Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I didn’t really grow up with anime as a child, or even a teen. It was something I first explored in my early twenties in the aughts when it seemed like the last remaining sanctuary for hand-drawn animation in modern cinema. And even since then my familiarity with anime has been very surface-level, defined by major genre touchstones like Miyazaki, Sailor Moon, and Satoshi Kon. The one major exception I can think of in this late-to-the-table anime exposure was my childhood VHS tape of Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, an 80s relic (and a Japanese-American co-production) that I watched countless times as a kid despite it being a drowsy, unhurried mess. Watching its contemporary peer Night on the Galactic Railroad for the first time recently felt like a weirdly comforting return to those childhood viewings of Little Nemo – one of the rare anime titles where I felt at home with the tone & artistry instead of in over my head with a genre I don’t know nearly enough about. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a soothing, hypnotic film for me, which is odd because it’s intended to play as a devastatingly somber fantasy drama.

This is an adaptation of a popular 1930s children’s novel from Japan, in which a lonely young boy escapes the isolation of caring for his sick mother in a small town where hardly anyone notices him by riding a magical late-night train with his only friend his age. For reasons unexplained, the movie decided to remain faithful to the book’s plot but recast most of its characters as talking cats. But not all of them! It’s in no rush to emphasize or justify this major alteration to its source text (or to clarify exactly why most characters are cats, but some remain human). In fact, it’s in no rush to do anything at all. It takes nearly 40 minutes for the titular magic train to arrive, before which we mostly watch our melancholic feline protagonist attend to his daily chores at work, school, and home. Once on the train, he has lowkey conversations about the immensity of the galaxy and the meaning of life with a series of passengers – including his aforementioned bestie and, most surprisingly, passengers of The Titanic. The tone is grim & low energy, slowly chugging along to a major reveal about what riding the train symbolizes in its closing minutes, long after an adult audience would have guessed the twist. If young children had the attention span to follow its story and parse out its symbolism, it’s devastating enough that it could really fuck them up. Instead, it plays like a minor-notes lullaby, a warm naptime blanket made entirely of grief & regret.

Besides my recollections of Little Nemo, Night on the Galactic Railroad reminds me of when I had Final Fantasy on Gameboy as a kid but didn’t really know how to play it, so I would just wander around the game’s villages talking to fictional strangers. Absolutely nothing happens in this movie and the feline character designs stray disturbingly close to online furry art, but it still works like a soothing salve on a troubled mind. This film is potent catnip for anyone who can lose themselves in the pleasures of looking at cute cats & outer space imagery for the eternity of a lazy afternoon. Its unrushed tedium isn’t boring so much as it’s a time distortion device, making 100 minutes stretch on for 100 pleasantly melancholic hours – like contemplating the nature of Death while drifting through outer space all by your lonesome. It’s not the dazzling, intricate artistry and propulsive excitement of anime that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years as I’ve sought out the legendary standouts of the medium, but rather the dozy nostalgia-prone slow-drift of 80s anime that I grew up with as a kid.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Wings of Fame (1990)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BritneeAlli, and Brandon watch Wings of Fame (1990).

Boomer: Wings of Fame is an odd little film that at first appears to be about the nature of life and death, or perhaps celebrity or love, but makes no real statements about any of these big concepts. Instead, it is itself a “high concept” film with a singular conceit: the afterlife of the famous is different from that which awaits you or me (if anything other than floating for eternity on a foggy and dismal sea awaits us), and their accommodations are equivalent to the fame that they retain in the waking world. When a famous actor (Peter O’Toole) is assassinated in Europe, his accidentally-killed murderer (Colin Firth) immediately follows him into this strange new world beyond the veil of mortality, having gained notoriety equivalent to the actor’s as a result of having dealt his death blow.

Within this world, Cesar Valentin (O’Toole) struggles to discern what drove Brian Smith (Firth) to want to see him dead, as the two rub undead elbows with a roller-skating Einstein and scientists, politicians, and artists of various disciplines. Other than Einstein, none of them actually exist (there is a Rose Frisch who was a scientist, but she died 25 years after the film was released, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to be in this world), but you wouldn’t know that from the film itself. Cleverly, Wings shows you people that you believe existed, even though they didn’t, like Bianca the sad pop star and Zlatogorski the Soviet poet, who actually ascends from the basement back to a stateroom as his work gains popularity in the living world as the political situation changes.

Brandon, what do you think about this conception of the world that is to come? Do you think that it was a smart choice to generate unreal celebrities to populate this surreal world? How does this contribute to that air of surrealism?

Brandon: I’m honestly conflicted over the introduction of fictional celebrities to this dreamworld scenario. Not only are they a little distracting (I initially felt like a dolt for only recognizing names like Einstein, Hemingway, and Lassie before realizing many of these characters never really existed); they also partially drain the premise of some of its potential surrealism instead of adding to it. Titles like The Congress, Celebrity Death Match, Clone High, and Mr. Lonely have similarly generated absurdist humor out of juxtaposing celebrities we’re not used to seeing interact in a shared, impossible realm, but are each more fully committed to evoking a surrealist effect out of that Famous Person overlap. Wings of Fame is something of a pioneer within this post-modern enclave, however, predating many of those titles by a decade or two. The only example of absurdist gathering-famous-people-throughout-time-in-a-single-space media I can think of that predates it is Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure from just a year earlier and that film spends its entire runtime going out of its way to make that juxtaposition possible. I think Wings of Fame would’ve been a much more jarringly surreal work if it had populated its eerily sparse stage play sets with more recognizable historical figures, at least as background characters. (There’s a moment featuring a generic “rocker” in particular that easily could’ve been punched up with a Hendrix-type). I’m also not convinced that the film was ever intended to be an aggressively surreal picture in the first place, unlike the similar works that followed. A lot of its charm rests in its subtle, underplayed execution of an over-the-top premise and the creation of fictional celebrities is an essential part of that approach.

