Monday, 30 July 2007

the seventh seal (dir bergman)

I called the Bergman aficionado from the Barbican. He said, a little sniffily, so you're going to see it for the ninetieth time. Not being a Bergman aficionado myself, I muttered that I remembered seeing it once on TV when I was 19, but even this was a distortion. I'd seen the opening frames, nothing more.

Max Von Sydow sitting on a Swedish beach playing chess with Mr De'ath himself. Horses up to their fetlocks in whippy Northern waters. An eerie, intellectual gloss permeating the scene.

During these first few frames, imposing though they are, I feared that The Seventh Seal was going to prove too austere, too like a Calvinesque cathedral. Beautiful yet far from heart-warming. Which is the preconceived model of a Bergman film, a filmmaker most know more through Woody Allen's failed attempts to become him than his work itself.

The screen was disappointingly small and the print far from great. I girded my loins and prepared to bathe worthily in the great auteur's gloom, as Max Von Sydow set off with his page to avoid the plague.

If the reader wants to retain the Bergmanesque myth, stop here. Because the film itself fails to honour it. Strange things start to happen. A couple, she beautiful, he a quirky fool, awake in a meadow, play with their child, clown around. A blacksmith loses his wife to a knavish actor, then wins her back in scenes of knockabout comedy. The tone of the film becomes warm, comic, charming.

In a way The Seventh Seal can be summarised as a Black Death Road Movie. Which might have a Tarantino/ Rodriguez ring to it. Bergman's sensibility seems populist. He creates characters who are lovable, and exposes them to danger. The audience roots for their survival. Death seems more of a vengeful sprite than a macabre ghoul. The heavy handed costume and make-up worn by Bengt Ekerot loses any taint of horror, as he plots and plans. This is a character from a medieval morality play, a villain and a rogue, whose gleeful sense of humour is revealed in the film's theatrical closing shot.

The wider philosophical and psychological context of the movie passed me by. No doubt there were things that I missed. Yet, like Beckett, another author whose work is categorised as much by its reputation as its actuality, it would be easy to lose sight of the manifest entertainer at work, were one to dwell too ornately on the significance of the imagery. The title, The Seventh Seal has a portentous ring to it, which the film does not shy away from, but Bergman has been careful to root his fatalism within a kernel of earthy joy. So when Von Sydow is asked by Death at the end whether his stay of execution has been worth while, we, the audience know exactly what he means when he replies that it certainly has.


Note: Less than an hour after writing this I learn that Mr De'ath has caught up with Ingmar Bergman, who shall be playing chess no more.

Tuesday, 17 July 2007

puffball (dir nic roeg)

At 11pm Nic Roeg came on stage at the Galway Film Festival to present what might well turn out to be his last film. The screening was half an hour late and the cinema was far from full. He said that unusually for him, this film had a beginning and an end, and they came in that order.

It is a long time since Roeg made a film. He's in his eightees now. Puffball was made on a tight budget, with few stars. It's a curious narrative, adapted from a Fay Weldon novel, of Irish voodoo, pregnancies (two, perhaps three, perhaps four) and sex. As might be expected from a Weldon novel, it feels like a narrative told from a female perspective. In between some of the several shagging scenes are shots of sperm flying, as though seen through a microscope, across the big screen.

Given Roeg's venerable age it is perhaps understandable why he should turn to this material, dealing as it does with the process and continuation of life itself. Roeg has always enjoyed a good sex scene, and the vigour of his mind and cinematic muscle is still evident. The tempo of the narrative seems uneven, and Kelly Reilly's central performance feels at times unfocussed, both of these being flaws of the script more than anything else, but there are still flashes of Roeg's cinematic genius, the laser-like editing that can send shivers up every spine in the house.

