The Phantom Carriage (1921)

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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.

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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

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Summer with Monika (1953)

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fourstar

Harry Lund, play by Lars Ekborg, is a young man working a stressful first job as a delivery boy for a stockroom of glass and porcelain. He is quiet, serious, and melancholy. Monika, played by Harriet Andersson, is a young woman toiling away in the cellar-turned-stockroom of a grocer. She is loud, impulsive, and mercurial. They meet, they fall in love, and then, they disastrously fall out of it.  Yet, that makes it sound so simple.

What struck me about Summer with Monika was how well it captured young romance. In fact for the first few scenes of the movie, I thought the tone was a bit too positive to be a Bergman film. When Monika first meets Harry, after he nervously has trouble lighting a match, she says to him, “Let’s go away and never come back. We’ll see the whole wide world.” They subsequently steal Harry’s father’s boat and have an adventure that reminded me of Moonrise Kingdom. Unlike the quirky preteen Wes Anderson version, this movie refuses to shy away from the character flaws and aftermath that come from running away from all your problems.

This movie is punctuated by long scenic shots and closeups of the main characters’ faces. Although many of those shots are beautifully filmed and effective, they give the film a little bit of an awkward, unfocused feel. The most poignant moments are when we as the audience are forced to play voyeur, unable to break away from Harry and Monika’s flaws, fights, and make outs.

The character of Monika is written such an understanding insight. It’s easy to forget that this movie was released in 1953, since her depiction is still incredibly relevant and even modern feeling. While she ultimately ends up being the antagonist, you see a little of what makes her tick. She’s hard to sympathize with. She’s loud. She’s moody and whiny.  Yet there are several times when the film shows her point of view.  There’s a scene at her terrible job where she’s basically constantly sexually harassed. At another point, her dad goes from a joking, happy drunk to slapping her to crying. She is not blameless in the end, but she’s also not just presented as a two dimensional floozy. She’s a realistic, incredibly flawed, female character.

Summer With Monika takes the notion of idealistic young love and rips it apart and dissects it in intimate detail. Andersson’s performance as the fiery Monika is wonderful and Ekborg pulls off the young, naive, melancholy loverboy with ease. In fact by the time you get to the downer Bergman ending, it’s really no surprise. It is an unflinching peek into how quickly things can go from seeming idyllic to completely falling apart.

-Alli Hobbs

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 2: Persona (1966)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Persona (1966) is referenced in Life Itself: In the first edition hardback, Persona is referenced on pages 1, 154, 267, and 270. It is the film most often referenced in Roger’s book. He first likens its opening credits & mid-film “break” to the way life & memory flicker into existence, initially without cohesion. He later describes how as a young critic he met an inability to discuss exactly what happens in the film, which prompted him to write about what happened to him as an audience instead (a technique of critical subjectivity he would return to often). He also describes Bergman’s casting of the film as being surprisingly impulsive in a brief anecdote.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ At a crucial moment in his plot the film seemingly breaks, and after it rips for a dozen frames it seems to catch fire within the projector. We see it melting on the screen. Then blackness, then light and then the old silent comedies again, as Persona starts again at the beginning.” – From his 1967 review for the Chicago Sun Times

Persona is a film we return to over the years, for the beauty of its images and because we hope to understand its mysteries. It is apparently not a difficult film: Everything that happens is perfectly clear, and even the dream sequences are clear–as dreams. But it suggests buried truths, and we despair of finding them. Persona was one of the first movies I reviewed, in 1967. I did not think I understood it. A third of a century later I know most of what I am ever likely to know about films, and I think I understand that the best approach to Persona is a literal one.” – From his 2001 review in his “Great Movies” series

