Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Touch (Ingmar Bergman, 1971)

Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch is a work of contrast and opposition, inevitably (for better and for worse) less unified and imposing than we often expect of his work. The most obvious contrast exists between the Bergman milieu we’re accustomed to (Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson’s long-married couple) and the very different cultural resonances attaching to Elliott Gould, playing David, a visiting archaeologist who has an affair with Andersson’s Karin (the optimal prints are those in which the couple and others use English with Gould, and Swedish otherwise). Bergman presents the marriage as being essentially happy, if stagnant - Sydow’s Andreas is submerged in his work, Karin in domesticity and ritual (the film is sometimes oddly and parodically peppy in portraying this); in contrast, David is unstable and destabilizing, subject to erratic impulses and mood swings (and frequently changing hairstyles). The demands of the present – the lying and evasion required of Karin in maintaining the affair – contrast with the inescapable burdens of the past: the evocation of the Holocaust in David’s family history, and of centuries past in his work. It’s never that simple though, and Bergman keeps challenging our understanding of the relationship and the film: an almost offhand reference to a suicide attempt by David and an even less resolved one to Karin’s pregnancy; the late introduction of David’s sister in London, heavily trailing other unexplored narratives; a long-dormant cluster of larvae that come back to destructive life. The ending, somewhat displaced from the main body of the film, places us in a garden, and a final attempt at paradise that rapidly disintegrates into further disrepair and separation. If the film under-achieves and frustrates, as has often been claimed, then that may be because of its unusual and productive openness and receptivity; either way, it ranks in Bergman’s body of work as more than a mere oddity.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Scrubbers (Mai Zetterling, 1982)

Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers certainly feels sociologically and humanly scrupulous, examining the fraught community within a female borstal while largely avoiding swaggering stereotypes and easy titillation.The recurring use of bawdy folk-type songs is just one suggestion that for all its forced unnaturalness, the world that the inmates craft for themselves may preserve English community and culture more fully than what lies outside – by comparison the portrayal of the staff is mostly clipped and sparing and deliberately disconnected. Zetterling seems most artistically stimulated by the environment’s inherent abstraction, triggering the film’s most unexpected impact, its outbursts of visionary Kubrick-like strangeness. That would be both Kubrick past (a dispossessed mother’s dreams of her kid might almost have slotted into The Shining) and even – relative to the film’s 1982 release date – Kubrick future: the prison might well share a designer and all-seeing cinema-eye with the dorms of Full Metal Jacket. Just as in Jacket, the rituals and tasks (such as assembling cheap plastic dolls) of the institution barely contemplate the chaos of the real world battle to come - the institution seems in no way to provide a meaningful response to the transgressions of its two main protagonists (one can only think of being reunited with her infant daughter; the other was motivated primarily by apparently unrequited love for another inmate), whether as punishment or rehabilitation (a more conventional but still well-handled vignette has one of the tougher inmates released into a world for which she’s entirely unprepared). It follows that the film withholds any kind of closure, leaving the prospects of its key characters uncertain after a final disorientating plunge into the outside world, ending on a recurring exterior nighttime shot that eavesdrops on the inmates as they yell out their goodnights and other parting shots for the day. This device may seem to evoke The Waltons of all things, but it’s certain that nothing else in the movie will.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Mille milliards de dollars (Henri Verneuil, 1982)

Henri Verneuil’s Mille milliards de dollars doesn’t rank as a major film: among other things, it’s of limited stylistic interest, and the narrative mostly takes a familiar form of notable actors (Jeanne Moreau, Charles Denner and so forth) popping up for a scene or two to point the way to the next link in the deductive chain. Patrick Dewaere plays a journalist who receives a tip-off of scandal surrounding a notable public figure: the investigation leads him deep into the machinations of an American multi-national, and ultimately into the lingering moral stain of WW2. The film retains interest for several reasons though. Viewed as a time of anxiety about corporate power that transcends national boundaries and evades political or regulatory control, it’s rather darkly instructive to view a 1982 film driven by similar concerns (albeit of course under very different technological conditions): the influence is so invidious for instance that the French subsidiaries are forced to exist on New York time, holding key meetings in the middle of the night.Verneuil devotes a surprising amount of time in the corporate weeds, inviting for us for instance to dive into the mechanics of a particular corporate result that falls far short of the forecast, and having the corporation’s leader (Mel Ferrer) deliver a mini-lecture on international transfer pricing. The film’s tone can’t help but draw on the sad resonances surrounding Dewaere, who would be dead by his own hand within months of the film’s release (a scene in which a would-be assassin writes a fake suicide note on his behalf thus assumes a particular chill). The closing stretch allows us some room for hope that the truth can come out (an independent newspaper plays the role that nowadays would most likely be filled by citizen journalism) while allowing the journalist’s personal concerns rather to push aside the larger story. But maybe that’s a mark of one thing that hasn’t changed over thirty-seven intervening years: that the liberal and anti-corporatist cause must too often content itself with strictly incremental steps forward.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Coca-Cola Kid (Dusan Makavejev, 1985)

I doubt that many unprompted viewers could identify The Coca-Cola Kid as the work of the director of Sweet Movie, especially as they’re only separated by one intervening film (Montenegro). The earlier picture is outrageous, shocking and compelling, taking its celebration of freedom to unsettling extremes, constantly asking us what price we’re willing to pay for it, and apologizing for nothing; in contrast, The Coca-Cola Kid timidly opens with several screens’ worth of disclaimer regarding its very title. The movie sounds in summary like a satire – an American whizzkid “fixer” comes to Australia, his focus entirely on monetization, only to become sidetracked by local oddities and temptations – but the focus is obscure, and the sainted brand gets off pretty lightly. Where Sweet Movie revels in sexuality, the fixer spends most of the movie trying to avoid it; his eventual change of heart in this regard seems under-motivated, a product of movie calculation rather than ideological triumph. The film focuses, strangely, on something that would seem tangential at best: the fixer’s fixation on bringing Coke to the one region of the country from which it's excluded, a local magnate monopolizing the market with his own brews, but the resolution of this too is grim and murky, certainly not allowing much in the way of symbolic victory. Perhaps then the main point of the film lies in this very sense of defeatism, in positioning such global brands and infrastructures as essentially impervious to meaningful mockery, or even to normal narrative forces and influences: the closing caption tells us that the following week in Japan the next world war began, which might appear only to acknowledge that the whole movie has been an exercise in looking in the wrong place, for the wrong thing. In that sense it draws nicely on Australia’s established peculiarity – as a place that looks exactly like the West, while gradually revealing itself as being stubbornly and unyieldingly Other.