Friday 30 March 2018

Autumn Sonata and Ingmar Bergman’s actors

I’ve just watched again Autumn Sonata, which was the 1st Ingmar Bergman film I watched several years ago. My feeling is now slightly different, I no longer relate, but it’s still a very good film. Liv Ullmann in the film looks clumsy and uncomfortable in her walk and gestures, in the mother’s presence, as though self-conscious of every single of her own movement, as though still a scared and vulnerable child. She plays the daughter with a deep trauma and anguish and an intense hatred we don’t often see on screen. Whilst making us sympathise and share her pain, she also makes us wonder if some of her charges and accusations might not be a bit unfair, if she is self-pitying and blames her mother for everything in life. 
Ingrid Bergman plays the mother with great subtlety, switching between the 2 sides within her—a human being who has flaws but can feel pain and guilt, and a performer who deep down is selfish and often puts on a nice mask, and runs away from things. 
(The interesting part is that in Persona, if Alma’s analysis is anything to go by, Elisabet Vogler is very similar to Ingrid Bergman’s character of Charlotte in Autumn Sonata—an artist who is selfish and incapable of love, who chooses her career and runs away from her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Liv Ullmann plays the mother in Persona; in Autumn Sonata, she plays the daughter of such a mother). 
Both actresses are fantastic. Somebody who dislikes Autumn Sonata has called it an acting showcase. In a sense it is; it’s a minor Bergman, and almost the entire film is about the confrontation, mostly in close-ups. But so what? The performances are mesmerising and wonderful to watch, the characters are convincing and complex, and the film is great in its psychology. 
I can’t help wondering how Ingmar Bergman got the best out of his actors. I share with him the fascination with people and their inner lives, and the love of the human face—he called the human face the most important subject of cinema, and recently when I watched Light Keeps Me Company, a documentary about his long-time collaborator Sven Nykvist, Bergman called the camera a remarkable instrument that could capture a lot more going on in a face than our eyes could see. 

CU in Cries and Whispers: Harriet Andersson, Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin 

But let’s be blunt, what is there to capture if there is nothing to capture? It depends on the actor and their talent. This semester in directing class, we’re learning about how to work with actors, so I want to know how Ingmar Bergman communicated with them.  
I once watched Bergman’s documentary about the making of Fanny and Alexander. He’s the controlling type, telling actors how to move, where to turn, and what to do, when saying certain lines. He’s also demanding, almost ruthless. It’s strange to me that it works because that method forces the actor to remember the lines and the movements, whilst acting, which might easily makes it all forced and unnatural. But it works—I have always loved the acting in Bergman’s films. The documentary, however, only shows what’s happening on sets, when the actors had known their characters inside out, and prepared well. It doesn’t show the way he worked with them, the way he talked to them and built the characters with them, the way he got the best out of them. That’s something I would be interested in. 
Here is the list of the key actors in the Bergman universe:
Among the actors, I haven’t seen much of Erland Josephson, but I love both Gunnar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow. 
Gunnar Björnstrand is more versatile, and can transform into very different characters. His most haunting performance may be in Winter Light, but I particularly like him in The Seventh Seal and Smiles of a Summer Night
Max von Sydow isn’t as versatile, but he has a sensitive face—his acting is subtle and nuanced, suggesting a lot more beneath the surface. I would vote for either Hour of the Wolf or The Seventh Seal as his best performance, but the tree scene in The Virgin Spring is iconic and unforgettable, and I have a soft spot for his sensitive, anguished but loving and patient face in Through a Glass Darkly
Among the actresses, the versatile ones are Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson. It’s hard to say whom I prefer between the 2, as both are excellent actresses. In a sense, I tend to like Liv Ullmann in duos, in confrontations, especially with Bibi Andersson in Persona and Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata, perhaps also with Max von Sydow in Hour of the Wolf and with Ingrid Thulin in Cries and Whispers; whereas I usually like Harriet Andersson on her own, for her beauty and her ability to transform into very different characters—compare Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Through a Glass Darkly, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander
I also feel that Liv Ullman acts more with her face and Harriet Andersson more with her own body. It’s not absolute, Liv Ullmann for example has a distinctive walk in Autumn Sonata, and one of the most images of Harriet Andersson is the close-up in Summer with Monika, when she breaks the 4th wall and fixes her gaze on the audience, as though teasing us, mocking us, asking what we’re looking at. But generally, Liv Ullmann acts more with her face, especially in Persona, when she doesn’t say more than 5 words in the entire film. She has great emotional range, and when we watch her in close-ups, we follow every tiniest change of expression on her face and forget that she’s acting. Harriet Andersson tends to use her entire body and all movements—she becomes the wild, sensual, childlike and loveable but also impulsive, frivolous and selfish Monika just as she later becomes the petty, pathetic servant in Fanny and Alexander
Bibi Andersson tends to have a persona, or at least, in the pre-Persona period, she often plays someone warm, charming, innocent and vivacious—her characters in The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Magician are not remarkably different. In Persona, she appears at 1st with the same persona, the same look of warmth, sweetness and happiness, and then breaks that persona by exposing the intensity and instability underneath that façade. Liv Ullmann has a demanding job in the film because, not having words, she has to convey everything with her face, but it’s Bibi Andersson that carries the weight of Persona. She does a fantastic job. 
Those are my favourite actresses in the Bergman universe. I don’t like Ingrid Thulin personally, because there’s something hard about her face, which makes her so perfect for the role in Cries and Whispers, a cold and rigid woman who doesn’t want to be touched. Nevertheless, she’s a great actress—painful to watch but moving and haunting in Cries and Whispers and Winter Light. My favourite is her performance in Wild Strawberries
Oh how I envy Ingmar Bergman’s band of actors. How did he work with them? 

