In our Swampchat discussion about Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal last week, James pointed out that “the film is now remembered mostly for its historical significance and that iconic image of Death, parodied in movies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and Last Action Hero, rather than its substance.” It’s no wonder to me why. There’s more than one way to be a cinephile after all. Some folks gravitate toward the artier side of cinema, preferring to grapple with life’s big questions about art and morality and death every time they pop in a movie. Others are more escapist in their tastes, seeking out mindless films that that are less confrontational & more purely entertaining in both story & style. I would like to think that most people are somewhere in the middle, like a cinematic version of a Kinsey scale, appreciating both the heftiest art & the trashiest pleasures in varied amounts. Folks who are watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey aren’t necessarily interested in confronting the nature of death & “The Silence of God” in those 90min, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t appreciate a reference to a more “important” film that does. In fact, acknowledging the existence of an art house classic in a dumb, time-traveling stoner comedy can only enhance the film’s gleeful stupidity by way of comparison.
As a sequel to a deliberately lowbrow buddy comedy, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey could have easily been an uninspired retread. Instead of taking the expected step of having the time-traveling goofballs collecting historical figures to pass a college course (as opposed to the high school course they pass in the first one), Bogus Journey readjusts the franchise’s plot to make room for “fully full-on evil” robot doppelgangers, space aliens, God, Satan, and the rock band Primus. Mixing practical effects & overreaching set design with then-impressive CGI, the film aims to achieve a lot more than sequels to hit comedies generally do. One of the film’s most impressive ambitions of all is its eagerness to interact with Bergman’s daunting The Seventh Seal.
On the surface, Bogus Journey & The Seventh Seal are unlikely bedmates. One is set in the future; the other in the past. One features deviously evil robots as its antagonists; the other an indifferent Death. One is a stoner comedy about winning over bodacious babes; the other art house cinema that tackles “The Silence of God”. However, the two films share an oddly similar moral. As James stated in our conversation about The Seventh Seal’s central couple, “Jof and Mia who, while maybe naïve, fully embrace life, family, and art despite the dread and despair that surrounds them. As Jof, Mia, and Mikael are the only characters to survive the film, I think Bergman is trying to say that the only way to conquer the fear of death is to truly embrace life, which makes the film, in my eyes, an ultimately uplifting one.” If Jof & Mia are naïve, Bill & Ted are barely mentally functional. They are constantly cheerful (even while being murdered) and their central message of “Be excellent to each other” is not at all dissimilar to how Jof & Mia escape The Seventh Seal unharmed. I’m not sure if Ingmar Bergman would have seen or enjoyed Bogus Journey before he died but if he did I would hope he would at least appreciate the film’s central philosophy.
That’s not to say that Bogus Journey gets everything right about The Seventh Seal. In Bergman’s classic Death only participates in the film’s iconic chess match as a diversion, an amusement that allows the protagonist Antonius Black to delay his inevitable fate. In Bogus Journey, Bill & Ted challenge Death as the ultimate wager, the fate of their souls hanging in the balance. The gag involving Death losing to the boys in Battleship, Clue, electric football, and Twister is pretty damn hilarious, but does sort of miss the point of the chess match in The Seventh Seal entirely. Bill & Ted also visit both Heaven & Hell in the film, which I’m not sure are places that exist in The Seventh Seal’s worldview and Death takes more of the position of the butt of jokes than the menacing, but playful figure he is in Bergman’s film. When the boys give Death a wedgie and exclaim “I can’t believe we just melvined Death!” it’s a far cry from the character’s opposing presence in The Seventh Seal. That’s okay, though. It is a dumb comedy after all.
Attempts at defining the meaning of life and the nature of death couldn’t be more varied than they are in The Seventh Seal and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. What’s more interesting than their differences, though, is the common moral they share, namely that we enjoy this good thing before it’s gone and above all else we should “be excellent to each other.” Whether you want that message packaged in a somber, black & white art film or an endearingly idiotic stoner comedy can vary depending on taste & mood. Either way, it’s an admirable message all the same and it’s awesome that Bogus Journey used a reference to Bergman’s character design for Death (which I earlier described as “somewhere between a mime & a wizard”) to bridge the gap between those two aesthetics.
For more of March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, visit last week’s Swampchat on the film.
7 thoughts on “Bergman’s Image of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)”
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