As Wings of Fame is the sole feature credit for Dutch filmmaker Otakar Votocek as a writer-director, it’s difficult to get a full estimation of what sensibility he was attempting to convey here. I do get the sense, though, that he was more interested in the mechanics of how this Celebrity Limbo works rather than how his characters’ inner lives are affected by their artificial environment. Wings of Fame is mostly a philosophical piece about how legacy translates to currency in this afterlife of luxury, setting up a kind of class war between tiers of celebrities who enjoy different levels of fame, and how our only chance of (temporarily) avoiding fading into oblivion is to leave a lasting impact on pop culture or history while we’re still breathing. It makes total sense for the film to use archetype placeholders instead of real life historical figures in that way, but the characters’ absence of pre-loaded personalities does cause the central story to stumble a bit when it switches its interests from philosophy to psychology. The mystery of why Firth’s assassin takes out O’Toole’s pompous actor in the opening sequence is never as interesting to me as the details of the space where that decision lands them. Similarly, the contentious love triangle they form with the gloomy pop singer Bianca feels more like a necessary evil plot structure than a dynamic the film is genuinely interested in (although I am often tickled by the way Bianca continually shrugs off their confessions of deep, unending love for her, since she presumably hears those kinds of things all the time). Part of the reason those conflicts feel a little empty to me is because I don’t know the characters well enough as people to recognize what they’re going through (as opposed to their much more fascinating, heavily detailed surroundings). Using real celebrities whose personas we’re already familiar with might have fixed that.

Britnee, what do you make of the film’s balance between telling a compelling story and establishing the rules of its supernatural, fame-obsessed afterworld? Did the mystery of Firth’s murder motivation or the outcome of the Bianca-centered love triangle mean as much to you as the mechanics of the Celebrity Limbo premise?

Britnee: I had a difficult time focusing on any of film’s central plots because I was more interested in figuring out how the Celebrity Limbo works. The idea of a hotel for dead celebrities is fascinating, so of course, that’s what I focused on. The idea of celebrities getting downgraded to shittier rooms as they become forgotten in the living world was so smart and hilarious. It’s hard not to think about recent dead celebrities in that scenario. For instance, when Bill Paxton passed away earlier this year, there was an influx of people watching Twister and Big Love, so there’s not doubt that he initially would move into a luxurious suite. As time moves on, this will begin to decline, so up to the attic he goes. It really made me think about the craze that occurs after famous musicians and actors die, but how it all starts to dwindle as time goes by. They’re never really “forgotten;” they just aren’t topping the charts anymore.

Also, the film sort of forced me to feel that way because it doesn’t really do much as far as storytelling goes. Caesar has a short-lived confrontation with Brian, but it’s not very aggressive or emotional. The love story between Bianca and Brian is very bland, and there’s not much passion between the two of them. Yes, they make love and she cries in his arms from time to time, but there’s no real connection. I don’t think this is a bad thing at all (I actually enjoyed it very much), but it drove me to really not care too much about any of the film’s main plots.

What really struck my interest was the lottery system that allows Brian and Caesar to be released back into the real world. I wish the film would have spent more time following the two on their journey back into the world of the living.

Alli, would you have liked the film to be half about Brian and Caesar’s journey in limbo and half about their return to the real world? Why or why not?

Alli: I think it would have been nice to see slightly more of Mr. Valentin’s journey in a world where he’s been dead and gone. Would he have ended up being an impersonator of himself or would older people and movie lovers on the street just make comments about how much he looks like himself? Obviously, Caesar is used to a certain standard of living and now he’s suddenly penniless on the streets, so I think it could have been a depressing peek into the world of washed-up celebrities. There’s always a place for him in community theater, though, so maybe he’d end up in the acting world again. I’m a big Peter O’Toole fan. He’s always great. I think his chemistry with Firth wasn’t the best, but he’s enough of a character to carry it along. It would have been fun to watch them navigate the world and team up. After all, Brian is the only person Caesar has that understands what he’s been through and wouldn’t think he’s crazy for telling his story. Basically, I want more O’Toole screen time in general.

I didn’t really understand exactly why Brian chose Caesar in the climactic lottery. He was Caesar’s murderer, so maybe felt indebted that way, especially watching the death authorities usher him onto a transport into the mists. But while we know that the logic of this world is obviously nonexistent, there could have been a resurgence of interest in Valentin’s work. That’s the thing about being famous: you’re constantly shifting from being in an out of the public consciousness. I’d like to have seen a point about that made with the tide rolling in with some of the left-for-obscurity celebrities walking back ashore.

