Tag Archives: critical

Seeing The Seventh Seal in Sweatpants at the Film Forum

the-seventh-seal

The neon on the Film Forum marquee’s dark blue and the programming’s stacked on white slates lettered black. There are weathered thin filmic strips between the titles. I am walking down the sidewalk and eying the marquee closely for multiple reasons. The first reason is that I have never been to the Film Forum despite kinda-sorta being a Cinephile. I have mainly been a Lincoln Plaza Cinemas fella, most recently for the underappreciated Loving Vincent. Incidentally the Lincoln Plaza seems to be closing temporarily for repairs with many fearing it’ll be shuttered permanently like the Landmark Sunshine Cinema despite contrary assurances from the property owners. So tonight before I see The Seventh Seal the Film Forum marquee takes on resonance as a symbol of imperiled authenticity.

I take a picture of the marquee with my phone for the purposes of Instagram posterity then turn and cross the narrow street into a bar. I have arrived early for the showing of The Seventh Seal and will need to pass some time. It is Friday night.

I made it early for the screening because I didn’t have much else to do. The fact that it’s a Friday night and my only plans involved seeing The Seventh Seal accompanied by my trusty notebook suddenly feels questionable inside the bar. Because it’s happy hour and my contemporaries are enjoying each other’s company. They seem contentedly absorbed into their personal dramas. The men wear expensive looking suits or sweaters. They do the things that men with friends do in bars: wave a straggler back toward the group in case he’s weighing leaving his whole life behind, smile widely at a stranger and keep nodding because they are inaudible, summarize incredulity over a miscommunication that was totally not his fault. I’m wearing black sweatpants and a black hoodie. The strain of context pushes down on my shoulders. I purchase blonde ale and find a chair nestled in a nook where I can place my notebook on a slab. I open the book and scratch my pen point on the empty page. There’s too much time to kill.

Been a long time since I gave a damn about Friday night. Makes me feel like I’m fifteen. Then again everything goes back to being fifteen. I wanted to be a writer when I was fifteen. I wanted to be different when I was fifteen. I ordered an Ingmar Bergman box set through the mail when I was fifteen. Wish I could recall the company. The name was something nostalgic, conveying a mansion of wisdom scented by mothballs. I didn’t know who Ingmar Bergman was aside from being one of those important names you hear when one white-haired wizard compliments another reverently. On the phone with a girlfriend I gave my interpretation of Hour of the Wolf, slowly realizing that it pertained exactly to our situation. She was an insomniac and it had actually put her to sleep fifteen minutes before my breakthrough. When I hung-up it was 3 AM. The irony was lost on me. Those were days in a life under a hoodie. And I probably only wanted to bring him with me tonight. That boy who watched everything in that set besides The Seventh Seal because it felt like something to save for a perfect occasion.

As the years went by I realized I simply desired the set unfinished. That was the explanation. I didn’t want that time checkmated, where the good parts were about having a mind on fire about creativity.

But considering the question of the incomplete viewing also made me wonder whether I just found Bergman boring. Even though I’d be locked onto his films while I was actually watching. But making that commitment to watch was a struggle. There were many easier things to do in life than watching an Ingmar Bergman movie. Could that be perceived as a problem with his work?

There was nothing typically American about my laziness in this regard. In fact I was pretty new wave for a young-blood who got loaded at Queens junkie bars using a fake ID. Truthfully the issue seems to be addressed by Bergman himself, right in the nihilistic endings of The Seventh Seal and Shame too.

Bergman creates challenging work, work that requires contemplative movements of the mind while in progress. Such a state could be deemed similar to meditation or trance. Tapping into a less reactionary, reptilian region of the brain. One does not alienate themselves from Bergman characters. One feels guilty for thinking about being alienated from them. Like poor Raval… he may have been evil but he was afraid to die just like you or me!

