Monthly Archives: September 2014

September 19, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1944: Wilson


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 17th Academy Awards, presented March 5, 1945 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

The other nominees were:
Hail the Conquering Hero — Preston Sturges
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek — Preston Sturges
Two Girls and a Sailor — Richard Connell, Gladys Lehman
Wing and a Prayer — Jerome Cady

[Note: the following excerpt is not from the shooting script (which is not accessible) but from the screenplay as edited and reformatted in Best Film Plays 1943—1944.]


The opening title fades in, reading:



(over narrative titles)
Of thee I sing —
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride —

This dissolves to another title:



From every mountain side
Let freedom ring.

This fades out and another title fades in, reading:


And this dissolves to a long view of the PRINCETON CAMPUS.

We see the Princeton chimes and then the campus — with young men walking about and lounging on the lawn.

This scene cuts to a BUILDING on the campus, with a boy riding on a bicycle up the walk toward it.

Then we see PROSPECT AVENUE — the street of the undergraduate clubs, as carriages drive along the street and people walk along the sidewalk.

This dissolves to the PRINCETON FOOTBALL FIELD. The Princeton band, in black and gold uniforms, is marching out on the field, playing “Crash Through that Line of Blue.” The band leader marches out in front, twirling his baton, stepping high.

This cuts to the ROOTING SECTION: The Princeton students are cheering wildly. Many of them wear sweaters and the funny little hats then common to college students.

The YALE TUNNEL, as seen from above: The Yale team comes through the tunnel and runs out on the field. Off-scene we hear the strains of a band playing “Boola-Boola,” and wild cheering.

Then opposite the ENTRANCE TUNNEL, the Princeton team runs out on the field. Off-scene the cheering becomes even louder and “Crash Through that Line of Blue” dominates the music.

We see the PRINCETON STANDS, with a group of Princeton students on their feet, waving Princeton pennants and cheering wildly. The view moves over to a smaller group including WOODROW WILSON, President of Princeton, his wife, ELLEN, and his three daughters, MARGARET, JESSIE and NELL, and PROFESSOR HOLMES. Wilson and Holmes carry canes with Princeton pennants on them. Wilson and the girls are on their feet, and he is alive with interest in what is going on below.


Now if coach only has sense
enough to put Felton in at
left half!


Is Felton good, Father?


(giving her an incredulous
Good? My dear Nell, Felton
is the greatest broken field
runner since Willie Heston
of Michigan!



[First lines in finished film are essentially as above.]

Roundtable fiasco!

Correspondents “PHIL” and “MRB” had both taken the time to watch the film and were expected to join… but PHIL pulled out at the last minute because he had not received confirmation of the schedule, and MRB became unavailable only moments before the discussion began because she had not been kept apprised of the late start. BROOM, as the responsible party, then fell into a sort of guilt-coma, leaving BETH and ADAM to fend for themselves as seen below.

Those other parties are now invited — nay, encouraged — to contribute their reactions to Wilson in the comments section at the bottom.]

BETH I found it mesmerizing in an unexpected way, because of the Technicolor and the arm’s-length view. Everything felt sort of “over there.” We read that someone said it was like one of those fold-out postcards for tourists. It was like that.

ADAM At first I thought that it was a very effective piece of propaganda, because a handful of beautiful setpieces can be convincing and engaging… but then it was nothing but beautiful setpieces. It just seemed like it fizzled out. Particularly as the stakes got higher.

BETH It never had any fizzle, though.

ADAM But at first it felt like The Great McGinty, you know. I was like, “all right, I’m familiar with these setpieces.” It felt like it was building to something that was going to be exciting. But then it was just more stateliness and glossy speeches. And then we started to giggle at it, halfway through, and it became sort of unintentionally campy.

BETH I think that his family was always campy. His wife and daughters had nothing to say.

ADAM “Oh father, the Federal Reserve bill has been passed!”

BETH “You’ve always been interested in politics, dear!”

ADAM That’s not a real line from the movie. I mean, Beth’s is; mine was not. I still sort of enjoyed watching the whole thing. He did look very much like Woodrow Wilson, and they looked very much like what the interiors of the White House probably looked like.

BETH I think that a lot of care was put into making everything look accurate and feel like 1918, or 1916. So, I was sort of distracted by his second wife’s sexiness and how all of her costumes were…

ADAM Plunging?

BETH … yeah, and really stylish. It’s almost like the director or someone had a crush on that actress. I couldn’t stop looking at her.

ADAM It was weird when he was hitting on her. It felt like your dad hitting on his secretary.

BETH “I would like you to be my wife.”

ADAM “Do you have any reaction to that?”

BETH “Well, I think I have to say no.”

ADAM “But you’re the only person who can help America through this crisis. By sleeping with the President.” Right: because it was so stately, any time any actual human qualities touched their toe to it, it felt weird. What it would be like to see George and Martha Washington having sex, or having a domestic argument?

BETH After he had his stroke and she was incredibly cheery, I was like, “Maybe she’s just glad that she doesn’t have to have sex with him anymore.” I didn’t actually believe any of the relationships in it.

ADAM You didn’t really believe that he loved his first wife? Or that he really loved the League of Nations?

BETH I believe he loved the League of Nations. I believe the actual man Woodrow Wilson loved his first wife. But I didn’t believe this. That actress, whoever was playing his first wife, was not an actress. She just couldn’t really emote.

ADAM It was like watching the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland.

BETH It was a lot like that.

