The Compleat Ingmar #22: The Seventh Seal (1957)

It’s been a while since we last visited with the Swedish master of existential crisis, but we’re returning with what is probably his most famous, most iconic work. Mention Bergman’s name, and what do people think of? Max von Sydow on a desolate beach playing chess with Death, probably.

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It’s called Deadwood… What did you expect?

Okay, I know that there’s at least one reader out there who hasn’t seen Deadwood season 2 yet and is planning to do so. This is where I tell you, very politely, to come back tomorrow, lest ye read a spoiler.

Still there? I’m warning you, there be spoilers!

Well, that’s about all I can do. If you’re still reading, well, I won’t take any responsibility. So there.

Yesterday evening, after two middling episodes of House, M.D., we watched the pen-penultimate episode of the sophomore season of Deadwood, aptly entitled “Advances, None Miraculous”. In it, we were reminded (after several episodes that seemed to suggest differently) that Al Swearengen can still be the scariest mother****er in the Valley of Death, if he wants to be. And all without drawing a weapon.

We were also shown that when he needs to be, Sol Star is just as much of a badass. After seeing Al frighten Mrs Isringhausen – not exactly a shrinking violet herself – into signing a piece of paper, accepting $10’000 and getting the hell out of Dodge in a brilliant piece of Al-manship, we get Sol telling him in his face that he won’t stand for bad Jew jokes. Now that takes a pair… or stupidity, but I’ve always thought of Sol as the intelligent one in the Star-Bullock friendship. (Except occasionally, when he’s led by his privates rather than by his brain.)

None miraculous

However, the emotional centrepiece of the episode was the protracted death of William Bullock. It was quite heartrending to see Sheriff Bullock face a crisis that he can’t beat down with his fists. William’s dying was a moving counterpoint to the political wheelings and dealings about the coming annexation of Deadwood, affecting everyone in their own way.

Talking about affecting: I’ve gone on at great length about The Assassination of J.J. by the Coward R.F. before. Yesterday I made the mistake of checking out the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack of the movie on The dark, subtle elegiac tunes (or rather the 20-second clips that Amazon plays for free) got to me to the extent that I felt the pull of the movie all day afterwards. Tunes like “Rather Lovely Thing” or “Song for Jesse” wormed their way into my heart, making me feel sad for semi-fictional characters long dead for hours.

P.S.: When I read who’d composed the music together with Nick Cave, I had this momentary vision of the writer of Transmetropolitan scribbling darkly sentimental tunes on some sheets in between writing another tasteless, hilarious, biting chapter of his near-future satire. For all I know, it is the same Warren Ellis. Then again… No. Probably not.

It’s never lupus

Yesterday’s TV series evening was fun. First “Finding Judas” on House, M.D., then Lost‘s “Flashes Before Your Eyes”.

Slap the parents and House both, please…!

Actually, I tell a lie. The “Judas” episode wasn’t fun, though it was eminently watchable. For the first time, House really seemed to lose it completely, becoming a strung-out bastard who used his incisive mind not to help his patient but to hurt those who are on his side. If Tritter wasn’t so clearly a bastard himself, he would have proven that he has a point in much of what he says. House’s words to Cuddy, for instance, were cruel and his general behaviour shitty. His suffering from withdrawal explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Obviously the episode was manipulative (even more so than most of House), but effectively so. I knew they wouldn’t amputate the little girl’s arm and leg, but part of me sat there thinking “Ohshitohshitohshit…” nevertheless. I’m curious to see where they’ll take the Tritter plot and Wilson’s friendship with House, as that storyline seems to be coming to a head. And I wonder whether it’ll ever be lupus…

“Flashes Before Your Eyes” was an intriguing episode of Lost, and a heavy focus on Desmond is always welcome. For all its meandering and self-indulgence, the series has been fairly good at introducing new and interesting characters: Ben, Mr Eko, Desmond. The episode also had some interesting twists, such as the Precog Scot trying to save Charlie (and not Claire, as it appears at first), and the clever use of the flashback convention.

It’s oh-so-British, innit?

I could have done without the fake Englishness of some of it, though. The series’ England feels as if its makers only know the country from bad movies and TV. Especially Fionnula Flanagan’s character felt fake, when she should have been eerie. Still, though, it looks like Charlie – possibly the character who annoys me most – is heading for a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. Can’t say I’m going to be too sad. Then again, they made me kinda like Shannon and Boone just before killing them off. The Lost writers are obviously bastards.

A Prairie Home farewell

I’ve never quite warmed to Robert Altman, perhaps because 14 is too early an age to watch MASH, and I wasn’t enough of a film nerd (yet) when I saw The Player. Raymond Carver works better for me on the page than on the screen. Even if P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia was an adolescent Short Cuts on too much caffeine, it clicked for me. Altman’s films rarely did so. Yet I’ve always envied the old man his magnificent casts – you rarely get as many high-quality actors in the same film as in Altman’s ensemble pieces.

Robert Altman

When I heard of his latest – and, as it turned out, last – film, I was intrigued. I liked the cast, and what little I’d heard of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show (which the film was to be based on), I enjoyed for its whimsy and its gentle irony. (What is usually called irony these days is much closer to facile sarcasm, if you ask me.)

I wasn’t sure from the trailer, though: did this look like the sort of film I’d genuinely like, or was it rather the kind of movie that I felt I should like, and that I’d be too stubborn to admit to be somewhat boring, actually? As a well-meaning cinemaphile, I knew I was supposed to like Altman.

I ended up liking the film a lot. It’s impossible to watch A Prairie Home Companion and not think that Altman was close to death when he made it. Yet it’s not a sombre film. It’s melancholy and wistful, but it’s got a lightness that is quite fitting. Some critics felt it was too hokey and corny in its folksiness. I don’t think that’s quite fair. The film does express sorrow at the passing of a certain kind of radio variety show, and perhaps a certain kind of popular culture, but I think it’s quite aware that the culture it shows may be well past its sell-by date. If there is sorrow, it’s the sort of sorrow that comes with not wanting to let go, even if you know that you will have to. I think it should be permitted to an 81-year old to say: “I don’t want to go, not yet,” which is what the film felt like to me. It’s better to go out when things are still good than to fizzle and fade and vanish, yet bowing out when you wish you could do another show, and another, an eternal farewell, hurts. Altman conveys that pain with gentle, wry humour. I hope that his angel of death had “a smile so sweet you could have poured it on your pancakes.”