Monday, May 23, 2022

Archive for the ‘Blind Spots’ Category

This has been an extremely difficult review to sit down and write, largely because this film elicited such strong and conflicting reactions from me both while viewing it, and thinking back on it afterwards. I have never felt so in turmoil about a film, even while in the midst of watching it, my thoughts and emotions swirling back and forth even within the same scene. Loving it, hating it, sympathizing, being repulsed, being moved, understanding, feeling detached, exasperated, annoyed, intrigued, heartbroken, unresolved. Of course, maybe that’s utterly appropriate, given that the film is about a couple constantly at each other’s throats, except when they’re in each other’s arms, who drag a younger couple along with them on a night of “fun and games.” But what is the game, and what are the rules, and who’s having fun? The answers to those questions shift as often as my emotions did, and with as little warning or explanation.

George and Martha are a middle-aged academic couple, respectively a professor in history and the daughter of the university’s long-time president. As the film opens, they’re wending their way home after a university party, chatting quietly while lovely and calm background music plays. But even at this most peaceful point in the movie, they quickly fall into a rhythm of argument, clearly their default mode of interacting with each other. As they return home, Martha quotes one of Bette Davis’s campiest characters, proclaiming “What a dump,” then hounding George to tell what movie it’s from. At this point, the movie was already grating on me pretty badly, and it’s only getting started!

Soon a young couple comes over to continue the party, but they don’t know what they’re getting into any more than I did. The night wears on, Martha goading George continuously and flirting with the young man, while his wife gets more and more inebriated. But George, though far wearier and less vulgar, can give as good as he gets from Martha, his barbs carrying an air of intellectualism that makes them cut even deeper. Meanwhile, the younger couple aren’t innocents, either, but have their own skeletons in the closet. The film is almost a one-room drama (as the original Edward Albee play was), focusing on the four characters’ ongoing conversation and interactions. Most of it is very antagonistic, quite mean-spirited, and rather stagey and histrionic.

And yet. And yet. I can’t simply write the film off, and not only because I know how highly regarded it is. Somewhere about halfway through it started getting under my skin, and I’ve found it often popping up in the back of my mind since I finished it. As more details start to come out about George and Martha’s past and the “games” they play with each other (as George says, “we’re not ‘at’ each other, we’re just exercising what little of our wits is left”), I found myself more and more intrigued both by these people and by the structure of the film itself. It lets us in only slowly, at first only showing us George and Martha as they are now, a bitter couple who have grown almost complacent in their antagonism. But there’s more to them than this, a depth that soon becomes apparent in Burton’s weary eyes, his sighs as he accepts or counters yet another of Martha’s hurls.

Really, if it hadn’t been for Burton, I doubt I would’ve made it through the entire film. Taylor’s performance is often praised (and she won an Oscar for it), but except for one or two times when she quieted down and revealed some of the pain behind her own animosity, her performance largely tends toward shrill and histrionic, and I rarely if ever believed her. Burton, though, I believed all the time. All his emotional beats worked completely for me, and I felt every catch in his voice, every callback to old pain revisited. I will say that Taylor came very close to redeeming herself for me in the final scene, by which time the film had put me through such a confusing emotional wringer that I was as drained as she and Burton (the kids are there mostly as audience surrogates and something for George and Martha to play off of; they have their own stuff going on, but it’s relatively insignificant in comparison).

So by the end, the film’s power had definitely gotten to me, but I still don’t know if I could rewatch it any time soon. And yet…I do want to rewatch it. I want to study why it had the effect on me that it did. Very rarely am I this confused about my reaction to a film, and on the one hand, I know the film is powerful for affecting me the way it did, and the last act is pretty devastating however you slice it. Meanwhile, the first act is viciously funny (it worked better for me after I opted to think of it as a comedy – until somewhere in the second act, that becomes impossible). Also, I credit Mike Nichols and cinematography Haskell Wexler for some greatly affecting lighting and camerawork, which did a whole lot to balance out the theatricality of the dialogue. Even when I was recoiling from the characters and the mean-spiritedness on screen, I was still usually fascinated by the way it was shot. Even so, I can’t in good conscience say I think everything in it worked. Sandy Dennis also won an Oscar for her role, which I don’t understand, because she’s largely just acting a silly drunk girl the whole time, and she’s almost more annoying (if more innocuous) than Martha. Taylor I can’t get behind totally, and the young man is pretty dull.

And one thing about the ending. Vague spoilers follow.

