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Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015)

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a superb new film – click here to see an interview with the director.

Shot in just two weeks on 16mm film from his own script – Perry calls shooting on film as opposed to digital imaging “the uncompromiseable element in making a movie” – in a house in upstate New York, Queen of Earth charts the emotional breakdown of Catherine (a riveting, mesmeric Elisabeth Moss, doing what she considers the finest work of her career), as she spends a harrowing week in the country at the house of her “friend” Ginny (Katherine Waterston). It’s a brilliant tour de force in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona (1966), but it cuts even deeper than that – it’s a dazzling film from beginning to end. [Note: Avoid the trailer for the film; it's really a disaster, and doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in the film at all.]

As Scott Tobias of NPR observes, “without a second’s hesitation, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth dives right into its heroine’s lowest moment, in medias res. The camera stays close to Catherine’s face, as smears of mascara frame eyes alight with pain, anger and exhaustion; this has been going on a while and we’re just seeing the end of it.

Her boyfriend is breaking up with her, which is awful enough, but the timing makes it worse: She’s still reeling from the death of her father, an artist who mentored her, and now the two central figures in her life are gone. This double whammy leads to a psychological breakdown that Perry chronicles with unsettling acuity, but the breakup and the death are merely the catalysts. The cause cuts much deeper.

Set over a week in a secluded vacation home in the Hudson River Valley, Queen of Earth is a typically dyspeptic film by Perry, whose four features as writer-director all pluck at raw nerves. Perry’s last effort, Listen Up Philip, significantly darkened the high-toned literary comedies of directors like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, offering two authors whose combined egomania sweeps through their lives like a brush fire.

Though the characters in Queen of Earth speak their minds as freely and caustically as those in Perry’s other films, it deals with a different form of self-destruction, more internal than external. It’s not about Catherine having too much grief and loss to bear, but about the way they expose her inability to process it all. Hardship runs through her psyche like alcohol filtered through a diseased liver.

Evoking a long list of cinematic antecedents — Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Woody Allen’s Interiors chiefly, but the suffocating dramas of John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are on the table, too — Queen of Earth settles on the thorny relationship between Catherine, played by Elisabeth Moss, and her best friend, Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston.

‘Best friend’ should probably be in scare quotes, because they have reached a point where their closeness mostly applies to each of them knowing how to hurt the other the most. Virginia has invited Catherine out to her family retreat to help her find some peace and tranquility, but the hostility kicks in before they even get down the two-mile drive to the place.

For one, the house is haunted by memories of the previous summer, when Catherine and her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), were locked in happy/sad co-dependency. Catherine was happier then, but the signs of long-term trouble were there, and returning to the scene a year later brings it all flooding back to her.

Now she and Virginia have switched places: Catherine doesn’t have a man in her life, but Virginia is flirting with Rich (Patrick Fugit), the boy next door, whose habit of casually breezing into the house seemed tolerable last year, but this time has Catherine raging over his flippancy and arrogance. It would be wrong, however, to hold Rich responsible for driving a wedge between the two old friends. They do that well enough on their own.”

For her part, Elizabeth Moss told Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly that despite the film’s unrelenting nihilism, “it was super fun [to play Catherine]. It was very very cool. You don’t often get to do that — I hate to say ‘as a female’ because I don’t feel you get to do that as a male either. To me, playing happy characters is very boring. I don’t want to play the high points! It would be annoying. To see people succeeding all the time? Who wants that?

[Generally,] I don’t like watching myself [on screen]. What was interesting about this was, because I had a little bit of a producer capacity, I was able to watch this from a different place. I was able to appreciate it as a film. Which weirdly made me a lot less critical, because I could see things that made sense for the movie.

So, I actually really enjoyed watching this way more than I’ve ever enjoyed watching anything else. I’ve told Alex this in private, but I think it’s the thing I’m most proud of, as far as films go. I’m very excited and proud of this movie. So, weirdly, I didn’t have a huge problem watching it.”

Nor do I – see this film now on demand or in a theater, if you’re lucky enough to have that choice.

Max Von Sydow Joins Game of Thrones

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

As it says above, Max Von Sydow is joining the cast of Game of Thrones.

As Laura Prudom writes in Variety, ”The Three-Eyed Raven is getting a makeover in season six of Game of Thrones Variety has confirmed that Max von Sydow will take over the role, which was originated by Struan Rodger in the season four finale of the HBO drama.

The enigmatic character is responsible for teaching Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead Wright) about his supernatural gifts, including his ability to transfer himself into the body of other creatures through the process of ‘warging.’ Although Bran and his allies were absent throughout season five, they are confirmed to be making a return in the new season, which has commenced filming in Europe.

