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© 2018 by James Clark

      In some ways, the output of films by Ingmar Bergman could be called an early rendition of serial drama, minus the TV and plus the theatrical rhetoric. That medieval couplet, The Seventh Seal (1957), and, The Virgin Spring (1960), introduces an “impossible” and necessary “trick,” pertaining to acrobatics and juggling. And the rest is about how the hell it’s done.

The weighty reflective saga therewith, coincides, for us in the new millennium, with a film market allergic to “weighty reflective sagas.” Getting on with bucket lists becomes a particularly insidious concern, insofar as the temptation to dip into a so-called masterpiece (and nothing else) is exactly anathematic to the tenor of the work. This difficulty requires an acrobatic feat in order to prime the spectacle to its best futurity. Included in this maneuver, therefore—and we have to admit that even in the 1960’s when the supposed Mona Lisa, namely, Persona (1966), was making some noise, no one, including Woody Allen, had a serious clue—would be pretty much disregarding the pretenders and watching for the few who well know what investigative popularity is worth on this questionable planet.

Persona is not a one-off and any effort to approach it that way is doomed. The opening passage of the film entails a young, bespectacled boy, played by child actor, Jorgen Lindstrom. His action spans a corpse in a morgue and a fervent stroking of a large portrait of a beautiful woman’s face. In the film, The Silence (1963), that same child, called Johan, encounters, with those same schoolboy, round-lens glasses, turbulence in trying to come to a harmony with his attractive, dangerously reckless mother; and, as a default choice, his beautiful, careful aunt. The painful and obscure action of Persona cannot come to coherence in the absence of a rigorous examination of The Silence. As it happens, Elisabet, the protagonist of Persona and a famous stage actress, stages a many-months refusal to speak and refusal to deal with her husband and son—sharply curtailing her paying career but getting down to business with the unfinished business of reckless, elusive Anna, in the film of three years before, where interplay shatters upon irreconcilable intentions. Whereas Anna shoots the works and hopes for serendipity, Elisabet, the occupier of designs, has a plan. Seemingly inert, particularly at the first stages when she is bedridden, she will soon  be more overtly acrobatic, in her own eccentric ways. Moreover, despite Olympian disdain, she will, with characteristic undemonstrativeness, endeavor to put into play a juggling act whereby seemingly errant trajectories become welcomed constituents.

In order to fathom this peculiar action, we must highlight, in the spirit of the four Bergman films we have touched upon in previous blogs, the remarkable cinematic physicality raining down upon figures whom the unwary might assume to be in the midst of a fairly common medical treatment regime. That prelude, locating the same player in two films, has been designed as an introduction of the dynamics of the cosmos (which humans play an important part in), not the kick-off of a melodrama of rational souls being troubled and thereby—hopefully—rescued. One close look at the abysses of this storm, and the idea of rescue has been obviated. (The continuity of risk-takers having reached a showdown whereby a new plateau of outrageousness must be explored comprises the real “narrative” here, and everywhere Bergman chooses to aim. The Silence and Persona constitute a conclave of badass mommies fumbling the gentle love intrinsic  to their heresies. So, too, Claire Denis, carrying the Bergman crisis in our century, with, for instance, her White Material.) (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

      Ingmar Bergman’s film, The Silence (1963), is generally understood to be part of a trilogy upon the issue of an absent God. Though it does raise affinities to the film, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), it also swarms with the discoveries of the decidedly non-sixties earlier films, The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960). Instead of packaging 3-packs like that, I think we’re well advised to notice that every one of his films (or every one of which marked his graduation from hack duties) deals with the same obsessive shock that world history has boarded a train going nowhere.

That the train going somewhere is far from transparent may be inferred by the fact that the most unlikeable figure, in The Silence, happens to be also the only one with a taste for integrity. This so-called person of interest, perhaps predictably, comes to us as totally upstaged by her sister, Ester, in the First-Class compartment of the train, they share, along with a boy, Johan, of about 10, whose mother, Anna, feeling the heat of the well-appointed but not air-conditioned cell, fans herself with a magazine. Ester does not feel that heat pressing upon her sister. She’s dressed in a tasteful suit, and she could be taken for a middle-management bureaucrat. But she feels heat nevertheless.

The nature of distribution of heat is as important as it is obscure; and it needs clear-sightedness on our part, a take going beyond the flabby pundits who slide off the rails in claiming that Ester has been stricken by a plague-like, devilish biological killer. She does have, several seconds into the first scene, some kind of fit, bending over and vomiting and needing Anna’s help to reach the washroom. But the irony of the very beautiful actress, Ingrid Thulin’s, vivid portrayal of Ester—forbidding the notion of her being eaten by microbes—never becomes a question. Anna, played by actress, Gunnil Lindblom, though having a handsome face, is overweight and has no taste in apparel. The credits have been accompanied by the loud and racing ticking of a clock. The moment of Ester’s cracking up had been accompanied by the pronounced rushing and ringing of the train. Johan had, in asking Ester the impossible question of what the signage in and out of the vehicle meant, underlined to the adults what it feels like to be visited by a range of action foreign and solidly indifferent to them. But perhaps it was the universe they had inhabited all their life. That the next station finds them stopping over to allow Ester to deal with her malaise, once again introduces a current of foreignness they seem very unprepared for. (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

