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.

The narratively-straightforward centerpiece of the Orphic Trilogy. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s full of visual effects, mostly with easily identifiable techniques – reversing the film, tilting the camera, a mirror, rear projection – but so handsomely shot and elegantly presented as to seem fantastically unique. I don’t quite understand the point of the Orpheus myth, why his wife is taken away as if she’s a toy, but Cocteau redeems it with his “it was all a dream” ending, the couple back together (and expecting a child) while their now-forgotten underworld lovers are punished for meddling.

Jean Marais (Cocteau’s ex-boyfriend, returning from Beauty and the Beast) is the title poet, nationally famous, but hated by the locals. I suppose they consider him a sellout. Cocteau makes these kids out as an unthinking mob always looking for the next new thing – a response to his own audiences after he’d become famous himself? He’s married to the beautiful Eurydice (Marie Déa of Les Visiteurs du soir), but mostly ignores her, concentrating on his work. Meanwhile, the kids are swooning over young poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s current boyfriend, also lead in Les Enfants Terribles).

Orpheus and his death:

But Death comes for Cegeste – Death in the form of Princess Maria Casares (Children of Paradise), who runs him over in the middle of a crowd, then takes him away along with Orpheus. Since the townspeople have never seen her, her car or the two motorcyclists that accompany her, but they see Orpheus’s conspiratorial-seeming involvement, they come after him with weapons towards the end. But first, either the Princess or her buddy Heurtebise (Francois Perier of Stavisky and Gervaise) kills Eurydice out of jealousy, H. leads O. on a tour of the underworld, and the agents of Death fall in love with the poet and his wife, and vice versa. Cegeste, meanwhile, is happily writing messages for broadcast on Death’s private radio network, and back in the real world, Orpheus sits in Heurtebise’s Rolls all day, listening and transcribing the poetry from the airwaves – which only gets him in further trouble with the mob when they realize he’s ripping off the unpublished work of their missing hero.

Cegeste gets carried away:

Quoth IMDB: “Orphee’s obsession with deciphering hidden messages contained in random radio noise is a direct nod to the coded messages that the BBC concealed in their wartime transmissions for the French Resistance.”

And quoth Cocteau, “I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground.”

My favorite stills from this movie have been on my PC screen saver for years, so I tried to get some different ones. This is from a great subjective shot which seems simple until you realize those can’t be Marais’s hands, nor his reflection:

Cocteau again:

Among the misconceptions which have been written about Orphée, I still see Heurtebise described as an angel and the Princess as Death. In the film, there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel.

The way the French words “my death” are pronounced in this movie, in combination with seeing those words on the subtitles, “my death”, and pondering their meaning. Does everyone have his own death? And like Cocteau is saying above, the Princess isn’t “Death” in the way he appears in The Seventh Seal. She’s an employee of a system, subject to judgement, part of a bureaucracy so vast that someone mentions orders bouncing from place to place, with no identifiable origin. It’s details like this which lift the movie from a well-shot retelling of an ancient myth into something original and exciting.

Orpheus glimpses his wife in the car mirror:

Thee Autopsy Movie. I’ve had the Brakhage set for over five years and have proclaimed it the single best thing on my DVD shelf, but have never even attempted to watch this particular short before. I assumed it’d be just like Window Water Baby Moving, but using dead bodies instead of Stan’s pregnant wife, which seemed like the worst idea in the world, or at least something guaranteed to make me physically upset upon viewing. But on this particularly slow week in Shocktober, I gave it a go. Fortunately it turned out to be more stylistically tame, less jittery than WWBM, Stan not trying to horrify us, just to filter what he’s seeing through his always intense camera eye. I’m glad this exists, and I’m somewhat glad I saw it, but I might not want to ever see it again.

Engineer Fred, who spent his whole year around prisons (his father worked there), offers to design a better electric chair. He does, it works. Fred proclaims himself an electric chair expert, makes more chairs for other states. Soon he’s got contracts for a gallows, a lethal injection machine, and a gas chamber. Fred proclaims himself an expert at all execution apparatuses. Soon he is asked to join the legal defense team of a holocaust denier and travel to Auschwitz to determine whether there were gas chambers present. Not knowing a goddamned thing about history or chemistry, Fred goes to Auschwitz and looks around, does some severely flawed chemical tests looking for arsenic, and notes that these buildings (in their ruined 1990’s state) don’t even have DOORS! You can’t very well expect to contain poison gas without doors. So Fred decides that since he is an expert at all matters concerning execution, and since he doesn’t see how there could’ve been gas chambers here, the holocaust must’ve not happened. Suddenly nobody wants to be associated with Fred, so he stops getting engineering contracts and instead gets lawsuits and offers to speak at neo-nazi gatherings.

Kind of a sad movie, about death and denial. Morris uses re-enactments to dramatize Fred’s career, provide some visuals to all the interviews… which is fine, but I could’ve done with about ten minutes less slow-motion footage of chiseling bits off walls at Auschwitz. I liked it – Katy did too.