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The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

Less then well known movies that I think are worth checking out.

Month

September 2016

GOYA’S GHOSTS (2006)

 

goya3x.jpg

 

We’ve all been there. We read a review or hear overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth about a movie, play, TV show, book, art exhibit, album, restaurant…you name it. We go to see/read/hear/dine at the before mentioned and we find ourselves totally underwhelmed, if not downright disgusted. Everyone’s a critic, of course, and everyone has his or her critics. You may recall the scene in Woody Allen’s Manhattan where Allen and his young girlfriend (Muriel Hemingway) run into Allen’s best friend (Michael Murphy) and his mistress, played by Diane Keaton. On first impression, she proves herself to be maddeningly pretentious. Among the sins that she commits is reciting the candidates for her “Academy of the Overrated”. These include Gustav Mahler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gough and even Woody Allen’s real life idol, Ingmar Bergman. “I think every one of them is great,” Allen’s character protests. I assume the real Woody Allen does too. But I also heard in interviews that he never liked The Wizard of Oz, he’s never been able to make it all the way through Casablanca and that he doesn’t think Some Like it Hot is funny.

Then there’s the other side of the coin. We see a film, read a book, go to an art exhibit, what have you, and we fall in love with it. We then find out that the so-called tastemakers hated it. Whether because of a pack mentality or their honest feelings your peers agree. I’m not talking about guilty pleasures. For me at least, if I were to pick a some movies that fall into this category they would include the Police Academy series, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and the recently roasted-by-the-critics R-rated animated film Sausage Party. I’m talking about the films made by major artists that were released with lofty aspirations and that, for you at least, were on the mark. For rest of the crowd it’s another story.

What were some of mine? I’d pick Martin Scorsese’s critically panned Shutter Island, Spike Lee’s Miracle at Santa Anna, Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, Federico Fellini’s Intervista and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, the latter being the subject of one of my first blog entries.

And then there’s Goya’s Ghosts, a 2006 Spanish-American co-production directed by Milos Forman, one of my favorite filmmakers. Because it was Forman’s first (and thus far only) film since Man on the Moon in 1999, there was no way I wasn’t going to see it.

Like most people, I read reviews to give me an idea as to what films I should see and what films I should avoid. If there’s a movie that didn’t look good to me but gets rave reviews, I’ll probably check it out. Conversely, if there’s a film that I was mildly curious about but is panned by the critics, I’ll probably skip it or at least wait until it comes on Netflix or HBO. But if there’s a movie I really want to see, I’ll go see it the first chance I get. I’ll also avoid reading any reviews of the film until afterwards. Truthfully, I often like reading reviews after I’ve seen the film in question because I have a frame of reference and a point of view I may or may not agree with.

When Goya’s Ghost was released in New York, I went to see it at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. I was blown away by the picture.  I personally rank it with Forman’s two Oscar-winning masterpieces – One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Amadeus, the latter being hands-down one of my favorite films of all time. I also adored his early Czech films Love’s of a Blonde, Fireman’s Ball and the before mentioned Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. His adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime was unsatisfying but it had many wonderful qualities, not least of which was a performance by James Cagney, who agreed to come out of retirement in order to play his first role in over two decades. I must confess that I didn’t care for either his film version of Hair or his terribly didactic The People vs. Larry Flynt, though many people I know admire them both.

Getting back on topic – after seeing Goya’s Ghosts I went back to see what the “intelligencia” thought of it. While my favorite critic Roger Ebert gave the film a favorable three-star review, I found to my dismay that almost every other critic treated the picture as if it were a work of pure heresy.

As of right now, the film has a dismal 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though a much more encouraging 57% audience score). Here are a few excerpts:

 

“Think of it as an Amadeus that doesn’t work.”

                                                            -Roger Moore, Orlando Sentinel

“A Punishing Misfire.”

-Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle

 

“Captures the essence of the period – an intriguing, backward era

            in Spain – but without the emotional impact that such a

            film requires.” 

                                                            -Marta Barber, Miami Herald

 

“A storyline that turns so silly you half-expect Mel Brooks to show up

            reprising his “inquisition” musical number from History of the World,

Part I.”

-Matt Brunson, something called Creative Loafing

 

Reading these reviews now, and the similar reviews ten years ago, all I can think is, did we see the same movie?

The title of Goya’s Ghosts refers to the great Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828). Originally a romantic painter, he came of age during the tale end of the great classical period in European art. He painted scenes from Greek mythology, Biblical scenes and portraits. He also made tapestries and prints, the latter becoming widely sold throughout Western Europe. Eventually he became the court painter to King Charles the IV of Spain.

