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Posts tagged “Max von Sydow

The Seventh Seal


Before even seeing Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” we’re probably already aware of the iconic images of Death (Bengt Ekerot) extended, cloaked right arm and his game of chess with a knight named Antonius Block (Max von Sydow). These are the kind of scenes you save from the ending of a movie but Bergman makes the momentous meeting between Death and his challenger in the beginning. Like what can Bergman possibly give us for the rest of his movie’s 92-minute running time? How many times will Death and Antonius meet again, and how is it going to involve a coast village full of actors (Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe) and the occasional blacksmith (Aki Fridell)  and witch (Maud Hansson)?

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I must say that I’m more of a Bergman fan when his work was grounded in more recent settings as well as more contemporary emotional and psychological concerns. Although I’m not saying that his work before “Persona” had no merits. “The Virgin Spring” hit me hard but like it, “The Seventh Seal” have the same primitive, storybook-like air and pacing to it, the characters having the same abstract dimensions within a unique yet helplessly dated environment.

But while it might lack the kind of articulation of character that I’m used to in his work or in other works, it does show all of them within this cultural fabric that’s obsessed with death. It is the medieval Europe after all, after all, when people equally feared God and the Bubonic plague. And with the actors and fresco painters as characters in this movie we can see art making these zeitgeist-y questions more permanent for future generations to see and remember. Maybe it’s this distance between my culture and the one I’m watching, a distance I lamented at one point, comes to the movies benefits because contemporary eyes will always see something fresh with the time capsule what Bergman puts on-screen.

A Plague-filled country isn’t the best one that anyone could return to, especially Antonius who has just fought valiantly during the Crusades and has thus seen his own share of multiple deaths. One can read his return and his meeting with death with suspicion, the seemingly noble, well-intentioned man inadvertently bringing death wherever he goes. But we don’t necessarily have to blame colonialism or other countries for bringing death home. Death is inescapable.

Since we’re on the topic of culture and widespread death, notice Bergman’s sober perspective on how the characters form quick grudges and bonds. Men switch territories, actors change visions, women cheat on their lovers. Yes, sometimes, people and their trust for each other are their worst enemies, as Death consistently tricks Antonius with his disguises. And yes, it’s easy for other storytellers to blame other humans or the necessary evil of interpersonal relations on the deaths occurring during the movie’s time frame. But despite of its implications of human passiveness, Bergman lets these characters bond and forgive each other, setting necessary boundaries to keep the really bad people out. The movie also stars a younger, rougher Gunnar Bjornstrand as Antonius’ squire, belonging to a set of actors whom Bergman will continue to use.

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HMWYBS: Colours and Threats in ‘The Exorcist’


This post is part of Nathaniel R’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

I’m probably underestimating the aesthetic value of these shots in William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist but I’ll start my entry with this scene because I did not know where it was going and when I did, it hit personal sides of me. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) has exhausted many treatments for her daughter named Regan (Linda Blair, in the role that would make and break her career), who changed from being a nice girl into a cursing, welting, throwing, puking machine. The doctors and psychiatrists in white coats surround Chris and tell her that Regan needs ‘the best care’ in the latter’s situation.

And because this is an Ellen Burstyn movie, she says that she’s a strong woman and don’t you dare tell her how to raise her child and Regan is not going to an institution! This inquisition-like deliberation is reminiscent of methods decades ago where male doctors tell female hysterics how to be cured, which makes me wonder how that would subvert gender dynamics if the movie stuck to showing a possessed boy as opposed to the female characters in exorcism movies then and now. To ease the tension and since we already know that this movie is going in this direction, one of the doctors suggests an exorcism, explaining that –

It’s been pretty much discarded these days except by the…Catholics who keep it in the closet as a sort of embarrassment, but uh, it has worked.

He’s all hand gesture-y about it too. Chris responds with –

You’re telling me that I should take my daughter to a witch doctor? Is that it?

Witch doctor? Screw you, MacNeil. Well, at least she’s never fully passive through this ordeal. I can’t say that I’m offended, with all the implications of the word ‘witch.’ But even from a ‘sinner’ who looks at the Church from an ambivalent standpoint I, as a believer, still feel targeted when people, fictional or otherwise, talk about religions as hocus pocus.

But then it’s an adage from Film School 101 that horror as a genre casts doubt on our technology-age, secular society and ironically makes us return to the original way of thinking that we and our ancestors doubted in the first place. The last resort, the one that might cure Regan, is the one that has no scientific proof at all. Even the priests (including Max von Sydow) are shocked that a practice they believe is archaic can heal the possessed.

