Thursday, June 14, 2018

Translation and Literature

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literature.  Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist.
 - Susan Sontag, “The World as India" (2003)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Now I Sit Me Down

Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History by Witold Rybczynski is a well-written, fascinating, and entertaining history of the chair: new ones, old ones, comfy, nasty, Chinese, French, Roman, American - his scope is global.  If you like books which reveal the amazing background of the mundane objects in your life - and I love those kind of books - then this wonderful volume is for you.  

A history of chairs, it turns out, is also a history about power, culture, and our relationship to pleasure.  As far back as ancient Egypt, for instance, chairs were symbols of authority and status.  Important people sat in chairs; commoners used stools.  Rybczynski reports seeing an Egyptian wall painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in which a carpenter sits on stool while he’s making a chair.  In contemporary depictions of everyday day life during Medieval Europe this distinction in seating continued.  Commoners sat on stools, benches, upturned pails, etc. but not chairs.  Those are reserved for the privileged.  Much of this had to do with the fact that chairs were - and still are - rather difficult to make.  To create a stable one required the skilled work of carpenters and joiners; they were expensive and not easy to come by.  Hence, symbols of status.

The hu chuang
A history of the chair is by definition also a history of sitting.  Before the chair, there was the stool; and before the stool, there was the ground - which is where many cultures (Japanese, Arab) still prefer to sit.  In this debate (chair vs. ground/floor) the Chinese display the most interesting, and in many ways the most significant, cultural development.  

Like other Asian cultures, the Chinese began by sitting on mats on the ground.  Around the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese invented the kang - an elevated platform which could be heated from below.  Kangs would often extend along an entire wall of a room and were used for sleeping as well as sitting.  In fact, they’re still in use in China.  In the second century AD the folding stool (hu chuang) was introduced to China.  It had the same design as the X-frame stools which the Romans used in their army camps.  Since there was then no Chinese word for “chair” or “stool” they used chuang, which means “bed.” Hu means “barbarian.”  It is believed that the hu chuang was probably an import from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.   

The Chinese Yoke Back Chair (Yi)
But it was in the Song dynasty (960-1127 AD) that the Chinese developed their first and most unique chair, specifically the yi (a.k.a. the yokeback side chair).  The yi is a simple side chair with a splat - a piece of wood in the center of the chair’s back - to provide lumbar support.  In China it became the standard chair for centuries.  The word yi is taken from the verb “to lean” and as Rybczynski observes “one sat on a stool, but one leaned back on a chair.”  This shift from utility to comfort - and eventually pleasure - would be a monumental one in chair design.  This change in seating created others in Chinese domestic life.  Tables and desks were now raised to the height of the waist.  Lamps, washstands, and mirrors followed suit.  Even the ceilings in rooms rose to accommodate these changes.  “When the Emperor Huizong commissioned his official portrait,” Rybczynski notes, “he chose to sit not on an elaborate throne but on a yoke back side chair.”  

The cabriole
What drove these changes was the great increase in prosperity that China experienced during the Song dynasty.  It was the increase of wealth in Europe which would transform the chair and sitting in the West, too.  As the Middle Ages waned and trade and commerce began to expand so too did the demand for new and improved household goods.  In fact, the demand for chairs was such that in London the association of joiners received their royal charter in 1571; in 1626 the guild of Upholsterers was founded.  But it was France which would take the lead in chair design.  18th-century Europe was enchanted by all things Chinese and the French would soon take the yi and transform it into the cabriole chair.  Curvy, sculptured, upholstered, the cabriole seemed to have its own personality.  Rybczynski writes (paraphrasing the historian Vincent Scully) that “an occupied cabriole chair disappears behind the sitter, but an unoccupied one can seem almost alive.”  But that was just the beginning.  The french produced a plethora of lush, beautiful, richly upholstered chairs - the fauteuil (see image below), the bergère, the voyeuse, and others.  Pleasure was the order of the day, even in sitting.  When asked why she had not entered a covent (as her sisters had done), one of Louis XV’s spinster daughters quipped “It was an armchair that was my undoing.”  

