Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Images: My Life in Film by Ingmar Bergman

Introduction

This is my latest post (third overall) for the Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge hosted by Out of the Past. This book fits in as a biographical/filmographic account, as Bergman speaks of the films he made from 1946 to around 1986.

Bergman and Me

Bergman Island (2004, Sveriges Television)

In my second post in this series I chronicled my history with the films of Bergman. With that in mind I was very glad that this is the autobiographical Bergman account I chose to read first rather than The Magic Lantern. When making that decision it was based solely on the fact that Images was published at a later date and therefore would include a few more works.

As it turned out, that was a good thought on a few accounts. One of which was the fact that with further hindsight, and reviewing of his own work, Bergman was able to have more distance between the present day (of when this was written) and production. Therefore, his mind changed for the better, for worse, or he had more clarity on why certain things worked or didn’t work. Furthermore, there were citations from The Magic Lantern used as jumping off points. This may be tiresome for one who read that book but was helpful here.

Clearly the most illuminating to me were the excerpts of texts from his workbooks where he’s literally dissecting his own process from abstract notes you can either clearly see how the film developed, or are let marveling at the genius that he was able to to take something rather obfuscated and turn it into concrete emotion and a visual reality that exudes the intended visceral reactions and ideas.

Fanny and Alexander (1982, Svensk Filmindustri)

The very formation of this account is one that’s fascinating. It started with what was going to be another interview book like Bergman on Bergman with interviews conducted by Lasse Bergström, Bergström then deleted his questions and Bergman edited the text. The filmography section, which was crucial in the days before the IMDb, and handy because of the plot synopses they at times contained, was compiled by Bertil Wredlund.

The film is also very interestingly organized as the films are grouped not chronologically so much as thematically. The sections within are:

Dreams and Dreamers

The Silence (1963)

(Wild Strawberries, Winter Light, Hour of the Wolf, Persona, Face to Face, The Touch, Cries and Whispers, and The Silence)

This section ends with Bergman talking about why he went into self-imposed exile amidst tax evasion allegations that were eventually deemed meritless, then it transitions back to the beginning with-

First Movies

Port of Call (1948)

(Torment, Crisis, It Rains on Our Love, A Ship Bound for India, Music in Darkness a.k.a. Night is My Future, Port of Call, The Devil’s Wanton a.k.a Prison, and Thirst)

This section starts with him in the script department of Svensk Filmindustri then writing scripts and finally directing. It also interestingly discusses his stint as script supervisor (“script girl” as it was frequently called back then), for the first screenplay he wrote. He humorously admits to not being good at it, it’s an important job, and parenthetically, I wasn’t very good at it myself.

Jests Jesters

The Serpent's Egg (1977)

(The Magician, The Rite, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Serpent’s Egg, From the Life of Marionettes, Scenes From a Marriage, and After the Rehearsal)

In this section Bergman not only discusses his years out of Sweden but also ties that in with the themes of jesters and traveling entertainers, and puppets which were omnipresent in his work but prevalent in these films

Miscreance Credence

The Seventh Seal (1957)

(The Seventh Seal, Through a Glass Darkly, The Virgin Spring, and Winter Light)

In this section the discussion at times runs together because of the religious themes that connect them all.

Other Films

Autumn Sonata (1978)

(To Joy, This Can’t Happen Here, Summer Interlude, Waiting WomenSummer with Monika, Shame, The Passion of Anna, Brink of Life, and Autumn Sonata)

While the title of this section is a bit uninspired it does talk of actors in general segues to the discussion on Autumn Sonata, which I will dedicate excruciating detail to in an upcoming blogathon.

Farces Frolics

Fanny and Alexander (1983, Svensk Filmindustri)

(some commentary on Waiting Women, A Lesson in Love, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Devil’s Eye, The Magic Flute, and Fanny and Alexander)

Herein he discusses his struggles with comedy in general and his repeated ventures (yes, there were a few) into the genre. In addition to that there is discussion on how Fanny and Alexander in many ways was born of the influence of both E.T.A. Hoffman and Dickens.

Anecdotal Awe

The Passion of Anna (1969)

Note: If you want to go into the book knowing as little as possible bypass this section.

Sure there are wide-ranging insights into his process, life, development, and art in general, but for me (as I’m sure is the case with many of us) the greatest thing is the little insights. Things I never knew that aren’t earth-shattering but intriguing, or opinions he has on his work that you don’t share, and those you do.

Some examples of this are: Fanny and Alexander started with different names in his notes, and that he likes the TV version better (as do I). He detested The Devil’s Eye, and working on it; I didn’t like it either and that kind of thing has a tendency to show (like with John Carpenter and Christine). He claims he shouldn’t have included the interviews in the The Passion of Anna.

