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.


cjKennedy said...

Wow, I'm sure you realize saying Last House is better than Virgin Spring would qualify as fightin' words. I'm also guessing you knew this as you typed it.

Alas, I'm unable to rebut because I'm lame and didn't make it to the Bev for the screening and haven't seen Virigin Spring in a while. Still, you've given me a new angle on it and I might just have to revisit it along with Craven's film.

I'll be back!

Jeff McMahon said...

I don't know if 'better' is the way to phrase it; it's more of an expectations thing, tied in with how well each film realizes its own goals. Last House is a crude, cheap movie that, somewhat surprisingly, has a lot of very authentic, honest moments and a statement on the nature of violence in the midst of freaking its audience out. Virgin Spring is unquestionably better made, and a gripping narrative, but I don't feel like it pays off on the level of really challenging its audience or questioning assumptions. It is, after all, the only Bergman movie I can think of that _affirms_ the existence of God rather than denying it, which seems very odd.

Here's a quote I found off the website, from Bergman himself where I think he's looking back on the film with some of my same skepticism:

"A film which was one of my shadiest, it seems to me just now, was The Virgin Spring. I admit it contains a couple of passages with immense acceleration and vitality, and it has some sort of cinematic appeal. The idea of making something out of the old folk-song 'Herr Töre of Venge's Daughters' was a sound one. But then the jiggery-pokery began—the spiritual jiggery-pokery. I wanted to make a blackly brutal mediaeval ballad in the simple form of a folk-song. But while talking it all over with the authoress, Ulla Isaksson, I began psychologizing. That was the first mistake, the introduction of a therapeutic idea: that the building of their church would heal these people. Obviously it was therapeutic; but artistically it was utterly uninteresting. And then, the introduction of a totally unanalyzed idea of God. The mixture of the real active depiction of violence, which has a certain artistic potency, with all this other shady stuff—today I find it all dreadfully triste....A fine example of how one's motifs can get all tangled up, and how limitations and weaknesses one isn't clear about—intellectual shortcomings, inability to see through one's own motives—can transform a work as it develops."

cjKennedy said...

Difficult to argue with the artist's own words!

Though I would argue that sometimes an artist isn't in complete conscious control of his art and though the result may not be what he intended, the work can take on a life of its own and still have enormous value to the viewer. There's an alchemy there between the artist and the viewer and sometimes the art is transformed. Other times it doesn't happen at all even when the artist feels they accomplished exactly what they set out to do.

Either way it's clear the alchemy didn't quite happen for you with Virgin Spring.

Jeff McMahon said...

Well yes, there are plenty of times when an artist is the _last_ person who should be trusted to speak about their work.

Ultimately, I still think it's a good movie. But it's not in the upper echelons of Bergman's work when considered in an auteurist sense, and more importantly, it fails to engage me on any level beyond 'what's going to happen next'. My favorite types of movies are the ones in which you can feel the issues and emotions in flux, in a process of debate or argument - a movie that asks a question. I can feel Bergman asking questions in my favorite of his films, but this one feels like a settled affair as far as the issues of violence and religion are concerned.

frankbooth said...

I wish I could find a citation to back this up, but I recall reading that Bergman was hampered by the ending of the folktale, which was well-known enough that he couldn't change it. Hence the incongruity between the tidy conclusion and the ugliness preceding it; and between this film and Bergman's work in general, as far as God is concerned.