Liv Ullmann Between Stage and Screen

This piece is a throwback. It was published it previously, but owing to the fact that the observations of the engagement are always relevant and fit into Thankful for World Cinema theme. Although the event was one night only the information and resources are still valid.

On December 7th, 2009 the Brooklyn Academy of Music had a very special speaking engagement at their Harvey Theater location. Liv Ullmann, star of many of Ingmar Bergman‘s most enduring and legendary works was the guest of honor of this very special speaking engagement. The event was held on the very stage where Ullmann directed a sold-out and for the most part critically acclaimed revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett.

A majority of the evening was focused on this new adaptation there were some very valuable general insights to be gleaned on art, film, theatre and acting that were not show-specific.

She was introduced by a representative of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General who said, to paraphrase, that she has “striking emotional range and Norwegian identity with an international appeal that transcends borders.” This was quite an astute and concise encapsulation of her brilliance and of her appeal.

Autumn Sonata

Ullmann’s brilliance and appeal made themselves ever more apparent both as a person and as an artist when she graced the stage. She did have a great deal to say about acting and directing in the 90 minutes total in which she was on stage.

The first fascinating comment she made was how she wanted, in her US theatrical debut as a director, to put a new spin on Blanche DuBois because in Elia Kazan’s classic film the incarnation of Blanche played by Vivien Leigh is a shattered woman at the end of the film and how there is a deeper psychology to the character and a more profound and ambiguous ending to be explored.

Liv discussed Cate Blanchett and on a few occasions expressed admiration of her skill and then talked a little bit about her directing approach specifically and said two things that were quite interesting one was “I would never tell Cate what her face should look like that’s her creation” and similarly she’d never say “That keep that, that’s perfect!” whether it be an inflection on a line or a look. It’s gone and the only way to have it possibly come back it to just not mention it and let it go as she puts it “It will come back when great actors open up and trust each other.”

Persona (1966)

Moderator James Lopate made a great connection between some of the scenes that Stella and Blanche share and Bergman in which the two woman scene was often the most powerful. Liv talked about the connection that women could share and how she and Bibi Andersson were best friends before Persona and that connection could certainly help their scene-work.

When it came to working with Bergman she told a well-documented but funny story about working with Ingmar Bergman and Ingrid Bergman on the set of Autumn Sonata. It was one of the climactic arguments in the film and the camera had been facing Liv all day and her character had been spilling her guts blaming her mother for her problems, on which Liv humorously commented saying “Get over it, you know?” but then the camera was going to turn around and face Ingrid and she didn’t want to say what was scripted, which is not how Ingmar worked. It lead to quite a ruckus, Ingmar and Ingrid took the argument outside the soundstage and came back and Ingrid read the scripted line but her eyes still showed the fury she felt. Having seen this film a few times you can see the anger in her eyes and it probably helped the line reading.

She commented that there is often tension or anger between actors and directors but she doesn’t necessarily look at it as a bad thing. In fact, Bergman himself gave Liv advice on dealing with a bad director which she relayed so it’s obvious she didn’t see him as bad just as a perfectionist, which most knew.

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Ms. Ullmann then got back to being asked about the show and had some other great insights into directing due to her perspective being an actress. Contrary to a lot of theatre works where there is a premium on movement and using the stage she at times of great significance to the story prefers to, if not keep her actors still, confine their movement. “Let them create. Keep them in one place,” she continues “Keep her in one place so everyone can see what’s happening right there in her face.” This is perfectly consistent with her previous comment of not directing facial expression.

Similarly, she told Blanchett and the aspiring actors at the event that when on stage and a line prompts one player to turn upstage in response she advises her actors to not turn too quickly but instead “Give your close-up to the audience for two to three seconds then turn.” The close-up is hereby turned into a theatrical term where an actor is facing the audience instead of their scene partner and it is a brilliant parallel which I hadn’t heard before and it most certainly holds true it is the closest thing the theatre offers because the actor is revealing their character in a way only the audience is witness to.

