Tag Archives: Swedish

LIST CANDIDATE: SOUND OF NOISE (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson

FEATURING: Bengt Nilsson, Sanna Persson

PLOT: A music-hating, tone deaf detective from a family of musical prodigies tracks down a

Still from Sound of Noise (2010)

gang of musical terrorists staging disruptive avant-garde percussion performances across Malmö, Sweden.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If David Lynch directed the Swedish cast of STOMP in an action-comedy, I think it might go a little something like this…

COMMENTS: Tummy drums. Banknotes in a shredder. Jackhammer. Bowed power lines. These are some of the instruments employed by Sound of Noise‘s anarcho-musical terrorists, who bang on the Swedish city of Malmö like a giant drum kit by staging surprise polyrhythmic concertos in emergency rooms, banks, and other public spaces. Hot on their trail is detective Amadeus Warnebring, the black sheep of a family of musical prodigies; he has a hearing disorder which makes the sound of music intolerable to his ears, so that attending a Haydn recital staged by his younger brother, a celebrity conductor, hurts more than his pride. Sound of Noise takes this outlandish setup as its base melody, then syncopates the beat into a thematic experiment that builds to a bizarro crescendo. An undercurrent of humor serves as a constant backbeat that keeps us from getting lost in the thematic noodling. This is a very funny film, from the way it parodies caper movie conventions as the criminal mastermind musicians recruit expert anti-establishment drummers from their straight day jobs to the moment the masked sextet breaks into a bank with the declaration “This is a gig! Just listen and nobody gets hurt!” Besides the comedy, the music itself provides pop appeal: each of the four movements of “Music for One City and Six Drummers,” the conceptual piece the detective is trying in vain to stop, is feisty, inventive, and catchy as hell. In the second performance, one musician bangs rubber stamps against a teller’s window while another taps the keys of a computer keyboard; his fellows accompany him with adding machines and paper shredders, stirring the soul by appropriating and reordering the mundane commotion of ordinary life. We can hardly wait to hear what the each succeeding movement will bring. The music the “terrorists” play is experimental and dangerous, but it’s not academic or obscure: in contrast to the chilly exclusivity of the symphonic musical establishment (Sound‘s main satirical target), these tunes staged in the public square aim to connect with ordinary people and set toes to tapping. The movie would like to advocate the same aesthetic mix of cutting-edge creativity and unpretentious appeal, but detective Amadeus’ storyline goes off-beat and heads into dissonant narrative realms. His back story is merely quirky, but it develops into something genuinely strange when he discovers that he can no longer hear the sound made by an “instrument” after it has been played on by the drummers. So, in discordant allegory, the percussionists progressive performances are helping antagonist Amadeus to achieve his dream of a music-free utopia of silence. Following this plotline to its illogical conclusion leads to an exceedingly odd and somewhat muddled finale where Amadeus’ selective deafness and his spiritual connection to Sanna, the female music theorist who leads the band, merge into a personal musical apocalypse. The movie’s competing rhythms of absurd comedy, police procedural, action (there’s a chase scene where a drummer tosses cymbals out of his van to slow down his pursuers), music, and surreal speculation don’t always merge perfectly, but the beats are original and high-spirited enough to keep you intrigued for the symphony’s short running time. Plus, I bet the official soundtrack is a blast to play at parties.

Sound of Noise is a feature-length riff on “Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers,” Ola Simonsson’s 2001 short film about six percussionists (played by the same actors) who break into an apartment to play music on the resident’s appliances while they are out walking their dog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re looking to fill out your weird quotient for the week, there’s no better option in town right now than this Swedish film doozy. Unique to a fault…”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) – 2011 CRITERION RELEASE

Although it has been predictably labeled a “horror” film by more than a few dull and lazy commentators, ‘s The Phantom Carriage owes more to Charles Dickens and the literary world of supernatural dreams than it does contemporary, cheapened genre categories.  In October of this year, The Phantom Carriage received its long overdue Criterion release.  A telling clue to the film’s artistic merits can be heard in the academic commentary by historian Casper Tybjerg.  Another valuable and revealing extra in this Criterion edition is an excerpt from a filmed interview with in which the director discusses the influence that Sjostrom and The Phantom Carriage had on his own art. A video essay by historian Peter Cowie, and an accompanying written essay by Paul Mayersberg (screenwriter of The Man Who Fell To Earth) round out a typically impressive Criterion release.

