Thursday, November 25, 2010

#71: The Magic Flute

(Ingmar Bergman, 1975)

Let's be realistic here. I tried to keep an open mind, but there was really no way I was going to like this movie.The only thing I appreciate about opera is the grand spectacle experienced first-hand, so transitioning to filmed performance ruins any energy I may have fed off of in the rendition of Mozart's work.

Bergman loved classical music, so it's no surprise to see him literally take a stab at the genre here. Filmmakers of Bergman's generation were still around for the tail end of the glory days of the stage - there are few great directors of the current generation who have the same appreciation for the medium. Since I am of the latter generation, it's not surprising that I wouldn't have the same reaction to this film that I might have had I been born a few decades earlier.

This might seem like a surprising thing to say to people who do love the stage considering the fact that Mozart's opera was originally written hundreds of years ago; surely a few decades cannot erase what a few hundred years couldn't? Yet this is the power of film and television, which have effectively replaced the cultural significance of theater, while only popular music concerts (and, to a lesser degree, stand up and improv comedy) have remained socially relevant as live performance.

Bergman does make an attempt to turn Mozart's work into a cinematic piece, using engaging camera angles and shots of audience members far more enraptured than I was. But ultimately this is still just Mozart's The Magic Flute. If you like that, you'll like this. I don't, so I didn't.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#366: The Atomic Submarine

(Spencer G. Bennet, 1959)

This was a real surprise. After two okay inclusions in the Monsters and Madmen boxset, here's a really spectacular film. Shot in an astonishing six days of principal photography, The Atomic Submarine is just as low budget and makeshift as First Man into Space, but crackles with the kind of imagination and subversive filmmaking that film didn't provide.

The two big standouts here are the effects and the music. The former are alternately hilarious and incredibly inventive, though often both. The submarine itself is so obviously a model that you keep expecting to see a hand holding it as it floats through the water, while the alien itself was clearly more of a substantial undertaking that certainly never feels real but is so appealing constructed that you hardly mind (it was also clearly the inspiration for the aliens on The Simpsons). Effects like this remind you what has been lost with the adoption of computer generated images. Instead of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and cunning, all you can see in effects now is work. You would never go to see Spiderman and ask, "How did they do that?" because the answer is now always "Computers." This has ideally benefited the storytelling by preventing you from being taken out of the movie - and in some instances where the effects are seamless, it certainly has. But in movies like The Atomic Submarine or The Thief of Bagdad, these effects had to be made on the fly, often by people who had never encountered these issues before. Part of this is that cinema was still relatively new in the 1950s and part of it was the lack of modern technology. But what it adds up to is an extremely entertaining experience. Then there is the music, which is played over most of the moments featuring the effects. This is some strange music, certainly of its space-age time but also somewhere between the most psychedelic 70s porn music and the laid-back cool of that era's Jazz. It's mindbending and totally awesome, the kind of score that reminds you how many buried treasures there are in films like this.

The story of The Atomic Submarine is no more impressive than the story of First Man into Space: a bunch of military guys and scientists go to the north pole to find out what is preventing ships from passing through, only to find an alien intent on colonizing the earth. The narration is done in a newsreel style that reminded me of Fishing with John more than it did newsreels. But the acting is actually not too shabby and the film is bursting with so much love for film and creativity despite its low-art origins that I don't think it's possible for even the most jaded viewer to avoid its spell.

One last thing, a character here is put on the submarine because a close family member was unable to go and he is the only other person who can operate a highly technical piece of machinery, so he goes reluctantly. Remind you of anything else?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

#365: First Man into Space

(Robert Day, 1959)

First Man into Space is one of the movies in the collection that is included not because it is great or especially relevant, but because it is not exceptional. Sure, it's made with a certain indefinable confidence, born not out of ambition but out of love for film. And yes, it is really astonishing that the filmmakers were able to pull off a fairly believable (if you ignore the now-cheesy slow-moving monster) sci-fi thriller with what probably amounted to a couple thousand dollars in finds. But there have been so many movies like First Man into Space made over the years that it's hard to really get excited about it. Finally, the movie is a bit of a drag, as it doesn't really get going until about an hour in (the movie is less than 90 minutes long) and you never really care that much about any of the characters.

