Thursday 28 April 2016

The Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) (1957)

Gadepigen Cabiria
Today’s review cannot help being somewhat subdued. A few days ago I found out that Chip Lary, author of the “Tips from Chip” blog had passed away. Those were shocking news and a part of me still refuses to accept it but insists that one of these days he will pop up and declare that this was all a bad joke. If you happen to wonder why I care so much you just have to look up one of my past reviews. ANY of my past reviews actually, and you will find a comment from Chip. Invariably. We are a relatively small group who always checks out each other’s writing and he was a centerpiece of that group. Dammit, it is strange that he is gone.

Anyway, deep breath, “Le notti di Cabiria” or “Nights of Cabiria” is another installment in the catalogue of Frederico Fellini. I have already watched “I Vitelloni” (off-list) and “La Strada” (on-list) and “Le notti di Cabiria” falls in quite naturally in that list. The overall themes being existentialistic, but wrapped in a very depressing neo-realist frame.

So far Fellini has not been a hit with me and this is no exception. I liked it better than the other two, but that may be mainly because I actually think I understood it better. It feels more accessible and the lead character Cabiria (Giulietta Masina) is quite likable even if, like Gelsomina in “La Strada”, she is as much a cause of her problems as her adversaries.

Cabiria is a prostitute in Rome. She is willful, hot tempered and ready to bitch and shout, but this badass attitude is not just street smarts but also a shield to protect a soft and gentle persona inside. Behind the tough façade Cabiria is a dreamer who wishes for a better life. From our perspective her aspirations seem mundane enough, a husband, a home, a life where she does not have to prostitute herself, but for Cabiria these are dangerous dreams that makes her vulnerable to men who wants to exploit her.

In a different kind of movie, a Hollywood rosa-hued movie for example, dreaming of better things is a commendable trait, often a necessary trait for the person to succeed, but Fellini has an issue with this sort of people. A common theme in his movies has been so far that he punishes people, particularly women for having dreams and for wanting to improve their situation. To me he comes about as a cinematic sadomasochist who takes pleasure from torturing his characters. That Giulietta Masina is actually his wife just makes this love and torture impression more… plausible. Because there is no doubt that Fellini also loves his victims. He may be humiliating Cabiria, but he is also showing us what a lovable and trusting person she is.

So, is this just Fellini having fun tearing Cabiria to pieces? No, there is probably more to it. All the neo-realist movies had a political agenda, which was quite far to the left of center. There is always a critique of how the poor are left to rot by the rich in general and the state in particular, whether the suffering are elderly, homeless, unemployed or as here prostitutes and that angle is definitely there. However I doubt Fellini was really that interested in that angle. He seems a lot more interested in Cabiria as a person. As much as he is constantly crushing her dreams, he seems to be fascinated by her ability to bounce back. When everything is taken away from her she still has a fountain of energy and joy inside that is her real richness.

Well, let me see, if I get this right Fellini is saying: don’t trust handsome guys, don’t trust the rich, don’t trust the church, don’t trust magicians (!) and don’t trust people who seem to mean you well. Just, you know, be happy…

Hmmmm… Maybe I did not really get the movie after all.

I cannot say that I really liked the movie. Cinematic sadomasochism is not really my thing. I do not get any pleasure from watching people I care for on the screen getting torn to pieces. It does not make me laugh and it does not make me cry. It just make me nauseous and disgusted. There was a poignancy to the “Bicycle Thieves” that I loved, but in “Nights of Cabiria” it just feels like a sadistic witch hunt.

There is plenty of Fellini coming up, but at this point I am not really looking forward to them. There is an excellent restaurant in Aalborg, Denmark called Fellini and I would much rather go there.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Romantik om bord
I actually like a good romantic comedy. A funny and intelligent romantic comedy is a guilty pleasure and working my way through the list I have watched a lot of good ones through the thirties and the first half of the forties. The classic screwball comedy is rom-com at its peak.

Sadly “An Affair to remember” is not such a movie.

Instead it presses all the wrong buttons for me and in the end I do not know whether to laugh or to cry. According to the Book it has won such accolades as being named the most romantic movie ever. This baffles me and I suppose say a bit about such a jury. You want “most romantic movie”? Try “Brief Encounter”.

Where to start…

Nicolò (Nickie) Ferrante (Cary Grant) and Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) meet on a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic and fall in love. Nickie is a playboy with no job or profession and Terry is… well later we find out she is a famous singer, but initially we know very little of her. This is first time my eyebrows go up, we know practically nothing of these two people but that they seem to be good at fooling around. It gradually occurs to me that they must be rather young. Based on Nickie’s grandmother I would place him mid-thirties and Terry a bit less, maybe late twenties. Yet Cary Grant was 53 at the time and looked closer to sixty and Kerr albeit “only” 36 looks and acts as if she was in her mid-forties. This is rather confusing. Are these people middle aged acting silly or are they young people with very conservative tastes? A half explanation is that this is 1957 and the world looked like this, but I am not buying it.