But Bergman acknowledges that our lives will always be dictated by the chaotic outcomes of culture, even if we do attempt thinking critically and empathizing with the people around us. Bergman is so obsessed by the question of why that one may naturally wonder why they should watch his film. Of course when one does make the decision to watch, they will be rewarded by exquisite filmmaking. But the pull of not watching has always felt particularly strong to me when thinking about his work. Not watching a Bergman film feels like a concrete decision in a way that other films could never imitate. One looks at the Bergman box set in their DVD library and turns away, in that moment understanding himself as the person who will not be watching, opposed to the other who is. Because usually it is not the day or time to be in Ingmar Bergman’s world, in the quiet of midnight, alone in a room, preferring an escape. Life just has to be easy and not some of the time but a lot of the time to be bearable, a comic book with ever-familiar colors.

Indeed, one decides not to watch Star Wars because the Yankees game started on the other channel. One decides not to watch Shame because they still want to believe in humanity. In this twisted sense, Bergman’s films work so well that if someone were to tell me I could no longer watch them, it wouldn’t be a tremendous bother. I don’t feel that way about other directors I love. It’s as if Bergman’s strength is his weakness, and he’s aware, communicating with that fact in the work. Such as the beginning of Hour of the Wolf, which immediately announces itself as a movie with sounds from an active set. In case we were considering the mistake of losing ourselves.

The Seventh Seal is an excellent film because a Crusader named Block plays chess with Death. Along the way Block befriends carnies and they manage a hillside picnic despite the collapse of civilization. It’s a movie that taps into the psyche.

Every aspiring screenwriter fancies writing a film that taps into the psyche, a wish holiest at an early juncture when phrases like tap into the psyche seem to actually mean something. Such gallantry must be unmasked. Ultimately, for those who stick with the questionable endeavor, writing something that simply works becomes an attainable goal. Note the phrase working as fashionable in describing good fiction these days, as if one were describing an air conditioner.

We’re better than ever at putting people and ideas into boxes. To be an intellectual these days is to be an efficient categorizer. It is also crucially about having an awareness of your own box. Getting comfortable inside. Instead of tearing through the cardboard we furnish ourselves a little flap of a desk, maybe even with a lamp. That depends on our individual skill at interior decorating. Maybe finish the space off with a miniature TV and beverage holder. Be completely boxed-in by culture and by preference.

Filmmakers don’t put forward big ideas anymore. Not enough. They don’t ask the questions that’ll be on our minds if we have time to consider our own deaths. That’s the kind of death proceeding in an orderly, businesslike fashion. Opposed to the kind of death I once read about in a newspaper when I was twelve years old: a plastic surgeon in his corvette on the freeway and a loose hubcap bouncing on the road, going airborne…

But if one has the luxury of questions: What was the point of all this? What did I know as love? What did I fear? What was it that happened that time I became someone else? These are questions impossible to address through categorization. Solving an existential crisis is an existential crisis. People don’t want crisis emerging from crisis. In a more confusing world than ever, people want to feel like they know who they are.

It’s a lonely, confusing time for many people. But paradoxically, artists are more influenced by culture than ever, especially as novices. Consider a novice existentialist fiction writer in a workshop. Let’s put ourselves right in his or her Skechers. We’re taking the train afterward, pulling the stack of papers from our bag several stops from home. Because why wait to cry in private, as is proper procedure? Then we see the notes upon our pages, “this is exposition masquerading as dialogue,” or, “too long,” or, “what does this have to do with what your story is about,” or, “interesting but why,” and on and on. So someone with a similar sensibility to Ingmar Bergman, just as a young fiction writer, will never again try the extended monologue that the former uses effectively time and again in his films. As much as workshops have been invaluable to my development through the years, the tendency for people to assess someone else’s momentarily unsuccessful risk as an unsalvageable failure is quite high. Its just natural that when people see someone fail at something they would never try, they will advise that astronaut to abandon the mission altogether. Bob Dylan describes the tendency quite well in his song Farewell Angelina.
The camouflaged parrot
He flutters from fear
When something he doesn’t know about
Suddenly appears
What cannot be imitated
Perfect must die
Farewell Angelina
The sky’s flooding over
And I must go where it is dry

