Tag Archives: Drama

CAPSULE: MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Paul Schrader

CAST: Ken Ogata, Yasosuke Bando, Masayuki Shionoya, Toshiyuki Nagashima

PLOT: The life and works of celebrated Japanese writer Yukio Mishima are portrayed through a triptych of styles: events from his past life are in black and white, his last day is in color, and renditions of segments of three of his novels—The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses—are staged like plays on elaborate studio sets.

Still from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While the film’s narrative doesn’t strictly follow the conventions of a biopic, it’s not very strange either. The eccentric novel adaptations provide most of the weirdness, but their context is a rational exploration of the writer’s imaginarium and the subjects that most haunted him.

COMMENTS: In Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader is resolutely not interested in crafting a conventional biographical film; instead, he attempts to capture the essence of Yukio Mishima. This is the most distinctive and notable aspect of the movie. The black and white segments, which come closest to traditional biopic, follow Mishima’s course from his childhood as an alienated and sickly boy to his rigorous bodybuilding habit and the formation of his traditionalist private army. These scenes are succinct and concise, because they are complemented by the other sections. One is a similarly realistic account of Mishima’s last act on his final day with his militia, a coup d’état where he famously committed seppuku in the tradition of the samurai class of feudal Japan. The others are dreamy interpretations of passages from three of his books brought to life by vivid colors and operatic flair.

The approach is like a guided tour through Mishima’s mind. Each section’s themes interlock and complement each other so that a coherent picture of the author’s beliefs, desires, preoccupations and identity emerge from the whole. Such a method, while unconventional, provides an infinitely more personal exploration of its equally unique and unorthodox subject, and is so fluid and logical that it actually feels like the most natural way of portraying him. There is a sense that each scene, with its implications and images later mirrored by other segments, is meant as a meaningful contribution to the kaleidoscopic portrait of Mishima and thus, no moment gives the impression of being an obligatory stop in a stroll through the author’s life; the film is simply too dedicated to its subject for that sort of pedestrian storytelling.

Yukio Mishima was one of the most acclaimed writers of post-war Japan, nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he was also a very controversial figure, especially from the 1950’s on, where he started to fanatically espouse a traditionalist worldview that worshiped and fetishized the ways and aesthetics of feudal Japan, the strict code of honor of the samurai class and its devotion to the Emperor. It’s crucial to note that in post-war Japan, at the height of western influence, his nationalist and conservative leanings were more contrarian to the mentality of his countrymen than ever. The first scene shows an apprehensive but determined Mishima waking up in the morning, preparing himself for the act that he has been working on, not only as a political statement but as the culmination of his life, his most dedicated work of art. Throughout these early moments, as well as most of this section, Ken Ogata confers an ever-present austerity to his Mishima, and the other sections dealing with his formative years and artistic work, could be seen as peeling off this rigid exterior to explore the sensibility behind such an idiosyncratic figure.

The dramatizations of the novels are the most dreamlike of the styles: wonderfully beautiful and theatrical, with artificial set design and an extremely bright color pallet, they give the film a great visual richness and an oneiric aura. Mishima’s work was full of neurotic ruminations and anxieties, often communicated by troubled characters meditating on themes such as the nature of beauty, the Self, and, of course (and particularly in his later work), nationalism and the decadence of modern Japanese society with a wistful, melancholic longing for the glorious past. All of these preoccupations are present in the film; the writer’s relationship to them, and how they shape his life, takes center stage.

As such, the film is accessible to those unfamiliar with Mishima (although, naturally, more rewarding to readers), while encouraging further exploration. It potentially serves as a good starting point to hos work. As a fan of Mishima (which may give me a slight bias towards Schrader’s film), I couldn’t be more satisfied by such a devoted and organic portrait.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a dreamy, hypnotic meditation on the tragic intersection of Mishima’s oeuvre and existence that takes place as much in its subject’s fevered imagination as the outside world.”–Nathan Rabin, The A.V. Club (Blu-ray)

343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

Cha no aji

UNCLE: It’s a pretty good story, right?

HAJIME: Yeah, weird… but cool.

The Taste of Tea

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takahiro Satô, Satomi Tezuka, , Maya Banno, Tatsuya Gashûin, Tomokazu Miura, Ikki Todoroki, Anna Tsuchiya

PLOT: A Taste of Tea follows the Haruno family living in rural Japan. The young son has his first crush; the young daughter has a giant doppelganger only she can see; the mother is attempting a comeback in her career as an anime artist; the father is a hypnotist who sends his subjects on psychedelic trips; and a visiting uncle is still melancholy from a romance that ended years ago. A grandfather with a thick gray unibrow and a permanent cowlick watches over the clan while practicing strange poses and singing nonsense songs.