It is curious that the mention of the The Magic Flute being produced in the Swedish language, and not German, is non-existent. Though reading the whole book, and the section between the lines there are some inferences one can make about this choice.

Ingmar Bergman

Also included are insights into his extensive theatre work, which is fascinating as it helps us understand his day-to-day schedule for many years and also see diferences era and country create. There’s also a mind-blowing explanation of a brief stint in TV commercials (news to me), discussion of his lifelong relationships with the opera, and his work therein; radio (also news to me), and influences including Swedish novelist Hjalmar Bergman (no relation). As with any good work on film it made me want to watch and see more.

A Word on Formatting

Images: My Life in Film (All Rights Reserved)

If interested in reading this book I would advise seeking out a copy in print, even if you’re not a purist. The copy I read on Kindle had some spacing issues, typos in inserting diacritical marks, and captions awkwardly separated from photos. Maybe some of the display issues would be less of a concern if I read it on an iPad or laptop but some of the mistakes would still be there. Having just made a number of these corrections myself in my own books (Plug!) I have a heightened sensitivity to such issues.

Conclusion

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman

If you are interested in Bergman, or the craft of filmmaking, I would definitely recommend this book. However, I recommend it with a grain of salt, if you’ve not seen any of these Bergman movies you will likely have them spoiled. However, keep in mind there are a few I have not seen due to a lack of availability and that made me more interested in it. So, check this out!

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Cinematic Episodes: The Secrets of Barslet

Cinematic Episodes is another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

One of the recent changes to the landscape of television here in the US is that in the gradual shift from the immovable regimented season structure there has also come a redefining of what a season is. Sure, if you follow entertainment outlets you’ll note that the major networks have recently concluded seasons and have announced what has survived to return in the fall and what pilots will be picked up. There is still that traditional structure, however, there is a greater flexibility to it all now than there ever was. There are shows, mostly of the non-scripted variety that start up in the summer; other’s are slated as mid-season replacements. Whereas during the first Golden Age of television seasons would run in excess of 35 episodes; even the now more common 22-episode season is not necessarily the norm.

The flexible nature of the length of a season or even a series, as opposed to the old mini-series mold, allows for more cinematic storytelling. In some ways this is a trend that has been adopted by US networks, both premium and not, from foreign TV Markets. And, yes, clearly there is a financial incentive to making smaller commitments, but there is also an artistically liberating aspect to this all as well.

One of the best examples of the narrative benefits of a limited TV run can be seen on the Dutch-produced The Secrets of Barslet. This was a show that aired 2012 and was comprised of merely seven episodes. However, for the story being told that was precisely as long as it needed to go. One of the things people can hold against television is that the brass ring is renewal even at the cost of the quality of the product on screen. This and many other foreign series never run into that issue because there is an emphasis, it would seem, on engaging an audience for the run of a show and trying to bring them back for another, as opposed to trying to “squat” on their devotion even as the product they used to love descends into tedium.

The Secrets of Barslet is a story that unfolds over the course of seven episodes. Each episode tells the story from the perspective of one of the central characters in the tale. As each perspective is taken into account blanks are filled in and previously unexplained or misunderstood mysteries are brought into sharper focus.

There are inevitably through the course of this series incidents that are examined from various angles, both figuratively and literally. Such that the program develops its own shorthand to quickly re-include previously seen scenes so that their place in chronology and the impact to that particular character is instantly made clear.

This structure of seven episodes of roundabout an hour of content is not unlike what Bela Tarr did with Satantango, in strictly structural terms only. In that film the structure is not unlike the steps of a tango such that the story will backslide chronologically when dealing with a new character. Here there are backslides, multiple dovetails and then each episode (for the most part) pushes things forward. So that the number is similar, as well as the character-based approach to the narrative. In terms of the aesthetics of the frame and the edit there are obvious differences.

Oddly enough, Tarr’s long-take ballet of the camera is, even with a necessary intermission, at its seven-plus hour length is a cumulative, more cinema-friendly experience. When I first viewed it I had it on VHS and watched it on four consecutive nights. When I acquired it on DVD I watched in one day and the experience, though harder to schedule was more complete and moving. The Secrets of Barslet not just with its mysteries but with its addictive nature is perfectly realized as a television show. You finish a chapter and you immediately want to proceed and are forced to wait until you can see the next one.

