City of Pirates (1984, Raoul Ruiz)

Easily my favorite Ruiz feature to date. At first it seems to have cranked up the surrealistic randomness of The Golden Boat, but with the constant visual interest of the short Le Film a Venir – which would be enough of a recommendation for me. But it just gets deeper and more fascinating as it goes on, while retaining enough of a plot and character structure to keep from becoming pure, confusing symbolism. Even if it turns out to be a huge allegory that I completely misunderstood, it’s still highly enjoyable on its own, full of meaning and ideas. Before I go seeking out others’ interpretations, a simple story rundown:

Stills from the remarkable first ten minutes:

The film’s subtitle looks like Latin, “Rusticatio Civitatis Piratarum,” translated as Pirates’ Exile. Set in “Overseas Territories, one week before the end of the war.”

Isodore (Anne Alvaro of Wajda’s Danton) lives with her parents in exile, who have a missing son (“he would be nine”). They see signs, abandon the house, are visited by cops who make reference to the Isle of Pirates. The girl finds an orphan boy (Melvil Poupaud, who became a Ruiz regular, most recently as the rescued colonel Lacroze in Mysteries of Lisbon) hiding at their new house.

Isidore considers drowning in the surf (her father: “Finally!” then when she falls for a mustache man and decides against suicide, “Ah! How I hate her!”). Pierre, the little boy, is discovered to have killed his whole family, now kills Isidore’s parents, then castrates the mustache man who shoots himself. All of this is done in a low-key way, with nobody getting too upset. Ruiz characters are never shaken when their families are killed.

Off to the Isle of Pirates, where her 10-year-old fiancee Pierre (aka Malo) abandons Isidore and she’s held prisoner by a guy named Toby (Hugues Quester, Binoche’s dead husband in Blue, also in Rohmer’s Tale of Springtime) with multiple personalities. “The defeat of Spain is inevitable… and with that, the feast of blood begins.” Isidore begins to doubt her identity, kills Toby with a knife (everyone is killed with a knife).

She’s visited in jail by her mother (not dead?) and the two cops from earlier. “Know this: this wonderful child who delivered you to the Isle of Pirates is our prophet, Don Sebastian. He’s known around the world. In England, he’s called Peter Pan … He reappears every ten years. He kills with joy his entire family. He shows us how to die. But, much more importantly, he shows us how to kill.”

“We, soldiers of the great battle of the world: we swear to die and to kill in order to introduce the army of corpses for the greater glory of our country, our cemetery. We swear to be reincarnated and to have the honor of dying again for the greater glory of our fathers, of the country of worms. We promise to pursue our struggle for the triumph of Death in order to perpetuate our glory in no other things.”

Isidore is back on the island talking to Toby, referring to Sebastian as their son. Sebastian, looking feral with a knife in his mouth, kills them both. Ends with Isidore and her mother looking at the Isle through their window, the ghosts of her father and Sebastian lurking around. “Everything begins again,” one of the women repeating “We are here… we are here.”

P. Hammond wrote an article for Rouge, hammers out a bunch of the film’s references, influences and allusions.

Surprise, invention, paradox are Ruiz’s touchstones. He believes in affirmation through irony, the clarity of enigma, deferred resolution, outlandish change of mood. He moves forward by staying in the same place. The tales his characters tell echo each other in certain details, enough to suggest an occult order behind discrete events.

What binds Ruiz’s lost souls to each other’s desire is an Oedipal, narcissistic quest for identity.

D. Cairns writing about a different film:

Keats spoke of “negative capability,” the power to enjoy things without understanding them, to relish mystery without requiring a solution, and to appreciate art without being able to fit it into a rational box. Although, there’s always a frustration with movies where one is shut out of the linguistic side, since you know you’re not getting the full experience. It’s like pan-and-scan, only with words.

I’ve found the cover image for one of his Poetics of Cinema books.

La Region Centrale (1971, Michael Snow)

I can tell this is a film that should be seen in a theater, no, that needs to be seen in a theater. It has no story, but unlike a Brakhage film which you may want to study at home and watch over and over, this is meant as an experience, more a ride than a movie. So I’ve done the movie great harm by watching it on my laptop, a reproduction of a reproduction of a TV screening, all low resolution with the corner of the image defaced by a station logo. One could already convincingly argue that I haven’t seen La Region Centrale at all, under those conditions – but wait, it gets worse. The experience builds (probably) over its three-hour running time, becomes (probably) more mesmerising and abstract as the third hour wears on. But I kept putting it on after midnight then falling asleep watching it, continuing the next night, as if picking up the story where I’d left off. And wait, there’s more. I thought for sure I could handle the last 45 minutes at a time without falling asleep again (wrong, lasted 35) but I soon got tired of the constant whirring sound effects (conforming to the strict rule that avant-garde films need always have annoying soundtracks) so I muted the movie and put on the latest Mogwai album instead.

