Friday, March 16, 2018

The Lottery

Lots of people play the lottery. That's why the Powerball jackpots are so huge. In fact one recent winner sued to maintain her anonymity, one of the things that's usually lost when you have this kind of win ("Lottery Winner Knows Just What to Do With $560 Million: Fight to Stay Anonymous," NYT, 2/6/18). The iconic nature of the lottery in which winner takes all was capitalized on by Shirley Jackson in her famous story which appeared in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker. In fact the winner in that case was a big time loser, but there the author was frying other fish amongst them the lack of innocence in complacency. Essentially playing lotteries is a way of life and it can be a bad thing to the extent that you begin to live for a certain thrill that's predicated on impossibility. It's a little like hypochondria. The hypochondriac thinks they want to get better but actually they need a new disease the cure of which leaves them a perpetual state of hope. Some people forswear lotteries because they've given up the life of thrill seeking and would rather expend their energy on soluble problems with less dramatic outcomes. You might not make millions but there's a certain pleasure in putting in the time and  effort which produces success and respect in a profession. There's no high and sometimes it feels like a kind of slog--the boring process and subtle rewards that account for what is usually termed fulfillment. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Death of Stalin

The problem with Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is that Steve Buscemi looks nothing like the tyrant’s (Adrian McLoughlin) shoe-thumping successor. Usually parody hones closely to the object of the satire, but here for instance Buscemi looks and acts like Jerry Ford. Iannucci is actually proposing a new theory of comedy to the extent that the world he creates is somewhere between a London taxi stand, with a bunch of cockney drivers opinionating and one of the chambers of the US congress with a little bit of Hamlet’s gravediggers thrown in. Jeffrey Tambor as a cowering Malenkov, Simon Russell Beale as a buffoonish Beria, Michael Palin as the an ambivalent Molotov, and Jeffrey Isaacs playing a punch drunk Zhukov might better be cast in EastEnders. The actual concept at work, to reduce one of the great milestones  of history, the end of  Stalin’s reign of terror, to the kind of kitchen sink farce you had say in The Honeymooners is as ineffective as it is original. Some reviewers have raved about how funny the movie is. “I want to make a speech at my father’s funeral,” says Stalin’s deranged son Vassily (Rupert Friend) “And I want to fuck Grace Kelly,” is the riposte. That garnered a couple of laughs, but there were no signs that viewers at a recent performance were rolling in the aisles. Iannucci might succeed in making evil banal, but what's so funny?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Fanny and Alexander II & III

Andre Malraux wrote his Anti-Memoirs. Fanny & Alexander II and III, the middle sections of the Bergman masterpiece, recently revived at Film Forum, are Bergman’s anti-liturgy, but the message is clear and strict and unshakeable. In this case the scripture has been replaced by Hamlet. The death of the father, the feckless theatrical manager Oscar (Allan Edwall) in the middle of a production of the tragedy foreshadows the playing out of the iconic story again. Alexander's (Bertil Guve) "cock, fart, piss, shit" during his father's funeral procession is his "To be or not to be"--and the only way to deal with his feelings of betrayal and loss. In the wake of her husband’s death, Alexander's mother, Emilie (Eva Frohling) is won over by the bishop, Vergerus (Jan Malmsjo) who offers her a connection to both God and reality that neither her deceased husband nor her life as an actress ever provided. She tells Alexander, that she’s not Gertrude and he’s not Hamlet, but one of Oscar's last lines “I can play the ghost now” haunts the movie. On his deathbed, Oscar reassures his wife there’s nothing to be afraid saying, “I’ll be closer to you now then when I lived.” However the words eerily foreshadow Emilie’s infatuation with her Tartuffe. Part of the catechism that will unfold has to do with the notion of a lie. Alexander has created two tales, one about his mother selling him to a circus and the other about the drowning of the bishop’s first wife and two children. He will pay a severe price for his imagination, as will the director throughout the tormented life that's documented in this and other films. Yet when his inquisitor asks why he lies, he propagates the notion that liars do so “to get an advantage.” It’s a beautiful and enigmatic expression of the idea expressed by Picasso, “Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth at least the truth that is given us to understand.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Passion of Anna