Boomer, do you think the movie would have benefited from people being able to check back in once their fame resurged? Or just more logic to the way the hotel works in general?

Boomer: I’m not really sure. I like that there’s a bit of dream logic to the way that this afterlife works, although I admit that I often go back and forth on my feelings about the concreteness of the “magic” (for lack of a better term) in the films that I watch. I will say that my personal favorite subplot in the film is the story of the fall and rise of Zlatogorski: he finds himself in the bowels of the hotel as a semi-forgotten Russian poet, but his poetry finds a new life in the hearts and minds of a nascent group of Soviets, leading the attendants of the hotel to force him against his will to ascend back to a stateroom in accordance with his fame in the world of the living. He rejects this elevation (as one would expect of a person whose works touch the hearts of hopeful communists, he is not a fan of this social striation) and ultimately tries to return to the sea of obscurity on whose shore the hotel sounds, but is unable to slip blissfully into the anonymity (and post-death rest) that he so desires. It’s a fascinating character study in miniature, both of an individual character and, in its own way, of a nation, but it also gives us the most revelatory information we have about the “rules” of this afterlife: we know that your accommodations are determined by your notoriety among the living, but you also cannot end this cycle even if you want to fade away into the night.

So what happens if someone becomes so insignificant that they are rejected from the hotel, but there is a resurgence in public interest in them? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but one which I’m not sure can be adequately satisfied. Perhaps they are spat back up on shore just as Zlatogorski was when he tried to leave, half-drowned and soaked to the bone, as you suggested. Maybe there’s no resurgence, just the echoes of their memory in the minds of man. One could even argue that those people who experience this complete absence from cultural relevance only to be remembered are those despairing faces we see floating in the open water amid the mists, begging to be saved. Or maybe that’s what really happens to the people who win the “lottery” and get to return to life for a second chance, and the lottery itself is all a sham. After all, it’s not as if Valentin has been completely forgotten by the world at large, as his film work seems to be experiencing (an admittedly minuscule) revival. Maybe it’s really Brian who is along for the ride and not the other way around, like how no one ever thinks about William Alexander or Richard Burbage until the next wave of “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?” madness comes along.

Every element of this world could be nothing more than a facade, but I don’t think that making the mechanics of this afterlife more specific and transparent would better serve the film. Its strengths lie in being a work that evokes this kind of discussion, and making the rules more explicit would undoubtedly take away some of the magic, for me at least. Part of what makes the narrative so strong for me is that we often think of that which lies beyond the veil in terms of absolutes or absences: heaven or hell, or perhaps nothing. Instead, Wings of Fame posits a place that is both heaven (for many) and hell (for people like Zlatogorski) and is thus neither. If death takes us to a heaven, a hell, or merely oblivion, the one thing that all these conceptions shares is an understanding that there is a finality, in either a just reward or quiet nothingness. The hotel is all and none of these things, but most significantly it is a place that is just like the world we live in now, full of anxiety, a desire for more, and a place in society that is largely determined by the opinions of others, over which we have little, if any control.

Brandon, how did you feel about the escape clause/lottery that results in Brian and Valentin being returned to life? How do you interpret that event in relation to the film’s themes? What do you make of the fact that they re-emerge as adult men, not reborn (although there are very few narratives like this one in film, I feel like the end of What Dreams May Come, in which the protagonist’s wife escapes her personally created hell to be reincarnated anew as an infant, is the standard finale of the few narratives that explore death and what follows it in this way)?

Brandon: The lottery system conclusion of the film was more confusing than satisfying for me, mostly because it was a previously unmentioned idea that completely upends the afterlife’s core dynamics at the very last second. The lottery’s not exactly a deus ex machina, since it merely shifts the goal posts for victory instead of saving the day, but it does leave the movie with the feeling of a hastily-written comedy sketch without an ending that goes out on the weirdest note possible out of desperation. I do appreciate that the mystery & the melancholy of the film is carried through the conclusion as Brian and Valentin return to Earth as the literal undead, but I’m not sure that the denouement has any thematic significance to how the afterlife works or how fame can make a person relatively immortal. The worst possible ending would have seen the two men come to in a hospital room after the opening assassination attempt in an “It was all a dream” reveal, but I’m not sure this version wasn’t at least a slightly similar disappointment. To be honest, a reincarnation-as-babies ending might have even been preferable, since this one felt so thematically disconnected & hazy.

I don’t think the ending does much to lessen the impact of the philosophically stimulating reflections on fame that come before it, however. Like I said before, the layout & the mechanics of the fame-economy afterlife Wings of Fame envisions is much more interesting than the interpersonal character dramas it contains, since the characters aren’t nearly as fleshed out or detailed as the (after)world they inhabit. I’m less interested in the lottery system escape that releases the characters from this realm than I am in the question of whether the realm itself is hellish or heavenly. The idea of history’s most infamous personalities coexisting in a kind of eternal artists’ salon is initially far more appetizing than the fading-into-oblivion alternative, but Wings of Fame does a good job of complicating its allure. Described as a limbo ruled by “jealousy, fantasy, and boredom,” there’s a kind of psychological torture inherent to an eternity spent in a mansion with mismatched, egotistical celebrities that might be . . . less than ideal.

Britnee, do you think the hellish or heavenly aspects of Celebrity Limbo ever outweigh each other or did this movie’s version of the afterlife register as entirely neutral to you? Is “living” in this post-mortem mansion a prize for a life well-lived, the punishing price of fame, or ultimately neither?

Britnee: I found Celebrity Limbo to be a very hellish place. The idea of being confined to living in a bland hotel until the lottery system works in your favor makes me want to cry. All the silence, dull colors, and obnoxious dead celebrities would drive me insane!  It’s possible I would feel differently if the hotel wasn’t so boring. Perhaps being trapped in a hotel that was similar to a Disney resort wouldn’t be so bad. All those huge pools, funky colored walls, and bowls of free ice cream don’t seem like a bad deal to me. There’s just something about the hotel in this movie that makes me really uncomfortable. Also, the idea of being downgraded to a crappy room or upgraded to a fancy room based on something completely out of your control is absolutely nerve-racking. I can’t help but imagine myself getting comfortable in a decent room and then being forced to move to one of those dirty rooms on the upper floor where I would spend my time anxiously waiting for a change in my popularity. Because of the hellish vibes that I get from Celebrity Limbo, I would have to say that it’s more of a place of punishment than a reward for fame. The rich and famous are known for always doing what they want and getting what they want, and that’s not a possibility in this realm. Their money and power means nothing in limbo, and they rely on the world of the living to keep their memory alive. Honestly, I kind of like the idea of celebrities getting a taste of the reality they avoided in the living world once they enter the afterlife.

Alli, if Wings of Fame was a current film, what do you think Celebrity Limbo would be like?

Alli: I think a current day Wings of Fame would include a lot of self-created celebrities, along with more pop stars, mentions of drugs, and probably an overwhelming soundtrack. So basically even more hellish.

Although, I think it would be a completely different sort of strange. The current era certainly has had more time to reflect on the nature of celebrity, and we even have a whole different idea of what a celebrity is. You can be a YouTube star, a “reality” TV star, have a sex tape scandal, or just run a popular blog, and that’s extremely weird. (It’s especially strange considering that so many of these self-created celebrities are teenagers.) The way you can go from a regular person on the internet to instant fame with a single viral video is really disorienting to think about. It also means that just as quickly as you rose you can fall back into obscurity once another person gets the spotlight. In the era of internet fame and noise, there would be so much changing of rooms that I don’t think the staff would be able to keep up. I do like to think about the amount of internet-famous cats would be there, though. Colonel Meow is not forgotten amongst the legions of cat ladies.

All those teenagers, self-absorbed adults, and bursts of general chaos would probably devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type scenario: tribes of kids just looking for some validation and ways to fit in, claiming the entire ball room or hedge maze. It would be interesting, but definitely lack the slow-paced meditation that Wings of Fame accomplished. I think a lot of the themes of the film would suffer because of our current era’s transparently shallow celebrities. I think we as a culture have embraced the meaninglessness of fame way too much for a contemporary film to be anything but fake-deep and maybe even edgy.

Lagniappe

Alli: Part of the way Wings of Fame avoids coming across as trying too hard is the surrealist and absurdist humor. I know we’ve talked about the lottery scene being sort of an out of nowhere type thing, but I just loved the oblivion S.W.A.T. team swarming in and the juxtaposition of the game show atmosphere.

I had also a lot of moments during this movie thinking of the French New Wave classic Last Year at Marienbad, which takes place at a mysterious hotel filled with ghostlike guests who seem to lack direction. It’s almost the serious, Peter O’Toole-less version. It doesn’t have any thoughts on the ideas of fame, but it certainly has a similar surrealist feel.

Britnee: I felt like I was watching a episode of a televisions series, not a full blown movie, when viewing Wings of Fame. The film didn’t feel like it was complete once it finished. I really think the movie would have benefited from spending a little more time focusing on “life” after the lottery win.

Brandon: As much as I was fascinated by Wings of Fame‘s world-building, I really do believe that it was a mistake to not indulge in filling the characters’ ranks with real life historical figures & pop culture celebrities. The biggest missed opportunity in that dynamic might have been to take Peter O’Toole’s snobbish Shakespearean actor down a peg by having the actual William Shakespeare either insult his talents or offend his posh sensibilities with some Al Bundy-style slobbery. O’Toole doesn’t get much in the way of comeuppance by the movie’s conclusion and it could have been amusing to see him briefly have his balloon deflated by a (dead) celebrity he admires.

Boomer: Thanks for indulging me in this one. I know that I normally recommend movies that are bizarre in a different way, with style but little artistic depth (Class of 1999), flicks that are very genre but with an unusual twist (Head Over Heels), or dark comedies that maybe take it too far (Citizen Ruth), so it was nice to share this one with all of you.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
January: The Top Films of 2017

-The Swampflix Crew

Destiny (1921)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Even before Fritz Lang bucked against the boundaries of cut & dry cinema in the early masterworks Metropolis & M, the director pushed the artform into then-unexplored territory in the silent horror Destiny. Released in the wake of the seminal Swedish masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Destiny (sometimes billed as Behind the Wall or Weary Death) offers yet another striking image of Death as he conducts his business of harvesting expired souls (this time depicted as a passenger in a carriage instead of a driver, oddly enough). The early German expressionism landmark expanded the limitations of film as a medium, even cited by legendary directors like Alfred Hitchcock & Luis Buñuel as proof that cinema had potential & merit as an artform. The film’s ambitious special effects, unconventional storytelling, and morbid mix of death & romance all amount to a one of a kind glimpse into modern art cinema’s humble silent era beginnings.

