Tag Archives: ingmar bergman

Stardust Memories

The very moment I was invited to see the new Woody Allen movie, I felt that unsettled feeling one invariably feels meeting an old lover for a drink. Really, it’s a feeling I’ve felt before seeing every Woody Allen movie since Small Time Crooks, when things started going south, a full decade ago. You know what I’m talking about.

Me: Hi! Wow!

Her: Hi.

Me: How are you? You look –

Her: Fine. I’m doing…I’m…[trails off]…yeah.

Me: Well, you know, that’s great.

Her: Not really, but…yeah. Anyway.

Me: Okay. [Drinks quickly] God, you know, we used to be something! Remember?

Her: Are we really going to talk about that?

Me: No. I mean, we don’t have to.

Silence.

Me: But it’s true. Remember?

She stirs her drink.

Me: Come on, Hannah and Her Sisters, Broadway Danny Rose! You were incredible! We were incredible! I mean the two of us together. Right? Because even when you were like Everyone Says I Love You and everyone was disappointed, I was right behind you, saying, “No, no. It’s fine. Really, this is what’s happening, you’re wonderful, and I’ll be there even when you’re…” [Off her look] What’s wrong?

She shakes her head.

Me: What’s wrong?

Her: I don’t want to talk about –

Me: No, no, no…tell me. You can tell me.

Her: You’re bullying me. I’m someone else now.

Me: Bullying? What?

Her: Keep your voice down.

Me: I’m just trying to have a conver-

Her [blurting]: It’s just that every time I see you we talk about the same things! Diane Weist, Robert Greenhut…

Me: Those were great times, our times! Remember Mighty Aphrodite, even then–

Her: I remember! I remember!

Me: And that night at the Angelika? Manhattan Murder Mystery? Even when you weren’t all dressed up, you were adorable…

Her: You see, that’s your problem. You’re stuck in then. You always were. Even when we met all you wanted was Annie Hall and Manhattan. You you you you. Gordon Willis and Santo Loquasto and you you you! But what about me, the new me?

Me: I wanted the new you.

Her: I gave you Deconstructing Harry and you were blasé.

Me: I’ve changed.

Her: No you haven’t. Match Point and Vicky Cristina

Me [incredulous laughter]: I can’t believe you’re doing this.

Her: Doing what?

Me: You’re not really bringing those up, are you?

Her: Why the hell shouldn’t I?

Me: Oh come on. Those things weren’t any good. They just weren’t as bad.

She slaps me.

Me: What am I supposed to say? “You really returned to form”? No way, honey. No way. You got lazy. You let me down. You let all of us down. And all of your “I have to see the Knicks” bullshit, what’s that about?

Her: I love the Knicks.

Me: Okay. Fine. Wrap at 5:00. I don’t care. Wrap at 4:00 if you want to. But tell me this: how can you call it a day and not get a single good take in there?

Her: I don’t have to take this from you.

Me: You say you love masters but really what you mean is “I don’t want to do another set up.”

Her: I’m leaving.

Me: There were shots in Cassandra’s Dream that were out of focus!

Her: I’m leaving now.

She gets up.

Me: Okay, take it easy, take it easy. Sit down, alright? Okay, I’m the guy that loves Radio Days, remember?

Her [calming down]: I don’t know what to tell you. I’m getting older. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t even know if I like it anymore, but I do it. I keep doing it. So if you don’t like all of them, well, I’m sorry. I really am. I wish you would. But I’m not Bergman.

Me: There you go with that again. You always say that.

Her: Well it’s true.

Me: No it is not. You’re just as good as he is, just as smart, just as meaningful, just as –

Her: No….

He takes her hand.

Me [gently]: God damn it, would you listen to me?

She’s quiet.

Me: Just listen to me. I’m going to say one thing and then I swear I’ll stop, okay?

She nods.

Me: Okay.

He takes a breath.

Me: Husbands and Wives.

She says nothing.

Me: That’s Bergman quality. Remember? Judy Davis and –

Her: I remember everything.

She smiles sadly.

Me: When we were good, we were good, huh?

Her: There was no one better.

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Today’s Word

“Everybody these days is talking about transmedia,” said video game agent Keith Boesky in a recent New York Times article. “Transmedia”! Finally my enemy has a name.

I remember the afternoon I first had a sense of what was to come. It was in film school. One day, from out of nowhere, it was decided that we of USC’s Film Production department were required to take a video game class. The moment I heard the news I remember thinking, “Years from now, I will look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of meaningful content in Hollywood.” It was a flash-forward containing a flashback.

That day, I barged – literally, barged – into the dean’s office. I was shaky, borderline belligerent, and fueled by the righteous fire of someone whose parents were footing the bill.

“This is a mistake,” I said. “You’ve got to be kidding with the video games.”