The threat against an individual as a mirror threat against Catholicism arguably isn’t Friedkin’s intention, although there’s enough visuals to harp for that interpretation to be real enough. One of the movie’s opening images is that of the Virgin, carved from white marble. White, the colour of the civilized hospital words, is also the colour of worship. This movie, as well as David Lynch’s horror movies, uses white or bright colours a lot which is the opposite of the black or red in other movies of the genre. It starts showing Her with the dissolve from an urban American street, perhaps showing Her omniscience. But Her pristine texture can also mean that she’s passive to the world going retrograde and evil, as Justine from Melancholia would say. It even makes me uncomfortable to watch the vandalism against Her image – I almost posted it and decided against it, and it’s probably out on the internet somewhere already – her statue degraded like the ‘evil’ ones that the elder priest’s archaeological team finds in Niniveh in modern Norther Iraq (evil characters as Iraqis, how typical), the Virgin’s body transformed by the changes outside her cloistered church. It’s the same difference when it comes to Regan, we the audience are taken each step towards her transformation into this outlandish creature, making us finally believe that the devil has invaded her.

Just like Regan’s slow changes, we can also feel this ‘threat’ or ‘dread,’ a particular requirement in the horror genre, especially in the other introduction sequences, like the one where the rock picks surround the priest get louder, more menacing and invasive. Or when Chris walks around Georgetown during the autumn and there’s already something suspicious in the way the wind blows and the leaves fall around her. And when Father Karras encounters that ‘former altar boy’ in the New York subway.

And since the demon-populated, pre-Christian beliefs represent human’s innate primeval side, the titular exorcism and thus, the Catholic Church is a force of civilization ironing out humans’ former kinks. Regan’s exorcism reminds me of a well-orchestrated theatre piece where three entities have physical and verbal beat downs, the movie finally going into the shadowed darkness to battle the evil out.


…Loud and Incredibly Close


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer‘ book, is a New York story, where its protagonist Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) goes around the city to find a lock that fits a key that he’s stumbled upon. Hoping that the said key will help his get closed to his deceased father Thomas (Tom Hanks), he missions through different parts of the city, every place filled with a different cinematic context. This is where Dean threatened to jump off a bridge, the neighborhood where Alike spent her adolescence or where Joe – a Woody Allen substitute – asked for donations for an Israeli state.

New York’s probably unique this way and just like the city, Stephen Daldry‘s film explores many new stories that will connect with Oskar’s. He finds the key inside an envelope labeled ‘Black’ inside a broken vase, convincing him that ‘Black’ is a surname of a New Yorker who can reconnect him to his father’s spirit or tell him something about his father that his young self couldn’t possibly know. The first of many stories involves Abby Black, played by Viola Davis who generously adds nuance to the few scenes she’s in – there’s a part of me who would rather her win an Oscar here than in The Help.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I believe that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close tries to and admittedly unfairly posit itself as a movie beyond criticism because I treat it not as a movie but as a person. Or more clearly, as I would if I meet Oskar, the character manifesting the story’s values and world view. Just like the movie, he’s annoying, he rambles too much, has too many neurotic and post-traumatic quirks and can’t finish a thought. But he’s also an independent child who journeys within New York on foot which is plausible and the kid is awesome, he has Asperger’s and his father died on 9/11. Where’s your snark now?

In fairness there are many moments within the movie that could be deal breakers. The first line that Oskar says is statistically inaccurate and I hate ‘wrong’ facts in movies. The montage where he talks about the things he hates. The scenes where he does and shows the injuries he inflicts on himself. The last shot. Some of the one-sided exchanges between him and a renter (Max von Sydow) are the worst, first because he and the movie find a human target for his hammering shock and awe. Speaking of which I will also admit that the movie uses the Babe Ruth method, presenting a tear jerking scene in case the last one didn’t make you cry.

But if only a few of the emotions aren’t earned, many of the great images are. Oskar running across a red brick wall in a push and pull struggle with the renter. The renter having yes or no tattooed on either palm. The cool glass walls where Oskar meets Abby’s husband William (Jeffrey Wright). I can pretend to know something within those images that help present an arc within the movie. Although there is something about the brightness of these moments that makes the movie feel like a sobering letter to a healing city. As if an invisible yet ever so present sun is guarding this child, making this unlikely gritty place the setting of a fairy tale, not in a pejorative but in a refreshing sense.