According to the Scandinavian myth, the last person to die on New Years Eve is doomed to be the dreaded coachman for the grim reaper’s chariot until the following New Years Eve.  The director himself plays protagonist David Holm, and Sjostrom’s acting is strikingly contemporary in its naturalness, quite the reverse of what we think of in regards to histrionic, stylized silent film acting.  Holm, an alcoholic, is killed on New Years Eve and, at the stroke of midnight, it is he who is drafted to be Death’s charioteer.  An old acquaintance of Holm’s happened to have been death’s previous coachman and, like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol,” he warns Holm of a spiritually bankrupt state.  Indeed, Holm’s life has been one of decay and shocking cruelty, but Sjostrom does not resort to oversimplification.  Although Holm has become a sadistic caricature, moments of human warmth still surface, ebbing towards regret and eventual redemption.  Compared to Holm, Ebeneezer Scrooge is the stuff of sainthood.

Still from The Phantom Carriage (1921)Comparisons to Dickens are apt, but Sjostrom’s film casts an even more complex and lugubrious milieu.  The movie is based on Selma Lagerlof’s novel “Korlarlen” and, in contrast to the expressionism popular during the period, Sjostrom opts for a naturalistic setting.  While The Phantom Carriage does not take the easy route of escapist fantasy for adolescent boys, that does not mean it is lacking in intensity.  One scene clearly seeded ‘s idea for Jack Torrance in the unsettling “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining (1980) .

The cinematography, by Julius Jaenzon, is exquisitely haunting.  Jaenzon’s use of double exposure in the ghostly carriage holds up impressively for a 90 year old film.  The Phantom Carriage was released the same year as Charlie Chaplin‘s groundbreaking The Kid.  Both films are, rightly, considered spiritually progressive, humanist films of the silent era.  However, Sjostrom’s film does not fall into the maudlin sentiment that occasionally mars Chaplin’s premiere feature.

Along with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, The Phantom Carriage is one of the most important releases of the year.  Sjostrom’s influential classic is also among the most long-awaited Criterion releases of early cinema.

77. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR [Sånger från andra våningen] (2000)

“Beloved be those who sit down.”
–César Vallejo

“People have wondered how to classify my film. Absurdism or surrealism? What the hell is it?… This film introduces a style that I’d like to call ‘trivialism.’ Life is portrayed as a series of trivial components. My intention is to touch on bigger, more philosophical issues at the same time.”–Roy Andersson, DVD commentary to Songs from the Second Floor

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson

FEATURING: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson

PLOT:  Set at the dawn of the millennium in a nameless city that seems to be undergoing an apocalyptic panic—traffic is at a standstill as people try to leave all at once, parades of flagellants march down the street, and the Church considers returning to human sacrifice—Songs unfolds as a series of brief, seemingly unrelated, vaguely surreal scenes.  Eventually a main thread emerges involving a family: the father’s furniture business has just burnt down, one son has gone insane from writing poetry, and the other son is a melancholy cab driver.  The father enters the retail crucifix business and begins seeing ghosts.

Still from Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

BACKGROUND:

  • The film was inspired by the verse of the relatively obscure avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938), whose poem “Stumble between to stars” is quoted in the film.  Anyone who thinks Andersson is obscure would do well to avoid Vallejo, whose work—with its invented words and grammar and difficult symbolism—recalls James Joyce at his most impenetrable.
  • Songs  from the Second Floor was Andersson’s third feature film, and his first since 1975’s Giliap.  He spent most of the intervening time directing commercials, although he did complete two highly regarded short films.
  • Andersson discovered Lars Nordh shopping for furniture at an IKEA.
  • Many of the exterior shots were actually shot inside Andersson’s studio with trompe l’oeil paintings or three-dimensional models as backgrounds .
  • All scenes are completed in one take.  The camera only moves once (a calm tracking shot in the railway station).
  • At the time of the film’s release reviewers consistently marveled that none of the scenes had been scripted or storyboarded beforehand.  The method here shouldn’t suggest that Andersson simply made up the film as he went along, however, as unused footage shows that each scene was meticulously rehearsed and refined dozens of times, often on incomplete sets with stand-ins for the actors, over what must have been a period of weeks or months.  Andersson says they sometimes shot twenty to twenty five takes per scene to achieve the perfect performance.
  • The film took four years to complete.
  • Songs from the Second Floor tied for the jury prize at Cannes in 2000 (the jury prize is the third most prestigious award after the Palme D’Or and the Grand Prix).
  • Andersson followed up Songs with You, the Living [Du Levande] (2007) (also Certified Weird). The two movies are extremely similar both thematically (the comically apocalyptic mood) and stylistically (made up of intricately composed, brief vignettes). Andersson has said he intends to create a trilogy; however, he has suggested that the third film may not follow the same style as the first two.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fat Kalle standing at a deserted crossroads by the pile of discarded crucifixes, gazing at the figures approaching on the horizon, is an image worthy of European arthouse greats like Buñuel or Fellini.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are a few moments of magical realism in Songs from the Second Floor, involving subway commuters bursting into classical verse and the matter-of-fact appearance of ghosts, but even if these interludes hadn’t been included, the movie would feel strange because of the high artificiality of Andersson’s style: the static camera, the constant crowds of expressionless figurants gazing dispassionately at the action in the foreground, the carefully controlled compositions filled with background detail. Adding deadpan absurd black humor, bleak existentialism, and a sense of looming catastrophe into the mix produces a singular concoction, one that captured Sweden’s—and the West’s—mood of anxious despair as the new millennium dawned.