Tuesday 27 March 2018

My favourite films from the 1960s

For the 1950s:

The Bad Sleep Well (1960) by Akira Kurosawa
The Apartment (1960) by Billy Wilder 
Psycho (1960) by Alfred Hitchcock 
La Dolce Vita (1960) by Federico Fellini 
Le Trou (1960) by Jacques Becker
Viridiana (1961) by Luis Buñuel
One, Two, Three (1961) by Billy Wilder
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) by Blake Edwards
Yojimbo (1961) by Akira Kurosawa 
Sanjuro (1962) by Akira Kurosawa
Ivan’s Childhood (1962) by Andrei Tarkovsky
The Exterminating Angel (1962) by Luis Buñuel  
The Trial (1962) by Orson Welles 
Winter Light (1963) by Ingmar Bergman 
High and Low (1963) by Akira Kurosawa
8 1/2 (1963) by Federico Fellini
Knife in the Water (1963) by Roman Polanski 
Charade (1963) by Stanley Donen
Woman in the Dunes (1964) by Hiroshi Teshigahara 
Dr Strangelove (1964) by Stanley Kubrick 
My Fair Lady (1964) by George Cukor 
Persona (1966) by Ingmar Bergman
Blow-Up (1966) by Michelangelo Antonioni
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Stanley Kubrick
The Graduate (1968) by Mike Nichols 
Hour of the Wolf (1968) by Ingmar Bergman
Romeo and Juliet (1968) by Franco Zeffirelli

Wednesday 21 March 2018

The Earrings of Madame de..., or sex, lies, and earrings

The Earrings of Madame de... has 2 main themes: the 1st one is a pair of earrings changing hands and changing meaning—the earrings are an action prop, a device, a symbol, and in some ways, like a character, the subject of the film. 
The earrings
- at the start belong to the jeweller 
- go to Madame de’s husband, the general (he buys them the 1st time)
- go to Madame de 
- go back to the jeweller 
- go to the general (buying them the 2nd time) 
- go to his mistress 
- go to Constantinople  
- go to the Italian diplomat (who later becomes Madame de’s lover) 
- go back to Madame de
- return to the jeweller
- go back to the general (buying them the 3rd time) 
- go to Madame de’s niece 
- return again to the jeweller
- return to Madame de
- go to a church 
It is a silly plot, developed from a ridiculous premise, especially with the coincidence (mentioned in my previous blog post). However, the ridiculous premise leads to the delicious set-up of a man giving a pair of earrings to the woman he loves, only to realise later that the earrings previously belonged to her and were her husband’s present after the wedding. The scene is well acted and wonderfully done. The realisation is twofold—that the object he sees as a beautiful demonstration of love for Madame de already has another meaning, a connection with the other man in her life; and that she has lied. Which of the realisations has struck him harder? 
It leads to the other theme of The Earrings of Madame de...—the film is about lies, games, and secrets. At the beginning of the film, Madame de lies about losing the earrings, her husband knows the truth but feigns ignorance and plays along with her lies. The jeweller has a secret with Madame de, but betrays the secret by telling the husband, thus creating a new secret between the husband and himself. 
Later, in order to wear the earrings in public, Madame de lies to both men at the same time. To her husband, she lies by carrying on with her previous lie and setting up the scene of finding the earrings, as she doesn’t know that her husband knows. To her lover, she lies that she lied to her husband about getting the earrings from a relative. The difference is that Madame de is dishonest to her husband, but her lie to the lover comes from sincere feelings and the concealment is motivated by her wish to wear in public what she sees as a symbol of her love, and not to hurt the man. However, Madame de is a good liar but an unlucky one. She lies because she doesn’t think that the lover would ever find out the truth, and because she doesn’t know that the husband knows she lied—because when he was joining in her game, he was lying (even though it’s an acceptable lie—it’s a lie not to deceive, but to hide the speaker’s knowledge of truth and to protect the jeweller). The husband consciously or unconsciously continues with his lying when she “finds” the earrings again—he is shocked and puzzled, but doesn’t say it, thus not letting her know that he knows. Because she doesn’t know, she goes on with her lie when the lover pretends not to know the truth, and when questioned, Madame de corrects the lie with another lie, before being forced to confess the truth. 
That is, I haven’t mentioned that having affairs is betrayal and deception. 
Ultimately, the film is not really about the earrings, but about the web of lies. In that sense, it is subtle, and an excellent film.

