Tuesday, July 06, 2004

'What do you think will happen when the person who has dreamed us wakes up and is ashamed of his dream?': Ullmann and von Sydow stand amidst the wreckage in Ingmar Bergman's searing 1968 masterpiece Shame.

War Begins at Home: Bergman's Shame

Ingmar Bergman's Shame is a film about the way war destroys not just bodies but souls, and it has all the forceful clarity of a true masterpiece. As is often the case with Bergman's classic films, there's not a single wasted shot in Shame, and it goes from tentative domestic peace to full-scale end-of-the-world destruction and despair in the course of a little over an hour and a half.

It's a story told very much in tune with the beat of ordinary life, and the way that life suddenly and dramatically changes when bombs start dropping. It's a story filled with long moments and dizzingly short ones, and it is told, more than anything, with faces. Bergman is great with faces; his close-ups pull all the truth out of a scene, due not just to Sven Nykvist's ace cinematography but the intensity of the performances of Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. The story is advanced through faces, through reactions, both close-ups and those extraordinary long takes of his; in particular, one over-the-shoulder conversation that -- just like a real conversation -- covers an extraordinary amount of emotional ground.

This is, of course, pure Bergman. One of the most intense shots in cinema history is Ingrid Thulin's monologue in Winter Light, where she speaks directly into the camera for eight minutes, interrupted only by a single brief cut; you can't take your eyes off her because everything she says is vital. And who can ever forget Bibi Andersson's lengthy sexual memory in Persona -- so intense that Pauline Kael said she knew of people who swear they remember it as being dramatized. (Kubrick aimed for the same effect with Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.)

Shame begins in very typical Bergman fashion: a static shot of the bedroom of a married couple, Jan (von Sydow) and Eva (Ullmann) Rosenberg; it is morning, and an alarm clock goes off for an uncomfortably long time, enough to set you a little bit on edge -- like those car horns in Godard's Weekend. Eva is up and at `em, Jan lingers a bit, fingering a toothache, and over the breakfast conversation, their personalities take shape: Eva is the practical one, the realist, while Jan is the indecisive idealist, the dreamer, the kind but somewhat ineffectual partner.

Both are orchestra musicians tending a small farm on an unnamed island at war with some invading army for reasons we (and they) don't know; like a lot of wars, this is one that is fought independently of the population, who are just pawns in a power struggle between two equal and opposing evils. Jan and Eva, like most young couples, are focused more on their own future; making a profit from the farm -- which typically occupies Eva's thoughts more than that of her lackadaisical husband -- and, if Eva has her way, starting a family. Jan is too preoccupied with himself to think of having children, or of any idea of the future beyond the day to day semi-idyllic existence with his beautiful wife. The approaching war is a shadow on their lives that they can only hope will vanish, but it's beginning slowly to eat into them. Early in the film, Jan very suddenly breaks down in tears at the thought of it.

As wars will, this one suddenly upsets their plans, as a surprise attack on the island sends them diving for cover. Jan discovers a dead paratrooper hanging from a tree, and quickly finds himself accused by the rebel army of killing him. After both claim no involvement with politics at all, the rebels start filming them, and try to browbeat them into saying they support the rebels; no sooner is that episode over than the Rosenbergs find themselves at the mercy of a somewhat Kafkaesque government, who use the film against them to say they are traitors. One of their produce buyers, Jacobi (Gunnar Bjornstrand), is a government official who gets them off the hook. There proves to be a price; he wants to sleep with Eva. Eva does what she has to to survive, and so, ultimately, does Jan -- but in his case, sexual humiliation (such a horrific part of Bergman's nightmares -- think of the clown in Sawdust and Tinsel) leads to vengeance and worse: the mild-mannered concert violinist becomes a moral monster.

This, then, is the shame of the title -- Jan and Eva, harmless and helpless citizens, have been reduced and cheapened by a war they had nothing do with; a war that makes even the peaceful as bad as its worst offenders. They and a few surviving others wind up adrift on a sea of corpses, which keep getting in the way of the boat -- the living dead fighting for passage against the actual dead, and the difference between the two is slight.

I've waited for years to see this film, and I couldn't be more stunned by the results. It will probably burn a hole through just about everything you've seen recently; one of those movies that leave you thinking "This is cinema. Everything else is just shit."


It was with Shame still much on my mind that I went to see Sam Raimi's Spiderman II this afternoon. Actually both Bergman and my front lawn were on my mind -- I spent most of the day braving the million-degrees heat to mow, trim hedges, rake, bag leaves and trash, etc. -- only to find the local dump was closed -- and I looked forward to the mindless pleasures of a summer blockbuster.

Shame, still, put me in a mood against it -- because I had that compelling feeling of having seen real cinema, and the hard truths of Bergman's film and the raw depth of the performances just seemed to burn a hole in the whole idea of Hollywood entertainment.

The feeling didn't last though, as this is easily the best blockbuster I've seen since the last Spiderman, and it's very much in that rarefied class of The Terminator, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Batman, and Batman Returns -- summer movies that are smartly written, well-acted, visually absorbing and genuinely thrilling.
Spiderman II is all of the above, and it has a first-class villain, the tentacle-armed DocOc, played to perfection by the multi-dimensional Alfred Molina. Tobey Maguire retains that same sweet vulnerability of Peter Parker, Kirsten Dunst is everyone's dream of a girl next door, and Rosemary Harris is still there delivering like an old pro in the role of Peter's aunt.

The movie is fantastically successful for a lot of obvious reasons -- but I think there's another one. The people in these movies are really average. They're poor -- poor like you and I are poor, if you're anything like me. They work hard, they have real problems -- they live in a world where $20 is a fat lot of money and home foreclosures are a fact of life. I thought the same thing about the first one, too -- the way it dealt with good and evil in old-fashioned, almost Biblical terms, where the Willem Dafoe character is a real devil; if I recall correctly, he even attacks the aunt while she's praying. You don't have to be a believer to see and feel the raw power of that kind of image, between simple, trusting faith and brutal, cynical evil.

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