Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Magician (1958)

Your Critic Going 
   All Out Again

We have, I think, a Shakespeare in our time.  He is a Shakespeare by another name: Ingmar Bergman. I say this, not that Bergman is directly like Shakespeare. No, Bergman is Bergman, no doubt about it.  Rather he is a Shakespeare in stature. As Shakespeare used words, Bergman uses motion photography. As Shakespeare drew complex, profound characters struggling with each other, Bergman draws characters struggling with themselves and a total world of chaos and terror. 
Shakespeare chose great human themes; Bergman chooses great idea themes. The Magician is no less proof of Bergman’s genius than was Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. The man creates works of art.

The art of The Magician swings between two opposite and highly contrasting impressions. We move between illusion and reality, horror and relief giving sanity. An itinerant magician in the middle of the nineteenth century has no option on the occult. He works with a bag of tricks. But even when we, the rational and enlightened minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, watch a magician perform we are willing to suspend our reason for the sake of being entertained. We may even have momentary lapses into belief and faith in what we see.

Now in this movie, assuming that we started out going along with it, we may waver and wonder what is illusion and what is reality. We may experience fright at the horror, which is a form of belief, and then realize later how foolish we were. In fact, we want illusion to win out because it has all our sympathy. So effective is Bergman’s art that our feelings are compelled to participate in the idea of his theme.

An itinerant magician (Max von Sydow) has an ego and takes pride in his skill at deception. His secrets are as valuable to him as a patented invention. Should they be revealed he would suffer more than the loss of his livelihood; he would be humiliated which is precisely what happens to him.

After the magician’s troupe arrives in a small Swedish town, it is confronted by three of the town’s leaders who seek to show up its act as a fraud. More intent at this than the others is a particular doctor  (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who, in the interest of science and reason, and to justify the rational philosophy by which he lives, must reveal the act as fake. It becomes even more necessary to do this when he discovers that the magician does indeed have a kind of power.

The magician’s eyes possess an ability to hypnotize. His face seems to carry the burden of the whole world in it. He has a manner and will and compassion that evokes the faith of people who wish to believe to fulfill their unhappy needs. The fraud does, after all, serve a purpose. The magician is a good man and his profession is harmless. If by no other measure should his worth be judged, the parochial doctor works only on the basis of reason and will undo him.

We thus have a struggle between the doctor and the magician: the power of illusion against the power of reason. The magician applies his art in a fantastic deluge of the rationally impossible until he has the doctor whimpering with fear. But reality survives, as it has to; the doctor does not learn the lesson that not all truths are absolute, that what exists is limited by what we cause to exist.

The Magician, as others of Bergman’s films, is rich in symbolism. The Seventh Seal was analogous to a nuclear holocaust. Now, this film, it has been commented, creates a Christlike figure in the magician. This idea persists even in details such as a bloody hand, and more broadly in the wholesale devotion of those who believe in him, by the effect he has on non-believers, and in the fanatical opposition that judges and torments him.

Ingmar Bergman gives far more than this review, already too lengthy, has space to tell. It may be just as well, lest you be deprived of the pleasure of further discoveries in a film work that reaches a zenith in a medium that has been debauched so often you may have become discouraged. In The Magician you will witness the magic and breadth of the medium’s capacity.

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Story: Ingmar Bergman
Additional cast: Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson

Reviewed by Hugh Thursday June 16, 1960

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

South Pacific

We used to have a slogan in the Seabees: (Your reviewer was once a member of that illustrious group of capitalists)  “Build bigger and better chow halls.” In our bluster we were really epitomizing the American tradition of betterness or, more significantly, biggerness.

Writer Paul Osborn and director Joshua Logan are, underneath, whether they know it or not, of Seabee ilk. They’ve taken “South Pacific” and made it so big that it stretches across the screen stage of the Poli like a breathtaking mural.  They’ve taken the music and stereophonisized it into symphonic proportions. They’ve taken color and infused the stage expanse with reds that are infra and yellows that are chunks of the sun. Undoubtedly they have created something impressive, but the question remains: is it good? Perhaps I along with you can find this out before we are done here.

Those who have seen Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical on stage, and those who haven’t somehow, know about the tragedy of Liat, the polynesian beauty of Bali Ha’I, and Lt. Joe Cable, whose hopeless love for each other is ripped apart because of racial differences. We know about Emil Debec who in his maturity loves Nellie Forbush as a purpose in life, and that Nellie is won by his innately gentle and magnificent nature. We know Bloody Mary, the incredible mother of Liat, who with devilish sweetness operates a souvenir business on the basis of Barnum’s philosophy about the proliferacy of suckers. We know Seabee Luther Billis whose acumen at conniving makes Kruschev seem like a piker. We know that evenings are enchanting out there, and that Debec’s a wonderful guy, and that men can’t be washed out of a woman’s hair, and that we have to be taught to hate. We seem to know all about these people and their music, and we want to watch and listen again like opera lovers of Rome.