Still from A Taste of Tea (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The title may come from a quote by the ancient Chinese poet Lu Tong, who said, “I care not a jot for immortal life, but only for the taste of tea.”
  • (of “Neon Genesis” series fame) appears in a cameo as the anime director.
  • This was Katsuhito Ishii‘s third feature film, but the first to attract much attention outside Japan. It played at Cannes and won awards at smaller festivals. Ishii had just come off directing the animated sequences for ‘s Kill Bill. His next project, 2004’s Funky Forest, was even weirder and more random than Tea.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Little Sachicko’s giant double, who silently and mysteriously watches her as she goes about her daily routine.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Forehead train; giant doppelganger; egg-head yakuza

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Katsuhito Ishii revamps the least weird genre of cinema, the familial drama, with gently surreal CGI and a narrative that wanders off into mildly scatological yakuza ghost stories, psychedelic hypnotism, and in-progress anime rushes, all watched over by a giant mute schoolgirl.


Clip from The Taste of Tea (2004)

COMMENTS: The family in The Taste of Tea do drink tea, occasionally, but they never comment on its taste. The film itself, however, Continue reading 343. THE TASTE OF TEA (2004)

339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

“I am afraid that memories suppressed could come back with a fury, which is dangerous to all human beings, not only to those who directly were participants but to people everywhere, to the world, for everyone. So, therefore, those memories that are discarded, shamed, somehow they may come back in different ways — disguised, perhaps seeking another outlet.”–Elie Wiesel

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ari Folman

PLOT: Director Ari Folman’s old friend describes a recurring nightmare where he is accosted by 26 angry dogs, a dream that is related to his experiences in the Lebanon War of 1982. When pressed about his own recollections, Folman notices that he only has one clear memory from the war: skinny dipping in the ocean while flares fall over Beirut. He interviews other friends who served with him in an attempt to remember what happened to him in the war, but no one’s memories match his own.

Still from Waltz with Bashir (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The 1982 Lebanon War began when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon in an attempt to stop Palestinian terrorists who were operating across the border. The Israeli’s sided with Christian elements in Lebanon—the Phalangist party—led by the charismatic Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel was elected President of Lebanon in 1982, but was assassinated after less than a month in office. Although a member of a rival Christian political party later confessed to the assassination, members of a radical branch of the Phalangists immediately blamed Palestinians for the killing and undertook a massacre in two refugee camps, systematically killing civilians. 1)The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000. The occupying Israeli army not only allowed the massacre to continue for two days, but shot flares at night to illuminate the streets at the Phalangists request, before ordering the paramilitary troops carrying out the massacre to disperse. An Israeli investigation found defense minister Ariel Sharon negligent for failing to protect the civilians from the Phalangists, and he was forced to resign his post over the resulting scandal. He was elected Prime Minister in 2001, however.
  • Although often mistaken for rotoscoping, the animation in Waltz with Bashir is done cutout style, aided by computers (they actually used Flash). The scenes were filmed and then recreated by animators, rather than drawing directly over the film frames as is done in rotoscoping.
  • Folman exaggerates his memory loss as a literary technique. On the film’s commentary track he explains that in reality he did not have a complete loss of memory, as depicted in the film, but he had suppressed his memories of the Sabra and Shatila incidents.
  • Waltz with Bashir was banned in Lebanon and parts of the Arab world.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many choices here, from the scene of the soldier dancing in the middle of a firefight from which the movie takes its name to the devastating last forty-five seconds. But Waltz with Bashir hooked us with its first (and most) surreal image: the soldier who dreams he is rescued from his troop transport by a giant naked woman who emerges from the sea.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Rabid dog revenge; backstroking giantess; Doberman porn star

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Waltz with Bashir is a perfect example of our sliding scale for weird movies. Ari Folman has made three movies that dabble in surreal imagery; the other two (Clara Hakedosha and The Congress) are inarguably weirder. But Bashir is his morally complex masterpiece, the film for which he seems destined to be remembered. Groundbreaking in form, shocking to the senses and the conscience, it portrays war from a soldier’s ground-eye view as an absurd, half-remembered dream—but one with very real consequences, which emerge from the murk of remembrance into the harsh light of reality in the brutal finale.