      Sometimes it pays to be ridiculously late. Years ago, I saw two or three of the films of Claire Denis, and  wrote them off (figuratively) as overwrought, Grand Guignol melodramas pertaining to the outrageous predations upon Africans. Failing to heed the well-known predilection of auteurs to sermonize bullshit about their efforts seeing eye-to-eye with politically correct dullards, I left that hidden and unbeknownst treasure to pursue the singularities of quite untrammeled sensibility within the wheelhouses of the likes of Wong Kar Wai, for instance (his, Happy Together [1997], recently posted).

Having also been a latecomer to the skills of Ingmar Bergman, there were notions about Denis’ extremities which began to make much more sense. Since her film, White Material (2010), is copiously woven with the cosmic elements to be seen in Bergman’s, The Seventh Seal (1957), that seems to be a good starting point. It is fearlessness, not salvation, being the essence of Bergman’s work; and it is fearlessness, not foreign aid, of the essence of Denis’ work. Therefore, our first step has to do with our protagonist, Maria, tempting the fates by refusing to get away from the collision of rebel and French colonial militia forces in mid-century Africa. At a road on her coffee plantation she is visited by a hovering French Army helicopter, from which the following one-way dialogue screams: “Madame Vial! The French Army is pulling out! We’re leaving! You’ll be completely cut off! Think it over, Madame Vial! Think of your family… We’re pulling out… You must leave immediately.” Madame Vial swishes away as best she can the reddish soil kicked up by the chopper, which resembles a dinosaur, especially its image as a shadow in flight (a fossil), a commotion whose time has passed in a peculiar way. The retreaters shower down many black containers with the words, “Survival Kit,” prominently inscribed. Maria, after lifting one up, tosses it away contemptuously. (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

      Many folks swear by exotic travel to lift themselves out of doldrums. The duration may be as brief as a week and as long as years. By and large, the voyagers adopt a passive disposition for experiencing welcome change, particularly with the matter of igniting an avenue from which to bring their skills to bear.

Though it might seem impolite, we have to entertain the possibility that the world as such does not smile upon those intent upon letting others set the pace. Wong Kar Wai, in bringing to light his film, Happy Together (1997), about two young men from Hong Kong, Lai and Ho, looking for magic in Argentina, trains his high beams on exactly that exigency. As such there is the figure, Lai, after having been driven to distraction in the course of looking for the easy way up, who eventually gets down to business as a very non-white-collar-worker in an abattoir where you don’t disregard guts. The minutiae underway, of Lai’s odyssey on behalf of hard employment, constitute, therefore, a sort of anti-holiday none of us can do without. And, this being a Wong Kar Wai movie, those twists and turns put into play moments of sensibility not merely striking but haunting. (Although “explanations” by auteurs are usually understandable mischief, in the case of Wong’s insisting—against the narrative’s surface—that this film is not concerned with tendencies of homosexual men, a rare accuracy occurs. A degree of caressing and anal sex comes to pass; but in this vehicle Lai and Ho are under scrutiny for the honorific cool side of their tastes, not for biological imperatives.)

Soon after arriving in Buenos Ares (now having to live alone, after one of their frequent divorces) Lai takes a job as a doorman/ greeter at a tango bar, “Bar Sur” [above the norm]. We see briefly a man and a woman, in severe apparel and coiffure, demonstrating the fussy dynamics of the dance, conspicuous for its intimacy bereft of joy and affection; but flush with belaboring those in attendance with their own superiority. (Ho, we shall soon come to realize, having in his scant repertoire of skills, being adept in that dance-style, in addition to nymphomania and prostitution.) But, much more than that self-consciously risqué bohemianism, there is Lai, out on the street, being the first responder for one of many overassertive party animals and snapping photos for the ladies. His motivation, which he will soon deny, is (despite the de rigueur circus-barker tone) suave and good-natured as only Wong-stalwart, actor, Tony Leung, can mix amusement and devastation. (Ho, portrayed by Leslie Cheung, sets in relief, with his peevish peasant appetites, thereby, the aristocratic cravings of Lai simmering in such a proletarian zone.) As that shuffle of narrative overtures spins downwards, Lai takes morosely to Mickeys at the club’s entrance between visiting awesomeness and soon severs his involvement with the juvenile Sur. (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

      Now, as we open a third can of worms installed by the inimitable, Ingmar Bergman, we need to open our eyes to the seriously bizarre communication these films consist of. Unlike the catch-as-catch-can opportunities to turn a buck by fulsome cinematic and mainstream cultural techniques, Bergman puts to himself and his clients two simultaneous and contradictory presentations. Why did he work like that? He didn’t want to starve. And, moreover, he was obliged to maintain—with reservations—that the mainstream has much to recommend.

