Thursday, December 23, 2010
Back in 1999, I worked at a used bookshop in Little Rock. I was stacking books one day when Charles Portis, the author of TRUE GRIT, walked in. He was a semi-regular in our store who usually came in accompanied by Dee Brown, the elderly author of BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE. Although the ninety-year old Mr. Brown was a jovial and natural raconteur, Mr. Portis, in his sixties at the time, was always quiet and reserved. The day he came in alone he was in search of a movie guide with a good selection of Westerns. I showed him what we had and apologized for the slim pickings. "These are a little old," I said. "Might not have much new stuff in them."
He shrugged. "Aw, I don't much like the new stuff, anyway."
I wonder what he'll make of the new adaptation of his most famous novel. The book--a masterpiece of American fiction--was, of course, adapted once before by director Henry Hathaway. At the time, the film was greeted as a turning point for star John Wayne and seen as a demystification of his screen image. This was supposed to be Wayne all roughed up, not quite as heroic as we were used to seeing him. All due respect to Hathaway (a fine director whose best work is probably the noir KISS OF DEATH), the hype around TRUE GRIT was always a bit overstated. It's an entertaining film, but Wayne was only playing a slightly more eccentric version of the sexless authoritarian figures he'd been playing in Westerns since he aged out of leading man roles in the sixties.
The new film, written and directed by the invaluable Coen brothers, hews closer than the previous film to the novel in tone and plot. The story is told by a 14-year old girl named Mattie Ross from Yell county, Arkansas who strikes out to track down her father's murderer. She enlists the help of a one-eyed, whiskey-swilling federal marshal named Rooster Cogburn, and the two are joined on their journey by a loquacious Texas Ranger named La Boeuf.
The Coens haven't been completely faithful to the book--for instance, they've added a strange new sequence involving a hanged man and a fellow wearing a bear's head for a hat--but their love of Portis's novel, especially its rich language, is palpable. In most Westerns, even in most great Westerns, there's no attempt made to try and replicate the sound of speech from the 1800s. One of the pleasures of Portis's novel, however, is the way the characters--Mattie, in particular--have a speech pattern that blends rural slang and formalized speech patterns. It's at once coarser and classier than the way most of us speak now. Since one of the real gifts of the brothers Coen is their ability to mine the regional verbal gold of an ever expanding swath of America--think FARGO, RAISING ARIZONA, A SERIOUS MAN--they are especially suited to the task of bringing Portis's language to the screen. Although it takes a few minutes to get used to lack the lack of contractions, the result is a kind of distinctive rural poetry.
The film, like so much of the Coens' best work, is an ensemble piece: Jeff Bridges makes for a surly and capable Rooster Cogburn, a man whose lack of grace is made up for by his abundance of...well, grit. Matt Damon is all kinds of wonderful as the self-important La Boeuf--it's nice to see the star, so often cast as the laconic outsider, utilizing his comic chops. Barry Pepper and Josh Brolin play the kinds of bad guys we never see in movies anymore: nasty characters who are nevertheless recognizably human. And spearheading this gang of misfits is young Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross. A 14-year old from California, Steinfeld seems to slip effortlessly into the skin of a preternaturally mature girl from 19th century Arkansas. More to the point, she's able to convey Mattie's essential quality, what Ethan Coen calls "the unflinching, four-square Protestant thing that defines the character." The actress is too pretty for the role, but when she sets her jaw and stares down the men of violence surrounding her, you believe her.
In the end, it's best to keep in mind that TRUE GRIT is the story of an old woman (a self-described "spinster") looking back on her moment of triumph. The smartest move the Coens make here (and they make almost exclusively good moves) is to keep the frame story in place. The film's opening shot begins as a murky haze that slowly clarifies into the image of Mattie's dead father. This is Mattie looking back through time and distance. When we rejoin her at the end of the film, she is old and malformed by her adventure, but she is who she is, the kind of headstrong character who deserves the title of "peculiar." That peculiar woman is who comes across in the pages of the novel, and that's who comes across here.
