Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Tully (2018)

On occasion I write about a new film together with a group of Swedish film bloggers. We watch the film together in the cinema and then write about it the following Wednesday. Today is such an occasion, hence a post on a Wednesday and not a Friday. Try not to get too upset.

***

The five films by Jason Reitman I have seen are all interesting but flawed except one, Up in the Air (2009), which I find flawless. It is actually a film I would put on at least a top 100 list, if I was asked to provide such a list. Now every time I watch a new Reitman I hope it will be another Up in the Air. So far no such luck.

The new one, Tully, is the third collaboration between Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, and their second film with Charlize Theron, and of the three of them it is Theron I am most happy with this time. I remember back in 2000 a girl I liked told me that Theron was her favourite actress and I was completely bewildered by this (the fact that this is one of the few things I remember about this girl proves how shocking I found her statement to be) but either me or Theron has come a long way since then because now I would not be shocked by such a statement, and she seems fearless in her choice of parts to play. In Tully she plays Marlo, a mother of two kids and one soon to be born, and it is a handful; she is in a constant state of complete exhaustion. The husband/father is kind and does the homework with the kids but he mostly works or plays video games in bed with his headphones on. Of the two children, the girl is functioning just fine but the son has some kind of problem and is very demanding. When the third child appears the stress and sleep-deprivation become even worse of course. The film does not sugar-coat motherhood, and Theron is admirably non-glamorous and it is a fine and honest performance. There is for example one scene where she cannot keep it together after a talk with the school's headmaster about her difficult son, followed by her just screaming in the parking lot, which was very powerful. The title character of the film is the night nanny Marlo finally hires to get some sleep and they soon form a strong bond.

Cody's script has several great ideas and a neat structural cleverness. If you pay attention to the dialogue in the first half you will notice that things happen in the second part which is a reaction to or comment on what was said then, even the odd joke. A lot of craft has gone in to it. A scene with a brush in the beginning and again in the end is quite lovely, and there are other more subtle things I will not mention due to the current spoiler-phobia. But simultaneous with this good writing there are also deep problems with jokes, other lines of dialogue and whole scenes that are awkward, over-emphatic or just wrong. Stuff that probably sounded good in Cody's head when she wrote the script but when it appears on film feels too much like it was meant for us, the audience, and not something that is natural in the scene, in the moment or as something somebody would actually say. One example: Violet, a former roommate of Marlo, has a chance encounter with Marlo at a café and Marlo says she has two kids and one more on the way. The former friend recoils and says "I better go before my coffee gets black and cold like my womb." The line just hangs there in the air, hovering as if in a speech bubble in a cartoon, and spoken without any conviction or timing. You may think that the line, when read in this post, sounds hilarious but that is beside the point. The point is how it sounds when actually spoken in the film. It is not necessarily bad writing, but bad acting and direction.

The Violet character is interesting because that short scene is her only appearance yet her presence lingers on in the film. In one through-away line Marlo says, almost as if talking to herself, that she was in love with Violet. Since you love friends and family but you are not in love with them, that is for lovers and partners, is it that the line should be read literary, that Marlo, although frequently having sex with men and eventually marrying one, would actually have wanted to be in a proper relationship with Violet but did not have the guts to go through with it, and that this is one reason why she is having such a miserable life now? Or was it nothing at all like that; they were just friends and Violet's lingering presence is only there to remind us and Marlo of the life she used to have before marriage, career and children totally boxed her in and drained her of all energy? That this is unclear is not a criticism of the film but one of the good things about it. It is something to play around with and discuss afterwards.

One thing that did bother me was the son Jonah and his problems. The only word used to describe him is "quirky" but that is obviously not appropriate. Marlo says that the doctors' have been unable to diagnose him but he seems to me to have some form of ASD, or autism spectrum disorder, and it does not seem plausible that they would all be in the dark as to what his problems are and what might be done to help out. The school more or less kicks him out. That might be read as a critique of the American school system but it felt so underdeveloped and in fact Jonah's illness or whatever it was did not feel genuine but some vague construction for quick plot points and as such belittling the issue.

