Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

PERSONA (1963)

Never trust an actress.  As the moral degeneracy of artists is a frequent theme in the works of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director may be telling us to be suspicious of practitioners of the arts.  In THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) for instance, he presents to us the case history of a writer who coldly observes his daughter’s mental collapse intending to use her disintegration as the basis for a novel.  In PERSONA (1963) the artist in question is a respected actress, Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann).  She is not so much overtly corrupt as she is mysterious and ghostly – and just a little threatening.  For one thing, she has recently stopped speaking, which not only adds an etherial quality to her persona, but also plays into another favorite Bergman theme, namely the futility of trying to communicate in the modern world.  She has given up it would seem, or perhaps she has found a better way to get her points across. 

Elizabeth is being cared for by a talkative psychiatric nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson), whose verbose approach is a perfect counterpoint to Elizabeth’s mute existence.  But they both wear masks of course, as Elizabeth is as capable of speaking as any of us, and Alma uses words as a cover for her anxiety. 

In PERSONA, Bergman employs the alienation techniques used to such good advantage by French “New Wave” director Jean-Luc Godard.  PERSONA begins with a close-up of film running through a projector and ends with a shot of Bergman’s camera wheeling toward the viewer.  His aim is to make us constantly mindful that we are watching a film.  Only under such circumstances can we avoid identifying too strongly with any of the characters, and concentrate instead on the intellectual points being made.  And there are many…After the projector imagery we are assaulted by shots of a lamb being slaughtered and a hand being nailed to a cross.  We are about to witness a sacrifice of sorts – of the artistic psyche – as it is revealed.  The relationship between the actress and nurse represents that of the performer (or director) to his or her audience, and how they feed off each other.  After Alma claws herself in a fit of anguish, Elizabeth sucks on the wound, creating a bizarre alliance. 

Bergman always considered the human face to be the landscape of the cinema and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s camera frequently lingers on close-ups of the two women.  In one mesmerizing moment, the director holds on a tight shot of Elizabeth’s face as the room slowly darkens.  We then cut to Alma applying facial cream as she prepares for bed.  One face leads to another.

As the film progresses, the two women begin to merge and Alma asks “Can you be two people at once?”  The answer comes in the film’s conclusion when the women’s faces are joined together in a startling split screen shot.  Even the denouement is presented twice: As Alma recounts the story of Elizabeth’s deformed child, the grim tale is told first with the camera on Liv Ullmann’s reactions and a second time with a shot of Andersson as she speaks. 

In the end, the sacrifice is not only Elizabeth’s, but Alma’s as well.  In any artistic relationship the audience must give up a part of themselves (a part the artist hungrily devours) and become a part of what they are watching.  PERSONA illuminates this strange relationship and Ingmar Bergman reveals something about himself and us. 

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman.  Photography by Sven Nykvist.  Music by Lars Johan Werle.  Starring Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Margaretha Krook and Gunnar Bjornstrand.

August 14, 2010 Posted by | 1960's cinema, Swedish film | , , , , , | Leave a comment

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

Rupert Julian didn’t have much of a career after the coming of talkies, but his successful silent work reached a peak with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925).  This classic melodrama stars Lon Chaney as the menacing/pathetic Phantom who becomes obsessed with a beautiful singer in a Parisian Opera house.  He lives in the catacombs beneath the house, of course, and this metaphor for the subconscious artistic psyche provides Chaney with plenty of opportunity for creeping about and causing general unease in the young lady and the film’s audience.  You know the rest of the story which became immortalized through several film incarnations and the blockbuster stage musical. 

As usual, Chaney provides his own make-up for the film and this disfigured entity is one of his greatest achievements.  The amount of discomfort he endured to bring the Phantom to life is most impressive.  He employed springs in his nostrils to give them that distinctive bestial flare.  Even more amazing, he tightened wires around his eyeballs to make them bug out in a ghastly gaze.  This is a lot of suffering for his art, reminding us of the pounds of clay he carried around to give the impression of a massive hump (THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME) and his bending his legs and having them tightly bound to create the illusion of being a double amputee (THE PENALTY).  As was always the case, the unpleasantness he endured for THE PHANTOM was well worth it – if only for the unmasking.  It is the most memorable scene in the Chaney cannon and 85 years after it first unfolded before startled audiences it still has the electricity to provide an unmitigated jolt.  As it is the first view we get of Chaney’s incredible make-up, the terror it creates is understandable.  But it is a mistake to underestimate the contribution made by director Julian and the film’s editor, Maurice Pivar.  The staging is so immaculate, the timing of the cuts so astute that the impact is enhanced immeasurably.  As the phantom plays the pipe organ in his underground lair, the opera singer beauty he has kidnapped (Mary Philbin) lets her curiosity get the better of her.  Slowly she moves closer to the enraptured organist, who is unaware of her intentions.  In fact, he does not even notice her sneaking up on him.  She reaches for the mask – then pulls away.  She will try again.  Just as she reaches for it a second time, Julian and Pivar cut to a head on close-up of Chaney.  Instantly the mask is pulled away and the horror revealed – and as he later stated in a television interview – Robert Bloch has a laundry problem.  Bloch, author of PSYCHO, was a small boy in 1925 and was among the people traumatized by Julian’s and Pivar’s expertise.  The experience was a direct influence on Bloch’s work (one thinks of that shower curtain pulling away as an extension of the removal of Chaney’s mask) and his desire to create heart stopping shocks in his audience. 

Rupert Julian is now a footnote in cinema history, his career petering out with the end of the silent era.  But for that one moment, that glorious scene in the catacombs, he was a master of his craft. 

CREDITS: Directed by Rupert Julian.  Supplementary direction (final chase) by Edward Sedgwick.  Written by Raymond Schrock, Elliot Clawson.  Novel by Gaston Leroux.  Photography by Charles Van Enger and Virgil Miller.  Edited by Maurice Pivar.  Art direction by Dan Hall.  Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry and Gibson Gowland.

August 6, 2010 Posted by | film directors, film editors, silent film | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment