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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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© 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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