Sunday 18 March 2018

The Earrings of Madame de… and the greatest film ever made

Film critic Andrew Sarris (a leading proponent of the auteur theory) called Max Ophuls's The Earrings of Madame de… the greatest film of all time, in 2007
Is it? 

The technical grandeur of the film is undeniable—the pans, the tilts, the tracking shots, the sweeping movements of the camera, the deep focus. The film dazzles. Most impressive of all is that the film is packed with mirrors—think of the combination of mirrors in shot, a moving camera, and the long take. The Earrings of Madame de… also has superb performances and lots of subtleties in its depiction of the aristocrats with their codes of behaviour, and adultery, with a scene that seems like a clear reference to Anna Karenina. The earrings are interesting—they are an action prop, a device, a symbol; they change in meaning according to the change in relationship and association. 
Despite all that, I find it hard to take the film really seriously, because in many ways it seems like a farce, a contrived story full of implausible coincidences. Either you believe in chance/fate, or you accept it as a kind of farce. I like that the earrings go back to the owner, and the film makes great use of the detail of 2 men giving the very same pair of earrings to the same woman, but it’s ridiculous that a foreign man becomes infatuated with a woman who happens to be the previous owner of the earrings he just bought in another country, and he also happens to know her husband. Perhaps I miss the point, perhaps the point is that it’s a comedy about a man who buys a pair of earrings 3 times (and gets asked to buy the 4th time). I just can’t reconcile the comedy and the melodrama about a doomed love affair alongside each other. 
It’s interesting to hear Andrew Sarris talk more about his list of the greatest films of all time. 
“When people have asked me to name the greatest film of all time—in my humble opinion, of course—my instant answer has been unvarying for the past 30 years or so: Max Ophüls’ Madame de … (1953).
Still, I usually answer questions about the greatest film of all time by immediately throwing in my two runners-up: Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Then, if I can grasp the questioner’s lapels long enough (much like Coleridge’s crazed Ancient Mariner), I rattle off the rest of my all-time ten-greatest list: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and Buster Keaton’s The General (1927).
It must be recorded—as it probably already has—that back in 1963, I created a stir at the first New York Film Festival when I asserted in The Village Voice that Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955) was the greatest film of all time […] 
And before Lola, in my pre-Bazin, pre-auterist period, my three favorite films of all time were Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941).” 
It’s a curious list. The man is very different from me. 
There are a few films I haven’t seen, such as La Règle du Jeu. Ugetsu Monogatari can take that place even if it’s not on my own list—it’s a masterpiece. Same for Modern Times. It’s similar to the way I’m OK with Citizen Kane being called for years the greatest film ever made, even though my personal favourite is Persona
But Belle de Jour, instead of The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or The Phantom of Liberty
And Vertigo? Just the other day I had a discussion on fb with my friends Himadri and Dai about the subject, saying I don’t understand how Vertigo could replace Citizen Kane. I liked it, but I remember thinking that it’s a film of its time, with the technical stuff about vertigo and all that, while something like Citizen Kane or Persona doesn’t feel old and outdated. I also remember thinking the film has a mess of a structure, with many twists and turns, each time turning it into a different kind of film—interesting, but a mess nevertheless. 
Of course you can say such rankings are pointless. What after all determines the greatest film ever made? How do you compare very different films that have nothing in common and no basis for comparison? Do you prioritise techniques, style, narrative, structure, themes, scope, innovation, influence, or emotional impact on you personally? Would you choose as the greatest film ever made, a film that is not your no.1 favourite?   
It’s just that everyone loves lists. Your list says more about you than about the films themselves. It’s just fun in starting a debate on why one film is ranked higher than another.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Summer Interlude

