In the effort to see more of the yet-unseen Bergman films in the FilmStruck catalog before it shuts down, I started watching Thirst. About fifteen minutes in I realized that I'd seen it before, only two years ago. I had not cared much for it then (see this post) and decided not to finish it. I proceeded to another of which I hadn't heard before, All These Women (1964).
Well, that was a surprise. If I hadn't already known it was Bergman, the only clue would have been the presence of several of Bergman's favorite actors in it. I learned afterwards that Roger Ebert called it Bergman's worst film. And I don't think I'd argue with that, but nevertheless I enjoyed it. It's a jape about an artist (male), and his hangers-on--women who in another context would be called groupies, a business manager, and a critic-biographer. The Great Musician is a cellist who is almost never seen--once or twice from the back, and maybe a brief glimpse of his face that went by so quickly I wasn't sure what I'd seen. We hear him playing one of Bach's cello suites, and the contrast between the sublimity of the music and the sordid absurdity of everything else going on is surely intentional.
The goings-on take place in the musician's mansion or palace. Seven (I think) women are in residence, one of them his wife and the others--well, as I said, groupies, but ones who feel pretty possessive of him and consider themselves to be his widows when he dies. (I'm not giving away anything, as that's established in the opening.) A critic named Cornelius is writing the great man's biography. He arrives and begins scurrying around the place brandishing a two-foot-long red quill pen, scribbling away and discoursing pompously, chasing both the master and any of the women who will pay attention to him.
It's essentially a satire of which Cornelius is the main target, and it's hard not to see the film as Bergman taking his revenge on a critic or critics who had irritated him. It was Bergman's first venture into color, and is not at all remarkable for cinematography. The sets seem stylized, as if for the stage rather than the screen. It's also one of Bergman's very few comedies, but it's closer to the Marx Brothers than to Smiles of a Summer Night. If the latter is Mozart, this is more like Spike Jones. It's pretty lewd (not at all pornographic), and the score frequently breaks out into a high-speed "Yes, We Have No Bananas." It's not as funny as the Marx Brothers, but it's fun.
The Wikipedia article described it as a parody of Fellini's 8 1/2, which, according to something I read recently, Bergman admired. So that made me wonder about 8 1/2. I do not have a good history with Fellini in general and 8 1/2 in particular. I saw it when I was in college, in an art-film series which, along with a course in film history, was my introduction to Serious Cinema. I found it dull and unintelligible at the time. Then I saw it again almost exactly ten years ago, along with several other Fellini movies, and I'll save you the trouble of scrolling through a long post and quote the relevant part here (the other movie I'm referring to is La Dolce Vita):
It’s official: I don’t much care for Fellini. I’ve seen Juliet of the Spirits, Intervista, and now the two that are widely considered masterpieces, and found them all more irritating than anything else, despite some excellent moments. I can’t entirely explain this. The apparently aimless talking—high-speed chattering, actually— and wandering around is not fundamentally different from some of Antonioni’s work, which I like very much. But Fellini’s people just annoy me, and I don’t find much imagery that touches me (often Antonioni’s saving grace), or the sense of mystery that some modernist films have. I came closer to liking La Dolce Vita than any of the others; I may see it again sometime.
I find that ten years is not such a long time once you pass fifty or so, and I remember quite well what I felt when I wrote that. I think I remember using some such phrase such as "bunch of hyper-active Italians" to my wife at the time. I don't suppose I'd ever have watched it again without that Bergman connection. But since it was immediately available on FilmStruck, I decided to give it a try.
And I have to say I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This time I got it. 8 1/2 is a great movie. It's as good as all but the best of Bergman's, and if you've been reading this blog for a while you know that's saying something for me.
I think part of my problem before was that there is so much dialog, and it's so fragmented, that I couldn't see the structure. But that's an effect of the film's premise: we're watching a famous director who's working on a new film and is being constantly badgered by dozens of people connected with either the film or him personally or, usually, both. Sometimes I couldn't even sort out who was speaking. But anyway I got past that and...well, see preceding paragraph.
All These Women really, by the way, doesn't seem to me a parody of 8 1/2. There is one major connector, though, in the person of a critic who is one of the people pestering--and belittling--the director.
By the way, in case you haven't heard, Criterion is launching its own streaming service next year. I went ahead and signed up--you get a discount if you sign up now.
A couple of TV series watched over the past month or so: the third season of The Man in the High Castle continues the very persuasive depiction of a world in which Germany and Japan won the Second World War. But though the picture of that world is brilliantly done, as a story I don't think the series is so very good. Toward the end it takes off into pure science fiction, in the form of Super-Advanced Technology, which is not to my mind very convincing--neither the technology itself nor what it's used for. And maybe I've missed something, but the whole business of the mysterious films that show scenes from alternate realities doesn't altogether make sense to me. Other than their one use in preventing another war, what is their importance? Why does the quest for them propel so much of the plot? Through too much of the series they've seemed to be something of a MacGuffin: "The MacGuffin's importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations."
I have not read the book, by the way, though I plan to do so soon.
The sixth and, happily, final season of House of Cards is terrible. I pretty much agree with this review: "unwatchable nonsense." Except of course that I did watch it, because of some compulsion to finish what I'd started, with a faint hope that it would get better. Part of the problem was the attempt to rework the show after the unexpected dumping of Kevin Spacey. But as that review says, the show had been a crazy mess for several seasons. One of the odder things about this last gasp was the way it alternated between bits of feminist-y cheerleading for Claire Underwood's presidency and the picture of her as a very high-achieving Lady Macbeth who is actually better off without Macbeth. The scene where she unveils her all-female cabinet made me laugh out loud, I think mainly because of the swelling music, which seemed for a moment about to break into some patriotic anthem.
I must say, though, that the title sequence for House of Cards is just about the best ever.
What really makes it is the music, which I think has varied a bit from season to season (I thought the bass went missing in season 2 or 3). Here is a version posted by the composer, Jeff Beal, so presumably the way he wants it heard. Everything is very present.
That's just great music, never mind the visuals or the show it was written for, even though it's less than 2 minutes long. Robert Bahr of the Swedish label BIS liked it, and the other music for the series, that he put together a 2-CD set of Beal's music. I haven't heard it.
The titles for Man in the High Castle are really good, too, at least visually. They don't seem to be on YouTube though. These things are becoming an art form in themselves, it seems.
I always have trouble getting used to the sudden onset of dark when we go off Daylight Savings Time (don't get me started). Instead of a gradual dimming at, say, 5:30 in the evening, it goes suddenly from light to full dark between one day and the next. Yesterday afternoon I went to the bay right at 5, with a beer in hand, to watch the sun set. I deliberately left my phone behind, telling myself "If you bring it with you you'll keep trying to take photos and won't actually be experiencing the experience." Anyway it was sort of a dull evening and partly because of the time change I was missing the actual setting of the sun. So I wasn't expecting a big show. The first clue I had that I was mistaken was a mysterious-looking red glow cast on some of foliage of the trees and bushes along the path. It turned out to be one of the more spectacular sunsets I've seen. Sorry, no pictures.
But here's one from a couple of weeks ago. That white streak that seems to be vertical really looked that way, though it's actually a contrail heading west to east.