I hope Portis approves.
For more on Portis read here.
Saturday, December 18, 2010
The internet has been a godsend to the legacy of Orson Welles, allowing for the accelerated development of the community of fanatics devoted to his work. The leader in all things Welles is Wellesnet.com, a meeting ground for the truly obsessive. It's latest post is a reprint of Andrew Sarris's spot-on criticism of "Raising Kane" Pauline Kael's abominable hatch job on Welles. Read it here.
The site also has a page on Facebook which contains an unbeatable collection of photos, stills, and posters. Recently they posted this scene that Orson Welles cut out of his 1962 masterpiece The Trial. The sound has been lost to us, unfortunately, but some titles have been added to approximate the script. It's a fascinating glimpse of Welles's process. A constant experimenter, he wrote and shot this scene only to cut it out after the film had already premiered. This is evidence, as Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich, that he hated to watch his own films because he always had the urge to tinker with them.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The new issue of the Noir City Sentinel is now available. As usual, it's packed full of great articles and photos. First, a little horn-tooting: this issue features my essay "All Kinds of Women: The Lesbian Presence in Film Noir" a 3,000 word examination of lesbian representation in noir from the classic period onward. The whole issue is pretty great: it features Don Malcolm on true crime noir; profiles on Lizabeth Scott, Edward G. Robinson, and Richard Conte; and an insightful reappraisal of ON THE WATERFRONT by Vince Keenan. It has exciting information on the latest preservation efforts of the Film Noir Foundation (good news for fans of the brilliant THE SOUND OF FURY), and much much more.
Below is the opening of my article:
There are no lesbians in classic film noir, and the reason for this is quite simple. Lesbians didn’t exist back then. Well, they didn’t officially exist. Sure, there were places in L.A. that catered to the all-girl set, upscale nightclubs like Tess’s Café Internationale and middle-class bars like the If Club and the Paradise Club. Actresses such as Margaret Lindsay (SCARLETT STREET), Ona Munson (THE RED HOUSE), and Patsy Kelly (THE NAKED KISS) either lived openly with their partners or carried on affairs with other women while hidden behind “lavender marriages” to gay men. And rumors swirled about big name stars like Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck, and Lizabeth Scott. On the nation’s screens, however, lesbians didn’t even rate the kind of offensive portrayals accorded to other minorities. According to the Hays Code, absolutely no manner of “sex perversion” was permitted onscreen—a rule so ironclad that not even the implication of homosexuality was permissible. In the culture at large, moreover, homosexuality was rarely if ever spoken about in the open. It wasn’t that people were in the closet—it’s that the closet wasn’t even supposed to exist.
So there are no lesbians in noir. Implications, however, are funny things…Click here to get The Sentinel
Sunday, December 5, 2010
I have a new essay up at Mulholland Books that examines Robert Mitchum's propensity for getting gutshot by beautiful women. I look at this martyr's tale as told by three different, but terrifically talented, directors: Jacques Tourneur, John Farrow, and Otto Preminger.
During his long stint in Noirville, Robert Mitchum played everything from upright heroes to the nastiest of villains, but first and foremost he was the definitive sap. More than any other actor, Mitchum created the pivotal figure of the lovesick antihero with tragic taste in women. We find the core aspects of this persona in three films he made at RKO between 1947 and 1953: Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, and Angel Face. These films feature the actor in strikingly similar scenarios which develop and resolve in parallel fashion.Keep reading...
Friday, December 3, 2010
Most bad movies aren't bad in any special way. The business of filmmaking has always been a high dollar risk venture, so most films try to duplicate past successes. This is why your average FAILURE TO LAUNCH* is a bland confection of recycled materials, the cinematic equivalent of fast food--the same old shit on a new bun. In other words, they're bad in a mass produced way.
