Before getting Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman set, I don’t think I had heard of Dreams, a 1955 drama directed and written by Bergman. Certainly, it doesn’t have the striking, dreamlike imagery of Wild Strawberries or the sexual frankness of Summer with Monika, but I was still surprised to read on Wikipedia that “Dreams is one of the few Ingmar Bergman films to have received lukewarm reviews”. It should come as no surprise that the performances are consistently strong, and especially the female leads make it well worth watching.Continue reading
Summer with Monika (1953) is an odd yet fitting film with which to continue our Tour d’Ingmar. Like Crisis, A Ship to India, To Joy and Summer Interlude, its protagonists are flawed young characters in the process of becoming adults, though unlike many of the Bergman films earlier in the collection, the young man, Harry (Lars Ekborg), is selfless and arguably the more mature one, while Monika (Harriet Andersson), the female protagonist, is self-serving and at times downright unpleasant.Continue reading
Summer Interlude (1951) came out only one year after To Joy, and in some ways it’s a remarkably similar setup. Again, we have an older character looking back at a youthful romance and its consequences. Again, the protagonist is an ensemble artist: where Stig (Stig Olin), To Joy‘s protagonist, was an orchestra violinist, Summer Interlude‘s Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson, who also starred with Olin in the earlier film) is a ballerina. In both films, love and death become intertwined. However, while To Joy is an often bitter film that suffers from a grating manchild protagonist, Summer Interlude is a much more joyous film and perhaps the first of Bergman’s early works in the collection that is not just engaging in parts but a pleasure to watch as a whole.Continue reading
Making my way through Criterion’s Ingmar Bergman collection, I am impressed by the director’s collection of self-pitying man-children.
Did I say “impressed”? I meant “annoyed”.
Admittedly, I wasn’t a big fan of the second and third film in Criterion’s Bergman collection, Crisis and A Ship to India, but they were interesting as stepping stones towards the director’s more accomplished later films – and Wild Strawberries is definitely an illustration of those works and, after Smiles of a Summer Night, the second highlight of the collection.
Apparently Bergman wasn’t a huge fan of the first film he directed, Crisis (1946), which he called “lousy, through and through”. He wasn’t much kinder to his third, A Ship to India (1947), referring to it as “a major disaster” – except when his producer Lorens Marmstedt called to urge him to cut the worst parts, at which point Bergman rose to his film’s defense: “I informed him that I had no intention of cutting even one foot from this masterpiece.” Bergman may have been young and relatively inexperienced, but obviously he already had an ego to match a much more accomplished director.
Smiles of a Summer Night was going to be a tough one to follow. It’s an utterly delightful film: fun, sweet, poignant, well paced. Criterion was right to suggest it as the first film to watch on their Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. Crisis (1946), by comparison, is clearly lesser Bergman: its story about an 18-year-old finding herself having to decide between her kindly foster mother and simple country life on the one hand and her more well-off biological mother and the big city is more predictable, its themes handled less interestingly, and its tones balanced less deftly. Crisis was Bergman’s first film as a director (he’d previously worked on scripts, first and foremost); it was based on a radio play by writer Leck Fischer, though Bergman wrote the adaptation for the screen.
Last year – while I was in Sweden during the week when Ingmar Bergman would have had his 100th birthday, fittingly – Criterion revealed its plans to release Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, a collection of 39 of the director’s films, later that year. (It is telling that when you ask Google how many films Bergman actually made, the answer is “At least 36”. If Google doesn’t know a more exact answer than that, how should we?) As a self-confessed Criterion addict, I knew that there’d be no better way to get close to completing my Bergman collection than that, even though I already had some of the films on DVD and others on Blu-Ray. Still, getting all the remaining ones individually would be more expensive than getting the collection, not to mention more cumbersome. So, to cut things short: Reader, I ordered it.
Talk about serendipity – there I was in Stockholm on 14 July, the day that would have been Ingmar Bergman’s 100th birthday, and they were showing The Seventh Seal. What better way to enjoy a hot summer afternoon on vacation than to spend it in the company of a knight undergoing an existential crisis and the Grim Reaper himself?
Yes, I’m a pretentious film geek who salivates at the sound of “Criterion Collection”. I like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a little known Swedish children’s movie about a boy and a seal at the local circus – it’s basically Free Ølåf) and Fellini’s La Strada – but I love the great popcorn movies. For me, there are two almost perfect representatives of that hallowed group of films: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.
What happened to the man who made those films, though? Spielberg is still one of the best craftsmen in Hollywood, but the thing that was exhilarating about his early films was their sheer energy. There was a joy to the filmmaking, a childlike sense of fun, that made Spielberg unique. It’s there in the two films mentioned, and it’s also there in E.T. (mixed with a generous dollop of sentimentality) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but the biggest failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that it was tired and felt forced. There was little of the exhilaration of the earlier films in the series, especially of the first. Obviously this could be attributed to Indy having aged himself, but that’s a disappointingly humdrum explanation that pretty much begs the question: why have a fourth Indy movie in the first place?
More than that though, rewatching Jaws over the weekend I was made aware of how Spielberg in his early days was much more ruthless. He didn’t have qualms about having a young boy be chomped by a shark, he didn’t think twice about having a number of pretty gruesome deaths in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t the childish sadism of Temple of Doom, but it basically meant, “Yes, horrible things can happen. Anyone can get it in the teeth.” And as a result the films were more exciting. If even a kid can be eaten by a shark, well, then nobody’s safe. (Compare Jurassic Park, where the kids and the heroes are never really in jeopardy – it’s pretty much nobodies and evil lawyers that get eaten. It’s amazing that a cheesy, bad film such as Deep Blue Sea gets this better by making it clear from the first that anyone can die – even Samuel L. “Badass” Jackson.)
The much-ridiculed CGI retouching of E.T., replacing guns with walkie-talkies is symptomatic of this fretful, overly squeamish Spielberg. The BMX chase in the original version of E.T. is exciting, and the moment when they get out the guns, we know: Uh oh. Something bad could happen. Compare the same moment in the ‘remastered’ version, where the impression we get is that the worst that could happen is, they might be caught by the grown-ups and given a severe talking-to. Where’s the danger? Where’s the sense of actual risk? If you take that away, characters that we care about become invincible video game characters with the god mode turned on.
I’m in a minority in that I quite liked much of War of the Worlds, but it’s a prime example of a film that suffers from Spielberg’s “playing it safe” doctrine. It’s pretty clear, in every single scene, that he wouldn’t kill off Dakota Fanning – and while her brother puts himself in a situation where he’s almost sure to die, we get an unbelievable, corny deus ex ending that many filmmakers who are much less skilled than Spielberg would have scoffed at.
Obviously Spielberg isn’t the young man he was when he made Jaws or Raiders. He’s older now, so it’s only to be expected… but did he have to become so damn po-faced? Where’s the glee? Reduce Spielberg to his (considerable) skill while taking away his sense of joy and adventure, and you get Zombie Spielberg.
And everyone knows that only Godzilla Lucas can fight Zombie Spielberg.