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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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© 2019 by James Clark

Filmmaker, Claire Denis, is old enough to remember the supernova that was Ingmar Bergman. Lucky her. Lucky us.

A while ago we noted, in her film, White Material (2009), how the protagonist comes up far short of the magic  having been glimpsed–glimpsed on the order of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957)–despite remarkable courage and intensity. Now, in the film, Let the Sunshine In (2017), we have a second instance of her gifts and dilemmas, this time anchored by, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). The protagonist of White Material had felt that taking a standpoint in Africa would suit her rigorous needs far better than Paris. The protagonist, Isabelle, in our hunt today, embraces Paris and its subtleties, and especially its promise of what is called love. Let’s see what her plunge into the City of Light can do for her, and us.

Isabelle’s meander in that Tout-Paris (the City’s “advanced” visions) ominously reminds us of the tone-dead coterie of Desiree, in the cited film, from 1955, who easily tolerates carnivorous bores. As such, we’ll use here the same means of explication as before, namely, giving pretty short shrift to the overrated fancy pants, and putting on the high-beams for a seemingly demented but feisty oldster, like Desiree’s mother/dowager/oracle, functioning at the outset of the twentieth century. Now, in today’s very challenging film before us, we have a troubling facsimile of the distant, old Swedish laser, in the form of a Gallic, psychic, clairvoyant, medium, quack—no oracle, but a self-contradictory bloodhound.

The introduction of the latter brims with wit and sinewy earthiness, being, in fact, a hybrid of both the very sharp dowager and her inconsistent servant, Frid. Thereby, the first step, of the erratic Parisian phenomenologist-oldster, involves him being smacked by a blonde girlfriend who has parked her car outside his eccentric Belle Epoque cabin, which could be a windmill without the sails.  His howl from the slap brings to mind Frid’s new girlfriend, Petra, as inured to smashes as a linebacker. Even before this conflict, we have a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, flickering out lasers like the whirling motions of a windmill, and thereby implying a visitation from a distant past. The driver, now saddened, follows up with, “We’ll  never see each other again?” (This being a frequent situation in the preceding actions.) The avatar of good relations makes the chilly reply, “I don’t think so.” Her sad face in close-up reanimates Petra’s lament to Frid, “Why have I never been a young lover? Can you tell me that?” And it also reanimates Frid’s reply: “We are denied the love of loving. We don’t have the gift… Nor the punishment.” The new Frid, on departing the car, asks himself, “How could I have believed in her?” Petra and Frid head for a tempered marriage. The marriages of the dowager appear to have been even less than that. The difficulty of specifying where Isabelle’s heart lies remains to be explored. (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      Like the Bergman film, Winter Light (1963), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), threatens, at first blush, to be a pain in the ass. Instead of the former film’s protagonist’s death march through rootless theology, we have a veritable general assembly of gluttons for winning advantage over everyone else, so smug and fatuous in their ridiculous “sophistication” as to seem not only from several centuries past but obviously headed for embarrassment. However, just as we were rewarded by putting up with the first hour-plus in the first-mentioned film, there is, in the latter (our film today), after quite a long while, something delicious turning the tables—which is not to say, becoming dominant.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a high-profile Stockholm actress, Desiree, presses her mother—an elderly dowager—to stage a summer weekend for a number of her associates, in order to create a fracas that will wrest away from his very young wife a lawyer  whom, as once before, she finds herself in love with. Whereas the jockeying amidst various cynical patricians is hectic and not particularly witty—one scene recalling the Three Stooges—(making for Bergman a much-needed state of solvency and continued career), it is the non-amorous octogenarian who makes the occasion truly sexy.

There is a prelude to this romp, where Desiree bursts into her mother’s bedroom (interrupting the latter’s game of Solitaire, at 7 a.m.) to have her write out the invitations. While the daughter drinks a lot of coffee and then skims over a novel, the owner of the estate has more to say about the state of the nation than the progressions of her flakey daughter. On Desiree’s describing her event as doing a “good deed,” the rather frail but very alert intruded-upon declares, “They [good deeds] cost far too much” (the recipient not likely to seriously respond, leaving the donor nonplussed). She goes on to elaborate upon her being fond of Solitaire. The social convener/ daughter asks, “Is anything really important to you?” Her mother, not needing to think it over, shoots back, “I am tired of people. But that doesn’t stop me loving them… I could have had them stuffed and hanging in long rows, any number of them [fine as a decorative possibility; disastrous as actuality]. One can never protect a human being from any kind of suffering [the level of grotesque perversity being like a self-satisfied plague]. That is what makes one so tremendously weary…” (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      In many ways, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), looks to a past leaving it nearly an anachronism. The helmsmen here, Joel and Ethan Coen, have, in their business affairs, been forced to locate their complex communications in the swill of the multi-cocktail Happy Hour known as Netflix. (Years before, David Lynch, apropos of the vein now virulent, was heard to declare, “I didn’t make this picture for your damn phone.”)

As you probably know, the boys are nothing if not resilient, and with this unwelcome matter in the air they prove to be even more feisty and irreverent than usual. Their strategy to be large as life is a wild and wonderful tour de force. Inasmuch as this film with a vengeance is multi-faceted, let’s ease into it by way of its amusingly wicked parody of Millennials, those softies utterly disinclined to show up at a theatre to see a Coens’ film.