All these crimes I committed against the movie, but I still liked it quite a lot, certainly better than Wavelength. Most of the Michael Snow movies I’ve been able to see have been interesting, but also more fun than tedious (again, all but Wavelength) which is exceptional in the avant-garde scene.

The writeup at Shooting Down Pictures is better than anything I could come up with:

Arguably the first feature filmed by a robot, Michael Snow’s three hour exploration of the possibilities of camera movement over a barren Arctic landscape suggests many things: sci-fi space probe footage more authentic than George Lucas; a rebuff to the romantic frontier landscapes of Hollywood Westerns; an avant-garde equivalent of an amusement park simulator ride. Lensed by a specially designed rotating camera mount pre-programmed to move with stunning variety, the film begins as a slow, soothing meditation on the otherworldly textures of the Canadian wilderness, but gradually morphs into a dizzying, terrifying freakout, a relentlessly spinning gaze that pummels the equilibrium of the human eye. The film pushes the boundaries not only of human sight but of the physical earth, destroying gravity and transforming a lifeless vista into a cosmic force of light and energy. Clinically scientific in its approach yet yielding an organic, even spiritual wonder, La region centrale does not merely vindicate the oft-neglected genre of experimental film, but thrusts itself into the center of cinema at its most vital.

My favorite motion is twenty minutes before the film’s end, the camera rotating while turning, but not in synch with each other, making the landscape look small and spherical but ever-changing.

Michael Snow:

The film will become a kind of absolute record of a piece of wilderness. Eventually the effect of the mechanized movement will be what I imagine the first rigorous filming of the moon surface. But this will feel like a record of the last wilderness on earth, a film to be taken into outer space as a souvenir of what nature once was. I want to convey a feeling of absolute aloneness, a kind of Goodbye to Earth which I believe we are living through. … It will preserve what will increasingly become an extreme rarity: wilderness. Perhaps aloneness will also become a rarity. At any rate the film will create a very special state of mind, and while I believe that it will have no precedent I also believe it will be possible for it to have a large audience.

Deep Red (1975, Dario Argento)

Two awful thoughts: I wish I’d watched the English dubbed version since the Italian was so badly dubbed anyway, and I wish I’d seen the U.S. edit that chopped out twenty minutes. Or perhaps I wish I wouldn’t continue to waste my time on Italian horror movies in the first place. The few I’ve loved (Suspiria, City of the Living Dead) have been dampered by the many I’ve just hated to death. This wasn’t even a proper horror, just a “giallo” (which is not its own genre, people, just the Italian word for pulp crime fiction).

Opens with a psychic named Helga (Macha Méril of A Married Woman and Night Train Murders) giving her presentation to a sparse audience. “Butterflies, termites, zebras, all these animals and many more, use telepathy to transmit orders and relay information. This is a proven fact that can easily be demonstrated.” She will soon be knifed to death then hung out her jagged broken glass window for Marc (David Hemmings, star of Blow-Up) to come attempt to rescue. It’d be ten years before Argento would change his mind, making a film (Phenomena) with a woman who speaks telepathically to butterflies and termites its star, instead of its first victim.

Marc appoints himself lead detective on the case, even though he’s a jazz musician who barely knew the victim. The actual detective is a jerk anyway. Marc meets a sprightly young reporter (Daria Nicolodi, who had cats flung at her in Inferno) who will be his partner in investigation – and in love. They discuss gender equality (I didn’t know there was such thing in Italy), which leads to an arm wrestling match. DH also tries confiding in his best friend in jazz, Carlo, but Carlo is always too drunk to help.

Daria:

Next some woman named Elvira is killed (along with her pet bird, and I HOPE that wasn’t a real bird, damn animal-brutalizing Italians) – an author who wrote a book on something or other, I dunno. It doesn’t matter. Hot on the case, Hemmings looks for Carlo but instead finds his weird mom (Clara Calamai, star of Ossessione) who sends him to Carlo’s boyfriend’s house. Once we know Carlo is gay, and this being the 1970′s, it’s assumed he’s the killer (he’s not – it’s his mom).