The most instantly fascinating aspect of Destiny is its image of Death. The grim reaper is very human in this world, known to the town where he sets up shop merely as “the stranger.” Although he does sport the same sunken eyes & hollow cheeks as Death in The Phantom Carriage (and later in The Seventh Seal) he exchanges the now-traditional hooded robe for a fairly conventional brimmed hat. “The stranger” leases property next to a small town graveyard & erects a massive wall with no perceptible entrance, thoroughly confusing the spooked townspeople who are his new neighbors (but not enough for them to turn down his gold). A young woman uncovers “the stranger’s” secret when she witnesses a procession of bodyless souls entering through his wall, her missing/dead fiancee among them. The woman begs for her fiancee’s life after wrongfully infiltrating Death’s realm & he tells her tree tales of tragic romance in which Death conquers Love as part of their negotiation. What’s most noteworthy here is that while “the stranger” has no qualms ending a baby’s life in a brutally casual manner as one of his duties, he is far from the heartless mercenary of Bergman’s uncaring Death. As “the stranger” puts it himself, “Believe me, my task is hard! It’s a curse! I am wary of seeing the sufferings of men and of earning hatred for obeying God.” That’s about as empathetic of a portrayal of Death as you’re likely to find in 1921, The Phantom Carriage included.

Unfortunately, this darkly surreal framing device proves to be far more interesting than any of the three tales of Death conquering Love “the stranger” tells as the film’s meat & potatoes. Destiny‘s depictions of doomed romance in ancient Persia, China, and Italy feel exceedingly conventional in juxtaposition with the bizarre introduction of “the stranger” & his “realm”. Even when the individual stories fail to excite, however, the film remains a grand achievement in special effects & set design. By the time the third tale hits the screen it’s obvious that Lang was largely interested in showing off technique & not necessarily in telling a worthwhile story (or four). Early visual accomplishments in Destiny involve massive hand-built sets (most significantly the slender, stunning staircases & candles of “the stranger’s realm”) and maybe an occasional detail like a pint of beer transforming into an hourglass, but by the end the film devolves into literal parlor tricks & cinema magic showboating.

Lang more than earns those victory laps, though, considering how advanced the camera trickery plays in light of its release date & the artistic heights he’d later push those techniques to in Metropolis. It also helps that the film’s conclusion returns to “the stranger’s” negotiations with the young would-be widow, a scenario that continually sours despite the woman learning over the course of three tales that she can and will not win. Destiny can be striking in its visual accomplishments & individual moments of brutality, but what really stood out to me is that the film’s message is something like “Love does not conquer Death. Death always prevails.” It’s a lesson made even stronger by the depiction of Death as a sympathetic soul (or lack thereof), something you don’t see often even in a modern context, except maybe in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

Have you ever completely forgotten that you’ve seen a film before until you’re in the middle of watching it? I ran across a couple posts recently that compared Stanely Kubrick’s masterful horror landmark The Shining to a 1920s Swedish film named The Phantom Carriage. There was one .gif in particular that mirrored the two works’ infamous axe scenes that really caught my attention while scrolling through Tumblr posts. I made a point to bump the Criterion-restored version of The Phantom Carriage to the top of my Hulu queue only to discover about five minutes into the film that I had seen it once before, years & years ago, and already really enjoyed it.

tumblr_o3bxmi2bmh1qfifrno1_400

A silent film that combines horror & dramatic tragedy, The Phantom Carriage tells a similar story as works like It’s a Wonderful Life & A Christmas Carol with an intense focus on the supernatural aspect of that framework. In the movie’s mythology whoever dies last on the last day of the year must drive Death’s carriage for a full year. Each day feels like 100 years as the titular phantom carriage’s driver makes their rounds like a mail room clerk, collecting souls from the recently deceased on Death’s behalf. The horse & carriage are always the same, but the driver is different each year, almost like a morbid version of the Tim Allen comedy The Santa Clause.

On this particular New Year’s Eve the newest phantom carriage driver-elect is one David Holm, a boozy sinner who’s spent most of his life abusing anyone who dares to love him. Before David’s (literally) given the reins, however, he’s forced to take a remorseful journey through his own past, bearing witness to each horrifically shitty thing he’s done to his fellow man. David is forced by Death’s previous servant to watch as his past self abandons his family in favor of booze, shames the charitable for caring about his well-being, and intentionally tries to spread consumption among the innocent out of pure malice. He can barely stand to watch himself act like such a destructive ass & that discomfort is a large portion of his punishment as Death’s new servant.

Outside the obvious homage in the axe scene pictured above, there isn’t much to The Phantom Carriage‘s connection to The Shining except on a very basic thematic level. The Phantom Carriage is a ghost story about alcoholism & familial abuse in which the temporary caretaker of a supernatural, cursed establishment is driven to cruelty, so yeah, it does telegraph a lot of the basic structure of where Kubrick would take his Steven King adaptation over 50 years later. However, Kubrick is far from the first director who comes to mind while watching The Phantom Carriage, which is likely why I didn’t remember seeing the film before when prompted by those social media posts.

