Friday, 9 October 2015

A Canterbury Tale (1944)

I spent two days in Canterbury a couple of years ago, partly because of my love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film A Canterbury Tale (1944). The cathedral provided accommodation so I slept on the premises, and in the morning I walked into the actual cathedral before it was open to the public. I walked around in there all by myself; a very special thing to do. Then when it opened to the public I happened to be by the main entrance, and inadvertently greeted all those who walked in, including a group of school children. When they saw me standing there they said "Hello." or "Good morning.", and I responded in kind, even occasionally throwing in a "Welcome" as if I belonged there, as if it was my cathedral.


Even by the usual standards of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Canterbury Tale (1944) is eccentric. Shot in Kent, in the area where Powell grew up, and made at the height of the war, when American soldiers had begun to arrive in Britain to help with the existential fight against the Germans, it is filled with a deep sense of England's history, the past and the present coming together in a perpetual now. In the opening sequence a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury in the 15th century looks up at a falcon in the sky, a falcon which suddenly becomes a fighter plane (a Spitfire or a Hurricane?) in the same part of the sky, 500 years later. This is then the time in which the rest of the film is set, but the past is still there, and can be felt, and heard. This is a film about time, and the importance of history. It is also a place about space, both the natural world and the man-made. The Kentish countryside; the forest, the hills, the farms, and the small town in which the film takes place, and Canterbury and its cathedral, where the film comes to its conclusion. Everything imbued with a sense of awe and wonder, almost pantheistic.

This is fairly typical of Powell and Pressburger, for them space is always of the outmost importance. It is not just there, it means something, it is alive and it influences the characters in the most profound ways, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. In A Canterbury Tale space is warm and benevolent, the natural world is protective, and we can hide in it, and seek comfort. An American soldier and an old English man form an immediate bond over their mutual love of trees and wood.

But there are also weird things going on, and there is a war. People are being killed, or have gone missing. Disappointments are to be had. But sometimes, miracles happen. Not due to otherworldly causes but because life is unpredictable and sends conflicting messages. Sometimes the worst happens but not always. Good things also happen, and happiness can be found, even if it takes roundabout ways.

John Sweet, Sheila Sim, Dennis Price

A Canterbury Tale is a deeply moving experience. Partly because one can sense the urgency with which they made it. "This is where I was born and this is where I grew up." Powell seems to be saying. "We must protected this place and preserve it. This is worth fighting for." The fight here is not for freedom or democracy but for time and space itself. It is also moving due to the characters, the three main characters, the American soldier, a land girl from London and a British soldier who was a cinema organist before the war, who meet by chance and become friends during a couple of days in Kent. They all have reasons to be disappointed, even heartbroken, especially she. There is one especially fine scene when she finds the caravan, now covered in dust and cobweb, with which she once travelled around Kent with a boy, now shot down somewhere over Germany.

A Canterbury Tale is also peculiar in that it contains so many things: a detective story, sometimes shot like it was a film noir, a pastoral hymn, a fairytale, a propaganda film, a history lesson. But these things are not disconnected, they are woven tightly together, in a unique and spellbinding way. The films of Powell and Pressburger constantly ask of us to reconsider the way we look at things; time, space and characters, and this is true for A Canterbury Tale too. Nothing is to be taken for granted, there is magic everywhere, if you pay attention.


The year after A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger made I Know Where I'm Going, with which it is closely connected (and both are photographed by Erwin Hillier). It was shot in Scotland, on the isle of Mull. I have been there too, and the magic remains.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Four aspects of Vincente Minnelli

The terror of darkness. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).

A woman and her sexual fantasy. The Pirate (1948).

Film noir as ballet. The Band Wagon (1953).

The violent sadness of a child. Meet Me in St Louis (1944).

In the films of Minnelli reality is inherently unstable, life is filled with loneliness and pain, and we alternated between nightmares and dreams. There is nothing quite like it.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Feedback on Ekman

A special post today because the Hasse Ekman retrospective at MoMA is now over, and I am overwhelmed by the response it got. Sold-out screenings, lots of good articles about it (some links below), and an engaged and passionate audience. I had a lovely time in New York and I want to thank both MoMA (and Dave Kehr in particular) and all of those who came!

I would also like to get some feedback about the films. If anybody who reads this was at the MoMA screenings, or have seen the films some place else, you are more than welcome to write down your thoughts in the comment section below. I am thinking primarily of non-Swedes now, I have already had much engagement with Swedes about Ekman, but rarely with people from other countries because they would not have seen the films. But now some have, and others who were not at MoMA might have seen some films too, elsewhere, so bring it on.

