Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bergman and Antonioni

Dan, this entry is for no one else but you. I think we've had our fair share of discussions about these two in the past, but also more or less skirted questions of their greatness while acknowledging their impact and influence; my guess is this had more to do with the relative assurance of their places in the pantheon of great directors. Perhaps now, however, our feelings about these two deserve to be explicitly stated for the record. I don't particularly feel the need to be overly reverential, but, as Geoff just wrote to me, What a weird fucking day!

BTW, can you believe the month started with the passing of Edward Yang and ended with Bergman and Antonioni passing on the same day?

Shall I begin?

I feel more comfortable talking about Bergman since I have known him the longest and returned to him at various points in my aesthetic upbringing. Is it cliche to say that I was introduced to European art cinema through the Seventh Seal? I rented the thing from the library and if I'm not mistaken, it was in a shiny silver box with the famous last scene on the cover. I think I rented it because I had heard some mention of the "playing chess with death" scene and that sort of overt allegory was attractive to me at the age of 16 or whatever I was.

My reaction: I loved it. To this day I don't see what people's complaints are about the thing being either too morose (it's textured and frequently comic), too pretentious (it's a frickin' allegory!) or too maudlin (Von Sydow is counterpointed by Bjornstrand; Jof's naivite by his wife's virtue). It's far from his best or most poignant but it's almost the perfect litmus test to see if someone is gonna be open to foreign films. On the one hand, it follows pretty conventional narrative structure (despite its unusual subject matter), the acting is of course great and varied, and there's lots of memorable images. Kurosawa--the other best entree into foreign film--does much the same. On the other hand, it's dark. Different characters represent conflicting ideologies about life and death. And beneath it all, Bergman is, I think, beginning to experiment with a kind of visual/dramatic flattening technique that reminds me a lot of Dreyer--but only in retrospect.

What I mean is Seventh Seal has this very obvious Strindbergian quality--slightly over the top characterization, extreme emotional states, dark subject matter--but the key internal drama usually plays best in relief i.e. when the context is otherwise flat or unattenuated. I'm thinking of the visuals in Seventh Seal and how many of the memorable scenes are set against plain or flat backgrounds. Block and the Squire give a number of passionate soliloquies, I think, delivered in almost two-dimensional space. Like Dreyer's Joan. I can't say for sure, but looking ahead to his other films, I don't think this visual reduction is the old playwright's trick of merely giving the stage to the actor to inflate his presence: I believe Bergman is working in, visually, negative space which is to culminate in Persona. He is beginning to experiment with the counterpoint between the direst of human emotions--despair, grief, remorse--and the suggestiveness of an unresponsive, inanimate, inhuman world.

By contrast, see how lush and vividly backgrounded (word?) the rustic, comic scenes with Jof and his wife or Plog, the blacksmith play out. Bergman handles these scenes deftly, but conventionally. I think it is because as an artist he is just coming to grips with his themes and perhaps having to overcome his own aptitude for filmed drama. Compare this with the barely discernible distinction between comedy and tragedy in Fanny and Alexander. At his peak, then--Scenes of a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander--Bergman no longer needs to rely on mere visual flattening. He has resolved this problem as a dramatist and director by somehow elevating the mundane details of daily life without any detriment to the pathos and anguish of his protagonists. Am I making any sense?

I think of the elaborate and ornate interiors of those movies and it reminds me of a poem from Rilke:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking, because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house, stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses, so that his children have to go far out into the world toward that same church, which he forgot.

Bergman moves, I think, from the need to show his figures' desperate isolation against the relief of a bleak, cold world in most of his black and white films to showing virtually the same existential plight, but in a world of domestic engagement. Is it any surprise that Nykvist is his prime accomplice in this? Nykvist, who could make a snowdrift sparkle or, conversely, make naked flesh seem dull as alabaster, allowed Bergman, I think, to move away finally from the depiction of negative space to the suggestion of this same space through his story, his actors and his camera. That's it, I think. I'm kind of free-styling it here but I think that's Berman's highest achievement for me. I mean, is there anything more devastating in film than Ullmann and Josephson's repeated embraces in Marriage? They are that way, not because of any heightened attenuation but because they seem to occur right in the middle of busily lived, tragically common lives. The rarest of achievements.