You might think the lads are staging some kind of revival of Cowboys and Indians entertainment, inasmuch as the setting is the “Wild West,” and its six vignettes comprise the product seen to be slices (in various tones) of the fateful drama of what used to be a big money-maker. Actor, Tim Blake Nelson—directly addressing the audience as if it were packed with fast friends—leads off with a singing cowboy, Buster Scruggs, so hilarious in enjoying his domain that we barely register that the song he so confidently sings is about dying of thirst (“Cool Water”) and that he takes low-key umbrage that one of his wanted posters accuses him of being a misanthrope (his horse whinnying in support when prompted to consider that the charge is patently unfair). That he brightens up with the thought that “Song never fails to sooth my restless heart,” constitutes the first of many displays of assurance that heavy baggage can be exorcised on the order of a good cleaning lady. (The writer/ performer of the song, “Cool Water,” Marty Robbins, was not only a country/Western musical profit-centre in the Nixon-era, but also a NASCAR driver, always in the hunt. On one racing occasion, he was seriously injured swerving into a wall to avert smashing into a stalled vehicle. Hold that thought in fathoming the protagonists stalled here, in other ways.) (more…)

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 © 2018 by James Clark

 Our film today brings to mind ancient Greek theatre (often regarded as “tragedy”), inasmuch as it is concerned with an odyssey of no mean weight. In accordance with this template, there is a chorus, a number of mainstream busybodies galvanized by a unique and self-destructive protagonist. True to form, these lesser lights have much to say; and what they say is often more than they realize.

Their modern apparition appears in the story’s very first chapter, where a test pilot, Neil, let’s rip with an aircraft not for the general public. In the midst of his struggles with the untamed beast, the bureaucrats in the picture radio to him a series of complaints. “We show you wobbling, not turning… You’re bouncing off the atmosphere… He’s a good engineer, but he’s distracted…”

The do-nothing perfectionists do manage to dissuade Neil’s seeming to be on a roller coaster from hell. Of course he’s in elaborate protective gear, but the caveats unintentionally direct us to the regions of death and where to thrive there before disappearing into those abysses having given to us a startling physical introduction. (Our latter-day Odysseus has been branded a First Man [2018]; and we’ll be tested to recognize whether he deserves such a vaunted reputation.) Our Homer, here, befitting the métier of cinema in perhaps its dying days as an adult pursuit, is Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who, as it happens, was a devotee of dynamics as wild as it gets. Coming upon First Man, therefore, we are provided with, in addition to what that chorus distinguishes itself by carping, Bergman’s very self-aware steering apparatus, “acrobatics” and “juggling.” (more…)

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© 2018 by James Clark

 

    Our striking film today is not what it seems to be. And it signals something along those surprising lines by its title, You Were Never Really Here (2017). The elsewhere, where our leading man, Joe, chooses to be, lands him in late 19th century Sweden. He, portrayed by actor, Joaquin Phoenix. along with filmmaker extraordinaire, Lynne Ramsay, proceed to the extremities of the filmic communications of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007),  in particular, his film, Cries and Whispers (1972). Whereas we see onscreen a burly, bewhiskered, kill-for-pay, frenetic bottom-feeder, he’s galvanized by a maxim, produced by a long-ago patrician of Bergman’s invention, namely, Karin: “It’s all a tissue of lies…” Joe’s not the sort who would bat around remarks like that; but he does very deeply know what it means.

Both Joe and Karin (the latter being one of a triumvirate of sisters) have been burned by violent parenting. But it is how they cultivated that rather mundane handicap which distinguishes them as thoroughgoing thinkers, forming a bizarre kinship which can tell us a lot. We see in tenuous flash-backs Joe’s mother being assaulted by her husband by means of a hammer smashing her head and Joe being terrorized (including sexually) and frequently hiding in a closet. (We also see, in the earlier film, in that same way of flash-back, how two of the sisters, Karin and Agnes, are slighted and intimidated, by their mother, while the third [and prettiest], Maria, is spoiled rotten. Soon we will hear of a pretty young girl, Nina, basking in her mother’s affection, but losing that, perhaps dubious, gift on the latter’s death, which sends her frequently running away from home to seek a revival of the right stuff, or the rich stuff.) Fathoming the heart of You Were Never Really Here means transcending its scabrous comportment per se, for the sake of disclosing the massive rigors of lucidity and love. Despite its façade of Grand Guignol melodrama, we are expertly guided to something far more rare and important—the patrimony of Bergman, re-branded for an age of iconoclasts.

Joe’s mother, quite far into dementia, can introduce us to the nature of advanced perception. We first see her, late at night, after Joe returns from Cincinnati, where he has  murdered, by a ball peen hammer, the principals of a child prostitution ring, one of the captive’s parents being eager to recover their child for a significant payment. What catches our attention first of all is the affection between the youngish beast and the old beauty. He finds her asleep in front of the TV, and as she wakes up she smiles and tells him she wanted to stay up to see him (having no idea what his job entails). Her carefree laugh is echoed by him. She refers to the late-night screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho—“Oh, boy, it’s scary!”—and he joins the edgy fun by simulating Anthony Perkins’ slashing Janet Leigh. Over and above the robust conviviality, this moment establishes their being more contemporary than the cloying domesticity mentioned above. The hot jazz sax solo doubling down on her radio takes us to Lynch’s Lost Highway—something closer to what’s in store for Joe. He helps her into her bed and she doesn’t want what she sees to be a gem of a night to end. “Hey, Joe, stay a bit…” In reply, he twigs on to her fear of being murdered, flaring up due to Hitchcock. “Well, if you must watch scary movies…” (more…)

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