This is how Carlo’s mom dresses in her own house:

Some professor is killed, I dunno, and Marc becomes obsessed with this spooky house with a child’s drawing on an inside wall and a walled-off secret room with a body inside. It’s Carlo’s old house – enter stylish flashback of Carlo’s mom knifing his dad to death. Before we learn about the mom, Carlo is suspected, gets dragged to death by a garbage truck (but Gabriele Lavia will return as Carlo in Inferno). Mom is beheaded when her necklace is caught in an elevator, heh. And at least one other animal (lizard with a pin through it) is tortured for the sake of this movie.

This is supposed to be a slasher but there are only two killings in the first ninety minutes. I don’t need a movie to give me continual bloody mayhem, but this has little going for it storywise besides the mayhem, mostly alternates overlong conversations with everlasting suspense scenes. I loved the keyboardy Goblin soundtrack, but did not like the dialogue editing. I’ll stop commenting that the voices are annoyingly out of sync when the Italians learn how to shoot sound film properly.

Buy from Amazon:
Deep Red Blu-ray

The Bed Sitting Room (1969, Richard Lester)

I was disappointed to not understand this one very well. I appreciated that a movie with a dull-as-dirt period-drama-sounding title turned out to be a post-apocalyptic absurdist comedy, but all the references to British places and culture flew over my uncultured American head, leaving me only with some Airplane-style puns and the welcome sight of Marty Feldman (in his first film, hence the “introducing” title card, though he was already a TV star with his own show).

I suppose the central characters, if there are any, are a young couple in love (Rita Tushingham of The Knack, with a great surname for comedy, and Richard Warwick of If…) and her parents, mother Mona Washbourne (of Billy Liar), who eventually turns into a (perhaps Dali-inspired) cupboard due to nuclear mutation, and father Arthur Lowe (the only actor I liked in The Ruling Class), who later turns into a parrot. Captain/Doctor Bules Martin (Michael Hordern, memorable as Jacob Marley in Scrooge) marries the girl after paying off her father, but she still only sleeps with Richard Warwick. Ralph Richardson (butler in The Fallen Idol) is Lord Fortram, who mutates into a bed sitting room (just a one-room apartment, I guess), where everybody gathers for the climax.

The BBC:

Some stuff I liked: Frank Thornton (Are You Being Served) is a newsman who wears the top third of a ragged suit and frames himself with a TV cutout. “I am the BBC, as you can see.” Also, the short-lived third world war is referred to as “the nuclear misunderstanding.” When the men think they’re being addressed by God, they sing “for he’s a jolly good fellow”.

The fourth movie I’ve seen with famed comedian Spike Milligan and I still don’t know who he is – the closest I got was recognizing which character he played in History of the World Part 1. Here he played “Mate,” whatever that means. Perhaps he’s the guy driving a wrecking ball with Dudley Moore.

Looking at the screen shots after the fact, it seems like a much more remarkable movie.

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999, Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami’s The Traveler (1974) and the shorts I’ve seen from the 70′s all focus on children, life journeys and lessons learned. From Close Up in 1990, running through the Friend’s Home / Life and Nothing More / Olive Trees trilogy and the end of Taste of Cherry (1997), Kiarostami seemed to be making great movies while reminding us that they’re movies, showing aspects of their production, and combining fact with fiction. With Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry (and possibly again a decade later with Five and Shirin), he seemed to be valuing poetry over story, philosophy and nature over characters, making more artistically beautiful films before the DV reality of ABC Africa and Ten. Beginning with those two movies in 2001, he seemed to be making documentaries, or at least highly manipulated films that looked like documentaries, until returning to more traditional fiction features with the latest, Certified Copy, which actually contains multiple layers of fiction. I’m laying all this out in order to try and figure where The Wind Will Carry Us belongs. It’s clearly the culmination of his increasingly poetic, but still somewhat traditional storytelling period, and the last film he’d make with a 35mm film crew for a while. It also carries on the long tradition of casting elementary-school-aged boys in lead roles.