She is a natural performer who on the stage of the show she is directing on more than one occasion walked around and demonstrated things of which she spoke. The last great tidbit about directing she gave was about storytelling and not in the narrative sense. She told of how certain bits of blocking the show, or prop decisions were made almost unconsciously after a story was told or a conversation was had. She mentioned that José Quintero, one of her favorite directors to work with, was very fond of telling stories as a rule and inevitably that is how he affected the work and it sort of inspired how she goes about giving backstory to actors, especially when it is meant as a note. She never fills in the blanks but merely says, as she did to Blanchett, “Something happened yesterday.” This allows them to have a thought process, to create something of their own but will also inform their action with the correct emotion because at the point this note is given the scene is already understood.

Shame (1968)

Miss Ullmann’s wisdom seems endless. Available at BAM was a book of her interviews. She has however authored her own books on acting and life called Choices and Changing respectively and two more suitable titles can hardly be thought of for such a craft for they are the essence of it.

When discussing the character of Blanche DuBois Ms. Ullmann made the point that “Loneliness doesn’t function for Blanche,” meaning she can’t deal with it. “For me loneliness functions.” I think that is likely true of most artists for to create, and to make a true creation a certain degree of loneliness needs to exist. As her new vision of A Streetcar Named Desire closed on December 20th (2009) one can only hope and wonder what she turns her creative energies to next whether back to stage or screen, in front of camera or behind it, either way it should prove to be very exciting.

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Birthday Movies 2013

This is a new edition of this post, it’s a follow-up to one wherein I chronicled the films I could recall having viewed on my birthday. Some have been good to great, some have been awful. I usually try to make the selection something befitting a mood I wouldn’t mind being in on that day (hence I saved Amour for today) and something I think I would remember. I think both the titles from yesterday. For a guide to what these ratings mean, please go here.

Twixt

Twixt (2011, American Zoetrope)

This is a film that I wanted to see first because it’s Coppola returning to horror, but then also because of some of the people involved. I cannot argue by any means that it’s perfect. However, if there’s one thing that gets under my skin is when people argue “It’s just a horror movie” implying: there’s a ceiling to how good it can be, or it’s OK if it’s stupid, or worse, it’s allowed to be unambitious. I don’t think this film falls into any of those tappings. It’s hard to say if going beyond a standard horror film’s running time would’ve benefitted or hurt it, but I think it may have hurt. I recall that why I liked My Soul to Take so much was underscored by what was left on the cutting room floor. The exposition that was deleted spoon-fed things I and my friends pieced together after it was over, and that made it more powerful. There are deeper mysteries and enigmas here and multiple plots all horrific and well-wrought, though they don’t always seem so. After seeing him in a few that were not-so-great, it’s good to see Val Kilmer in a fascinating horror film.

8/10

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013, Sony Pictures Classics)

The allusion I made above to occasional greatness definitely applies here. For a filmmaker such as Woody Allen who on many occasions has been accused of using his films as therapy and being un-cinematic this film is a rebuttal. For myself, as a long-time devotee, it’s wondrous not only to see him work a story that again employs a wonderful editorial language that is quickly-learned and never off; but also such a non-judgmental character study. It’s a film of revelation rather than reparation. It has its humor, too, but is perhaps the most searing, honest drama he’s committed to the screen since Husbands and Wives. The casting, as well as the cast, is flawless; but it’s really Cate Blanchett who makes this film work. She’s as powerful, if not more so, in her character’s detached, pained moments as she is in the “big” ones, which is what makes her turn so immaculate. It’s a performance that towers not only due to the sparsity of great roles afforded women in the American cinema lately, but because of how titanic an effort it is on its own.

Engaging and enthralling from the first frame this film of a life shattered, whether by design or not, may be his most Bergmanesque, and is truly one of the year’s best.

10/10

Best of Spielberg

Here’s a second installment of a list idea I’m borrowing from Brian Saur. Here I will discuss the films of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg is probably my favorite director of all time. I did an Ingmar Bergman list first, in part to track what I still needed to see. With Spielberg my impetus was to finally be up to date on his narrative features, which sadly I wasn’t.

