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Friday, 23 June 2017

Hour of the Wolf

1/ Wikipedia says Hour of the Wolf is part of a trilogy with Shame and The Passion of Anna. I see it as a companion-piece to Persona
2/ At the centre of Persona is Elisabet, an actress who casts off her role as a wife and as a mother, withdraws into herself and refuses to speak. In Hour of the Wolf, there is also an artist—Johan Borg is a painter who lives on a remote island and struggles with his own demons. In Persona, Elisabet slowly takes over Alma, her nurse—the 2 women merge into 1. In Hour of the Wolf, Johan slowly loses grasp of reality, becoming more and more insane, and after a while his loving wife Alma also starts to see his demons.   
3/ Both films remind us they’re a film: Persona starts with a film projector and a series of images like cartoons and silent films; Hour of the Wolf starts with the voice of Ingmar Bergman, over the opening credits, giving instructions to his crew. However, Hour of the Wolf creates the illusion of a real story by stating that it’s based on Johan’s diary and his wife’s account of what happened. Then Alma speaks to the camera as though telling the story to a documentary filmmaker. 
4/ Robin Wood points out, in his essay “The World Without, the World Within”: 
“… In view of his often expressed admiration for Fellini the film’s close relationship in subject, structure and method to Giulietta degli Spiriti is perhaps not surprising, any more than is its complementary self-sufficiency (Bergman clearly needn’t fear accusations of plagiarism). What is surprising is Bergman’s use of the traditions of the American horror film, from Whale and Browning to Hitchcock. Not only does the Birdman (as Tom Milne has pointed out) bear an unmistakable resemblance to Lugosi’s Dracula, but the face of Baron von Merkens, especially when photographed from below, as at the dinner party, distinctly recalls in its contours Karloff’s original Frankenstein creation. The minuscule but apparently human Tamino in the Birdman’s ‘Magic Flute’ performance recalls Ernest Thesiger’s homunculi in The Bride of Frankenstein. The general framework, with an outsider being initiated into a close-knit, isolated and highly abnormal society, and especially the ending, where in the darkness and mud its members hideously exact a communal vengeance, suggest Freaks. The old woman who peels off her face to reveal a decomposing skull and gaping eye-sockets evokes at once the 2 Wax Museum films and Mrs Bates in Psycho. The pecking and jabbing Birdman suggests both Psycho and The Birds, and the shot of von Sydow passing through a corridor thick with sparrows and other wild birds looks like overt reference (hesitate as one is to associate such seemingly incompatible directors). There are further more generalized references: the castle interiors, for instance, especially in the later sequences, are strongly reminiscent of Hollywood Gothic, from Whale to Corman; the ‘cannibal’ family suggests vampires, particularly in the way the lips of the father-figure’s huge mouth draw back, and there is a reference to their ‘fangs’ during the nightmarishly edgy and disquieting dinner-table conversations.” 
5/ Hour of the Wolf can also be seen as a companion-piece to Through a Glass Darkly, in which it’s not a male character but a female character who struggles with mental illness—Karin, played by Harriet Andersson, has schizophrenia. The sane, loving and patient husband in the film is played by Max von Sydow, who in Hour of the Wolf sees demons and can’t distinguish between reality and hallucinations. In both films, the loving spouse can do nothing to help. 
6/ Robin Wood argues: 
“Some have seen those demons as representing the artist’s imaginative creations over which, Frankenstein-like, he loses control; or as the side of his personality out of which his art develops. Nothing could be further from the truth. The point is made quite unequivocally that the demons are inimical to artistic creation—their emergence in the 1st stretches of the film corresponds to a decline in Johan’s art. What is more, their destruction of him as an artist is closely paralleled by their destruction of his marriage relationship.” 
7/ In a section about Wild Strawberries in the essay “Sexual Themes in the Films of Ingmar Bergman”, Richard A. Blake, S. J. writes: 
“[In a dream], [Isak Borg] is asked to examine a woman whom he pronounces dead. With that she opens her eyes and laughs derisively in his face. He has so drawn away from woman, from the source of life, that he has lost his ability even to distinguish life from death…” 
There’s a similar scene in Hour of the Wolf—Johan walks to the naked corpse of his former lover Veronica Vogler and touches her body, then she wakes up and laughs in his face. Does it happen? Do the people in the castle even exist? That doesn’t matter. The point is the humiliation, as in Wild Strawberries. However, if in Wild Strawberries, it only shows that Isak Borg, despite his career success, is a failure as a person, and little more than a dead man, in Hour of the Wolf, the scene culminates in Johan’s ultimate humiliation—everything is shattered, and Johan now knows he cannot defeat the destructive forces within him. He must surrender.