So there are some good things and some bad things. The film felt rushed, as if it needed at least one more round in the development stage to whip it all into better shape. But mainly it felt like Theron and Cody were let down by Reitman's direction, there is something about it that feels slightly off, like it is almost there but not quite yet. But, as always with Reitman, the music is impeccable and creatively used. There is for example a Cyndi Lauper medley (from her first album She's So Unusual which Marlo listens to during a drive to Brooklyn) and a beautiful cover version of You Only Live Twice, originally sung by Nancy Sinatra but here by Beulahbelle. So yes, sometimes Tully is very good.



The film Cindy Lauper is watching in the beginning of the video is The Garden of Allah (Richard Boleslawski 1936) one of the very first three-strip Technicolor films (and the first one from David O. Selznick's company). An unbearably stiff and peculiar film, although it looks spectacular.

Here are the other blog texts (in Swedish only):
http://www.fiffisfilmtajm.se/tully/
https://bilderord.wordpress.com/2018/05/23/tully-2018/
https://jojjenito.wordpress.com/2018/05/23/tully-2018/
http://harduintesettden.se/recensioner/tully/
https://thenerdbird.se/2018/05/23/tully-2018/

Friday, 18 May 2018

Zinnemann and Hawks

Been working on a long piece about Fred Zinnemann. Below is an excerpt where I am comparing him with Howard Hawks. It is somewhat abrupt, and a work in progress, but still intelligible I hope. 

***
Zinnemann is sometimes compared and contrasted with Howard Hawks, as them being the antithesis of each other, and the fact that Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) was to some extent made as a response to Zinnemann’s High Noon [1952] is often invoked. Yet the two filmmakers are more alike than this would suggest. As filmmakers they were independent, and they made films about people who did not accept the conventional rules and hierarchies of society but lived by their own personal moral codes. Hawks has always focused on professionalism and it could be argued that Zinnemann has shown a similar interest in professionalism. Both Hawks’s and Zinnemann’s characters are men and women completely dedicated to their tasks, and loyal to their beliefs and responsibilities. Finally, while their styles are different from one another, their relation to space is quite similar. That is, they do not have an interest in pictorialism or scenery; they are not landscape filmmakers like John Ford or Anthony Mann. Neither does the space in their film take on a metaphysical meaning as in the films of Michael Powell or David Lean. It does not come alive as it does in the films of Akira Kurosawa. Instead they can seem rather indifferent to the surroundings. What matters to them both are the actors and the characters that these actors embody and space has no meaning in its own right, it is just the place in which the characters happen to be. In a telling quote, Zinnemann once said to cinematographer Ted Moore, when making A Man For all Seasons [1966], that it is ‘[n]ot important where people are’. Instead space is only where the characters happen to be and it is their inner struggle that matters. (Five Days One Summer (1982) is an interesting exception however, a film in which the landscape is unusually important and almost becomes the central character.) But, like with Hawks, the space can often be seen as claustrophobic, as if the characters are trapped. In Hawks it is the world at large that is hostile (and the characters have sometimes created their own private space) whereas in Zinnemann it is the institutions, which the main character is a part of, that are keeping them down and contained (and there is no private space). 