When people talk about movies like First Man into Space, they often speak of the genre as a dead one, first made popular in the 1950s and dying out somewhere around the early 80s when Hollywood tightened up the distribution racket and films got more and more expensive to produce (especially films like this when audiences began to demand more and more sophisticated effects). But taking a look at recent sci-fi fare reveals that there are still movies being made in a somewhat similar fashion - the recent dud Skyline is a solid example of this. This makes films like First Man into Space interesting viewing for anyone who loves film history, but it doesn't improve their quality.

I'll freely admit I am not the audience for this kind of movie. The closest I probably come to loving a film like this would be either John Carpenter's remake The Thing or Brad Bird's homage The Iron Giant. But I can't imagine kids who would love a film like Skyline or something like the recent not-totally-terrible Pandorum would be able to sit through this movie, which is dated by its glacial plot and focus on morality tales in the name of pioneering science. It's not the special effects in the film that seem most dated, it's the style of entertainment.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

#208: A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman

(Ingmar Bergman, 1961-63)

The trilogy of faith divides Bergman's career. The Silence feels to me like the first film of the second half of his life. Just as Sawdust and Tinsel had kernels of the themes that would be explored in films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and The Virgin Spring, The Silence is a starting point for the explorations of family, jealousy, and the passage of time as it relates to relationships that Bergman would delve further into with Scenes From a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, and the film that was most obviously influenced by this one, Persona.

Part of the appeal and revolutionary nature of the set is that it is looking forward to these films much more than it is looking backward, and this seems like the real benefit of the trilogy for Bergman. As the trilogy evolves, Bergman sheds many of the questions which had dogged him throughout his career. This break is not just thematic, but technical as well. While Bergman and Sven Nykvist had already worked together, this trilogy is really where their work began to bear fruit. Bergman's directing is also much more dynamic throughout the trilogy, both with the camera and with actors.

And yet watching Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie makes it entirely clear that Bergman wasn't thinking about this dynamic in any way, and in fact wasn't even thinking of a trilogy when he made these films. This kind of makes it even more interesting, as the themes that run between the films are so similar - most notably the manner of God's silence and his appearance as a spider. The philosophical arc of the films is incredibly powerful despite a lack of specific planning on Bergman's part (though certainly intentional continuation of his themes). This outside intention in no way impacts the immediate reactions to the films. All three films are extremely powerful, and taken together they are particularly affecting. I highly recommend them to anyone who has thoughtfully considered the nature of God and their own relationship to both personal and organized religion.

Links to individual reviews:
Through a Glass Darkly
Winter Light
The Silence
Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie

#212: Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie

(Vilgot Sjöman, 1962)

Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is certainly not a worthy artifact on its own in the way that The Burden of Dreams is. But taken in the context of Bergman's work - and Winter Light in particular - the film is enormously fascinating and ultimately very rewarding to the Bergman fan. It's not something that would make sense as a standalone product, but in a boxset with the film it's focused on and the surrounding companion pieces it's a great and worthy addition.

The best parts of the documentary are the conversations Bergman and Sjöman have together one on one. Part of the reason for this is that Bergman refused to let Sjöman on set, so the other elements of the film are basically recreations. But the rest of the reason is that the conversations are completely awesome. Bergman feels comfortable enough with Sjöman to be totally honest with him, and Sjöman feels comfortable enough with Berman to offer his own interpretations, which Bergman cannily deflects. It's a fascinating look into the mind of one of the undisputed great filmmakers, one that any person interested in making films should surely watch.

The section which particularly moved me (and excited me) was the final episode, in which Bergman discusses critics and his response to their opinions as an artist. As someone who has been both a critic and an artist who has had their output reviewed, it was an extremely intriguing and beneficial conversation. Bergman and Sjöman raise many of the major concerns I've had on both sides of the artistic spectrum. Obviously, it's simultaneously satisfying and terrifying to know that someone like Bergman - one of the acknowledged masters in cinema - has all of the same insecurities and fears that an average artist of my mediocre caliber has. But it's also inspiring to watch someone as insightful as Bergman reflect on these things and ultimately come to terms with them.

Ultimately, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is not worth watching for anyone who doesn't appreciate the trilogy with which it is packaged. However, for people like me who loved Winter Light in particular, it's an invaluable resource for insight into the filmmaking process, one for which I am grateful to Vilgot Sjöman for making the effort to document a crucial moment in film history.