Robin Wood on the opening sequence of Persona



How do you interpret the opening and closing sequence of Persona? And the fact that in the middle of the film, the frame freezes, cracks and burns?
Persona is a film that constantly reminds the audience that it’s a film. Also, as I wrote in the earlier post, through Elisabet Vogler, Ingmar Bergman expresses his own concerns and anguish as an artist, and his inability to respond authentically to large catastrophes.
I’m currently reading Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, edited by Stuart M. Kaminsky with Joseph F. Hill, and here’s another interpretation, in Robin Wood’s essay “The World Without, the World Within”:
“… Bergman himself acknowledges the crudeness of art beside the complexities of existence in the film’s very 1st images. After the film projector shots, we see a silent cartoon of a fat woman in a bathing costume washing her hands, framed as on a screen; the cartoon flickers jerkily, breaks down, starts up again. Bergman then cuts in a shot of real hands washing themselves, the image now filling the whole screen (i.e. the cartoon is shown as a film, the hands as reality). A way, surely, of admitting, at the outset of 1 of the most complex films ever made, that, beside reality, art is as crude as the jerky movements of the cartoon beside of the flexible, organic motions of the real hands?

More than this, the breakdown constitutes Bergman’s admission that he can’t resolve the problems the film has raised. The last 3rd of Persona gives us a series of scenes of uncertain reality and uncertain chronology; all are closely related, thematically, to the concerns established earlier in the film, and all carry us deeper into the sensation of breakdown due to full exposure to the unresolvable or unendurable. They come across as a series of tentative sketches, which are from tentative in realization, of possibilities offered by the director who, because of his own uncertainties, denies himself the narrative artist’s right to dogmatize, to say ‘This is what happened next.’ Given the universal implications of the subject matter, the fact that we can no longer think in simple terms about ‘Alma and Elizabeth’ (despite the fact that the characters keep their fictional identities to the end) compels us to feel what we are shown with unusual immediacy, as if naked experience were being communicated direct, instead of being clothed with the customary medium of characters-and-narrative. It is not a question of vagueness nor of artistic abdication, but of an extreme and rigorous honesty; each sequence is realized with the same intensity and precision that characterized the straight narrative of the 1st half…”

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

You, the Living and Roy Andersson

It’s the same for everybody—once in a while there’s a highly acclaimed film that you think is mere rubbish. I think The Tree of Life is all style and no substance. I think Boyhood is no good and would not have got much attention if the film hadn’t been filmed over a course of 12 years. I think Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is weird, pointless, nonsensical for the sake of being strange and obscure. Etc. Etc. 


