Merry Christmas!

24 December, 2011

Today is the big day in Sweden (don’t ask me why) so Merry Christmas or God Jul as we say here.

 

Ingmar Bergman and the clown

22 December, 2011

Here’s a film theory essay I wrote for uni. Thought it might be interesting.

 

 

Ingmar Bergman was seen by many critics and academics as one of the last of the great European directors.[1] When examining his body of work one can easily draw the conclusion that he was an auteur. Bergman fits in with the idea of the auteur which Truffaut and others established in the 1960’s[2].  Bergman wrote and directed most of his films, he worked with mostly the same actors and crew throughout his career and he most importantly kept returning to the same themes and images in film after film. One can, as Jesse Kalin points out in The Films of Ingmar Bergman, boil Bergman’s themes down to if life offers either mercy or meaning.[3] Bergman asks the big questions by exploring religion, death, family, lack of communication and art. It is this later aspect of his filmmaking I want to examine, his use of the artist. The most common type is the actor or the performer. The mask in all its various forms is a recurring character in Bergman films. Bergman kept using the idea of the mask throughout his entire career but did it very literary in his earlier films.  I want to focus especially on the image of the white faced clown and jester in two of those films; Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and The Seventh Seal (1957). What does role does the masked clown play in these films? I also want to do a brief comparison of Bergman’s image of the clown and the fool to that which Mickhail Bakhtin finds in the medieval writer Rabelais’s work. A subject Bakhtin wrote about in the book Rabelais and His World.

Sawdust and Tinsel, also known as Naked Night or The clown’s Evening in English is a film that fittingly enough is set around a traveling circus. It takes place during 24 hours, from dusk to dusk. The main story is about Albert, the owner of the circus and his mistress Anne. Albert goes to see his estranged wife who he hasn’t seen for three years and Anne revenges his behavior by flirting with the actor Frans who forces himself upon her. Albert and Anne’s story is told not only through their actions but also through the story of Frost, the main clown at the circus. I want to focus on a sequence in the beginning of the film when Jens the coachman tells Albert a story about Frost and his wife Alma. It’s a flashback to an event that happened seven years earlier. It shows how Alma goes down to the beach to parade in front of the regiment that is on a shooting practice. They make her strip and dare her to bathe naked with the officers. She goes skinny dipping while a big group of people watches her.  Frost is told about it and goes down to save his wife. After Frost’s failed attempt to command Alma to go out of the water he goes in to fetch her. He strips down to his underwear and both his and her clothes are stolen. Frost carries his naked wife out of the water, desperately trying to cover her body up with his own while the regiment watches them, constantly laughing. Frost carries her over a rocky terrain with bare feet and ultimately collapses before reaching the circus. At the end of the story the camera goes back to the present and we see that Albert has fallen asleep even though the anecdote is a sign of what to come in his own life.

What makes this sequence stand out is that it is presented like a dream. The dreamlike quality is achieved partly by the overexposed footage and the lack of dialogue. We see Frost shouting at Alma but we don’t hear his voice doing so. We hear Frost speak when he is told about Alma skinny dipping and we hear the officer ordering the soldiers to go to the cannons but that is the only dialogue. Frost reacts to the information on his wife bathing with the soldiers as he’s been told a joke. He cannot take it seriously at first; he is in his clown costume. The most prominent sound in the sequence is the constant laughter from the crowd or as one should call them; the audience. It is accompanied by upbeat brass music which changes into steady rhythmic drum when Frost carries Alma over the rocky beach. The sequence and the whole film is ultimately a story about humiliation. Frost, the clown, is there to be humiliated and laughed at. The mocking laughter from the audience and the upbeat music creates a primal feeling of an audience that demands Frost to perform for them when all he wants is to hide and get himself and his wife away from their preying eyes.

The story about Frost and Alma is a hint to what is to come for Albert and Anne. During the evening’s show Albert challenge Frans to a fight for what he did to Anne. What is important to point out is that this fight takes place within the circus ring and is therefore seen as a performance by the audience. Jesse Kalin means that the circus ring makes the fight seem like something which is only for fun, that it would stop the fight before it becomes too violent.[4] He goes on by calling the clown’s act as an act of domination.[5] The audience behaves as the regiment did when they saw Frost suffer, they howl madly like animals. The fight is shot in a sequence of rapid shots of close ups of the characters faces, mixing Albert and Frans with the two clowns in the ring; Frost and Jens. It compares the clown’s eye markings with Albert’s bleeding eye. There is also significance in the clown’s ever present smile that is painted upon his face, it encourages the audience to take it all like a joke. We see them grin and hear them chortle which reminds us more of an animal than anything else. The audience is a beast in Bergman’s eyes. They don’t treat the performers, the clowns with any respect or humanity. The performer becomes the scapegoat in his world. The clown is the one that can be humiliated and carry our shame, like Frost carries Alma, instead of us being the ones that are humiliated.

