Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Uncle Yanco

Uncle on a Roadshow

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Varda's Uncle Yanco [1967], besides Agnès's purple sweater-top, is the moment when Yanco tells his niece something like, "The hippies like me because I have long hair." This statement perfectly exemplifies 1967 because it's the last year where the long hair hasn't really even grown in yet. Uncle Yanco is a portrait of love, reentanglement of uncle and niece, that captures the last optimistic moment in time in the Bay Area: before things got uglier for those who weren't even chanced to get ensnared in Vietnam...

Jean ("Yanco" the Greek) Varda, splendid artist, occupies the space of and between a passeur of media, like Agnès herself in her film researches. For Yanco, is his medium architecture? (Henry Miller called him the last architect.) Is the primary medium painting/collage?

In her 2007 introduction to the film, Agnès notes that she had "heard of Yanco in San Francisco" (from the Miller book?) — so she went to visit him, a curious family tree-graft! She had three days to shoot the utopia of 1967 Sausalito's "aquatic suburbia," which commences when she decides, "We re-enact this avuncular moment," with her embrace with Yanco. The children hold aloft in frame the gelatin heart. Varda makes a three-step out of her entrance, as in previous films, namely Cléo de 5 à 7

It's a question of art, but a question too of taste. This '67 annus mirabilis will soon push the critical question to the fore in its forcing one to consider popular (populist?) psychedelia against the entrenched norms, — entrenched as the traveler's loose teeth bulwarking an acid swish.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Wild Strawberry Patch (aka Wild Strawberries)

Sleep, Perchance to Wake

I've seen the Bergman film Smultronstället [The Wild Strawberry Patch, known outside of Sweden as Wild Strawberries, 1957] maybe 12 times throughout my life — it's one of those pictures that I'm not sure if I've rewatched it regularly due to my enjoying it that much or due to my respecting it and always researching to discover its final touchstone quality that clearly has permeated the dermi of so many Bergman-heads.

It begins with the great Victor Sjöström (director of Kökarlen [The Coachman, aka The Phantom Carriage, 1921]) in the midst of sleep, a phenomenon found throughout cinema in opening scenes whereby one can project whatever they want by way of reality vs. fantasy in the proceedings that follow. The Professor Borg — Isak Borg ("I. B." as has perhaps been not too heavily conceived but too heavily remarked upon) —cherishes his solitude. His housekeeper Agda (Jullan Kindahl) serves as the professor's aide-de-camp — they have mutual feelings — it would be untoward for them ever to acknowledge let alone act upon them — she's his protector and reminder. Borg is set to receive an honorary award honoring his career, and it's Agda who guides him through the simple logistics of the day and evening of the bestowment. Borg drives to the ceremony — Agda will meet him there — his daughter-in-law Marianne played by Ingrid Thulin will accompany him — on the road he will stop off at his childhood estate and reveries of his childhood where he is nevertheless absent except through a point of view of the camera — he will reconcile the relationship between Ingrid Thulin and his son, Evald, played by Gunnar Björnstrand. That's the gist of the film.

This will not be a complicated analysis, due to my thoughts around the first paragraph, but I'll throw down some bulletpoints and will comment a bit if something strikes me.

• The dream. No hands on the clock, the busted balloon blank flatulent-face, the creak of the caught wheel, the baby crying. Bergman's anti-critics take great umbrage with this, because they search for symbolism where ultimately there is expressionism. It's very clear: 1 ≠ 1, rather let's say the baby crying accentuates and rhymes with death, a universal given especially as Borg will himself regress into his childhood and thoughts of Mama, and end up dealing with his son's fatuous back-turn on his wife, which immediately equates to, if not Isak Borg, then the other I. B. in personal struggle.

• In the revery: It is Uncle Aron's name-day. We Arizonas do not understand this but we get the idea. Sara is Bibi Andersson. Borg is awakened in the wild strawberry patch, by Andersson Mark 2; she is on her way with two friends (Anders and Viktor) to Italy. Isak reveals during the drive that Sara/Bibi Mark 1 actually did end up marrying the prick Sigfrid  (Per Sjöstrand), and that they are now aged 75, and have six children. 

