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 © 2019 by James Clark

      The films of Quentin Tarantino are arguably the gold standard of amusement while indirectly excoriating the history of reverence. His recent shot, Once upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), attends in a rather special way toward his enmity regarding pious foot-soldiers on guard for the sake of half-truths, at best. The target of Hollywood might seem to be a rather minor concern, not to mention that nearly everyone intuits its flaws already. But do they?

We take a ride with Cliff, a movie stunt man/ and double, for actor, Rick, in Rick’s cream-colored Cadillac convertible. While the actor attends to his well-known métier of Western adventures, overblown, underwhelming but passionately popular, Cliff, not being needed to spare the daring in this outing, takes up his other functions as chauffeur and handyman at Rick’s mansion in the exclusive hills. This day, there is the insupportable collapse of the perhaps, sinking brand’s television antenna, the year being 1969. Two magical events occur during Cliff’s hiatus. The first is the remarkable agility of his reaching the roof—sheer acrobatics in leaping from purchase to purchase. When on the irregular roof, his panache is not only bankable but poetry. The second surprise occurs on the freeway with the top down, of course, and music on the radio, to a tune called, “Gamblin’ Man.” The pitch and volume of the sound inundating the fast car can be discerned, with the driver in closeup, that intensity of this degree is, however unspoken, a field of grace. Much remains to be explored regarding Cliff’s solitary day off; but this film invites disparate, rare and desperate action to coalesce. Some months later, and late at night, with the sidekicks about to go their separate ways (and making a last-ditch party of the crisis), Cliff and his pit bull, Brandy, take a walk in the vicinity of Rick’s opulent (but now financially threatened) castle. The acrobat, saying nothing of the earthquake but feeling much, evokes another ecstatic song, far more explosive than the treacly film productions which made the actor affluent, namely, far from matinee-idol, Chris Farlow’s, one-hit-wonder, “Out of Time”—“Baby, Baby, Baby, you’re outta’ time…” And it’s freeway-time again, because the Stones (far more explosive than the earnest writer) know their Hollywood-Rare. The latter’s, wisely distorting the phrase, “Baby, Baby, Baby, you’re outta’ ooaa” [connoting, both “time” and “sight”]. The fateful musical presentation penetrates the mansion next door, the short-lease range of the now-pregnant starlet, Sharon Tate, where a dizzy anti-climax is about to unfold, which obliges us to consider a step far more demanding of nuance than Hollywood can afford. Back to Cliff, on the rich man’s roof, who couldn’t miss hearing the neighbor’s music, a bemusing effort by the laughably named, “Paul Revere and the Raiders.” (more…)

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© 2019 by James Clark

       I kicked off the Bergman trilogy comprising the films, Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1969) and The Passion of Anna (1969), by way of Shame. But one could start anywhere here, inasmuch as all three of them represent a steep ascent toward—not the famous “silence of God”—but the long-hidden finality of death as tempering the farce of advantage. There was the attraction, in Shame, for its fulsome violence and its unspoken (forgotten) heresy, buried by a world-history crazily intent upon becoming iconic, even if tiny.

We’ll pick up from there, by another very humbled figure, namely, Alma, the wife of a rather well-known and admired painter, Johan Borg, in the film, Hour of the Wolf. Unlike the forgetting of that unfamiliar reflection, in Shame, Alma has incorporated a degree of disinterestedness being the gem of the aforementioned film. But, like Eva-the-forgetful, Alma, remarkably warm though she could be, there was about her a striking inefficiency, a decorative tip of an iceberg—while the full accomplishment remained a huge oblivion. Whereas the opening of Shame adopted an almost sit-com miasma, here instead, what we  experience, and yet being far from the depths of creative magic and profound joy, is a punishing, but soft, third-degree. “Listen, we’re not quite finished yet… No? Alright…”