In Zinnemann’s case the view of space is linked to his overarching interests in ethical dilemmas and procedures. He is, again like Hawks, almost exclusively interested in people under pressure and how they deal with that pressure, whether it is as a drug addict in A Hatful of Rain (1957), a refugee from a concentration camp in The Seventh Cross (1944), a marshal in High Noon, a chancellor in A Man for All Seasons, to name a few examples. His focus on characters and their interiors is emphasised by his extensive use of close-ups. Sometimes characters seem to be cut off from their surroundings, floating in an unspecified space, especially with the close-ups of heads and faces. In High Noon there are a few “floating heads” shot, which means that the camera is focused so tightly on the heads of the actors that not much else is seen so they appear to be floating in space. In A Man for All Seasons cardinal Wolsey (played by Orson Welles) sometimes seems to consist of a head only, and his red dress is absorbed by the red walls. (Although the film begins with a close-up of first his medallion and then his hands, his face is not shown.) 
/.../ 
[But there are obvious differences between them too and Zinnemann's focus on individuals is where] he differs the most from Hawks. Hawks’s films almost always focus on a group, and the characters are seen as being together. Being alone is not a condition a character in a film by Hawks finds himself in, whereas in Zinnemann’s films the opposite is true. The quintessential image from a film by Hawks is of a group, in complete harmony, but in Zinnemann’s films it is of a lone individual estranged from his surroundings, strikingly emphasised for example in the opening shot of From Here to Eternity [1953] where Prewitt (played by Montgomery Clift), a lone man, is walking vertically through the shot while a long line of men are walking horizontally in the foreground. 


The marshal in High Noon, abandoned by everyone.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Current cinema culture

Earlier this year, after reading a column in one of our leading global newspapers, I felt compelled to write on Facebook about contemporary film criticism (if that is what it is). Some month later, after watching Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), I again felt compelled to comment on Facebook about larger issues about current cinema. It occurred to me that these two Facebook posts are connected so I decided to add them together and post them here, with a few necessary edits, as one piece:

***

Watched Wichita (Jacques Tourneur 1955), with Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp. It is not a particularly noteworthy film, one among many of its kind, a short, unpretentious, focused, straightforward Western in colour and CinemaScope, although with the aesthetic feel of a TV-movie. (The style of the film, every aspect of it, makes it feel like it was directed by its main character, Earp, rather than Tourneur.) However, during its 80 minutes it intelligently tackles almost every political issue (except race and gender) that is still today engulfing the US. Democracy, ethics, courage, corruption, gun rights (Earp's first action after becoming marshal is to ban handguns in Wichita), pride, professionalism, freedom of the press, crime and punishment.

A film with these kinds of themes today would be rare, be at least 150 minutes long, and probably highlight its own importance and marvel at its own cleverness and boldness. It would be considered an art film, or Oscar-bait if American, and it would be the focus of hundreds of columns and hot takes and takedowns and whatnots. There would be debates about alleged backlashes, and discussions as to whether it critiqued or celebrated toxic masculinity. More people would read about it, and be outraged by it, than watch it.

The point here is not that Wichita is some forgotten masterpiece or even a great film. The point is its very unremarkableness. In the 1950s many films like it were made every year, and nobody at the time would take much notice of them. But seen from the perspective of contemporary cinema, it is just so obvious what the art form has lost. The kind of film Wichita is, short and unpretentious yet with a dedicated political and philosophical agenda, has become completely extinct. And there is nothing that has replaced it.


The reception I imagined a film like Wichita would get today stems from my experience of the kind of reception new films actually do get. As an example, consider this article I read about a new film, published in a major publication. [It is not important which publication, film or writer since this is not about them but about current larger trends.] It was not the publication's review of this film but an additional piece. The article contained not a single original thought. It is questionable as to whether it contained any kind of thought. It was written in the style that the majority of articles about popular culture use as default, from sentence structure to choice of words. The article criticised the film but not after having actually engaged with it; instead what was said might have been said by anyone who had read the film's Wikipedia entry and seen the trailer perhaps. Much were generalisations that could be used for any new film and its director, as if the writer used a pre-set form with just a few empty boxes which he had to fill in with the names of this particular film and these particular actors.

That article, which is completely unnecessary and without any merit, will generate some comments. It will be linked, tweeted and liked. But nobody will care much for it, not even those who enthusiastically tweet "This is so great! You must read this piece!" They and everyone else will have forgotten it a few hours later.