Ingmar Bergman said: 
“For me Summer Interlude is one of my most important films. Even though to an outsider it may seem terribly passé, for me it isn't. This was my first film in which I felt I was functioning independently, with a style of my own, making a film all my own, with a particular appearance of its own, which no one could ape. It was like no other film. It was all my own work. Suddenly I knew I was putting the camera on the right spot, getting the right results; that everything added up. For sentimental reasons, too, it was also fun making it.”  
It’s the film where Bergman became Bergman, so to speak. 
You know what’s the interesting bit? It was his 14th feature film. 
I see Summer Interlude as a lovely companion piece to Summer with Monika (a later film, but I saw it last June). The 2 films have similarities—first love, summer, an island; and Maj-Britt Nilsson looks similar to Harriet Andersson from some angles. While the love story in Summer with Monika is built on romantic illusion and frivolity, and destroyed by the realities of life as well as Monika’s egoism and selfishness, the love story in Summer Interlude is destroyed by that inevitable fact of life—death. Harriet Andersson may be more fascinating and memorable, because of her wild sensuality and erotic charm, and because of the superficiality and selfishness of her character, but Maj-Britt Nilsson is also good, even haunting, in Summer Interlude, with a clear difference between the young Marie, carefree and flirtatious, and the older Marie, hardened, cold, and cynical. Summer with Monika is about love and ruin. Summer Interlude is about love and loss, and acceptance, or to be more precise, about coming to terms with loss, cherishing the memories but moving on, breaking the walls you’ve built for yourself after great pain, and opening up to someone else again. 
A beautiful film. 

This is perhaps the most beautiful shot in the film—like a painting: 

My favourite shot—look at the composition: 

Also, here is one of the shots of feet in the film, which I was very quick to notice as I’m making an experimental film with a feet-related concept:

Sunday 4 March 2018

Citizen Kane and Rosebud

Watched Citizen Kane again the other day. 
1/ Citizen Kane, to me, is about 2 main things: 
- It’s about the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane the newspaper tycoon, a great American man, about American history and politics, about the influence of media, about ambition and power and corruption… 
- It’s about the private Kane, about a man who got everything he wanted and lost it all, about the helplessness of a powerful man and loneliness of a great man who is loved by the public but not by anyone close to him, about his need and demand for love when he himself doesn’t know how to love, about selfishness and narcissism and a big ego, about control, about loss, about a life of failures, about his collection of stuff he can buy to make up for things his money can’t buy… 
- It’s also about the multifacetedness of a human being, and the inability to really know somebody. 
That is why it’s such a great film. Citizen Kane is perfect in form and techniques, and has influenced generations of filmmakers, but it’s a great film in itself, especially as an examination of a character. 
2/ Have you ever wondered what the film would be like, as a standard biopic instead of a fragmented story told by multiple narrators, none of whom has access to Kane’s private thoughts? 
3/ The only time we see his soft, private side is when Kane meets Susan (who later becomes his 2nd wife) the 1st time. 
4/ Everyone knows what Rosebud is, but what does it mean? A symbol of the loss of childhood and innocence, perhaps. Or simply a thing that signifies the moment that changed his life completely. 
5/ The 1st time Kane meets Susan, there is a snow globe on her desk. Perhaps Kane, when saying “Rosebud”, subconsciously puts together the 2 moments—the last time he’s a kid and with his family, and the only time he’s liked for who really is instead of his public image of Charles Foster Kane. 
In addition, he’s on the way to get his mother’s belongings. He himself says “in search of my youth”. 
6/ Or perhaps Rosebud means nothing and explains nothing—Rosebud is no more than a plot device, for the search for the real Kane. 
7/ Does anyone else notice that the patterns on the doors at Xanadu look like jigsaw puzzles? 
8/ According to the newsreel, 2 years after the divorce, Kane’s 1st wife dies in a motor accident with their son. What is the significance? Why is it never mentioned again? How does it affect Kane? 
9/ Another theory is that in his deathbed, when uttering “Rosebud”, Kane doesn’t think of himself, but his lost son.