It’s Ingmar Bergman who pulled the most readily recognizable influence from the silent classic. As soon as Death’s servant arrives in the iconic hooded robe & sickle get-up, Bergman’s version of Death in The Seventh Seal immediately comes to mind. Before I even read this film’s Wikipedia page I could’ve told you Bergman watched The Phantom Carriage religiously and, indeed, the director claimed to have viewed it at least once a year. It’s possible to argue that The Shining would’ve been a very different work without The Phantom Carriage‘s influence, but what’s an even more immense question is just how different Bergman’s entire aesthetic would be without the seminal work. It’s crazy to think of the massive influence Bergman’s image of Death has had across pop culture, from The Last Action Hero to The Independent to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (naming a few personal favorites), and that its seed was actually planted in the silent era.

The Phantom Carriage is well worth a watch even outside its massive influence on the likes of Kubrick & Bergman. The film was noteworthy in its time for innovations in its ghostly camera trickery and its flashback-within-a-flashback narrative structure. Those aspects still feel strikingly anachronistic & forward-thinking today, especially the gnarly phantom imagery, but you don’t have to be a film historian to appreciate what’s essentially a timeless story of brutally cold selfishness & heartbreaking remorse. I also like the movie’s gimmick of trying to make a non-Halloween holiday spooky (the film was set, plotted around, and released on New Year’s Eve), something schlock horror would do with Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and whatever else for decades to come. It’s a shame that at one point I forgot I watched The Phantom Carriage in the first place. It’s a great slice of horrific silent cinema & innovative filmmaking history.

-Brandon Ledet

Bergman vs. Corman: Death vs. The Red Death

EPSON MFP image

In our Swampchat discussion of March’s Movie of the Month, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, I pointed out how great of a one-two punch the movie was in combination with February’s Movie of the Month, Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death. As a double feature, the two movies feed off each other well thematically, especially in their contemplation of an uncaring, inevitable Death. Even Roger Corman himself saw the similarities in the films’ subject matter, which lead to him delaying the production of Masque for years. According to Wikipedia, he was quoted as saying, “I kept moving The Masque of the Red Death back, because of the similarities, but it was really an artificial reason in my mind.” The films do have a similar doom & gloom aesthetic in their personifications of Death in the time of a plague, but the differences that ultimately make their connection “artificial” are very much fundamental in nature. The Seventh Seal and The Masque of the Red Death are connected by a plague and by Death’s portrayal as a living character, but both Death’s personality and the social effect of a plague on its suffering population are strikingly different in the two films.

Both The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death rightfully portray Death as an inevitability, but the personality traits they assign him are almost directly oppositional. In The Seventh Seal, Death allows himself to be amused. The movie’s iconic chess match, while a stay of execution for Antonius Black, is nothing more than a diversion, a light entertainment for Death. Death later continues his playful bemusement with Antonius by posing as a priest and taking his confession. Death has a sly sense of humor in this exchange, albeit one with a morbid result. In Corman’s Masque, The Red Death wouldn’t be caught alive participating in such tomfoolery. The Red Death is very much a professional in his duties, carrying the impartial poise of a courtroom judge in his interactions with Prince Prospero. The only time he allows himself to react to Prospero’s schemes is when the prince begs mercy for the captive Francesca and even then his reaction is only mild surprise.

The plagues that accompany Death & The Red Death are more or less interchangeable, but there’s an essential difference in Corman & Bergman’s interpretations of the victims’ reactions to the hardship. In both films the plagues are met (at least by some) with a form of naïve celebration, a kind of a party while the ship goes down. In The Masque of the Red Death, this party is a disgusting display, a vilification of opulence. Wealthy party guests assume they are above The Red Death’s inevitability merely by the merit of their breed & fortune. Considering themselves invincible, they shut the poor out of the gates of Prospero’s mansion and party their final hours away in excess. Their thirst for a good time while others suffer is a vile impulse that Corman represents disapprovingly and Vincent Price skillfully amplifies with gusto. As James first said in our Swampchat on The Seventh Seal (and which I later explored in my comparison of the film to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the 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.” In Bergman’s viewpoint, celebration in the time of Death is a human ideal. While the celebration in Masque is a hateful sin, the one in The Seventh Seal is a life-saving virtue. Bergman even pushes the idea further by having Jof receive visions from beyond this mortal realm. In some ways his naïve celebration of life is downright divine.

The surprising thing about the differences between Death & The Red Death is that they’re somewhat counterintuitive. As a superficial assumption I would think that The Seventh Seal, a black & white art house drama from Ingmar Bergman, would have been the film that portrayed Death as a somber executioner and the party that surrounds him a crime against man. I would also expect that The Masque of the Red Death, a Vincent Price horror film helmed by camp legend Roger Corman, would be the film that portrayed Death as a playful prankster and the celebration of life that surrounds him a moral asset. Instead, the two films find their respective art house pensiveness & over-the-top camp in other characters & plot devices, the trivial elements that bind them as a pair used for entirely different ends. Although their connection is primarily artificial, our back-to-back discussions of The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death will forever link them in my mind anyway, both for the ways they are superficially the same and in the considerable ways they differ on a fundamental level.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s exploration of its thematic similarities with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Seventh Seal (1957)

EPSON MFP image
Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month James made Britnee & Brandon watch The Seventh Seal (1957).