While von Sydow is not expected to have much screen time in season six, he will reportedly play a major role in the events of the new season. The same has been said of fellow new cast member Ian McShane, who is playing an undisclosed role.

Last week, HBO chief Michael Lombardo told reporters that the current plan is for Game of Thrones to end after eight seasons, despite earlier quotes that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were aiming to wrap up the epic series after seven years. The series earned 24 Emmy nominations for season five, with noms for stars Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke and drama series, among others. Von Sydow is no stranger to iconic properties, and will next be seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens this December.”

True enough, but for some of us, Von Sydow will always be linked his work with Ingmar Bergman, which first brought him to international stardom in such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and other Bergman classics- and the rest of his work, while keeping him busy – very busy – seems an afterthought. Still, it can’t help but bring up the level of quality on the show, and his work is always inspirational to watch, no matter what he does.

At age 86, Max Von Sydow keeps right on working, and glad of it we are.

Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1962)

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

On this appropriately bleak winter day, I sat down to view Ingmar Bergman’s stark masterpiece Winter Light.

From my forthcoming book Black & White Cinema: A Short History: “by 1962 with Winter Light, photographed by Sven Nykvist, Bergman had refined his vision into an austere, almost sculptural sensibility of blacks, whites, and varying shades of gray, striving for a complete simplicity in all his work. As Nykvist recalled of working with Bergman,

‘The whole crew meets two months before shooting to read the whole script, then we start to make tests. We build sets, and when everyone—the costume designer, the production designer, the makeup artist—is there, we make tests for the whole picture so we will never be surprised when we start shooting. We are already halfway through a picture when we start to shoot it, and that is psychologically very important for all the people because everyone, including the grips and electricians, feels that he or she is as important as all the others. . . . When you are operating the camera, you forget all about the other people around you. You just see this little scene and you live in that and you feel it. For me, operating the camera is a sport and it helps me do better lighting sometimes.

When Ingmar and I made Winter Light . . . which takes place in a church on a winter day in Sweden, we decided we should not see any shadow in it at all because there would be no logical shadow in that setting. I said, ‘Oh, that will be an easy picture for me because the light doesn’t change in three hours.’ Ingmar said, ‘That’s what you think. Let’s go to the churches in the north of Sweden.’ And there we sat for weeks, looking at the light during the three hours between eleven and two o’clock. We saw that it changed a lot, and it helped him in writing the script because he always writes the moods. . .

It has taken me 30 years to come to simplicity. Earlier, I made a lot of what I thought were beautiful shots with much backlighting and many effects, absolutely none of which were motivated by anything in the film at all. As soon as we had a painting on the wall, we thought it should have a glow around it. It was terrible and I can hardly stand to see my own films on television anymore. . . . I prefer to shoot on location because in the studio you have too many possibilities—too many lights to destroy your whole picture.’”

And as Roger Ebert observed of Winter Light in 2007, “on the day Ingmar Bergman died, the first film of his that came into my mind was Winter Light. Odd, because I had not seen it since teaching a film class in the 1970s. In the weeks that passed, I found it lingering there, asking to be seen again. What did I remember about it? That it was part of Bergman’s ‘Silence of God’ trilogy. That it was about a pastor who was unable to comfort a man in dread of nuclear holocaust. That the pastor rejected a woman who sought to comfort him. That Bergman and his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, sat in a rural church for a winter day to note how the sunlight moved through the space. In short, I hardly remembered the film at all, because those sparse memories were not enough to ignite a need to see it again. Yet I felt one. Finally I took Winter Light down from the shelf, watched it again, and was awestruck by its bleak, courageous power.

It is, first of all, much more complex than the broad outlines I held in memory. It is about more than God, silent or not. It is about the silence of a man, Pastor Tomas Ericsson (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who speaks enough in the film but is unable to say anything of use to himself or anyone else. About another man, the fisherman Jonas (Max Von Sydow), obsessed by evil in the world, who calls God’s bluff, so to speak, by killing himself. About Marta, a schoolteacher (Ingrid Thulin) who cares for the pastor, loves him, worries about him, and is thanked by coldness and hostility. And it is about two monologues in which the pastor and the teacher describe their real feelings, and deeply wound each other . . .

The film’s visual style is one of rigorous simplicity. Nykvist does not use a single camera movement for effect. He only wants to regard, to show. His compositions, while sometimes dramatic, are mostly static. He uses slow push-ins and pull-outs to underline dialogue of intensity. His gaze is so unblinking that sequences with the potential to be boring, like the opening scenes of the consecration and distribution of hosts and wine, become fascinating: More is going on here than ritual, and there are buried currents between the communicants. Nykvist focuses above all on faces, in closeup and medium shot, and they are even the real subject of longer shots, recalling Bergman’s belief that the human face is the most fascinating study for the cinema.”