Every day hundreds of articles just like it, many of them probably about the same film, are published. But to what end? What purpose do they serve? Whom do they please? Do those who write them take any pride in them? They will get paid I assume, and maybe being a writer is all they ever wanted to be, and the only thing they can do. But they cannot get much money? And how does it profit the publications to have generic space-fillers of no value? I suppose it must be the case that whatever ad revenues they take in on that article are greater than whatever they paid the writer, but only if he was paid very little, and then the question returns to what was in it for him.

An article with no meaning written by someone who does not care what he writes, written for people who do not care what they read. This is what contemporary cultural criticism consists of.

--------------------------------
If you want to watch a film by Tourneur and with Joel McCrea that does also discuss racial issues I recommend Stars in my Crown (1950). That really is a great film, one of Tourneur's best. Juano Hernandez also stars in it, and it has that supernatural aspect which is so often found in Tourneur's films, although not in Wichita.


Friday, 20 April 2018

Bergman's films of the 1940s

In 1944 SF, Svensk Filmindustri, bought a play by the Danish writer Leck Fisher. SF did have different people in mind for directing it but since Ingmar Bergman was an employee and since he had had a great success with his script for Frenzy aka Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944), and since Bergman was eager enough to direct that, he claimed, he would have been happy to make an adaptation of the phone book, SF gave it to him. He began shooting on July 4, 1945. Thus began the directing career of Ingmar Bergman.

Part of the film, to be called Crisis, was shot at SF's studio complex Filmstaden in Råsunda (just outside Stockholm) and part of it was shot on location in the small town of Hedemora in Dalarna County. The shooting ended on the last of August. The production was an unhappy one, with the nervous and insecure Bergman fighting with most everyone. He did not get along at all with the cinematographer Gösta Roosling but he did get along well with the editor Oscar Rosander, who taught him a lot about filmmaking and who would be one of his closest cooperators for 15 years until Rosander retired in 1961.

When Crisis opened the critics were torn. Some saw it as a great film, intelligent and realistic, and with very good acting. Others thought it was dreadful. But most seemed to find something of value in it, and that Bergman showed great promise. SF were not pleased though, and he was not asked to make another film for them for some time.

The story of Crisis is not very interesting. An 18-year-old girl who has lived with a foster mother in an idyllic small town is now brought to the big city and corrupted. Then in the end she returns back home to her foster home and to the man who was in love with her before she left, and still is. But there are other things about it beyond the story. The setting for example. Hedemora was not chosen by chance. Dalarna is where Bergman grow up to a large part, his maternal grandparents were buried in Hedemora, and Dalarna would continue to be important for him. Styggforsen, where he shot The Virgin Spring (1960), is some 100 kilometres northwest of Hedemora. Skattungbyn, where he shot Winter Light (1963), is just 30 kilometres northwest of Styggforsen. The town of Rättvik where Bergman was a frequent guest at the hotel Siljansborg, where he wrote many of his films, is some 20 kilometres southwest of Styggforsen. So this is Bergman country, much like Fårö.

Siljansborg

During his first five years as a filmmaker, 1945-1949, Bergman was on an exploration. Each film was different, he was trying to find himself and his own style and voice. Some efforts are more successful than others but they are all of interest, Crisis too. They are above all interesting for those scenes, shots or actions that, even if surrounded by otherwise poor material, are really powerful, moving and stylish, those moments where you can see the Bergman to come, experience the first appearance of some quintessential Bergman shot, motif, line of dialogue or facial expression. On Crisis there is in particular a scene at a train station between the foster mother and a young man which is shot, edited and written in a typical Bergman fashion. Watching these early films back to back can be an overwhelming experience, to witness his steady progression from Crisis to Thirst (1949), which I would say is his first pure Bergman film. The earlier ones are more like other films, but with a Bergman touch. Thirst is all Bergman, although like the rest of his films of the 1940s it is not entirely successful. Summer Interlude (shot in 1950 but released in 1951) is his first complete film, the first unquestionably great one, and one of his very best.