The clues to the film's intentions can perhaps be found in Donald Sutherland's cameo. When Sutherland comes on screen, he brings the baggage of Don't Look Now, and Roeg's feverish interpretations of relationships with him. Yet this is an older Sutherland, somewhat mannered in his acting, expressing the need for constant re-invention, as well as a capacity to learn from youth. 'It all starts from now' is a phrase used both by the younger, pregnant Reilly and the older, rennovated Sutherland. Its not hard to see this, and the film's playfulness, as Roeg's rebuttal of looming death. In old age, as in youth, life is there to be re-invented. There are no endings, only beginnings.

Puffball is not Roeg's greatest film. There's some concern over what kind of release it's going to get, and it's far from clearly commercial. The broad humour seems somewhat out of keeping with the intensity the maker of Eureka, Performance and Don't Look Now brought to the screen. But in spite of these caveats, there is still something fascinating, unexpected, taking place on the screen. The film may indeed begin at what appears to be the beginning and end at what appears to be the end, as all journeys do, but the 'what-happens-in-between' bit is never predictable. Roeg shows that his alien cinematic mind is as acute and unconventional as ever.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

flandres (dir. dumont)

Dumont comes garlanded as the bleakest of the new bleak. His films lay bare the blank canvas of modernity, where humans are dehumanised, life is oncemore nasty, brutish and short.

Flandres tells the tale of Demester, a young farm labourer, played with bovine assiduousness by Samuel Boidin. Demester has perfunctory sex with the farm owners daughter, Barbe. He seems incapable of understanding what love or tenderness might mean. He is sent to fight in 'the' war, which is taking place in an unnamed Arabic state. There his colleagues kill, rape and degrade the enemy, and are in turn killed and degraded by the same enemy, upon their capture. Demester somehow survives and returns to Flanders to find that Barbe accuses him of killing his fellow soldier, because she had become pregnant by him. He admits the charges, then discovers feelings of love for her.

Along the way there are scenes of rape, castration, abortion and 'hell' as Demester finally describes the war. The director does not appear to want to give his audience an easy ride. Iraq and the pointlessness of our lives are to the forefront of his agenda, and the title and the setting imply that modernity has given us little in the near century since that other senseless bout of killing on the French fields.

And yet... Flandres is curiously watchable. It is not a difficult experience. In these graphic times we are used to extreme imagery, and Dumont never quite succeeds in shocking us. It's true that the early 'farm' scenes are slow, but as soon as the action of war kicks in, the narrative flies along at a lick. In a recent interview, Dumont expressed his hopes to one day make a movie with Tom Cruise, and given the action of Flandres this seems less absurd than I had expected it too.

There's more than a touch of that dry ironist Houllebecq in Dumont's take on the world, albeit a slightly soft-soap Houllebecq, as its hard to see the writer coming up with such a sentimental pay-off. If the director is seeking to portray the bleakness of contemporary living, he's going to have to try a little harder. However, if Flandres is a parable for the way in which there is a residue of humanity and love to be found in even the most embattled, then this film succeeds. At the end we realise that this has not been a tale of insanity and war, rather a touching love story between two misfits, who are left with the rest of their lives to explore what this bizarre but most humane of feelings might mean.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

The Pain and The Itch (w. Bruce Norris; d. Domininc Cooke)

Whose pain and whose itch? Questions which one suspects the writer and indeed director would like to be at least hovering around the theatre.

There's some very witty dialogue in Bruce Norris's piece. He writes with a sense of un-self-censored freedom, and the lines explode around the stage like little bundles of fun. The laughs are regular, and as the press suggests, infectious. The Pain and the Itch is also an artfully constructed piece, not a scatter-gun attack on modern mores. As the play comes to a conclusion the origins of Kayla's vaginal itch are neatly elaborated; the cause of the taxi driver's persistence succinctly resolved; a kind of family unity achieved. The play's structure is less comedy or farce than Murder Mystery. The taxi driver is a kind of 21st century Poirot, excavating the events of the night to uncover the hidden truth.