The Windsor chair
The United States, too, played its part in the history of the chair.  Although invented in England, the Windsor chair was phenomenally popular in colonial America.  It’s the chair in which the signers of the Declaration of Independence sat, though when John Turnbull created his famous painting of the event he has them mostly in easy chairs.  These were men of property and leisure, after all, no homey, ordinary, work-a-day Windsor chair for them.  Thomas Jefferson was something of a chair fanatic.  When he returned from his post as ambassador to France he brought back with him fifty-seven French chairs.  And when he wrote the Declaration of Independence he did it in a Windsor chair of his own design.  The seat swiveled while the base remained set.  (Does that guy ever stop being amazing?)  America’s unique contribution to chair history is, of course, the rocking chair, an item still so ubiquitous that I don’t even need to show you a picture of it.  And in US history it was a rocking in which Lincoln sat when he was shot in Ford’s Theater.  

Fauteuil à la reine
So, as you can see, this book covers a lot of ground.  I haven’t even dealt with chairs in the modern age.  And I won’t.  I will leave that for you to discover for yourself in this brief, superb book.  Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Michael Thonet, Hans Wegner, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and others bring the chair into the industrial era.  Published in 2016, the book takes the history of the chair into our own times. Illustrated with the author’s own attractive drawings (such as the fauteuil, left), Now I Sit Me Down is an impressive and eye-opening account of an ordinary item with a revealing history.

Monday, June 04, 2018

SIFF 2018: Constructing Albert

Constructing Albert
Restaurant stories all seem to follow the same pattern.  Through hard work and struggle our talented chef-hero (he’s a genius) encounters success early.  But then he loses his way.  The fame and money, it seems, have gone to his head.  Soon he’s embarked on dangerous ventures.  Failure peeks over the horizon.  Our hero is shaken, but he’s not down for the count.  After some soulful and somber moments of self-reflection he realizes the error of his ways.  His stumbles have taught him a valuable life lesson.  He’s a new man now.  He rediscovers his passion for cooking and for cutting meager portions of food into small squares.  Inspired by his revived spirit, he and his restaurant crew take his new venture to heights undreamed of before.  He’s a bigger success than ever - and a bigger genius too!

If this weary old tale is one of which you cannot get enough, then Constructing Albert (showing in Seattle under the auspices of SIFF 2018) is right for you.  The subject of this mediocre Spanish documentary is Albert Adrià, world-renown Spanish chef.  Over the course of a few years he attempts to open five different restaurants in his hometown of Barcelona.  The movie largely follows the mythos outlined above, the main difference being that during Albert’s “slough-of-despond” moments in the story we are, thankfully, spared any psycho-babble.  Though there is babble aplenty of other sorts.

Unlike, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this film is not so much the portrait of a man as much as the portrait of a man’s ego.  And what an ego it is.  The film goes from admiration to adoration to adulation of its main subject.  And then it goes beyond even that.  In the “triumphant return” ending of the story, Albert opens a new restaurant called Enigma - the interior of which looks like the set of many an early-80s music video, though I don’t think that was the intention.  On Enigma’s opening night the praises go stratospheric.  Albert’s food, which was always amazing, is now good beyond imagining.  In fact it's not just food - Albert has created a new language, we are gushingly told.  The bite size foodstuffs are referred to as “discourse.”  Albert is a genius.  And it’s not just him.  Also present at Enigma’s opening is his brother, Ferran Adrià, himself a brilliant chef whose famous elBulli restaurant was where Albert got his start.  Ferran that night is referred to as “a god.”


One of the problem with this film may stem from the limits of film itself.   If you make a documentary about a painter, a musician, a dancer, etc. we can see examples of their art and appreciate (perhaps) their talent.  Chefs don’t have that opportunity.  We can judge the presentation of their food but that’s all.  Whether it tastes good or not has to be taken on faith.  And on the glories of haute cuisine one may be, as I obviously am, a committed skeptic, if not atheist.  The food may be fantastic but the entire venture often comes across as ludicrous.  For instance, at one of Albert’s restaurants he is presented with a tree leaf coated in gleaming but no doubt flavorful oils, he puts it in his mouth, sucks off the coating, pulls out the leaf and says to the chef “It needs more lime.”  At such moments it’s hard not to scoff.   (“‘And fewer caterpillars, too,’ he added” would be my joke.)