***

Crisis could have been a Hollywood melodrama, something by Edmund Goulding, or perhaps remade by Douglas Sirk in 1953. Bergman's next film on the other hand, It Rains on Our Love (1946), feels very Swedish, a typical product of the exciting and vibrant Swedish cinema of the 1940s. This also means that you can sense the influence from French poetic realism, which had a major impact on Swedish 1940s cinema. It is about a young man and a young woman who meet at a train station, spend the night together, and then are reluctant to part. The one-night stand turns into a love affair and a relationship, but with little money and little support from society. They settle down in a small cottage on an allotment, and get by as best they can. Their attraction is a very strong physical one, and there is considerable frankness in subject matter, as well as partial nudity. Birger Malmsten and Barbro Kollberg play the couple, and they are very good. And the film is fine too, much better than Crisis. It has greater warmth and is less overbearing, it is even at times quite playful. But Bergman's fears and concerns are present. There is for example an almost dreamlike trial sequence towards the end where society is willing to condemn the couple for daring to live their own life.

Malmsten and Kollberg after a night of passion.

It Rains on Our Love was not made at SF but was produced by Lorens Marmstedt, one of very few famous Swedish producers, something like a Swedish version of Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox. He had begun his career as a film critic, became a film director in 1932 and started his own distribution company, AB Terrafilm, in 1938, which soon also began producing its own films. Marmstedt was an entrepreneur and a cinephile who helped build the career of many Swedish filmmakers, especially Hasse Ekman, but also Bergman. After Crisis, he took Bergman in and gave him the chance to make It Rains on Our Love for the company Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. Marmstedt was perhaps not overly enthusiastic by the final result, and complained, Bergman claimed, that Bergman was certainly not a Marcel Carné and Malmsten was certainly not a Jean Gabin. But he still produced Bergman's next film A Ship to India aka A Ship Bound for India (1947), again for Sveriges Folkbiografer AB. It also shows the influence that Carné and French poetic realism had on Bergman at the time. Like Crisis and It Rains on Our Love, A Ship to India was based on a play, this time by Martin Söderhjelm, and like the earlier two films Bergman rewrote it substantially. It is about a young man who falls in love with his father's mistress, whom the father has invited to come and live with them (father, mother and son), a situation which obviously does not lead to happiness for anyone. It is again a very uneven film, but with several remarkable sequences, including one at an amusement park and a sequence towards the end where the father tries to kill his son and then barricades himself in an apartment. The film competed in Cannes, and won an honourable mention.

Gertrud Fridh and Malmsten in A Ship to India.

Bergman followed it with another film for Marmstedt, this time at TerrafilmMusic in Darkness (1948). It is based on a book by Dagmar Edqvist, the male lead was as usual played by Birger Malmsten and the female lead was Mai Zetterling. She had already left Sweden for an acting career in Britain but she was able to come to Sweden now and then to make a film. Unfortunately, this is quite possibly Bergman's worst film. Unconvincing and awkward, with little coherence or sensibility. But it has some finely lit shots and a spectacular nightmare sequence. The film, like Bergman's other films produced by Marmstedt, was shot by Göran Strindberg, one of Sweden's finest cinematographer at the time. He was responsible for the look of not just these films but several of Ekman's best films as well as Alf Sjöberg's Miss Julie (1951) and Arne Mattsson's One Summer of Happiness (1951). Another member of the team Marmstedt had at his disposal was architect and set designer P.A. Lundgren who would, beginning with It Rains on Our Love, become another one of Bergman's closest collaborators, all the way until The Touch (1971).