All of which is both extremely clever and also highly entertaining. Which might just be the play's Achilles Heel. The director, Dominic Cooke, who generates fine performances and conducts Norris's dialogue with suitable vigour, has been quoted as saying that he wants the Royal Court to move away from a voyeuristic kitchen sink approach and use the stage as a mirror to reflect and discomfort the audience. And one can see how The Pain and The Itch, an apparently scathing attack on liberal-western-upper-middle-mores might fit into this remit.

Yet, I felt, that the very neatness and confidence of the theatrical experience in some way helped to let the audience off the hook. Leaving aside the fact that it's not hard for a liberal British audience to laugh at and feel little connection with the fault-lines of the liberal US - in fact rather satisfying - it seemed as though the play's qualities in themselves may have been working against its intentions. The Pain and The Itch has all the attributes of the modern Western piece, it wears its cleverness on its sleeve, loose ends tied up, a highly efficient work of art. Whether that structure allows the pain that underlies this piece to see the light of day seems questionable. The pain which is not Kayla's itch, but the death of the taxi driver's wife, and by implication, the other needless deaths which US foreign policy has engendered in recent years. The only time this came through was when the taxi driver turned on his wife's de facto killer and said calmly - 'That is why you kill people', a moment when the man had to confront the fact that his whole way of life was tied up in the actions of the democracy he participated in, with the consequences that democracy has imposed on other people in other lands.

The Pain and The Itch is a great piece of writing. It's staged well. It's does a lot of things brilliantly. The question is whether it does all the things it sets itself up to do. If it doesn't, at least it's laying down some kind of road map showing the extent of what a play can do, and the directions it might have to go in if the Court is serious in its intentions to hold the mirror up to the life of its well-heeled audience.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

fanny and alexander (dir bergman)

The Bergman fan summoned me from weekend indolence to come and watch this late epic with him, urging me to book before it sold out. I hadn't seen it in twenty years. The friend had once given me or my wife, he's not quite sure which, the full-length video of the extended version of the film, which was apparently shown on Swedish TV. It sat on a dusty shelf and was never watched.

Sitting down in a half-empty Barbican cinema, I was increasingly glad of that. You can watch a film on TV and the narrative will come across; but not the spectacle. Fanny & Alexander is a big film, in length and detail, and much of that would be lost on a TV screen. The opening sequence, set around an early twentieth century Christmas day in a slightly bohemian Swedish family, lasts for over an hour. It's like watching a tapestry take shape: a stitch here, a stitch there, and gradually the complete vision of Alexander's family comes to life, in all it's bawdy, colourful glory.

This detail is reflected in the film's sets. I don't know there's all that much to say about Fanny & Alexander. I told my friend that I tend to book tickets at the side of the cinema, not the middle, in case I feel the need to flee, and he, a lover of the centre, replied: But this is Bergman! He was right. There was no reason to flee at any point during the course of the film's three hours. Just an invitation to sit back and bask in the physchological portrayals, the occasional surrealisms, the deft pacing of an old master.

So the only revelatory thing I have to offer concerns these sets, the full beauty of which can only be guaged on a cinema screen. The home of the bohemian family, captured in such detail during the first hour, seemed fussy, lavish, Victorian, ornate. The screen is packed to the rafters with rich colours and velvety fabrics. This is contrasted with the home of the wicked stepfather, the hidebound bishop who torments Alexander so. The bishop's home is all austere off-whites, stripped bare walls, an antiseptic minimalism. The point of note is that, at the start of the 21st century, it is the cruel bishop's taste which reflects our notions of civilised living - clean Ikea lines, simple colour schemes. The unruly lifestyle of Alexander's father's family, which Bergman celebrates so vigorously, is allied to out-dated notions of domestic taste; it seems fusty and old-fashioned in comparison with the bishop's bleak modernity.

As noted, the best place to apreciate this is on the large screen. So I am glad I never sat down to watch the video, although, were it still there to be watched, I would now sieze the chance to find out what happens in the other three hours which were ruthlessly cut from the shortened narrative of the cinema release.