Original American trailer for Waltz with Bashir

COMMENTS: A young man walks out of the ocean and stares at us. Continue reading 339. WALTZ WITH BASHIR (2008)

References   [ + ]

1. The actual number of victims is disputed; estimates range anywhere from 300 to 3000.

CAPSULE: KALEIDOSCOPE (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Jones

FEATURING: , Sinead Matthews, Anne Reid

PLOT: A lonely ex-con tries to muddle through life and find romance, but it seems his mother is determined to reassert her domination over him.

Still from Kaleidoscope (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTKaleidoscope toys around with perception and time in a… kaleidoscopic kind of way, but everything gets wrapped up pretty nicely (a little too nicely for the likes of us). It must be said, though, that the protagonist’s mother cranks up the creepy factor to within throwing distance of serious consideration.

COMMENTS: Maintaining a constant sense of unease while being both sweet and unsettling is a tough balancing act for a movie, and such films often pass by unnoticed. And as there are just so many movies to watch, even if your job is to watch them, it can be hard both to find the time to watch the right movies and to find the right movies to fill your time. Kaleidoscope is as understated as its melancholy protagonist, and it’s easy to miss: it’s foreign, low budget, and its biggest star is a niche (albeit incredibly talented) character actor. I would never have watched this if I weren’t a “366” reviewer; having done so, I suspect it will be right up the alley of many “366” followers.

Carl (Toby Jones) is a lonely fellow living quietly in a clapped-out council estate. Tonight, though, is special, as he’s arranged a date with an outgoing young woman named Abby (Sinead Matthews), making the rendezvous at the appropriately named bar “Lust.” Returning to his flat afterwards, they chat, share drinks (he’s a teetotaler, though), and even dance together (that’s right: you get to see Toby Jones dancing to Dubstep in a shirt as loud as the music). Then things start to go badly: Carl gets an unwanted phone message from his mother, his drink gets spiked, and Abby may only have gone on the date in order to case the joint. The next morning, Carl awakens to find himself on his couch not remembering much. Details slowly coalesce, suggesting he may have murdered—again. Panicking, the last thing he needs is a surprise visit from his hated mother (Anne Reid). Of course, she arrives.

The ickiness of Carl’s mother is hard to overstate. Anne Reid’s performance is about as knockout as a low-key psychodrama will allow. She’s excessively sweet (she cooks for her son, cleans his apartment, and even offers him a £90,000 check by way of apology… for something) while being surreptitiously domineering (Carl is obliged at one point to bandage her injured leg after cleaning it up). And she has a history of—probably—taking advantage of him sexually. This leaves the viewer finding her by turns unpleasant and staggeringly creepy. There was one scene in particular that started out merely as uncomfortable before going so far as to force me to shout at the television, “Oh God, No!” (That, dear reader, is quite an achievement considering the dozens of disturbing movies I’ve watched over the years.)

While other reviewers have had the recent misfortune of reviewing forgotten movies that deserve that fate, I’ve typically lucked out with watching ones that merely fell below the radar and stuck there. Kaleidoscope is nothing earth shattering, but it doesn’t need to be. In the same “Mother-as-Monster” genre as ‘s Psycho, it tells the tale of a child being broken by the very person who should have been his protector. As his hallucinated dead father assures him (“I don’t blame you. She filled your mind with poison”), Carl is hardly responsible for the collapse of his life. Kaleidoscope, with its subdued shatter-view, nicely toys with the audience in a far more congenial way than Carl’s mother toyed with him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The eponymous optical instrument gets a full symbolic workout in ‘Kaleidoscope,’ an intricately crafted, infinitely wrongfooting psychological thriller in which conflicting realities coalesce, diverge and regroup like so many shifting formations of jewel-colored glass.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (contemporaneous)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) AND THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

, , the , the Three Stooges (well, the ones with Curly, although I prefer Shemp), , , and Mae West are among the few comedians of yesteryear who have withstood the test of time. There are far more who haven’t. Examples of this are Martin and Lewis (who never made a  good film), (who perhaps made two good, but not great films) and … Wheeler and Woolsey. Who? See what I mean? Briefly, they were the hottest pair since peanut butter and jelly. For the most part, they deserve to be forgotten… with few exceptions, one being the comedy Diplomaniacs (1933, directed by William A. Seiter), which is one of the most jaw-dropping films of the 1930s. Possibly the most racist movie since D.W Griffith set the world on fire, it’s also about as straight as a flaming bunny and, in spite of itself, funny and weird as hell. Apart from one element, it could also serve as a banner film for MAGA fans.