And then there's THE ROOM, a movie so horrible it achieves a kind of greatness. It is part of the genre of so-bad-it's-good films that reaches back to Claudio Fragasso's TROLL 2 and, further, to the godfather of godawfulness, Ed Wood, director of PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE. Like those films, THE ROOM is the work of an auteur. This would-be chamber drama was produced, written, and directed by Tommy Wiseau and stars Wiseau as Johnny, a San Francisco bank employee with a European accent of indeterminate origin. He's engaged to marry the villainous Lisa, but Lisa is bored by their life together and decides to seduce Johnny's best friend, Mark.
That's pretty much it for the main plot, but the film is chocked full to bursting with tossed-off, immediately abandoned subplots. There's a one-scene-long subplot involving a drug dealer, followed not long after by a one-scene-long subplot about Lisa's faked pregnancy. And then there's the truly weird moments--like one character's casual revelation that she's dying of breast cancer...a matter never mentioned again in the film.
THE ROOM plays like it's been made by people who've never seen a movie before. Someone must have told Wiseau that you point a camera at people while they pretend to have conversations, and that's what happens here. Sorta. The acting in this movie isn't just bad, it's supernaturally horrible. As both a writer and an actor, Wiseau has only a glancing command of English ("Lisa has been teasing me, and we didn't make love in a while" and "Everybody betray me!"). Meanwhile, the main set looks like the background of an infomercial, shots drift in and out of focus for no reason, and scenes play as if they were edited at random.
Best (or worst) of all: scattered throughout the film, like little time bombs, are four sex scenes that should be shown to high school students as advertisements for abstinence.
The movie is, in a word, hilarious. And, see, this is where THE ROOM finds its dimwitted grandeur. Your average Hollywood craptacular is made with proficiency and skill and soul-crushing banality. Wiseau's magnum opus, however, is never bland. There's not a single uninteresting scene in this movie. Every scene is bizarrely, uniquely terrible in some way.
For instance, my favorite subplot involves Denny, the freakish man-child who lives in the same building as Johnny. We're told that Denny is like Johnny's son, but it's unclear a) how old Denny is (he looks to be in his mid-twenties but acts like he's about fourteen), and b) where Denny lives. He sneaks into Johnny's apartment to watch Johnny and Lisa roll around on the bed. This leads to a pillow fight, followed by Denny's departure and the harrowing descent of Johnny and Lisa into one of the film's gorge-raising depictions of human coitus. Later, Denny is threatened by a drug dealer, and still later, he confesses to Johnny that he's in love with Lisa (which, needless to say, is yet another subplot abandoned posthaste).
The thing is, all this adds up to a unified whole. THE ROOM may want to be SEX, LIES and VIDEOTAPE, but its real antecedent is Ed Wood's GLEN OR GLENDA, another drama that was morphed into a comedy by the sheer passionate ineptitude of its creator. And to give credit where credit is due, THE ROOM is one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, as funny in its way as anything by Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, or the Coen brothers. See it with someone you love, or better yet, see it with a lot of people. The film has become a "cult sensation" and seeing it this past weekend at The Shadowbox Community Microcinema in Roanoke, VA, I was struck by its power on an audience. Yelling at the screen, calling out lines of dialog, applauding after the sex scenes--the crowd loved it with a fervor we usually reserve for great works of pop art.
Watch some clips here.
*my thanks to my buddy Erin Wommack for providing the name of a shitty Matthew McConaughey movie when I needed one.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
As near as I can tell, there's no one quite like Cullen Gallagher out there mixing it up on the internet. Gallagher is better known to hardcore noir geeks as the brains behind the blog Pulp Serenade, a treasure trove of old and new crime fiction. On a nearly daily basis, Pulp Serenade churns out reviews of long (looooong) lost pulp novels and spotlights offbeat contemporary authors. Gallagher is a perceptive critic and a dogged archivist/historian. His joy in discovering a new dusty old dime novel is palpable and infectious.
Just last week, he unveiled a new series he's doing on critical perspectives, looking at the original reception of classic crime fiction. His first entry was an overview of writer Day Keene.
Lastly, Gallagher also contributed the fascinating essay "A History of Pulp" to the new anthology Beat To A Pulp: Round One.