Farzad:

The story is elliptical, and the filmmaking reminds us of this, specifically by hiding a couple of main characters from the camera. There are only about ten speaking roles, and three of them are men who are never seen, always perversely hidden around a corner or down in a hole. Behzad (as IMDB calls him – can’t remember if anyone used his name in the film) arrives at a town in the hills with two companions (never seen), is met by his young guide Farzad. He’s here for a secret reason, asking lots of questions about an old woman confined to her home (also never seen). Everyone in town calls him Engineer, but we get no proof that he is or is not an engineer. He camps out, waiting for the old woman to die, gets a phone call every few days to check on his progress, during which he has to run to his car and drive to the top of the mountain for better cell reception.

At top of the mountain is a hole, in which is a man (never seen) digging a ditch to specs provided by an engineer. Behzad never reveals his identity to this man, but refers to being his boss to somebody else later, playing the role of engineer. The visitors spend weeks in town, Behzad is frustrated, gets angry with Farzad then visits him at school to apologize. Part of the frustration is that he can’t seem to score milk, asks around but never gets any until the ditch-digger’s girlfriend takes him to her underground milking cavern (!), retrieving a bucket of milk while listening to the engineer recite poetry. It’s then that I realized how weird this movie is, how the strangeness has creeped up until this scene almost doesn’t register as unusual.

The old woman dies, and Behzad photographs the funeral procession of women from his car. Is this what he has come to do? Is he a reporter? Was this worth a month of the three men’s time? The movie alternates between repeating routines (driving up the hill when the phone rings) and surprising moments (a woman across the way doesn’t let giving birth interupt her daily routine, the man atop the hill’s ditch collapses on him), and the dialogue is peppered with poetry and philosophy. Photographically, it’s got the winding roads from Taste of Cherry, a man shaving into the camera-mirror as seen in Certified Copy, and probably plenty more I didn’t recognize. The title is a line from a poem by Forough Farroukhzaad (The House Is Black). Movie won second place at Venice to Zhang Yimou’s provincial Not One Less – I’ll bet some people besides me have wondered at that decision.

S. Foundas rounds things up neatly:

An “engineer” (who turns out to be a kind of filmmaker) travels to a remote Kurdish village with the intent of photographing the funeral rites of a dying 100-year-old woman, and the witty, haunting, poetic film that follows is about his — and Kiarostami’s own — struggle to complete that mission, to capture something of real life on film without violating its essence. Kiarostami himself has not worked on film since, preferring the more portable and less invasive technology of video. Call it the first true movie of the digital revolution.

A.O. Scott:

It’s easy enough to expound on the spiritual and moral importance of opening oneself to experience – “prefer the present,” the doctor says, offering a Farsi version of an injunction familiar to readers of Western New Age self-help literature – but it is a rare artist who can prove it. You don’t watch The Wind Will Carry Us so much as dwell in it.

Sorry to overquote J. Rosenbaum, but he has by far the most interesting things to say:

This film — one of Kiarostami’s greatest and in many ways his richest to date — has reportedly not yet passed the Iranian censors … I’ve heard a rumor that the title sequence is the main source of contention. … My guess is that the cellar scene is provocative mostly because it taps into the sort of emotions and sensations that are stirred by poetry. According to Elaine Sciolino’s recent book Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, “Simply put, poetry for Iranians is religion, a religion as powerful as Islam.” It’s hardly exceptional that Kiarostami, who published a collection of his beautiful landscape photographs in Europe last year, shortly afterward published a collection of his poems in Iran — many of them haikulike images, like sketches for moments in his films.

The particular ethics of The Wind Will Carry Us consist largely of Kiarostami reflecting on his own practice as a “media person” exploiting poor people: Behzad may be the closest thing in Kiarostami’s work to a critical self-portrait, at least since the hero in his highly uncharacteristic 1977 feature Report. The most obvious marker of this autocritique is Behzad’s cruelty when, during a moment of angry frustration, he kicks a turtle onto its back and leaves it stranded, though the turtle manages to right itself as Behzad drives back down the hill.

By concentrating on the death of a century-old woman in the year 1999, Kiarostami also seems to be making some sort of millennial statement — something that possibly means less inside Iran, which has a different calendar. By comically divvying up his world into media “experts” and peasants — moguls with cellular phones and ordinary working people — he’s raising the issue of who owns this world and who deserves to.