Ekman was very prolific, and there are enough good films for another retrospective. The ten films shown at MoMA were not chosen because they are my ten favourite Ekman films; some of my favourites were not available. These are the ten films I think are the best:

Royal Rabble (Kungliga patrasket 1945), with Eva Henning
Wandering With the Moon (Vandring med månen 1945), with Eva Henning
While the Door Was Locked (Medan porten var stängd 1946)
The Banquet (Banketten 1948) with Eva Henning
The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden 1949), with Eva Henning
Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och hyacinter 1950), with Eva Henning
The White Cat (Den vita katten 1950), with Eva Henning
We Three Débutantes (Vi tre debutera 1953)
Gabrielle (1954), with Eva Henning
The Heist (aka Rififi in Stockholm) (Stöten 1961)

Of the four not shown at MoMA, While the Door Was Locked is one of Ekman's multiple-character narratives, this time about the various people who live in one apartment block and what happens there during one night. The White Cat is like a Freudian nightmare, visually very striking (Göran Strindberg was the DP), with the usual Ekman actors and characters, although unusually conflicted and disturbed. We Three Débutantes is about three young poets, two men and one woman and each from a different class, who try (and fail) at being friends. It is also a suitably poetic depiction of Stockholm, shot by Gunnar Fischer. The Heist, finally, is about two young criminals, adrift, alone and very unhappy.

As you can see the bulk of his great work was in the first half of his career. But the second half is good too, only not as good. Of the 41 feature films he made I would say that more than half are really good, and even those that are unsuccessful are often interesting.

Here is my earlier post about the ten films that were shown at MoMA.

And here are links to some of the articles about Ekman:
Farran Smith Nehme for
Kristin M. Jones for Wall Street Journal
Nick Pinkerton for Artforum

Friday, 11 September 2015

The other Vertigo - Sebald and Kafka

All the writings of W.G. Sebald are essential, and in particular the astonishing Austerlitz. Today however I will quote from Vertigo, first published in 1990. Its original German title is Schwindel. Gefühle and translated by Michael Hulse. The quotes below are from part III, "Dr. K Takes the Waters at Riva", and concerns K, who is unhappy in Verona and consoles himself with a visit to the cinema:
Perhaps it was the bills, still posted throughout the city, announcing the spettacoli lirici all'Arena that August and the word AIDA displayed in large letters which persuaded him that the Veronese show of carefree togetherness had something of a theatrical performance about it, staged especially to bring home to him, Dr K., his solitary, eccentric condition - a thought he could not get out of his head and which he was only able to escape by seeking refuge in a cinema, probably the Cinema Pathé di San Sebastiano. In tears, so Dr K. recorded the following day in Desenzano, he sat in the surrounding darkness, observing the transformations into pictures of the minute particles of dust glinting in the beam of the projector.
Dr K. is Franz Kafka and the time is the 1913, when Kafka left Prague for a trip through Italy to Switzerland, for health reasons. In Switzerland he had an affair with a young woman, before returning home again.

But let's get back to that day in Verona, where Sebald wonders what it was that Dr K. saw:
Was it the Pathé newsreel, featuring the review of the cavalry in the presence of His Majesty Vittorio Emanuele III, and La Lezione dell'abisso, which, as I discovered in the Biblioteca Civica, were shown that day at the Pathé and which are both now untraceable? Or was it, as I initially supposed, a story that ran with some success in the cinemas of Austria in 1913, the story of the unfortunate Student of Prague, who cut himself off from love and life when, on the 13th of May, 1820, he sold his soul to a certain Scapinelli? The extraordinary exterior shots in this film, the silhouettes of his native city flickering across the screen, would doubtless have sufficed to move Dr K. deeply, most of all perhaps the fate of the eponymous hero, Balduin, since in him he would have recognised a kind of doppelgänger, just as Balduin recognises his other self in the dark-coated brother whom he could never and nowhere escape.
The German film The Student of Prague opened in late August of 1913 so it is a possibility. In any event Sebald describes the story of the film, up until its melodramatic ending with a bullet in the heart of Balduin, and speculates as to why it might appeal to Dr K.:
Final contortions of this kind, which regularly occur in opera when, as Dr K. once wrote, the dying voice aimlessly wanders through the music, did not by any means seem ridiculous to him; rather he believed them to be an expression of our, so to speak, natural misfortune, since after all, as he remarks elsewhere, we lie prostrate on the boards, dying, our whole lives long.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Hasse Ekman at MoMA

This year is the centennial of Hasse Ekman's birth and this made it possible for me to entice Museum of Modern Art in New York to do a retrospective of his films, the first in North America I believe, MoMA wanted ten films so I made a short list of some 15 films and of these some were not available due to either rights issues or damaged prints. The ten films that remained on the short list are those you will be able to see if you are in New York, 9 - 17 September. (Here is the program.)

Ekman had been an actor already as a boy in the 1920s, but he wrote and directed his first film in 1940. In all he made 41 feature films and one TV-series, Niklasons (1965), before he retired. He was at his best from 1943 to 1954 and the majority of the chosen films were made during those years. There are also two earlier films and one late film (which is also the only one in colour). I thought I say a few words about why I have chosen these ten in particular.