Saturday, November 13, 2010
The opening scenes of The Night of the Hunter play like something out of a Flannery O’Connor story—a Southern Gothic spin on film noir—but by the end it has turned into something much more. It is a rich, scary, brilliant movie.
Robert Mitchum plays a woman-murdering preacher named Harry Powell who travels the countryside with LOVE tattooed on one hand and HATE tattooed on the other. He gets tossed in jail for theft and while he’s there he shares a cell with a condemned murderer named Ben Harper. Not long before he’s executed, Harper talks in his sleep and discloses the existence of some money he left hidden with his young son and daughter, John and Pearl. After Powell is released from prison, he heads off to find the children and the missing money.
He’s lucky to find the kids living with their widowed mother, and luckier still to discover that she’s played by Shelley Winters, that embodiment of needy cluelessness. It doesn’t take him long to convert her into a guilt-ridden religious fanatic and seduce her into marriage. Once he’s moved into the house, he goes to work on the kids to find out where they’ve hidden the money.
John and Pearl are played by Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce. Among the interesting things about The Night of the Hunter is that it is one of the rare noirs about children. Most kids in noirs are props, exploited as symbols of domestic tranquility. In this film, however, the kids are a little weird. Neither Chapin nor Bruce are cute in a conventional sense and neither of them give cute performances. The movie features them as protagonists in a stylized nightmare, and in some ways The Night of the Hunter looks and feels like a child's storybook--albeit a weird one.
Consider the plot from their point of view. Their father is a crook, executed for his crimes. They are outcasts among other children because of this fact. Their mother means well, but she is lonely and sad. Then a man shows up. He marries their mother and moves into the house. But he always wants to be alone with them. Every time their mother is away, he goes up to their bedroom. He interrogates them in different ways. He puts the little girl on his lap, flirts with her almost. He makes the boy stand in the center of the room while he hurls abuse at him. He warns them not to tell their mother. This is our secret, he tells them. She wouldn’t believe you anyway.
In setting up Mitchum as the tormentor of two young children—and having him hide behind his privilege as an adult, and his privilege as both their stepfather and as a man of God— The Night of the Hunter gives us the perhaps the first real portrait of a child molester in American cinema. Even more than Peter Lorre’s turn as the child killer in Fritz Lang’s M, Mitchum’s child-terrorizing preacher is a dark portrait of a very real monster.
The Night of the Hunter situates this monster inside a highly stylized landscape of shadows and Expressionistic sets. It is a completely artificial world where even nature feels unnatural, and where everything is shot to accentuate artificiality rather than obscure it. This movie simply looks unlike any other movie ever made, a combination of Flannery O’Connor and Dr. Caligari. The whole thing is so fake, so scary and eerily beautiful, it feels like a children’s movie directed by a pederast--OZ with an evil Wizard.
As the evil Wizard Harry Powell, Robert Mitchum gives one of his best performances. This movie—along with his equally terrifying work as the rapist Max Cady in Cape Fear—justifies us calling Mitchum one of the screen’s great villains. Impressive, especially considering that he was also one of the screen’s great leading men.
My essay on the film—like most writing about it—has revolved around Mitchum’s crazy preacher, but it is worth noting that the final third of the film involves the children seeking protection with an old lady played by Lillian Gish. Mitchum and Gish square off at the end, HATE and LOVE battling for the lives of two young kids. Years ago, when I first saw this film I didn’t quite understand the function of Gish. The scenes at her idyllic country home seemed to go on too long after the plot had resolved itself. I was wrong. Watching the film many times over the years, I began to see these scenes as the culmination of the film’s vision, their artifice an integral part of the artifice of the film as a whole. Gish’s final speech, in particular, seems like a fairly direct comment on the barely submerged theme of child abuse.
