Monday, August 06, 2007

So I go to my local mom and pop video store to rent Bergman's Cries and Whispers and Wild Strawberries this weekend, neither of which I've seen in over a decade. I assumed, because they tend to get Criterion editions of most things, that they would have them both on DVD. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case. "You don't have either of them on DVD? Really?" I asked, not hiding the incredulity in my voice at all. "Apparently not," said the guy at the counter. Mind you, they DO have the long versions of Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage, so this was a surprise. My first impulse was to run out and buy them copies of both and trade them for X-number of free rentals, but I resisted this urge. In any event, their VHS of Wild Strawberries wasn't bad at all, really, but their VHS of Cries and Whispers was attrocious. The spindles were binding, the tape was de-gaussing--exacerbating a film that is already a victim of bleeding reds in pristine editions--and it was cropped and dubbed. I made it through, but only just.

One of the reasons I've always liked Bergman is because, of the major world directors, he's the one who seems the most like he's making horror movies. His ongoing conversation about the silence of god is fraught with horror, as is his assessment of the existential state of human beings in the face of that silence. It's commonly held that The Hour of the Wolf is the closest to a "pure" horror movie that the director ever made, but reaccquainting myself with Cries and Whispers makes me question that notion. Bergman's movies generally exist outside of genre, but many of his films have generic markers. If I were to "type" Cries and Whispers, I would call it a haunted house movie. Like the best such movies, it's a narrative that confines haunted people in a metaphorical microcosm. The dominant red of the house--Bergman calls it the color of the soul--suggests to me the interior of a body, like the house itself is an organism. The persistent use of disolves, in which the faces of the characters fade to red, subsumes the characters into the environment. And a fine cast of monsters we have in this film. Liv Ullmann's Maria cuckolds her husband and fails to lift a finger when he stabs himself over it. Ingrid Tullin's Karin is an island, incapable of human contact or feeling. Neither can bear the thought of death, as incarnated by their sister, Agnes (Harriet Andersson), who they rebuke on her deathbed. Only their servant, Anna, seems fully a human being, and only she seems to have any faith in a god or in humanity. The others are bounded by Bergman's ever-present silence...or rather, the whispered voices from that silence--ghostly, or demonic, or psychological--that fill the interstices of the movie.

In comparison, Wild Strawberries seems positively antic. At one point, Bergman stages the conflict between atheisim and belief in God as a fistfight. The horror imagery is still there in the form of two dream sequences, but, like Scrooge on Christmas, our hero, old Professor Borg, finds both catharsis and human contact from his dark night of the soul. Still and all, it's interesting that he describes one of his dreams as "vivid and humiliating."

In any event, I need to visit (and re-visit) Bergman more often than I do.

Fred Zinnemann's Act of Violence (1948) was first out of the box for me upon receiving the latest of Warner's film noir boxes. I've written a long review of this for my web-site, which can be found here:

I also caught up with Caged (1950, directed by John Cromwell), a film that has been eluding me for some time. When I saw that this was being released as part of the "Camp Classics" sets, I lowered my expectations. I mean, if Warner considers this as being on the same level as Trog then it must be REALLY bad, right? Well, no. It doesn't belong in that set. It's a pretty damned good film noir, a refreshingly serious women in prison movie, and a showcase for Eleanor Parker. The arc of the story, in which Parker's virtuous, wrongly convicted Marie Allen is hardened into a femme fatale by the screws and inmates of her prison, is a distaff version of Nightmare Alley, which is no small compliment. I love Agnes Moorehead in this movie, playing against type. Given the subtle lesbian coding in the film, it amuses me that Moorehead should be the socially crusading warden. Funny.