The dean looked up. His still eyes, peering out from behind thick screenwriterly frames, told me it was no use. “It’s the future,” he muttered. “Electronic narrative is the future.”

“Electronic narrative? I came here to learn film. Cinema. Not to analyze Donkey Kong.”

“It’s a good skill to have.” He put down his dog-eared copy of Syd Field. “Another arrow for your quiver.”

“What arrow? What quiver? I want human feelings!”

“It’s another form of story telling. That’s all.”

“Show me a video game that does what Cries and Whispers does, and I’ll take the class. Show me Ingmar Bergman’s Mortal Kombat, in which I can play Liv Ullmann and do battle with a total metaphysical breakdown, and you’ve got yourself a convert.” I was kidding, but I was completely serious.

The next day, I was in a basement with fifteen pale-faced boys who I was certain had never seen a bare tit in their lives. For two hours, we discussed a game called Grand Theft Auto. Then I raised my hand.

“Have any of you ever wept at the end of a video game?” I asked. “I mean really wept. Convulsive sobs.”

They blinked back at me. Then one spoke.

“The end of Final Fantasy IV is really sad.”

I didn’t speak. My professor – in all honesty, a very nice man – tried then to help me see it another way. “You know, of course, that film was originally perceived as a low-culture medium.”

“You can’t compare the evolution of a mammal to the evolution of an amoeba,” I announced. “Film came from D.W. Griffith. You people come from Pong.”

After class that day, I returned to the dean and begged him for clemency. “They’re Pong People,” I pleaded. “And they’re going to kill us.”

The dean hung his head.

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What Does Cannes Do?

In the spring, a young cineaste’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Cannes. Or, in the case of certain cineastes, not so lightly.

Does it matter? Does Cannes really do anything anymore, or has it become an airless pageant, one long, beachside photo-op with a few screenings thrown in for old times’ sake?

No: Cannes does matter. As opposed to Sundance, a festival which seems to get more and more insular, self-congratulatory, and (I don’t even know if this phrase will make sense) aesthetically vestigial with every passing year, The Cannes Film Festival has continued to raise the level of film consciousness not just in France, but throughout the world.

Cannes’ partnership with Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, along with its commitment to spotlighting documentaries about filmmaking (this year’s subjects include docs about Ingmar Bergman and legendary cameraman Jack Cardiff), is proof of the festival’s seriousness. But Cannes’ greatest gift to the film going world is, I think, in the field of restoration. Every year, after a vigorous cleaning-up (or in the case of certain critical cases, a full-blown rescue), a new crop of classics – some of them fringe, some of them mainstream – gets a Cannes platform. And because a Cannes platform means a world platform, these great works can once again (or maybe even for the first time) be given their due.

This year’s round of restored prints includes Bunuel’s Tristana (presented by Almodovar), Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, as well as The Tin Drum, Psycho, The Kiss of The Spider Woman (too long forgotten), The African Queen (too long remembered), and – this one’s particularly exciting – a restoration of Visconti’s The Leopard, which contains what is easily the most purely beautiful passages of film ever shot. Now they will be more beautiful than ever.

When people talk about movies looking beautiful you’ll often hear them say, “It looked like a painting,” or something to that effect. They mean it as high praise, but often, the painterly, portrait-like compositions they’re referring to are too studied, making the movie feel dead and stilted, more like a museum piece than an actual living, moving piece of life captured on film. Naturally, studied can be beautiful – as in the films of Peter Greenaway and Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman and others – but in The Leopard, especially in the film’s final moments, Luchino Visconti is onto something trickier: portraits that move. Keeping up that painterly framing is no easy task considering that the very nature of the moving image means his compositions must be ever-changing. So how does he do it? How does Visconti keep his world alive without losing his hold on the perfect frame?

Now that the film is restored, we’ll have a clearer answer than ever before.

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Federico y Ginger

Amid news of a Pac-Man movie, the latest casting developments in Captain America, reviews of Iron Man 2, new TV spots for The A-Team, and Fox’s announcement of a Planet of the Apes prequel, I excavated a small piece of encouragement: Pedro Almodovar will be working with Antonio Banderas once again. The film, The Skin I Live In, will begin shooting this summer.

“The film will be a terror film, without screams or scares,” Almodovar told the Spanish daily El Pais. “It’s difficult to define and although it comes close to the terror genre – something that appeals to me that I’ve never done – I won’t respect any of its rules. It’s the harshest film I’ve ever written and Banderas’ character is brutal.”

Throughout the eighties, Almodovar and Banderas made five films together – Labyrinth of Passion, Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and finally Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – an impressive, versatile streak that, in its day, ranked with the greatest director/actor partnerships around. Back then, before Almodovar had fully cultivated his current, perversely mature sensibility, Antonio Banderas was the living embodiment of his world, Cary Grant to his Howard Hawks. Under Almodovar’s direction, the actor alternated between a screwball-state of flummoxed boyishness (like Grant in Bringing Up Baby, Monkey Business, I Was A Male War Bride) and commanding manliness (like Grant in Only Angels Have Wings) – a duality appropriate to Almodovar’s madcap feeling for passionate behavior.

