Tuesday, August 7, 2018

WINTER LIGHT (1963) and FIRST REFORMED (2018)


I can't remember the first time I saw Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT. It was probably in the mid-90s, when I was fresh out of high school and found myself living in Little Rock just down the street from a particularly well-stocked Hollywood Video. I was watching everything in those days, and it was certainly during this time that I discovered Bergman. Yet I don't remember first discovering WINTER LIGHT, perhaps because I was so immediately floored by other Bergman films like THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING. Those films are rich in allegory and daring imagery. They grabbed me.

By contrast, WINTER LIGHT is small, tight, modest. It tells the story of Tomas (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a vicar in moral crisis. He's lost his faith and when a suicidal member (Max von Sydow) of his tiny congregation comes to him for some kind of help, Tomas has none to give. The man almost immediately kills himself.

Over the years, WINTER LIGHT became my favorite Bergman film. Again, it's hard for me to say just when and how this happened, except that the story of the lost priest has taken on greater resonance for me the older I get. The ending is fascinating. Tomas lashes out at his sometimes girlfriend, Marta (Ingrid Thulin), and returns to his work at the church. Algot, the crippled church sexton, asks Tomas about the suffering of Christ on the cross, speculating that God's silence at that moment was the worst of Christ's torments. Then the tiny church holds its service. Is there hope here? Any kind of redemption?

I've reacted to the ending differently over the years. Sometimes I read it as hopeful, with the hope resting not in a silent watchful god, but in the connection, however flawed, between people. Other times, I'm not so sure. By the time you get to Bergman's next film, THE SILENCE, it seems that all hope of human connection has been abandoned, along with God himself.



I was thinking of WINTER LIGHT a few months ago when Paul Schrader's FIRST REFORMED was released in theaters. In some respects, the film is Schrader's retelling of WINTER LIGHT. Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The church barely functions as a congregation anymore, and Toller is little more than a tour guide for visitors interested in the building as a historical landmark. Despite outward appearances, Toller is a man in crisis. His son, encouraged by Toller to enlist for military duty, was recently killed in Iraq. Toller's marriage collapsed and now the minister goes through the motions at work while quietly drinking too much at night.

Then, as in WINTER LIGHT, he is approached by a pregnant young woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). The disturbed young man is consumed by fears about environmental collapse and even contemplates committing an act of terrorism against a rich industrialist polluter. Like von Sydow in Bergman's film, Michael seeks some kind of help and when he finds that the priest has none to give, he kills himself.

Here Schrader's film pivots away from Bergman's. Toller takes up Michael's lost environmental cause as his own and begins to fixate on carrying out Michael's suicide bombing. The film's ending is ambiguous, a last minute reprieve that might simply be the fantasy of a dying man.

For much of FIRST REFORMED, Schrader embraces the austere style of WINTER LIGHT. The camera work favors meticulously composed static shots, and the performances, especially Hawke's, are quietly measured. As the film enters its final act, which owes more than a little to Schrader's own TAXI DRIVER, the tone becomes more frantic. By this point in the film, the tightly wound pastor is operating at a state of near hysteria. 

WINTER LIGHT and FIRST REFORMED are very different films, though their points of connection are interesting. For instance, in both films there is an emphasis on the weakness of the body. In Bergman's film, Tomas is sick with the flu, while Marta has a bad rash and the sexton is disabled. In FIRST REFORMED, Toller is suffering from an aliment that might well be stomach cancer, evidenced by blood in his urine, and at the end of the film he tortures his own flesh by lashing his torso in rusty barbed wire. In both films, the body is a humiliating trap of disease and pain. Faith offers only fleeting reprieve from the problems of the flesh.

Each film is a work of its time. In WINTER LIGHT, the characters fear nuclear annihilation. In FIRST REFORMED, it is climate change. In each case, the danger is poised by the weaponized irrationality of humanity, and, again, faith, offers little in the way of hope against such forces. Indeed, in Schrader's the film, the church is financially underwritten by the same rich polluter who is poisoning the environment.

Schrader's film is more manic, less tightly controlled in its final act, yet the passion and fury in Bergman are simply encased under more Scandinavian ice. Both films are about existential fury turned inward. In Schrader's film, perhaps reflective of an America plagued by domestic terrorism and spree killings, the rage takes the form of suicidal ideation and the contemplation of mass murder.

What both films begrudgingly agree upon is that the only thing with the potential to save us is a connection to other people. Of course, that connection is fraught and fragile. But no one ever accused Bergman or Schrader of being purveyors of easy answers. Both of their desperate ministers have placed themselves above their congregations, only to discover, perhaps too late, that they need people as much as people need them. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Dirty Sand and Eddie Bunker


The new issue of NOIR CITY is out and I have a couple of pieces in it. One is a look at the way beach culture was presented in film noir in the classic period in films such as THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, TENSION, IN A LONELY PLACE, and DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.

The second piece is a book vs. film comparison of Edward Bunker's novel NO BEAST SO FIERCE and Ulu Grosbard's STRAIGHT TIME starring Dustin Hoffman. For more info on the issue, which includes an interview between James Ellroy and Eddie Muller, click here.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

HELL ON CHURCH STREET Arrives In Italy


I'm thrilled to announce that HELL ON CHURCH STREET is now available in Italy from Edizioni del Capricorno. I look forward to hearing what the good people of Italy make of the book. 

Friday, April 27, 2018

MAIGRET AND THE HEADLESS CORPSE



I have a new post up at Criminal Element looking at Simenon's 47th (jesus) Maigret adventure, MAIGRET AND THE HEADLESS CORPSE. This is part of a rereading series I'm doing for CE, looking at my six favorite Maigret books. This one might well be my favorite, if only because it's the one that made me a fan.
Check out my post here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Dark Blonde: The Film Noirs of Marilyn Monroe


I have the cover story in the new issue of NOIR CITY, a piece that looks at the four film noirs that Marilyn Monroe made at the outset of her Hollywood career. These films offer an interesting look at her development as an actor and as a star, and they suggest a far different kind of onscreen persona than the one that would eventually take shape in romantic comedies and musicals in the years to come.

Check it out here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

NO TOMORROW in ROLLING STONE (France)


There's a great four-star review of NO TOMORROW in the current French edition of ROLLING STONE. Reviewer Phillippe Blanchet has some nice things to say about the book. If you can read French, or if you just want to plug it into a translator, go check it out.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

HELL ON CHURCH STREET and NO TOMORROW Go To Italy

I'm thrilled to announce that my books HELL ON CHURCH STREET and NO TOMORROW have been acquired for translation into Italian by the publisher Edizioni Del Capricorno. More details to come but for now: Viva l'Italia!