There are two massive, go for broke moments in Ingmar Bergman’s small cast drama Persona that tend to overwhelm discussion of the film. The first is the film’s opening six minutes. A chaotic montage of loose film strips, whirring projectors, impossibly bright light bulbs, grainy footage of what looks like a silent era horror, spiders, human hands, animal slaughter, exposed organs, an erect penis, and crucifixion imagery overwhelm the film’s first breaths. Even today these fist few minutes of visual chaos are disturbingly vivid, but difficult to pinpoint with any certainty as to what they could mean, exactly. Somewhere in the fog I see a progression of life art death, but that personal interpretation is far from concrete in any significant way. As difficult as it is to decipher Persona‘s opening minutes today, it’s even more of a mystery to me what the experience would’ve been like for someone watching the film fifty years ago. As if that opening barrage weren’t enough, Bergman then repeats the trick a second time in the film’s second Go For Broke moment. A little over halfway into the film’s runtime the movie essentially breaks down & returns to the visual chaos of its opening minutes, wiping the slate clean & completely changing the rules of its delicately laid-out narrative. It makes total sense that these two moments would dominate most discussion of Persona & the strange places its story goes in its haunting final minutes, but for the most part the film itself is a rather quiet, intimate drama.

A somewhat mousy nurse is assigned as a caretaker for an actress who has not spoken in three months’ time. After a dreary stay at a hospital, the two women attempt a therapeutic, seaside respite to help cure the actress of her anxieties. To fill the void left by her nonverbal companion, the nurse gabs incessantly, first about seemingly nothing at all and then about deep seated fears & regrets. Take away the two experimental jaunts of rapidfire montage & Persona is mostly a collection of monologues, sometimes delivered directly to the audience in a way of breaking the fourth wall that recalls the grave seriousness of a stage play instead of the winking Ferris Beullers of the world. The topics covered in these speeches are a wide range of concerns from the importance of art in people’s lives to a distant memory of casual sex & subsequent abortion. If it were anyone but Bergman at the helm, the film’s existential crises could possibly play as arthouse self-parody, especially once one character starts pondering about “the hopeless dream of being. Not seeing but being. In every waking moment aware, alert. The tug of war between what you are with others & who you truly are.” The navel-gazing & despair in Persona is so tragically sincere, however, that there’s no way to avoid being arrested by it. Bergman may work with a tone of cinematic obfuscation that’s been copied & parodied endlessly in the last few decades, but he does it with such sincerity & confidence that it still knocks you on your ass, despite familiarity with how his style has been assimilated into cinema at large. In a lot of ways the bare bones monologues of Persona can be just as unsettling as the film’s Big Risk montages of pure light & sound.

Of course, Persona‘s ambitious Big Risk montages & low-key, confessional monologues cannot be considered in total isolation. One plays directly into the other. Shortly before Persona‘s mid-film narrative “break”, the overly-talkative nurse confesses to her silent companion “Somehow I think I could change myself into you if I tried. I mean, inside. You could be me, just like that.” An act or two of betrayal sets in motion the pure light & sound montage “break” that allows that fantasy to become a tangible reality. The two women’s identities shift & meld. Ugly anxieties about fear of motherhood & questions of sexual desire bubble to the surface in such a horrific, unsettling way that you could consider the film a work of avant-garde horror if you view it in the right context. Persona was my first introduction to Bergman as a filmmaker and I’ve heard that entry point likened to jumping into the deep end. This is a messy, languid picture that somehow pulls together a pointed & purposeful tone from the wreckage without ever affording the audience a clear picture of what exactly is transpiring.

It’s no surprise, then, that reviewing Persona was such a daunting task for a young Ebert or that the film resonated with him in such a vivid way throughout his life & career. One thing I picked up while reading over his reviews of the film that I may have missed the first time I watched it was how artificial the whole thing felt. While watching Bergman’s so-called “Silence of God” trilogy during our Movie of the Month discussion of The Seventh Seal last year, I became intensely focused on the way the director called attention to the artificiality of his films by making them feel like staged plays. Returning to Persona (with Ebert’s take in mind) made me realize how much that film in particular pushes that idea to an extreme. In the film, Bergman not only calls into focus the artificial stage of his  narrative, but also the medium through which he delivers it. Literal film strips & projectors appear in the film’s two biggest moments (even breaking down the narrative in the second instance) and the film’s final scene cuts away to show camera crews filming the actors on set. As Ebert puts it, “Most movies try to seduce us into forgetting we’re ‘only’ watching a movie. But Bergman keeps reminding us his story isn’t ‘real.’ […] We have been brutally reminded that the story is being filtered through technical equipment.” Persona‘s ambiguity & existential distress is rewarding enough on its own to demand multiple viewings, but looking for that self-referential artificiality in the film was alone well worth a revisit.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

