Monday, November 25, 2019

European Formalism

John Simon, who died yesterday at age 94, had one of the two or three most unremittingly independent voices in criticism. Advertisers and editors probably tried to control his signature vitriol or his devastating judgments, but it's obvious they failed.

The most striking thing about his body of work (from Acid Test in 1964 and Movies into Film in 1971 to Something to Declare in 1984 and The Sheep from the Goats in 1987) is its autonomy and singularity (in fact, his 1975 anthology of long theater essays—on Peer Gynt, on The Wild Duck—is called Singularities). Aside from Edmund Wilson, there was nobody else in American letters quite like Simon, a critic by innate temperament who combined academic formalism with a journalist’s impulse for influencing the collective taste of educated readers (many of whom undoubtedly didn’t much care for movies anyway). Dwight Macdonald could cut the spindly legs out from under mass culture with equal ease and spirit, but Macdonald had a jokey, teasing quality which Simon completely lacked. Macdonald hated garbage as vehemently as Simon (read Macdonald’s takedown of the Hollywood biblical epics in the 1969 On Movies), but he didn’t give you the impression, despite all his masscult and midcult categorizing, that he himself was an inaccessible, displaced alien of superiority, passing judgment on a hopeless demotic culture, as Simon always did. Maybe that difference was the innate extension of Simon’s Old World pedantry (he was the sort to correct you on your use of polymath when you really meant polyhistor).

An ace polemicist, Simon was praised and reviled just about equally throughout his career. One anecdote should suffice: In 1969–70, Simon was a recipient of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism (voted on by the Cornell, Princeton, and Yale English department faculty), and that same year the New York Drama Critics’ Circle voted to keep him out of that august body.

Simon in interviews encouraged his notoriety as a harsh, nearly unpleasable critic with a mandarin disdain for pop and ersatz in the arts. I always thought this was unfortunate because that reputation ossified around him like a crust until it obscured his clarion voice in print. He was almost always described as the “Count Dracula of film critics” or “the skunk at the party” (not to mention the endless agitated charges of sexism, homophobia, and misanthropy), and his funny descriptions of the physiognomies and various protuberances of Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand invariably appeared, way up top, in virtually everything ever written about him. It was his fault: his frequent apologia—that film was a gesamptkunstwerk in which every element, designed or not, played an important part in the viewer’s experience—was never very convincing. He just loved skewering ugliness, whether of a costume, a speaking voice, a set backdrop, or a receding chin.

Compared with his contemporaries—other critics in his league—Simon used a prose style that was indistinguishable from the opinions themselves. The singular force of his judgment was his style, whereas his colleagues—Macdonald, Vernon Young, Robert Bentley, Stanley Kauffmann, and so on—had more idiosyncratic styles with a rhetorical lightness that shaped their opinions. When he wasn’t firing on all cylinders, Simon was a starch-collared, stentorian writer who was inclined to announce that he was about to be witty right before being so (although he was often genuinely so—“As Marge, Frances McDormand verges on the cutesy but manages in the nick of time to pull herself back from the verge”). His other recurring weakness was the stringing out of lengthy tropes until you felt as if you were watching money compound in the bank (“A similar visual fakery has the gifted but often excessive cinematographer Allen Daviau bedizen the movie with every sort of unearned visual opulence as further aid in audience-besotting”). Typically, he lines up his perfectly poised, well-structured phrases in a nagging, anal-retentive way that saps his point of some of its energy: “The trouble with JFK is that whereas it solicits a second seeing to unscramble it, it does not offer enough aesthetic compensation to warrant the effort of reimmersion.” Think of how much pithier Rossini was about Wagner, saying the same thing.