After Songs from the Second Floor, I’ve just watched You, the Living, another film by Roy Andersson, 1 of today’s most acclaimed Swedish directors. I now know his style. Almost no camera movement—in Songs from the Second Floor, the 1st time is when the camera’s in a moving car that is stuck in traffic jam, and the 2nd time is when the camera tracks a man walking at a train station (did I miss anything?). Almost all shots are wide shots. In a scene, the camera stays in exactly 1 place*, showing the entire place and all the people in it, generally looking towards or at the camera—no camera movement, no other angle, no close-up, no shot of what a character is looking at. It feels like watching theatre. Then another scene, again with the camera staying in 1 place. Then another scene. Then another scene. Consistent throughout the film. In You, the Living, each time there’s a new scene, we see new characters. According to Wikipedia, the film is a succession of 50 short sketches.
It feels like the director imposed constraints on himself in order to have a style.
Frankly I think his films are interesting only in that he makes films unlike anyone else; the films in themselves are not interesting. Because of the consistent stationary camera and invariable camera angles, his films lack a kind of rhythm that would make them absorbing. Sometimes there’s too much repetitiveness, and Roy Andersson goes for a tragicomic undertone and likes to employ deadpan humour but sometimes a joke carries on for so long that it’s no longer amusing. The film gets tiresome after a while.
More importantly, there’s a lack of real drama. I see that he depicts a surreal world that reflects modern society’s problems. I see that he wants to make a point about life (the 2 films are part of the Living trilogy). There are a few funny moments, and a few moments that make you think, but generally most individual scenes are not compelling, and they don’t build to anything.
Shall I watch the last film in the Living trilogy? Probably not. I’ve seen enough.


*: An exception in You, the Living is the scene of the moving house, made up of 2 shots from opposite directions.



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Note on the blog: You probably have noticed that my blog is now turning into a film blog. Looks like it’s a film blog now. For a while I’ve been planning a Life and Fate read-along for June, and have started reading it, but somehow couldn’t quite get into it, and these days I’m focusing on films, so I don’t know what’s happening but for now the read-along is delayed. My apologies.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The best 10 films of every decade from the 1940s to 2000s- new list

My choice. 
Why? Because I love lists. 

- The 40s:
The Great Dictator (1940)
Casablanca (1942)
Gaslight (1944)
Brief Encounter (1945)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Killers (1946)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Bicycle Thieves (1948)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
The Heiress (1949)

- The 50s:
All about Eve (1950)
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Witness for the Prosecution (1957) 
12 Angry Men (1957)
Nights of Cabiria (1957)
Wild Strawberries (1957)
The Seventh Seal (1957) 
Vertigo (1958)

- The 60s:
The Apartment (1960)
Psycho (1960)
Winter Light (1963) 
8 ½ (1963)
The Woman in the Dunes (1964) 
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
My Fair Lady (1964)
Persona (1966)
Blowup (1966)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

- The 70s:
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Cries and Whispers (1972) 
The Godfather (1972)
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
The Godfather Part II (1974) 
The Conversation (1974)
Chinatown (1974) 
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Annie Hall (1977)

- The 80s:
Raging Bull (1980)
On Golden Pond (1981)
Sophie's Choice (1982) 
Ran (1985)
Rain Man (1988)
The Accused (1988)
My Left Foot (1989)
Monsieur Hire (1989)
Sex, Lies, and Videotapes (1989)
Dekalog (1989) 

- The 90s:
Goodfellas (1990)
The Double Life of Veronique (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Raise the Red Lanterns (1991)
Three Colours: Blue (1993) 
To Live (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994) 
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) 
Happy Together (1997)
Festen (1998) 

- The 2000s:
Memento (2000)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
The Pianist (2002)
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003)
2046 (2004)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007)

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Songs from the Second Floor

Roy Andersson is 1 of today’s most acclaimed Swedish directors. I’ve just watched Sånger från andra våningen, or Songs from the Second Floor
This is 1 of the most boring films I’ve ever seen—dreary and tedious with only a few moments of absurd humour. The long takes. The invariability of camera angles and shot sizes. The lack of camera movement. The “consistent” slowness. The lack of some kind of rhythm. The repetitiveness. The dry and bleak view. The black comedy that can be amusing at the beginning but becomes tiresome after a while. The incoherence.
The film is not devoid of ideas, it simply lacks the power to captivate.
It’s amusing that the man who made Sånger från andra våningen calls Ingmar Bergman a boring hack*
Maybe I’d like another of Andersson’s film.




