If anyone had ever told me back in 1944 that a 26-year-old Swedish screenwriter named Ingmar Bergman, who had just written his first screenplay (for Alf Sjoberg’s Hets- Torment in the U.S. and Frenzy in the U.K.), was destined to become one of the dominant international auteurs of the second half of the 20th century, I would have said, “Huh?” And now, even more amazingly, if this same perceptive prophet had told me that Mr. Bergman, at the tender age of 85, would write and direct one of the most vibrant and compelling films that I’d be likely to see in 2005, I would have said, “You’ve gotta be kidding!” (anticipating John McEnroe by decades). Yet here we are in July 2005, and as far as I’m concerned, Mr. Bergman’s Saraband is the film to beat as best film of the year.
For many (if not most) moviegoers, Saraband will be considered too artsy, too minimalist and too controlled to qualify as enjoyable entertainment. But this has always been the case with Mr. Bergman, particularly in his early years of international-film-festival exposure with revelatory works like Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957). As these and subsequent masterpieces kept pouring out of Sweden to the world’s cultural centers, Mr. Bergman gradually redefined and revolutionized the concept of fashionably “serious” cinema from the socially conscious films created by the Italian Neorealists of the 40’s and early 50’s to more private, existentialist dramas examining the inner life of the individual in a world without God.
Saraband continues the contemplation of the inner lives of Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), two characters that Mr. Bergman gave us in a much-acclaimed earlier film, Scenes from a Marriage (1973). Mr. Bergman is quoted in the production notes on the musical and dramatic implications of the title: ” Saraband can be seen as a concerto grosso, a concert for full orchestra-only, here, with four soloists. The drama consists of ten dialogues that follow a particular pattern, and it’s an attempt at analysis of a difficult situation.”
In Saraband, Marianne opens the film by bringing us up to date on what has happened to her since her divorce from Johan 30 years before. She has watched their two daughters grow up. One is married and living and working in Australia; the other, Martha (Gunnel Fred), we learn later, is confined in a mental institution and cannot communicate with anyone. Marianne looks at the camera and talks to us directly as she sorts out a tableful of old photos, almost as if she were putting a jigsaw puzzle together. She finally confides her decision to see her ex-husband after 30 years of total separation.
Those of us who can remember Ms. Ullmann and Mr. Josephson from the earlier film may be forgiven for assuming that Mr. Bergman, in his own old age, has decided to illustrate how two of his best-known characters (and actors) have chosen to face their own uncertain prospects of eternity. We turn out to be not entirely wrong in this assumption, though the film is about much, much more.
Marianne and the other characters are never shown in transit. Each of the dialogues is spatially autonomous. There are no showy camera movements, only those that bring us closer to the human face for the depiction of an emotional climax. Indeed, Mr. Bergman’s eloquent close-ups serve as his visual cadenzas.
Marianne is reunited with Johan in the second of the 10 “dialogues.” She finds herself at his old summer estate in the western province of Dalarna. Johan is asleep on his reclining chair on the porch, and Marianne playfully wakes him with a light kiss. He awakes with a start and is clearly not pleased with her surprise visit. It is just like her, he complains.
Marianne soon realizes that Johan is not alone on the estate: The nearby lake cottage is occupied by Henrik (Börje Ahlstedt), his son from an earlier marriage, as well as Henrik’s adolescent daughter, Karin (Julia Dufvenius). Marianne discovers that Johan and Henrik have never gotten along with each other, but both are very protective of Karin. Johan, Henrik and Karin all still mourn Anna, Henrik’s much-beloved first wife, who died two years earlier but still functions as a major character through a remarkably vivid photograph that gets its own close-ups at crucial moments in the conflicts between Henrik and Karin.
Marianne finds herself becoming unwillingly drawn into the three-way conflicts raging around her. Henrik is obsessed with filling the void left by Anna’s death by giving his daughter cello lessons before sending her to a musical conservatory on her way to becoming a world-class soloist. Karin fears that her father has overestimated her abilities and, one night, after she has openly defied his wishes, Henrik manhandles her in his efforts to restrain her; he is immediately repentant and ashamed of his failure to communicate with his daughter. Both Karin and Henrik try to make the supposedly “neutral” Marianne understand their conflicting points of view.