Another similarity it has Satantango is that there are some small mysteries this show feels no need to explain furthermore its not interested in the banal histrionics of having everyone understand everything in the end. True to its format of limited omniscience it allows the viewer to see the whole truth while the characters remain fairly myopic. The Secrets of Barslet is the epitome of a modern cinematic television series not just because of its aesthetic, or the way it cuts but because of its narrative sophistication.

Cinematic Episodes: Introduction

Themes are sometimes difficult to stick to. The way I usually manage to stick to them is by getting a bunch of installments written and ready and then scheduling ahead of time. Themes that I work on extemporaneously have a chance of being more inconsistent, or worse, falling into abandonment entirely.

I say this because I have had it in mind to do this idea for quite some time. I have not made the intention to do this theme known here, just in a few conversations. The main reason I’ve not announced this one to try and get this one started, and to give themes I do not consider to be done, some staying power.

Without much further ado, the idea I purport to embark upon is one I call Cinematic Episodes. This would be another cross-medium post wherein the link between cinema and another medium is explored. I have written about adaptations, films in books, characters in comics and other arts hitting the big screen. However, I recently have started to consider some of the technical, and in some ways, narrative similarities film and television have always shared and are starting to share.

It’s no coincidence that on the day I sit awaiting delivery of Game of Thrones‘ second season that I post this, HBO and other cable outlets have truly blurred the lines more so than most in the past due not only to single camera approach, but also production values and elimination of the commercial break, thus, creating a more cinematic structure that builds its ebb and flow in a more traditional three-act manner than an hour of network television does due to the crescendo to commercial, the precipitous drop upon retuning and then the rise anew.

However, many shows on many outlets come to mind when thinking of the parallels and the current landscape, which I will plumb for the examples I am familiar with. This evolution didn’t happen on its own. I will look back and try and trace, to the extent I possibly can, the evolution of the exchange of ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Universal)

However, it’s not only a technique and structural focus. The first topic I thought of and will likely examine, with what I have access to are the Hitchcock-directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. There will be other topics to examine, other specific shows, but I won’t be tiresome in listing them here.

Essentially, any other medium in relation to cinema is worth taking a look at. I’ve always viewed film as a culmination of all the other arts since the advent of sound. With the introduction of sound elements of theatre were further added, music was added as a permanently affixed appendage rather than a variable live element, through the ages an artist’s touch in framing and composition, be it in color or black and white, has been needed. As any new form of communication and/or artistic expression has come about, film has been challenged, however, it perseveres both by adapting itself and also by an eventual embracing and exchanging of ideas and symbiotic influence. It’s been illustrated before with the rise of radio and then with television, the internet is the next frontier, but that landscape is still a bit nebulous. Film is not yet truly threatened or totally changed, similarly those making content for YouTube and other such sites are progressing, pushing back and breaking through but, still being in process, the changes are not yet as evident.

Television being the middle child of “Threats to Film” has firmly established its foothold as a fixture, mostly due to its varied nature of content and usage, but on the entertainment side it remains vital. The last thing that bears saying is that the fallacious “which is better” arguement will not be found in this space – and considering the main focus of my site I doubt you want to read such an anti-climactic piece. As many similarities as I will find, and as many cases of shared influence I will illustrate both films and television work, or don’t, due to completely different reasons. If television is in a halcyon it’s certainly not due to the networks. It’s a bit like the major/indie dynamic in film. What’s pushing the envelope and advancing episodic visual storytelling is basic and prime cable original content.

The Hitchcock piece will likely be the first. I have a definitely viewing list for that and taking an auteurist approach and looking at a different kind of show is actually one of the better easier way to start such a comparative analysis. Stay tuned.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Introduction (Part 1 of 17)

In his Biographia Literaria Samuel Taylor Coleridge* postulates how a critic’s faculties and tastes are influenced by his life experiences and exposure to art. I open with this statement because in writing about the 1980s a decade in which I was a child, I realize there can be a certain amount of filtering due to nostalgia or longing for ‘the good old days,’ thus, with each film I discuss in the 1980s I think it important to note when I first saw the film. Some have stood the test of time. Others are recent discoveries. I’m also trying to examine all of these films in a new light to ensure subjectivity.

I also think it’s important to note the genesis of this concept in my own reasoning as it has most definitely shifted. A little more than a year ago [as of this writing] I saw a film called Amazing Grace and Chuck for the first time and I thought to myself “This film could’ve only been made in the 80s.” I thought this both because of its aesthetics, the grain and milieu common to the 1980s. I started postulating upon that on my cornerstone on defining the 1980s noting that the 50s, 60s, and 70s had each had their own unique looks. I noted there was overlap such that early 80s films still looked like they were shot in the 70s. Yet this would be too technical and pedantic an approach. What really struck me about Amazing Grace and Chuck was the subject matter. And while you can’t pin down a decade as sporadic and variegated as the 80s (As opposed to the heavy focus on Sci-Fi in the 50s) you can see there were ideas buried even in these heavily Hollywoodized films. Yet I come to realize as I’ve viewed nearly 30 films for analysis that saying this is what the 80s were all about is folly. However, within the context of each individual film I can display a reflection of cinematic or social thinking at the time.