ADAM I did like the scene where the soldiers don’t think that she’s the First Lady, and then it’s like, “Oh, but the President is right here!” Kinda like the scene in The American President where she doesn’t believe that the President has asked her out on a date and she hangs up, and he’s like “why don’t you call back the White House switchboard,” and she does, and then she’s super-stressed. Do you remember this scene?

BETH I don’t.

ADAM I really love that movie. Basically it has all the pleasures of this movie, which is to say: stately White House interiors. But also an amusing romantic comedy inside it.

BETH And probably less static direction. I really had a problem with the direction in this.

ADAM Okay, so the reason The American President works is because it is a romantic comedy although it’s set at the White House, and it follows the genre conventions of a romantic comedy. So are there genre conventions of a biographical picture?

BETH Yeah, aren’t there? I don’t know that this followed them, but it’s like: humble beginnings; then fortuitous rise; challenges faced in pursuit of something great; and then success or failure.

ADAM I guess this had that, but it was just so tepid, and tepidly committed to the emotion of everything it was talking about, that it didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere.

BETH And Wilson just seemed non-charismatic. I don’t know how accurate that was — my sense is that it probably was fairly accurate.

ADAM He thought up the whole League of Nations thing two-thirds of the way in. Suddenly we’re supposed to care about this? That’s why Lincoln is a much more effective version of this same kind of movie. Because you don’t have to watch, like, “Why, Mr. Lincoln, perhaps you should run for president!”

BETH It is like The American President, because Wilson didn’t necessarily want to be a president, so…

ADAM I think you’re thinking of Dave.

BETH I am thinking of Dave! This has come up before.

ADAM I liked both of those movie very much as a child.

BETH Anyway, I think that Wilson didn’t have passion in the way that, at least in a movie, we expect politicians to have.

ADAM I don’t mean to talk too much about The American President, but recall that he learns passion from his wife, which sort of melds the political plot and the romance plot. Whereas here they just don’t have anything to do with each other. “Oh, wait, Germany’s sinking American ships!”

BETH “Your wife is dead!”

ADAM Suddenly we have to think about his new wife, and war with Germany, and it doesn’t really have anything to do with what we were thinking about in the first half.

BETH Yeah, structurally… BROOM said during the movie that it felt like the World Book Encyclopedia article on Woodrow Wilson, and that seems right. There’s no dramatic arc to it, it’s just stuff.

ADAM I guess the obvious comparison is not The American President or Dave, seductive as those comparisons are, but Princess O’Rourke, which happened last year. It has the stateliness of the White House without really anything to it. And maybe that’s just a World War II thing, it’s just national symbolism that doesn’t have any content to it.

BETH Like, comfort in grand spaces?

ADAM Yeah, I guess. Grown-ups at home doing grown-uppy things in the White House, and everything’s all right. It has that same almost identical thinness to it. And sort of unwatchable boringness to it. Which can’t have been accidental, that both of these movies were honored in back-to-back years.

BETH Yeah. So the script is what we’re supposed to be thinking about. I was distracted by the direction, but…

ADAM The script was super boring.

BETH It was really boring.

ADAM Yes. The last words that BROOM is going to put on the blog were “The President has no further communications. Good day, gentlemen.”

BETH Yeah, it’s not like there were any really good lines. On a micro-level it wasn’t good either. There just wasn’t a lot to be excited about.

ADAM So what was your favorite thing about it, besides Edith’s dresses?

BETH The real footage.

ADAM The newsreel footage.

BETH What was your favorite thing?

ADAM That he looked a lot like Woodrow Wilson! I thought that was well cast. And I’ll bet Woodrow Wilson did smile grimly at musicals, like that, and was sort of an awkward dude who sang around the piano.

BETH And danced with his daughter in the parlor.

ADAM And was probably really rude to Henry Cabot Lodge even though it was counterproductive. It feels like everything was probably literally true. It just has the wanness of, like, us trying to read back the scripts of our own words. It just didn’t feel animated with anything.

BETH Well… as far as the others go, we could just have this discussion again later.

ADAM We should read the review now though.

[the New York Times review is read]

ADAM Well. That suggests that nobody could really see this clearly, because it was the middle of World War II. I don’t blame them.

BETH So it cost 4 million dollars to make, and it only grossed 2 million dollars. Which makes it a pretty big failure.

BROOM It was a terrible, terrible failure. Zanuck said nobody was ever to speak of it in his presence.

ADAM Is that true? But it won five Oscars!

BROOM I think that might show that the Oscars are rigged. I mean, not rigged, but…

ADAM Rigged in favor of Darryl Zanuck? That’s probably true.

Last line in film:

— The president has nothing further to communicate. Good day, sir.
[Long may our land be bright / With freedom’s holy light / Protect us by Thy might / Great God our King.]


The complete radio broadcast of the 17th Academy Awards. The presentation of the writing awards starts at 26:56, beginning with some jokes from Bob Hope and then a comic bit of film on “the inside workings of the writing racket” produced for the occasion. The announcement of Lamar Trotti receives warm applause, as do all the Wilson awards of the evening. Trotti says nothing into the mic while onstage. It seems that the organizers specifically requested no speeches, probably for the sake of the broadcast; the few recipients to speak all mention how they’ve been asked not to.

Darryl Zanuck receives the Thalberg award. His speech simply consists of thanking his collaborators on his projects of the year, which includes Henry King and Lamar Trotti for Wilson.

The only film I can find is the quickie newsreel of restaged presentations seen at the official Oscars site.

Remember: comment below, Wilson fans!

September 11, 2014

61. Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

1999: 061 box 1


directed by Terry Jones
written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin

Criterion #61.