Alas, Goya also lived through turbulent times. These included the Peninsular War, when Napoleon’s army seized control of the Iberian Peninsula. Spanish nationalists would remain at war with France until 1814. During this period Goya began created his Disasters of War series of prints, documenting the carnage and misery caused by the conflict. His paintings grew more and more grotesque as he grew older. He traveled into taverns, prisons and asylums looking for subjects. His paintings became more and more grotesque, more disturbing and more fantastic. This culminated, at the end of his life, with his Black Paintings series. These include, among others, one of his most famous and horrific works, Saturn Devouring His Son. Indeed, his later works seem to point directly to the surrealism of Salvador Dali and the many abstract movements pioneered by Pablo Picasso. As Forman himself said, “Goya was the last great classicist and the first great modernist.”

 

saturn

Goya’s Ghosts is not, however, a biopic. Just as Amadeus took the events of Mozart’s life to fabricate a fictional tale about his rivalry with a fellow composer, this film takes elements of Goya’s life and the historical backdrop of his time but out of it creates a completely original story which he co-wrote with French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who collaborated with Luis Bunuel on his classic films Belle Du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty and The Obscure Object of Desire. He also wrote or co-wrote The Tin Drum, The Unbearable Likeness of Being and Valmont, Forman’s own film version of Les Liaison’s Dangerous.

The film begins in 1792 Madrid. The Office of the Inquisition is still in effect, if not as tyrannical as it had been. A council of priests examines a series of grotesque prints attributed to Goya. They include old crones, witches on broomsticks, people engaging in all forms of depravity and even people with the heads of beasts taking part in different forms of debauchery. The clergymen are all appalled at what they see.

All except for the youngest priest, Father Lorenzo Casamares (Javier Bardem) who, we learn, has commissioned Goya to paint his portrait. And why not? Goya is also the official artists to the King and Queen, and as we’ll learn, Lorenzo does have a very high opinion of himself. He also seems to have a genuine affinity for art. He suggests that these grotesque etchings are simply depicting the world. “Certainly not my world,” protests one of his colleagues. “There is only one world, and that belongs to God.” He suggests that in order to cleanse the world of such debauchery, they must go back to “the old ways”. In other words, they’d better start going back to their medieval forms of interrogation and conversion.

He asks to be put in charge of the Inquisition. One of his first orders of duty is to recruit a group of spies to work on his behalf. He warns them of the dangers of Voltaire, spreading ideas of freethinking throughout Europe. He warns them that if someone says that matter is made up of small particles called atoms, then he’s a heretic. And if a man covers up his penis while urinating then he’s probably hiding the fact that he’s circumcised and therefore must be a “Judisor” (or worse, a Protestant).

We later see Lorenzo posing for Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) in his studio.   Goya’s grotesque paintings may be purer expressions of his soul but if he wants to live and live well, he must paint portraits and religious paintings. Frankly, he seems to enjoy his work-for-hire paintings. He also enjoys the company of Father Lorenzo, who genuinely seems to appreciate the art of painting. At one point he notices a portrait of a beautiful young woman (Natalie Portman). He recognizes her from a fresco Goya painted in a chapel. “Forgive me, for I am a man of the cloth,” Lorenzo asks Goya. “But is it true that artists become intimate with their models?”

Goya just laughs the inquiry off. In an earlier scene we see him painting the young girl. Her name is Ines and she is the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Goya flirts with her, jokingly calling her a witch. But it’s no more then good-natured flirting.

We later see Ines with her two brothers at an inn. It’s clear that the siblings are, for lack of a better word, slumming. The tavern is filled with people of questionable virtue, busty wenches serving ale and wine and even a dwarf who is hoisted up onto a chair and paraded around like a king. Ines pays a few coins to kiss his feet. Later, a roast pig is brought to her table. She grimaces and rejects the pork platter. Unfortunately for her, two of Lorenzo’s spies have seen her.

Ines is later called before the Office of the Inquisition. Neither her nor her father (Jose Luis Gomez) can imagine what this is about, except perhaps her kissing the dwarfs feet. When interrogated by a priest he asks her if it’s true that she rejected a plate of pork. Yes, she says, “I don’t like the taste”. He asks if she’s telling the truth. A perplexed Ines insists that she is. “Would you give us the opportunity to prove that you’re telling the truth?” asks the head inquisitor. “Yes, I would be grateful,” she answers. “But how would you do that?”

Alas, she is put to “the question”, a medieval ritual where the accused is stripped naked. Their hands are then tied behind their back and are hoisted up with a rope and pulley. This is, of course, torture. “What is it that you want?” Ines cries out while being hoisted aloft with her hands tied behind her back. “The truth,” answers the priest. “Tell me what the truth is?” she cries out in agony.