Anyway, the first half of the movie takes place on this cruise ship where they are having an affair, but eagerly trying to hide it. Nickie is supposed to get married and Terry has some dude waiting for her (but is not married, heaven forbid). This is mildly funny because the entire ship knows of the affair. A wealthy and chubby fan gets constantly snubbed by Nickie and Terry and those incidents are (sadly) the second funniest elements of the movie. There is a lot of banter between the two, but it never reaches the heights that we know Leo McCarey and Cary Grant are capable of. Finally, before disembarking they promise each other to sort things out and meet on top of Empire State Building in six months.

Six month later Nickie is waiting on the top floor, Terry is running to meet her appointment… and is run down by a car and hurts her legs. Obviously she cannot make her appointment, but she also refuses to meet or even leave a message for Nickie until she can walk again. Nickie is understandably disappointed, not just by being burned, but by being dumped altogether. He has given up his lifestyle and become a poor painter, though I do not entirely understand how he suddenly loses his wealth, and goes through a lot of pain.

Finally Nickie finds Terry in her apartment and in a roundabout way tries to find out what on Earth happened. Even at this point Terry refuses to tell Nickie that she cannot walk. Apparently she prefers the pain she is inflicting both of them. When he finally finds out what is bugging her Nickie asks the question I have been dying to ask for the past half hour “Why did you not let me know?”. The crucial question of the entire movie. But before she can answer he follows up with the bland and irrelevant question “why did it happen to us?” and thereby cheats me for the answer.

The entire premise of the drama is so incredibly stupid that I almost gave up on watching it. Did she really think that he would take it bad that she had an accident? And what kind of person prefers to inflict so much pain and uncertainty to save her pride. It just makes no sense at all.

Add to this the sappy sentimentality that clings to everything in this movie like sticky molasses, such as the children choir or the final line: “If you can paint, I can walk; anything can happen, don't you think?". Ugh.

The one element I really liked was Nickie’s grandmother, (Cathleen Nesbitt). She was a witty and feisty old lady with a sparkle in her eyes. She made me crack up, but the bliss was unfortunately short-lived.

I doubt this is a movie I will be watching again. There are too many better rom-coms around. Think of watching it? Do yourself a favor and pick “The Awful Truth” instead.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället) (1957)

Ved vejs ende
The next movie is also an Ingmar Bergman movie. I brought it with me when I went home to Denmark for my sister’s wedding this weekend and in all the stress and commotion this may have been the wrong movie to bring. This is a slow movie to watch when you are perfectly relaxed and able to focus, not casual viewing to rest the brain. As a result it has taken me a few days to digest it and I cannot say that I am entirely there yet, but alas, it is time for the review.

There is something David Lynch about this movie, the movie that comes to mind is “The Straight Story” in the way the movie moves between reality and weird, surrealistic dream sequences and even in the “real” parts very odd things sometimes happen with very little explanation. That all means that the first impression is something like deadpan confusion. However now that I have been thinking a bit about it I think I understand at least parts of it. I can be quite dense.

The movie is in one way a day in the life of Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), an elderly gentleman who has to make the journey from his home in Stockholm down to Lund in Skåne to receive an honorary title. He decides, much to the chagrin of his housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl), to make the journey by car rather than flying. To those unfamiliar with Swedish geography that this is not a trivial distance to drive in an old car. Isak’s daughter in-law, Marianne (Ingrid Thulin) who is currently staying with him is joining him for the ride as her husband Evald also lives in Skåne.

What follows is an eventful and very emotional journey. It is in a second way a journey through Isak Borg’s life, highlighting people and events that made him a cold and lonely old man, starting with a dream he had the morning before going watching his own dead corpse reach out for him. He has discussions with Marianne that are pleasant and frank, but actually cruelly honest. As people fighting politely and smiling. Surreal, but also liberating.  They pick up three youthful hitchhikers reminding him of his youth, especially the girl, Sara (Bibi Andersson), who carry a striking similarity to his life’s true love (same actress). This leads to a number of daydreams back to his youth, to a place of happiness where wild strawberries grew. Smultronstället literally means the place of wild strawberries and carry just about the same meaning as “Rosebud” in “Citizen Kane”. This was also where he lost his girl to his brother Sigfrid, who much better connected with her.

Isak and Marianne also pick up a really weird couple who do nothing but humiliate each other. Soon they are summarily dumped. A visit to Isak’s old mother also triggers some odd emotions.