This may be sacrilege but I think Monty Python’s record albums might be their most satisfying body of work. Or maybe just the TV show scripts themselves. My parents had the published scripts when I was a kid and I read them repeatedly, because certain sketches seemed to me absolutely hilarious. When much later I finally saw the shows, I was dismayed at how slapdash and underrealized they were compared to my imagination. The grimy BBC visuals never really made good on the ultimate promise of this kind of comedy: unchained, unkempt whim. (The animations did, but they stood apart; Gilliam had his own point of view, and the cartoons were there to compensate for the stasis of the sketches.) When the visual works on the TV show, it’s usually only that it embodies the standard dullardry of TV, against which the lunatic content can stand out all the more sharply; it never actually feels like it does justice to that content.

One would imagine that in a feature film, with its higher budget and greater technical flexibility, a visual style could be achieved that would come closer to the free spirit of the comedy. Terry Gilliam’s directorial work certainly heads in this direction. But Life of Brian isn’t a Terry Gilliam movie, it’s a Terry Jones movie. It’s shot rather flatly and often at what feels like an excessive distance from the action, or perhaps just with the wrong lens. It’s all framed rather like the TV show. But unlike on TV, there is nothing for the comedy to stand out against — the film stock and the sets aren’t hackneyed in some way that creates an ironic framework. It looks like a legitimate enough movie, albeit a scrappy and rather amateurish one. There’s nothing particularly funny about that.

In the commentary tracks, it is several times asserted that the camera has been intentionally set back from the action because a wide frame serves comedy: it allows the viewer to see the situation as a whole, and the interactions that make up the comedy, which would be obscured by close-ups and fancier camerawork. I disagree. Watching the movie I kept feeling like I was being ejected from the space: there’s not enough room here for you and the skit at once, so you’ll have to step outside, sorry.

Think of all the popular Saturday Night Live sketches on video that were spun off into failed, unfunny movies on film. I think it’s to do with a difference in social engagement. There’s comedy that calls on the audience’s social sense, and then there’s comedy that functions entirely within a fictional reality. SNL skits are nearly all in the former category. 99% of the entertainment value in, say, those Night at the Roxbury guys is that the performers are being so silly. It’s charismatic, titillating even, for people to be unabashedly silly. But you can only enjoy that charisma and titillation if you’re aware of the social reality of the act of performance, the space and time in which it takes place. On live TV that’s possible. In a film it’s not. Once you put an edit in your film, a cut from one shot to another filmed at a different moment, space and time expand to fill the entire imagination, and the social reality recedes to the horizon. There are no performers here, only a fiction to be enjoyed on its own terms. That left the Night at the Roxbury movie with just the remaining 1% to work with. Good luck, writers!

If Terry Jones were standing in front of me with a cloth wrapped around his head and fake teeth, braying in a stupid nasal falsetto, it might be funny, but not because the character is so amusing (what character?), only because this man is being so brazenly silly. It’s socially funny. This seems to come across on traditional two-camera TV, especially when there’s an audible studio audience to prevent the fourth wall from ever really getting filled in. But on film, such comedy stops being social, and so our response becomes more meta: what’s funny about it now is just that the film is being absurdly childish, that the filmmakers have been so cavalier as to do this instead of something proper. That too can be funny — Steve Martin’s standup generally worked this way. But it’s certainly no longer funny itself that Terry Jones is in nominal drag. (I mean, what else is new?)

I think this accounts for the diminishing returns on the Austin Powers movies. In the first one, the schtick was so unfamiliar that it suggested real characters. You could watch that as a movie, one which took place in an absurd and constantly collapsing world, but a world nonetheless. Whereas in the sequels, one was asked to be amused principally that the performers were being so funny as to dress up and talk this way. That attitude is doomed.

A little more on this. Setting aside A Night at the Roxbury, Will Ferrell has actually repeatedly shown himself able to thread the needle and successfully pull off that kind of social/brazenness comedy even in slick high-budget films, which seems to go against my theory. But I would argue that it’s because Will Ferrell, unlike Mike Myers — but like, say, Bob Hope or Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers or early Steve Martin — is not merely a real live person who gets silly in character, but is in fact an established clown persona with a consistent fictional m.o., and it is the clown character “Will Ferrell” who is funny in movies when he plays transparently stupid make-believe. Whereas Mike Myers is no sort of clown. He’s just Mike Myers, that Canadian guy who pretends to be various different flimsy characters. So when he wants credit for being so uninhibited and goofy as to play at being Fat Bastard or whatever, it just seems kind of sad and needy.

I won’t say that the Pythons ever seem needy, per se. But Terry Jones and Eric Idle and Michael Palin aren’t really clowns. They have no personae. They’re just themselves, having fun. So when they do a ridiculous 10-year-old’s-make-believe “character voice” in a feature film, there is definitely a sense of a comedy gap, at least for me. John Cleese is the closest to having established a clown persona — call this persona “Basil Fawlty,” if you like, or just “John Cleese” — so there is more of a cushion for his broadness. Graham Chapman doesn’t have any clown persona at all — which is to say I have the least sense that I know him — but to my mind, he always came the closest of any of them to actually acting, or at least committing to the material, which is the other way out of the bind. It certainly helps Life of Brian that, of all of them, he’s the lead. Even his brief appearance as throwaway silly lisping character “Biggus Dickus” is more satisfying than a lot of other stuff here. It feels like it seeks actual footing.

Is Life of Brian a satire? Well, mildly, at times, but I think overrated as such. It doesn’t have a cohesive point of view, only a sort of accumulated and diffuse one, which I would characterize as “conventionally irritable about people generally.” This attitude forms a longstanding foundation for British humor and for the meek American types to whom it appeals: “Other people: am I right? And all the difficulties they pose? Don’t get me started!” For something to be a proper satire, it has to do more than just commiserate with the choir.