 Brandon’s Rating: (4.5/5, 90%)

fourhalfstar

Next Lesson: Apocalypse Now (1979)

-Brandon Ledet

Ingmar Bergman & the Silence of God

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In our conversation about March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, James pointed out that the film’s central struggle with faith in God & acceptance of death would over time become a recurring theme for its director, Ingmar Bergman. He said the film “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.” Although James is right that The Seventh Seal does have the feeling of a sermon in the conviction of its central message, it’s somewhat strange that such an assertive message would be a question: Why does God remain silent? The questioning of one’s faith is such an uneasy, intangible theme that it’s a peculiar one to repetitively, emphatically broadcast from a cinematic pulpit.

It turns out that Bergman was so vocal about the question of faith & God’s silence because it was a struggle he experienced personally over the course of his young life. Raised as the son of a Lutheran minister (who at one time served as chaplain to the King of Sweden), religious faith was exceedingly important to Bergman’s upbringing. As he grew into his own, he gradually shed the piety of his youth, but it was a troubled transition. As religious discussion was a significant aspect of his upbringing, due to his father’s profession, Bergman also openly & frequently discussed his own questioning & eventual disregard of his faith in his own profession: filmmaking. The themes of God’s silence in the face of intense suffering and the indifference of death were repeated in his work long after The Seventh Seal. The most thorough exploration of this theme, however, came very soon after in what is commonly known as his Trilogy of Faith.

The unlikely trio of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence weren’t initially conceived as a spiritual trilogy, but as they were released consecutively and each share a similar philosophical exploration of God’s absence, even Bergman himself later conceded their significance as a set. As James already explained, his modes of religious exploration would become subtler in these post-Seventh Seal efforts, but not by much. They are still fairly straight-forward in their intent, just more abstract in their tactics. Bergman’s particular brand of religious self-doubt still functioned as honest, agnostic sermons in the Trilogy of Faith, but the question became even more hurtful and muddled as the implications of its consequences became more widespread.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Although Bergman’s message may have been more understated in his Trilogy of Faith films than in The Seventh Seal, all films in the trio do share the Movie of the Month’s compact, intentionally artificial staging. Working with small casts & spatially limited settings, Bergman gives his explorations of religious doubt the figurative severity of a staged play, where images & dialogue feel grandly symbolic due to their isolation. Through a Glass Darkly, my personal favorite in the trilogy, is the most constricted of all, limiting the entire physical scope of the film to the interactions of four family members retreating on a small island. One character even refers to the intensity of this isolation (as well as a larger, less tangible sense of confinement) directly, saying, “I wonder if everybody feels caged in. You in your cage. I in mine. Each in his own little cube. Everybody.” Besides the caged-in feeling, the religious musings, and inclusion of Max Von Sydow, the movie also depicts a staged play within the film, just as The Seventh Seal noted its own artificiality by including the traveling performances of Jof & Mia.

The main difference between the two films is that Jof & Mia’s familial love were shown as a form of Earthly divinity, an admirable way to confront life & death. In Through a Glass Darkly, familial love is also divine, but in a decidedly twisted way that suggests that incest can “burst reality open” and create a direct path to God. Indeed, God does make an appearance of sorts in the film, but his presence is even more unsatisfying that his silence. He appears as a grotesque display that calls into question his very existence and the division of reality & divinity as well as anxiety-caused mania & good mental health. If the Trilogy of Faith is Bergman shouting a message of self-doubt from a cinematic pulpit, Through a Glass Darkly is the best on-film representation of that doubt, as it leaves so many questions intentionally unanswered.