The short of it is that by the time Isak and Marianne arrive in Lund Isak is mentally transformed. He is humbled, but he is also happier and more tolerant towards other people including his son and his housekeeper.

It seems a common enough artistic concept to pack a lifetime into a single day and it is something that fits very well to the movie media, but Bergman does it very elegantly, and therefore this is one of the best versions I can think of. Again, “The Straight Story” and “Citizen Kane” are similar movies that come to mind, but what they have in technique and novelty, “Smultronstället” has in humanity. We are getting awfully close to Isak Borg and that is a character who all his life has prevented even his closest family to get close to him, but here we are so close that I am almost blushing.

A lot has to do with Victor Sjöström’s brilliant performance. He is terribly important to the film and it is such a standout effort that it should have been considered by the Academy. Victor Sjöström I have actually encountered once before. He directed and performed in the notorious silent movie “Körkarlen” and was apparently the greatest Swedish director until Bergman came along.

I think under the right conditions I would have loved this movie and the fact that I have been thinking a lot about it since I saw it is definitely a good sign. At the time it was just the wrong movie to pick and that is not the movie’s fault. I will take it out some day, sit back and really enjoy it.

Monday 4 April 2016

The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet) (1957)

Det syvende segl
When most people think of Ingmar Bergman they think of movies with deep existential questions and heavy, often dystrophic, moods. That is not the Bergman I have seen so far, but I realize that with “Det Sjunde Inseglet” I have finally arrived at that version of Bergman.

This is a period piece taking place in the fourteenth century during the rage of the monstrous plague known as The Black Death. The knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) have returned from a crusade disillusioned by ten years of fighting a pointless campaign. They are journeying across the land to Block’s castle meeting a host of people and witnessing the madness caused by the plague and peoples beliefs.

More than the actual journey this is the story of man’s search for answers and meaning.  The plague makes for an apocalyptic backdrop where existential questions become terribly important and urgent, but the questions may just as well be asked today.

Antonius Block craves insight from God about the meaning of it all. Not hint or murky deductions, but real, straight answers. When Death in the shape of an iconic ghoul-like character (Bengt Ekerot) comes to take him Block asks for respite in the form of a game of chess in order to obtain his answers. Death obliges, but cannot be outsmarted. The respite is used in full to question everybody and his mother about the meaning of life. The problem for Block is that nothing he has seen provides him with any answer, only disgust. He is not doubting the existence of God, but he is royally miffed that God is withholding the answers.

True enough of the crazy happenings on the journey looks pretty misguided or the acts of some lunatic God.  Flagellants whipping themselves to shreds, a condemned witch, and priests in a frenzy and so on and Death itself refuses any answers, but its own inevitability. Yet, Block also meets a troupe of actors, Joseph (Nils Poppe), Mia, his wife (Bibi Andersson) and their infant son. They spread joy, are harmless and hope for a future for their son. Among them Block finds peace and although it is not said outright I think Block finds some of his answers eating wild strawberries and milk with the little family.

Jöns is a different character. Travelling with Block he has seen the same atrocities and pointlessness, but for him this has led to a denial of divine meaning. Instead he finds meaning in people. Flagellants and preachers disgust him, but he has a real understanding for people themselves, that their needs, wishes and solutions are more mundane and practical. He is very much the good secular person, the ideal for modern man. He does not need a divine meaning because meaning is right here among people. To see Block and Jöns together is like watching two different worlds, the mystic and the practical.

The era of the Black Death was friggin’ scary. It has been used as backdrop in a number of novels I have read and usually the point of these novels is that same struggle to make sense of existence and the crashing of all the laws that used to define life. The period was a catharsis for European culture, in multiple directions, and in a way marked the end of the medieval period. In “Det sjunde inseglet” it is a dirty, disgusting period, dark and apocalyptic. Bergman has nailed that quite well. There is only one mistake as far as I can see: the women are far too pretty. I guess he could not help it, having all these gorgeous women available, but it is strange to see dirty, disgusting and broken men mixed in with modern healthy women in costumes. Ah, detail…

This movie is the first entry of legendary Max von Sydow. Wow, he looked old even back then! There is a guy with a remarkable career and a screen presence! I saw him in the cinema as late as January in the latest Star Wars movie and in 2016 he will be joining the cast on “Games of Thrones”!

However the most iconic character to come out of this movie must be Death itself. I think most people who has not seen this movie will still describe Death as character exactly as depicted in “Det sjunde inseglet”. That is staying power.

I would not say that “Det sjunde inseglet” is hugely entertaining, it is not a Sunday afternoon movie, but it is a movie with an impact and it does makes you think. First to figure out what on Earth you were watching, and then to consider the questions raised. It is a very relevant discussion on religion and the meaning of life and that never really goes out of fashion.