People tend to remember this movie as consisting of the “followers of Brian” material. But this comprises only three scenes, which run from about minute 50 to minute 70 of the movie. That’s about 20% of the 90 minute runtime. It’s some of the best material in the film. It’s about the only material that has anything to say about religion.

Though in some ways even that’s off the mark. The target of the satire in those scenes isn’t really religious at all; it’s the drive to subordinate oneself, and “groupthink,” which is no more characteristic of religion than of any other sociological phenomenon (including comedy). Brian tells the crowd to think for themselves and they assent in enthusiastic unison. The joke is good but it has little to do with Christianity. Christ never really preached that people should think for themselves, did he? He preached that people should find charity in their hearts. Which frankly is not really what this movie does. The movie cheerfully throws the first stone at a herd of straw men. And that’s fine for comedy, which is allowed to be petty — who doesn’t hate dealing with stupid people, after all? They’re totally infuriating, I agree! — but it’s not really a trenchant critique of anything.

From the commentaries I gather that the writer/performers would happily agree that the satirical target of the movie is people generally, not religion and certainly not the life of Christ. And yet there it is: Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Something to do with something to do with the life of Christ has to be going on here.

Philosophical exercise: watch this fascinating and uncomfortable bit of television history and try to see validity in what the opposition is saying. (It’s really tough! But not impossible.) To my mind, the crux of the debate is in the Christianists’ repeated assertions that they can’t for a moment take seriously the claim that this film isn’t a burlesque of the life of Christ, since it so obviously is. They’re wrong, but you can’t blame them.

Even to a fan, what the movie as a whole unavoidably seems to be saying is that this biblical milieu is a particularly fruitful one for the Monty Python treatment. They have here somehow found a uniquely deserving subject for their trademark exasperated absurdism. This is the blatant subtext.

But it turns out that none of the writers ever really claimed this, at least not explicitly. It emerges from the commentary that the decision to write this movie was actually arrived at only gradually, haphazardly, by the group as a whole, Ouija-style. Discussing the development process, they each say things like “we just got the sense that there was rich, unexplored comedic material here, and that’s what we look for.” But that only shows that the shared impulse was subconscious and uncritical. Buried inside “we just got the sense” are all the ideas and assumptions that confront the viewer.

These are all men for whom religious iconography is completely peripheral to their lives. “Biblical stuff,” to them, is just one more bundle of arbitrary inherited tropes, exactly the sort of thing that is fodder for parody. The provocation of the movie is not so much that it has anything to say; it’s just that it arises cheerfully out of this mindset, which has more to do with their various upbringings than it does with thoughts they have. It’s kind of a generational statement more than a philosophical statement: “This bible stuff really and truly looks like fair game to us,” it says. It doesn’t really say much else. And I think that’s what was actually troubling about it to the older generation — and, incidentally, what remains problematic about it for me as a viewer seeking entertainment — that it is driven by nothing much beyond a desire to shrug off the old anxieties: “Who says we can’t make this movie?” And, sure enough, they can. But what kind of a movie is that?

Nowadays there’s a lot of “ironic racism” as comedy — Sarah Silverman and the like, you know the stuff I mean — the function of which is to cater to the audience’s anxieties about being racist — anxieties that are of course being drummed up constantly these days. A clownish effigy of “racism” is established so that everyone can feel the relief of recognizing that at least they’re not that racist! And then people come to enjoy playacting the clown role, because they associate it with relief and relief makes them giddy. What I don’t like about this phenomenon is that it only has comedic value in relation to the assumed anxiety. If an audience member is comfortable with him/herself, then there’s often no actual humor in it. And that’s what seems to be at work with Life of Brian. The movie only really works if you agree that it was rather naughty to make it.

On the other hand, I do agree: it was rather naughty to make it. And the relevant anxieties persist, even now, even past the age of South Park. And it continues to be valuable for there to be signposts like this movie out there, saying, essentially, “Look how close you can come to blasphemy without doing anything wrong! Even a movie like this is perfectly respectful of Christ and Christianity, so I’m sure anything you say won’t be a problem. Real spirituality is a lot more resilient than that; real things always are. So relax.”

So, y’know, maybe my real problem with the movie just goes back to Terry Jones and the mediocre filmmaking: at times it’s clear that, on the surface, the movie wants to justify itself as being a burlesque of Life of Christ movies, of Hollywood biblical epics and their goofy tropes, just as Holy Grail was a burlesque of medieval adventure cliches. See the Ben Hur title styling above. Properly done, this is quite a different thing from burlesquing Christ himself; only Cecil B. DeMille should take offense. But it simply hasn’t been properly done. The viewer can’t tell the difference because the movie doesn’t look like anything in particular.

I’ve had a hard time writing this entry because I don’t know what I think of this movie.

Ultimately what we have here is a comedy cobbled out of assorted sketch ideas, some of which have a superficial satirical impulse but not a coordinating one, set in a New Testament milieu with very carefully calibrated defiance of convention but to no particular greater purpose… and all presented slightly flat, owing to insensitivity to the film medium. A bunch of the sketch ideas are good. A bunch are just middling.

For all these reasons, for my part, I think Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a much funnier and more satisfying movie. Much. (Meaning of Life just doesn’t work, at least as I remember it; the better production values end up making the black humor chaos feel menacing and cheerless.) Holy Grail takes place in a fantasy setting and simultaneously feels like it’s held together with tape, both of which help keep it within a spirit of play. It’s like there’s not enough room for anything to fall flat. Limitations, which is to say appeals to the imagination, go a long way in making the audience’s engagement broader and freer. That movie functions much closer to the space of the Terry Gilliam animations.