The Night of the Hunter was, famously, the only film directed by the great actor Charles Laughton before his death in 1962. What a shame. Who knows what else he might have done? In a way, though, this sad fact only serves to make Laughton’s film all the more special. I don’t know what compelled him to make this haunting children’s nightmare, but its uniqueness only adds to its mystery.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
On November 16th, one of the greatest of all noirs, Charles Laughton's masterpiece The Night of the Hunter gets the Criterion Collection treatment. The package looks to be all that such an important film deserves: a newly restored digital transfer, a discussion with Laughton biographer Simon Callow, and most impressively--two and a half hours of outtakes and behind the scenes footage enticingly titled Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter.
Laughton's film unfolds like a child's nightmare, with Robert Mitchum playing a woman-murdering child-terrorizing preacher named Harry Powell. I'll post an essay on the film in a few days. For now, check out the movie's page at the Criterion Collection.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation just hipped me to an article by David Kehr of the New York Times entitled "The Ballad of Blu-Ray and Scratchy Old Film." It's an incisive look at the odd relationship between movie studios and the priceless film libraries they're letting disintegrate on their shelves. Will Blu-Ray and DVD be the savior of classic films? Not necessarily, according to Kehr.
Read the article here.
Friday, October 29, 2010
Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller is an odd mix of two tones that the director usually hits with skillful precision: comedy and bittersweet loss. Based on Henry James's novella of the same name, the film tells the story of an expatriate named Winterbourne who meets a beguiling young American girl traveling Europe with her flighty mother and surly younger brother. A relationship develops between the uptight Winterbourne and the vivacious Daisy, but Daisy quickly becomes the scandal of the American expatriate community and Winterbourne can't quite reconcile himself to the disapproval of people like the rich widow Mrs. Walker.
Henry James is notoriously hard to adapt to the screen because so much of his work takes place below the placid surface of the (in)action of the plot. Bogdanovich bravely waded into these deep waters with his mind set on staying true to the spirit of James. The result is in many ways his least accessible film. It reminds me in some ways of Welles's The Immortal Story, a film of similar somber control. The difference here is that Bogdanovich, a master of comedy, injects this film with a lot of daylight, in both the metaphorical and literal senses.
Most of the comedy comes from the members of the Miller family. Mrs. Miller (Cloris Leechman) is a motor-mouthed set of nervous twitches, while Daisy's little brother (future singer/songwriter James McMurtry) is a grumpy American xenophobe who's none to happy he's stuck in Italy with his big sister and mother.
And then there's Daisy herself, played by Bogdanovich's 70s muse Cybil Shepherd. A viewer's enjoyment of the film hinges in large part on his or her reaction to Shepherd's quirky charisma. Despite her beauty there was always something imbalanced about Cybil Shepherd, a combination of giddy eccentricity on the one hand and fair-haired banality on the other. That probably sounds worse than I mean it, but consider that both of her iconic film roles (in The Last Picture Show and Scorsese's Taxi Driver) position her as a man's unattainable romantic ideal. It's too much to say that she had a mystery about her, but in most of her film roles there's something untouchable about Cybil Shepherd, something a little playful and more than a little mean. More often than not, when she's playing opposite a man, Shepherd seems like a weird little kid pulling the wings off flies. Here, she plays Daisy as a bubbly innocent--or she tries to--but innocence hangs off her like an oddly tailored outfit.
Which may or may not be the point. Daisy and Winterbourne can't seem to ever say what they're feeling. With Winterbourne this makes sense. As played by Barry Brown, he's a man of tight reserve. With his dark, mournful eyes, Brown has no trouble selling us on Winterbourne's morose self-defeat. (A tragic manic depressive who killed himself just four years after this movie was made, Brown should have been cast as Edgar Allan Poe in a biopic.) But Daisy is tough to figure. There is a scene toward the middle of the film where they dash to make it to a boat, and she turns and looks at him with unbridled joy--a joy she quickly bridles again. It's a terrific moment of acting by Shepherd because it plays off the confusion she usually causes in men: Is she toying with me? Even after the film supplies us with an answer, we're still not sure.
Shepherd is perfect for this role in the sense that you're never entirely sure what she's thinking. Her weakness as an actress, however, has always been that her obliquity doesn't seem to hint at unplumbed depths. She's a shallow actress in the best and worst senses of the word.