It may sounds paradoxical but to make a good documentary about a restaurant or a chef it can’t be about the food.  The food should serve as a gateway to something else.  In the aforementioned Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s chef Jiro Ono’s lifelong commitment to an unattainable perfection of sushi that makes him interesting.  You can be a brick-layer and still be inspired by his passion and his view of life.  By contrast, in Constructing Albert we don’t get anything more than the awesomeness of Albert Adrià.  Directors Laura Collado and Jim Loomis never take us beyond that. And unless you’re a passionate foodie, that’s simply not enough.  


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

SIFF 2018: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
A fun and highly entertaining animated children’s movie from France (and coming to Seattle as part of SIFF 2018).  It’s made up of three different stories all set in the same farmyard.  In the first, a lazy stork cajoles a duck, a rabbit, and a pig into dropping off a new baby to a couple in Avignon.  They succeed, but along the way there is much slapstick mayhem.  In the second, a fox, who’s a bit of wimp, steals three eggs from a chicken.  As soon as they hatch, however, the little chicks mistake the tender-hearted fox for their mother, thwarting his culinary designs.  Even worse, they believe that they are foxes, too.  The third tale is a Christmas story involving the duck, the rabbit, and the pig again.  To my mind, it wasn’t as good as the other two, but judging by the reaction of the kids in the movie theater, I’m in a minority on this one.



Directed by Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner (and based on the latter’s comic book of the same name), The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is big, cute, wonderful fun.  Check out the trailer below and you’ll see.  

Monday, May 28, 2018

SIFF 2018: Mademoiselle Paradis

Maria Theresia Paradis was a young, Viennese pianist in the late 18th-century.  For unknown reasons she went blind in childhood.  This did not stop her, though, from becoming a magnificent musician.  She was a prodigy at a time and place when there was great competition in being a musical prodigy.  In her late teens, after many years of painful eye treatments, she became the patient of doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.  Mesmer believed that all life was suffused with an invisible, vital fluid and that disease and illness were caused when this mysterious substance was blocked up.  He coined the phrase “animal magnetism” and is the source of our word “mesmerize.”  His treatments involved magnets and a special healing tub, but mostly involved gentle stroking of the patient’s head or arms or back.  This was meant to remove the alleged blockages.

After a few weeks of this unorthodox treatment Maria regained her sight.  It was Mesmer’s greatest success.  However, complications soon arose, the most important being that she could no longer play the piano.  The sight of the keys seemed to throw her off.  She sank into a deep depression.  Her parents, frightened at the news that her musical abilities were impaired - and thus her disability pension threatened - had her forcibly removed from Mesmer’s clinic.  She returned home, where she soon went completely blind but regained her amazing musical abilities.  She went on to have a highly successful career as a performer and composer, though sadly most of her works have been lost to us. 

This is the true story behind Mademoiselle Paradis, a wretched little film from Germany directed by Barbara Albert and showing as part of SIFF 2018.  There are two main problems with this movie.

First, the simple story I told above is interlarded in this film with numerous uninteresting and overwrought sub-plots involving tangental, if not entirely irrelevant, characters.  We’re subjected to scenes of fighting and scheming among the servants in Mesmer’s clinic, a sexual assault, and an attempted abortion.  We meet a young boy with mental and physical disabilities who comes to a bad end when he gets too close to the horses one night.  This sub-plot was totally clichéd and predictable and unnecessary.  “Oh, boy,” I told myself as the adorable little imp first ran onto screen chasing the carriage containing Maria “Little Nell there ain’t gonna make it.”  Right from the start you could tell that he was only being introduced into the story to get killed off later in a cheap bid for pity.  That poor little bastard.