The ending depends on the revelation that something George and Martha have been talking about the entire night is actually an elaborate fantasy, the breaking of which fantasy because reduces Martha to nothing. Now, I have in my life indulged in an awful lot of elaborate fantasy, which has, at certain times in my life, been very real to me. But despite the undeniable sincerity with which Burton and Taylor treat this aspect of the film, it stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point to believe that two well-educated adults had kept up a fantasy just between the two of them that has this kind of power over them. It’s one of those things that worked while I was watching the film because Burton and Taylor put it over, but five minutes after the film was over, I was going “wait, really?!”

The “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” is an academic variation on “who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,” and in this case, apparently, the big bad wolf is a life free from illusions, free from facades – a life that Martha in particular fears to face. But I got that from a Wikipedia article, not from the film, at least not on a first viewing. And even with that, I’m not sure WHY she fears it so much, and why George, who seems better adjusted, would help her keep up such a strange and elaborate fantasy for so long, and then finally break it that night. Those are questions that will have to wait until I get to another viewing. But returning to the world of George and Martha will be exhausting, and I’m not sure when I’ll be ready for it. At this point, I’m inclined to rate it highly simply because I think the extremely unsettled feeling I had both while watching it and thinking back over it is intentional. On the other hand, I’m still not sure I like that, and while certain scenes worked like gangbusters, as a whole I can’t say I enjoyed watching it. But not every film is made to be enjoyed. So I end up where I started – conflicted.

[This post is part of a series to identify and catch up with various blind spots in my cinematic knowledge, choosing twelve films to watch in 2012. See the series intro for the rest of my picks]

A couple of years ago, I was watching The Virgin Spring at one of LA’s best repertory cinemas, the New Beverly, and left almost exactly halfway through. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I almost never walk out of films anyway, and it was INCREDIBLY hard to leave this one, especially since it was almost exactly at the climactic scene. I had come to see the first film of the double feature they were showing (Revanche), but knew I’d have to leave the program early in order to get to Cinefamily (the OTHER great LA repertory cinema) for their Czech New Wave series, showing films rarely screened on 35mm in the US. I stayed as long as I could watching , yet despite how drawn into it I was, I somehow never got around to sitting down with the rest of the film at home. So when I put together my list of films for the Blind Spot series, I knew The Virgin Spring had to be on it, even though there are a plethora of other Bergman films I could’ve picked as well.

I should never have waited so long, and yet, it is entirely worth the wait. The film enjoys a healthy reputation (hence it feeling like a major blind spot), and I was a bit afraid that between that and my own self-hyping of it based on my experience with the first half, I’d be disappointed by the film in the end. Such was vehemently not the case. Bergman films are often something of a tough sell with me – there are a few I love unequivocally (Persona, Smiles of a Summer Night), but the ones that seem more quintessentially “Bergman” to me, rather than the anomalous light comedy or experimental film, are much more of a struggle for me. With its story of rape and revenge, I expected The Virgin Spring to be in the same vein – somber and bleak, with an edge of existential angst. What I got was something far more terrible and sublime than I expected.

Though The Virgin Spring is not a part of Bergman’s unofficial “faith” trilogy (kicked off the following year with Through a Glass Darkly), it is still very concerned with faith – a concern laid out from the very beginning as the film sets up a contrast between wild-eyed, unkempt servant girl Ingeri who is praying to Odin and the lord of the manor who, along with his wife, kneel before a crucifix. Ingeri is pregnant and unwed, and she is quickly contrasted with the lord’s daughter Karin, a sunny and virginal blonde who’s preparing to trek through the woods taking candles to the church. I don’t really get the whole purpose of this, being unfamiliar with Swedish medieval tradition, but it doesn’t really matter – it’s basically a Macguffin. When Ingeri temporarily leaves her along on the way, Karin falls in with some seemingly nice shepherds who, well, turn out to have ulterior motives.

It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to reveal that they rape Karin – that’s basically the logline of the film, and it happens only about half-way through. Still, even when you know it’s coming, it’s kind of a shock to the system, simply because Bergman is so forthright and frank about it. He doesn’t shy away from the rape, instead holding his camera unwaveringly, not letting us look away. It’s still 1960, so it’s not what I’d call physically explicit, but there’s absolutely no question about what’s happening, and the beauty and, dare I say it, tastefulness of the shot almost makes the content of the shot even more of a punch to the gut. This is actually the point where I had to leave the New Beverly screening of the film. I did rewatch the whole thing before writing this, though, and the scene was just as horrific and just as gut-wrenching as before.

There’s a lot more in store, though, and the next little section almost plays like a suspense thriller as the three shepherds (the youngest is just a boy and didn’t participate in the rape) wind up at Karin’s manor, apparently not realizing where they are. Despite being worried about Karin’s long absence, the lord and his lady offer the three food and shelter, like any magnanimous landowner should – but we know who they are and what they’ve done, so the intensity doesn’t let up for us. There’s a simply chilling scene when one of the men offers Karin’s cloak to her mother as a gift. But what the film comes down to is whether vengeance is worth it, or if forgiveness is possible – either of rapists or those who take revenge on them. Perhaps the reason The Virgin Spring isn’t part of the Faith Trilogy (aside from its more poetic, less chamber-drama style) is that it shows hope at the end, hope of forgiveness and community, while the Faith Trilogy is about crises of faith in the face of divine silence.