Together they forged new cinematic ground (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is an NC-17 comedy about a stalker in love with a heroine addicted porn-star), pushing ahead into uncharted emotional territory that they may not have reached on their own. Katharine Hepburn’s famous remark about Fred and Ginger – “He gave her class and she gave him sex” – readily applies; Pedro is Fred, Antonio is Ginger. How else could we have been lured into rooting for Banderas, who played that memorable, lovable rapist in Matador? Teamwork.

Jimmy Stewart made cold Hitchcock warm; Mastroianni gave warm Fellini cool; and Liv Ullmann gave Bergman’s films a chance at hope, like a life preserver thrown into a cold, dark sea. Antonio Banderas – a highly gifted performer who has never really been taken seriously in America – could, as Almodovar said, play “a puerile guy with an overpowering power of seduction.” Has there ever been a better summary of Almodovar’s brand of playful intensity?

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I Confess

Alfred Hitchcock died thirty years ago this week, on April 29th, 1980.

I’ve always had a confusing relationship with Hitch. With several exceptions (which I’ll touch on in a moment), a large majority of his pictures fill me with a strange mixture of awe and apathy, like when the TV tells me about a new sports car that can go very, very fast, or an athlete who scores a lot of points. “Yes,” I want to say to movies like North by Northwest, “That’s a lovely sequence – a touchdown sequence – but…then what?”

Maybe it’s because we like to talk about Hitchcock in pieces. The Shower Scene, the crane shot in Notorious, Vertigo’s dolly zoom, the high-angle shot from Topaz – wonderful garnish, but sometimes I wonder, where’s the beef? (Caveat: Vertigo is 100% prime cut select.) Often, it has helped me to see the garnish as the beef: so many of these pictures tend to be as much about how we watch them as they are about their content. Rope is a famous example: an experiment in watching. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’ve always thought Rear Window was one of Hitch’s best; it was a subject near to Hitch’s heart, and it showed.

Wait, did I just write “Hitch’s heart”? What does that mean, exactly?

Screenwriter David Freeman had the good fortune to work with Alfred Hitchcock late in his career, in the days when Hitch would have prints of the newest movies delivered to his office at Universal, which is how he saw Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. In his book, The Last Days of Alfred Hitchcock, Freeman reports that Hitch, at the height of one of those ferocious Liv-Ullmann/Ingrid Bergman scenes, got up from his seat, wobbled to the door, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.” Then he left.

It’s a revealing anecdote, and a reminder that Alfred Hitchcock, deep in his heart-thing, was really not one for the hard stuff. He was jokester. Tilt your head, substitute Cary Grant for Alec Guinness, and you’ll see a good portion of these pictures look like sadistic Ealing Comedies. Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Lifeboat, Strangers on a Train, and a few of the films I mentioned above, all have that mischievous prankster quality, the giggly feeling of pulling the rug out from under the status quo. I like these movies, but with the exception of Vertigo and Rear Window, my personal cluster of favorites comes from the back shelf: The Wrong Man, I, Confess, and The Man Who Knew Too Much (the second) are perhaps his most disturbing films. Not because their composition is any more bravura than Psycho’s, but because they each feature such strong performances (Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, and Doris Day, respectively). These characters are the dead-opposite of the Hitchcock Blonde, and their films are all the better for it. But that’s very much a personal thing.

For the record: it’s only because I love Hitchcock that I let myself needle through his best films. As a former-fellow voyeur, I know he wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Greenberg

The six films of Noah Baumbach describe sad and gentle slide from probing disappointment (Kicking and Screaming) to pervasive contempt (Margot at the Wedding). Greenberg, his latest film, sits somewhere in between.

In fact the movie is about inbetweens. About not being one thing, or its opposite. About not loving and not hating, not wanting and not not wanting. “I’m not doing anything,” Greenberg declares, “But I’ve decided not to do anything.” Is there a difference? Yes. No. We’re meant to laugh, weakly. This is a neurotic comedy if Antonioni had made it.

Greenberg is a cry for help without any crying. I wish I could say it’s the story of two generations – grunge versus mumblecore – but that would suggest Baumbach was aiming for something a little more conceptually ambitious. And ambition is contrary to the whole ethic of the film. Greenberg is just about a guy; guy so unlikable, it seems he actually sets out to cause difficulty, thwart coherence, and stymie momentum, just as Baumbach’s movie – named for its pro/antagonist – pursues ideas only to drop them, shirks from illumination, and stifles our satisfaction wherever and however possible. In other words, it’s good.