*: This is something I wouldn’t even bother to refute. Ingmar Bergman’s genius speaks for itself.  

Saturday, 17 June 2017

My new 10 favourite films

Persona by Ingmar Bergman 
The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman 
Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder 
Nights of Cabiria by Federico Fellini 
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring by Kim Ki-duk 
The Double Life of Veronique by Krzysztof Kieslowski 
Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese
The Godfather by Francis Ford Coppola
Casablanca by Michael Curtis 
The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Ingmar Bergman's Persona

I’ve just watched Persona, making it the 12th Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen (after Autumn Sonata, The Silence, All These Women, Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Seventh Seal—in that order). And it’s the most difficult.


Some critic has said, if Wild Strawberries is the most plagiarised Ingmar Bergman film and The Seventh Seal is the most parodied, Persona is the one most written about. It’s a rich, complex and ambiguous film with multiple layers that can be interpreted in lots of different ways.
The most discernible meaning is that, like Through a Glass Darkly, Persona seems to reflect the director’s own concerns and anguish as an artist. In Through a Glass Darkly, the writer uses the personal experience of someone close to him (his own daughter) for his art. In Persona, Elisabet, an actress, feels like, as an artist, she can’t respond authentically to large tragedies like the Vietnam War or the Holocaust. Her art is helpless.
At the same time, everything seems false—Elisabet’s acting even when she’s not acting. Her being a wife and then a mother is just a persona; she’s tired; her refusal to speak is her way of discarding it all.
(It’s interesting to note that the only thing that can make her talk is fear, when Alma threatens to throw boiling water at her—like fear is the only real feeling left, the only trace of vitality in Elisabet).
That’s the most obvious meaning. How do you understand the film as a whole? 1 interpretation is literal—as we see in the film, Elisabet is silent and her nurse Alma does all the talking, then slowly she talks for Elisabet and starts to imagine herself as her. Alma is weak. When she lets her patient get hurt by the broken glass and later hits her, she allows anger, resentment and the sense of betrayal take over her and reveal her weakness—she abandons the discipline of her profession. Then she lets Elisabet take over her being, even when she tries to assert her own separate identity. The 2 merge into 1.

Another interpretation is that the 2 are the same person—Elisabet is the external person and Alma is the inner turmoil, the self-conflict and self-loathing, the 2 of them making up the persona (Alma in Spanish means soul). At the beginning of the film, we see the images of them blending and morphing into each other. Near the end, their faces are merged. Elisabet studying Alma is her looking inward and examining her own life, her own dreams and longings, her own fears, her own selfishness, hypocrisy and cruelty. Alma’s story of the abortion is a denial, a way of hiding from the truth that she (Elisabet, the external person) has a son.
Both interpretations make sense. 
But then what do you think about the ending? Why is it that we see Elisabet packing but afterwards only Alma gets on the bus, apparently carrying the same suitcase? What’s up with the creepy giant sculpture at the end? What do you make of the opening sequence of Persona
I perhaps would never completely understand it, but this is a wonderful film.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On discovering Ingmar Bergman

I don’t know how to write about Ingmar Bergman.
There are good directors, there are great directors, and above them are the masters, the maestros, the visionaries. A few years ago I discovered Federico Fellini, for example. I had always loved films, but it was 8 ½ that made me truly realise the power of the medium and what a film could do, and forever changed my view on cinema.
Now I’ve found Ingmar Bergman.