One night, while painting by candlelight (he fashions a special hat with candles placed around the brim) Goya receives a call from Ines’ father. Explaining that his daughter never returned from the Office of the Inquisition, he points to Father Lorenzo’s portrait and asks if his influential friend could help him locate his daughter. When Lorenzo comes to see the finished portrait, Goya informs him that a rich merchant, who has also agreed to pay for a new monastery, has paid it for. Then he tells the priest about the patron’s daughter.

Lorenzo travels down into the dungeon where Ines is being kept prisoner. The jail is filled with chained up, malnourished prisoners all with varying degrees of waning sanity. Lorenzo finds Ines, still battered and naked. He promises to pass a message along to her parents. He also comforts her, but also can’t help but get aroused.

Lorenzo and Goya are then invited to Bilabatua’s house, where he bestows upon Lorenzo a chest full of gold for both the portrait and the monastery. Naturally though, he asks about his daughter. Lorenzo informs him that she confessed to being a Judisor. Her family is perplexed. Why on earth would she confess to that? Lorenzo points out that Bilabatua had a relative from Amsterdam who converted to Catholicism when he migrated to Spain. Bilabatua confirms this fact but points out that the relatives migration happened over one hundred and fifty years ago and that he never told any of his children about their Semitic heritage.  Alas, Lorenzo insists that she must practice Jewish rituals because she confessed to it while put to the question. The other diners are appalled by what their hearing. Bilabatua says that he would confess to being a monkey if he were tortured. Goya agrees. Lorenzo then tells them that if they were answering truthfully that God would give them the strength to withstand the question.

Now, take into consideration when this film was released. 2006, three years into the Iraq war. The public was just beginning to hear about the “advanced interrogation” techniques authorized by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their underlings at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. Not only is torture immoral and illegal, it’s also ineffective. When gathering information you want to be sure that it’s accurate information, not just the information that one wants to hear. The entire Iraq War was predicated on information that proved to be completely false. And if I may take off my mask of non-partisanship for a moment, the Obama administration ended these torture proceedings and succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden.

At this point Thomas Bilabatua leaves the room. He then returns with a document that he’s written. A confession saying that Father Lorenzo, despite his human appearance, is actually the child of an orangutan and a chimpanzee. He then demands that Lorenzo sign the confession. He will not, so Thomas has his sons and servants block the doors. Goya, who tries to intervene on the priest’s behalf, is excised from the house. Bilabatua, with the help of his servants, then takes a rope and, using a chandelier for a pulley, proceed to put Lorenzo to “the question”. Sure enough, he caves, and with the last bit of strength in his wounded arms he signs the confession. Bilabatua says he will burn the offending document the moment his daughter is returned to him. He also encourages Lorenzo to take the money he bequeathed the church. It might be a useful bargaining tool in having his daughter released.

When Lorenzo presents the Cardinal (veteran French actor Michael Lonsdale) with the endowment, he is naturally impressed. “There is a request,” says Lorenzo. “There usually is.” When Lorenzo tells him about Ines, the Cardinal insists that they will use the money to build the monastery. They will carve the donors name into the wall. But they will not release his daughter. If they were to do that it would show the church to be fallible and essentially put “the question” into question.

Eventually Bilabatua releases the confession. He first shows the letter to the King Charles the IV of Spain, who frankly finds it to be hilarious. The letter is then passed on to the Cardinal. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He declares that Lorenzo must stand trial for disgracing himself. Alas, Lorenzo has gone into hiding.

Later at the Royal Palace, Goya presents a completed painting of Queen Maria Luisa on horseback. Everyone is shocked at what they see. Though he doesn’t realize it, Goya has painted Lorenzo’s face onto the head of the queen.

This leads to one of the most ironic moments in the film. Goya is sent into the king’s private chambers. It’s hard to tell what the king is thinking. He could, of course, have Goya executed for insulting his spouse. Alas, he seems somewhat amused. Indeed, their body language in a previous scene suggests that the king and queen don’t really like each other. The King then takes out a violin and place a piece of music, horrendously.  Goya, who has started to lose his hearing, pretends to enjoy it. “Do you know who wrote it?” the king asks. “Mozart?   Handel?” asks Goya. “I wrote it,” the king says with a smile. He puts the violin away and says “so much for art.”

Oh, did I mention who plays the Spanish monarch? Randy Quaid. Yes, that Randy Quaid. He not only bears a strong resemblance to King Charles IV but he gives a very strong performance. Like Jeffery Jones in Amadeus, he seems to be an absent minded head of state with way too much free time and no real taste in music.   Indeed, historical records indicate that he was a very inept ruler. He would abdicate in 1808.

