Blindsided by Bergman: WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA

Lopert Pictures

This month’s Blind Spot post covers two Bergman films for the price of one. This experience was a long time coming for me, and I hope you enjoy reading about it. If you haven’t seen the films, watch them! I’d also like to thank my wonderful sister-in-law Caroline Hagood for her feedback on this post.

I’ve just watched my first two Ingmar Bergman films. I don’t know why I took so long to get around to Bergman—or I should say, I don’t know how NYU conferred me a Bachelor of Cinema Studies without forcibly injecting Bergman into my veins. He represents everything mysterious and wonderful about the cinema. Watching Bergman’s films is like taking a trip into the human psyche; conscious and unconscious impulses find their voice on the screen, and they seem to stem from my own thoughts as much as Bergman’s and his characters’. It would be impossible to write about these films without waxing philosophical. If you want to learn about yourself, watch Bergman.

WILD STRAWBERRIES is about Isak Borg, a crotchety professor who is traveling from Stockholm to Lund to receive an honorary degree from a university. He had planned to fly with his live-in maid, but after a disturbing nightmare Isak decides on a whim to drive instead. With him comes his daughter-in-law, Marianne, who recently separated from Isak’s son. Over the day’s journey, they visit people and places from Isak’s youth and make the acquaintance of some fellow travelers.

I’m sure countless critics have said this, but WILD STRAWBERRIES is one of the most profound meditations on aging in film. Taking the journey with Isak is like peeling open his mind. Memories unfold and unravel like poetry, revealing Isak’s childhood longings and disappointments, and different causes for his stubbornness and lack of feeling. And Isak’s journey companions awaken long-dormant places in him; a young maiden and her two male friends evoke the masculine strivings of his youth, and the sense of joy and freedom he may have had then. A bitter and unstable middle-aged couple mirror the anger and isolation that spawned Isak’s jadedness in old age. Isak is looking back, seeing where he is and who he has been; he is hoping for some sense of accomplishment and peace.

Towards the end of his journey, Isak and Marianne pay a visit to his elderly mother. The somewhat bland scene is deeply meaningful for understanding Isak. This 78-year-old man seems nothing more than a child in the presence of his mother; he yearns for her affection as she hides behind her orderliness and detachment; when she recalls her memories of Isak, she speaks not from sentimentality, but a meticulous desire to get the details right. For me, traveling with Isak was like being in therapy with him. A seemingly innocuous conversation about a bad dream paves the way for profound ruminations on his childhood, his hopes for his old age, and his profound fear of death. Watching this all unfold on the screen was breathtaking.

PERSONA is a horse of a different color. On the surface the story of a young nurse and her patient, a stage actress who has become mute, this film is a challenging exploration into the boundaries of identity and reality. Before the narrative commences, a montage of confusing and horrifying images floods the screen: a tarantula, a penis, a crucifixion. What do these images mean? As the credits appear, a young, gaunt-looking boy touches a screen depicting a blurry image of a woman. What is he grasping for?

Alma and Elisabet, the nurse and the actress, travel to a doctor’s summer home to relax and recuperate. Elisabet has nothing physically wrong with her, but she has stopped speaking altogether. At the cottage, Alma bares her soul and Elisabet listens silently. A powerful connection seems to grow between them as Alma reveals things she has never told anyone and Elisabet listens with compassion. But there is something a bit off about them. Alma is beginning to unravel, and the patient is becoming the nurse.

As the film’s title suggests, Bergman is concerned with what makes us who we are, or who we appear to be. During these early chapters, I strove to understand the two women, particularly Alma, who did the lion’s share of the talking. The more I learned about her, the more I felt attracted to her vitality, her curiosity about the world. I also longed to know more of Elisabet, who seemed to hide a great deal in her silence. But when tension starts to grow between the two, the alluring comfort of these feelings dissolves. The more I thought I knew them, the further away I was.

Bergman seems to be concerned with the existential fear that comes from truly knowing another person, or even oneself. As Alma and Elisabet challenge each other’s stated identities, they begin to blend together into a single person. Certain scenes—expressions of fear on both women’s faces, Alma’s revelations about Elisabet’s past—feel more like symbolic truths than narrative truths. Bergman is depicting the emotional experience of trying to relate to another person on screen. His montage at the beginning of the film was a warning: abandon all hope of understanding, ye who enter here. Ahead lies only the terror of human existence. At the end of the film, I feel like I know nothing; but the point is to accept not knowing.

WILD STRAWBERRIES and PERSONA are both predominantly concerned with identity, and yet they seem to make opposite points. WILD STRAWBERRIES is about revelation; Isak rediscovers himself in his old age through his memories and his companions. By the end of the film, the viewer shares his feelings of peace and understanding. In PERSONA, all revelations are false. The closer you get to knowing, the harder reality becomes to grasp. Truth becomes ephemeral, and is eventually replaced by terror.