Fortunately, there is also a feature on the making of Winter Light, available on the Criterion DVD set of the Bergman “Silence of God” trilogy, of which Criterion’s program notes add that “the year is 1961, and Ingmar Bergman is making a movie. While planted on the scene as apprentice to Bergman, Vilgot Sjöman suggests to Swedish Television that they take the opportunity to record with the acclaimed director. In August, Sjöman and the television crew begin to capture what would become a comprehensive five-part documentary on the making of Winter Light, offering views of script development, set construction and lighting, rehearsals and editing, as well as intimate conversations with Bergman and members of his cast and crew. Footage from the film’s Swedish premiere delivers immediate audience reactions and the critics’ reviews the following day. Originally recorded on 16mm film, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie is presented here in its entirety for the first time outside of Sweden.”

A brilliant film, available on Criterion DVD; get a copy now, before it goes out of print.

Ingmar Bergman for Bris Soap — 1951 Commercials

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Just like everyone else, Ingmar Bergman had to make a living in his early years.

As Martin Schneider notes on the Dangerous Minds website, “in 1951 the Swedish film industry went on strike to protest high taxes in the entertainment sector, and Ingmar Bergman, who at 33 had already directed a handful of movies and had also overseen the Gothenburg city theater for three years, signed on to do a series of commercials for Bris soap, in part to support his already teeming brood (two ex-wives and five children, with a sixth on the way). The commercials are playful, fascinating, and utterly Bergmanesque—in the best possible way.

What I don’t mean by ‘Bergmanesque’ is that they’re brooding or depressing or austere—as Bergman’s popular image would dictate. No, they are loose and original and supremely confident in the form of cinema. Bergman has had the misfortune to be identified with a couple of not overly representative movies—Persona (1966) and above all, The Seventh Seal (1957)—and his true nature as a restless and protean prober of human nature somehow got a little lost in the mix.

Bergman was nothing if not a relentlessly theatrical director, and few were more confident in exploring the limits of narrative in the medium. The parodies don’t quite suffice to encapsulate the director of the masterpieces Fanny and Alexander or Scenes from a Marriage. There are eight of the Bris commercials, they are all black-and-white, and the visual quality leaves something to be desired by the standards of 2013, but to Bergman’s credit, they are all wildly different and memorable and convey some succinct point about the nature of cinema as well as delivering the promised virtues of the soap.”

You can read more, and see the commercials, by clicking here.

Ingmar Bergman Retrospective at Film Streams

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Film Streams in Omaha is running an retrospective on filmmaker Ingmar Bergman.

Bob Fischbach interviewed me for a piece on the Ingmar Bergman festival at Film Streams in Omaha that begins today. Bob’s piece in the Omaha World Herald notes that: “‘You can’t say you’ve got an understanding of film unless you see the films of Bergman,’ Dixon contends. ‘His films are riveting, they have great entertainment value and they’re absorbing experiences. From the beginning, he addressed the timeless questions of human existence: life, death, love, faith, hope. Meditations on what it is to be alive, to have friends and lovers, to face mortality.’

Ernst Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala, Sweden, in July 1918. His father was a Lutheran minister, later chaplain to the king of Sweden. He directed more than 60 films and documentaries, most of which he also wrote. Bergman also directed 170 stage plays, through which he developed a core company of actors for his films: Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Anders Ek and Gunnar Björnstrand among them.

He was one of the first European filmmakers to break through in the United States. Three of his films won the foreign-language Oscar: The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Another, Cries and Whispers (1974), was nominated for best film.

Dixon said Bergman’s career began with a stroke of luck: being born in Sweden. Through its Svensk Filmindustri, the nation underwrites the first film of its best students from the national film school. ‘He never had to cater to anyone other than himself,’ Dixon said. ‘He created cinema as an art form because he didn’t worry about audience feedback or test screenings or producers.’ When Dick Cavett once asked Bergman what he’d do if a producer told him to change a script, Bergman replied that he’d tell the producer to go to hell. ‘That was a deeply inspirational model to filmmakers around the world, an art form undiluted,’ Dixon said.”

You can read the entire piece here; a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the work of an undisputed master on the big screen. Don’t miss it.

Wild Strawberries

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a clip from Wild Strawberries.

It’s fashionable now to dismiss Ingmar Bergman as an antique, which he certainly is not, or to remember him for one film only, Persona (1966), which is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but his earlier films, such as the often-parodied The Seventh Seal or the measured, reverential Wild Strawberries (both 1957), are superb examples of personal filmmaking, made possible by Bergman’s long-running arrangement with the Swedish national film company, Svensk Filmindustri, which allowed him to spend the cold winters in Stockholm directing a play, only to emerge every Spring to shoot a new film.