This is a true artist, who deals with metaphysical questions, relationships, emotions, and human consciousness. He’s serious, very serious, without being solemn or lacking humour; he explores resentment, hatred, selfishness, anguish and despair without lacking compassion and humanity. My favourite Wild Strawberries is about a professor’s road trip, mixed with memories and dreams, during which he thinks about his career and relationships and reflects on his whole life. There were some failures, some resentments and regrets, but the trip helps him understand his daughter-in-law, who earlier finds him egotistical and cold, and understand himself, bringing them closer to each other. Ending with acceptance and a peaceful dream, it’s a compassionate and uplifting film. The most interesting part is that Wild Strawberries doesn’t employ the conventional flashbacks; instead, we see the old professor walking into his memories and watching (even seeing things his younger self couldn’t have seen), which Woody Allen copied. As Ingmar Bergman himself put it, “So it struck me — what if you could make a film about this; that you just walk up in a realistic way and open a door, and then you walk into your childhood, and then you open another door and come back to reality, and then you make a turn around a street corner and arrive in some other period of your existence, and everything goes on, lives.” That is the idea behind Wild Strawberries.

Another favourite of mine is The Seventh Seal. The film tends to be associated with the iconic image of a medieval knight playing chess with Death, but it’s not really about the game, nor Death. It’s not even about God and religion. The Seventh Seal is about Antonius Block’s quest for meaning and his search for answers, not only answers to the questions he does ask, about God, the devil, knowledge and a sense of purpose, but also the meaning of everything—the plague, people’s extreme behaviours and the meaning of life. He prays, he talks to a priest, he joins the crusades, he reaches out to anyone who may know, from Death to the woman accused of being a witch and causing the plague, he looks for something certain and definite, he yearns for knowledge and wants to do a meaningful deed. In the end, the knight gets no answer, as there is none, but he finds meaning—he creates it himself. Is Antonius Block comfortable with dying at last? I don’t know. But I know, and he knows, that if he loses to Death in the chess game, he wins somewhere else.
Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light are also great films. Both touch on the theme of God’s silence, the question haunting Ingmar Bergman, who was brought up in a religious household with his father as a Lutheran minister. Winter Light is in a way a response to Through a Glass Darkly—a quote from the earlier film, about love as proof of God’s existence, is repeated, word-by-word, and mocked in the later film. However, these films are so deeply affecting to someone like me, not brought up religious and never really bothered about a higher power, because they’re not about God’s indifference or nonexistence as much as about the coldness of human beings, embodied by a character in both films portrayed by Gunnar Björnstrand, and people’s inability to love, to connect to each other and to say something truly meaningful.
In Through a Glass Darkly, there’s a scene in which the writer talks to his son-in-law about his suicide attempt, but what we see is not the suicide attempt and his actions then, but the man’s face as he recalls and tells the story and the son-in-law face as he listens to it for the 1st time. Ingmar Bergman stays on the characters’ faces when another director might change to another image for fear of boring the audience. He’s especially interested in the study of the human face. He constantly uses close-ups. He sometimes juxtaposes faces on the screen to show characters talking without facing each other, conveying the feeling of loneliness or incommunicability. He sometimes lets a character look straight into the lens, and thus, directly at the audience.

His films are profound and thought-provoking. At the same time, Ingmar Bergman also shows what cinema could do and achieve. Before, I thought his films were just full of talk like plays, with nothing remarkable in visuals like Woody Allen’s films. I was wrong. His films are visually stunning, with lots of striking images such as the dream sequence with the handless clock in Wild Strawberries, Death’s appearance and the knight playing chess with him in The Seventh Seal, the king uprooting a tree in The Virgin Spring, a woman mutilating herself and smearing her face with blood in Cries and Whispers, and so on. Ingmar Bergman didn’t merely tell stories and depict actions and relationships; he explored the inner life and human consciousness whilst playing with the visual medium and testing the possibilities of cinema.
Having discovered Ingmar Bergman, I’m now no longer the same.

A trip back to Victorian times

Abbey House Museum, Leeds. 
Photos taken by me. 

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Friday, 9 June 2017

Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage Museum

It's my birthday on Sunday (11/6), so my boyfriend and I just had a wonderful early birthday trip to Haworth and visited the Bronte Parsonage Museum. 
The house of the Brontes: 
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The scenery:
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Lovely lovely trip. 
Some day I'll visit the Jane Austen museum.