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Does Death only play chess? Or could he also be talked into a different challenge, say, Mario Cart or Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64? Then again, if you’re a Swedish knight returning home from the Crusades, it’s probably the Game of Kings that lends itself to the situation. So yes, you’ve probably guessed correctly: The Seventh Seal was the most recent stop on Matt’s travels with Ingmar. Hey, it doesn’t get much more iconic than that!
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.
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 Marriageand 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.
Matt here, waving at you wearily from that little country in the centre-left of Europe. So, for what will soon have been two weeks – but what feels like at least twice that – Switzerland will have been on partial lockdown. We’re still allowed to leave the house, though if we congregate in groups of more than five people, the Corona police will descend on us and… cough on us, perhaps? I’m not quite sure, because I’m being a good little boy, which means I’m practicing social distance with the best of them. My wife and I still go out to catch some sun and fresh air every day, but we stay at least two metres away from others, eyeing them cautiously.
It helps that we’re not exactly the biggest extroverts in the world. Our idea of a fun evening out rarely involves other people, at least not actively. Sure, before the Coronavirus epidemic we’d often be found in groups of dozens, sometimes even hundreds – but that’s what you get when you go to the cinema several times a week.
This week I saw my first Hitchcock on the big screen. I grew up in the ’80s, which meant that I first and, more often than not, only saw the classics of cinema on TV – and in the ’80s that meant, what, screens that were 30 inches across if you were lucky? TVs were big, bulky monstrosities, but the screens weren’t particularly big – which was good, really, because television channels broadcast images that were relatively fuzzy. If you sat close enough to the screen so that it filled your field of vision (and you could smell that weird electric smell), what you saw was basically impressionist art.
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?