I’d like to share something with you: When movie critics get together, we talk shop – mostly stuff we’ve seen, stuff we want to see, and how crummy untrained upstart Internet Brats like yours truly are ruining everything for the venerable field Print Journalism. As such, it’s not uncommon to find oneself defending one’s reviews.
What is uncommon, but not unheard of, is to find oneself defending one’s readership. Usually, sleight is unintended: “Well, that must be easier at least” if it’s learned that you’re doing “capsule reviews” or working for a less-than-highbrow (read: not a “Film Journal”) publication; or “I’m surprised they sent you to this” if one is working for… oh, I dunno, a videogaming site and the movie is something other than a teen-targeted action flick.
Now, I get that no malice is meant by such idle chatter, but the casual implication at hand – that Escape to The Movies fans would be assumed to be easier to please because gamers apparently don’t possess a sophisticated appreciation of the cinema – does tend to stick in my craw somewhat. Go ahead and call this brown-nosing if you like, but before I was part of The Escapist I was a reader of The Escapist, and I know for a fact that this isn’t a “dummy” or fanboy site.
My irritation as to assumptions otherwise is a big part of why I’ve resolved to A) try even harder to include real meat-and-potatoes film theory among the puns and strategic cuss-words; and B) to use this column, when appropriate, to try and expand on some of that material because I’ve got this crazy idea that instead of looking down on someone for not getting some obscure movie reference or technical criticism, maybe it’s better to use it as an opportunity to introduce them to it.
To that end, this week’s review of “The Road” made reference to “The Seventh Seal,” a 1957 classic from Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. I put it in there to illustrate a point, but it occurred to me later that it gives me the opportunity to do some of that “introducing” in this week’s column – which is good, because as it turns out “Top Ten Thanksgiving Movies” is actually not all that functional of a list to try and make.
So I figured I’d do a “mini-film-school” thing here: drop a bit more background on Bergman – who’s one of those filmmakers you just ought to know if you’re interested in forming a broader understanding of the movies – why exactly “The Road” made him jump into my brain and finally toss out a short list of movies of his that everyone should see at least once. The list part I’ve narrowed down to three movies – all available on DVD and easily accessible via Netflix or otherwise – two of which represent his most iconic work and one of which shows a tangible connection between his films of then and the multiplex of now.
So, first things first: Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 and died in 2007. He was a theater director in addition to a filmmaker, doing most of his best-known work in his native Sweden. His career breaks roughly into two periods: Fantasy and/or abstract-surrealist films made in the 50s and 60s; followed by a period of more reality-oriented character work from the 70s onward.
At the height of his international fame, Bergman’s name and the recurring elements of his films were the face of European Art Films in the same way that Bruce Lee or The Shaw Bros. were the faces of Asian Kung Fu movies. If someone wanted to spoof the Euro-Arthouse genre, Bergman was their point of reference. In fact, when watching his better-known films for the first time, it’s quite normal to feel a sense of deja-vu: You’ve seen these scenes before… as parodies, references and borrowed imagery in everything from movies to cartoons to comics to videogames. Don’t believe me? Just watch the first movie on the list.
THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)
This is the big one, unquestionably Bergman’s best known, most-frequently-referenced work and the film that’s responsible for this whole column owing to similarities it shares with “The Road”; chiefly that both are about men questing through hostile territories, trying to hold to some semblance of a moral code despite morality (if not God Himself) having seemingly vanished from the world. “Seal” takes place in medieval Europe and follows the exploits of a knight (Max Von Sydow, those born after 1980 probably know him best as Ming the Merciless) who returns from the Crusades disillusioned, only to find the land decimated by the plague. In the film’s opening scenes, he meets Death himself – as in The Grim Reaper, literally – and schemes to stall the specter’s claim on his soul by engaging him in a game of chess. In between turns, the knight and his squire travel the land, gain more companions and bear witness to the ever-more-insane actions (witch-burnings, self-flagellations) of people as the world dies around them. The knight seems to have a plan (or at least a purpose) for keeping The Reaper at bay, though what it is is anybody’s guess. For those wondering: Yes, this is where “Billy & Mandy” came from.
The influence of “Seventh Seal” can’t be overstated. Just about everyone who’s made or been touched by a film working in surrealism, dream-logic and even borderline-blasphemous humor owe much of their existence to it. Without exaggeration, it’s likely that without “Seventh Seal,” the filmographies of David Lynch, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Richard Kelly and countless others would be wholly different – if they existed at all. On a more specific level, it’s become such a pervasive element of popular culture that you can find (or may already have found it) referenced in everything from “Animaniacs” to “Bill & Ted” to “Last Action Hero.”
“Seventh Seal” vs. “Persona” is the Kirk vs. Picard of pre-70s arthouse film fandom. Together, they comprise Bergman’s two best-known (and in my opinion best period) films, and fans will argue over which is truly superior with fervor usually reserved for Team Edward and Team Jacob.
Overall, “Persona” is probably the more relatable to modern audiences. It’s set in the “present,” features more naturalistic acting and its abstractions are literal – the movie itself is staged as a film reel that unspools irregularly, breaking, melting and including what appear to be spliced-in moments of other films and still semi-pornographic images… except the changes to the (physical) film seem to be affecting the characters inhabiting it. If you’re already thinking about “Fight Club”, good.
Technically, it’s about a mentally-disturbed actress who’s stopped speaking and her nurse staying at a secluded beachfront house. They try to get along, but soon a series of perceived sleights (which may or may not have been imagined) leads to a back-and-forth battle of psychological and then physical torment. As they break down, so does the film and maybe reality itself – at one point their identities seem to have been switched without their knowledge – while unmistakable references to other film and story styles add implications of lesbianism, haunting and even vampirism. In fact, you’ll find very few serious filmmakers who’ve had more direct or indirect influence on the horror genre than Bergman, which brings us to our next selection.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
This isn’t usually counted among Bergman’s best or best known work, though ironically it was one of the most well-received (winning Best Foreign Language Film at the 1961 Oscars) and is easily one of the most accessible. It’s a straightforward story where the lone note of unreality is played as an in-plot miracle. In any case, its inclusion here is more for purposes of connection – believe it or not, this well-regarded art film was actually the basis for the two “Last House on The Left” horror movies.
Thus, if you saw either “Last House” movie you already know the story: A pair of teenage girls, one naughty one nice, are attacked, raped and left for dead by a group of thugs. Said thugs end up taking shelter for the night in the home of their victim’s parents, who exact brutal revenge upon realizing who their guests are. The main difference is that “Spring” takes place in Medieval Sweden, and uses its story to explore some of Bergman’s most-common recurring themes of the period: death, isolation, witchcraft and the struggle of people to understand the will of a God who may or may not even exist. A word of warning: Despite being almost half a century old and in black-and-white, the rape scene and subsequent massacre of the bad guys is still pretty damn hard to watch, even today.
So there you have it: three films to add to your “I should really see that at some point” list, if you’ve got one. They’re stimulating, intellectually engaging and will fill a lot of gaps in just about anyone’s movie literacy. Oh, and also, it can’t be ignored that the other thing that initially got Bergman noticed stateside back in the day was his frequent casting of devastatingly gorgeous Swedish women in lead roles. So, you’ve got that to look forward to as well.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.