“Alright” takes off with Alma’s telling the camera and us, in flashback, of the shocking death of Johan; and her inability to keep him in one piece. She begins by emerging from her thatch-roofed, wood-framed cottage, with head bowed and tired eyes. Having already made to the world the details of her telling, this would be an investigatory journalist’s follow-up, in hopes that the disaster could provide more cogency. “I’ve given you the diary. And you wonder why I choose to stay here? We’ve lived in this house almost seven years. Come winter, I can come to the mainland, work at the store as I have done when money was short. The baby is due in a month. The doctor examined me in May, before the very last time we came out here. We’d planned to stay here until August. We were going to be completely alone… He was afraid… He liked that I was quiet…” Then, on the heels of that jumble of tenses, she abruptly delineates (in flash-back), how they had commissioned a small power boat and driven to their island hideaway. The arrival is shown to be touched by murky light not without a harsh beauty. This positive moment links to the boat of death, in Shame. Ebb and flow of engaging challenge. “We found a wheelbarrow in a shed on the beach. When we got here, we were happy to see the apple tree in bloom. Then we discovered footprints under the kitchen window in the flower bed, but forgot it.” (Long pause, in which the investigator could begin to discern that the quiet ones are also stupid ones.) “Yes, we were happy… Johan was uneasy.” (What sort of logic do they subscribe to? Probably a logic not far from that of Eva and Jan, in Shame.) “He always grew anxious when his work did not go well, and it had not gone well for some time now.” (The same precious and unscrupulous aesthetic, from the violinists’, in Shame?) “And he became sleepless. He was frightened, as if he was afraid of the dark. It had gotten worse in the last few years.” The decisive prow of the thrust of Johan and Alma’s boat brings to the story a baseline of decisiveness which awaits them, and all of us. Johan launches the returning driver with clear-enough decisiveness. He gathers his baggage—including, many frames waiting for successful performances—and grimly moves a pushcart to the cottage over very difficult terrain. In the arrival with its delight in the apple tree, she rushes to embrace Johan wholeheartedly; and receives a half-hearted buss and then a brush-off as he heads indoors distractedly and with a sour visage. Next day, he proposes drawing her; and the precious, nineteen-century proceedings seem to lack the promise of shoring up a tired routine. The white sheets blowing wildly on the line near the exercise to shake things up loom as an embarrassment and a warning. Was the second investigation alert to such matters? (more…)

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 © 2019 by James Clark

      With many Bergman films now having thrilled us by their confrontation of distemper and ecstasy, we could conclude that a standoff has reached its outer limits. But we would be far off the mark. Our film today, Shame (1968), has something very new to impart. But it doesn’t come in a straightforward way.

As we’ve often found in these treasures of semi-theatrical drama, the very endings turn out to divulge the marvel, and here again it brings to light our foothold in a slippery terrain. A former musician, Eva, finds herself, with civil war rampant, in a small fishing boat crowded with escapees (including her husband, Jan), where the seas are strewn with corpses. She tells Jan of a dream she’s just had. “I was walking down a very beautiful street. On one side were white houses with flowering arches and pillars. On the other side was a leafy park. Dark green water flowed beneath the trees lining the street. I came to a high wall overgrown with roses. Then an airplane came and set the roses on fire. But it wasn’t all terrible, because it was so beautiful. I looked down into the water and watched the roses burn. I held a baby in my arms. It was our daughter. She snuggled up to me… and I could feel her mouth against my cheek. And the whole time I knew there was something I should remember. Something someone had said. But I’d forgotten what it was…”

Neither ecstasy nor distemper has enveloped her. What that was is the heart of this very strange film—a vision ripping the constraints of not only cinema (the first seconds entail a reel of film shredding), but also theatre and every kind of art. In many ways, this conundrum looks to Bergman’s early film, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), where physical triumph is a drug and machination and advantage have saturated the landscape. (However, the death march there would be a Rose Bowl Parade beside what’s in store here.) A second ingredient to consider is the aura of goofiness and malignancy being a specialty of the suspense films produced by Alfred Hitchcock. (Hitch, however, would be Violence Lite in light of Shame.) To cast some light upon this virtually incomprehensible phenomenon, we should remember that the term, “shame,” covers many degrees. Mainstream morality is never at a loss to hammer a roster of the “shameful.” Mainstream morality and the reflections of Ingmar Bergman have nothing in common. Maybe someone had suggested to Eva (that name being about the primal) that the crowning shame of world history, a factor reducing social and scientific action to childishness, is the fakery of immortality and its compensatory  assaults in lieu of fully creative power. (more…)

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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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