But these films are two sides of the same truth. To live is to be in terror of death, and to accept its inevitability all the same. If Isak was able to make peace with death in his old age, I also feel somewhat more at terms with death after watching PERSONA. The difference in PERSONA is not the lack of resolution it offers its characters; the film’s characters are merely representations. The real subject of PERSONA is you.

BOYHOOD review

IFC Films

This post was a long time coming. I saw BOYHOOD when it was first released at the IFC Center in New York and I wrote about it almost immediately, but I thought I’d try my hand at sending it out for publication. That didn’t work out this time, but I enjoyed the challenge, and I think the piece came out better. See what you think!

BOYHOOD tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from six to eighteen years old, and it was shot over a period of twelve years so that Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) age visibly over the course of the film. I remember hearing about this six or seven years ago and thinking it sounded like a silly idea, but once I saw the trailer I got pretty excited. BOYHOOD surpassed my expectations, and as a chronological experiment it has never been matched.

BOYHOOD has a lot of short scenes because it covers a long time period. I wished each scene were longer, even if it was only Mason walking alone in a park. Every scene is so real, so vital. Richard Linklater and his actors were clearly devoted to their characters, whose visible aging creates a feeling of intimacy that other coming-of-age films don’t match. It made me think back to my own childhood as I watched. I have a lot in common with Mason, so I really identified with him: our parents divorced when we were young, we share an interest in photography and a reputation as ‘the gloomy kid.’

Mason’s story also highlights the common experiences of growing up: school, navigating friendships, young love, and so on. As we watched Mason fight with his sister, talk back to his teacher, and flirt with his first girlfriend, it was like the audience and I were all growing up together. This emotional realism is a hallmark of Linklater’s best films; when I saw DAZED & CONFUSED as a teenager, it felt so real that I thought it was made in the seventies! By avoiding authorial touches in BOYHOOD like on-screen text announcing time and place, or an original score, Linklater makes the world of the film more real.

I saw BOYHOOD at IFC Center in New York and was treated to a Q&A with Linklater and Coltrane, who talked about the writing and filming process. The film was written pretty much year by year, and the more the years went on, the more Coltrane’s development influenced his character’s. Linklater said, ‘That’s not Ellar at all in the beginning, but that’s him at the end sitting on top of the mountain [in the final scene].’ But I wonder how much Coltrane, after embodying this role for so many years, started to become more like Mason. I knew Mason so intimately by the end of the film that when Coltrane walked into the theater, I thought I was looking at the same person.

BOYHOOD works because the people making it were so devoted to what they were doing. Mason’s story wasn’t crafted so that Linklater could make a film over twelve years; the film was made over twelve years because there was no other way to tell this story. As I watched it, Mason and his family became my family, and I still find myself thinking about him and what he might be doing now. How would he live my life if he were me? I want to keep knowing him, but the movie is over and he has moved on. As he is packing his things for college, his mother starts crying because her life has only been a series of milestones. ‘I just thought there would be more,’ she says. Don’t we all?

Reviews: OBVIOUS CHILD and WHITEY

A24

OBVIOUS CHILD is a bit obvious. It tries hard to normalize abortion, and it generally succeeds for its 83 minutes. The movie is fun to watch, not least because its main character, Donna Stern, and the actress playing her, Jenny Slate, are both hilarious. Donna’s standup is a mix of personal material and observational humor with just the right amount of raunchy, sort of like Louis CK, but she sometimes makes her material a bit too personal, which may be why she’s not more successful.

The film wisely avoids cliché romantic comedy territory, though as my wife pointed out, Donna’s one-night stand/baby daddy/sort-of boyfriend Max is a bit of a cardboard cut-out: sweet, sensitive, and successful, what more could a woman want? But the characters generally feel pretty real. When Donna’s mother, for example, makes Donna a spreadsheet of her career prospects in one scene and comforts her after Donna tells the mother about her upcoming abortion in another, it feels like she’s the same person.

The ‘obvious’ part of the film is its political agenda. It works hard to make abortion seem normal and a good choice for many women because no other mainstream American film (that I know of) has done so. Even in other ‘hipster comedies’ like KNOCKED UP, abortion is never considered a viable option. In OBVIOUS CHILD, Donna asks for an abortion right after learning that she’s pregnant, without missing a beat. I enjoyed this moment, but when Donna’s mother tells a heartfelt story about her own illegal abortion, and when Donna exchanges a smile with another young woman after her procedure, I felt tempted to say ‘I get it.’ In any event, it’s a good message, which I agree with—if any non-pro-choice readers also saw the film and have thoughts, I’d love to hear!

WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER is a documentary (not to be confused with WHITY…oh, that Fassbinder) about the trial of ‘Whitey’ Bulger, criminal kingpin of South Boston from the seventies to the early nineties. Whitey was a scary guy—in fact, he was the basis for Jack Nicholson’s Frank Costello in THE DEPARTED. The documentary covers his 2013 criminal trial, before which Whitey was on the lam and the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Like OBVIOUS CHILD, WHITEY tries a bit too hard. One of the central issues in Bulger’s trial is whether he was an informant for the FBI. U.S. Attorneys claim that he was, which allowed him to avoid criminal charges for over twenty years. Bulger’s defense attorneys claim that his FBI contacts sold Bulger information for money, not the other way around. When Whitey claims that the head U.S. Attorney (now dead) had approached him for protection from the Italian mafia, it starts to seem like the integrity of the U.S. government is on trial.

This probably sounds confusing—I’m a bit confused myself. As these issues multiply and pile on top of each other in Whitey’s trial, it and the film turn into a bit of a circus. Though the film does a good job of educating the viewer about the different people and organizations in the story, there is no resolution about the nature of Whitey’s relationship with the government, because it was never answered at the trial. It seems like the filmmakers were expecting more answers than they ended up getting.

The film seems to take Whitey’s side, oddly enough; the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office are portrayed as corrupt and dishonest. I don’t know why it turned out this way. Perhaps Whitey’s defense team saw an opportunity to use the film as propaganda, because they spend far more time on camera than the prosecutors do. The most moving and worthwhile part of the movie is when relatives of Whitey’s murder victims and a man who was himself extorted by Whitey get a chance to speak out. Unfortunately, the red herring of government corruption took over Whitey’s trial and left the reality of the people whose lives he damaged by the wayside. The tragedy of the film is that it suffers the same fate.

New short film: ARCADE ORATORY

Rishi Gandhi & Renzo Adler

My friends Rishi Gandhi and Renzo Adler recently finished making a great short film, ARCADE ORATORY. I’ll let them sum up the premise:

Where do arcade games go to die? Arcade Oratory is a journey inside a closed down arcade and a look back at the days of arcade gaming when companies like Capcom and SNK demanded your quarters.

It was a pleasure seeing the work these guys turned out because they’re such good friends, but I quite enjoyed the film on its own merits. The camera-work is excellent…I can’t believe they got these games, and particularly the shots of them being played, to look so good. I visited this place as a kid too, and it didn’t look nearly as good as it does in this film. I really found myself wanting to go back there again.

I also love the central character, Saul Zandy. There is something off-color about him that I can’t really put my finger on. I mean, he’s clearly a weird dude, but even besides that…(SPOILER ALERT:) why is this guy sitting at a table on a rooftop waiting to have a drink with someone who never shows? Why does he look shiftless and uncomfortable as he says goodbye, leaving the quiet cameraman to find his own ride home?

Give the film a look, and let me know in the comments section if you enjoyed it.

Blindsided by PARIS, TEXAS (Part one)

20th Century Fox

Dispatches from Cape Cod: This incomplete post is my second entry in the Blind Spot series created by The Matinee. Hopefully I’ll have more to say about this film soon, but for now these three paragraphs will have to suffice. Ryan’s entry this month: GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS. Click through for more entries in the series.

I’m trying to write about PARIS, TEXAS, and it’s proving difficult. PARIS, TEXAS is a beautiful film. It’s like watching a Western tone poem/folk tale. I’ve had a hard time writing about it because there’s so much to say. I felt so many things while I watched this movie: awe, sadness, frustration, longing, and above all was a sense of being in the presence of beauty. The film’s gorgeous Texas landscapes (courtesy of cinematographer Robby Müller) are a fitting backdrop for its moving story.

I’m really torn in writing about it, because part of the pleasure of the film for me was in watching it without knowing anything about it. All I knew was that it’s directed by Wim Wenders and stars Harry Dean Stanton. I hadn’t seen a preview or read any synopsis, so I literally had no idea where the film would take me. Watching it like this was unpredictable, emotional, and engrossing.

All I’ll say for now is that the film is about a man (Harry Dean Stanton) found wandering in the south Texan desert without water, a voice, or memories. I’ll leave his background as a mystery, like it was to me. Every scene of this film was a fresh discovery for me, gradually forming into the mosaic of this man’s life. I’m working on a larger treatment of the film that will try to document my responses to it as it unfolded, but in the meantime I urge you to watch it. Don’t read anything else about it. Don’t learn what it’s about (if you don’t already know). Just watch it. You won’t be disappointed.

THE ACT OF KILLING review: Death in Indonesia

Drafthouse Films

At last! June has been a busy month in my personal life, but I haven’t forgotten about this post. My wife helped me edit it to perfection. It was a tough film to watch, and to write about, but I’m glad I did it. Be aware that I describe a lot of the film’s content in this review, so if you want to be ‘surprised,’ save the reading as a postscript. Enjoy!