Another character guiding Oskar is his mother Linda played by divisive Sandra Bullock, their relationship frayed because of his closeness to Thomas even after his death, seeing each other as the family’s third wheel. She’s fortunate because of the great material involving her character, in an already personalized movie her scenes show the familial and micro side. These scenes wouldn’t work and be the movie’s best without her talents. Daldry, collaborating with screenwriter Eric Roth, produce a hit-and-miss movie when it comes to its tone. But its pacing softens these thousand shocks, making it Daldry’s most visceral and rewarding. Just before it loses our emotional connection, it boomerangs it back to us again. 3/5.


Bergman’s The Virgin Spring


The Virgin Spring seems to ask: Why are teenage girls perpetually dumber that we expect them? Tore (Max von Sydow) sends his daughter Karin (Brigitta Pettersson) out on a simple errand but within her little pilgrimage she does things that common sense would tell the audience not to do.

Why would she go into a dark forest without hesitation or go on without her escort? Why would she let herself get distracted by suspicious looking men?

This movie seems different from Ingmar Bergman‘s later, more excellent films because of its straightforward approach towards storytelling, but he comes up with a great formula nonetheless. He compartmentalizes every part of the narrative, the script firing off one section or character evenly.

And I know that Hollywood rules don’t apply to him but I also somehow applaud his decision to show a graphic sexual assault but not a murder. In 1960.

It has a straightforward enough of a message but we can also dig for the complexities within this cautionary tale. We can say that this movie exposes the arbitrary and cruel nature of violence, as she’s taken away without warning.

Instead of saying ‘bad things happen to people,’ we can say that God punishes a girl for her lack of judgment, innocence, gullibility, altruism and obliviousness.

They aren’t necessarily vices but I assume that contemporary audience’s eyes see her qualities as flaws working against her survival. We’re not looking at her merely as a victim because a victim is a blank slate and she is not.

And as much as it is about Karin it’s also equally about the people around her, and through them Bergman finds room for complex character studies within this simple movie. An example is Karin’s more beautiful yet pregnant escort Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).

In the earlier part of their journey they argue about Karin dancing with the father of Ingeri’s child, being doubtful of anyone’s purity. She leaves Karin for a while, making a pit stop at a cabin and then running away to follow Karin from a distance.

Ingeri inadvertently watches as Simon and his cohorts assault her. Keeping her pregnancy in mind, she also behaves as if constantly troubled, and being a constant survivor doesn’t help her guilt and powerlessness.

There’s also Tore and his reactions towards the news of her daughter’s violent murder. As luck would have it, Karin’s murderers would ask to lodge in his home. He avenges her but his act doesn’t satisfy him.

The titular spring appears where her body is found, a sign of her family’s redemption. But since the movie has gotten to the point in depicting Tore’s part of the story, it shows a family with one less child, a community broken from a future that could have been.


FLASH! Aa-ah!


ph. Universal

After talking about spousal abuse and Ingmar Bergman, I decided to let my hair down and go watch Flash Gordon ’80 as part of Edgar Wright’s series “The Wright Stuff,” educating Toronto hipsters about movies he likes. Flash Gordon is like Barbarella with a dude and less sex and more coherent and funnier.Basically, our hero Flash and his love interest, Dale, accidentally find themselves as prisoners and rebels on the Mongo empire. There’s a scene when Flash tries to telepathically communicate with Dale, but he gets distracted.

Flash: Oh my God. This girl’s really turning me on!

Dale Arden: I didn’t quite get that. Think it again…

Oh, girl. You did not wanna know.

Or the scene when the opposite prongs of the love triangle, Dale and Princess Aura finally meet. They yell at each other about being prisoners without talking about who is imprisoning them. And of course, pillow fight!

Princess Aura: But my father has never kept a vow in his life!
Dale Arden: I can’t help that, Aura. Keeping our word is one of the things that make us… better than you.

Maybe this movie was too early for its time, with its snark and all, but at the same time the aesthetics totally belongs to the cusp of the 80’s. It also fits within the transition between New Hollywood and the 80’s in a way that this movie is where the crazy went too far. But you know, it’s a beautiful film. Queen provides the soundtrack. Timothy Dalton is in a perfect age in this movie, acting as if this movie was Shakespeare, proposing to his girlfriend Princess Aura after she gets him out of the dungeons. Max von Sydow elevates yellow face into an art form, and yes, an Asian guy just wrote that.