Random Musings . . .

On some recent viewings . . .

Shame (Bergman, 1968) — Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow star as Eva and Jan Rosenberg, cultured musicians who escape to a rural island when their orchestra is shut down during a war. Their new, more simple life as farmers is soon interrupted when their home is invaded, and they are forced to confront the violence that they had so meticulously avoided. Shame is typically described as a psychological portrait of the dehumanizing consequences of war. The splintering of Eva and Jan’s relationship, then, becomes representative of savage self-interest and alienation, and the interruption of their careers (captured most obviously in an image of Jan’s broken violin) serves as a metaphor for war’s denial of Art, beauty, and culture.

Shame is my least favorite of the Bergman films I’ve seen. By setting the action amid some unspecific, fairy tale-like war, Bergman (who obviously knows a thing or two about the proper uses of symbolism) invests too much “Meaning” in his characters and in their actions. Shame is an Allegory with a capital A, trapped uncomfortably somewhere between absurd, dystopian satire and the real here and now. I think I would have preferred the film had it jumped completely to one of those extremes. As with all collaborations between Bergman, Ullman, von Sydow, and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Shame is packed with remarkable performances and jaw-dropping photography, and it’s well worth seeing for those reasons alone. I was only disappointed because it fails to reach Bergman’s own ridiculously high bar.

I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore (Zahedi, 1994) — Zahedi, his father and half-brother, and a small film crew spend Christmas in Vegas, where Zahedi hopes, among other things, to heal his familial relationships and to prove the existence of God. With this film alone as evidence, I would say that he accomplishes neither, but the attempt is fascinating to watch. Caveh is a polarizing figure, to be sure, and Las Vegas shows him at his most obnoxious and manipulative, particularly during an extended sequence in which he attempts to talk his 62-year-old father and 16-year-old brother into taking Ecstasy. I’m still not sure whether or not he succeeded.

To me, the appeal of Caveh Zahedi is his willingness to emote unapologetically, to subject those emotions to close scrutiny, and to do so all under the watchful eye of a camera in which he places an almost naive faith. In his more recent film, In the Bathtub of the World (2001), and in this interview with Film Threat, Caveh talks about his disappointment with an experience (reading a great book, attending a film festival) that failed to be “salvational,” and I think that word is the key to his project. There’s something beautiful about watching someone search so desperately for that salvational experience, particularly in a mostly Christian nation like America, where we are so comfortable with the language of grace and forgiveness. Caveh’s films remind me of a concept that I seem to come back to again and again: negative transcendence — “God appears only as the Absent One, as that which is signified only by the depth of the artfully expressed yearning.”

Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995) and Before Sunset (Linklater, 2004) — I had planned to write up a full-length response to these films, which, when taken together, are something of a minor miracle. Sunset is my favorite film of the year so far. Told in real time, it captures an eighty minute conversation between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), a couple who spent “one magical night together in Vienna” nine years earlier, then never spoke again. When they finally reunite in Paris, they are older (their early-30s) and somewhat hardened by experience, and their reunion unravels the comfortable lies upon which their lives are founded. I can’t seem to write or talk about this film without rambling on about my wife, about how we met ten years ago, and about how our ideas of love and romance have evolved since, which is why I’m cutting this short. I’ll just say that Before Sunset is a remarkably well-crafted film that ends at precisely the right moment and that treats its characters and its audience with great tenderness and respect. Like I said: a minor miracle.

The School of Rock (Linklater, 2003) — A film that doesn’t for a minute divert from its by-the-numbers plot but that is a hell of a lot of fun to watch anyway. In other words, I laughed when Jack Black tried to be funny and I got goose bumps when the band played their big show. Plus, any film that mentions Rick Wakeman’s keyboard solo in “Roundabout” get bonus points. The School of Rock‘s biggest surprise: Who knew Joan Cusack was so hot?