Simon’s voice felt far more authoritative—and inquisitive—when he was writing about European movies and plays. He seemed more at home with European sensibilities. In the introduction to Something to Declare, his anthology of foreign film reviews, Simon admitted that he rejected that view, but it was always true. The art films of early Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman, Ozu, Troell, and the like were his true purview. In writing about them, he delved more deeply and described more acutely than he did with American studio films, whose messiness and market exigencies probably occupied only a fourth of Simon’s analytic ability and his interest. (He almost never discussed seriously or at length a movie’s financial battles or its box office.) It’s his writing on European movies—on their explorations of sexual politics, their intimacy and reflection, their avant garde rhetoric, and their literary symbolism—that will stay in the memory of Simon’s close readers. Let the rest of the world keep their Count Dracula.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

American Realism

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) apotheosizes the American gangster picture genre. It subsumes all other classic gangster pictures, from Underworld (1929), The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932) to The Roaring Twenties (1939), White Heat (1949), and The Killing (1956). But The Godfather Part II (1974) does what no other gangster picture—even The Godfather—ever did. With the relentless, excoriating scalpel of nineteenth-century novels and the plays of Chekhov—the laboratory of literary realism—Part II flayed the layers of superficiality (those earlier movies’ stock in trade) off the underlying complexity of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino). As a study of despoiled idealism and the effects of social organization on the members of a powerful tribal family, Part II analyzes Michael as profoundly as any of the main characters are analyzed in the novels of Balzac, Howells, Wharton, or Eliot.

The Godfather was perhaps the single greatest example of epic romanticism in the New American Cinema. The tidal-wave sweep of the story and the gallery of characters are rich and expertly acted but framed in melodramatic terms scaled to the spectacle of the film. Michael, his siblings, his father (Marlon Brando as the old Corleone, the family man as institution), his family’s caporegime and legal retainers, and the maze of partners and “soldiers” are realistic types, but types (and stock characters) nonetheless: the proud patriarch; the thoughtful, independent younger son; the hothead older son (James Caan); and the array of lackeys, bodyguards, and operations men. These characters are vibrant examples of literary and cinematic creations, but they don’t really evolve or reveal new shadings over the course of the movie, and we aren’t shown their doubts or twisted self-hatred. The movie succeeds as brutal enchantment—as a charismatic cast of characters in a sophisticatedly stylized melodrama. There’s something Dickensian about the dramatic parade of character types passing across the screen. The movie’s visual richness, framing, and montage (which speeds up and cross-cuts so suspensefully you may be reminded of the competing and ultimately colliding stories in the climax of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance) are pitched to the dimensions of the theater. (More than just about any other movie of its era, The Godfather deserves to be seen on the big screen.)

Real men. Al Pacino
The Godfather Part II is equally a triumph of personal filmmaking, but its analytical mind is far deeper. It goes beyond the romanticism of its predecessor into a new vein of realism in American movies. Part II puts Michael, Fredo Corleone (John Cazale) and Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg)—and perhaps even the Frank Pentangeli of Michael V. Gazzo as well as Robert De Niro’s beautifully realized Vito Corleone—under closer scrutiny (as if the camera were a magnifying glass), demonstrating a complexity of character analysis you almost never saw in genre movies until this one. The treatment of these characters fills them out with the complications and completeness of real human beings. Coppola replaces much of the mythic resonance and symbolic significance of the first Godfather film with a new naturalism and verisimilitude. Michael’s and Fredo’s motives and moods alternately lurch forward and fold back on themselves in unpredictable yet totally believable ways, their emotions bubbling to the surface one minute and being sublimated the next (Pacino excels at abrupt flareups of anger—you’re shocked but fully convinced of his frustrations). These characters are anything but stock and they aren’t even symbolic here. They are far too complex for facile symbolism or the creaking mechanics of traditional storytelling devices. Like us, they change their minds and grapple with the messy self-doubts and sordidness of life. The complexity of Part II is that these men aren’t mouthpieces for ideas or dramatic “techniques” or tools for advancing the plot; like the great characters in novels, they seem to have lives outside the text—lives, in fact, that are far richer than even Coppola’s operatic vision can capture.

As an epic generational saga and a portrait of the moral ambiguity at the heart of finance and business (possibly a metaphor of the movie business itself), The Godfather Part II is peerless. It casts an influential shadow over just about everything after it, including John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and Martin Scorsese’s rather facile Goodfellas (1990). Even Quentin Tarentino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Brian De Palma’s nervy, erotic thriller Carlito’s Way (1993) pay homage to Part II (and have to grapple with new styles to escape its massive imprint). Of what other postwar American film can you say that even major works look like tinfoil up against it?