As with any list, rankings may make thing seem worse than they are. There are 30 films on this list. Make no mistake I like 28 of them and am a snarky fanboy on one, and three have at one point been my all-time favorite, including my current number one (if pressed to answer). Here goes…

30. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World (1997, Universal)

This is the sequel Spielberg supposedly gave Universal so they’d leave E.T. alone. That’s almost enough to bump it past last place but I can’t. Even though I loved the score and effects it was still one of the worst, most confounding thing I saw that year. The third film and news of a fourth have softened that hurt, but seeing newly-introduced annoying character and the follow-up to my then favorite film of all-time relegated to a Godzilla/King Kong knock-off hurt.

29. 1941 (1979)

1941 (1979, Universal/Columbia)

I did try to like this. My professor tried to get me to like it. I just don’t. Spielberg doesn’t care much for it either and has moved on to bigger and better things.

28. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008, Paramount)

Nuking the fridge only happened in one scene people, Shia LaBeouf had many more scenes than that and Cate Blanchett seemed uncomfortable. Spielberg has since honestly confessed what his reservations were about this film. Hopefully that molds a better fifth film should it occur, though he certainly doesn’t need there to be one.

27. Amistad (1997)

Amistad (1997, Universal)

As oddly engaging as Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is, if memory serves, there was an attempt at such here too that doesn’t work quite as well. I remember Honsou and Hopkins impressed but not much else.

26. The Terminal (2004)

The Terminal (2004, DreamWorks)

Unlike Catch Me If You Can, which appears shortly, I wasn’t even compelled to go out and see this one theatrically. It’s an interesting and well-handled idea that I can indentify with on a few levels but it’s just not one of his best.

25. Twilight Zone: The Movie (segment 2) (1983)

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983, Paramount)

I saw this recently also and Spielberg’s segment fits him to a tee (residents of a retirement home become young again) and is the second best in the anthology in my estimation behind Joe Dante’s zany one.

24. Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist (1982, Paramount)

One can debate the nuances and politics of whether Spielberg really directed this. To be brief: I have it on good authority that he directed most of it and just didn’t take the credit because he couldn’t per DGA rules at the time. This is a title where I could rant and rave childishly about how “My opinion is different than yours!” but I won’t. Poltergeist is fine, it just never had a tremendous amount of impact on me.

23. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984, Paramount)

To address the white elephant in the room: I do not have any issue with the character of Shortround whatsoever. Temple of Doom lands here more for being the third best in the series and Kate Capshaw than anything else.

22. Catch Me if You Can (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002, DreamWorks)

This is one of those that falls into the category of “There’s nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t get into it.”

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

The Sugarland Express (1974, Universe)

This is an unusual but involving one with a great turn by a young Goldie Hawn.

20. Always (1989)

Always (1989, Universal)

This one film I finally saw last year so as I could finally create this list. I had avoided it because in clips and trailers you could not get a sense of the totality of the film. It is Spielberg’s first remake, but it’s a fairly well modernized one that features Audrey Hepburn‘s final performance.

19. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Columbia)

Spielberg has said that the end of this film dates him as a filmmaker. I understand his point entirely but he does set it up very well. Also, in a bit of fanboy wish-fulfillment, I’d suggest the end of this film and the end of E.T. swap, but it is a very visual and evocative film with the added bonus of an acting-only participation by François Truffaut.

18. Hook (1991)

Hook (1991, Columbia)

The mark of a great director is making something that seems illogical, that shouldn’t be able to work, work. This is his best example ih that regard.

17. Minority Report (2002)

Minority Report (2002, DreamWorks)

If Robopocalypse, or something like it, ever comes to fruition it would complete a Dark Future Trilogy for Spielberg, which may seem antithetical to his ethos but something he said he’s not averse to when discussing A.I.

16. Munich (2005)

Munich (2005, DreamWorks)

I welcome departures from directors. Spielberg is perhaps more underrated in terms of his diversity than any other director. His hits and classics have commonalities to them such that it makes people think he repeats himself constantly. These two selections shake that notion massively. Munich is a dark film, where there can be no happy endings. It’s a chillingly rendered tale of an ugly incident in history that cannot be buried.

15. Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln (2012, DreamWorks)

Lincoln almost isn’t a Spielberg film, it plays with such classical restraint and removal that it’s almost anti-auteurish, but it’s still very engaging and convincing.