Scene from Songs from the Second Floor

COMMENTS: Songs from the Second Floor uses deep focus—the photographic technique Continue reading 77. SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR [Sånger från andra våningen] (2000)

68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

AKA The Witches; Witchcraft Through the Ages

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Must See

“Such were the Middle Ages, when witchcraft and the Devil’s work were sought everywhere. And that is why unusual things were believed to be true.”–Title card in Häxan

DIRECTED BY: Benjamin Christensen

FEATURING: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen

PLOT: The film’s narrative segments involve the betrayals and accusations of witchcraft that destroy a small town in medieval Europe, and the monks who instigate them. Most of the film, however, consists of Christensen’s free-form discourse about the history of witchcraft and demonology.
Still from Häxan (1922)

BACKGROUND:

  • Christensen was an actor-turned-director with two feature films (The Mysterious X and Blind Justice) under his belt when he made Häxan.  He later moved to Hollywood, but he never recaptured Häxan‘s magic, and most of his subsequent films have been lost.
  • The film spent two years in pre-production as Christensen researched scholarly sources on medieval witchcraft, including the Malleus Maleficarum, a German text originally intended for use by Inquisitors.  Many of these are cited in the finished film, and a complete bibliography was handed out at the film’s premiere.
  • In the 1920s and afterward Häxan was frequently banned due to nudity, torture, and in some countries for its unflattering view of the Catholic Church.
  • Some of the footage from this film may have been reused for the delirium sequences in 1934′s Maniac (along with images from the partially lost silent Maciste in Hell).
  • In 1968, a truncated 76-minute version of Häxan was re-released for the midnight movie circuit under the title Witchcraft Through the Ages by film distributor Anthony Balch, with narration by William S. Burroughs and a jazz score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The scenes set at the Witches’ Sabbaths are overflowing with bizarre imagery. The most unforgettable example is probably when the witches queue up and, one after another, kiss Satan’s buttocks in a show of deference.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In making Häxan, Christensen dismissed the then-nascent rules of classical filmmaking and turned it into a sprawling, tangent-filled lecture based on real historical texts.  This already makes the film unique, but the use of ahead-of-its-time costuming and special effects in order to film a demonic panorama right out of Bosch or Bruegel, and Christensen’s irreverent sense of humor as he does it, is what makes it truly weird.

Film festival trailer for Häxan (1922)

COMMENTS: In 1922, even before the documentary had been firmly established as a Continue reading 68. HÄXAN [HÄXAN: WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES] (1922)

CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Ingmar Bergman

FEATURING: Max von Sydow,

PLOT: An artist is haunted by memories of his past. While isolated on an island with his pregnant wife, his demons catch up to him. Madness and delusion creep deeper into his mind as a gang of mysterious island dwellers intervene in the couple’s life. A secret, scandalous affair surfaces, and when supernatural forces intervene, the couple’s relationship and sanity is strained.

Still from Hour of the Wolf [Vargtimmen] (1968)
WHY IT SHOULD’T MAKE THE LIST: This is a tough film to decipher. The ending is certainly weird, but the lead-up to that point is too ponderous and ambiguous. Bergman is a master and his lone foray into the horror genre is an excellent piece of film-making; his artistry in delving into the lower depths of the human psyche is better established in his other well-known masterpieces, however.

COMMENTS: The older I get, the more I appreciate Ingmar Bergman films. There is something about Swedish movies that encapsulates human existence like no other country. Scenes are left dangling on a thread waiting to snap. The slow, or still, images can verge on monotony, but are usually necessary to convey the pathos of the souls here. Sometimes watching scenes slowly transpire is the best way to fully grasp how life can unravel around us. A scene in this film actually plays out for an entire minute with the main character staring at his watch to express how even sixty seconds can feel like an eternity. Time can sometimes lay heavy on a burdened mind. What I’m trying to suggest here is that Bergman is amazing at capturing exactly what it means to be human. We sin and regret, yet we still long for penance and understanding. Even when our existence feels loathsome, it sure is nice to have someone else around to share in our misery. Modern Swedish director Roy Andersson (You, The Living) knows this as well and, like Bergman, his films are wrought with longing stares of sadness.  Both Swedes capture these depressing moments and bring them alive with precise balance and well thought out execution.  Even dialogue is matter-of-fact.  Nothing said in their films seems to be unimportant or drivel; it’s Continue reading CAPSULE: HOUR OF THE WOLF [VARGTIMMEN] (1968)