This is an overview of a decade of innovation. A decade where the blockbuster was ever more predominant than in the 1970s yet there seemed to be a last gasp of artistry. There were great films released amongst the garbage. Also, we would see the trends that would lead to the decline in quality in the 1990s. It was a decade with artists who still had a spark of idealism and still had something to say albeit through indirect channels.

While many of the films make connections to my youthful sensitivities, it is important to note that these films for the most part do not condescend or talk down to its intended audience which is a problem that has become more and more apparent as time has moved on. These are also films that for me have stood the test of time. Some of what was good in the eighties was adopted in the 90s and turned sour and what’s worse some of what was terrible also stayed and became worse. In this paper I will look at the motion picture in all its forms film, television, animation and the newly-invented, at the time, music video. No matter how you look at it the 80s did matter and I want to examine the decade here. It was a decade I grew up in it is true but now I can look back subjectively and examine a decade I’ve come to love.

* While primarily a poet and philosopher Coleridge wrote an abundance of dramatic criticism, introduced the term ‘suspension of disbelief’ to the artistic world, and is one of the most important concepts in cinema.

 Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments.

In Memoriam: Jackie Cooper

Jackie Cooper

As is my usual policy when deciding to write an in memoriam piece I don’t like to rush it to strike while the news cycle is hot. Part of the reason why is that I like to give the people I choose to write about their due rather than being short and sweet to the point of being curt.

Jackie Cooper’s was a long and extensive career that can not be summed up in a few short and sweet sentences. I’ll try and give it better perspective here.

From 1929-1931 Cooper made about 13 shorts as part of Hal Roach’s legendary Little Rascals troupe. Hal Roach being one of the legendary producers of Hollywood and the Rascals being one of his longest lasting legacies.

Below in two parts you’ll find one of their shorts where Cooper features prominently.

1931 turned out to be a watershed year for the young actor who in that year went most of the way to establishing his Hollywood immortality. First, there is his participation in the film Skippy, which earned him a nomination as Best Actor. A film which is mysteriously unavailable on DVD in the US.

However, in that year he also delivered what is likely his most memorable performance in The Champ, a film for which Wallace Beery captured Best Actor.

Another fine and more mature performance from Cooper can be found in the film Peck’s Bad Boy, which is a wonderful example of classic filmmaking because the story is so simple but so emotive. It also features two outstanding antagonistic performances by Dorothy Peterson and Jackie Searl. The film can be seen in its entirety here:

http://www.archive.org/flow/flowplayer.commercial-3.2.1.swf

Mickey Rooney, Freddie Batholomew and Jackie Cooper in The Devil is a Sissy (MGM)

Surprisingly Cooper never did capture the Juvenile Award, a special Academy Award that was awarded to a deserving young actor from 1934 to 1960. However, he did have another memorable performance with two of the other finest actors of his generation Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney in The Devil is a Sissy in 1936. His character being the most hardened of the lot.

While like many child actors Cooper found the work to be not as good or as consistent as he transitioned to adulthood he did keep working and with the advent of television he transitioned mediums and started building a long and impressive resume of guest appearances on the small screen.

Jackie Cooper with Emmy

Eventually he made his way behind the scenes as a director and producer. Some of his directorial credits include episodes of M*A*S*H for which he won an Emmy for the episode “Carry on, Hawkeye,” Mary Tyler Moore, The Rockford Files, The White Shadow for which he won an Emmy for the Pilot episode, Magnum, P.I., Cagney & Lacey, The Adventures of Superboy and Jake & the Fatman.

Between 1948 and 1971 there was but television work, he also garnered consecutive Emmy nominations as an actor in 1961 and 1962 for his work on Hennesey, but then there was the occasional blip of a film until he was cast as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet, in the Superman films, the initial wave. It is in this capacity that he is known and remembered by many today as I have mentioned before many are lucky to be known by all for one film or project, even more fortunate are those who are known by many.

Jackie Cooper had many incarnations as an entertainer but in all of them he entertained audiences and endeared himself to them. He will be dearly remembered and sorely missed. He left an indelible mark on film and left innumerous memories behind. Let us take a moment and reflect on them.

Jackie Cooper in Superman (Warner Bros.)