Although Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey made a few films apart, it was only their work together (21 films in 8 years) that was successful. The teaming only ended with Woolsey’s premature death in 1938 from kidney failure. Their last film was 1937’s High Flyers, but with their risqué humor, the spot-on consensus is that their pre-code films are superior. Unlike other comedy teams, their films were not revived on television, which undoubtedly has contributed to their being largely forgotten. Still, it’s easy to see why their appeal hasn’t lasted. Their routines are stage-bound, both having come from vaudeville. Physically, Woolsey reminds one of George Burns. Wheeler is the skinny curly-haired boy.

Still from Diplomaniacs (1933)Diplomaniacs came out the same year as Duck Soup and bears a similar, surreal anti-war message. The difference is in the latent homosexuality of their characters, which is a far cry from the raging hetero libidos of the Marx boys (that’s the one element MAGA boys have to get past, but they should, because there is plenty here for them).

Wheeler and Woolsey are barbers on the Adoop reservation, which doesn’t make for good business since red man can’t grow beard. Yup, every blatant stereotype about “Injuns” is intact. Naturally, the Native Americans are WASPS in face paint. The college educated chief can help the boys out financially with a commission to represent his tribe in the Geneva Peace conference.

Time for a song: “The red man was the big man and then came the great big white man and the white man is the right man. The whites Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: DIPLOMANIACS (1933) AND THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

CAPSULE: ZEN DOG (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge

FEATURING: , Adam Hershman, Celia Diane

PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.

Still from Zen Dog (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.

COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.

Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from ‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on casette tape.

The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.

Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, it’s enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)

PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

Among the most influential and potent of all director/actor collaborations is that of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. They made seven films together, beginning with 1930’s infamous The Blue Angel. (For this film, each scene was shot twice, once with the actors speaking in German, then in English. If you haven’t seen it, go for the German version. It’s grimier.)

Blonde Venus (1932) is the least discussed and revisited of their work together. Apart from an embarrassing, but expressionistic, musical number, it’s something of a train wreck. Von Sternberg can’t be blamed. Paramount forced the dreadful script on him, and the director rightfully disowned it. There’s little originality in the story, and what enthusiasm von Sternberg  finds is, predictably, in the lensing.

Of course, he gives considerable attention to his discovery (and off-screen mistress) Dietrich. She’s a German cabaret singer here (imagine that), and Venus is occasionally a fatigued rehash of elements from Blue Angel. Its worst error is in in deviating from Dietrich’s femme fatale persona, miscasting her here in an empathetic role as a sacrificial wife/mother who becomes a cabaret singer and beds a New York club owner (Cary Grant) to finance treatment for her ill husband (Herbert Marshall). Hubby finds out. Hubby blows his top. She runs. He chases. She falls into ruin, literally becomes a prostitute, and gives up custody of their child. It limps along melodramatically, with the fallen penitential woman reaping what she has sown. Dietrich is better suited to getting away with her sins.

Frank about sexual mores (there’s also a brief skinny-dipping scene) it’s definitely pre-code, but that can’t save this from static dullness. Dietrich is statuesque and has a picture-perfect son in Dickie Moore (he was briefly one of the Little Rascals). Dietrich was a limited actress, but one who shrewdly utilized her limitations (and smokey voice) to perfection. However, cast as a pre-June Cleaver housewife, she is out of her range and falls flat. She’s best when she is exotic. Among the musical numbers,  she steals everything but the camera in “Hot Voodoo.” In spite of the blatant racism (black-faced chorus girls), which which will have contemporary viewers squinting 1)Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences., it’s a startling sequence, with Dietrich glamming it up in a gorilla suit and blonde afro wig (hence the title Blonde Venus). There’s also the hackneyed Freudian symbology of the duality in the Venus figure (sinner/saint, mother/whore). As with all of von Sternberg, it’s worth watching for his blatant photographic obsession with Dietrich, and for what he can milk out of the sin/virtue script.

Despite its flaws, Blonde Venus was a box office hit that paved the way for their penultimate collaboration, The Scarlet Empress (1934), which proved to be both their masterpiece, and an epic box office flop. Yes, 1934 American audiences reacted to something original and unexpected the same way audiences do today: they stayed the hell away, unaccustomed to any spice in their diet.

To say that Josef von Sternberg  was one of the great visionaries of 1930s cinemas should be blatantly obvious to first year film school students everywhere. With the poor box office Continue reading PRE-CODE HEAVEN: BLONDE VENUS (1932) AND THE SCARLET EMPRESS (1934)

References   [ + ]

1. Sans Trumptards of course—but then I’m referring to human audiences.

CAPSULE: MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, 

PLOT: A troubled 16-year old girl escapes her neurotic home life by immersing herself in an experimental theater troupe.