Monday, November 11, 2019

Shlock from Shintoho

I’ve now seen two movies by the Japanese director Nobuo Nakagawa, whose reputation, thanks to Criterion and Turner Classic Movies, has reached ridiculous overinflation. I usually love films that are so ambitious dramatically or visually that you can appreciate their barmy edges; in the very best of these films, such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) or Napoléon (1927), it’s like watching Jacob wrestle with God’s angel. (The director busts his hip bone, too.)

Gelatinous blob. Jigoku.
In some movies made by brilliant eccentrics such as Raoul Walsh or Abel Gance, enchanted ideas come spilling out, overflowing the ordinary constraints of production design, camerawork, and narrative. Ideas are executed with an almost religious fervor, an impresario’s spirit—as if the director were driven to express something so deep within him that it was as if he needed to make the grandest summing up of all, the Alpha and the Omega of cinematic statements. Because the plots are incoherent or the themes jumbled or the point of view ambivalent or self-contradictory (as it sometimes is in Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock or G. W. Pabst), audiences may be befuddled about details or flow, but they watch these movies in a state of heightened excitement. Their senses are alert to possibilities they didn’t even know existed, and the experience can be overwhelming.

But Nakagawa’s movies aren’t barmy and creative in this way; they’re just freakishly melodramatic and puerile, with screams and shrieks filling the soundtrack at random. (Remember those “Sounds of Halloween Haunted Houses” records you bought as a kid?) They’re low-budget bores—thirty minutes in, you’ve had it with the penny-effects and the inanity. You feel as if you’ve been dragging toddlers around the neighborhood on Halloween, enduring garage “funhouses” and stick witches from those converted costume stores. His two most esteemed movies, Jigoku (1960) and Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), both made at Shintoho, have none of the elegance, brilliance, or genuine terror of Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1965) or Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (The Black Cat) (1968). Jigoku, particularly, is a medieval morality play overlaid with giallo shlock (with none of Mario Bava’s skill with camera angles or basic narrative ploys), ketchup blood from Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations (the kind that appears to have been thickened with cornstarch until it resembles a gelatinous blob of pomegranate juice), and a script that Ed Wood probably turned down. It’s a testament to Nakagawa’s inexpertise, I suppose, that he generates tedium even out of such promising ingredients.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Elements

No wonder that primitive people worshipped nature as a god: the harsher that nature becomes, the more grandeur and beauty it has. In explosive bursts of power, it subdues us, and we exalt it in return. The people in Robert Flaherty’s elemental Man of Aran (1934) live by the skin of their teeth—they can barely manage to keep themselves fed—but they celebrate their proximity to the very force that threatens them daily.

The Atlantic Ocean as a venerated threat.
In movies such as Nanook of the North (1922), The Pottery Maker (1925), and Moana (1926), Flaherty, who started as a still-photographer, developed a style that has been called “narrative documentary,” “docufiction,” and “ethnofiction.” Whatever one calls it, its filmic impact is undeniable. Certain aspects are fictionalized or anachronistic, such as the basking shark hunt in Man of Aran, but audiences respond rapturously to Flaherty’s alchemy—the way he combines anthropological accuracy with the aesthetic drive of storytelling and characterization. Before Nanook, Flaherty had traveled to Hudson Bay with an early movie camera to film the Inuit people. But he rejected the results—the “filmed nature” approach without any artistic shaping or organization, which anthropologists might consider “true” documentary—referring to them as pointless and boring.

Trying to save the wooden-hulled craft.
In Man of Aran, Flaherty scripted characters in naturalistic settings—the tiny hovels and villages in the Aran Islands off the storm-battered west coast of Ireland—and then cast local fishermen and their wives and children in those parts. These non-actors have craggy, leathery faces and gnarled hands; they’re the weather-beaten salt of the earth of primitive myths. No part of their lives is ornamental; everything seems destined either to signify their scrappy religious faith or to increase their chances for survival. Even their homes—huts or shacks—show virtually no sign of impracticality; these people, engaged in epic battles against nature, have no time for tea, as they say.