***

After Music in Darkness, Bergman was called back to SF and made Port of Call (1948). The story is typical for Bergman, couples who cannot stand each other yet remain together, and includes disillusionment, suicidal characters, infidelities and abortions and, typical for this part of Bergman's career, the struggles of a young, working-poor couple trying to survive in a society which has little time and patient with them. Other Bergman conventions have now also been well-established such as fog horns, aggressively ticking clocks (part of Bergman's particular soundscape) and there are flashbacks, violence and faces superimposed on other faces. What is new however is that this was the first time Bergman worked together with the cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who would from then on be his visual half until Sven Nykvist took Fischer's place in the early 1960s. (The Devil's Eye (1960) would be the last film Fischer and Bergman made together, just as it was the last film Bergman would make with the editor Rosander.)

If Bergman so far had made an American melodrama (Crisis), a distinctly Swedish film with a touch of French poetic realism (It Rains on Our Love) and another poetic realist work (A Ship to India), he now, with Port of Call, made his neorealist film. Much has been made of Bergman being influenced by Roberto Rossellini, not least by Bergman himself, with the emphasis on the on-location shooting. But it is not obvious that there is more on-location shooting in Port of Call than Bergman's earlier films. There are other things that are more relevant for making the Italian connection, and that is partly the way work and casual incidents are shown, and given ample screen time, at least before the melodramatics of the plot take over. In the beginning of the film there are lot of scenes in the harbour, with the actors working alongside genuine dock workers. 

Speaking of influences, Bergman was a committed cinephile too, like Marmstedt. There was no official film school but by watching films over and over Bergman did teach himself a lot. One particular favourite was Michael Curtiz, whose films he would watch night after night. (In an interview with John Simon in 1971 Bergman also said that George Cukor had influenced him "very much".) This influence on Bergman of 1940s Hollywood cinema is often overlooked, as critics and historians prefer to focus on his European peers. But it is an important part of his emergence, and of his style. Hollywood cinema of the 1940s was constantly experimenting with narration, like different layers of flashbacks and various forms of voice-overs, and Bergman does this too. Crisis has an all-knowing, dispassionate narrator, heard but not seen. It Always Rains on Our Love has a character, a benevolent father-figure, who acts as our guide in the story, appearing with regular intervals and sometimes talking directly into the camera. A Ship to India is one long flashback, first narrated by the main character directly to us, the audience. Port of Call has several flashbacks, and Thirst has one genuine flashback and several scenes that might appear to be flashbacks but are better described as parallel storylines. And Prison is so narratively complex, with so many layers, that it is not enough space here to disentangle it. Curtiz might have approved. In Bergman's films there also sometimes appear shots and light patterns similar to Curtiz's style, which may or may not be deliberate. 

Swedish films of the time had a rather relaxed sense of nudity and in, for example, Music in Darkness and Port of Call there are scenes with what you might called casual nudity, that is unrelated to sex or eroticism but just the way people dress, change clothes or wash up when they are home. Sweden would in the 1950s get a reputation for sex and nudity in films, but this earlier casual nudity instead gives the films added realism, as it is so mundane. (It was there already in the 1930s.) But since nudity is so extremely rare in films from this age, globally speaking, it is still somewhat startling to suddenly see, for example, a woman baring her breasts because she is putting on a new dress.