Fortunately for Goya, fate intervenes. A messenger brings news that the king’s cousin, Louis XVI, has been executed. The French Revolution has begun and history has shifted into overdrive.

Fifteen years pass. Napoleon’s army invades Spain in order to liberate it from the monarchy and the tyranny of the clergy. We see one of his generals declare to his troops that “we will be greeted with flowers and kisses!” Well, when they make it to Madrid they are instead greeted with violent resistance. Soon Madrid falls into chaos as the streets fill with carnage.

Once again, does this sound familiar? The French claim that they were liberators, bringing the ideals of the French Revolution to the Iberian Peninsula. Yet to the Spanish people, the French were just foreign invaders and Napoleon was nothing more then an imperialist. Three years before this movie was released the U.S. invaded Iraq. We were told that we’d be greeted as liberators. Sure, we toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, one of the most violent and oppressive dictators in recent memory, but the country descended into chaos. How so many critics seemed to miss this parallel is quite beyond me.

By now, Goya has entirely lost the ability to hear. “I am completely deaf now,” he says. “But everyday I thank God that he hasn’t taken away my ability to see.” Goya does what any artist does. He uses his medium, in this case oil and canvas and pen and ink, to record and interpret what’s going on in Spain.

Once the French gain some semblance of control over Madrid, the Office of the Inquisition is disband and the Cardinal imprisoned. They also release the prisoners from the gallows of the holy office. Ines is among the liberated. She leaves looking like a zombie, her hair prematurely gray, her skin covered with soars, her jaw slacked and her body filthier then the ground she walks on. In another bit of irony that Mr. Forman is so justly known for, we hear the music of an angelic choir and Ines walks into the blinding sunlight for the first time in fifteen years.

She manages to find her way to her home. Alas, the house has been looted and ransacked, her family killed. She eventually makes her way to Francisco Goya. He doesn’t recognize her at first but once he does he asks her to write down all that happened to her (I think this is a flaw in the film. I doubt that someone who’s been locked up and chained for fifteen years would remember how to write). It turns out she has no idea as to how long she was in prison. She does know that she had a child while in prison. A baby girl. Would Goya help her find the child?

As it just so happens, a special prosecutor has arrived from France to judge the officers of the Inquisition. And who is this person but Lorenzo Casamares?  No longer a man of the cloth, he is now put in charge prosecuting the very men he once worked with. When the Cardinal is brought before the court, he tells his old superior that this is “nothing personal,” though one suspects that he is enjoying having the tables turned in his favor.

Lorenzo spots Goya in the crowd and invites him to his office, which is decorated with some exquisite pieces of art (say what you will about Lorenzo, he does seem to have good taste). He says that he owes everything to the merchant who tortured him into signing an absurd confession because that’s what prompted him to flee to France. The one who once derided Voltaire and Rousseau has now embraced them. He is now married, has three children, and considers himself a child of the Revolution. When Ines is brought in he doesn’t recognize her. But later she tells him that they had a child. “How do you know that I am the father?” he asks. “You were the only one.”

This is obviously not good news for a man who wants to sweep his past life under the carpet. He offers to care for Ines. In actuality he simply has her locked up in an asylum. He does try to track down the child though. By offering to spare the life of the Cardinal he is given the name of the orphanage where the baby was sent. He learns that the girl was baptized as Alicia and that she had run away from the convent. This is obviously a relief to Lorenzo.

Alas, his relief is short lived. One day Goya spots a young woman on the street. Except for her black hair and somewhat more Spanish features, she’s the spitting image of Ines (and is also played by Natalie Portman). Sure enough, her name is Alicia. When Goya reports his findings to Lorenzo, the ex-priest is clearly not happy. It clearly would not behoove him if his new superiors knew that he had taken advantage of an inmate and had an illegitimate child with her. It would also probably disturb the happy home life he’s built for himself.

Goya’s Ghosts is Milos Forman’s first film based on an original screenplay that he wrote since Taking Off (1971), his first American film. The film is set against a historical backdrop, one that has rarely been depicted on film. Yet it mercifully avoids the trap that so many historical dramas fall into by becoming so obsessed with “historical accuracy” that they fail to tell a compelling, dramatic story. I love history and I read about it and watch historical documentaries all the time. But while I have no qualms with learning something about a time period or a historical figure that I didn’t know about previously (and I’ll admit I knew little of the French “liberation” of Spain or Francisco Goya) but in a dramatic film I want to be told a good story with well defined characters.