The cinemoscopic, stereophonic and color by Deluxe, production we see is no disappointment because bigness suits our previous vision of the thing. But technically, and only technically, which is a pretty minor consideration when there’s so much joy on the screen, the movie has points of failure.

First of all, the music is such an abundant and dominating force that through most of the story one song tumbles after the other making the movie predominantly a series of stage acts. This is so true that an actual stage device of color spotlighting was transferred to film to serve the stage purpose of supporting mood. And at times the perimeter of the screen was diffused in a mistiness to produce the effect of a stage-like frame. Unfortunately, instead of building mood, these methods became a diversion and failed. The techniques of one medium, the stage, can’t readily be applied to another, the motion pic-ture, with similar results. Remember Moulin Rouge (1952)? Here color was inoffensively integrated; a pity  South Pacific’s makers didn’t apply  that wisdom.

Since the director just had to get all the music in there, he also found as a result, difficulties in pacing the story. Continuity had to move along slowly during the first two thirds of the action to give the music an opportunity, then the final third of the movie had to be songless to let the story resolve itself. And here he spoiled the romantic mood that he had built from the beginning in the detailed mechanics of war. At the near end the movie behaved like somebody’s war diary.

Only Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin could make the dream of  “South Pacific” a truly fulfilled reality to us. Nevertheless Mitzi Gaynor handled Nellie Forbush with the right amount of zest to satisfy. Rossano Brazzi didn’t have enough hearty charm to make Debec the superlatively winning wooer he is, but before the film was over he became engaging in his own way. John Kerr wasn’t as relaxed and masculine as Lt. Joe Cable should have been. Juanita Hall IS Bloody Mary. France Nuyen is well cast as Liat, and Ray Walston’s comedic performance suited character Luther Billis’s ability to steal the screen away from anybody else caught by the camera.

Indeed, this has been some enchanted evening, and I would recommend that you forget all aforementioned deficiencies right after the oncoming period.

Story by James Michener
Screenplay by Paul Osborn and Richard Rogers 
                         (adapted from the play "South Pacific")
Music by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Joshua Logan

Reviewed by Hugh on July 16, 1959

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Wall (Die Wand)

Imagine: You wake from a night’s motionless sleep into a brilliant, clear day. The world looks the same though something feels amiss. You investigate and literally crash your skull into change. While you slept, your life became fully contained and constrained by an impenetrable, transparent wall.  Impossible! True.

This is that tale, of one woman’s struggle to survive and transform in the solitude imposed by an enigmatic wall. Julian Roman Pölsler presents a world of mystery, where questions aren’t overtly asked so answers aren’t provided.  Interpretation is the viewer’s task. Pölsler expertly ignores focusing on the wall’s unexpected arrival, it’s worldly purpose, and what lies beyond it.  For some viewers, this will be very, very frustrating.  If you prefer plot-driven films, or those with a direct message or storyline, this one is not for you. 

The Wall, whether you perceive it as allegorical, literal or mystical, is about the raw human spirit.  It touches something deeply personal and existential in us, makes our hearts race. Watching our woman both flail and rejoice, this film makes us wonder what purposes drive us to sustain our lives.  And we ask: Am I confined behind my own invisible wall?

I was transfixed from the first shot: through black, haunting eyes in a face framed by ragged, cropped hair, a woman stares directly at us.  She’s both hard and soft and seems to emit wisdom and loss, or so I’ve projected.  She is our narrator, reading a “report of her many seasons” from a cabin lit by the sun’s pale light.  For the entirety of the film, we are her witnesses and confidantes privy to what she chooses to share of her intimate metamorphosis, as a prisoner of the wall. For a film with the pace of a gentle brook, it is captivating.

This is a tour de force by the marvelous Martina Gedeck (Mostly Martha, The Lives of Others, both German films) as our unnamed woman. She fills nearly every frame and conveys as much with a glance as Shakespeare conveyed in a soliloquy.

The woman begins her account on the day before the wall.  Her friend Hugo and his wife are driving her and Lynx, a sleek, beautiful dog, to their hunting lodge.  The car’s top is down and words are blaring for the mountains to hear: “Freedom is a journey...” sings a bluesy female voice.  Freedom?  It’s cherished just before it’s lost.  Or perhaps we’re given a clue: we, and our woman, will get to explore what it means to be free. 

The group arrives at the lodge, nestled into a small clearing in the Austrian mountains.  Hugo and his wife walk to town, without Lynx, and never return.   Together, searching for their friends, the woman and Lynx discover the wall.

Trapped, our woman is initially terrified, stupefied, and distraught, all conveyed with subtle movements.  In her only significant effort to penetrate the wall, Gedeck smashes a car into it.  And then, on the other side, she sees a man and a woman, frozen in place, water forever running from a well’s spigot onto the man’s hand.  “A moment of lunacy could be easier to deal with than this dreadful thing,” she says. 