Buy from Amazon:
The Wind Will Carry Us DVD

13 Assassins (2010, Takashi Miike)

I’ve seen Miike do a big-budget action film with Sukiyaki Western Django, and I’ve seen him do period drama with Sabu. And both of those movies were kinda boring. So I knew not to expect the world from Miike’s 13 Assassins, despite online reviews calling it the best thing he’s ever done. He throws a few bones to the longtime extreme-cinema fans – like a tidal wave of blood when a sympathetic character gets blown to bits – but mostly it plays like a high-quality studio samurai drama. It’s classically well constructed – I’m guessing it’s this glossy lack of rough edges (what some would call personality) that has the casual Miike followers raving, but I can’t see anyone who was impressed by Big Bang Love being too wowed by this. I haven’t seen the 1960′s original 13 Assassins, but I’ve seen Seven Samurai, and if I didn’t know this was a remake of one, I’d guess it’s a remake of the other. It plays like a remake. Whiny complaints aside, it’s a fine, entertaining film. I had a good time and all.

Shinzaemon (Kiyoshi Kurosawa fave Koji Yakusho) is our hero, hired by government man Sir Doi (Miijiro Hira, star of Sword of the Beast, psychiatrist in The Face of Another) to kill an heir to the throne, Lord Matsudara (Goro Inagaki of Hypnosis, one of many Japanese horror movies I rented in a flurry back when The Ring came out). The Lord is extremely evil – rapes a girl at random then kills her husband and, for good measure, ties up his entire family and uses them for close-range target practice.

Shinz is going to need a lotta swords to take on Lord M’s army of guards so he hires 12 more guys, only a few of whom get personalities because hey, we don’t have all day here. Most of the movie is build-up as it is. He gets his hard-gambling nephew (Takayuki Yamada of Crows Zero, who will be one of the only survivors, not that he particularly earned it more than the others), a badass ronin with a spear (was his name Sahara?), a couple explosives novices, and finally Koyata (Yusuke Iseya, awesome leader of the white clan in Sukiyaki Western Django), a wild man with a sling they find in the woods. Of course Shinz has a personal rivalry with the leader of Lord M’s guard, Hanbei (Masachika Ichimura, voice of Mewtwo), in order to up the stakes.

A ton of the fighting comes down to a bunch of indistinguishable, muddy brown-robed guys slashing at each other amongst clanging sound effects and quick editing. But the best parts involve Shinz’s master plan to turn this entire town into a trap, full of spring-loaded gates, explosive-rigged houses, and flaming bulls (quite cartoony, but they got a good laugh), like Seven Samurai or Three Amigos. Fun ending – Koyata, having been stabbed through the neck to his death, shows up alive and unscratched.

S. Tobias:

What is surprising about 13 Assassins is how far it goes in upending the samurai picture. In Miike’s mind, there’s nothing honorable about the thoughtless commitment to honor and code, especially if it means protecting dastardly men who don’t deserve that kind of loyalty. With 13 Assassins, he’s made a film both punk and moral.

The actors playing Sir Doi and Otake previously worked together on a movie called Big Shitty Marathon (“Biggu Shiti Marason”).

Some Television in 2011

The Mighty Boosh season 3

The one in which they work for Naboo at his shop. I liked this and season one better than S2 – it helps to keep the nonsense somewhat grounded with the workplace location. But it’s a minor quibble, and altogether quite a great show. Except for the moon.

Apparently the Boosh did some specials and a live show I’ve gotta find. Also, I keep thinking getting confused by this Richard Ayoade fellow – he played Saboo, not Naboo. Who was Saboo? Anyway, he stars in The IT Crowd, directed the movies Submarine and AD/BC: A Rock Opera and made the shows Man to Man with Dean Lerner, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Nathan Barley, all of which sound good, and some of which co-star Howard Moon and/or Vince Noir. Howard also starred in Edgar Wright’s Asylum – and what’s this: Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge! Must find.

The Thick of It season 1

Even if the rest of the show had been useless, this would be worth watching for Malcolm’s daily, creatively profane insult spree. His first line in the series is “He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.” But it’s a brutally good show all around, as I’d suspected, having seen the film version In the Loop a couple times. Hugh Abbott, minister of social affairs (his predecessor got sacked in the first episode) bumbles into various minor media scandals with help from his staff Glenn, Terry and Ollie, while trying not to be yelled at by Malcolm. It’s exactly how I assume government actually works. Hugh (Chris Langham, a writer on The Muppet Show) didn’t return, but the other main actors made it into the movie. Peter Capaldi (Malcolm) wrote/directed the short Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, has appeared in a couple other things I’ve seen (like Neverwhere) but I wouldn’t recognize him from this unless he was swearing up a storm.