I think people tend to esteem Life of Brian more highly than Holy Grail — or highly at all — principally because the things it seems to touch on are actually important. Spiritual leadership, politics, ideological hypocrisy. That kind of stuff puts off sparks of intelligence just by showing up. But I think mostly it just shows up. And that’s fine! I’m glad it’s not a message movie or a self-important satire. I much prefer blithe comedy, which is what this is. The problem is solely that the comedy is, you know, hit and miss, and more than a little sloppy.

The non sequitur minute inside an alien spaceship is funnier to tell about than it is to watch. I’m glad it’s in there so that I can know about it as a thing that exists in a movie.

The whole movie is kind of that way. Kudos to them for making a comedy life of Jesus. I think my final word is: it’s fun that this happened and exists. But watching it might be beside the point.

Having poked around online I see that the above is very much a minority opinion. Well, take that, majority!

By the way, this isn’t some kind of cranky grown-up “you needed to see it when you were younger” thing. I did see it when I was younger, and felt the same. Albeit in fewer words. I thought it seemed like it had some vague agenda that was getting in the way of its being any fun. I figured it must be trying to do some kind of grownup thing that I didn’t care about. So I was actually kind of hoping that now as a grownup I would get more out of it. But I didn’t.

The commentary is by all five surviving Pythons, recorded separately and then edited into two tracks, one with Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Eric Idle, one with John Cleese and Michael Palin. But none of them are talking to each other; the groupings seem simply to be for convenience. Feeling kind of ho-hum about the movie itself, I found more interest in these commentaries, which are pretty good. There’s something very odd and interesting in contemplating the actual personalities of these six men of rather different temperaments who were committed to being professionally silly together. It’s not quite as rich as John vs. Paul vs. George vs. Ringo but there’s something of that kind of juice to it if you let there be. I especially liked the on-set BBC documentary (I told you, I always love on-set footage!) which includes a segment where they all talk quasi-candidly about one another. I find it intriguing.

This is the third commentary I’ve spent with Terry Gilliam. By the way, he spends most of the time saying unsarcastically that Terry Jones was absolutely right to put the camera in all these places that he, Terry Gilliam, would never have wanted to put it. And very obviously feeling the opposite. This is Terry’s way.

Once you start seeing people’s behavior in terms of anxiety, you can’t shut it off. It’s everywhere!

Other stuff on there include the trailer (is that Morgan Freeman?) some correctly deleted scenes, and some amusing radio ads by the Pythons’ mothers (and Palin’s dentist, which apparently is not a joke). Not included is this interesting audio document, which didn’t come to light until more recently.

Relationship to the preceding movie. Hm. Tough this time. I guess they’re both about adult children of unappreciative mothers.

Apart from the songs, the score is essentially deadpan “movie music” music. It does the job and is helpfully well-bred and professional in a movie that can use all the surface professionalism it can get. It is by Geoffrey Burgon. I would normally have selected the end credits, but it’s an instrumental of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which of course is by Eric Idle, whereas I’m trying to highlight the score composer with these selections. So our selection is the prologue, which accompanies the Star of Bethlehem and the journey of the three kings. The yelp of Brian’s mother falling over at the end is, in a sense, the punchline. The Prologue.

Apparently this preceded the feature on its first UK release.

September 3, 2014

60. Höstsonaten (1978)

2000: 060 box 1 2013: 060 box 2


written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

Criterion #60. Autumn Sonata.

Find your porn name! Here’s how:
1. Take the title of the last Ingmar Bergman movie you watched.

(Summer Interlude. Wild Strawberry. Fanny Alexander. Saraband. And of course “Shame.”)

This is a through-the-wringer movie where people devastate one another. It belongs to the “interpersonal emotional exorcism” genre, one of the leading dramatic forms of the 20th century.

When I was younger I was cynical about the prevalence of this genre and its characteristic sights and sounds. It seemed like just so much crocodile angst. In 2000, walking out of the theater after True West, one of my companions dismissed it, annoyed, saying something like “it was just another one of these plays where civility devolves into histrionics.” That stuck with me as a succinct expression of the aesthetic skepticism I had always felt.

Well, that was a long time ago. In the intervening years, I’ve become a bit of an expert in adult angst. And it turns out it’s no myth. There actually is such a thing as needing help achieving emotional release. As a kid, of course, I could hardly imagine such a condition. The possibility of bawling was always all too close at hand; I was hard at work on being more repressed. The idea that anybody might need to be guided back to their pain and tears was as absurd as the idea that people might need to be guided back to peeing.

But sometimes that’s just what they need. So now I understand why there are hundreds upon hundreds of plays and movies about people peeing, peeing, peeing like they’ve never peed before. “Mother, look at me! Look at me! All my life you’ve denied that I have to pee! But look! Look at me go! See how you like it now!” It turns out that as one ages and tightens there can arise a need for assistance.

That, it seems to me, is the value of brutal, painful, dramatic catharsis. A movie is a safe way to have tears wrung from you, which creates an opportunity to smuggle out some of your own, the ones that have been weighing you down. At several points while watching Autumn Sonata my eyes were wet with empathetic pain and something like shame: the feeling that the hard emotions in the movie were awfully close to home for me, and embarrassing and/or therapeutic as such (the two are nearly the same thing).