Daisy Miller is a fine film in many ways. Its production design is impeccable, and the cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli is often stunning. The supporting cast, particularly Eileen Brennan as the conniving Mrs. Walker, is top rate. Moreover, Bogdanovich shows once again that he is a master of intricate long take (I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet that this film has fewer cuts than any of his others).
It is a film of surfaces and seems to be the spiritual precursor to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Ivory's Remains of the Day--yet Daisy and her goofy family make odd protagonists for such a tale. This goes back to what I was saying at the outset about the mix of tones.
In its day, the film was a notorious flop, suffering in part from the bad press that Bogdanovich and Shepherd's extramarital affair had generated in the tabloids. It ended Bogdanovich's period of skyrocket success, derailing for a time one of the most important directors of his era. Watched today, however, the film is fascinating. I can't bring myself to call it an unalloyed artistic success--but there is something about it. Like Daisy herself, it stays in the mind.
Here's a piece by Peter Tonguette over at Senses of Cinema, a retrospective of Bogdanovich's career with a lot of attention devoted to Daisy Miller.
Friday, October 15, 2010
Lock the doors and dig the cash out of the mattress, Beat To A Pulp: Round One is available! I'm proud to be included in this pulse-pounding neo-noir anthology alongside heavy hitters like Charles Ardai, Ed Gorman, Patti Abbott, Hilary Davidson, James Reasoner, and so many more. This tombstone-sized tome is edited by David Cranmer and Elaine Ash and features an introduction by Bill Crider and a history of pulp by Pulp Serenader Cullen Gallagher. You can't afford to miss this book. Asses are kicked, hearts are broken, and we all end up face down in the gutter. Buy yours now!
Also available at Amazon.
Friday, October 8, 2010
The Film Noir Foundation and AFI roll out Noir City DC October 16th-November 3rd, and it looks to be another raging success. The lineup this year is an embarrassment of riches:
Border Incident-Anthony Mans's gritty illegal immigrant noir, featuring amazing work by cinematographer John Alton.
Stranger on the Third Floor-Arguably the first film noir.
Vertigo-Hitchcock directs Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in one of the truly essential American films.
Criss Cross-Robert Siodmak directs Burt Lancaster and Yvonne de Carlo in a 100% perfect film noir. A masterpiece.
Act of Violence-Robert Ryan and Van Heflin in this long dark night of the soul. A beautiful and brilliant (and vastly underrated) masterpiece.
Pitfall-Lizabeth Scott, Dick Powell, and Raymond Burr in Andre De Toth's love triangle from hell. One of my favorite films.
Pushover-Yet another underrated masterpiece! Bad girl Kim Novak and bad cop Fred McMurray fall in love and hell opens under their feet.
The Night of the Hunter-Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish square off in this Flannery O'Connor meets Caligari nightmare. Brilliant--and not to be missed on the big screen.
This is an extraordinary collection of films, a mix of established gems and overlooked works of genius. If you live in or around the DC area (or if you just happen to be in town for the Jon Stewart/Stepehn Colbert rally on the National Mall), do not pass up an opportunity to see some of the these works on the big screen in the gorgeous AFI facility.
Friday, October 1, 2010
I've had little success introducing friends to the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. Among the great directors, he is one of the harder sells. For one thing, many of his films seem to embody a distinct sixties European art cinema aesthetic. They move slowly--ahem, I mean, deliberately. Audience-aiding exposition is minimal. Characters swing from frigidity to viciousness and back again. Warmth is rare. Humor is nearly nonexistent. Despair is all consuming. The director's most famous obsession is the silence of god.
So, okay, Bergman doesn't make for swinging Saturday night. His success in American art cinemas in the sixties, let's be honest, owed a lot to his willingness to show sex and nudity onscreen. Since the world has long since rendered most of his films tame in this respect (except for perhaps The Silence) even these minor titillations have been muted. What you are left with are the films themselves.
And, God, what films they are! The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna, Persona, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Scenes from a Marriage, and his only film with that other famous Swedish Bergman, Ingrid, Autumn Sonata.