***

By now Bergman had established himself as a filmmaker, and there was even talk about an international career. David O. Selznick was interested, among others. There were meetings, proposals and scripts passed back and forth, but nothing came of it. After Port of Call Bergman would direct three more films before the decade was over and two of them would be released in 1949: Prison, produced by Marmstedt at Terrafilm, and Thirst, made by SF. (The third, To Joy, was released in 1950.) The first is a short (76 minutes) and cheap experimental work which is completely unlike anything Bergman did at the time, or until Persona (1966). It is an allegory about the devil's work and the absence of God, with elaborate dream sequences, tales within tales and a high level of reflexivity as it takes place on a film set. The credit sequence does not have text but a spoken narration by Hasse Ekman (not by Bergman, as some claim), and Ekman also plays a leading role as the film director in the film. This is the first time Ekman and Bergman work together, and much can be said about the way this creates yet another meta-level to the films. The two were rivals and both were considered "the best" by the Swedish critics, and they influenced one another, competed in various ways, and also, in various way, incorporated their relationship in their films. After Prison, Ekman wrote and directed The Girl from the Third Row (1949), calling it his "anti-Bergman film". Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) was the last time Ekman acted in a Bergman film and that whole film can profitably be seen partly as an allegory about their rivalry and relationship. Sawdust and Tinsel is a fascinating, great film, but since it came out in 1953 it is outside the scope of this article. Prison on the other hand is not a great film (it is crude, sometimes too emphatic and didactic) but it is one of Bergman's most interesting, and among all the horror and despair it portrays there are also several really funny scenes. It is also the first time the "Bergman scream" and the "Bergman light" appears, both in scenes involving Birgitta Carolina, the young prostitute the film is centred around and who is played by Doris Svedlund. 

In one scene, after having been assaulted by a pimp, she screams with such a deep, agonising force that it is almost impossible to watch. Here the acting goes beyond just acting and reach some other level, some primal fear or terror or trauma, and moments like these appear on occasion in Bergman's films, creating a crack in the fabric of fiction.

In another scene, towards the end, she has committed suicide and after her death the light breaks through the window and embalms her, as if it has come to caress her and take her away. This light, as from a different dimension, like a religious manifestation, will also appear again and again in Bergman's films, disproving the idea of a godless universe.

Svedlund and Malmsten

That leaves Thirst, the first film in which, as argued above, Bergman finally feels ready. After all his experimenting and exploration, he has now found his voice, and there is a sense of self-confidence that had not necessarily been there before. The story in itself is not new, couples locked in mutual hatred yet unable to be apart, but the way it is shot and told is different. Scenes are longer without much happening externally but are instead about inner turmoil. Scenes are often silent and there is much less music. (This is the only film Bergman directed in the 1940s that Erland von Koch did not write the music for). In general the staging, pacing and ambiance just feels distinctly Bergmanesque for the first time. Malmsten plays the male lead, now established as something of Bergman's alter ego, and Eva Henning plays the female lead. The film is based on some short stories by Birgit Tengroth, who also plays a major part, but although the stories do not successfully coalesce together, and some scenes have a certain histrionic tension, it is a fitting end of the decade; a filmmaker finally finding himself after having been searching for several years.

Ekman and Henning in Prison

--------------------------
Regarding Bergman's claim (in Images: My Life in Film) that Marmstedt criticised him for trying and failing to be Marcel Carné, and Malmsten for not being a Gabin, it is worth pointing out that Ekman earlier had said that Marmstedt had said the same thing to him after Ekman wrote and directed Changing Trains (1943), in which Ekman also played the male lead. Marmstedt might have said it to both Ekman and Bergman, but it is also possible that Bergman borrowed Ekman's anecdote, or appropriated it. Bergman has never been a reliable teller of his own story.

A few films written by Bergman but directed by others also came out in the 1940s but they will be discussed in a separate piece later.

A person not mentioned but of vital importance, as friend, mentor and cooperator, is Herbert Grevenius, theatre critic and writer. They co-wrote the scripts for several films, including It Rains on Our Love and Thirst.

During the period covered in this post Bergman was also contracted director at Göteborgs stadsteater (1946-1950). He got his first job as theatre manager through Grevenius, at Helsingborg stadsteater in 1944, but it was at Malmö stadsteater, beginning in 1952, that he really came into his own, and began building up his now famous stock company.