Second, there is no chemistry between the two lead characters in this film.  Maria Dragus plays Maria and plays her as something of a freak.  From the first repulsive shot of the film - a long close up of a heavily-made up and bewigged Maria playing the piano, her eyes rolling in head, her head lolling around on her neck, and her mouth spasmodically twitching and grimacing - we get the impression that Albert sees disability as some sort of gateway to freakishness.  She makes Maria walk awkwardly and complain about her eye treatments making pus form on her scalp.  WTF!  The girl’s just blind, Barbara, she’s not the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Albert’s depiction of Mesmer’s clinic is no better.  The patients giggle, twitch, tremble, laugh hysterically for no reason and then begin yelling uncontrollably.  During the time at the clinic we hear an unknown woman screaming in the background - exactly the sort of Snake Pit nonsense which one had hoped was discarded decades ago.  
Devid Striesow and Maria Dragus
Devid Striesow plays Mesmer as cold and aloof.  He’s a distant and stuffy figure.  In other words, he's utterly devoid of exactly the sort of charm and personal magnetism that makes a faith-healer/charlatan like Mesmer such a success in life.  The scenes of he and Maria together are flat.  They lack vitality and are free of any spark of magic between the two.  And that’s fatal for this film.  Since it was Mesmer’s personal abilities - his charisma, if you will - which healed his patients, if that’s lacking in the telling of the tale then the heart of the story is missing.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

SIFF 2018: The Cake General

The Cake General (Tårtgeneralen)
Is Köping the most boring town in Sweden?  Back in 1984 a popular Swedish TV show thought so.  And they devoted a whole segment of their program to showing how dreary the little town was.  This insult infuriated Köping-resident Hassa P.  He decided to strike back by putting his town on the map.  How?  By constructing the world’s largest sandwich cake.  Thus The Cake General, a hilarious new comedy based on those real-life events (and currently showing as part of SIFF 2018).

Narrated by Filip Hammar, who was a young boy living in Köping back in 1984, this film is a charming, funny, and, yes, heart-warming account of those events as well as a celebration of human eccentricities and differences.  And if anyone is a little different, it’s lead character Hassa P.  During the opening credits we see him running through town with his latest invention: a pair of jogging shoes with large metal springs on the bottom - the kind Wylie Coyote would use.  He thinks they’ll make you run faster.  While A-Ha’s “Take on Me” plays, we watch him jaunt, stumble, jog, fall, and finally make a drunken sales pitch for the shoes to a small crowd of baffled onlookers.  Ultimately the police show up and haul him away.  Hassa P., it turns out, is just one of the town drunks.  But a drunk with great ambitions.  He fancies himself one of those great entrepreneurs who rose to prominence in the '80s.  He dreams large.  And if in reality he’s spent most of his life on benders in between failed ventures, once he gets a new idea he won’t let it go.  Equally colorful is the Filip’s father, a beret-wearing Francophile whose eccentricities - he takes his 10 year old son to see Paosolini’s torture-porn film Salo - are the bane of Filip’s school life.  During the course of the film, Hassa P.’s crazy example will inspire Filip as well.  

Mikael Persbrandt

Written and directed by Filip Hammar and Frekrik Wikingsson, The Cake General is a lot of fun.  Not only is it set in the 1980s, but I also found it evocative of some of that era’s best comedies, especially Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero (1983).  It shares that film's charm and gentle sense of humor as well as its ability to winningly depict an entire community as a character.  Both films would fill a double-bill well.  The cast, headed by Mikael Persbrandt as Hassa P., are all excellent.  And if the film tugs at your heartstrings a little too obviously - the end of the film reunites the real-life Hassa P. with his townsmen in 2009 - you don’t really care.  The important part of a guilty pleasure is not the guilt, it’s the pleasure.  And The Cake General supplies that in abundance.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

SIFF 2018: Racer and the Jailbird/After the War

Thursday was opening night of the 44th annual Seattle International Film Festival - twenty five days featuring over four hundred movies.  On Friday I saw two of them.  The first was a French-Belgian production; the second a French-Italian production.  Unfortunately, both were disappointments.

Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle)
A very, very mixed bag.  Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a successful race car driver.  Gino (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a thief with a long history of screw-ups and prison time.  They meet and fall in love.  But Gino’s inability to leave his life of crime behind him pushes their relationship to the limit.