• Borg dreams of Sara's baby, and of a classroom exam — he's caught in a between-space of child and elder, and his neuroses produce a dream teacher who intones to him: "You have been accused of guilt."

These are my notes on The Wild Strawberry Patch. They're nothing much, perhaps only because it's a film I feel either too close to, or too distant from. Nonetheless, it's anchored by its definitive position in the chronology of the Bergman œuvre.


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Poemquotes 19: Three from Baudelaire from "Spleen and Ideal"

(my translations)
XX. Le masque
[20. The Mask]

Allegorical statue in the style of the Renaissance

                          To Ernest Christophe, sculptor of statues.

Let us contemplate this treasure of Florentine graces;
In the undulation of this muscular body
Elegance and Strength abound, divine sisters.
This woman, truly miraculous example,
Divinely robust, adorably slender,
Is made to be enthroned upon sumptuous beds,
And charm the leisures of a pontiff or a prince.

— In addition, see that fine and voluptuous smile
Where Self-Conceit promenades its ecstasy;
That long, sly look, languorous and mocking;
That dainty visage, wholly framed in gauze,
Whose every feature tells us with a triumphant air:
"Exquisite Pleasure calls me and Love crowns me!"
To that being endowed with so much majesty
See what sort of exciting charm prettiness lends!
Let us approach, and circle 'round its beauty.

O blasphemy of art! o fatal surprise!
The woman with the body divine, promising happiness
Ends at the top in a bicephalous monster!

But no! it is but a mask, a suborning ornament,
This face lit by an exquisite grimace,
And, look, here it is, atrociously shriveled,
The real true head, and the sincere countenance
Reversed, sheltered by the lying countenance.
Poor great beauty! the magnificent river
Of your tears flows into my anguished heart;
Your lie intoxicates me, and my soul quenches itself
With the swells that Suffering makes gush from your eyes!

— But why does she weep? She, perfect beauty
Who could put at her feet the conquered human genus,
What mysterious ill gnaws at her athletic flank?

— She weeps, madman, because she has lived!
And because she lives! But what she deplores
Most especially, what makes her shudder down to her knees
Is that, tomorrow, alas! she still must go on living!
Tomorrow, the day-after-tomorrow, and always! — like us!


 XXII. Parfum exotique
[22. Exotic Perfume]

When, my two eyes shut, in a warm autumn night,
I inhale the odor of your warm breast,
I see happy shores roll out
Which shine the lights of a monotonous sun;

A lazy isle to which nature lends
Singular trees and savory fruits;
Men the individual bodies of which are slender and vigorous,
And women whose individual eyes shine in stunning candor.

Guided by your odor towards charming climates,
I see a port filled with sails and rigging
Still-ugh, totally wearied by the vague marine,

While the perfume of tamarinds green
That spins through the air and puffs out my nostrils,
Mingles in my soul with sea-shanties. 



One night I was next to a ghastly Jewess,
Like a cadaver sprawled alongside a cadaver,
I took to musing next to this bargained body
Upon the sad beauty of which my desire is deprived.

I pictured her native majesty,
Her gaze of vigor and endowed graces,
Her hair forming a perfumed casque,
And whose memory for love awakens.

For I'd have kissed with fervor your noble body,
And from your cool feet to your black tresses;
Would have spread out the treasure of profound caresses,

If, some evening, of a single tear effortlessly obtained
You were solely able, o queen of the cruel!
To soften the splendor of your cold pupils.


Friday, March 05, 2021

The Seventh Seal

"I, Antonius Block, Am Playing Chess with Death."

I'll begin by copping the two opening paragraphs of the great Gary Giddins' essay in the book that accompanies Criterion's Ingmar Bergman's Cinema box set and the first Blu-ray edition from 2009.

"In recent years, The Seventh Seal [Det sjunde inseglet, 1957] has often been honored more for its historical stature than its prevailing vitality. Those who attended its first international rollout and were changed forever by the experience are now second-guessing their attachment to a work so firmly ensconced in the realm of middlebrow clichés. Its Eisenhower look-alike Reaper, emblematic chess game, and Dance of Death have been endlessly emulated and parodied. Worse, The Seventh Seal quickly assumed, and has never quite shaken, the reputation, formerly attributed to castor oil, of something good for you — a true kiss of death. A movie that's good for you is, by definition, not good for you.