The most electrifying confrontations occur between Johan and Henrik: Each man brings out the worst in the other. Henrik is humiliated by his need to beg his wealthy but miserly father to lend him the money to buy a good cello for Karin’s audition at the conservatory. Johan coldly denies Henrik the money outright, but asserts that he will contact the proposed seller and negotiate with him over the price of the cello-the implication being that Henrik isn’t competent enough to perform the task himself. Eventually, Karin becomes the battleground on which Johan and Henrik wage their unlimited war against each other.
At this point, Karin discovers a letter that Anna had sent to Henrik shortly before her death, warning him not to become too possessive with Karin but instead to let her find her own way. Karin cannot forgive Henrik for not revealing the contents of her mother’s letter to her, and she thereafter becomes less reluctant to reject his plans for her career. The emotional force of Anna’s photograph in close-up helps strengthen Karin’s resolve in her defiance of her father’s wishes.
Yet in the end, it is Karin’s self-doubt that rises to the surface when she makes the final decision about her future. As she explains to her by-now-resigned father, she has no faith in her potential as a soloist. Instead, she simply wishes to become part of a larger symphony orchestra, to subdue her individuality in a collective effort. I can understand certain feminist viewers becoming uneasy with this turn in the plot: The alleged fear of women to “take charge” has been used for decades to explain the small number at the top of the corporate world, including the small number of women directors and producers in the Hollywood film industry.
In fact, throughout Mr. Bergman’s Ingrid Thulin period, I expressed strong reservations about his tendency to penalize career women by making them neurotic fugitives from their awesome responsibility to bring new life into the world-something of which men were seen as pitifully incapable, trying instead to compensate for their inadequacy with achievements in art, science and statecraft. Feminists could properly complain that they wished to participate in these supposedly “sublimated” fields of endeavor, too.
Still, Mr. Bergman remains true to his convictions by ending Saraband with a sublimely maternal gesture made by Marianne to Martha, her sadly afflicted daughter. Whether one agrees entirely with Mr. Bergman’s consistently held world-view or not, one cannot deny him his place in the loftiest realms of cinematic expression. If Saraband should indeed turn out to be his final film, he has concluded his career triumphantly with a work of genius.
It’s About the Sox
Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, from a screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, made less sense to me when I saw it than it apparently did to many of my esteemed colleagues. Inasmuch as I started writing my review (admittedly belatedly) on the day that London was traumatized by four terrorist bombings, I wonder even more about trying to frighten audiences in this post-9/11 world with metal-clad monsters straight out of Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), produced by George Lucas, or peek-a-boo prehistoric reptiles from Mr. Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park (1993).
When H.G. Wells published War of the Worlds in 1898, the subtext was the growing menace of Prussian militarism in a united Germany. Orson Welles frightened half the state of New Jersey 40 years later with his mock news-broadcast radio adaptation of the Wells story, this time cashing in on the war jitters generated by post-Munich newspaper scare headlines. But radio back then left much more to the imagination than today’s cinematic special-effects extravaganzas. As if in tribute to the Welles version of Wells’ story, Mr. Spielberg begins his carnage in the state of New Jersey.
Apropos of nothing at all, I have often wondered why lower-class people serve as the majority of the victims in global disaster movies. Don’t rich people ever get zapped by alien invaders, or does George Bush protect them all through special legislation? That’s what was gruesomely interesting in the recent tsunami disaster in Asia and Africa: Some well-heeled vacationers were caught in the monstrous swirl. Not so in Mr. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, in which there are more than a few pick-up trucks but nary a chauffeured limousine.
As everyone knows by now, media-embattled superstar Tom Cruise plays Ray, a Jersey City longshoreman who has been given weekend custody of his two children-10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and her turbulent teenage brother Robbie (Justin Chatwin)-by his pregnant ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto, shown much too briefly in this non-date movie), who wants to go off somewhere with her new husband.
Ray barely has time to order take-out pizza for his boisterous brood before all hell breaks loose in the heavens and below the earth’s surface. And there, staring me in the face, was a glaring subtext that had been missed in all the reviews I’d read: While Rachel was a little darling (at least until she begins screaming like a banshee nonstop), Robbie was a pain in the neck from the word go. He seems to hate Ray for having left his two children behind after he got the divorce. The usually symbolic evidence is clear: While Ray is complacently wearing a New York Yankees cap, Robbie stands head-to-head with his father and defiantly sports a Boston Red Sox cap. So that’s what this updated version of War of the Worlds is at least partly about: the hard feelings that have lingered long after the Red Sox ended their ancient curse of futility by sweeping the Yankees out of the American League Championship (and a shot at the World Series) after the Yanks had won the first three games of the series and were leading late into the decisive fourth.