Again, this is not a biopic about Francisco Goya. Yes, Goya was a successful artist. The official painter to the Royal Court who in his spare time painted more personal, grotesque painting that were purer expressions of his soul. It’s also true that he started to go deaf around 1792, when the film began. But it’s clear that for Forman this was, like Goya’s “black paintings”, an expression of his soul. Forman grew up in the former Czechoslovakia during the Nazi occupation. A friend of the man Forman believed to be his father was arrested by the Gestapo and under what was no doubt extreme duress, outed Forman’s father for selling banned books. Whether true or not, he was sentenced to die in a Concentration Camp. His mother was sent to Auschwitz. Relatives raised Forman during the war and claims not to have fully understood the severity of the situation until he was sixteen. Also, for what it’s worth, he learned that his biological father was actually a Jewish architect (Forman was raised protestant).

Forman also lived through the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia. Unwilling to live under communist rule, he left his wife and twin sons and moved to the U.S, where he lives to this day. This distain of censorship and authoritarianism is a constant theme in his films, be it Randall MacMurphy and the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the gaggle of hippies in Hair, the pornographer turned free speech champion Larry Flynt or such iconoclastic artists as Mozart and Andy Kaufman. Though Forman has had to deal with censorship problems here in the U.S, he has often shown gratitude for the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed in our Constitution. It’s also pretty clear that with the invasion of Iraq, the authorization of torture by Dick Cheney and the populaces willingness to forgo certain freedoms in order to pass the U.S.A. Patriot Act, Forman felt the need to express his feelings on celluloid just as Goya had on canvas.

When Forman made Amadeus he surprised many by casting American actors in most of the principal roles. This was surprising because Amadeus was an English play, written by an English author (Peter Shaffer) and when the play was brought to Broadway it had a primarily English cast that included Ian McKellen, Tim Curry and Jane Seymour. Also, we have a tendency to accept anyone with a British accent in a period film with white people. Though Goya’s Ghosts was a Spanish co-production, it was filmed in English. Javier Bardem is Spanish, of course, as is Jose Luis Gomez. But Stellan Skarsgard is Swedish, Natalie Portman and Randy Quaid American and Michael Londsdale French. They are all excellent in their roles, though Bardem is certainly the most compelling. It’s often more fun to play villains and he knows how to play a snake in the grass. A smiling, seductive man of the cloth at first, then a supposedly reformed and enlightened man. But only outwardly. This is a man who’s a hypocrite and opportunist. You always know there’s something diabolical going on in his mind.

And finally, there is one more virtue to which even some of the films harshest critics had to concede. Goya’s Ghost is a visually marvelous film. Movies about painters, of course, offer a built in visual template on which a director, cinematographer, art director and costume designer can work with. It’s also quite thrilling to see great works of art brought to life on screen. The works of Vincent Van Gough were animated in both Lust For Life and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, Frida Kahlo’s in Frida, Jonas Vermeer’s in The Girl With the Pearl Earing and most recently J.M.W. Turner’s in Mr. Turner. For Goya’s Ghosts Forman fills his screen not only with faces as lovely as Natalie Portman’s, but also the fleshy, jowly, wrinkled up faces that Goya loved to paint, while cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe captures the unique, beautiful light of sunny Spain and the ambient light of candles to capture the mood of the period.

Having re-watched the movie I’m more baffled then ever as to why the critics hated it so much. Maybe they were missing something. Maybe I saw something that wasn’t there. What I’d really like is for you, the reader, to see it and give me your impression.

 

FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1981)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

MBDFRTH EC020 FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, Robert Atzorn, Christine Buchegger, 1980

Finally, I get to talk about Ingmar Bergman! Like millions of die-hard film buffs I absolutely worship at the shrine of this Swedish genius. He is undeniably one of the most unique, probing, daring and important filmmakers who ever lived.

Ugh, I hate to use that word, “important”. In describing the works of an artist in the greatest form of mass media ever created as important, you’re almost certain to turn people off. I don’t blame them but I do feel that Ingmar Bergman was the William Shakespeare of cinema. That’s not to say that he towers above all of his fellow artists, though there are many “Bergmatics” who would argue that he does. The reason why I say this is because Bergman, more then any other cinematic artist, constantly and successfully used the art of film to explore…

View original post 2,918 more words

FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1981)

Finally, I get to talk about Ingmar Bergman! Like millions of die-hard film buffs I absolutely worship at the shrine of this Swedish genius. He is undeniably one of the most unique, probing, daring…

Source: FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1981)

FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES (1981)

MBDFRTH EC020
FROM THE LIFE OF THE MARIONETTES, Robert Atzorn, Christine Buchegger, 1980

Finally, I get to talk about Ingmar Bergman! Like millions of die-hard film buffs I absolutely worship at the shrine of this Swedish genius. He is undeniably one of the most unique, probing, daring and important filmmakers who ever lived.