Man of Aran is marvelous cinema. Few other movies or styles combine realism and spirituality with this much primitivist poetry.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Razor’s Edge

Shenanigans. Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland
Those of you who think that movies are entirely a visual medium, and that the script is nothing more than a springboard—a prop in a stage play—just try imagining Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) without the script (credited to Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Oscar for it). The constant hubbub of overlapping dialogue, the profanity, the screaming, the cockeyed optimism—this corrosive, kinky screenplay does more than delineate character and lay out situations in the traditional commercial-movie way (advancing the narrative by having the characters “talk” the plot). The screenplay—about Army medics trying to save lives and stave off despair a few miles from the fighting front during the Korean War—binds the visual madness together into a cohesive, realistic world. Lardner and Altman make the movie a critique of highfalutin and hypocrisy—it’s blackly funny but not cynical.

Other American movies of the time reflect the Vietnam War, dirty politics, and the country’s disgust with itself—Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1967), Irvin Kershner’s The Flim-Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as an M.B.S., C.S., D.D. confidence man (“Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing”), Blake Edwards’s draggy and tasteless What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Ted Post’s Hang ’Em High (1968), Don Siegel’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968). These movies seethe with political cynicism and sometimes gratuitous bloodshed (although the carnage in The Wild Bunch is far more complex and ambivalent than a spaghetti western). Altman could have gone entirely cynical, too, but what makes MASH so satisfying is that he expresses a realistic idealism—the moviemakers keep their sanity, the way the medics keep theirs, not by a Frank Burns style of phonily righteous preaching, but by demonstrating integrity and compassion, and disdaining hypocrisy and phoniness. MASH is a picture of redemption.

The bloody work of an army surgical unit is shown in a new way—not for didactic distancing (the way wounded men in war movies in the Forties and Fifties were used as homilies, swollen with sacrificial virtue), and not for the repellent gross-outs and shock effects of movies that use violence pornographically. In MASH, the blood-spattered surgical gowns, scalpels, and clamps are filmed for balance (and mostly in medium shot); the talented medics are humanized by working feverishly in rotten conditions, trying to staunch a wounded soldier’s bloodflow or save a limb (sometimes unsuccessfully). Even the satiric butts, like the prissily bossy “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and the sanctimonious hypocrite Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), are picked up and dusted off after being scraped across the gravel (although Altman perhaps mishandles Burns’s departure by stripping him of any vestige of pride he had—the scene goes for a cheap laugh at the character’s expense). The surgery scenes give weight and purpose to the sexual shenanigans and practical jokes. The MASH campground resembles Freedonia, the mythical kingdom of wartime mayhem in the Marx Brothers’ great Duck Soup (1933), only it’s a Freedonia without the loopy Dada.

Altman’s direction is excellent; he and his cameraman abruptly pan and zoom in and out to punctuate visual and verbal jokes, and the hip actors in the cast (who seem to know they’re making movie comedy history) take advantage of Altman’s generosity by improvising some bits. If the screenplay is a springboard for anything, it’s improvisation, and the movie has the tone of inspired improvisation. The story goes that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland quarreled with Altman on the set. But their performances are marvels of corrosive wit, and reflect a cathartic release of tension.

The Last Supper.
The miracle of MASH is that it so successfully combines the taboo breaching of gallows humor—laughing at suffering to stay sane—with the naturalistic coarseness of low comedy: the movie balances bone saws and foul mouths, and spills off the screen in torrents. Although Korea is the ostensible setting, you know that the movie is really showing the madness of Vietnam, and telling America that it’s possible to do good work and sustain your sanity and humanity amid the senselessness of bloodshed and strangling bureaucracy. The effect is restorative, a work of humanism. MASH is a Rabelaisian black comedy, and one of the most sensible American movie satires ever.

Elders

Filial devotion. Teiji Takahashi and Kinuyo Tanaka
The 1958 Ballad of Narayama is Kinoshita’s unassailable masterpiece. Filmed almost entirely on brilliantly designed soundstages against mattes glazed in gloriously saturated color, this elegy on the transience of life—a lambent work of humanism—is almost unbearably moving. The acts of petty meanness build into scenes of barbaric cruelty, particularly the Amaya episode and the slaughter of Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi) in the final moments.