Första divisionen / The First Division (1941) was Ekman's second film, set on an air field in the north of Sweden and it is a tense drama with exhilarating flying sequences. It is not a war film, and no other countries are mentioned, instead it is focused on the lives of the pilots. I chose it partly because of the quality of the cinematography and partly for it is unusual for Ekman to make a film not set in downtown Stockholm. It shows the range of his talents. It is also well-acted.

Lågor i dunklet / Flames in the Dark (1942) is a psychological thriller about a cruel, sadistic Latin teacher, played by Stig Järrel, which makes it impossible not to compare it with Hets / Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), where Järrel plays almost the same character. While hardly Ekman's best film, it is a showcase for Järrel (who acted in most of Ekman's films during the 1940s) and it shows Ekman trying to find his style.

Ombyte av tåg / Changing Trains (1943) is the film I consider Ekman's artistic breakthrough. It is when most of what is typical of his work first came together, a theatre setting, a sombre mood, a subtle love story and with an autobiographical background. It is not a linear story but fragmented and open, moving between different characters and back and forth in time. It was also the first time he worked together with writer Walter Ljungquist. In addition, Göran Strindberg's cinematography shows the influence of French poetic realism.

Kungliga patrasket / Royal Rabble (1945) is based upon Ekman's own family and a life at the theatre. It was the first film of his in which Eva Henning played a role (although they had acted together the year before in Stopp! Tänk på något annat (Åke Ohberg 1944), a fine film too). The acting and the compassion with which all the various characters are portrayed is wonderful and while there is tragedy here, it is primarily a love letter to the theatre, and all those people who are part of it.

Vandring med månen / Wandering With the Moon (1945) might be my favourite of all of Ekman's films. Working closely with Walter Ljungquist, it is also the Ekman-film which most resembles the films of Jean Renoir; a lyrical tale of assorted people crossing paths during a few summer days. The spectre of Nazism is there, as a dark force in the shadows, but mostly it is a celebration of the loners and oddballs that live outside the mainstream of society, and Eva Henning plays a young actress exploring her sexuality with an immature young boy played by Alf Kjellin. Åke Dahlqvist's cinematography help bring out the film's lyrical aspect, with the sun and the moon glittering on the water or the leaves and the grass.

Banketten / The Banquet (1948) is one of Ekman's darkest films about a wealthy family slowly unravelling. The father is tired and frustrated with life, his wife is living in denial about the problems they face, the older son is a decadent drunk, the younger son a communist and the daughter (Eva Henning) is trapped in a wretched marriage (her husband is played by Ekman). With the imagery of a film noir, it is both a domestic horror film and a comment about a changing society after the war.

Flickan från tredje raden / The Girl From the Third Row (1949) is yet another of Ekman's loosely structured films about multiple characters who accidentally cross paths and with a theatre setting. It is also the film which Ekman called his "anti-Bergman film", a direct response to Bergman's Prison (1949), and intricately told. Henning plays the title role, and the film moves effortlessly from tragedy to comedy to nail-biting suspense. There really is no other film quite like it.

Flicka och hyacinter / Girl With Hyacinths (1950) is undoubtedly Ekman's most famous film, beautifully shot by Göran Strindberg and brilliantly acted by especially Eva Henning. A feminist film, a film with a complex narrative structure and dealing with a number of sensitive issues, including Sweden's ambivalent role during World War 2 and its appeasement of the Nazis. A very sad film, it was Ekman's own favourite, a film he could barely talk about without getting tears in his eyes.

Gabrielle (1954) is also a dark film, of a marriage falling apart due the jealousy of the husband. Told in flashbacks, both real and imaginary, it was made after Ekman and Henning's own marriage had ended in divorce. Henning plays the wife in the film, and Birger Malmsten the husband. The cinematography is by Gunnar Fischer.

Med glorian på sned / The Halo is Slipping (1957) is something rather different. It is in colour and Ekman's first film in widescreen and it is one of four comedies Ekman made in the late 1950s with Sickan Carlsson, whom could be called Sweden's Doris Day. The last of the four is dreadful but the other three are a lot of fun, and while Fröken Chic / Miss Chic (1959) is my favourite this one comes second. They are about stuck-up men and independent-minded women, the commercialisation of radio, TV and publishing, and they have glorious set-pieces, The Halo is Slipping even has some surreal dream sequences. It is a lot more cheerful than the others in this retrospective and quite charming.

So those were my ten. They are not his ten best, but most of his best films are among them and all ten are unmistakeably Ekmanesque. They show all aspects of his art; the style, the ear for dialogue, the love of the theatre, the view of life as a tragic comedy and the ability to draw out the best of his fellow actors.

Would I be able to do another Ekman retro at MoMA in the future I would especially want to show Eldfågeln / The Fire-Bird (1952), if it has been properly restored by then. It was Ekman's first film in colour, a ballet film and an experiment with colours too, shot by Göran Strindberg.