Friday, August 03, 2007
The Virgin Spring (1960) & Wild Strawberries (1957)
I saw this double feature last night at the still-open New Beverly, where cinephiles and homeless dudes rub shoulders on some of the most uncomfortable seats in Hollywood. It was fun, and both movies gained a lot for me by seeing them on a big screen with an audience.
First, Wild Strawberries, which more than anything else feels like Bergman's response to Dickens (A Christmas Carol) and Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) in illustrating the scope of a man's life through flashbacks. Unlike Scrooge or George Bailey, though, Isak Borg begins the movie as something of a blank slate, both to us and, apparently, to himself - we understand that he's a cranky old man, but he's not an obvious monster like Scrooge, and Bergman allows us to discover gradually what kind of life Borg has led; emotionally closed-off, priggish as a youth, a failure as a husband and as a father, but successful in his work as a doctor. What's especially interesting is that Bergman never places Young Isak in Old Isak's flashbacks; the dissolution of his relationships are things that take place beyond the scope of his direct activity, actions taken by others in Isak's life; Bergman's point is that Isak's sins are of omission, not commission. In A Christmas Carol, we actually see the scene of Young Scrooge choosing his work over his fiancee; in Bergman, we only see the effects of the slow dissolution of his relationships. The effect is to maintain our sympathy for Borg, but at the same time to reinforce the insidiousness of his character flaws.
If the movie has a 'bad guy' it would have to be Borg's son Evald, who is portrayed as stern, arrogant, uncaring of the feelings of those around him and generally nihilistic; Evald is the Monster to Borg's Frankenstein, and it's not clear what hope he will have in the future to move forwards, beyond the same kind of late-in-life redemption that Isak seems to receive.
If this all sounds rather roundabout, it's because the movie seems to me to orbit around its themes rather than addressing them head-on, which is probably why it's taken me three viewings to really get a handle on what seems like a fairly simple film at first glance.
Now, The Virgin Spring: My friend Matt Dessem has written that if Bergman had wanted to, he could have been one of the greatest horror directors of all time, and in certain ways he was anyway, with this movie as a prime example. And, as we all know, it inspired Wes Craven's Last House on the Left. But even though Craven's is a low-budget, gritty grindhouse horror movie and Bergman's is a finely-crafted art film with strong, subtle performances, the two movies still have a lot in common and bizarrely, I find Bergman's movie the more problematic of the two.
When I say 'problematic', I mean that I find this movie frustrating in several ways. As a narrative, it's absorbing; as a movie, it's extremely well-crafted, especially in terms of rendering what everyday life was probably like in the 14th century, and in terms of Sven Nykvist's gorgeous cinematography; however, as a statement, as something with a rhetorical argument about revenge, or faith, or the existence of God, it falls short for me. Last House on the Left is a crude movie, but it has a straight-forward, simple yet powerful statement on the nature of violence and revenge in 1970s America, by graphically illustrating the ugliness inherent in both the initiating violence (the rapes and murders of two girls) and in the revenge taken afterwards (the parents of one girl murdering the gang of rapists in cold blood). In comparison, while Bergman's movie has an equally appalling scene of rape and murder, it does not offer the same kind of reflection on the act of revenge; the murderers are a band of thugs whose psychology is not probed, and Max Von Sydow's need for revenge is taken for granted. He's clearly in anguish, and what he does is fascinating to watch, but there's not much sense of reflection in what he does. Bergman shows us the man preparing to kill the men, and then doing it, but that's all. As horrible as it all is, it feels relatively flat and undynamic to me, lacking in some greater moral or ethical dynamic, which Last House, despite its crudeness possessed.
After killing the men, Von Sydow and his peasant entourage find the body of the dead maiden and, after praying to God for forgiveness for his vengeance, they lift the corpse up from the ground and a miracle happens - the titular geyser begins to burble from the ground, and uplifting music swells from the soundtrack. I don't like this ending. To me it suggests a simplistic affirmation after all the horrors that have occurred up to this point - all's well that ends with a miracle. I would propose a darker interpretation, which is that God is signaling His existence to these believers and, by extension, His conscious will of all the violence that has taken place. But this ending doesn't match the happy music Bergman layers over the scene. So ultimately, it feels phony to me. Like I say, it's still a good movie - but it should have been a great movie, and it's not.