Monday, November 8, 2010

#211: The Silence

(Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

The final film in Bergman's Trilogy of Faith is almost completely devoid of God. It feels freeing for Bergman, and features by far the most optimistic ending of the trilogy, despite the fact that the rest of the film is just as dark as the other two installments. The final shot of Johan leaves the film looking towards the future. The boy has been freed from the sensual spiritual grasp of his mother and reaching out to his intellectual aunt for an emotional connection, curious about the world and open to its ideas, even when war surrounds him and uncertainty is in the air.

Obviously the hotel in this film reminded me of Last Year at Marienbad (and by extension The Shining) even before Peter Cowie brought it up in the supplement. There aren't many similarities between the films, but they both feel like death surrounds them. The hallways that Johan explores feel more like waking dream than concrete reality. We know the dwarfs are real, yet we can't help wonder where they came from or why they are there, just as we do with the main characters. We know nothing of the war which rages outside - but then again how much do we know of the war within the hotel? The sisters despise each other, but why? They obviously serve as two sides of one person, but did anyone else get a weird incest vibe from them here?

The Silence didn't grab me 100% the way the previous two films in the series did, but it's still a memorable and moving film. Both performances by the lead women match the caliber to which any viewer of Bergman's work would be accustomed, and Nykvist again throws down, with swooping shots through the hotel hallways and dusty, ravenous moments interspersed throughout. I think further viewings of the trilogy might give me a stronger opinion of this final chapter, but these certainly aren't movies you should rewatch immediately, but instead absorb and then revisit.

One of the more interesting facts Cowie relays in the supplement is that The Silence is the Bergman film that had the highest attendance numbers. This is depressing but kind of funny, not because The Silence is not an excellent movie but because this interest so obviously stemmed from the sexual content of the film, which is almost entirely devoid of eroticism (with the possible exception of the scene in the theater, depending on whether or not that sort of thing is your bag). The idea of going to a Bergman film to get off reminds me how silly people can be about sex, especially when they are prevented from being exposed to it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

#210: Winter Light

(Ingmar Bergman, 1962)

I have to wonder if I'm loving Bergman's faith trilogy because I was raised without religion or in spite of it. Where Through a Glass Darkly was about the misguided reliance upon God - and its devastating consequences - Winter Light is about the struggle to come to terms with God's absence. Despite essentially spending 80 minutes watching someone attempt to work through a problem I never had, I was completely enraptured by Winter Light, which I would say I enjoyed even more than Through a Glass Darkly.

I think a big part of this is something that Peter Cowie said on the bonus material (he has excellent insights on all three films). Winter Light isn't exclusively about a priest, or even about God, but instead about someone who has dedicated their life to something, only to realize they don't believe in it. The main character could easily be a doctor or a lawyer (probably not a blogger, though) and this makes the film even more universal than movies about religion usually are.

Apart from the intense emotional impact of the film, two technical things about Winter Light really blew me away. The first was the structure of the screenplay, which takes place over just a few hours. It begins with one service - the empty process - and concludes with the beginning of another. Yet the core of the film is a deconstruction of that process, a confrontation with what is performed and why. The movie is essentially a response to that first scene, and everything which follows is a rejection of the routine, the unquestioned traditions.

The second thing is Sven Nykvist's camerawork, which is extremely stark and striking. The scene in which the priest goes to see the body of the man he has essentially driven to suicide could have easily been lifted from a film noir. It's such an unusual sequence for Bergman, but is so emotionally effective that you hardly think about its place in the film until long after seeing it. Nykvist was one of the great cinematographers of all time, and would go on to work with Bergma acolyte Woody Allen on a few of his films, including Allen's own moral dilemma movie Crimes and Misdemeanors. Though Bergman had worked with other cinematographers in the 50s, he would stick with Nykvist after The Virgin Spring, which was the first full collaboration they had. Nykvist's work on the Faith Trilogy must have made Bergman very happy with his decision.

One last thing about Winter Light that has me a tad confused. Cowie views the ending of the film, in which the priest begins his sermon to an audience of just one, the woman he has just rejected, as an optimistic one, since Bergman is saying even if you only reach one person it is worthwhile. Personally, I was pretty wrecked by the ending, and felt that it was anything but positive. I don't know if I'm wrong or if Bergman purposefully left this open to interpretation. Either way, Winter Light is a remarkable film, and worthy follow up to Through a Glass Darkly.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

#552: Broadcast News

(James L. Brooks, 1987)

When Criterion announced they were releasing Broadcast News in early 2011, I'm pretty sure I let out a little yelp like a puppy. If I had to pick five movies that every American should be forced to watch in order to enter productive society, Broadcast News would be one of them. Not only does James Brooks's best movie (by a country mile, btw) represent one of the great romantic comedies of the past thirty years, it's also astonishingly - and sadly - relevant to the modern news landscape. Despite its most obviously dated element (the importance of objective network news, with no sign of cable news networks to be found - CNN was only a fly buzzing around the ears pre-Desert Storm), Broadcast News could have quite easily been made yesterday and been just as biting, sharply cynical, and tragically foreboding.