Also pushed to the limit in this film will be your willingness to endure director Michaël R. Roskam’s wildly uneven story-telling ability.  The first two-thirds of this film are very good - original, compelling, moody.  But in the last third of the movie, the narrative goes into complete meltdown.  (Be advised this post will contain spoilers, though, frankly, nothing spoiled this film more than what Roskam and his co-screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré did to it in the final thirty minutes.)  Gino is in prison at this point in the film.  But Bibi still loves him.  Soon, thanks to prison visitation rights, she’s pregnant with his child and waiting for her fiancé’s release.  The film should have stopped there.  If it had, it would have been an entertaining love/crime story.  But no.  Instead Bibi has a miscarriage.  Then she gets cancer.  She cuts a deal with the Albanian mob (!?!) to break Gino out of prison (this is completely out of character for her, by the way).  Then she goes into a coma.  Then she dies.  After a savage beating, Gino is taken out of prison by the Albanians.  But rather than free him, they lock him in a cage in a warehouse.  He breaks out of the cage.  Then there’s a big gunfight in the warehouse from which Gino emerges victorious.  He leaves and goes to a cemetery (presumably to see Bibi’s grave).  The end.  


Ludicrous, far-fetched, over-wrought - it was hard not to walk out of this film.  When the house lights came up, not a single clap.  Why do film-makers ruin their own films like this?  I don’t understand.  I had the same problem with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.  That was a outstanding portrait of a man and the changes he encounters in old age; but, there too, the film-makers couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to spoil the film by dragging in Eastwood’s tiresome, old Dirty Harry conceits.  Maybe after years in the film business it hard for producers, directors, and writers to deal with normal, ordinary life.  The concept of people experiencing events and then just going on with their lives is not something film-makers (as compared to, say, novelists) know how to deal with.  Reality is too disturbing for them; they are out of their element.  It freaks them out.



OK, I’ve trashed the bad part of this film but now let me back up and praise the first two-thirds of it, which are worth seeing.  Exarchopoulos and Schoenaerts are a delight to watch together.  She’s reserved and moody, yet full of a watchful suspicion of the world.  Self-protection is her nature.  He is vivacious, charming but boyishly vulnerable.  A crook more by accident than by nature.  If there was a French version of Reservoir Dogs, he would have fit right in with the other doomed petty thieves.  The original title of this film is Le Fidèle, which means “The Faithful” in French, and it should have been kept for its American release because this is a film about faith, trust, and confidence.  Not among the criminals, mind you, but between the two lovers.  Normally two people arguing about the importance of trust in their relationship would not have a lot of dramatic possibilities, but make one of them a criminal, as Roskam has done, and the topic takes on major importance.  This is a thriller about honesty.  Finally, I like Roskam’s directorial style.  Everything about this film is low-key and slow.  The colors are muted.  There isn’t much music.  Roskam doesn’t force a scene, he lets the camera linger.  He’s not afraid of silence.  This doesn’t weaken the film, rather it enhances it.  In a film this quiet the slightest gesture becomes a tidal wave.  It was masterfully done - at least for a while. 

After the War (Dopo la Guerra)
Back in the 1980s Marco Lamberti (Giuseppe Battiston) was part of a left-wing terrorist group in Italy, sort of like the Red Brigades.  After murdering an Italian judge, he sought and received asylum in France.  Decades later a terrorist act in Italy (which he had nothing to do with) puts him under the spotlight and makes him a target for extradition.  He and his sixteen-year-old daughter flee into the French countryside.  Meanwhile, back in Italy, his family suffer the consequences for his past crimes.

A dud.  This film is slow, heavy, and lugubrious.  The characters are shallow.  Worst of all, though, is the inability of the film-makers to honestly deal with the very topics their own film raises.  To make a candid and frank film about the terrorist groups of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (The Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, Weather Underground, etc.) requires a tremendous amount of courage and intelligence.  For this film to work we need to understand Marco’s commitment to violence, especially the ideology of revolutionary violence so prevalent at the time.  Without that, he remains unsympathetic and this is nothing more than a dreary little tale about a scofflaw.  But the film never provides this understanding, we never really get inside Marco's head.  Instead we’re shown the problems which the terrorist’s family undergoes - his sister in Italy gets fired from her teaching job, his daughter can’t go hang out with other teens at the beach, etc. Interesting, to be sure, but since the big question of the film - should Marco go to jail for his actions twenty years ago or not - never gets candidly addressed, all of the human interest sub-plots seem evasive.  