The film is uncannily beautiful, a moral work of art. It’s a transcendent vision of filial love and one of the greatest allegories in movies of how mortality—the all-too-briefness of life—militates against inhumanity, but only fitfully, which is life’s insuperable tragedy. As Orin, the old woman whose children are all too ready to abandon her to her terrible fate, Kinuyo Tanaka is the apotheosis of the Shakespearean clown: her wizened face framed by a dirty-blonde bob, she’s a miraculous mix of pitiable silliness and heartrending despair. Teiji Takahashi brings understated warmth to his role as Tatsuhei, Orin’s one decent offspring, and the two together give the rare movie impression of actual blood relations between actors.

The paradox is plain in Narayama (as it is in its thematic kin, King Lear): because of our bookended lives, if we’re sane, we tell humane stories. This particular story is adapted from a 1956 novella Narayama bushiko (Ballad of Narayama) by Shichiro Fukazawa, and was remade in 1983 by Shohei Imamura in a grittier, naturalistic style.

Out of Italy

The celebrated partnership of Vittorio De Sica, an actor who became one of Italy’s—and the West’s—most revered directors, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter and film theorist, was inaugurated in the movies with the luminous The Children Are Watching Us in 1944, although the two knew each other for more than a decade prior. Together, their collaborations of Italian neorealism were more mystical and allegorical than the harsher social portraits of corruption and decay in the work of other Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The De Sica-Zavattini films are smaller-scale studies in frailty and innocence; instead of making Grand Statements about politics and society, they paint individuals in unselfconscious but lyrical strokes—prose poetry character studies. If, years after viewing, we’ve forgotten the scenes of wartorn Rome and its political infighting in Rossellini, we probably still remember the disillusioned faces in De Sica.

Zavattini’s realism is an homage to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, particularly Turgenev and Tolstoy. (Jean Renoir paid tribute to the Russian and French realists in much the same way.) De Sica, a great director, uses actors’ faces and classic narrative conventions like linearity and situational irony to tell stories of the bereft—losers, dreamers, and children enduring the cold hopelessness of life on the skids. He hits his mark, too. The emotional impact of these movies wells up like a rising tide, evenly and surely. In the final scene of The Children Are Watching Us, the camera fixes on the back of the abandoned child as he trudges away, and the indictment of all squabbling, selfish, vain adults is complete.

Scenes from childhood. Luciano De Ambrosis
The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration produced about twenty films, including the hallowed masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952). The Children Are Watching Us isn’t quite one of the masterpieces, but its incandescence and Petrarchan sweetness can’t be shaken off easily. It points the way to the fables of childhood in Truffaut, the Taviani brothers, and Shunji Iwai.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Headlines

Just about every venerated American institution takes it on the kisser in His Girl Friday (1940). Nothing is sacred—politics, marriage, motherhood, sentiment, patriotism, and the values of the Fourth Estate all get deveined and dunked in butter like shrimp. The prodigious Howard Hawks directs for breathless laughs; he and his actors (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Clarence Kolb, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, and Regis Toomey) generate a mind-blowing tempo in the dialogue. This fast-talking high point of screen newspaper comedies raises the American movie vernacular to a Benzedrine-fueled art. His Girl Friday is the Menckenesque city of salty reporters, toadying careerists, gangsters, politicos, and simpletons—a modern commedia dell’arte with its character types. It shares with the Renaissance tradition an emphasis on character acting and an exuberance that reminds one of improvisatory theater. The reporters work for various dailies and travel in packs, which is weird considering they’re all out to scoop the others. These guys have no patience for pretense or tender emotions, and they cut through the bull. Grant and Russell—a controlling editor and his independent-minded reporter—parry and thrust, and their erotic verbal jabs are a classic American mating. They were one of the screwball genre’s best pairings since Fredric March and Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937), another skewering newspaper comedy (accented by Walter Connolly’s conniption fits). His Girl Friday is both knockabout farce and sharp, modern satire, and speeds along from start to finish on a solid track of one-liners, squib, and broadside. Thanks to the overlapping dialogue (a technique used before in movies), jokes whiz by you so fast that if you stall on any one to replay it mentally, you’re liable to miss the next two.