There is way too much in this film in terms of symbolism, character comparisons and contrasts, and religious themes to unpack in one blog post, or even after one viewing of the film. This is definitely one I’ll be coming back to again and again. There are obvious contrasts, like the ones I mentioned between Odin and Christ, or between Ingeri and Karin, or between crime and revenge, etc. But they’re not black and white, despite the dark/light distinction suggested by Ingeri and Karin’s respective hair colors. Karin is the innocent here, but she’s far from perfect – she’s kind of a spoiled brat, whining to her mother to let her sleep later and wear fancy clothes. She’s a flirt, leading on the same man (probably) who got Ingeri pregnant. She manipulates her father into letting her do whatever she wants, basically, and blames everyone else for her own faults rather than take responsibility. But through it all, her very innocence and sheltered existence in her perhaps overly-loving family is what gets her in trouble. Meanwhile, Ingeri is world-wise and wary, but superstitious – she prays to the Norse gods and stops off at a witchdoctor type guy, which also contributes to Karin’s predicament due to Ingeri’s absence.

The question of blame comes up again and again. Though it’s easy to blame the two men who actually commit the rape, and certainly they’re not exempt from the father’s wrath, seemingly everybody blames themselves for what happened. The mother blames herself for sheltering Karin too much, the father blames God for letting it happen but then takes responsibility for his own retaliatory actions, Ingeri blames herself for praying to Odin for Karin’s downfall. In fact, it’s quite the contrast to Karin’s own blithe attempts to blame everyone ELSE for everything. But Bergman ends with a cleansing spring, a mark of forgiveness and new birth coming out of this horror.

Ugly things happen in Bergman films, and this is one of the ugliest, but he is never an ugly filmmaker. As I hinted above, even the rape scene is shot with tremendously beautiful framing and cinematography, and that’s true throughout the film. Every shot is composed carefully, with every element in the frame there for a specific visual or symbolic purpose. A friend writing about this film pointed out that Max von Sydow “looks absolutely monumental, like he was hollowed out and carved from wood, a living breathing relic of medieval art,” and that’s such a perfect description that I had to steal it. Bergman is known for the sometimes slow pacing of his films, and here his willingness to simply let Sydow and others BE in the frame, their power coming simply from their imaged existence, is wonderous and utterly moving. Often I find Bergman austere, and there’s definitely that here, but this may be the first time that I understand Bergman’s essential humanity. He may be unflinching in what he shows, and he may use music and other manipulative techniques sparingly, but he cares deeply, achingly for these people. And he made me feel the same way, despite their flaws…or perhaps because of them.

Long-time film buffs like me have seen a whole lot of films, but there are also a whole lot of films we’ve somehow missed…blind spots in our cinematic knowledge, if you will. There’s no way to ever see ALL the things we haven’t seen, or even all the things we “ought” to have seen, since what we “ought” to see depends in great part on who’s talking at any given moment. But even so, there are some omissions that feel more weighty than others, some films we haven’t seen that seem to stand as darker marks on our unseen lists than others. I have entire pages on this site dedicated to films I haven’t seen yet and want to – both a short list and a super long list. Even the short list is pretty long, though, which is why there’s a very short “list of shame” broken out from that, which is basically what this series is based on.

The major impetus for breaking it down to twelve films for 2012, though, is that a bunch of other bloggers are doing this, too, following James McNally’s lead over at Toronto Screenshots and choosing twelve films off their own lists of shame and vowing to watch and write about them over the coming year. Twelve is one per month, but that’s not a restriction – all twelve in December? Sure. Knowing my procrastinatory ways, that may be what happens. But I hope not.

Here are the twelve films I’ve chosen:

The Passion of Joan of Arc
A Place in the Sun
The Virgin Spring
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Cool Hand Luke
Army of Shadows
Solaris
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Eraserhead
Once Upon a Time in America
Requiem for a Dream

Other bloggers I know are participating: Ryan McNeil at the Matinee, David Brook at the Blueprint Review, CS at Big Thoughts from a Small Mind, and I’m sure many others. If you are, let me know! I’d love to keep up with you on this project. I won’t pin myself down to a specific publishing schedule (and some of my ability to finish this series probably depends on whether I subscribe to Netflix discs again or not), but these are twelve films I’d definitely like to have seen by the end of the year.

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