But as Bergman’s anger and/or self-disgust ascended into more and more outlandishly vindictive extremes, I found my empathy and my eyes drying up. This was someone else’s catharsis, not mine.

In fact, for all its artistic nuance and obvious intellectual class, I’m not even sure it’s a particularly enlightened or purposeful catharsis. It seems like it’s made of private bitterness that hadn’t yet mellowed enough to be molded, tempered, countered, and thus turned into something useful to an audience. There are places where the self-pity becomes too pure, which is to say too grotesque, to see any other way.

Now, I should acknowledge that I personally have, in my adulthood, already managed to break the seal on my own pit of shame and resentment, analogous to the stuff unleashed by the two characters in this movie. So I am not necessarily in the market to be shocked into self-recognition by art; I’m already too familiar with this territory. And facing it is hard and a big deal, so for a movie to show it being hard and a big deal seems right and worthwhile. But for those who haven’t yet broken that seal, such a movie ought to encourage them to take the risk, or at least give them some sense of what it’s worth. Autumn Sonata is all about the ordeal of admitting your pain but seems quite pessimistic as to whether therapeutic change is actually possible as a result. The ending brings the audience to the question of hope, but scrupulously avoids answering it, remaining grim-faced. In fact it strongly hints that daring to express their inner feelings has only served to further alienate these characters, both as individuals and in relation to one another.

I, and I think the entire psychological tradition all the way back to Freud, would disagree that that’s how things work. People can heal. So why is Bergman insistent on keeping things unrelievedly bleak?

Answer: because that was the state of mind in which he made it. The screenplay is the expression of a single emotional state, not a development. The film’s universe is static: pain is felt, relief is speculated about but never realized. According to the Criterion essay, in Bergman’s original treatment of the script, he wrote that at the end of the exorcism, “the daughter gives birth to the mother.” That sounds like a much healthier vision. But he apparently couldn’t figure out what that would entail, so instead he ends it where it began. That’s a spiritual block as much as a creative one. And, you know, I can find spiritual blocks sympathetic as such.

But that’s behind-the-scenes information. Within the movie there’s no such excuse. The movie is following the playbook called “I Know You Don’t Want This But You Need It,” mercilessly harping on things that make you feel bad… but it climaxes in the extreme register of a revenge fantasy, and then abruptly turns aside, petulantly saying, “well, actually, maybe you didn’t need it.” Which left me feeling like, “well dammit, maybe I didn’t.”

It is exquisitely put together, with many beautifully sensitive details, and the acting is very fine. It is art, and no mistaking. But it goes over the top. It’s ultimately unfair, unkind to its characters, and thus to its audience.

That all said (!):

I got the sense that this emotional imbalance, this dysfunction of the cathartic pattern, was not actually precious to Bergman. I got the sense that what he really cared about was just the premise — a mother and daughter confronting one another — and the unkindness and pessimism were simply what his subconscious presented to him in the course of trying to work out the dramatic consequences. And this makes it easier for me to accept that it ends up wrong, because, in a way, that’s incidental. The movie is actually front-weighted. The exposition of the characters as they present themselves in ordinary life is the part it loves best. You can feel it. Despite the red-eyed melodrama of what follows, that stuff’s not actually the point.

Put another way: the subtler first half of the movie is excellent, and the noisier, more hurtful second half of the movie can be read as the mishandled denouement.

That’s what it’s about, by the way: 40-ish Liv Ullmann is the daughter, 60-ish Ingrid Bergman is the mother, and they vent at each other about how they’re each damaged. This Be The Verse.

Also on the scene is a sister with some kind of terrible degenerative disease, just to up the misery. Mission accomplished!

I guess it’d be fair to say that I’m very torn. Your response will depend on whether you can just let this stuff slide as a kind of poetry or are going to take it seriously. If you can let it slide, by all means watch. If you’re going to take it to heart, beware: this isn’t a happy person’s movie. I think I basically said the same about The Seventh Seal: “that’s aesthetically all well and good but how does this morbidity benefit anyone?”

Autumn Sonata is very beautiful to look at; at least on the new restored Blu-ray it is. The cinematography by Sven Nykvist is painterly, evoking Vermeer and probably other specific artists I can’t identify. The lighting is remarkably lovely throughout. Cutaways and flashbacks get dreamy expressionist lighting, with whole scenes swimming in red or brown or white, but where other movies handle such effects cartoonishly, here the dreamy scenes are just as tasteful and fully inhabited as the more naturalistic lighting of the main action. The movie is, just like a Vermeer, simultaneously modest and luxurious to look at. Its beauty makes the best possible case for its dramatic concerns. Maybe the beauty can stand alone.

Probably not the whole way through, but for a scene or two it can. The scene when daughter and mother play Chopin at each other is really wonderful and stands well apart from any of my reservations about what comes later. One of the best and most sensitive uses of onscreen classical music that I’ve ever seen.

While I’m on the subject: The “sonata” in the title refers to the form of the drama itself, not to any actual piece. (I thought to link to Wikipedia’s “Sonata Form” article here but it’s too confusing to be helpful. So just trust me.) I take Bergman to mean that there are the two subjects, daughter and mother, and a third element, connective tissue, in the form of the crippled sister. The two subjects get their exposition in a minor key, then everyone goes to bed and the nightmarish development starts, which of course complicates and troubles all the material and ultimately brings it to crisis. Then we have a brief straight recapitulation of the opening situation, with the two subjects now linked but unresolved and with a stronger feeling of tragedy. The husband provides a stately intro and corresponding coda. (The Chopin prelude played onscreen has a similar minor-key emotional trajectory but no second theme and no development.)