The works, in question now, introduce with silent-film-optics-brilliance, figures variously galvanized by the resources of the history of Christian assurance. Though the most overt aspects of the narratives very convincingly appear to sustain the integrity of loyalty to a Christian power, there coincides an ambush exploding the entire enterprise and mooting the uncanny ways of fearlessness.

The era when Bergman displayed such an impressive changeup pitch was perhaps less experimental and volatile than our own. But his assumption that he was on to a crucial singularity resonates—to those with advanced reflective skills—in our own millennium. The films, Through a Glass Darkly and The Seventh Seal, subtly found much amiss in insisting that strong but fabricated personalities could put one on easy street. In our film today, The Virgin Spring (1960), only a last minute convulsion cements that whimsy. But, all the better from our point of view, the drama concerns a very flesh-and-blood problematic, namely, distemper. (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

      We were, in absorbing Ingmar Bergman’s thrilling and strenuous film, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), ushered into a reflection about fearlessness—specifically, the loss of fearlessness. In light of that beacon, replete with a beacon/ lighthouse, we can proceed with a film of his, The Seventh Seal, produced earlier, in 1957, offering a variant of fearlessness sustained, though so incomplete you’d probably miss it.

Our film today affords noticing that its two scene-stealers at the outset, exhausted and inert on a rocky shore with luminous clouds dancing apace, comprise an important contrast to the introduction of Through a Glass Darkly, where four raucous vacationer-swimmers come ashore with a laureling sky above and slag-heap consistency of the sea. Nearby that pair are their horses, looking as fresh and beautiful as can be, not to mention lovely bird song. Nature disapproving of stasis; and the other film’s putting on a brave front being closer to nature. (Here, too, the credits subtly disintegrate in giving way to the next names. The title, once again, has been drawn from a biblical vignette, this time pertaining to a vacuum in the generally good-news-communication between God and the faithful. What does put in a striking appearance is a rather ominous, large hawk.) The two having succumbed to protracted inertia—one of them a knight, bedecked in an impressively-designed Onward-Christian-Soldiers crusader tunic and now washing his face in the surf—appear to have survived a shipwreck (a shipwreck having been a factor in the other film). They’re damn lucky to be alive. Karin, in the other film, shows she’s willing to claw herself toward lucidity as to being lucky. How do our crusaders handle the matter?

The better-dressed of the company, surveying the harsh landscape, clasps his hands in prayer, but soon he brings his hands down and his face clearly spells “out-of-service.” What he unfortunately can do is produce a chess board and spend the rest of his life banking on gamesmanship no one in his right mind would essay. He conjures a spectre (an ascetic priest in flowing black cassock), who addresses him—a sort of kick-off—with, “I am Death. I’ve been at your side for a long time. Are you prepared?” For his part, the supposed aristocrat announces that they should play chess to determine longevity or not. Shook up is his state of affairs, in ways bearing some resemblance to the tailspin of Karin (seen in the previous campaign), after the bilious stage play. The knight declares—from out of that peevish, weakling bossiness we saw in Karin— “If I win, you set me free…” (He doesn’t have to say a word to speak volumes that the stirring military observances were not stirring.)  But we’ve already seen enough to know that he and freedom don’t get along. Having been there quite a while, his first impression was him decoratively sprawled on a large rock with the game facility and with a grip upon his expensive sword, like some kind of soft grandee. It seems to me that to get over at the outset any assumptions of viable integrity in the knight prepares for an unexpected keeper (or keepers) of the flame. There is never any doubt where the hope lies, in Through a Glass Darkly. But this saga could be headed toward overthrowing the reflex of counting on elevated families.    (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

 The truest way to the heart of Kelly Reichardt’s film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), may turn out to be its penultimate moment. This was not always my approach, as a reading of the Wonders in the Dark blog from February 15, 2012—A Dangerous Devotion: Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy”—would show. There I was intent upon engaging the protagonists of each work having risked everything (like Joan of Arc) for the sake of getting to the bottom of a dilemma unfortunately even beyond their very alert and brave powers. What, specifically, drives such souls to the brink of destruction?

There are ways of taking a closer look at the phenomenon, and Wendy and Lucy shows the way. Like Mouchette, a classic film figure under heavy fire, Wendy can no longer stand her emotionally violent, Midwestern blue-collar family and neighbors and their Rust Belt home base spanning Muncie and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Unlike Mouchette, the famous waif, she does not choose suicide as a meaningful change (nor is she destined to be immortalized by a forum of movie buffs). She hits the road with 500 dollars in savings from unspecified jobs, and a clunker supposedly capable of reaching that land of fool’s gold, Alaska. (Where others dream of gold, she—speaking volumes—dreams of a job in a cannery which, at least, does not resemble Indiana.) However, she does also bring a stunningly vast fortune in the form of her golden retriever, Lucy (a born retriever of buried treasures). (more…)

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