James:
Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal was the Swedish auteur’s first major film and helped establish art-house cinema when it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Set in Europe during the Black Death, the film follows Antonius Block, played by the great Max Von Sydow, as he tries to outwit the personification of Death in a game of chess. 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. That’s a shame because The Seventh Seal is thematically rich and a masterpiece of cinematography. A jester’s performance interrupted by a procession of the plague stricken. An innocent woman burned at the stake. The Dance of Death. The stark black & white images Bergman presents are haunting, evocative, and foreboding, staying with you long after the final credits.

But watching the film again, I can see why The Seventh Seal isn’t as highly regarded as some of Bergman’s later films. As an art-house film, it is an intellectual, philosophical movie that modern audience might find too heavy and bleak. It also tackles one of the deepest and most disturbing questions of existence: Why, in the face of so much evil, does God remain silent? The Silence of God is a theme Bergman would explore in later films like Through a Glass Darkly and Cries & Whispers but in those films he found more nuanced ways to get his message across. In The Seventh Seal, by contrast, Bergman strips away everything in the story that doesn’t embellish the allegory, making it feel almost like a sermon. And as with most sermons, the effect the film has on you depends greatly on if you are on board with its message. The film’s rejection of religious dogmatism in favor of humanism was something that was very powerful for me when I watched it as a teenager. The scene where Antonius confesses his doubts about God and lines like “In our fear we make an idol and call it God” fed the existential angst of my teenage years but now the film seems somewhat heavy-handed.

Brandon, do you feel the film’s lack of subtlety helps or hurts its overall message?

Brandon:
This may be a result of watching the film with fresh eyes, but the heavy-handed nature of the sermonizing worked for me, if not only because it was backed up by the strength of the film’s images. Death appears very early in the film & his iconic chess match with Max von Sydow’s Antonius is initiated almost right away. Also, the way the film is so conspicuously staged (it was mostly filmed on a studio lot) is mirrored in the traveling theatre troop’s performances, which feels like Bergman intentionally pointing out the artificiality of the world he’s created here. The movie’s honest & explicit about the fact that it’s sermonizing about the fruitlessness of life & The Silence of God and the atmosphere of a stage play is well suited for the task. The brutal imagery of the plague that haunts the proceedings also supports the weight of the lofty subjects discussed throughout. The only element that didn’t land for me was Bergman’s added gallows humor. The line of jokes surrounding the blacksmith’s wife’s affair was particularly flat for me, but ultimately it was so inconsequential in comparison to the towering presence of the film’s ideology & imagery that it didn’t affect my viewing too much.

Speaking of artificiality & stark imagery, it makes total sense that Death’s visage from this film has had such a long life in pop culture. Somewhere between a mime & a wizard, it’s a simple look, but an unnerving one all the same. Just like with last month’s The Masque of the Red Death, Death is portrayed in The Seventh Seal as an indifferent inevitability. The difference between the two portrayals is in Death’s sense of humor & amusement here. He allows himself to be tricked into the iconic chess match with Antonius because it amuses him and later poses as a priest to take the knight’s confession in a church for much of the same reason. The Red Death would never have participated in such tomfoolery. Bergman’s intense focus on portrayals of Death in art are prevalent throughout the film: an artist paints The Dance of Death in a church; the traveling actors wear a Death mask in their play; characters frequently sing about Death, God, and Satan in their leisure time. Even the image of Death playing chess that Bergman chose to portray early in The Seventh Seal is lifted from a real-life Medieval painting by Albertus Pictor, which is acknowledged by the knight in the film. When another knight asks the church painter why he paints images of Death, he responds: “To remind people that they’re going to die,” and reasons that people like to be scared & a skull can be more interesting than a naked woman. The church painter seems to be Bergman’s direct mouthpiece in this scene, an artist standing in for the artist at work.

Britnee, how did you react to the portrayal of Death in this film? Does his playfulness & humor detract from his scariness or only add to it?

Britnee:
I’ve avoided watching The Seventh Seal for years because artsy films about death just aren’t my thing, but I’m glad that Movie of the Month exists because I would’ve never given this remarkable film a chance. The film’s statements about the silence of God were so blunt and direct, which really took me by surprise and left me with some haunting thoughts. The scene with Antonius confessing to the priest, who was actually Death in disguise, was probably my favorite scene because he’s just so honest and genuine throughout his entire rant. My appreciation for his authenticity was at an all-time high at that point. Now, as for Death, I really believe that his humor and silliness most definitely contribute to his scariness. The fact that he’s having a good old time messing with Antonius is definitely creepy because it makes him seem almost human. I think the concept of the uncanny can explain how Death’s humor is terrifying. Humor, silliness, and playfulness are very human-like traits, but while these traits are familiar to us, the forces of Death are quite unfamiliar.