This is my own analysis; Criterion doesn’t help on this count, which they ought to have. You might argue that this strong formal conception contradicts my claim above that the ultimate trajectory isn’t really the point. But I think it bears it out: in looking for a way to make his movie work, Bergman took refuge in a fatalistic formal pattern, rather than have to resolve any of the emotional problems on their own terms. He just wanted the art to work out, not the characters.

In a way the movie arises out of the inherent natures of famous actresses Liv and Ingrid. The movie can be seen as simply a study of the tension between their two types. Both performances wonderfully live up to this vision, all the way up to the peaks of intensity, but especially in the more restrained passages. You could perhaps edit out some of the most extreme stuff and make a quieter and subtler movie, a less insistently painful movie, that I would admire unequivocally. (I mean, you couldn’t really. But close to it.)

Ingrid Bergman had a real actor in her, it turns out. It feels as though she is tapping into a level of honesty never previously called for. That alone could be enough to recommend this movie. Of course, I’ve only ever seen her in her most glamorized and impersonal Hollywood roles, so my surprise may be unfair to her. In a pleasant 1981 interview included on the disc (which seems to have been previously unavailable), she mentions how shooting Casablanca was completely infuriating because nobody had decided what the plot was: since nobody could tell her what her character felt, she didn’t know what to play; so, she says, when she watches it now she is dismayed to see her face with absolutely no expression on it. This gave me some thoughts about how Casablanca is a magical iconic film for exactly this reason, that it is an expressionless dream in which surreal Hollywood emotions, purified and unimpeded by any intentions, have complete sway — but that’s a thought for another time.

This disc has so much extra content on it you wouldn’t believe. I wanted to get this all down before I ventured into it and skewed my impression. I suspect that after spending 5 more hours with this movie I’ll be brainwashed into loving it. Well, I’ll be back after the horizontal line to report.


The three-and-a-half hour behind-the-scenes documentary was wonderful. It made me inordinately happy. It has nothing to prove and nothing to say and so for this long span of time – more than twice the length of the movie – one just gets a sense of the people, the atmosphere, the work to be done, the feeling of being there. All of which are so gratifying to me. It put me in mind of my most rewarding days working in theater. It had a very strong psychological effect on me; it’s a long low-key social immersion in another reality. I always enjoy making-of footage in this same way, and this was just an endless feast of it. I didn’t get tired. In fact at the end of nearly 4 hours I was still able to feel disappointed that there wasn’t more, that various other scenes from the movie weren’t documented.

I suppose it could be compared in scope to the giant behind-the-scenes documentary spread across the Lord of the Rings DVDs, which taken all together is even longer, but in that case the immensity of the production necessitated a more traditional editorial assemblage, with talking heads and a series of “topics” and background music and so on. Here we simply see the footage, in order, from each day. It seems to have been edited for interest, but not for structure.

I know that in reality I still haven’t actually met Ingmar or Sven or Ingrid or Liv. But I’ve done something. I’ve met them more than you have. (Until you watch it. Then we’ll be even.)

Spending this kind of time on set also revealed the answer to my question above about how this movie benefited me. The primary benefit is between the lines: the movie is wonderful access to the carpets and clothes and soft presence of this world. That includes the relationships, the conflicts, the personalities, the worldview. The light. It includes everything except for the scripted confrontations and lines of dialogue and formal aspirations of the screenplay. The action is just a framework on which this valuable space and time and feeling is hung, not the other way.

In a scene of rehearsal, we see Ingmar talking about subtext to the actors and then adding, “But I’m just a hack compared to Chekhov.” And that’s right, he is. The play is frustrating. The show is good.

Yes, the movie’s feelings, which is to say Ingmar’s feelings, aren’t quite constructive or fair. But they’re still feelings. Watching this film is to be surrounded by feelings, real ones, and that is a very valuable thing. While I’m in it I might be dissatisfied about the particulars, but I’m dissatisfied about lots of things all the time. How wonderful to be dissatisfied while immersed in feeling.

The set of an Ingmar Bergman movie is a particularly satisfying place for me to visit, but I probably would enjoy a continuous film festival of any strangers’ home movies. Can that be arranged?

(Oh right, of course it can! For a second I forgot how things worked nowadays. I’m not sure why they work this way, but they do.)

Anyway: going straight from that undeniable document to Peter Cowie’s standard scholarific commentary just throws into relief how cramped such stuff always is. Trying to work from Bergman and Bergman’s respective memoirs, interviews, etc., our commentator talks about stuff like “tensions on set,” in standard pat phrases that purport to be historically insightful. “But,” I think, “I was just moments ago on the set, and can report that whatever was going on wasn’t anything like what the phrase ‘tensions on set’ sounds like.” Admittedly, any really unpleasant moments had been edited out. But more important is that having been inside the reality of that space, I retained a strong intuition about how wrong that whole mode of talking about the creative process is. Our simple narrativizing minds want to hear that Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman either did or didn’t get along well, or that “there was an incident” or that “they fought over” something. But that reality of the situation, as of any social situation, is that no description of it can be completely true, and hardly any story is even true enough to be worth telling.

It was a real place with real people in it and we all know how big and sloppy a thing that is. What I saw was: Ingrid Bergman asked Ingmar a question and then he answered, and her eyes were down and then they came up, and then he smiled, and he slouched a little while he was strolling around to talk to the other guy, and so on and so on ad infinitum, mountains of actual evidence with no obvious significance or name, to interpret which is the business of life. This is the attitude that films invite us to bring to them; why can’t we bring it to the reality from which they spring? Why would I ever trust someone’s interpretation of a film if I can see how bluntly and presumptuously they interpret reality?