Through crushing despair, she accepts her fate and chooses to thrive.  She transforms herself to conform to a life in the wild.  She also defies solitude and creates a family of animals – Bella the cow; a cat and her kitten, Pearl; the bull she helps Bella deliver; and a misfit white raven ­– and, therefore, a sustaining purpose:  “I must keep them alive.”  The woman and Lynx, constant companions, meld with such love that they operate as one being.  It’s heart-warming.  And as with all families, they experience joy and shattering tragedy.

The space within the barrier is miles wide, so for the summer Gedeck moves her family to an empty cabin in an open, verdant meadow.   In this serene passage, raising her face to the sun, she proclaims that for the first time in her life, she is calm.  Has she achieved freedom in confinement?

Sound is very important to this film, and the German Film Awards lauded it with the 2013 Award in Gold for sound.  When Gedeck raises a palm to the obstacle we don’t see, we hear its presence.  An otherworldly, deep melodic moan, slightly muffled, like a bow being dragged languorously across a bass, or a bull’s rumble before it roars.  It’s eerie, and the sound makes the wall real.

A team of six cinematographers captured the Austrian splendor, and their number is proportional to the importance of the natural world as a vehicle for transformation.  They offer grand shots of jagged peaks in the distance and close-ups of the animals “smiling.” There’s an urgent and bold quality to their portraiture of nature, and every shot is beautiful. 

I can’t stop thinking about this film, based on the novel by Marlen Haushofer.  Or more precisely, it’s entered me and reverberates without conscious intent, rousing reactions to my own life and the nature of my self-imposed and externally-inflicted “walls.”  At unexpected moments, I picture Gedeck’s piercing, dark eyes, which close the film in the same way that they opened it.  Now they seem both strong and resigned, registering the solid confidence of one who has conquered, and acceptance without apprehension, of one whose future is unknown. 

Based on the novel by Marlen Haushofer
Adapted and directed by Julian Roman Pölsler, Germany, 2012

Reviewed by Suz on 2/10/2014

Monday, February 3, 2014

It Happened to Jane

 (Your reviewer has fun at the movies.)
       What’s happened to that good old American characteristic called righteous indignation? Take a look, a good look, around you. Pretty rare thing nowadays? Well, it comes to life in a young widow from Maine named Jane (Doris Day), when she bucks almighty big business for a principle. It does your heart good to see the ghosts of Tom Paine and Patrick Henry explode in this little woman. Even those of us who are practical and meek may be stirred to feel the revolutionary spirit, and for an hour and forty minutes safely suspend our worship of security. For Jane is an anachronism that lingers from our traditional past, a past which we yearn for and which may yet come again. Americans are not willing to die with their boots off yet, and the very existence of this wonderful picture is proof of it.

What happened to Jane? Jane is in the lobster business. Seven hundred dollars worth of her lobsters died while in transit to a customer. The Eastern & Portland R.R. left the freight car containing Jane’s lobsters standing on a siding as the poor lobsters died, all of them, with brutal finality. This was not only a severe loss to Jane who supports two youngsters and is struggling to get by, it also meant that her business would be ruined. It meant that no one would ever buy lobsters from her because the word would spread that she can’t deliver safely and alive.

With the legal aid and moral support induced by love as well as a sense of righteousness, of a poor young lawyer (Jack Lemmon) in town, she sues the railroad and demands payment for damage to merchandise and to her good business reputation. The railroad, rather its garish tycoon (Ernie Kovacs) who IS the railroad, beats his cow catcher into a sword, and tries to draw blood in every dirty way he can devise.

What happens? How does Jane win (for you know she’ll win since a spirit such as hers must not be allowed to fail, at least on the screen)? To tell would destroy your chance of having fun should you see the picture. You see, it’s so alive, so boisterous, and so many things turn up at just the time you’re unexpectedly ready for them, that you are bound to find yourself having a pretty good time—especially if you feel like an underdog.  The picture brings out the underdog in all of us, even in upperdogs. Finally, by conversion, it actually brought it out in Malone (Ernie Kovacs), the railroad tycoon, a real upperdog if ever there was one.

The picture’s essential plot is quite common: you know, the helpless widow against the big, ruthless world.  And right under her nose there’s that guy who’s crazy about her, but she resists any entanglement; then a stranger—in this instance a handsome reporter who comes to town to cover the story—falls in love with her and she’s tempted to respond likewise, but—. Yet this picture isn’t common; only the plot is. The theme of the film is as timely as an Atlas missile. And when you have a natural, relaxed performer such as Jack Lemmon scrapping from love, and a wholesome personality out of your own family, such as Doris Day, given lines and situations that strike home, and set all this against a subtle actor comedian such as Ernie Kovacs, you’ve got a combination that opens a vault of perfect delight.

This is the most enjoyable film to hit Worcester since Pajama Game, or, if you wish, as no doubt many of you feel, since Auntie Mame. It would be a shame if this movie fails to attract a large enough audience to warrant a second week’s stay with us.
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: Norman Katkov
Story: Max Wilk
Reviewed by Hugh on June 4, 1959