Without a doubt, my favorite scene in the film comes early, when Holly Hunter's producer character is giving a speech to her colleagues about the decline of important news coverage. As Hunter begins to lose people, she tells a horrifying (to her) anecdote about a night in network news when all the major broadcasts passed over a significant real-world development to instead show footage of a domino competition. As she attempts to make her point, she rolls the domino footage, and people go wild for it. It's not a subtle point (Brooks doesn't do subtlety) but it's an incredibly powerful one: these are the people who make the news, same as the people who watch the news. It is far too common these days to dismiss the media as a massive conglomerate protecting its bottom line, and certainly there is some of that. But above all, these are people, with the same flaws we have, who go home every day and are taken in by the same things we are.

The fact that Brooks was able to tie this point into the core romance plot of the film makes it even more impressive, and makes the movie even more essential. Hunter's struggle to come to terms with her personal feelings about William Hurt, despite her complete disgust with his professional abilities, is another unsubtle but extremely effective illumination of our inabilities to halt human nature, no matter what we have conditioned our brains to believe. Brooks makes this even more successful by avoiding the easy comedy route of making Hurt into a complete fool. In many ways, Hurt is just as intelligent as Albert Brooks. He knows the right thing to say, knows how to act on camera, knows how to make the story appealing, exciting, moving. He also knows the most important thing he can, which is what he doesn't know.

If anything, the situation is far worse now. Hurt's character would most likely feel at home in today's news environment, because people like Brooks and Hunter no longer value the things they used to value, and now recognize only onscreen intelligence. People no longer push for the good story, not just because there is less integrity but because there is no time in the 24-cycle, and less money. And do you really think Katie Couric knows what she doesn't know? (There was delicious irony in Couric, of all people, revealing Sarah Palin's ignorance, wasn't there?)

Brooks is far smarter than to make the film descend into one more angry call for revolution, though. The movie avoids parody and instead strives for realism (in its own Hollywood fashion), sidestepping the surreal or occasionally preachy moments of other films that examine the media, such as the also classic but angrier Network that had been made a decade earlier. That earlier film might be more immediately satisfying as cathartic experience when compared to the more conventional but actually more challenging truth of Broadcast News. Of course, it's also a more perfect script, as Broadcast News definitely has some flaws (a tacked-on ending chief among them, along with the above mentioned occasional use of a shovel over the head). But I think Broadcast News is the film that more successfully speaks to today's modern environment, despite the major shifts in culture, medium, and technology that have occurred over the last 25 years. Part of the reason for this is that Broadcast News is, as cheesy as it may sound, not really about news, but about people with all their preconceived notions and unavoidable weaknesses and prejudices. Until we don't trust someone just because they are well put together, until we aren't more entertained by dominos than peace treaties, until we are all ready to take our medicine before we eat our dessert, things are going to get worse before they get better.

Now excuse me while I watch this video.

#341: A Canterbury Tale

(Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)

There was one thing I got out of A Canterbury Tale. The film begins in the time of Chaucer, with pilgrims making their way through the English countryside. As they pass by a bend in the road, a falconer lets his hawk off, and it goes soaring through the air. Before you know it, the hawk has become a fighter plane, soaring through the air, and the falconer is now a WWII soldier with a helmet strapped on.

In case you haven't figured it out, Stanley Kubrick probably saw this movie. The shot is so similar to his jump cut in 2001, probably the most famous jump cut of all time, that it is impossible not to think of the moment when watching A Canterbury Tale. It's a sharp reminder that most things in film (and art in general) are not original, that man has been around long enough that by now we show our true ability to reach someone by successfully reappropriating what has come before and applying it to our current problems.

Beyond this "holy crap" moment, A Canterbury Tale was a rather dull movie, too much of its time to have relevance today. This might seem ironic since one of the main points of the movie is that people never change, that history means something because you can learn from it, and that holding on to that history is all we have in difficult times. These are all things with which I strongly agree, but the way in which they are presented here leaves a great deal to be desired. I didn't care at all about the glue man, and while I realize that was hardly the point of the film, they could have spent a little less time on the mystery. I also had a problem with the American character, who felt more like Ralph Bellamy in a screwball comedy than an actual person, and made it a lot more difficult to feel an emotional response to the final moments of the film.