But even if you nail it, setting out to make blah can only net you the finest blah in town. That explains the sense of cold dissatisfaction upon leaving the theater, of feeling as though you haven’t sat through anything. But that’s reality, isn’t it? Nothing? Blah? Our man Baumbach seems to think so. Futility is the river of the world.

I began to wonder on my way out about the kinds of futility. Some of the greatest films have come out this all-powerful twentieth century curse, but only recently have they been designed to be unappealing. (Trying to seem unrefined, they actually appear more calculating than an honest-to-God Hollywood blockbuster.) But paralysis didn’t always used to be that way. Think back: Chayefsky was mad as hell. Ingmar Bergman was smart as hell. Benjamin Braddock, the patron saint of paralysis, had Elaine. And Beckett? There’s a lot to be gained from Godot, Greenberg’s wiser grandparent. The difference is, those clowns fought the nothing. Baumbach’s guy gave up the fight long ago. No, wait. Scratch that. He never began it.

Is that because the fight doesn’t exist anymore? Is that, I wondered on my way out into the street, what mumblecore is actually all about – apathy? Because if it is, I think that is worth fighting.

Compare Greenberg to Cassavetes’s Minnie & Moskowitz, a film that has so clearly inspired Baumbach’s, and you’ll see the fight up close, back in 1971, when Los Angeles wasn’t the capital of aimlessness (the first shot of Greenberg is of smog and crossed telephone wires), but a whacked-out town of lonely loonies turned loose to wreak havoc upon each other’s weirdnessess. Like Greenberg, they’ll never win, but unlike Greenberg, that’s why I love them.

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Oscarnacht

Oh boy it was a grim Oscars. So grim I’ve put off writing this.

Now here I am and I feel like the Underground Man from Notes From the Underground or that guy from Camus (or was it Sartre?) who begins his book with “my mother died today, or was it yesterday?” What, I wonder, is the point of going on? It seems almost silly to ascribe significance to a ceremony in which Taylor Lautner makes it to the stage, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman are only allowed to wave from the audience. Yet therein lies the significance.

In trying to appeal to the young, in trying to stay fresh and relevant, and in trying to keep the show moving at the pace of contemporary attention spans, the producers of the 82nd Academy Awards turned what could have been a meaningful evening into a bloodless night of dinner theater. They made it Weekend at Bernie’s. The Kodak Theater was Bernie.

Admittedly, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been old too long; they’re right to want to try a new tactic. If their members do not reach out to young people, serious film awareness could and probably will become a thing of the past, and the Samuel Goldwyn Theater will become an adjunct of Cedars-Sinai. But tread lightly, good people of Mantilini: to revoke history is to revoke the very essence of your establishment. Giving Oscar a facelift isn’t going to make him seem any younger; it’s just going to make him seem not himself. Attend the tale of Sweeny Kidman.

The very thing that gives the Academy its gravity is, like the British Empire, the sense of tradition that once fortified the Oscar ceremony. Imagine what coronations would be like if Westminster Productions decided to bring in young royals and cut out all that old fashioned business about God and Country and the Henrys and Elizabeths. England would become a role-playing game, with Parliament instead of a twenty-sided die.

I love James Taylor, but the “In Memoriam” segment should not be a music video, no matter how somber the accompaniment (I couldn’t help but think, “Karl Malden is dead and James Taylor will collect swag.”) Nor should the necessary rundown of the year’s Scientific & Technical Award Winners be dashed off like a homework assignment in the moments before class. (This segment will forever feel irrelevant if it is constantly treated as if it is. In truth, the Sci-Tech Awards are just as relevant, if not more relevant, than many other Oscar categories. These are the people who make film work, literally work.) Want to make the Scientific & Technical Awards fun? Then tell us the truth about the amazing things these gifted artists have achieved.

Why were people dancing to film music? Michael Giacchino should not have to compete with flipping. Why Neil Patrick Harris? He’s fun, I know, but how is he relevant to motion pictures? And why such a long tribute to John Hughes? No doubt about it: his influence on teen culture of the 80s was as formative as Salinger’s was on the 50s, and he should be honored in kind, but when Bergman died three years ago, I don’t recall seeing him in more than a few images in the “In Memoriam” reel. Do you see what I mean? Something is terribly, tragically off. Perhaps the Academy could make up for it by financing a Bergman revival. Perhaps they could get hot young actors to introduce the films. But what would they call the series, Girls Gone Wild Strawberries?

Of course I know Bergman won’t keep people tuned to the television sets. I know that’s not a practical solution. But without the great legacy of film in attendance, the Academy Awards will become just another Bar Mitzvah-looking award show. And God knows we already have The Golden Globes.

P.S. I was there for the whole thing. As my date and I left, we saw Michael Haneke lingering outside. He was holding court in a circle of three or four people and he was laughing. He was laughing.