioned above, stood a chance to live, at some level, that topspin of frisson at the heart of human swiftness, the folks we get to know here seem frozen in such an interminable training routine which they present as nearly cloistral agents of squelching mundane squabbling, heavily, thereby, invested in a form of pedantry. They go so far as to, once in a while, a sort of th’i chi slow dance, fighting strategy with hands converging in the style of prayer to a fussy (pedantic) divinity. Way too much brain, and not nearly enough bravery.

How does athleticism—acrobatics—sour like that? Look no farther than Ingmar Bergman’s, Fanny and Alexander (1982), the compass, as it happens, of Denis’ odd war story which does so much more than enforce the status quo, while, paradoxically being (as with, Fanny and Alexander) a revelation of massive devotion to crushing, not merely the Horn of Africa, but everything in sight that might have real depth, which is to say, a purchase upon “the big world.” (more…)

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© 2019 by James Clark

  What we see, right at the beginning of this characteristically amazing film, is a one-of-a-kind head’s up: “Not For Pleasure Alone.” That is to serve as an irony about the standard disclaimer that anything but mainstream diversion (“pleasure alone”) would be coming from opinions not held by the suits. There is, in our film today, Fanny and Alexander (1982), whereby a Jewish magician (in Sweden, at the beginning of the twentieth century) rescues two children from the clutches of savage villainy, by way of wailing and making fists, to an effect of the eponymous figures transporting from a chest on a first floor to a room on the second floor. And, after the display to the suspicious jailor, back they come to the chest and away they go, out the door, supposedly (to the meany) just an empty chest purchased by an antiquarian. Since when did Bergman go in for such deus ex machina naivete? Actually, never. The “spring,” in The Virgin Spring (1960), has been framed as self-delusion, while other eyes are not fooled. Here, however, within a torrent of complex, sensual conflict, that little stunt marks the matter as being peculiarly assailed by pleasure merchants and their devotees. Hollywood/ Disney deliberately polluting any rare, mature effort as to a rich and devastating line of creative crisis.

Our task, then, is to set in relief the thoroughgoing (and “punishing”) vectors which Bergman had, to that point, masterfully deployed in many previous films, in order to glean this, more recent, discovery. We begin, therefore, with the opening mis-en-scene, coming to us as branded by the phrase, “Not for Pleasure Alone.” In close-up, a young boy manipulates a toy theater (with a castle back drop) in the sense of an addition to a composition. The figure, now in question, is a woman in finery, perhaps a queen. The way the boy deposits his toy reminds us of a move on a chess board. His quizzical visage goes on to establish a little hedgerow, or a little forest, like the forest which Jof and Marie (in the film, The Seventh Seal [1957]) negotiated with much stress and courage, with madness and a cataclysm all around. Jof, a travelling minstrel/ dancer/ circus clown in the 12th century, had dedicated to his baby boy the rare essence of  becoming an acrobatic genius and a juggler putting forth an “impossible” trick. The couples’ odyssey would be in stark contrast to the knight, Block, riveted to a chess game, supposedly with Death itself, where the prize of winning would be entering “Pleasure Alone,” in heaven—the reward of the moguls like Block and like those assertive Hollywood types who would settle only for maudlin payoffs, pleasure alone! (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

  One of the only things I don’t like about the endeavor of Ingmar Bergman, is his hatred of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. On starting upon fathoming Claire Denis’ film, The Intruder (2005), I was more than pleased to realize that we’re both on the same page concerning this important matter.

It wouldn’t be Denis, if the launch-pad were not brimming with explosives of Bergman’s incendiary theatrical dialogue. But, in our film today, easily 95% of the action proceeds wordlessly. The wiring of Bergman’s film, The Seventh Seal (1957), has been expertly switched on. But, instead of honeys of dramatic sophistication, we end up with wilderness and a ticket to ride. Bergman, himself, was well aware that his disclosures would never reach the terminal decadence of normal respectability. This left him with a paradox which his sensibility would not ignite (on the order of rejecting, repeatedly, an exotic organ—a fully operating heart, for instance). Clearly seeing that problematic, Denis essays, in this production, to liberate the vehicles of acrobatics and juggling (stemming from The Seventh Seal) in a bid, endlessly demanding, to find in her art some life on earth which surfaces more than a few forgettable seconds.