Arrested Development season 1

I can’t believe all that was only one season. Seems like four or five years’ worth of plot twists crammed into one. I mean, if they’ve already followed at least two incest plot lines, produced a long-lost identical twin brother, resolved a number of love affairs and hangups and family members moving in and out, sunk the family yacht, burned down the banana stand, broken out of jail a couple times and adopted a Korean kid, what’s left for the next two seasons? Creator Mitch Hurwitz also wrote Running Wilde with Will Arnett, an animated show full of Arrested Development alum called Sit Down Shut Up, and coincidentally, an unaired American remake of The Thick of It, with Oliver Platt as Malcolm. Iannucci says that was awful. Series directors included the Russo brothers (You, Me and Dupree), Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers).

Mr. Show season 1

Obviously I’ve seen this all before, but I was hurting for some comedy to half-pay-attention-to whilst sorting receipts and other junk on my floor and realized I’ve never played the DVD commentaries all the way through. And now that my floor is half clean and I’m only four episodes into the series’s 30-episode run, it’s clear that I never will.

Still super funny: Ronnie Dobbs, all appearances by Jack Black and Brian Posehn, incubation pants, the hated milking machine, limberlegs, bag hutch, “dear globochem, somebody is trying to kill me.” I know they think it didn’t work, but I love that the early episodes each had interwoven sketches with thematic connections. It was really ambitious for a cheap sketch show shot in a restaurant.

Semi-related shows I still need to watch – there are so many – Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Tim and Eric, more Aqua Teen, Ben Stiller Show, Running Wilde (again), Freak Show, Tom Goes to the Mayor, Breaking Bad, Funny or Die, Pity Card/Derek and Simon, more Sarah Silverman Program, Bob’s Burgers, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, Moral Orel, State of the Union and Bored to Death.

Thunderbolt (1929, Josef von Sternberg)

It’s nice to hear George Bancroft for once, but the sound recording and mix is so primitive, and the visual style seems to be suffering alongside it. It looks more like a standard early 1930′s Hollywood movie than a follow-up to Sternberg’s brilliant silents. Fay Wray has some bad line reads, but weirder, there’s a shot early on where one guy in a conversation is hidden behind a column, as if nobody knew where the camera was located. But it gets better as it goes on, so either it was shot in sequence with the crew learning on the job, or more likely, I was adjusting myself to its quirks, starting to forgive the sound mix and focus on story and shadows instead.

Has a lot in common with Underworld – in each, Bancroft is a tough criminal whose girl falls for someone else. Bancroft goes to prison, and at the last minute he drops his hold upon the girl, wishes the other guy luck and goes to his death laughing.

Sternberg’s first musical number is a success, starring Theresa Harris:

Fay, just off Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March, is in love with boring Bob (boring Richard Arlen of Wings and The Four Feathers). She’s got a good voice, but her dialogue has no flow, as if she’s still learning to speak. Seems like most of the movie takes place in the prison (a nice, simple set for the monstrous talkie camera) after some early scenes in an apartment and a racially integrated nightclub. T-Bolt is briefly introduced to his cellmates, but only a few stand out, such as Bad Al Friedberg, the meanest guy in the joint until Bancroft showed up. George finally gets to back up his tough talk when Bad Al snatches a guard’s gun and the warden (timid old Tully Marshall, one of the professors in Ball of Fire) lets T-Bolt handle the situation. In return, T. gets a pet dog, because audiences can’t be expected to relate to a hard-ass criminal unless he’s kind to dogs, at least. I’m glad the movie kept the dog out of the execution chamber in the final scene. Anyway, his men frame Bob, who is sent to the same prison, and on execution day George plans to grab Bob through the bars and crush his skull, but has a last minute change of heart after a candid chat and seeing Bob and Fay marry in prison, admits the frame job instead.

T-Bolt, left, with Bob:

The convicts have a singing group – my favorite use of sound was the choral backdrops to prison dialogue. The setting gives Sternberg plenty of opportunity to aim noirish shadow-bars across the scenes (online I’ve seen this labeled a proto-noir) Movie was co-written (with Sternberg) by Joseph “All About Eve” Mankiewicz and his brother Herman, who worked on Citizen Kane.

The Magician (1958, Ingmar Bergman)

An Ingmar Bergman comedy! I never imagined that such a thing existed. And it is so wonderful, as gorgeously filmed as Monika but altogether more fun. I have not been watching many Bergman films, and maybe it’s time to do something about that.