A few links to related pieces:
Schamyl Bauman
Mai Zetterling
Michael Curtiz

Friday, 6 April 2018

Death of a Cyclist (1955)

In Spain in the 1950s, although a dictatorship under Franco, there was something of a cinematic revival. An important event was in 1951 when the Institute of Italian Cultures organised a festival with new Italian films, which obviously included several neorealist films. The festival, or film week, took place in Madrid and in the audience were many students from IIEC (Instituto de Investigaciones y Experiencias de Cinematografia), a recently opened (1947) film school. Among them were Juan Antonio Bardem, Luis García Berlanga and Carlos Saura, and Bardem and Berlanga also started a film journal, Objetivo. In 1953 the international film festival in San Sebastián opened (which was where Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) had its international premiere). In 1955 there was a conference in Salamanca for filmmakers and critics where they discussed the future of Spanish cinema. This was a time when the Franco regime was (comparatively) more open-minded, and even Luis Buñuel was invited back to his home country to make Viridiana (1961), produced by the closeted communist company UNINCI (founded in 1949), on which board J.A. Bardem now sat. Viridiana was Spain's contribution to the Cannes film festival (where it won the Palme d'or) but the Catholic Church disapproved of the film and Buñuel was not allowed to make any more films in Spain. But the more liberal period in Spanish cinema lasted for the rest of the 1960s and this later period is sometimes summed up with the acronym NCE, Nuevo Cine Español, or New Spanish Cinema, which was to some extent a reaction against the cinema of the 1950s too. (The 1960s was also a time when many big international co-productions were made in Spain, such as 55 Days in Peking (Nicholas Ray 1963), The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann 1964), Doctor Zhivago (David Lean 1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone 1966).)

Berlanga's second film, from 1953.

Perhaps the most well-known film from the 1950s is J.A. Bardem's Death of a Cyclist (1955). It is sometimes called a Spanish neorealist film but it is unclear why since it is a tale of adultery, emotional blackmail and anomie among some well-to-do families. A man and a woman, both married, are having an affair and the film opens with them driving on a country road. By accident they hit a man on a bicycle and, afraid of being found out as lovers, they do not report it or call for an ambulance. When they read in the newspapers that the man died they are consumed by guilt, and act out in various ways, while an unpleasant acquaintance seems to know what they have done and is teasingly suggesting he will tell all and destroy their marriages.


Death of a Cyclist is quite brilliant. The storytelling and pacing is precise and smooth, the acting is magnificent and the visuals are powerful and often beautiful. The film is like a combination of Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Michelangelo Antonioni. The milieu, ambiance, dialogue, storytelling and imagery create this interesting mixture of the two. The actress who plays the lead is Lucia Bosè, who also played the lead in Antonioni's excellent Story of a Love Affair (1950) and this obviously strengthens this connection. One aspect where it is different from Antonioni is the ending, which is a neat re-imagining of the opening and this makes the film circular rather than open-ended like Antonioni. This is closer to Mankiewicz.


Today Spanish cinema before Almodóvar is relatively underexplored, globally speaking. There are a few well-known films, like Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), but there is a lot more to explore and treasure. (I am told that Berlanga's El Verdugo / The Executioner (1963) is especially good.) Death of a Cyclist is also a reminder of how strong and universal this kind of film style was at the time. There is a tendency to see Hollywood films as generic and European cinema as expressions of personal artistry but this has always been a mistake; most of European cinema is generic mainstream, like Hollywood, and there has always been a lot of personal artistry in Hollywood too. Death of a Cyclist is both typical for its time and place while also being artistically specific, and could be said to exemplify generic artistry.

Pauline Kael wrote an essay in 1963 with the title "The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Parties" in which she discussed (critically) then contemporary European cinema with a focus on Fellini, Resnais and Antonioni, and she might have included Death of the Cyclist in that sick-soul-of-Europe genre. (Although Death of a Cyclist is not mentioned in that article, Kael disliked it.) This is what I meant by the film being generic to some extent. But that is no contradiction to it being a brilliant film, one among the many highlights of the cinema of the 1950s.

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There were two Palme d'or winners in 1961. Buñuel shared the award with the French film The Long Absence, directed by Henri Colpi.