I’ve worked on theatrical productions that came out either good or bad, and sometimes people fought and sometimes they didn’t, and sometimes people felt tense and sometimes they didn’t. But I know that there is no simple way of connecting those dots, or even drawing those dots. The experiences are infinitely complex and come down to nuances of personality that great artists like Ingmar Bergman spend whole careers trying to shed even a little light on. Whereas academics try to corral “evidence” and “back it up” with “citations” and “argument.” Someone’s memoir is a terrible source of evidence about social nuance. Yes, often it’s all we’ve got. Let’s try to be frank in those situations and recognize how little it really is.

For one of those commentaries it’s a pretty good one. It comes from 1995, from the original laserdisc. The other features are new to the 2013 edition.

Apart from the monster-mentary, they also include the Ingrid Bergman interview mentioned above (I inserted those lines about Casablanca because they seemed to belong up there, even though it’s above my horizontal divider), which is a nice 39 minutes touching on her whole career. There’s a shortish Criterion-produced Liv Ullmann interview from just last year — she looks fine — in which she contributes a bit to the “did they fight or what?” storytelling but without overstating anything. It’s basically sweet. And then there’s an introduction to the film for TV broadcast as taped by Ingmar in 2003, in which he dwells on the question of Ingrid’s difficulty. Based on the other stuff on the disc I get the sense that he’s overstating it. It probably should come as no surprise that Ingmar Bergman seems like he might have been a bit emotional and potentially touchy. And maybe the rest of them were too. So big deal. Artists are like that; that’s their thing.

Sven Nykvist comes off as awfully calm and un-touchy. Boy, he was really good.

So, in sum: The disc is great, and I don’t know that I necessarily love the movie but I was certainly rewarded spending this time with it. Even if it is a Dagmar Downer.

There is no original music, just some classical selections. The choice here has to be the onscreen Chopin performance — not Liv’s, which is unsteady and anxious, but Ingrid’s, which is cold and fixed. This is the high point of the movie. Both performances are actually by pianist Käbi Laretei, Ingmar’s ex-wife, who can be seen advising in the documentary and holding everyone to very high standards for believability in the use of the piano. Bless her! It was worth it. Chopin: Prelude in A minor, op. 28/2.

Back at #30 (M, remember?) I declared “disc one” of the Criterion soundtrack anthology to be complete. 30 tracks later I think we’ve gone a bit over 74 minutes for disc two, but I forgot to keep track of this aspect of my obsessive project until now so what are you going to do. Some CDs hold up to 80 minutes, right? Sure. Anyway, 30 is a nice number so it’s time for a recap. We’ll do one again at 90, etc. Here’s the table for relistening convenience, like last time:

31. Great Expectations (1946) Main Title Walter Goehr 1:09
32. Oliver Twist (1948) “Oliver’s Sleepless Night” Arnold Bax 1:53
33. Nanook of the North (1922) Nanook and Nyla (1997) Timothy Brock 0:34
34. Andrei Rublev (1966) Finale Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov 7:14
35. Diabolique (1955) Complete Georges Van Parys 2:30
36. The Wages of Fear (1953) Main Title Georges Auric 1:59
37. Time Bandits (1981) Main Title Mike Moran 1:25
38. Branded to Kill (1967) “Killing Blues” Naozumi Yamamoto 1:17
39. Tokyo Drifter (1966) “Drifter Theme” Hajime Kaburagi 0:35
40. Armageddon (1998) End Credits Trevor Rabin 2:58
41. Henry V (1944) End Title William Walton 2:11
42. Fishing With John (1992) “Fishing With John” John Lurie 0:43
43. Lord of the Flies (1963) End Title Raymond Leppard 0:53
44. The Red Shoes (1948) “The Red Shoes: Ballet” Brian Easdale 15:12
45. Taste of Cherry (1997) St. James Infirmary Blues [Traditional] 3:11
46. The Most Dangerous Game (1932) Main Title Max Steiner 1:32
47. Insomnia (1997) End Credits Geir Jenssen 3:47
48. Black Orpheus (1959) “Samba de Orfeu” Luis Bonfá 1:01
49. Nights of Cabiria (1957) Main Title Nino Rota 2:02
50. And the Ship Sails On (1983) Clair de lune [Claude Debussy] 2:36
51. Brazil (1985) “The Office” Michael Kamen 1:07
52. Yojimbo (1961) Main Title Masaru Sato 2:26
53. Sanjuro (1962) Main Title Masaru Sato 2:04
54. For All Mankind (1989) End Credits Brian Eno 1:55
55. The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) Idyll: V. Adagio [Leoš Janáček] 3:31
56. The 39 Steps (1935) Main Title Jack Beaver / Charles Williams / Hubert Bath 1:18
57. Charade (1963) Main Title Henry Mancini 2:07
58. Peeping Tom (1960) Main Title Brian Easdale 1:13
59. The Night Porter (1974) End Credits Daniele Paris 2:25
60. Autumn Sonata (1978) Prelude in A minor [Frédéric Chopin] 2:30

Yeah, looks like your “disc two” is 75:18, so you’re going to need a pretty fancy CD burner. Oh well. Luckily nobody, including me, even briefly considered doing that. What an incredibly annoying and unlistenable CD this would be. Though there’s plenty of good stuff here.

Standouts are:

34. Andrei Rublev
44. The Red Shoes
48. Black Orpheus
49. Nights of Cabiria
51. Brazil
57. Charade

Yes, this was a long entry, but it was a serious movie and a really freaking long disc so that’s how much came out of me.