I really enjoyed the connection Antonius had with Jof & Mia. When he watches their family come together, there seems to be a change in his character. Jof, Mia, and their son, Mikael, are a sweet little family with nothing but love for each other, and they are so different from all the other characters Antonius encounters in the film. He is intrigued by their simplicity, morality, and the way they represent a sign of light in a world of darkness. He is waiting and searching for an opportunity to do something that would really give his life meaning, and at the end of the film, he is able to distract Death from taking the lives of Jof & Mia. After reading a couple of articles about the film, I noticed that many compare Jof, Mia, and Mikael to Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. Honestly, I don’t believe that they are direct representations of the Holy Family, but I do think they represent how being simple and virtuous can give meaning to life and make it worth living.

James, what do you think Bergman was trying to portray with the Jof and Mia? What do they symbolize?

James:
You hit the nail on the head when you describe Jof, Mia, and Mikael as a sign of light in a world of darkness and I think, through them, Bergman is trying to articulate his vision for the only real way to “cheat” death. For me, each major character (Antonius, the squire, and Jof and Mia) reacts differently to the “Silence of God” to represent a broader way that human beings deal with Death. There is Antonius, who reacts with anger, disillusionment, and hopelessness; the squire, who seems more cynical but at peace with the absurd nature of being alive; and Jof and Mia who, while maybe naive, 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.

Brandon, do you agree with this interpretation? What do the different ways that the characters react to death symbolize to you?

Brandon:
I agree that there is an undeniable dichotomy set up between the way Jof & Mia gaily approach mortality as opposed to Antonius’ unhealthy obsession with it. If no characters were to survive the film, the couple’s final days would have been much more pleasant than Antonius’ fretting over how to cheat his inevitable demise. Even their occupations reflect their relationship with mortality. As a knight, Antonius is duty-bound to interacting with death on a regular, militaristic basis. As traveling performers, Jof & Mia entertain the living, bringing amusement into people’s lives instead of protecting their demise or threatening to end them.

Jof & Mia’s playful, jocular approach to living is contrasted not only by Antonius’ morbid navel-gazing, but also in the interruption of their theatrical performance by a procession of doomsaying monks. If Bergman wasn’t trying to praise the couple’s zest for life through their survival of Death, he at least drew a distinction between their public performance and that of the self-flagellating monks, who basically spoil a pleasant afternoon. As a provider of joy & entertainment, Jof is portrayed as a holy character in the film, one that receives divine visions from beyond the mortal realm. The religious folks & Antonius are more or less party poopers that don’t know how to enjoy a good thing before it’s gone.

Britnee, where do you think Bergman’s film falls on that divide? Does it strive more to provide life-affirming entertainment & encourage joy or does it obsess over the more morbid aspects of the inevitability of our mortality?

Britnee:
I think the film successfully provides a positive view about the rather depressing fact that we are all going die. We all seem to be on the same page when it comes to the Carpe Diem attitude of Jof & Mia, and the couple’s influence on Antonius is what, in my opinion, makes this film fall more into the positive side of the divide. Antonius makes himself sick by obsessing over death and trying to give his life meaning before he cashes in his chips. After witnessing years of brutality as a Crusader and returning home only to find a town filled with Negative Nancys, it’s no wonder why he has no gusto or passion for living. He only seems to be truly happy once he meets Jof & Mia and spends time with them. Bergman makes the couple the standout characters in the film in order to create an optimistic view on life.

Lagniappe

Britnee:
We are all going to die at some point, so living in the moment and not worrying about our inevitable demise is the key to a happy, meaningful life. That’s the main message that I got from The Seventh Seal, and I really didn’t expect to have any positive lingering thoughts from a film best known for its personification of Death. There’s not much action or drama in the film, but the rich symbolism, thought provoking scenes, and intricate themes make up for anything the film may lack. I finally understand why The Seventh Seal is so legendary.

Brandon:
I’d just like to point out that our first few choices for Movie of the Month (The Seventh Seal, The Masque of the Red Death, Blood & Black Lace, and Crimes of Passion) are a pretty morbid group. I wonder if the cold weather’s getting to us. Maybe by the summer it’ll be all Gidget movies and stoner comedies. That being said, The Seventh Seal & The Masque of the Red Death were a pretty great one-two punch in the way they fed off of each other thematically. According to Wikipedia, Roger Corman himself was aware of the thematic similarities, admitting that he delayed the production of Masque because of them. He said, “I kept moving The Masque of the Red Death back, because of the similarities, but it was really an artificial reason in my mind.” Even if it is an artificial connection, they’ll be forever linked in my mind as well, because our back to back conversations about them here covered a lot of the same territory (mostly in our contemplation of an uncaring, inevitable Death).

James:
I thought it was interesting how The Masque of the Red Death and The Seventh Seal share similar themes, but the directors handle them in strikingly different ways. Bergman uses stark black and white images while Corman uses bright colors. Bergman’s dialogue is melodramatic while Corman’s is campy. The contrast really shows the tremendous influence a director’s style has on how we perceive a film. The art-house style of The Seventh Seal makes it feel more important and “deeper”, but, in my opinion, The Masque of the Red Death is the more enjoyable film. Regardless, The Seventh Seal is a bona fide classic and a great introduction to the world of Ingmar Bergman. Can’t wait until next month.

Upcoming Movie of the Months
April: Britnee presents Blood & Black Lace (1964)
May: Brandon presents Crimes of Passion (1984)

-The Swampflix Crew