When Albert Vogler’s “Magnetic Health Theater” rolls into town, all its participants are accosted by the local authorities and challenged to prove themselves a worthwhile entertainment before they’ll be permitted to perform for the public. These participants include Vogler himself (Max von Sydow, even more impressive than usual), the famed mute illusionist, with Mr. Aman (Vogler’s assistant, actually his wife in disguise, Ingrid Thulin), potion-maker Granny (Naima Wifstrand), a young coachman (Lars Ekborg, male lead in Monika) and sideburns-sporting huckster Tubal (Åke Fridell, Monika’s father). Oh, but on the way, they pick up a dying alcoholic actor (Bengt Ekerot, appropriately played Death in The Seventh Seal), who’s a corpse by the time they arrive.

L-R, that’s Tubal, Granny (in the shadows), coachman Simson, Vogler and Aman/Manda:

The challengers – Consul Egerman (Erland Josephson, lead in The Sacrifice) and his wife with police chief Starbeck (under a hilarious wig) and “royal medical adviser” Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand, who’d play a character named Vogler in Persona) with a silly intellectual’s beard and armless spectacles – are pitting their science and law against the trickery and deceit of the traveling show, confidently toying with the visitors.

L-R: Vergerus, Starbeck, Egerman:

Also in the house are Sara (Bibi Andersson of Persona) who likes the group’s coachman, young Sanna, cook Sofia (Sif Ruud of Port of Call) who likes Tubal, and violent-tempered Antonsson (Oscar Ljung of The Virgin Spring)

Antonsson, Sanna, Sara, Sofia:

It all gets complicated once night falls. The Magician’s wife is unmasked, he reveals himself not to be mute (this had already been “scientifically” revealed when Vergerus grabbed his tongue), everyone is sleeping around, and the “dead man” charges through the dark kitchen snatching some brandy, then actually dies later on. The next morning the show goes off rather badly, with the men in power pulling back curtains to reveal the trickery. But Vogler succeeds in “hypnotizing” Starbeck’s wife into humiliating him (she relishes the opportunity), then severely freaks out Antonsson, who retaliates by attacking and killing Vogler. This should be a sobering moment for the locals, but the police chief immediately announces Vogler’s death to be nobody’s fault, and Vergerus races upstairs to perform an autopsy on the so-called magician – where Vogler switches bodies with the dead actor and tries to haunt Vergerus out of his rational scientist mind.

In the end, Tubal and Granny are quitting the troupe and Sara is joining, running away with her coachman, when they are stopped in the driveway. Everyone assumed they’ll be arrested, but in fact the King has requested a performance, so Vogler leaves in triumph. I loved the story, and the characters are distinctive enough that I kept most of ‘em straight. Besides the comic madness, the whole thing is rich in meaning and mystery.

G. Andrew:

The Magician struck some as a little frivolous in comparison to [the films Bergman made just before and after]: much of the film was in the comic register, and what’s more, the sequence that constituted its dramatic climax sounded echoes of the populist horror genre.

…one of Bergman’s portraits of the artist as an all too human, less than wholly honest manipulator of others. Acutely self-critical, he was highly aware that, as a director in the cinema and the theater, he was using tricks of the trade to persuade audiences that they were witnessing something “real” or “truthful.” Vogler, too, under­stands that his demonstrations of bizarre behavior and miraculous phenomena are in the end a matter of smoke and mirrors, and he’s racked by doubt and self-loathing, made all the worse by the gullibility of many spectators—Mrs. Egerman, for instance, her adoration stemming from a forlorn hope that he’ll somehow cure the enduring grief she feels at her daughter’s death. Many people, the film suggests, are to some extent complicit in the deceptions of which art is necessarily composed—though as Mrs. Egerman’s housekeepers, Sara and Sofia, amusingly reveal in their sly responses to the proffering of love potions by, respectively, Vogler’s cocky coachman and his philistine manager, not all those who are told stories are quite as susceptible in their rapid suspension of disbelief as they may first appear. One can never be entirely sure as to who’s most deceitful, who most deceived.

And oh look, the day I’m posting this (but two weeks after I watched the movie) I learned that its cinematographer Gunnar Fischer has just died at age 100. He also worked on Monika, and surprisingly, Tati’s Parade.

Buy from Amazon:
The Magician: Criterion Blu-ray