Okay, he’s pulled it off: I’ve finally got to a film on my Bergman odyssey that has left me entirely non-plussed: The Passion of Anna. Obviously there are elements here that I recognise and that I have an idea what to do with: we have the old Bergman staples, shame, despair, marital unhappiness, infidelity, as well as the stock characters, male cynics who only see senselessness and react with an aloofness that makes you want to slap them, women who in turn cling on to a belief in something real and pure in the face of shallow existentialism under the guise of worldly intellectualism. The faces, too, are very familiar – Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson – as is even the landscape, Bergman’s beloved island of Fårö.Continue reading
The Compleat Ingmar #15: Shame (1968)
The cliché of an Ingmar Bergman film seems to be that of a melancholy, existentialist treatise on the meaninglessness of life and of relationships, most likely in black and white. You know the kind of thing: people standing at the beach, being depressed. I’ve said so before, but that’s not the Bergman I’ve found, even in films such as The Seventh Seal, and most definitely not in Fanny and Alexander (both of these are yet to come in our journey through Criterion’s amazing box set Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema). Look at something like Scenes from a Marriage and alongside the acrimony, emotional cruelty and existential despair that doubtlessly fuel the conflict between Marianne and Johan, you’ll definitely also find warmth, humaneness and humour.
I rather wish there had been more of the latter in Shame, a film that, while recognisably Bergman in its concerns – and obviously in its cast -, reminded me of Michael Haneke in its relentless grimness. It is perhaps telling that one of the rare scenes where the film displays a sense of humour shows one of its characters to be such a bad shot that he fails to kill a chicken that’s barely half a metre in front of him.
By the end of the film, the chickens have lost their lives nonetheless and that character has become both able and more than willing to use his gun on a human being.Continue reading
I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.
With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.
Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.
In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).
How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.
Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.
Little lust, less caution
It’s time for some superlatives: to my mind, Michael Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors of his generation, and Steve “Not that one!” McQueen is one of the visually most accomplished directors making films these days. Not many people could make fecal mandalas on prison walls intriguingly beautiful, but McQueen managed this with a deceptively effortless grace in Hunger, his film about Bobby Sands’ death. Not coincidentally, the other main strength of Hunger was Michael Fassbender’s electric performance.
Fassbender and McQueen seem to bring out the best in each other, since their 2011 film Shame is yet another movie with amazing visuals and a brave central performance that serves the film’s story perfectly. On paper it sounds like festival fodder: Shame depicts a sex addict’s descent into his personal hell after his sister, with a whole set of issues of her own when it comes to relationships, comes to stay with him. Yet in the hands of its director and star, and with the more-than-capable help of Carey Mulligan, Shame doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to a particular audience, doing its own thing instead, and to great effect.
If there’s a list of films featuring depressing sex, Shame is definitely in the top 5 (other candidates would be 28 Grams and Blue Valentine – a threesome between those three movies would probably create the sad sex singularity that effectively ends the world because no one would ever procreate naturally again). Strangely, though, for all the joylessness of Brandon’s sexual misadventures, there’s a genuine joy to watching a film as confidently handled, visually entrancing and perfectly acted as this.
P.S.: Some reviewers and bloggers accused Shame of homophobia, as during his climactic (no pun intended) long night’s journey into hell he gets a temporary fix by getting a blowjob in the underworld of a dungeon-like gay club, the argument being that McQueen depicts gay sex as the absolute lowest point in Brandon’s odyssey towards some sort of happiness. To my mind, those reviewers ignore that while the encounter is demeaning and joyless, the same is true for practically each of Brandon’s sexual encounters. The scene is followed by an extended threesome with two (female) prostitutes, which is arguably more aligned with generic male fantasy, yet this menage à trois is presented as no less demeaning, nor any more enjoyable. There is nothing in the blowjob scene to suggest that it’s to be read as worse for the character than what happens before or after it. If McQueen had wanted to show gay sex as the worst option for a sex-addicted straight man, surely a director as in control of his material as him would have found a more effective way of showing this, wouldn’t he?