Though it might, were such a thing possible, have him spinning in his grave, our adventure today—in full dedication to Bergman—invokes Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). You’ll recall, that The Seventh Seal reveals a medieval Swedish knight, Antonius Block, obsessed with reaching certitude about his eternal soul. As such, he stages a series of chess board events imagined to be opposing him in the form of a black-garbed, pasty-faced personification of death, who has seemingly promised him to open heaven itself if he can defeat the apparition. Thus distracted, Block falls short of cogent animation. True to form, our protagonist, Louis Trebor, a man of our century with great wealth and a track record of distant travels (Block having come to bear as just returned from one of the crusades), has become obsessed with the technology and accessibility of heart transplants. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

  I think the film, Wild Strawberries (1957), though quite aptly described to be a paragon of hard-won affection, contains a field of sophistication which has not been noticed and needs to be unlocked. In the absence of this factor, one would tend to overplay an outset of wrongness in order to amplify the change. (One of the challenges to recognize in this matter is the litany of hearsay about the protagonist, Dr. Isak Borg, being “cold” and monstrously aggressive, in the style of Scrooge, the protagonist of Charles Dickens’ famous melodramatic novella, A Christmas Carol [Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, 1843].) Onscreen he is nothing of the sort. His lacuna would be more to the point of befuddlement in reaching for an equilibrium between his serious career and his serious heart. (An instance, in flash-back, reveals the protagonist’s young girlfriend flirting with his brother. She thought to mention that the studious one was “cold,” thereby, on her reckoning, an inferior to be duped.)

We should begin our discovery by taking seriously the fact that our film today was, remarkably, the second production of that year! The earlier entry, was that primordial bat out of hell, namely, The Seventh Seal, packing the mainspring of the Bergman cinematic reflection, namely, death-defying acrobatics and “impossible” juggling. The Seventh Seal, itself, is rooted in the oracular iconoclasm of Smiles of a Summer Night(1955), its contrarian energies still a matter of nearly complete oblivion. In light of these proceedings, we would be on strong grounds to look to Wild Strawberries’ telling us something new and amazing—not, then, reporting a geezer’s finally feeling good about himself and the world. (The dowager/ oracle in, Smiles of a Summer Night, and Jof and Marie in, The Seventh Seal, do not trade in normal gratifications. Nor, for that matter, does the protagonist’s grandmother, in, The Magician [1958].) Charming little personal moments are not what Bergman is looking for. His métier, like those scientists and artists of the avant-garde over the past 200 years, want more than that, nothing less than a new world, however small a number might convene. As we look closely at the dynamics of our saga here, we should look for gold, wherever it may come to pass. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      This is a film so dependent upon its sense for Bergman’s previous output, and even for Bergman’s subsequent work, that it sustains the adage, “Go full out, or forget about it entirely.” But adages can be wrong; and here we welcome one and all to a breathtaking tone poem, which we hope can benefit from a few suggestions.

On the face of it, The Magician (1958), features an intense protagonist, leading a crew so heterogeneous as to wonder how their objectives can succeed. They first come to us in the countryside, at a pause in their horse-driven coach. The vehicle is affixed with the sign, “Vogler’s Magic Health Theatre.” The black and white optics induce silhouette along a ridge, the virtual trademark of the film, The Seventh Seal (1957), where a couple, Jof and Marie ply the far-flung roads in a caravan advertising their circus musicale.Those two carniesmanage to transcend the deadliness of the ridge (the seduction of death and its happy ending), by virtue of Jof’s blessing of his baby boy, to be a great acrobat and a juggler capable ofan impossible trick.Although Jof and Marie made their breakaway in the 12th century, those traces of magic lean heavily upon Vogler, in Sweden, in the 19th century.Therefore, while far from playful banter disturbs the “Health Theatre,” the opportunity to see deeply into the nature of conflictnever flags. (more…)

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