Ugh, I hate to use that word, “important”. In describing the works of an artist in the greatest form of mass media ever created as important, you’re almost certain to turn people off. I don’t blame them but I do feel that Ingmar Bergman was the William Shakespeare of cinema. That’s not to say that he towers above all of his fellow artists, though there are many “Bergmatics” who would argue that he does. The reason why I say this is because Bergman, more then any other cinematic artist, constantly and successfully used the art of film to explore the fundamental quandaries of our existence – what does it mean to be human? Why do we behave the way we do? Does God exist and if so why is he so silent? Why should we live if we’re only going to die and why do we hurt the ones we love?

Once again, I’m making him sound like some sort of esoteric bore. He’s not. Woody Allen, one of Bergman’s most fervent disciples has said “the fact that he’s got a mind and an intellect and that the films are about something and that they’re profound on a human level, that’s all great. But he’s first and foremost an entertainer, so it’s not like doing homework.” This is also true of Shakespeare. Bergman never won over the hoi polloi in the way that Shakespeare did in his lifetime. Many people when assigned to read Hamlet in school often do find it to be hard work, but once you get a grasp of the Elizabethan dialect you become a lifelong convert. Yes, Shakespeare understood the human race better then any scientist, philosopher, sociologist or anthropologist that has ever lived, but first and foremost he wanted to connect with the audience and for them to have a good time at one of his plays. In my opinion at least, Bergman did too.

You certainly don’t have to learn Swedish to enjoy Bergman’s films. Assuming you’re not one of those poor souls that claims they don’t like to read subtitles (for those that find reading such a chore there’s nothing I can do but encourage them to enroll in night school), then the biggest challenge will be for you to get used to his cinematic style. People who have never really watched his films are known to find them dull, talky and monotonous. But stick with it and your life will be that much richer.

Another charge that has been levied against Berman has been that his work is horribly depressing and unbearably gloomy. This is very subjective. Yes, his films do deal with the unpleasantness of life, confronting the fact that the world is a cruel place and existence can be stifling. But his films are also, at least in my opinion, very hopeful. All art is, I think, an act of hope and in most of his films I personally feel that there’s something both cathartic and even optimistic at their core.

Take The Seventh Seal, arguably his most famous work. Yes, it has a knight trying to outwit the literal personification of Death by challenging him to a game of Chess. The films protagonist may be traveling through a plague-infested Europe but at the movie’s climax he’s able to distract Death long enough so that a group of traveling minstrels can escape. Through A Glass Darkly deals with a cruel father (played by Bergman’s favorite actor, Max Von Sydow) and his mentally ill daughter (Bergman’s muse and one-time lover Harriett Anderson). It ends with the girl being committed but the final coda has the father’s neglected son saying, “Father finally talked to me.” Winter Light is a film about a priest coming to terms with God’s silence, but at the end of the film he still insists on conducting his sermon, if for no other reason then to reassure his parishioners.

Of course, not all of his films are quite so hopeful. Two of my favorite films of his – Persona and The Passion of Anna – both end on an ambiguous, disjointed note in which the very illusion of the film is shattered through a jarring, reflective effect (he interrupts the climax of Persona by literally turning the camera around and showing the film crew at work, followed by a projector powering down. The Passion of Anna ends with the film overexposing and Bergman’s own voice giving the final word). I’ll also admit that there have been times where his films become down right maudlin, as in Brink of Life, a film about women in a maternity ward, two of whom miscarry and a third is contemplating an abortion. That brings us to From the Life of the Marionettes. A little known, late career work.

When Marionettes was made, Bergman was living in exile in Munich. He had left his native Sweden after he was publicly arrested during a rehearsal of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death. Humiliated by the affair, Bergman left Stockholm. He briefly considered making films in Los Angeles, an unlikely scenario even though Bergman loved Hollywood films and was in awe of the film capitals technical superiority. At one point Bergman shared a U.S. agent with Charles Bronson. The two men met at a film studio. Bronson was shooting one of his action films and had squibs applied to his body for a shoot out scene. Bergman was fascinated to learn how such pyrotechnics were performed. There’s also a photo that I really love of Berman examining that notoriously unreliable mechanical shark from Jaws (shown below). Though they might have seemed to be worlds apart, Bergman and Spielberg had a long mutual admiration for each other.

 

bergman-shark

Ultimately Bergman moved to Munich. His first film in the Bavarian capital was The Serpents Egg. A fairly big production financed by Dino DeLaurentes, the picture starred Bergman’s frequent muse Liv Ullman and Keith Carridine, star of TV’s Kung Fu. The film was poorly received by critics and audiences. He then went to Ms. Ullman’s native home of Norway to film Autumn Sonata, which offered die hard Bergman fans to see him direct that other famous Bergman, actress Ingrid (the two were not related).

