Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Do Those Who Watch Too Many Foreign Films Suffer From Nervous Disorders?

If you stand outside a revival house and watch the crowds coming out onto the street, you realize that foreign films aren’t good for the system. There are those who argue against the healthiness of imbibing fast foods with their transfats, or meat that isn't farm fed, but there's no more unhealthy looking cross-section of the population than those who have spent their leisure time watching foreign films and particularly Ingmar Bergman classics like the famous trilogy about the absence of God: The Silence, Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly. Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that viewers of such fare tend to be disheveled and shifty-eyed. They display twitches and tics and though they’re avidly talking, it’s rarely to each other. Viewers of European cinema suffer from a malady called “failure of reciprocity syndrome” in which they're so perfervidly opinionating that their sound is out of sync. Epigenetic studies have shown that genes can actually be altered due to the watching of too many foreign films. Bertolucci’s l900, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (not to speak of his infamous Salo) and Godard’s Breathless have all been found to alter personality as a result of only one viewing.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Persona Redux

The notion of an actress who refuses to speak might seem like a paradoxical premise for a movie. It’s even more so since the character in question Elizabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) in Bergman’s Persona, currently in revival at Film Forum, is not suffering from any identifiable physical or mental disabilities (for instance aphasia or psychosis). In one of the most disturbing scenes of the film her caregiver, Alma (Bibi Andersson), who has poured her heart out to her and been cruely betrayed in the process, pleads with her to talk. When you contemplate the choreography it seems oddly out of kilter. Don’t actresses and artists give of themselves? Isn’t a certain degree of forthcomingness their lingua franca? The answer is rendered in the filmmaker’s own creation. Elisabet is filled with a steely cold resolve. Her acting may have stopped at the moment when she refused to continue her Electra, the play that's interrupted in medias res, but everything that has made her what she is, the imperturbable resolve, the lack of compromise now is epitomized by her silence. Humanism is not a good category in which to place this kind of artistic personality. The novelist David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) in Through a Glass Darkly reveals a similar detachment in his attitude towards his schizophrenic daughter whose decline he studies and records. The artist may use others to achieve his or her aims (like the director himself), but the eleemosynary impulse is not at the heart of such ambition.  

Monday, February 26, 2018


Persona derives from the Latin for "mask of the actor." Of course, one of the major themes of the Bergman masterpiece, currently in revival at Film Forum, is the structure of personality and more particularly the notion of the false self. Heidegger talked about the notion of authenticity, a state that could only be attained through the awareness of death. In Persona (1966) an actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) stops performing her Electra, henceforth refusing to talk. Her psychiatrist explains to Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse who has been brought in to take care of her, that there's nothing wrong with Elisabet from a physical or mental point of view. What then is the etiology? The film was made in the 60’s and the image of a self-immolating Buddhist monk, along with the famous Warsaw Ghetto shot of the terrified child with his hands up act as a kind of shock therapy, but is horror the problem or the cure? Bergman’s film is one of the great exemplars of binary art. Like Waiting For Godot, it’s about two characters who are chained to each other and who triangulate with an absent god. The only difference is that the narrative drive is two becoming one and one of the most chilling scenes is the melding of faces. At the end, in telling the story of Elisabet’s pregnancy twice, Alma is obviously rehearsing her characters lines and when Elizabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) appears in a scene which may or may not be conceived of as fantasy, it's Alma who acts as if she were his wife. The theme of authenticity actually runs as a leitmotif throughout the film. In one of the most famous speeches Alma, who does all the talking, disburdens herself of an erotic episode, which in a cruel betrayal Elisabet parrots dismissively in a letter that’s purposefully left open. But Alma is disturbed not only by Elisabet’s demeaning behavior but by the content of  her vignette which describes a moment of heightened sexuality with her husband that's a result of her infidelity. The purity of emotion itself is tarnished when the memory is unearthed. Like all great works of art Persona is about a myriad of things, all of which are themselves subject to shifting interpretations. Filmmaking and factititiousness bookend the film with marvelous sequences employing grainy stock to render everything from silent film comedy to crucifixion. On the subject of therapy, the film reverses the analytic paradigm. Usually it’s the patient who does the talking. In Persona it’s her caregiver. Or is that just a piece of film run backwards? Alma does get Elisabet to talk twice. One in which when threatened with hot water she cries “no” and another when she repeats the word “nothing.” One after the other the ways of looking and iterating accumulate and cross-pollinate almost virally. "The rest is silence" are Hamlet's famous last words. And the same might be said here.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Wild Strawberries

Even reading a Wikipedia summary of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries you’re filled with wistfulness, then a twinge and at times even a wrenching sadness. Many books movies and even paintings gain their power from the shock of recognition. But the catharsis created by this particular masterpiece derives its power  its universality. Old viewers can easily put themselves in the position of the film’s protagonist, a professor on his way to receiving an honor, who in a sequence of reminiscences finds himself confronting the most painful memories of his past. One that is particularly trenchant is that of a girl he once loved who ended up with his brother. If you've seen Wild Strawberries when you were young, revisiting the movie, which is being revived today, as part of Film Forum’s centennial Bergman retrospective, will itself act like a metaphor for the very journey that the Bergman’s hero takes. It also should be noted that the film was the last furlough for the famous Swedish actor Victor Sjostrom who played the academic, Isak Borg. It’s always said that at the moment of death your whole life is played out before you, but on a lesser level the closer you get to the awareness of one’s mortality, the state of authenticity that Heidegger alludes to, the more you live out Bergman's narrative and while the details of every life are different, the bittersweet feelings are remarkably the same.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Seeking Nothing in Montpelier

"Montpelier," watercolor by Hallie Cohen
February 18 marked the beginning of the Tibetan New Year and Shambhala Montpelier celebrated the day with an event that included an hour long meditation and pot luck. Visitors who didn’t feel like doing anything were able to show their affinity with the ideals of the group by turning off Fareed Zakaria’s GPS in the fitness room of the Capitol Plaza, a venerable Federalist structure on Main Street, in the shadow of Montpelier’s incredibly tiny capital gold capital dome (Montpelier is the smallest capital city in the country and has the smallest capital dome) and set the timer of their iPhone to an unchallenging 10 minutes of quiet time. During this period, they were suddenly able to hear things that they might not normally notice, a toilet flushing, the hum of a water cooler, the swishing of cars along the slush filled streets. People spend their lives in practices comprising Herculean feats of stillness and so simply tipping one’s hat to ancient endeavors in such a seemingly off-hand way can seem like a gratuitous act. But even when they’re solitary most human beings in our internet-of-everything world rarely have the experience of being alone and literally striving for nothing. The next time you’re in Montpelier or anywhere for that matter, try taking 10 minutes out of your day in which you're not running errands, making repairs, or vacuuming the inside of your car and assume a meditative posture. Though your eyes will be closed, it will be an eye-opening experience.