The same sense of the performer carrying shame and being humiliated is present in The Seventh Seal. The film is most famous for the knight that is trying to delay his faith by playing chess with death but Bergman uses the image of the traveling theatre company in this film as well. The married couple Jof and Mia makes a living by traveling the land with their fellow actor Skat. Even though they might not be clowns like Frost and Jens in Sawdust and Tinsel they have white painted faces and are dressed as jesters as the film is set in the plague ridden Middle Ages. What the audience does is to heckle them and complain about them; “Damn actors. They’re making fools of themselves.” The only real laughter from the audience comes when a knight throws a tomato in the face of Skat. That laughter is a laughter of spite and humiliation as the audience laughs at the jesters and not with them. Their performance is interrupted by another performance from a procession of flagellants who preaches of the plague as god’s wrath against the humans. Next time you see Jof he’s at the local inn and he is not dressed as a jester anymore. When the people around him understands that he’s an actor he’s being threatened with a knife and forced to dance like a bear. They force him to perform for them as a slave. As Kalin notices, the people at the inn, the audience, do not show any pity for Jof[6]. They laugh at his expense. Kalin suggests that the reason for this is that the crowd sees Jof as being in their mercy.[7] The necessary evil can be directed at him who leaves them safe from ridicule. The audiences in both Sawdust and Tinsel and The Seventh Seal are laughing at the clowns/fools/jesters as a means of dominate the situation. Mia remarks on Jof’s action when he comes back to their wagon when she accuses him of never being able to not play the fool. Audiences use laughter as means to power. The idea of power and laughter in The Seventh Seal is also interesting when one look at the ultimate practitioner of power in the film; death himself. Irving Singer has written a book about Bergman and philosophy where he notice that;“…the ever sad-looking clown appears recurrently in whiteface. To that extent, Death belongs to the same or equivalent profession as the other players in The Seventh Seal who also perform with faces painted white.”[8] Death is here nothing more than a performer which could be leading to the idea of dying being nothing more than a game. This idea is strengthen at the end when Jof sees Death, the knight and the others dance over the hills, like it was a celebration.

These characters are however the ones that comes out as the winners even though they become symbols of humiliation. Bergman is putting their lives in focus as a slightly more sane way to live. This can be seen in both of the film’s endings. The groups in respective films continue the journey on the outside of society by going away with their wagons. Jof and Mia walks away safely escaping death and Frost, Anne and Albert continue with their circus, bound to one another. It won’t matter how humiliated they’ll get they will continue with their performance.

The medieval jester and fool differ radically from that of the 20th century Bergman. In the work of Rabelais Bakhtin finds them to be the owners of an abstract objective truth.[9] There is a respect towards the clowns in the work of Rabelais. Laughter was seen as something good and overturning, not humiliating.[10]The clowns were constant representatives of the carnival spirit in everyday life.[11] The same is happening in Bergman’s world when the crowd demands Jof to dance in The Seventh Seal. He is the constant jester. What is lacking in the modern interpretation of the Medieval society though is the respect for the clown.  Masks are as mentioned important both for Bergman and Bakhtin. To Bakhtin the mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation.[12] It becomes especially important as a symbol of metamorphosis. For Bergman the mask is a constant, if not punishment, burden. The crowd won’t leave Jof alone even though he has washed the white paint off his face when he sits down at the Inn. Interestingly none of the characters in Sawdust and Tinsel are wearing their masks of makeup at the end of the film, not even Frost. Frost then tells the second story about him and Alma; a dream where Frost is made as little as a foster and falls asleep inside of Alma’s womb. Alma then calls him back to the wagon so that they can fall asleep together. It is not until Frost is without the mask he can tell the true story about his marriage himself.

Bergman’s view of the fool and the clown is rather cynical in Sawdust and Tinsel and The Seventh Seal. The clown is there to be laughed at in disgrace so that the audiences don’t need to be mocked themselves, an image of the clown very different from the slightly idealized picture painted by Rabelais. Bergman is at the end on the clowns side though as they are seen as the honorable outcasts that manage to escape death and the boredom of bourgeoisie life.

 

Filmography

Bergman, Ingmar, Sawdust and Tinsel (1953)

 

Bergman, Ingmar, The Seventh Seal (1957)

 

Bibliography 

Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World (trans. Héléne Iswolsky) (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 1984)

 

Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall, ‘The Film Artist’ in Film Theory and Criticism (edt. Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall) (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2004)

 

Kalin, Jesse, The Films of Ingmar Bergman (Camebridge, Camebridge University press: 2003)

 

Macnab, Geoffrey, Ingmar Bergman: The Life and Films of the Last Great European Director (London, I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd: 2009)

 

Singer, Irving, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity (London, The MIT Press: 2007)


[1] Macnab, Geoffrey, Ingmar Bergman: The Life and Films of the Last Great European Director, page 3.

[2] Braudy, Leo, Cohen, Marshall, ‘The Film Artist’ in Film Theory and Criticism, page 556.

[3] Kalin, Jesse, The Films of Ingmar Bergman, page xvii.

[4] Kalin, page 43.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kalin, page 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Singer, Irving, Ingmar Bergman, Cinematic Philosopher: Reflections on His Creativity, page 106.

[9]Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais and His World, page 93.

[10] Ibid, page 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., page 39.