In the 1930s, Hollywood comedies were at their toughest and most satirical. They were designed to get Depression-era America out of its funk, and these tart, springy romances, newspaper farces, and review-style musicals were huge successes. An intermingling group of 1920s newspaper columnists, critics, and playwrights on the East Coast gave American talkies much of their whiplash energy and smarts. In one of the great migration stories in the history of popular art, many of these Broadway wags wound up in Hollywood for the year-round sunshine and easy money. The screenplays they wrote are filled with smart, sardonic dialogue—crude, quintessentially American poetry. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page (the 1928 Broadway hit from which His Girl Friday was adapted) and Hecht wrote Nothing Sacred; Charles Lederer wrote the screenplay for the first movie adaptation of The Front Page in 1931 as well as the screenplay for His Girl Friday; Jules Furthman wrote the pre-Code Jean Harlow newspaper comedy Bombshell (1933) and two or three enormously entertaining Howard Hawks classics (1939’s Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not in 1944, and The Big Sleep in 1946); Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941) and adapted the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight for the screen in 1933; Nunnally Johnson wrote the riotous comedy Roxie Hart (1942) starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou (who played the editor in The Front Page in 1931); Robert Benchley returned to Hollywood during the worst of the Depression to write features and star in several popular shorts; and Donald Ogden Stewart wrote The Philadelphia Story (1940).

News ink. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
By the middle of the 1940s, the era of carefree screwball stories about newsmen, wisecracking society dames, and daffy heiresses was largely played out, and His Girl Friday was thus not only perhaps the greatest but also one of the last of its kind. American audiences turned their attention to events in Europe, and found there wasn’t much left to laugh at. Movies got propagandistic and returned to serious, “noble” homefront themes, as in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). The war sapped comedic energies and soured the public on its old urge to satirize its sacred cows.

Staying Alive

Wolves. Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura
Onibaba (1964), the Kaneto Shindo film I’d been meaning to see for ten years, isn’t particularly terrifying or scaled to overwhelm. But its photographic inventiveness and shocks (which are both visual and sexual) have an atavistic creepiness; watching these famine-stricken peasants run through fields of Susuki grass, wolfishly chasing down mortally wounded soldiers, puts your nerves on edge.

Like the barren heath in King Lear, the setting is a Hobbesian marketplace of killing, pilfering from the dead, and exchanging the plunder for food. The Japanese countryside is a wasteland, bereft of a moral center. The social hierarchy (during a period of medieval civil war) is nothing more than an immediate function of who cooperates with whom, or who preys on whom. It’s often the smaller, nimbler predators—like the two women—who maintain control. But the movie’s point of view is that “nature red in tooth and claw” will out; alliances disintegrate amid a heated atmosphere of animal sex and betrayal. In the end, the two women and their male partner are revealed as opportunistic demons who have sacrificed their humanity.

Onibaba isn’t as all-encompassing as Kon Ichikawa’s masterpiece Fires on the Plain (1959)—the latter has a forgelike intensity that makes it a visionary, emotional experience. But the two movies have similar themes: the grisly horrors of war, cannibalism (figurative in Onibaba and literal in Fires on the Plain), and the black comedy of the superior strength of flesh over spirit.

Pretensions

“[It] possesses a distinctly playful atmosphere and carefree cadences.” [The Criterion Collection catalogue]

No, it most certainly does not. All These Women (1964) is a limp, desultory farce. Apparently, Ingmar Bergman, one of the most sophisticated spiritual artists in film—the equal of the great, dour existentialists in the other arts—decided to write and direct this disoriented, enervated gimmick in order to make extra money. Bergman and Sven Nykvist developed a pastel color palette for the movie, which gives the nonsense onscreen far more visual depth than it merits.

The red and the black.
All These Women is like watching discarded reels of Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, and Blake Edwards, without any of their gift for low farce. This movie gives you a chance to see some of Europe’s best actors embarrass themselves—including Jarl Kulle as the reptilian critic who invades his idol’s manor house, Eva Dahlbeck as the wife of the cellist, Bibi Andersson as the cellist’s mistress, and the sexy Harriet Andersson as the gamine housemaid (she’s like a Swedish Joan Blondell). Kulle moves from one lady to the next in the Continental style; it’s a love round interspersed with witless dialogue like this: “He has such wonderful fingering. Isn’t that what it’s called?” Have we piqued your interest yet?

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen another movie by a master filmmaker that’s both stylishly pompous and hamfisted. I certainly never expected to see a pie thrown in someone’s face in a Bergman film. But if this knucklehead production had happened on the stage, I think people would have thrown tomatoes.