The Passion of Anna (1970), currently being revived at Film Forumis a deceptive title to the extent that you think it subscribes to a classical religious form. The life on the island on which Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow), a geologist and intellectual, who has also been a convict (having been arrested for drunk driving and embezzlement), is indeed medieval, a primitive isolated world that takes one back to the suffering and cruelty Bergman’s Knight (again played by von Sydow) endures in the wake of his return from the crusades in The Seventh Seal. The Passion of Anna even reprises the chessboard. But the closest thing to the form of the passion play is the famous monologue where Anna (Liv Ullmann) recounts the accident in which her husband and child are killed and the camera holds to her face. Yet there’s also something aloof about it. She describes the scene as if it were happening to someone else. The film might have actually been called The Dispassion of Anna. There’s the period of discovery in civil cases when both parties have access to pertinent information and that’s the mode of the movie’s disquisition. When the viewer first encounters Anna, her limp is the most noticeable thing about her. Then when she leaves her purse in Winkleman’s house, Andreas reads a letter in particular the words “physical and psychical acts of violence” which will be reiterated throughout the film. Anna’s husband, it turns out, was leaving her even before the tragedy. The fourth wall is broken down so that the actors can be interviewed about the characters they play. Ullman says about Anna, “That’s what’s so hard about being a believer you expect others to have the same faith.” And then there are the sounds, Andreas' breathing at the beginning, the ringing of phones, the foghorn and the constant ticking of clocks. The famous image of the captured Viet Cong who’s shot by the South Vietnamese general (an iconic piece of newsreel footage from the time in which the film was made) is interspersed with a series of horrible crimes against animals that inspire further acts of vengeance on the part of the islanders. Elis (Erland Josephson) and his wife Eva (Bibi Andersson) are the other couple and Bergman doesn’t let us know that Anna and Andreas are actually in a relationship until Andreas has already cheated on the feckless Eva, to whom he has also lied. Bit by bit Bergman builds his case, in which a certain degree of sadism results from an intrinsic lack of connection.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Silence

You think The Silence (1963), recently revived at Film Forum, refers to an absence, in particular the absence of God with which the filmmaker was notably obsessed (The Silence is the third of a spiritual trilogy comprised of Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light). The ticking of the clock, a constant leitmotif in this film as in The Passion of Anna and Fanny and Alexander is like a fragile heart, which will one day stop, with no one there to rewind it. But several minutes into the long early take in which you're presented with both frontal and dorsal views of the young boy Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom) in the iconic scene of his hands touching a train window, you realize the title also alludes to a genre and era, whose conventions the director expropriates. As Johan prowls the corridors of a fin de siècle hotel reminiscent in its mystery of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), he’s actually inventing stage business with his body silhouetted in shadows. He makes the acquaintance of the hotel’s waiter (Haken Jahnberg) who performs a mime with a sausage. If you’ve seen Beckett’s only piece of filmmaking, Film, you’ll be reminded of Buster Keaton’s antics, the way in which he passes time, in the face of imminent oblivion. But within the silent film context, The Silence recalls a work of early cinema, the surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou  (1929) in its mixture of aggression, sexuality and humor. You of course have the blatant sexuality of Johan’s incestuous mother Ester (Ingrid Thulin), whose narration of her sexual exploits foreshadows, Bibi Andersson’s famed monologue in Persona. Then there’s the game of spiritual hide and seek played by our tiny hero with his toy pistol. This in turn culminates in his discovery of a comic circus act in the form of a troop of midgets. It’s as if Bergman had taken Dali and Bunuel with him to central casting. Ester’s sister Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is dying but her illness is as much spiritual and physical and it's truly a Kierkegaardian Sickness Unto Death. Words do eventually make their way into the mise en scene. Johan, for instance, says to his mother enigmatically “your feet they’re always walking you  around,” However, our beleaguered travelers have arrived in an unidentified foreign land where they’re not conversant with the language. Disconnection is the axis on which the movie turns and the voyeurism and exhibitionism for which The Silence is known are not expressions of eroticism, but of the failed attempt to connect either through emotions or words.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Through a Glass Darkly

It has often been said that love involves a temporary madness. It’s a little like Midsummer Night’s Dream where the world is turned upside down in order to produce the kinds of idealizations and distortions which allow individuals to fall for each other. Once the dreamer wakes up, he or she will either find that the legacy of passion turns out to be a relationship or merely a one-night stand. The creative process like love also depends on a temporary madness, if only because the artist like Orpheus must descend in to the underworld to find his Eurydice. Ingmar Bergman is a case in point. Bergman was probably the greatest artist of his time, arguably greater than Picasso, Joyce, Eliot or any of the other modernists, due to innovations he brought to his chosen form, cinema, and to the profundity of his insights in to the human condition and in particular human kind’s tortured search for divinity. He was the Shakespeare of the twentieth century. But what was the price that had to be paid? From all accounts Bergman was not someone most people would have liked to have known more or less to be involved with romantically or any other way. Through a Glass Darkly, currently in revival at Film Forumtells the story of the siblings of a novelist, who is an absent father. Incest and insanity constitute the film’s major themes. If we assume that the film has some autobiographical elements (it was shot on Faro, the island where Bergman lived), it’s plain that the director had no reticence about exploiting the very misery he himself had something to do with creating.