Woody Allen, in particular, is a longtime admirer of Bergman’s, and has remade, after a fashion, several of his films, but all I really want to do here is to call your attention to Wild Strawberries, in particular — remade by Allen as Deconstructing Harry (1997), the tale of an elderly professor emeritus, Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström), who travels from his home to his former university to accept an honorary degree for his lifetime of work.

Though the Wild Strawberries starts with a horrific nightmare that Isak endures the night before he is to accept the award (see the clip above), the film concentrates mostly on the often-fractious relationships between Borg and his daughter-in-law Marianne (Ingrid Thulin), who is unhappily married to Isak’s son Evald (Gunnar Björnstrand).

Nothing much happens, but then again everything happens, and the film ends on a note of redemptive hope, as the visions of Isak’s youth return to him as if in a dream, to comfort and reassure him, as he faces his inevitable death — indeed, actor/director Victor Sjöström, one of the veterans of the Swedish film industry, died shortly after the film’s completion, and before a rough cut could be assembled.

In the midst of life, we have to accept our faults and failures, and keep moving on towards the light, guided by the past, as we move inexorably into the future with each passing moment. Wild Strawberries is a sublime film, and is earnestly recommended, whether you’ve seen it or not. It certainly repays repeated viewings.

Persona

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

It’s somewhat scandalous that I haven’t written a line on Ingmar Bergman yet, except to note that when his film The Touch failed at the box-office, and he found it impossible to get American distribution for his next project, that producer/director Roger Corman came to his rescue with partial financing and American distribution for Cries and Whispers. So, here’s a word or two in praise of Persona, perhaps my favorite of all of Bergman’s films, although I am partial some of the early work, especially Wild Strawberries.

Persona represented a huge leap forward for Bergman, who came from the theater, and for most of his life, would direct a theatrical production in Sweden each winter, and then venture forth with his stock company of actors and technicians to shoot a film every spring. Persona was to have been shot in the studio, but it almost immediately became apparent that this arrangement wasn’t working out, and so Bergman transported his crew and his actors — the two key actors are Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman — to his summer house on the island of Fårö, where his own house, as well as several local buildings, were used for the shooting,

What sets Persona apart from Bergman’s earlier work is its lack of theatricality; its austere sculptural presence; its plastic uses of the possibilities of the moving image, as when the film rips, or falls out of focus, or freezes; and especially the film’s hyper-edited, deeply self-reflexive introduction, in which Bergman conducts a whirlwind metaphorical tour of his imagistic past.

The set-ups in the film are flat, spare, and striking, and the overall embrace of aberrant, jarring cinematic devices reminds one inescapably of mid-60s Godard, especially with regard to Bergman’s lighting, sets, and his use of uncharacteristically long takes, using a static set-up to record minutes of action at a clip.

Bergman, however, publicly stated that he thought little of Godard’s work, commenting on one occasion that: “in this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

This dislike became even more pronounced as Godard’s career progressed, when Bergman fulminated that “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a [. . .] bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin/ féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mindnumbingly boring.”

But when I first saw Persona, in a screening I will never forget at the Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ, when it was first released (after being awake for some 36 hours working on films and various other projects), although I was dead tired, the film immediately jolted me awake, because it seemed to reflect the influence of no one so much as Godard, in framing, in style, in structure — in every respect.

Bergman’s usually dark and forbidding lighting, his rococo frames, overstuffed with suffocating bric-a-brac — quite intentionally, for many of his earlier films were period pieces  — were now cleared away, and the result was that the actors were in the foreground, rather than their surroundings; they created the world they existed in, rather than having it created for them by the sets and costumes. With Persona, Bergman entered the modern world.

Even Cries and Whispers, despite its enormous commercial success, seemed a throwback to Bergman’s earlier films, as if were escaping back to his childhood, and certainly the same can be said of his last films, especially the obviously semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, which to me, at least, was a ponderous bore. Persona, on the other hand, was fresh and new, and I remember thinking, with great force, how much Bergman had absorbed the philosophical and stylistic influence of the French New Wave filmmakers, especially Godard, who shares with Bergman a somewhat cold and unforgiving vision of the world, though Bergman, in his last years, seemed to become increasingly sentimental.

So, what can I say — I think Bergman protests too much. Persona is obviously indebted to Godard, and to the breakdown of cinematic tradition that personified the 1960s, whether he knew it, or admitted it, or not.

Here’s Susan Sontag’s take on the film; see what you think.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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