Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


I'm sitting at the play, writing my own play
Or I'm at a poetry slam, writing a sonnet
Or I'm at a Handel opera, humming Verdi
Or I'm at a film, tightening the edit
Or I'm at a musical, tossing the pointless song or the pointless singer.
It's when I'm alone with the paper
My mind contains nothing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Passion of Ingmar

What to do in New York at 1a.m. on a Monday when it's too hot to sleep and you're too old to face Splash or anyplace else that might be open and entertaining:

Borrow an Ingmar Bergman movie from the library!

There seems to be a general change in attitude towards Bergman, once regarded as among the cinema's authentic living geniuses, ranked with Fellini and Bunuel and Ozu when few others were (no Americans, needless to say), a man whose profundity of vision, his conflicted attitude towards God, parents, mistresses-as-muses, solitude in Scandinavian winters, sex in Scandinavian summers, madness and art seemed close to the core of Western thinking on these subjects. We (in New York) flocked to the Thalia and the other art houses to take it all in, parse it, get our heads around it. His disgust at civilization, even civilization taken sparingly from the p.o.v. of a barren island in the Baltic, seemed to mirror our own disquiet at the inadequacy of the civilization of free, consumerist satiety. If God had no use for us (being in an existential crisis), we wanted Bergman to use us, or tell us at what star to gaze in God's stead.

From this emerged a dozen films as good as any anyone made in the postwar era: Wild Strawberries and Monika (Scandinavian sex!), Sawdust and Tinsel and The Magician and Fanny and Alexander (life is theater! or it would be better if it were!), Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly and Hour of the Wolf (there is no God; I might as well go mad), The Seventh Seal and The Virgin Spring (life was lousy in the Middle Ages, but at least it was intense in those days, not crass!), Shame and Passion and Scenes from a Marriage (I'm breaking up with my girl, no wonder the world is coming to an end), Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata (even women can't handle family - we already know men can't) and even so perfect a "costume" sex comedy (Smiles of a Summer Night) that Woody Allen and Stephen Sondheim tried without avail to imitate, to build upon, to improve its magic. (Sondheim's version is at least pretty to hear.) Even Fellini and Bunuel would be hard put to equal such a variety of masterpieces. For two or three decades the ideal collegiate thinking-couple's double bill (or, one filmbuff dorm neighbor said, the ideal film to take a dumb girl that would keep her quiet while he had time to think) was Wild Strawberries and Seventh Seal - so much so that a celebrated short in subtitled nonsense-Swedish (Madeline Kahn's film debut: "Have a cigar?" "Phallica symbole?") was Die Duve, a parody of both of them at once. (Death and Inga play badminton; the Dove of salvation intervenes ... all over Death's black nightshirt.)

Okay, I didn't understand them. Or I thought I understood them. Or I had no idea what was going on. Watching The Virgin Spring and The Magician for the first time at maybe 18, I remember, I was puzzled that the story wasn't "signaling" good guys, bad guys, what the hell this tale was about in the way I was accustomed to having stories laid out for me in Hollywood movies. Why was the girl raped and murdered, when she had done nothing to deserve it? (One may ask the same in Rigoletto, eh?) Because that's how it happens in real life: grow up and try to understand that. Why did the lawyer let his young wife elope with his half-wit son? It didn't seem fair. It wasn't fair - but it was the more understanding conclusion. Why did the knight lose at chess? Why did the madwoman rape her brother? Why do people in these movies pretend to go out the door, but actually stay behind to overhear a phone conversation or even a seduction?

Besides Hour of the Wolf and The Magician (ur-documents of the LSD generation), Persona, Smiles, Virgin, Strawberries, Seal and the splendid autumnal masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (and how many other writer/directors have produced eight supreme masterpieces?), and The Magic Flute, the first of the great filmed operas that set a whole generation rethinking the unfashionability of that form, the Bergman work I would select as his most perfect work of art is the seldom-cited Shame.

The story seems typical of Bergman after he had got over his middle class Stockholm soap opera settings of the '50s and could create whatever world he wanted: Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman (two of the most famous faces of the period, precisely because of the range of roles they played in Bergman's films - Max usually standing in for IB, Liv often standing in for IB's current lover, who was Liv for about five years) are a married couple living on a farm on a small island somewhere. Where isn't clear, and isn't important - what is important is that it is the center of a war zone, that armies and guerrillas are battling through the movie, taking as much notice of the rights and feelings of the couple as armies usually do. (The marriage might almost be a metaphor for Sweden, neutral since 1814 but hardly immune to upheaval as two world wars and the cold war erupted around it. Bergman was among the few notable Swedes willing to remember how pro-Nazi many of his countrymen were.) The destruction of their world, of their relationship to it, mirrors the increasing bleakness and violence and dishonor of the couple's relationship to each other. When she commits adultery and he avenges it with a horrifying betrayal, we are shocked. When he commits a skulky murder, she (and we) are too stunned to react any more. The ruin of their civilization mirrors the ruin of their marriage - at the end they cling to each other because neither of them has anything else - including hardly any will to survive. Most magical and unsettling of all: just as the film began with Max recollecting a pointless, ominous dream, it ends with Liv recounting a different, equally ominous one. It is bitter and beautiful and complete.

