BootsnAll Travel Network

Dave’s brilliant idea

I could blog mostly about movies and books! Now there’s an idea, suggested by Dave, who I’ve never met but who occasionally sends encouraging comments to this blog. Kendall’s Quest could morph from the quest for a-place-to-plant-my-little-self into a quest for what matters (to me, maybe to others) in books and movies. Travels, when they occur. And who knows what else. There are other blogs that do book or movie reviews, but they tend to be cutting-edge: movies you can’t get from Netflix and can’t see unless you live in New York, Toronto, or San Francisco and go to film festivals; books that won’t get cataloged at your local library till you’ve already forgotten about them and have lost the little pieces of paper on which you wrote the titles. I love writing about books and movies (and poetry and damn near anything else that crosses my mind)–so yeah, I could do that, Dave.

Thanks to those who have sent me emails or have phoned saying “Don’t quit!” and who remind me that they don’t read this blog for the travel commentaries but for the whole gestalt. It doesn’t take a force of nature to twist my arm. If I don’t blog, what will I write? I’ve quit keeping a journal. I’ve quit trying to publish anything. And yet I have to write to know what I think, so what kind of mess would I be in if I didn’t write? So yeah. OK. I can see it. Oh Dave, you are a wonder. I’ve just changed the look of the blog, changed the subtitle, and edited the “About Me” page. I feel refreshed. Here I go again, starting over.

Of course, when I am teaching five courses, there are spaces of time when I don’t read anything but what I’m teaching and what my students write, or when I don’t even have two free hours to look at a movie. Everything I write is too full of my own warped perspective and the life around me to be limited to JUST books and movies. But I can work with this, see what comes up. For example…

I just watched Ingmar Bergman’s final film, made in 2003, when he was 86: Saraband. I took it over to Ruth’s house Thursday night and watched it with Ruth and Gerri. (I didn’t realize Bergman had just died till Ruth told me. He died while I was in my Zen center explorations, not receiving any news. There went the passing of a great spirit.) After being spellbound by the film and gathering so much tension in my body that I couldn’t sleep for hours, I came home and watched the “making of the movie” feature. I listened to what Bergman had to say about what he was doing, and I watched how he did it (in the actors’ faces, sitting with them during their scenes, telling them when to breathe).

To my eyes and understanding, it’s a movie about repression, about the ways we fail each other, and about the fact that despite our repressed anguish, passion, rage, and need, we stagger on through our lives anyway, saved from despair by beauty. Those are not new themes for Bergman, but I don’t think he treated them as well in his youth. He really KNEW the truth of what he wanted to say by the time he was 86. Apparently he, like most of us, kept having to learn the same damn lessons over and over again. It’s also a film about death and mourning, and that’s where I think Bergman rang the one false note in the film. He kept cutting to a black and white photograph of the fifth character, the woman we never saw: the woman who died before the action of the film, the woman mourned by three of the four characters. For me it was overkill, the photograph, over and over. I got it the first time. But clearly photographs are important to Bergman. The whole film opens with a table full of photographs, and it closes with a table full of photographs. So I forgive him that indulgence. Photographs are powerful talismans for me as well.

Everything else about the film works. Even if you watched the film with the attitude of one of my former Buddhist teachers whose favorite chastisement was, “Stop using your thinking mind! Thinking mind will get you nowhere”–even if you didn’t think about what the film means, you would get what it means by how it looks, by the force of what the characters say and the way they say it, by the silences and the music and the light and darkness.

The film is four characters in ten segments, each segment introduced by a simple black background with white script. Much of the film is long monologs by one of the four characters, but the acting is of such genius that the monologs are packed with variety, intensity, and promise. They don’t seem to be monologs. They seem spontaneous, capable of breaking off or of being interrupted at each phrase. Bergman has a sense of humor, too. It’s certainly not all bleak. He makes fun of Bergman and Bergman films–characters address the camera, there are references to movies, and there’s even a signature shot of sunbeams breaking through a bleak world (OK everybody, now whisper, “Oh, that looks just like a shot from a Bergman movie!”). The color scheme is rust, sage, and gray, so muted that it’s almost black and white. The action starts off slowly, and then it begins to spiral around itself, becoming increasingly tense as it hurtles on, with one scene so shocking the audience is forced into a state of denial echoing that of the characters. Incredibly effective manipulation of the audience. I spent the last quarter of the film trying to understand what I had seen, which I understood instantly but didn’t want to understand.

The gender dynamic of the nudity is rich and intelligent. Bergman gives us full-frontal fully-lit nudity of a man in his 80s (Erland Josephson, brave, my god how brave–what more can be asked of an actor of that stature and age?). Humiliating, heart-breaking: what gravity does to us all, over time. The woman in the scene is also nude (played with great tenderness by Liv Ullmann who, like me, is experiencing the effects of gravity and belly-fat). In earlier scenes we see vividly her wrinkles and the loose flesh under her chin, but when she is nude, Bergman gives us a complete reversal of the usual gender dynamic, women exposed and men protected. In the nude scene, the light is behind her. We only see her silhouette. The scene is about anxiety and comfort, not sexuality. Imagine. Nudity that is not about sex. Wonderful.

Riff on that theme: to my 62-year-old eyes, it is sheer joy to see, in a widely-distributed film, nude people who are not “cut,” who are not thin, who don’t have made-in-Hollywood (or Bollywood) bodies. I think about the harm it does to all our self-esteem to be constantly beaten about the eyes with images of people who are twenty-five and have personal trainers, or who are older but have had millions of dollars worth of cosmetic surgery. We ordinary-looking people are left feeling as if we have failed somehow because we have soft bodies and cellulite and little flabby bits here and there. Bergman does us all a great favor with this film. He tells a truth most movies won’t tell.

I haven’t mentioned the names of the other two actors. I haven’t seen either of them before, but I hope to see them again. They do what Bergman tells them to do, and yet he chose them perfectly: they are exactly the people he needed for the roles they play in the film. I can’t imagine anyone but these four actors doing this film. They are the film. But the vision is Bergman’s. It is a great finale to a great career. See this film. Maybe I’ll request all his films and treat myself to whole Bergman retrospective, in memoriam. I can’t think of much else I could do that would be so emotionally powerful.

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One response to “Dave’s brilliant idea”

  1. Æ says:

    K – If you blog mostly about movies and books, I hope you’d consider dividing your blog into 2 parts (well, 2 blogs, actually) – one for such critiques, yours being livelier than most published ones; and a 2nd one, what I’d been going to suggest: just blog when an experience or event moves you to words, like your life transitions, visiting Zen centers, moving Basho out and back home, etc.

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