Still from Madleine's Madeline (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Madeline is a promising and passionate shot across the bow of the timid indie drama scene, a collection of typical film festival narrative preoccupations—dysfunctional family dynamics, reflective meditations on the trials of the working artist—blurred by an experimental film lens. But for all its oddball virtues, it’s of limited appeal, and I suspect it finds more favor with dramaheads looking for a weird-ish diversion from the ordinary than with weirdophiles looking for a little drama.

COMMENTS: Josephine Decker has been blipping on the edges of our radar here at 366, with two arty/weird low-budget erotic films (the lesbian-themed Butter on the Latch and randy farmhand tale Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) that we didn’t have the opportunity to check out, as well as an installment in the dream anthology collective:unconscious that we did. Madeline’s Madeline, her Sundance-selected third feature film, is her breakout project, a confirmation that our interest was warranted.

Madeline’s Madeline paints a portrait of three women. Madeline is a 16-year old with a natural gift for acting, an increasing impatience with her virginity, and a slowly-disclosed history of mental illness. She misbehaves like a normal teenager—sometimes going too far—but the seriousness of her condition is also somewhat suspect, since it’s mainly suggested by her neurotic mother Regina, who comes off as a bit of a hysterical hypochondriac. Naturally, these two clash. Madeline’s awkward attempts at erotic expression (she shows a potential beau her departed father’s VHS porn collection) are more frustrating than fulfilling, but the girl finds meaning in her work with an experimental theater troupe—the type of outfit that performs endless improvisations where the cast pretends to be cats or sea turtles or explores dream work and never gets around to rehearsing an actual play. Director Evangeline, our third female character, is working on a script to feature Madeline, but it never develops due to her endless digressions and exercises—experiments that sometimes become uncomfortably intimate. Madeline sees Evangeline as the mother she wished she had—and her feelings might be returned—but their relationship is complicated by mutual jealousy, and by Evangeline’s egotism and subtle authoritarianism. If she thinks she can constrain a force of nature like Madeline, however, the director is sadly mistaken: the teen  proves advanced beyond her years at psychological manipulation.

The briefly outlined story above  is delivered in a series of vignettes; some deliberately confusing, while others wouldn’t seem out of place in Ladybird. The scenes are often broken up by disorienting, psychotic montages: the lens wavers in and out of focus, shot from odd angles while the camera focuses on chins or foreheads or forks during conversations. The score is mostly a capella chanting of the tribal variety; very Greenwich Villagey, just like Evangeline’s bohemian brand of performance art theater. The entire procedure develops into a kind of Cubist filmmaking: individual scenes depict facets of the multilayered story, with details often obscured or muddled, but the whole reveals a complete portrait of its subject, seen from multiple angles. The ending is a psychedelic free-for-all encapsulating Madeline’s rebellion against Evangeline’s artistic authority: the girl stages a mutiny and turns rehearsal into an avant-garde haunted house and choreographed manifesto of independence.

Exemplary acting from the primary trio gives Madeline a leg up on similar experiments. July pushes her eccentric persona in a new, less precious direction. Parker’s character is far more complex than she first appears: the troupe defers to her as its de facto leader, but she’s more dilettante than genius, and her insecurities gradually reveal weaknesses that Madeline instinctively exploits. We never get a handle on which of the three women is actually the craziest—although Madeline at least had the excuse of youth and adolescent turmoil to soften her madness. 19-year old Helena Howard—who plays everything from a confused teen to a kitty cat to her own mother—makes everything watchable, grounding the sometimes flighty project and showing breakout star potential. Unfortunately, this experimental movie is destined to be little-seen, but producers and casting directors will take note of Howard. Like Madeline, her talent is too great to confine itself to underground niche movies: expect to see her cast in bigger projects soon. But we hope she’ll remember, and maybe even return to, her weird, arty roots years from now when she’s a big star.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film tells us that what we are about to watch is just a metaphor, not the actual thing. That comes up several times the weirder things get… Madeline’s Madeline was not for me but I’m sure there’s someone out there for it.”–Fred Topel, We Live Entertainment

INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that this site asked me to; I did it to myself.

Still, Bergman was by no means a one-note filmmaker. Like Mahler, whose 4th symphony is as sunny as Mahler can get and still be Mahler, Bergman had a more pleasing side on occasion (i.e. The Magic Flute). So, I’m glad to be ending this Bergman series with Autumn Sonata (1978) followed by Fanny and Alexander (1981) next week. As pleasurable as these examples of late Bergman are, I’ll still look forward to something a tad lighter, perhaps a camp fest or a dumb summer blockbuster.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

Srill from Autumn Sonata (1978)The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.