In contrast, The Passion of Anna (as it was called in the U.S. - as Ullman points out in the commentaries, that is not its title in Swedish, which is merely The Passion), Bergman's next film and his first one in color, which uses the same cast (plus Bibi Andersson, last seen in Persona), is a mess. When I saw it, still under the spell of the genuinely strange Hour of the Wolf and the genuinely perfect Shame, I was confused. For one thing: who is killing all those animals? Somehow I got the impression it was Anna (Liv), probably because of the American title. Use Bergman's title, remove that clue, and I have no idea.

So I got it from the library and watched it again last night, for the first time in forty years, and now it makes sense - aided by the commentaries of three of the stars (Ullman, Andersson, Erland Josephson). The movie doesn't make sense, but now I know why it doesn't. Bergman, a control freak (what great director has not been?), always had his scripts down, and his shots calculated, and there wasn't much to do but shoot them (Nykvist did that, of course) and barely edit. But whatever was in the original script, it wasn't what got filmed. For one thing, the dinner party of the four leads, when Max von Sydow's Andreas really encounters the others for the first time (he's already met, and eavesdropped on, Ullman's Anna), is not scripted: they were told to improvise as if inhabiting the characters as they then understood them, and quite a lot of the personal got into it. Ullman is still upset that much of her improvisation was edited out - though she asked for it, because she felt Bergman's idea of Anna (who believes she is living the utter truth when in fact she has based it on a lie to cover an unpalatable truth) was unjust, a blow aimed at herself for breaking up with him - so she defended Anna, and herself - and Bergman got back at her (she feels) by cutting the speech.

The film is not neat, as Shame is neat: it is an incomplete metaphor, perhaps because Bergman knew life is not neat (but art is our attempt to correct that). I found the dawning relationship between these two damaged, lying people, Andreas and Anna played by Max and Liv, unconvincing - a desperate move on the part of both - because they find themselves with nowhere else to go and nothing to do. I was more stirred by the scene where Bibi's Eva, unhappily married, gets drunk and, dancing to some old bebop, casually seduces Max - not because she wants him, but because he happens to be there and somewhat sympathetic, and sex will take her mind off her insomnia and her unhappy marriage. Erland's Elis takes photographs of Max, but the tension in the air during this session leads nowhere - he remains utterly enigmatic - though he suspects his wife has slept with Max. There is none of the power of the scene in which the vampire makes up Max's face in Hour of the Wolf. Perhaps the moral is IB telling me to get over my obsessions with artistic artifice and face the reality that there aren't always neat endings and solutions and meanings. And the greatest sign of this is that the brutal murder of animals (a puppy Max rescues from a noose, eight slaughtered sheep, a horse set on fire) does not end when the likeliest suspect is brutally driven to suicide. Max and Liv seem to have alibis, Bibi is utterly unlikely, Erland was in Milan, or was he? No, the slaughters go on to the end, as if they were occurring spontaneously (like the war in Shame) to mimic the breakdown of our characters, which climaxes with a furious Max, chopping wood, turns the axe on Liv, then beats her up on camera.

Just to make it all the more confusing, there are postmodern moments that were not scripted and seem to be trendy afterthoughts (responses to Bunuel and Godard?): each of the four actors is asked, on camera, to discuss the character s/he is playing. We get a lot of background that way that the screenplay does not give us, but still ... it comes across as cheating, as trying to be au courant in 1969. It is beneath Bergman, I think.

So, not a satisfying Bergman film - not one of the great ones by a long chalk - but further meditation on his besetting themes. Recommended for that, and for the first experiments in color (the olives and oranges and browns that would remain his palette in Autumn Sonata, and only shift to scarlets in Whispers) and the shots of Liv Ullman at the height of her imperious, vulnerable beauty, and Bibi Andersson utterly adorable just a little past the peak of hers, and Max the very symbol and totem of Scandinavian manhood in the aging prime of his.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An exchange at Les Huguenots

On the damp campus of Bard, where four performances of Les Huguenots are a highlight of this year's Summerscape Festival, illustrating the theme of influences on Richard Wagner (while he rolls in his grave), I ran into many, many friends.

Neil and James: Are you familiar with Meyerbeer's music?

Moi: Am I familiar with Meyerbeer's music?! Why, I had it with my mother's milk (between Cole Porter numbers). I even sang Meyerbeer at my bar mitzvah, instead of that tedious old Biblical exegesis.

Neil: What did you sing? "Si j'étais coquette"?

James: No - he sang "Prëtres de Baal."

Perhaps you'd have to know my rabbi to understand why this was so funny.

All right - full disclosure - I do not have a rabbi and I never had a bar mitzvah. But I am fond of Meyerbeer (up to a point). And I do have witty friends.