I’ve always loved her

20 December, 2011

Katie Makkai

18 December, 2011

 

Fashion and Exotism

18 December, 2011

I bought the latest UK Vogue when going from London to Stockholm the other day. I like Vogue. I like the fact that it usually has a couple of longer articles with some actual content. One article was especially interesting. “Vogue’s Great Escapes”, celebrating the magazines persistent way of travelling for their photo shoots. We have all seen it, haven’t we? The fashion editorial set in an “exotic” location. It is usually a white model posing in extremely expensive items in some, to us Europeans, far away country among some “charming” locals. Robin Muir writes in the article how the travelling was part of Vogue’s early success as the readers was craving some exotic environments. It would suit the Vogue woman in her chic way of viewing the world as her oyster. Put the European woman next to an Peruvian Native or in front of a communist propaganda poster in USSR in 1976 and the magazine will sell more copies.

I don’t know what to think of this. I react because of its complete lack of criticism against the phenomenon. It is an article which just says how splendid and fantastic Vogue has been to put their models on planes and shipped them all across the world to get some real sense of  exotic fashion. Look how great we are! Look how lush these Dior clothes look next to a farmer! I know and get the fact that magazines want to have spectacular shoots. It’s part of the reason why we buy these magazines. Yes, I want to read the articles but I also want to see the work of some of the world’s greatest photographers. Their way of using the exotic is rather old-fashioned though. What is the exotic? Bring in some natives in weird hats, an odd animal and we’re sorted. Is it that simple? Where is the line? According to whom is it exotic (as they literary call it in the article). The whole problem of Orientalism as we read about it in Edward Said’s book Orientalism comes to mind as something still very much a problem.

One thought that can be useful in this is the idea of imperialism. Many of the countries listed as locations for Vogue photo shoots was once colonies of European nations. Another editorial comes to mind which is the one by the American Vogue with Keira Knightley from 2007. It is called The Chronicles of Keira and is shaped as a traveling diary by Keira in which she writes about her experiences in Kenya. It strengthens the idea of the exotic and strange and the local people she encourages as “the other.” She is The English Rose with pale skin and covered with clothes with an obvious 1900’s aesthetics with long white dresses, straw hats and khaki.

Am I too sensitive and PC? Thankfully does not the rest of the newest Vogue contain any more “exotic photo shoots”. It is just a few skinny models in studios as seems to be the most common form these days. Do we love the exotic photo shoots? Is that the reason we buy them? Am I as much of an arse by buying and loving some Moroccan jewelery and indian shawls?

Please drop me a comment with your views on the subject. Would be interesting.

 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

8 December, 2011

I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson a couple of weeks ago. I adored it. It is a wonderful film which does something very unusual for big productions these days; it treats the audience as intelligent. One could write about the film’s actors, themes, whether it’s a remake or not but what I want to discuss is the special look of the film. The mis en scéne as it is called within the film industry. Mis en scéne is basically everything we see on screen; the style of acting, the light, the setting and the costumes. Or in this perticular film; the suits. I want to write about two big interests of mine in one post dear readers; fashion and film.

The story is set just in the beginning of the 1970’s and is set in a cold war London. It’s a spy thriller where the big question basically is; who’s the mole? Gary Oldman’s character George Smiley is brought in to investigate. This is not the 70’s of glam rock, hippies or women braking free from patriarchy. This is the gray civil service Britain. There are hardly any women in the film. The characters are all men and there is therefore a very strong emphasis on their suits, ties and whatever they can express themselves with. Costumes is a great way to investigatre a character or analyse a film. Cloathes are important in our everyday life. We send out different types of signals on who we are, how we want to be seen as and other traces of identity. Filmmakers are of course very aware of this and willing to use such signals.

Take George Smiley for example. What can one tell about his character from looking at his clothes?

He’s very descrete. He only wears two different suits through the whole film and both of them are gray. He is supposed to be ther character noone takes notice of, that no one remembers. One can also sense the fact that he is a bit out of step with his time as his outfits rather are of the 60’s than 70’s. They seem dated compared to the suits that Benedict Cumberbatch wears in his role as Guilliam. He is the youngest character who works within the office and also the character that is most 70’s. He has longer hair, his trousers have a bit of a flair and he uses assecories such as the bright blue tie.

The last carachter I want to mention is Colin Firth in the role of Bill Haydon. This is the most flamboyant dresser in the whole film and the very opposite to the way in which George Smiley looks. Haydon got an air of aristocracy in the way he dresses like a English gentleman with a country mannor. There are lots of greens and browns, use of tweed, waistcoats and the twist of bright red socks to add a bit of wit to the mix. He also chooses something which is not brogues (!), he wears dessert boots. All this gives him a very different look to the rest of the men in the film. He seems like a man who would get his suits on Savile Row and then go out to his country house on weekends. I have done a lot of research on Savile Row recently as I am working on a project sort of connected to it. I will tell you more about it later.

If not these wonderfully detailed costumes weren’t enough of a fashion connection I can offer you more. Everyone’s favorite within men’s fashion, Paul Smith, was also involved with the film. Smith designed specially made silk posters for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. They were limited to 50 copies which all were signed by Smith and all profit went straight to charity. I wish I had the money to get hold of one of these as they are truly wonderful.