A Canterbury Tale is actually one of the most popular films Powell and Pressburger ever made, or at least the one with the strongest following. I suspect part of this affection stems from the fundamentally (lower c) conservative values the film espouses, that vague sense of nostalgia that actually has a genuinely admirable reason for existing yet can too often be carried along (especially in a country like England, and more and more in a declining empire such as our own) by people who feel that the world has passed them by. But I also think that there are few films that are so unabashedly awash in these concepts, and reward the viewer with such an almost sublime conclusion to its characters' journey. It's these final moments, most likely, that grab hold of the imagination and refuse to let go, and while I don't see that myself, I can respect it nonetheless.

By the way, I don't care much for this cover. It's not that I think it's ugly, but the painting says little about the movie and it's not especially intriguing or memorable.

#209: Through a Glass Darkly

(Ingmar Bergman, 1961)

Through a Glass Darkly is the first film in Ingmar Bergman's Trilogy of Faith, an attempt to marry chamber music, religion, theatrical acting theory, and subtly revolutionary cinematic technique. It's also a masterpiece, one of Bergman's best films. All four performances here are great (though obviously the best is saved for Harriet Andersson in the lead role), and the script is an impeccable merging of intellectual themes and emotional relationships. While the whole movie impressed me, I was especially taken by Andersson's best moments, her silent struggles alone, her desperate calls for help with her husband, and finally, the astonishing, completely enrapturing final monologue describing her encounter with God.

Ultimately, though, the biggest emotional impact came from the father character, played by Gunnar Björnstrand. As a writer myself, I sympathized immensely with his conflict, not only the idea of balancing success with respect (particularly self-respect, which for many people can be most difficult to come by) but the constant moral quandary of separating the personal life from the professional one. His character's greatest dilemma is the one faced by any artist that is seeking for truth through their work. Popular but ultimately rejected as an "important" novelist, he seeks validation with his next novel, based on his daughter's crippling mental illness. He confesses in his journal that he is torn between wanting to help her and examining her descent for the benefit of his work. His daughter reads the confession, sinking deeper into her depression and delusions.

I don't think there is a question of whether or not he is a monster for what he does to his daughter in the film; in my opinion, he clearly is. The more difficult question is whether or not that lack of caring would be necessary in order for him to produce great art. It's not that I'm asking people to forgive artists for their personal indiscretions, but rather that I believe it is important to measure these negative characteristics against the benefit to society as a whole. There are probably far too many artists who believe that being great means being callous; the vast majority of these people are forgotten by history even before they have been rejected by their loved ones. There are plenty more problems with this all too common situation, and the way the film deals with it is both intriguing and extremely affecting.

What I was most reminded of while watching Through a Glass Darkly, however, was the continual gap between what we as viewers enjoy and what we claim to be great. Through a Glass Darkly is by no means an easy viewing, and yet I probably gained more pleasure and enjoyment out of the ideas that the movie provoked in me - and by the sheer excitement of watching a perfect film unfold - that I would inevitably rather watch this film than, say, Two Weeks Notice. Yet put both of them on top of the DVD player after a hard week and, had I never seen either one, I would be unlikely to pick the Bergman film. Probably half of my ten best films list is populated by movies that I either put off watching or have a hard time going back to unless I am prepared (The Last Temptation of Christ, another film about faith, is a perfect example). Why do we put off difficult films, even when difficult films are the ones we love most? Part of this process of watching Criterion's selections has been increasingly realizing the mistake in this choice (while still completely understanding the tendency to want to watch something easy). After watching more than 150 films during this quest, many of my favorite films have been ones I most likely would have never watched otherwise. Through a Glass Darkly joins that list as a solid reminder that often despair can be transcendent, while empty entertainment can never satisfy beyond instant gratification.

Friday, November 5, 2010

#145: The Firemen's Ball

(Milos Forman, 1967)

The Firemen's Ball is a major movie in minor-movie clothing. Created by Milos Forman just before he would flee his native Czech Republic and 8 years before he would make one of the only three movies to win all five major Oscars (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), The Firemen's Ball is a bumbling comedy that lasts less than 80 minutes and seldom wanders away from its main event, a volunteer firemen's ball in a small Czech town. It's not an ambitious movie, either, trying to use some not-so-subtle metaphor to make a sweeping point about human behavior. It inadvertently becomes one, though, not just by the force of its technique, but by the context of its origins.