I think my favorite among his works might be The Virgin Spring, Bergman's beautiful production of Ulla Isaksson's adaption of the medieval ballad "Tore's Daughter at Vange". Isaksson's script sticks close to the original folktale about a young girl who is raped and murdered on her way to church by two herdsman (accompanied by a young boy). The killers steal her garments and later down the road make the mistake of trying to sell them to her parents. The dead girl's father kills the men, but when he also murders the boy in a rage he recognizes his sin and repents. (The set-up may sound familiar to viewers of The Last House on The Left which ripped off the basic set-up and chucked all that fuddy-duddy stuff about guilt, sin and redemption--in other words, everything that matters)
The most distinctive aspect of Bergman's work is his tone, a fascinating (and potentially alienating) mixture of surface-cool and below-the -surface torment. In The Virgin Spring, like so much of his best work, we are shown rage and lust and terror through the director's cold, unblinking eyes. The girl's parents exist in a marriage of mutual animosity. Their foster child, the pregnant, pagan bad girl Ingeri prays for her virginal sister's death. The one ray of light in the film is the girl herself, Karin (played by the luminous Birgitta Valberg) and she's raped and murdered. The emotional landscape of the film is a tundra overlying a volcano.
Bergman's gaze renders it all so powerfully. This was his first movie shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and together they created one the best looking films I've ever seen. In night scenes, pale faces are etched out of sheer blackness--while during the day, sunlight sits cool and soft on skin. Nykvist was as much a master of light as film noir legend John Alton, and he was the prefect collaborator for Bergman. The story is a parable, a mix of the real and unreal, and the photography captures this quality perfectly. It has the hard beauty of sculpted light.
Acting in this kind of environment is tricky. At the the center of the Bergman oeuvre stands the tall, reedy figure of Max von Sydow, star of so many of the director's best films. With his ascetic face and cavernous voice, von Sydow was to Bergman as Wayne was to Ford and Mifune was to Kurosawa--the perfect walking representation of the director's worldview. Want to know what Bergman thought of life, look into von Sydow's sad blue eyes. In The Virgin Spring, he plays a man robbed of everything but his own sense of guilt. Like Job he questions God, implicates God in the murder of his child, but is forced to admit that he has nothing else to hold onto.
The last scene (changed from the ballad) contains the emergence of the magical spring of the title. After von Sydow has repented of his killings and pledged his devotion to God, a cleansing spring breaks forth under the body of his murdered daughter. It's a miracle. Very few filmmakers could pull off this kind of moment (and since so few filmmakers are seriously interested in matters of faith, it's difficult to believe that most would even try). Bergman, his cast and crew, and his screenwriter, earn the moment with an almost brutal lack of sentimentality. Ingmar Bergman is well aware of three things here: 1) girls really are raped and murdered in this harsh, cold world; 2) miracles such as the pure spring do not happen; and 3) humanity invented stories of the miracles as a way to hold on. It takes an artist as despairing as Bergman to sell us on the idea of a miracle.
Like many of Bergman's works, The Virgin Spring is available in a beautiful edition from the Criterion Collection. It's the one to get.
Monday, September 27, 2010
NoirCon hits Philadelphia again this year, Novemeber 4-7. A celebration of all things dark and dreary (i.e. awesome), the conference gathers writers and noir geeks together in the hometown of noir great (and NoirCon patron saint) David Goodis.
Recently, NoirCon kingpin Lou Boxer talked to everyone's favorite pulp fiction blog, Pulp Serenade. It's a great exchange, the highlight of which is Boxer's perfect summation of the Goodis appeal:
"It is the purest, most unadulterated writing. It cuts right to the bone like a jagged knife. Goodis wrote for the sake of writing. He had a story to tell and he told it...His stories were extensions of his personal life. Goodis tells the day-to-day struggle of the guy down on his luck, trying to make it through one more day of hell, knowing the next day will be no better than the one before."
That's what I'm talking about.
For more of this conversation go check out Pulp Serenade.