"So it's a relief to set aside the solemnity of cultural sanction, along with the still-frame images that have adorned greeting cards, and return to Ingmar Bergman's actual film: a dark, droll, quizzical masterpiece that wears its sixty or so years with the nimble grace of the acrobat Jof (Nils Poppe), who is the film's true prism of consciousness. Not that its historical importance should be forgotten. As the picture that launched the art-house cinema in America (along with leading player Max von Sydow and distributor Janus Films), The Seventh Seal holds a place in movie annals as secure as that of Battleship Potemkin or Citizen Kane or any other earthshaking classic you care to name."

Giddins pulls us handily out of the art-house-muck while acknowledging that framework's role in the film's popular spread and subsequent appeal for generations of students, cosmopolites, A/V enthusiasts, intellectuals, cinephiles, and cinephile-intellectuals. The Seventh Seal was, after all, the first Criterion DVD I ever owned, around 1999, a huge best-seller for the company. (The film was also the first Criterion laserdisc I ever watched, in an A/V cubby at Uris Library in college.) Its appeal involves its narrative concision, perfect pacing, memorable characters, comic beats, and of course the striking and iconic personification of Death (Bengt Ekerot). As such and above all, perhaps, is its primary theme: Not "what is the meaning of life," but rather "what is the meaning of death," or: what is the meaning of life in a world where death exists and comes striking at any moment. Indeed, this can be distilled in turn to a contemplation of the question of whether or not there is a usefulness to be had in the readiness, the preparedness, for dying. To that end, Bergman in The Seventh Seal, perhaps surprisingly given the medieval Christian backdrop, considers dying in the context of a Zen resignation.

Tied up with the question of the existence of an afterlife: eternity and the eternal: time as a function of death, and vice-versa. How much time do we have at any moment during life before we return to the infinity of afterlife or nothingness, in which condition time stands still. Take the opening shots: a lowering cloud-decked sky, followed by a dissolve into a hawk, in flight yet hanging near motionless, artificial prop. From there we move to the primordial: a world without end on a rocky shore, with the knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) in repose as though washed up from the ocean, the first creatures on earth. (Jöns sports pinned to his back a long hawk feather, though he is resolutely earthbound, trotting the coast with Antonius on their horses.) A voice-over intones the initial lines: "And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in Heaven about the space of half-an-hour." Lost time: the pair have spent ten years away fighting in the Crusades (for nought; as Giddins writes in his essay, just another "trumped-up war" — this was 2009 so no pun would have been intended) and are only just now returned to their native land, which is wracked by the plague. Inbetween, transitory time: Jöns bears the scar of a likely blade-wound running over his scalp and down his forehead; he sleeps with his short-sword unsheathed; he recalls an omen of yesterday afternoon whereby "four suns hung in the sky."

Jöns will later blind Gunnel Lindblom's would-be rapist with his blade, not only on account of a second run-in with the knave, but as a means of venting his rage over the man's having convinced Antonius to travel to the wars in the first place, in order to avenge God in the face of the infidel. Jöns is still ready to annihilate. Be it by plague or man's own doing — we look now no further than Covid-19. (Bergman admits in his 2004 introduction that, as with so many auteurs and artists of the time, the atom bomb was at the forefront of his thoughts and naturally his subconscious as well.)

A procession of flagellants interrupts the minstrel performance by the troupe of Jof (Nils Poppe), Mia (Bibi Andersson), and Skat (Erik Strandmark), who engage in a ribald ditty about the devil taking a dump on the seashore. Jof and Mia are the only ones who will escape Death at the end, in part because Jof, who is all instinct and faith, is spiritually touched — faith in his own imagination or beliefs? faith in his 'true visions'? A meal of wild strawberries (smultrons — see Bergman's following feature) is a sacramental offering not only to a God but to oneself. The Virgin Mary and the Blessed Child stroll in the distance before his very eyes; likewise his sight (the antithesis of the blinded rapist, the foulest character in the ensemble) reveals to him at the end, when the sun has returned, the group of Block, Jöns, et al linked hand-in-hand, engaged in the Dance of Death.

It is, and is not, finished: The Seventh Seal is the work of a skillful tactician. Not for nothing does the confessional's grate evoke a chessboard.