Filmed in 1967, the movie was released during the Prague Spring (an event depicted in another, totally different Criterion film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and managed to piss off everyone in power, ending Forman's career in his home country, no small feat for a movie that is basically just a story of some bumbling but lovable old men trying to put on a show (but with a little sex). Underneath the surface, though, is a movie about authority and human nature that could easily be seen as a comment on decreasing trust in the government, not in a cynical or angry way, but in a way that is far more dangerous. Obviously, comedy (ridicule) can often be a more effective way to speak truth to power, not only because you reach a wider audience but because extremes can often be used to highlight the hypocrisy in things. The Firemen's Ball does this very well, even if Forman insists to this day that there is no deeper meaning to the film.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

#254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

(John Cassavetes, 1976)

I rather enjoyed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but I watched it on Netflix, and for some reason they decided to include the 108-minute version instead of the original 135-minute version. I don't know if those extra 27 minutes would have turned this film from good to great, but it didn't quite make me want to go back and find out (if someone really thinks it's worth it, speak now). This was obviously an experiment on the part of Cassavetes, attempting to insert his style and approach into a conventional gangster story. Deep down, I was kind of hoping the movie would reference some of the great French impressionist gangster masterpieces, but I didn't actually expect that to happen. The movie ends up being for more Cassavetes than Melville, which inevitably has its pluses and minuses.

The big plus is undoubtedly Ben Gazzara, who is understated, deceptively deep, and ultimately heart-wrenching as the club owner forced to murder in order to resolve his debts. He reminded me very much of Philip Baker Hall's broken man in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight aka Sydney, and both performances transcend their respective films as a whole.

The movie itself reminded me of two movies. The first is Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell's seemingly forgotten portrait of the mafia underclass. It's easy to look at the films that are produced about nightclub owners, organized crime, and hitmen and decide that it's a glamorous world ruled by men who know what they are doing and live the good life doing it. It's movies like this which take you beneath that myth and explore the people who attempt to live this way, but aren't able to actually succeed. Gazzara is broken in the film long before his debts are called in, long before he is forced to do something that is against his best instincts. His whole life, as he basically explains in his final monologue, revolves around pretending to be someone else, performing for the crowd. It's just unclear whether that crowd is the people around him or the audience.

The second film is a Criterion film and a masterpiece of crime cinema, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Like Gazzara and Hall (and Pacino) Robert Mitchum is struggling to make ends meet as a member of the "glamorous" underworld. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle, certainly a precursor to the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, is all about reflecting reality, intertwining so many people and their motivations that the story is no longer so cut and dry, and the viewer is left with an empty feeling that the system is ready to choke down and spit up anyone that's no longer useful. With this in mind, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is no more realistic than the gangster movies to which it is a counterpoint. That doesn't make it a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it just means that time has somewhat passed it by, whereas Eddie Coyle, made three years earlier, feels fresher than ever.

Monday, November 1, 2010

#537: The Magician

(Ingmar Bergman, 1958)

The Bergman film to receive the Criterion treatment most recently, The Magician is also one of the more unusual films in the director's entries. For starters, there's a happy ending, something that happened occasionally, as with the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, but with very few of the director's films that are so directly tied into his core themes, as The Magician certainly is. Furthermore, moments of The Magician play out more like Corridors of Blood than The Seventh Seal. There are hands reaching out from the darkness, solemn discussions of the unknown (magic, not God... or are they one and the same to Bergman?), and criminals with a mysterious past in disguises.

The magician of the title is played (masterfully as always) by Max Von Sydow as Bergman's representative artist, facing off against the scientist. The showdown between the two (with a bit of the law thrown in) is a fascinating give and take between the two perspectives, and the final development, in which the king calls on the magician to perform for him, seems to imply that art will always win out, not because people believe despite all evidence but because they want to believe. This is what ties The Magician so strongly into the overall themes of Bergman's films, and it's what (along with the mere fact that Bergman made the movie) elevates it beyond its humble roots as a house of mirrors. I don't think the film can compare with Bergman's great films (like the one I watched after this one, Through the Glass Darkly) but standing on its own, it's a fine, entertaining investigation into our inability to ignore our own doubts about our reality and our reluctance to change it.