THE ACT OF KILLING is about four Indonesian death squad leaders, who talk about their experiences killing suspected Communists during the massacres of 1965-66. The ‘star’ of the film is Anwar Congo, a famous preman (this is an Indonesian gangster, but as they say repeatedly in the film, the word comes from the English ‘free man’). Anwar says he killed about a thousand people. He beat many to death and decapitated some, but he strangled most of his victims with wire. As Anwar explains, beating his victims left a lot of blood behind, whereas strangling made it easier to clean up the bodies.

This is a documentary. This stuff really happened, though I feel sick writing it out. I had to pause this film several times to get snacks or do other things. I was disengaging because it was so difficult to watch. How could it be real? Anwar Congo claims that he murdered approximately one thousand people, for which he is now considered a hero. These people are still very powerful in Indonesia, and they speak openly about their brutal acts in the film. They describe their actions without feeling or remorse. They explain why Communism was poison and had to be eradicated, making mass murder the only viable solution. They admit that some of their victims may not have been Communists, but when they suspected someone, they acted immediately. The killers all seem like violent, irredeemable people. It’s painful to think people like this exist, and they’re even celebrated for their actions.

The filmmakers asked the killers to write and choreograph some scenes depicting the reality or spirit of their deeds. The premans dressed themselves up and recruited civilians to portray Communists and killers from that era. In these scenes families are terrorized, Communist sympathizers are tortured and murdered, and a village is burned down. A death squad assaults and rapes a woman they accuse of being a Communist (one of the killers, Herman Koto, dresses in drag for this role). Fanciful interludes with beautiful dancers break the tension, and in one interlude, a man removes a wire noose from around his neck, gives Anwar a medal, and thanks him for ‘sending me to heaven.’

The ‘movie’ these men think they’re making is nonsensical and horrifying. I want to make sense of these men’s minds. Are they unrepentant psychopaths? Are they hungry for power, and happen to be swept up in an abhorrent cultural purge? Are they so ignorant they accepted everything that was said to them about Communists and took on the role of executioners out of love for their country?

When Anwar and Herman talk about their days as young gangsters scalping movie tickets, they say their killings were partially inspired by the American films they watched: gangster movies starring Marlon Brando and the like. Some of their reenactment scenes reflect this: the killers dress in stylish suits and fedoras and act like wiseguys. I like gangster films too, but I feel conflicted after seeing them referenced in this way. Maybe it’s naïve of me not to expect violent films to encourage imitators, but I know that I’m not a violent person, and I know I don’t enjoy gangster films because of the vicarious experience of violence.

The best films about violence try to explain why their subjects act the way they do, and make a statement about their place in society, like THE ACT OF KILLING does. GOODFELLAS, for example, starts out by glorifying Henry Hill’s high-class gangster lifestyle. We come to enjoy the perks of the profession, and his crimes don’t really seem so bad: just beating up a few people in the service of his robberies, which generally come out of the pockets of corporations. As the film progresses, murder becomes commonplace and we see just how unhinged these people really are. Our identification turns into repulsion.

Clearly some people watch these films and miss the forest for the trees. Commentaries about violence become instructions for behaving violently. The preman reenactment scenes are poorly written and shot: the dialogue is laughable at best, and the low-budget visual effects are thoroughly unconvincing. The only convincing parts are the performances of the lay people who play victims. They’re acting out a piece of their history. When they get wrapped up in these scenes, they truly seem to begin fearing for their lives, which is unnerving. Is this how Anwar and Herman see violent Hollywood films, as celebrations of human misery?

I can’t accept the things these men did. But at least, like the best gangster dramas, THE ACT OF KILLING has a clear conscience to it. Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s feelings about the killers’ actions are obvious from the beginning, and as the film progresses he asks them tougher questions. They are surprisingly not one-dimensional people. Anwar speaks openly about his recurrent nightmares of his victims returning to him and accusing him of murder.

Towards the end of the film, Anwar plays the victim in an intimate reenactment scene. Herman interrogates Anwar violently and then ‘kills’ him with a wire. Anwar gets overwhelmed and says that he now feels what his victims felt. Oppenheimer points out that Anwar knew the scene was make-believe, whereas his victims knew they were going to die.

Maybe this was mob mentality channeled through the actions of a few individuals. Maybe they were predisposed to violence, and were nurtured and supported by the social institutions surrounding them. We can’t know the answer, but be assured that you will still be trying to explain it to yourself many days after watching THE ACT OF KILLING. Whatever their reasons were, conscience returns to at least one of these men by the end of the film, which was cathartic for me to see. This film is a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary one. The evil these filmmakers are depicting really exists, whether or not we choose to see it. But I’m grateful they gave me a small reason to feel hopeful by the end.

Next week: Blindsided by PARIS, TEXAS!