Winter Light (1962)

Speaking of pulpits, Winter Light begins & ends with sermons in the church of a seemingly desolate community. If Bergman’s cinematic explorations of his religious doubt are to be understood as a sort of therapy in which he sheds the baggage of his son of a preacher upbringing on film, you can’t get much closer to a direct statement than Winter Light. Hell, this sample prayer for the film asks the questions about as directly as you can: “God, why have you created me so eternally dissatisfied? So frightened so bitter? Why must I realize how wretched I am? Why must I suffer so hellishly for my insignificance?” In the face of these questions God, of course, remains silent. Winter Light is the only film in the trilogy that directly references the phrase “God’s silence” and it’s that blunt attitude that makes it so arresting.

The insular nature of the small community, the Max Von Sydow role, and the philosophical fretting all connect Winter Light with The Seventh Seal & Through a Glass Darkly, but it’s the staged performance within the film that distinguishes it. The subversion here is that the staged performance is the protagonist pastor’s sermons. The rituals of performing his duties as pastor have become an empty performance to the protagonist, who has become removed from his closeness to God. When patrons ask him to quell their own concerns of faith, he only reinforces them, saying that the complete absence of God makes more sense than his existence because man’s cruelty would need no explanation. There’s a directness to these meditations that are somewhat obfuscated in Bergman’s other cinematic questions of faith, as reflected in an extensive scene where a character reads a letter directly into the camera, making intense eye contact with the viewer as she speaks. We can also feel Bergman’s gaze from the other side of the camera through much of the film, as if he was speaking directly to us about his doubts and his eventual agnosticism. This directness is almost entirely absent in the final, most elusive film in the Trilogy of Faith, The Silence.

The Silence (1963)

The most intentionally obfuscated title in the trilogy, The Silence feels like Bergman finally letting go of his nervous handwringing over shedding his faith in God and breaking free to explore the questions raised by the consequences of that divine absence: If there is no God, then what is the point of morality? In fact, what is the point of anything? Stripping the dialogue & setting down to a barebones production, The Silence, of course, raises these questions with no intent to answer them. It’s tempting to read into the film’s hotel setting as a metaphor for our temporary stay in the world or a mother’s indifference toward her son as a metaphor for God’s silence or the two sisters’ clashing personalities as representative of different basic human attributes, like youth & old age or piousness & sensuality, but it’s unclear specifically what Bergman meant to say through these individual elements or if he had anything specific to say at all.

In Through a Glass Darkly, the staged play within the film resulted in the uncomfortable unearthing of a familial conflict between a father & his children. In Winter Light, the staged play was a pastor treating his sermons like a pointless ritual, the words having lost their meaning, which in a way was Bergman himself unearthing a familial conflict with his own father. In The Silence, a central character goes to see a staged play as well, but is distracted by a couple having public sex in the theater seats. The meaning of the play takes a backseat role to a completely different kind of performance, one concerned with more immediate, bodily pleasures. Although Bergman had explored the self-doubt of faith before in The Seventh Seal and he would again in titles like Cries & Whispers, the Trilogy of Faith feels like he is not only shedding the importance of religious faith in his personal life, but also in his work. At first he struggles with big, philosophical questions about God & family, but by the time he reached The Silence it felt like he had broken free of those concerns. They were no longer his sole mental occupation, but rather a doorway that opened him up to other big questions, liked the ones asked about personal identity in the brilliantly strange Persona. Freed from the weight of religious fretting, Bergman was able to expand the scope of his films exponentially, but it took many titles released over several decades to get there and the work he put in to achieve that freedom was in compelling in its own right, including some of most accomplished films of his career, like Through a Glass Darkly and The Seventh Seal.

For more on March’s Movie of the Month, 1957’s The Seventh Seal, visit our Swampchat discussion of the film, and explorations of its thematic similarities with Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, and its surprising differences with Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death.

-Brandon Ledet

Bergman vs. Corman: Death vs. The Red Death

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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

Bergman’s Image of Death in The Seventh Seal (1957) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

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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.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Seventh Seal (1957)

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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