14. War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005, Paramount)

I think this film might get overlooked in part because it stuck close to the source material, but also because it’s the kind of film Spielberg “should” take on. However, when you consider how often he’s made aliens benevolent a surviving an alien apocalypse tale is a little different for him. That and it’s another rather imperfect family.

13. Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975, Universal)

Here’s where rankings can get you in trouble. Jaws is great. I have nothing I can say against it, except the intangible “I like other works in Spielberg’s canon a lot better.” I have and can see Jaws many times over. It’s just a matter of preference when you start slotting them.

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Paramount)

Yes, the Indiana Jones and the was later tacked on. Spielberg and Lucas have combined perfectly three times in this series. They take a serialized approach to a feature and update classic tropes very well and memorably.

11. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin (2011, Columbia/Paramount)

When Spielberg is at his best he combines technological innovation with great stories. Although I fell under the spell of seeing motion capture for the first time in The Polar Express, it was imperfectly ahead of his time and didn’t make a jump toward verisimilitude until this film. It’s a very viable tool other animation properties should and could use. Not only that it’s a great take and a global re-introduction of a beloved character. Not many directors go from live action to animation or vice versa, this is a seamless jump.

10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, Paramount)

I am a fan of the Indiana Jones series, albeit a Johnny Comelately to it, and this is my favorite one. More explanation can be found in the link above.

9. Duel (1971)

Duel (1971, Universal TV)

If there was ever a made-for-TV movie that prove that it’s a meaningless distinction, it’s this one. I have to remind myself it is one. Only once in a hundred times when I think about this movie do I recall that. It’s taut, brilliantly suspenseful and relatably frightening.

8. War Horse (2011)

War Horse (2011, DreamWorks)

War Horse is one I need to revisit, but this one vaults up the list due to improbability. Spielberg is one of the directors I go out and see regardless, however, I didn’t expect much here. I was anxious for Tintin, but this one shook up my whole best of the year list. Very surprisingly emotional and engaging.

7. The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985, Warner Bros.)

One of the most embarrassing moments in Oscar history is perhaps the fact that this film is the biggest oh-fer, garnering eleven nominations and no wins. Spielberg created some controversy by even taking this film on. I think the end result proved he could do it and paved the way for his more mature dramatic works later on.

6. Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros.)

I saw this in 2002 just after having taken my Spielberg course. I hadn’t really heard of it ’til then. It was referenced as Spielberg’s “most European film” by my professor and one that I began anticipating in A.I.-like fashion, which should’ve set me up for disappointment, but didn’t. It’s dense and takes some wading but when you get there it’s special. Not to mention there’s a brilliant performance by a young Christian Bale.

5. Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List (1993, Universal)

The next two films are ones that I really admire, have great affection for, but am leery to revisit because they are taxing experiences. However, they’re important and I hope their legacy continues through oncoming generations. A while ago, I recall I saw a kid picking up Schindler’s List at a video store and it was heartwarming, as I saw a burgeoning cineaste.

4. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan (1998, DreamWorks)

It took me a while to see this one. The tale of saving the last surviving brother is the MacGuffin, a very Spielbergian one. However, the reaction I had to this film, though very different than many of his works, was one of the strongest I had. It was a new aesthetic for him and in many ways a revolutionary work.

3. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Nearly any child of the 80s grew up on Spielberg films. I will be doing a focus on Disney, which I surmise that unless you saw re-releases and VHS tapes you weren’t getting the golden age of that studio. However, if you grew up in the 80s, regardless of who you were, odds are every few years Spielberg changed your life. E.T. is an imaginary friend come true, it’s not necessarily always an alien, but many of us were Elliot, which is what makes it resonate.

2. Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993, Universal)

Suffice it to say that upon its release, when I was still quite young, this was probably the most amazing theatrical experience I’d ever encountered. I’ve found myriad great films since then but this one has not lost its luster in the slightest. When I first saw it, this was the greatest film of my lifetime. It was the dream of every dinorsaur-loving child brought to life for better and for worse.

1. Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001, DreamWorks)

I’ve already written a tome about this film, which I have posted on this site in installments. Making a new or different case for it would be nearly pointless.