Giuseppe Battiston and Charlotte Cétaire
I understand the reluctance of director Annarita Zambrano and her co-writer Delphine Agut to take an honest look at terrorism from the terrorist's point-of-view.  There are many angry and damaged people in Europe and the US who might find Marco's commitment to revolutionary violence inspiring, but if the artists are unwilling to deal honestly with a difficult topic like this, then they shouldn’t deal with it at all.  And the final sign that Zambrano is in over her head is the ending (spoiler alert).  Marco gets run over and killed by a car one night while he's on the road.  Rather than deal with the issues her own movie raises she kills off her protagonist.  As they used to say back in the '60s: What a cop-out.  

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Nabokov on Colors and Letters

On top of all this I present a fine case of colored hearing.  Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.  The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but the French a evokes polished ebony.  This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped).  Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites…Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z and huckleberry k.  Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue to c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother of pearl.  
  - Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1960)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Rages of Young Men and Old Men

Young man’s rage is an invigorating condition, cleansing, cheering, self-assertive: hatred of the bourgeois seems indeed the beginning of all virtue.  Old man’s rage is corrosive and pessimistic; it is a refusal to admit that you were wrong, combined with a refusal to admit that your best efforts, even if allowed to continue for a further thousand years, would probably have no impact on humanity.  
  - Julian Barnes, “Flaubert, C’est Moi”
     (2006)

Monday, May 07, 2018

Ingrid Bergman's Swedish Films, Part 3

Here they are - the last two films in The Criterion Collection’s six-movie set of Ingrid Bergman’s early work in Sweden.  (See reviews of the first two here; of the middle two here.)  The mood is now darker.  In a 1937 poll of Swedish film-goers Bergman had been voted “most admired movie star.”  So she did what most intelligent movie stars do - she took risks.  

A Woman’s Face (1938)
How do you make a beautiful face more interesting on camera?  Make it ugly, hide the beauty.  And so it is in this film.  Bergman plays Anna, a con-artist with a face partially disfigured by fire in her childhood.  While collecting blackmail money from a wealthy woman, Anna is caught by her mark’s husband, who, with great cinematic convenience, just happens to be a plastic surgeon.  The kindly and sympathetic doctor gives her a new face - and the chance at a new life.  But things aren’t so simple.  Her gang sends the now beautiful Anna undercover as a nanny to a rich old man in a scheme involving murder.  

This film is very good; it’s somber and thought-provoking, but never bleak or grim. Bergman fought to make it, writing in her diary that it was “my own.”  At the same time, she was concerned that audiences might not wish to see her disfigured.  And for 1938 it’s an impressive disfigurement, created using makeup, glue (to distort her eye), and a dental brace.  Bergman’s performance is gripping.  Although she’s not entirely convincing as a criminal (there’s no dead soul behind those eyes), she beautifully captures the burden of anger and pain that can come from a life of poverty and physical stigma.  When she infiltrates the house of the wealthy old man in the second half of the film, we can see her mounting anger at the comfort and ease in which he and his grandson live.  Bergman’s Anna is a portrait of deep envy.  She doesn’t just envy other people’s stuff; she envies their pasts, the happiness and freedom that their lives represent and that her life has lacked due to her deformation.


Gustaf Molander does an outstanding job directing.  He holds back at giving us a clear view of Bergman’s face, both in the beginning when she is disfigured and later when her face is restored.  Much of the power of this film is based on how Molander plays with the movie-going experience itself.  We go to the movies to see faces.  Yes, there’s story, action, emotions, etc. but the face is at the center of it all, remove the face and there’s no movie.  By temporarily withholding our view of Bergman’s face, Molander creates suspense, tension.  But suspense for what?  In a story we feel suspense when we want to know the outcome.  What Molander is creating is different.  He’s blocking our view, he’s impeding what John Ruskin called “the desire of my eyes” though, to be frank, what we bring to the movies is stronger that a mere desire - it’s a lust of the eyes.  And that is what Molander frustrates and, hence, incites in this film.  This film was shot, like the previous two, by Äke Dahlqvist so it is breathtaking to watch - the lust of your eyes will most definitely be satisfied.  An exceptionally good film.  

Two things before I move on to the last movie.  First, Patricia Hutchinson, a film critic and editor of the website SilentLondon.co.uk, wrote the brief and excellent notes which accompany each film.  I have relied upon her for much of the factual information in these posts.  Second, After seeing these films, I would like to directly appeal to The Criterion Collection to release more films, or even a box set of them, directed by Gustaf Molander.  This was my first exposure to the works of this great director and more would be welcome.