The rarest of genius.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Dream of Fassbinder: Part I

Hugs are a medium of revelation in Fassbinder's finest works.

True story: all of my personal issues converged recently in a lucid dream I had about discovering a lost Fassbinder script. Normally, I wouldn't expect people to give a crap about something I dreamt, but come on... Fassbinder? Who dreams about Fassbinder? You've got to be at least a little interested based solely on the rare opportunity at mining Freudian-comic gold.

Anyway, in my dream I took it upon myself to complete this unfinished masterwork. I think I was channeling Kieslowski's Blue or maybe Forman's Amadeus. I read the script, which was written in German (I cannot read German)--little more than a sketch, actually--but
being vaguely familiar with about a third of his oeuvre, came to understood clearly the late director's intention.

Unlike in real life, the daunting challenge of setting about to actually finish something in my dream was easily overcome with a vigorous sense of righteousness and inflated self-worth. Of course. It all made sense. I was the true heir to Fassbinder's legacy of misery, pain and self-loathing. How could it be otherwise?

The working title of the sketch escapes me now, several days after the fact. What I remember clearly is that it was a name, a German name, composed of two parts out of which one could presume a simple pun. Something like: Grunwelt (Green World) or Baumsohn (Wood's Son). I can't remember so I apologize. I think I was toying with changing the name of the main character anyway to suit my purpose.

So, since you're all dying of curiousity, here's the synopsis (I'm aware I'm breaking my own rule of no plot summaries, but give me a break! I dreamt this whole thing up!). I trust everyone will find it sufficiently Fassbinderian enough to please the master. Drum roll, please:

Grunwelt (or Baumsohn or Glockenspiegel or whatever) is addicted to his own misery. One day, in a fit of despair, he decides to cut off his thumbs. After severing his right thumb with a butcher knife, he learns a valuable lesson: "You cannot cut off both your thumbs. How would you hold the knife? God, in his benevolence, has decreed a limit to one's self-destruction." Soon he becomes obsessed with re-growing his thumb. As an amateur horticulturist, he begins experimenting with grafting live trees to his severed stump. He begins another downward spiral becoming more and more obsessed as it becomes clear that he is also suffering from the weight of some tremendous guilt. Finally, he severs his entire right hand, replacing it with a wooden one.

One day, a woman arrives at his home carrying a young baby. It is his child. The child's mother reports that she can no longer care for the baby on her own. He eagerly seizes the opportunity to welcome the child back into his life, expiating for a moment his burden of guilt. For a short time, the three enjoy the semblance of domestic tranquility, only marginally dimmed by the fact that he is gay and she is a prostitute. The child seems to thrive under Grunwelt's obsessive care and attention, like one of his beloved plants.

Soon, however, the facade begins to crumble as the child's mother feels increasingly suffocated by their arrangement and yearns for independence. Grunwelt attempts to pacify her by fulfilling dual roles as father and mother for the child's sake, but is barely able to manage. He becomes the regular victim of exploitation and abuse from both the child's mother and the world at large in several episodes that seem to highlight the impracticality of raising a child with a wooden hand. Strangely, as his world begins to spiral into intolerability, he is surprised to discover his own capacity for paternal care and self-sacrifice, bonding in furtive moments with his infant son.

Some other stuff happens. Mostly bad. Finally, some careless, random incident results in injury (death?) to the child due to the father's lack of a hand or thoughtless ineptitude. He is left desolate to ponder the cruelty of fate and curse the extravagance of his prior self-pity.

Whoah. That is way too long to spend on a plot summary for a movie which ONLY HAPPENED IN MY HEAD. Now, rather than marvel at its flawlessly Fassbinderian structure and motifs, I'm going to proceed by way of detour: in other words, I will elaborate on what I take to be some of the latent meaning behind this absurd spectacle of my subconscious in relation to Fassbinder and my current life conditions. After some of these connections have been made explicit, I will then provide, by way of example, a positive statement about my governing aesthetic, hopefully illuminating on the way why I decided to name myself in this blog after one of his films and why, recently, I tend to favor him over Bresson, for which, my co-author considers me "stupid." All this to follow in Part II.