By now Bergman was working with the Swedish authorities so that he could return home and make what was expected to be his final work, the positively wonderful Fanny and Alexander (1983), but not before making one more film in West Germany.

From the Life of the Marionettes was something of a companion piece to Bergman’s 1973 picture Scenes from a Marriage. He took two minor characters from that film – played by Jan Malmsjo and frequent Bergman leading lady Bibi Anderson – and decided to explore their marriage in greater depth. This wasn’t a sequel, mind you. Different actors were cast in Marionettes and this film was allegedly set in Munich (the film is almost entirely shot in interiors and the setting is barely ever mentioned) while the previous film was set in Stockholm.

All through his career Bergman supplemented his filmmaking stage productions. While Bergman entered the Swedish film industry as a screenwriter, and would write all of his scripts based on his own original stories, he never succeeded at original ambition, to be a playwright. Instead he staged highly acclaimed productions of the works of Stringburg, Ibsen, Chekov, O’Neil and Shakespeare. In 1975 Bergman recreated a production of The Magic Flute, which he had previously directed. It remains one of the most extraordinary pieces of theater ever to be translated to the screen.

During his exile in Munich Bergman was a resident director for that city’s Residenztheater. For From the Life of the Marionettes he culled actors from that company’s corps of players. Bergman later recalled that “I found it was fascinating, not only to work with actors who had not been before a camera before, but also to have a film without a plot. Just to make an investigation, like an operation: very, very clear, very simple, very sterile, but not to find the truth.”

What we are investigating is a murder, but not a murder mystery. The film opens in a garish brothel where Peter Egermann (Robert Atzon) brutally murders a prostitute (Rita Russek). We learn after the scene fades out that Egermann also sodomized her corpse. There’s no question that he did it, but why? Don’t expect all of the pieces of this puzzle to fall into place by the final coda. The impossibility of solving life’s problems is a big part of the Bergman worldview.

An anonymous interrogator interviews the people in Egermann’s life. His investigation begins five days after the murder. The flashbacks start five days before and progress linearly (four days before the murder, three days before the murder) while the timeline of the interrogations regress until we arrive at the moment the crime was committed.

We learn that Peter is married to Katarina (Christine Buchegger), a beautiful, successful fashion designer. He insists that they have a great sex life (she later counters that claim) but that he is having fantasies about murdering her. We see one of his murderous fantasies as he enters a pristine, white tiled bathroom. Katarina has just gotten out of the shower, her hair wet and sexy. He walks up behind her and produces a straight razor, which he lifts to her jugular. The two of them look in the mirror. She flashes him a Mona Lisa like smile, as if to say “go ahead. I dare you!”

Peter tells this to his psychiatrist (Martin Benrath). We quickly learn that he’s a very dishonest man. In what I can’t help but feel is a bit of a contrivance, Peter makes him think he’s left the office. The doctor then calls up Katrina and asks her to come to his office where he tries to seduce her. She’s not offended. She admits that she’s had affairs (“too many”) and considers having sex with him in his office, but ultimately turns him down. “You realize that I love my husband?” she tells him. She also suspects that the good doctor is trying to come between her and Peter.

He isn’t the only one trying to come between the two of them. We meet Peter’s mother, who on the surface seems to be very nice but we soon learn that there is more then a hint of an Oedipal complex going on between them. We also meet Tim (Walter Schmidinger) Katarina’s partner in her fashion design firm. He’s a rather plain looking, middle-aged, self-loathing Jewish homosexual. This might make him sound like a stereotype today and one could argue that by 1981 the world had become more accepting of gays, particularly in Europe. But Tim is from an older generation. More to the point, it becomes clear that he desperately wants someone to love. He has sex with many random men but he yearns for genuine tenderness. He has a close relationship with Katarina but of course it’s platonic. Eventually he gives Peter the address of a brothel. Consciously or unconsciously, his goal is to break Peter and Katrina up.

We later see another dream sequence in which our married heroes are laying naked in an entirely white setting. The light is harsh and overexposed. It starts out extremely erotic, with Peter caressing his wife’s naked body. It then turns ugly, with him attacking her and Katarina egging him on with her smile. We later see her cradling him in an image deliberately reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pieta.

All of this climaxes in the brothel. It’s a tacky place decorated with pornographic posters. Via a peep show he’s able to watch voluptuous dancers display their wares. Peter remains at the whorehouse until after it closes (which means he’s locked in). He picks out a prostitute who, interestingly enough, is also named Katarina, though she goes by the name Ka. Big breasted and heavily made up, she’s also sweet and admits that she more or less enjoys her chosen trade. Alas, this doesn’t stop the murderous rage that has been building up in Peter to finally erupt.