June Night (1940)
Ingrid Bergman plays Kerstin, a young girl in a small Swedish town who is shot in the chest one night by her lover.  She survives, but the publicity from the resulting trial forces her to move to Stockholm.  There she gets a job in a pharmacy and moves in to a boarding house with other young women.  Although she will discover romance, the past catches up with her.  Doesn’t it always.   

Despite the soap-opera nature of the plot, this is an absorbing and lively film.  Once Bergman is in Stockholm the movie transforms into an ensemble piece (but a good one) as we follow the lives of several young professional woman in 1930s Sweden.  Marianne Löfgren as Äsa and Marianne Aminoff as Nikan give wonderful performances as, respectively, a nurse who befriends Kerstin and a switchboard girl who rooms with her.  Ingrid, in what would be her last Swedish film until 1967, is very good as the troubled and tormented Kerstin.  
Ingrid Bergman and Olof Widgren

This film honestly and candidly depicts the sexual politics underlying the lives of women at that time, especially those who worked.  It’s based on a novel by Tora Nordström-Bonnier, whose work specialized in psychology and issues of sex.  Not surprisingly June Night has far more candor and realism than anything Hollywood was creating at the time.  Unmarried couples go off for the weekend, single woman sleep with men and don’t die in car crashes - it’s pretty wild stuff.  Even ordinary events are depicted with a directness unusual for its time.  At one point, for instance, Bergman has to show her chest wound to a doctor so she takes off her top and removes the bandages over her breasts.  We, of course, don’t see them but the doctor does.  He looks at her nude front and probes the wound, all the while making judgmental comments.  We wince at Bergman’s vulnerability and the doctor’s casual cruelty.  A scene such as this would never have survived the censors in the US.  Per Lindberg directed and the film was shot by, who else, Äke Dahlqvist, so it is a visual feast.    

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Empires

When we were driving out of the town* I said, “I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else.  They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.”  “I do not think you can convince mankind,” said my husband, “that there is not a certain magnificence about a great empire in being.”  “Of course there is,” I admitted, “but the hideousness outweighs the beauty.  You are not, I hope, going to tell me that they impose law on lawless people.  Empires live by the violation of law.”
    - Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (1941)

* Trebinje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Ingrid Bergman's Swedish Films, Part 2

When I was a little kid and first saw Ingrid Bergman (in Casablanca, of course), my immediate reaction was “Oh my God!  This is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived!  I want to look at her forever!”  Clearly, I was not alone in my response.  Someone else must have felt the same way I did, and I think they wound up working at The Criterion Collection - who have served the Swedish-born actress very well over the years.  Their latest selection of her works is a set of six films which she made in her home country early in her career.  I reviewed the first two films here; below are reviews of the middle two; and the last two here.

Intermezzo (1936)
Holger Brandt (Gösta Ekman) is a successful violinist with a wife and family.  One day he encounters a beautiful and talented young pianist, Anita Hoffman (Ingrid Bergman).  They fall in love and soon he leaves his family for her.  But the May-September romance doesn’t last.  Ultimately, Anita leaves Holger so she can continue her studies in Paris.  A heart-broken Holger returns to his estranged family. 

A magnificent film, a masterpiece.  Director Gustaf Molander has taken the most banal of topics - adultery - and turned it into a compelling and unforgettable drama.  Intermezzo was Bergman’s break-out movie.  It made her a star in Sweden and would ultimately lead her to Hollywood.  Her performance in this film is outstanding.  In previous outings she had a tendency to overplay her roles, to put all the character’s emotions fully on display.  But with Intermezzo she learns restraint; the histrionics are eliminated, the emotions are internalized and we get a portrayal of subtlety and depth.  Bergman always credited Molander with being one of the directors who helped her grow as an actress (the other was Hitchcock).  “I created Intermezzo for her,” Molander once said, and that’s evident every time she’s on screen.  He loves her.  She’s radiant in every close up.  At this point, special mention needs to be made of the work of cinematographer Äke Dahlqvist.  This is one of the most gorgeous and lush films you will ever see.  Even the non-Ingrid-Bergman shots are suffused with beauty and a luminous glow.  The camera itself seems to be intoxicated with love.  Molander, Bergman, and Dahlqvist would work together on several films during the 1930s - three of their ventures are included in this set - and these works are largely considered to be the best works of Swedish cinema in the 30s.
  
Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman

Gösta Ekman is equally good as Holger.  The chemistry between him and Bergman is what holds this film together.  He has a remarkable and compelling face.   It’s aristocratic, with just a hint of dissipation - perfect for the role of a violinist.  Ekman’s career went back to the silent era and despite the overall mastery which he displays in this outing from time to time he has a tendency to overact the way those silent-film actors often would.  Yet in a strange way this too helps the film.  It echoes the story; the May-September love affair is reflected in the different acting techniques of the leads: hers newer, quieter, and more naturalistic; his older and slightly more exaggerated.  

This film also helped to establish Bergman’s screen persona, which was an intriguing one and would persist even through her years in the US.  She often played women who, by Hollywood standards, were a little sexually loose - think of Ilsa from Casablanca or Alicia from Notorious.  Yet she was never a “bad girl,” never a Gloria Grahame or Jean Harlow.  And her “loose” characters were often distinctly nurturing, even maternal, at the same time.  For instance, in Intermezzo she first meets Holger while teaching his daughter piano.  The little girl loves her, of course.  This ability to straddle female stereotypes in American films was no doubt due to the fact that she was a foreigner.  As a European - and a Swede, no less - she had a leeway denied her US-born colleagues.


When David Selznick saw Intermezzo, he was so struck by Bergman’s beauty and performance that he brought her out to Hollywood and remade it under the same name in 1939 with Leslie Howard.  The film was a hit and made Bergman a star in the US and abroad.  Intermezzo is iconic for Bergman in another sense.  Her last theatrically-released movie was the beautiful Autumn Sonata (1978), which was written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.  In it, she plays a world-famous classical pianist who returns home to mend fences with her estranged daughter (played by Liv Ullman).  Ingmar had often expressed a desire to work with Ingrid and it's no accident that the role he created for her hearkened back to IntermezzoAutumn Sonata, by the way, was also Ingmar Bergman's last theatrically-released film, too.  Henceforth, both Bergmans worked only in television for the rest of their careers.

Dollar (1938)
This attempt at a screwball comedy, á la Lubitsch or Cukor, completely falls flat.  Three wealthy couples gather at a ski resort (Ingrid is one of the sextet).  They flirt with each other and fight with each other, say witty things and dress elegantly, etc.  Then a rich and young American woman shows up.  She is eccentric, so there are more witticisms and quips and cleverness.  In the end, all strife is resolved, husbands and wives are reunited and the American lady has got herself a  husband.

Clearly this is all meant to be light-hearted, charming, and effervescent in a Noël Coward sort of way.  But it’s not.  At least, not to me.  I admit this may just be an issue of cultural differences, which are never more noticeable than in comedy.  Swedes and screwball comedy simply do not go together.  The former lack the lightness of touch to pull off the latter.  They are too serious, too earnest, too honest about life.  They just don’t get the finer points of screwball comedy, and, of course, if you don’t get the finer points, you don’t get it at all.  They also don’t know what to exclude.  For instance, one of the woman in Dollar is exceptionally emotional and we learn that this is because she still hasn’t gotten over the death of her child a few years back.  Oh, boy.  A dead child.  No, no, no.  Listen, Swedes, rule one for comedy, and especially light comedy: No dead children.  Ever.  Not in the story, not in the backstory.  Dead children in drama - yes.  Dead children in comedy - no.  That should be obvious.  Sheesh…


Despite the poor script and overall doomed nature of this endeavor, Bergman puts in a solid performance.  She is catty and quick-witted as the wife of an industrial tycoon who loves his business more than he loves her.  She delivers the swift comedy-of-manners patter with aplomb and is as slinky, feline, and elegant as one would wish.  Gustaf Molander directed and Äke Dahlqvist shot it, so it is a delight to watch despite its flaws.  Ingmar Bergman was a big fan of this film.  Back in 2000, he wrote about Dollar and praised its “poise and perfectionism.”  I didn’t see much perfectionism in it but it does have poise.