If this proposed subtext seems more than a little farfetched, let us consider the literally laughable last shots of the movie. After much of New Jersey, Staten Island and upstate New York has been pulverized by the aliens, Ray and Rachel find their way to Boston, which apparently has been completely untouched by the invasion. Indeed, Boston seems to serve as a spiritual Shangri-La for Ray, his children and all the other survivors from the devastated domains of Yankee fandom.
For all the film’s adherence to the H.G. Wells novel (primarily in Morgan Freeman’s sonorous narration), Mr. Spielberg and his screenwriters, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Koepp, seem to want to have it both ways when they enable Ray to have some success battling the aliens, who are completely invulnerable to human weapons in the book. With a lot of pluck and a few spare hand grenades, everyman Ray manages to do considerable damage in seemingly impossible situations. But then H.G. Wells was writing about Martian invaders from outer space, while in Mr. Spielberg’s film, the creatures have been waiting underground for millions of years, building up enough of an appetite to eat everyone on Earth.
For all the time they spent waiting underground, one would think that the aliens would’ve developed some awareness of all the terrestrial germs proliferating above them so that they could adapt their immune systems accordingly. But then the last words of the film, taken from the book and spoken by Mr. Freeman in narration, would have been rendered irrelevant.
Ms. Fanning has been rebuked by many reviewers for what they perceived as her endless screaming, which actually made them root for the aliens to eat her; but the ghoulish spectacles that Mr. Spielberg has contrived in this film are so overwhelmingly nihilistic that, though I didn’t scream, I did feel curiously despondent. Mr. Cruise doesn’t give a bad performance in what is, strangely, a largely unsympathetic part. Ray is concerned only with his children, and so he spends much of his time refusing to assist others who beg him for help. There is no moral struggle in his curt refusals; it’s clearly just the way he is. Then again, the other people don’t behave all that well, either. So one wonders what Mr. Spielberg is trying to say about contemporary Americans: Has he given up on us, or what?
Ray’s only extended contact with someone other than a family member occurs in the well-stocked cellar of a loony survivalist with the self-incriminating name of Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins at his most demented). Ray finds himself driven to kill Harlan for fear that his loud rants will lead the Martians to his family’s hiding place. First he places a blindfold over Rachel’s eyes; then he shuts the door behind him so that we don’t see the actual murder. After a while, Ray emerges, seemingly sick to his stomach over what he has done to another human being. But it’s too late: Though Mr. Spielberg and his screenwriters have lost their nerve, Ray remains a dismal antihero rather than an emotionally engaging hero. Overall, the film is too lacking in feeling to provide a recognizably human experience.
Old and New Endings
Mr. Jack Bess from Chicago has kindly informed me of a “new ending” for Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). He writes: “Turner Classic Movies has been showing a version … with a final scene in which Ruth Roman gets a call from Farley Granger telling her that he’s been cleared. This is said to be Hitchcock’s original ending. But I always liked the ending I first saw some 30 years ago, in which Granger and Roman are on a train and get away from a clergyman who strikes up a conversation. I’ve always found this amusing, so I’m greatly disappointed in TCM for using the lame, phone-call ending. Have you ever weighed in on the issue of adding footage to classic films in general, and on the ending to Strangers on a Train in particular? Granted, it’s not as bad as recasting Looney Tunes characters as edgy, robotic types, but still, a desecration.”
I’ve never seen the telephone ending to which Mr. Bess refers, but I’ve been told that it’s the British ending. I agree with Mr. Bess to the extent that the telephone ending sounds pretty lame, but I regretfully differ with him on the clergyman scene, an it’s-only-a-movie ending that tends to trivialize what has gone before. I prefer the comparatively uncompromising contextual endings of Hitch’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Vertigo (1958), Notorious (1946) and Psycho (1960). But like Mr. Bess, I think endings are very important, and I reserve the right to weigh in on the subject at some later date.