Other then a brief exchange where Peter’s mother explains that he and his sister used to stage puppet shows as children, there’s nothing in From the Lives of the Marionettes that has to do with marionettes. The cryptic title apparently alludes to a passage in Carlo Collodi’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio:

             “Most unfortunately in the lives of the Marionettes, there is always

            a BUT that spoils everything.”

 

I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean. Cryptic titles are indeed a Bergman trademark. Frankly, I think the film more closely resembles another childhood classic, Peter Pan. I say that because regressing into pre-adolescence is a theme in the film. “We are each other’s child. Neither one of us wants to grow up,” Katarina says. The final image of the film shows Peter in an institution where the doctors are observing him. He lies down on his neatly made bed and caresses a tattered teddy bear from his childhood that his mother brought him.

The actors in the film may have been new to the cinema and, for that matter, new to Bergman. But he did have at least one familiar name on his crew, and that was his great cinematographer Sven Nykvist. During his long career Bergman largely worked with two cameramen. One was Gunnar Fischer, whose rich blacks and whites created the striking visuals for The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and many others. Sven Nykvist first worked with Bergman on 1953’s Sawdust and Tinsel, in which he was one of three cinematographers. The first Bergman film in which he was the sole cameraman was The Virgin Spring. After that he pretty much lensed any piece of emulsion Bergman directed.

Replacing Fischer with Nykvist was like switching Caravaggio with Vermeer. Nykvist light was usually gentler, more even and naturalistic, yet no less beautiful. He and Bergman were reluctant to shoot in color, feeling that black and white was the true photographic medium for the cinema. The poor souls who complain that they “don’t like movies in black and white” haven’t watched one. If they had they would know that by painting purely in light and shadow the eye will almost always see more then they would with color, particularly the details of the human face, and nobody knew how to capture the human face better then Bergman.

Bergman and Nykvist first dipped their toe into the world of color cinematography with About These Women (1964). The results were disastrous. The saturated colors of early sixties film stock just wasn’t conducive to Bergman’s style. Eventually, the more subdued and earthier Ektachrome stock gave Bergman and Nykvist a much more subdued color palette, which they first used with startling results in The Passion of Anna in 1969. Nykvist would latter win Oscars for both Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.

The opening sequence of Marionettes is shot in color, emphasizing the garish reds of the brothel. The closing scene is also shot in color but the rest of the film is shot entirely in monochrome. The opening and closing sequences are happening now. The rest of the film is memory. We don’t remember things in black and white but by shooting them in the gray scale everything has a feeling of being a reflection of the past. It also appears to be trying to see things with greater clarity, hoping that the truth will be there in “black and white.”

After Marionettes, Bergman made his peace with the Swedish government and returned to his homeland where he made Fanny and Alexander. Released to great acclaim in 1983, Bergman claimed that this was to be his swan song to feature filmmaking, as he yearned to return to directing for the stage full time. “The theatre is like a faithful wife,” Bergman once explained. “Film is the great adventure – the costly, exacting mistress.” Many of the stage productions that Bergman directed were filmed for Swedish television. He also wrote a number of screenplays that were subsequently filmed, including The Best Intentions, Sunday’s Children (directed by his youngest son, Daniel Bergman) and Faithless, directed by his former muse and lover, Liv Ullman. He came out of retirement to direct Saraband, released four years before his death in 2007. In Saraband Liv Ullman and Erald Josephson reprised their roles from Scenes From A Marriage, studying their lives thirty years down the road. The characters in that film clearly had an effect on Bergman. He had also adapted Marriage into a stage play. Bergman died in 2007.

Much as I hate to do so, I can’t help but pine a bit for the olden days when every city and town had an art theater. Where college students and the smart sect lined up around the block not just to see the newest Bergman film but also the latest work by Fellini, Kurosawa, Antonioni, Truffaut and others. Bergman’s films were hardly serious competition for The Sound of Music, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Jaws, but he had a loyal, passionate following around the world. Who was the last director of non-English speaking films to amass such a following? Pedro Almodovar? Wong Kar-Wai? Today it’s harder then ever for a “foreign film” to get a good distribution deal. While Netflix, Amazon and other home media services have given people in even the most remote regions of this country access to an infinite variety of motion pictures, so few people seek these films out. If it’s not available right when they turn on their Apple TV receivers, a film often just doesn’t get seen. I do yearn for the days when a large segment of the population went to see these types of films and discussed them ad-nauseam but at the moment I fear that we’re not living in a very cinema centric culture. Hopefully, that will soon change.

 

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