Movies, music and fiction are different beasts of course. And maybe our writer on the train is actually a hack incapable of being helped by any advice or even encouragement. That all comes down to the individual, and the individual can never truly be hypothesized. But consider also the mixed reaction to Kathryn Bigelow’s most recent film Detroit, which, among other things, asked the philosophical question of whether material success could erase one musician’s intense feelings of persecution and humiliation as a result of the events portrayed in the film. The answer was no. And it felt earned. But most critics did not bother writing about Larry’s character arc. It seemed more important to frame the movie in a moral context from a viewing standpoint. That seems a relatively new development: judging the quality of a film not based on its intentions and execution, but instead its moral rectitude. Such developments could be perceived in a positive fashion. But if we reach a point of canceling the basic attempt to tell a story based on the artist failing to meet socially agreed upon qualifications, what will be lost? And will that limit risk as a basic tenant of creativity?
This is not to say every critic had similar feelings about Detroit. It is to say the reception to the movie was not enthusiastic. And it’s more likely to be obscure years from now opposed to cultural signifier. And that may also have to do with the culture it is signifying. There was a time when that message meant far more than the ethnic background of the director. And maybe that was too convenient. Either way the world has changed. And it’s not just the taste of the popcorn.

Ultimately I find it challenging to consider that the culture from which I emerge on a daily basis like a sarcopterygian fish crawling from the sea and returning to his desktop can produce the type of fiercely intellectual filmmaking that defines Bergman and The Seventh Seal particularly.

Nobody’s a metaphor in the movie, a totem through which the viewer may be welcomed to try understanding or idealizing themselves. Even Death! Death is just Death. It feels like sometimes he wants to check his watch because it’s been a long day at the office during “busy season.” To top it off, the flick is actually funny too, which makes no sense whatsoever. Like when Death chops down a tree to kill a guy who had just pretended to be dead. Skat thought he pulled a fast one climbing up that tree after the party left him lying. But there came Death from down below with a hacksaw. And the best part: maybe that wasn’t even supposed to be funny.

After The Seventh Seal concludes I walk out of the Forum take the subway and sit alone in a different bar trying to make sense of the notes I’d been taking throughout the evening. Which of these could be catalytic?

I had written down,

“homeless man with sign outside Penn. Sign says Jesus is the Answer.”

I think about the sequence where the festival was interrupted by the flagellant procession. How despite the ways in which we can personalize drama for a better understanding of our condition art remains interpretative while fundamentalist religion simply tells people what they should be feeling and doing. Bergman seems to suggest that art’s overpowered when these two forces are placed in the same space. To the majority of people Skat and Lisa’s frolic can simply never have the instructive meaning of a ritualistic flagellation. Because joy – instead of being celebrated as a vital component to our experience – is perceived more as a luxury compared to the reality of suffering.

I also wrote down,

“while crossing Greenwich Avenue on way back uptown pretty girl passes by wearing headphones singing to herself in low register and we pass each other closely because sidewalk’s crowded her voice hits me like a thin warm wind these are the kinds of nice things that can happen in the city.”

And that has me musing over Bergman’s ability to make his films prosaic primarily through extended monologue, perhaps most memorably done with Alma’s monologue recalling random, satisfying sex on a secluded beach in Persona. Or he’ll even present a scene, like Shame’s intensely uncomfortable rendezvous between Colonel Jacobi, Eva, and Jan at their dining-room table, in a single shot as if one were suddenly watching a play. Bergman pushes the limits of the cinematic form by mirroring other forms, whether through aesthetics or emotional impact.

Similarly The Seventh Seal has these moments, though the film feels more surrealistic and mythical than postmodern. And instead of exploring an individual’s psyche, like through the personalized horror of memory in Hour of the Wolf, or delving into a specific relationship, like Shame, The Seventh Seal seems more concerned with existential torture as a communal experience.

I was particularly struck by how the shots in the castle, where Death pays a visit to our party, often featured most (if not all) all the characters in the frame. Like Bergman is saying we experience Death together, not just as individuals. And that includes the whole ride: from the mystery to the terror to the acceptance. And there is comfort in that sentiment even if it’s not necessarily reassuring.

Despite the resonance Block’s one-on-one chess duel with Death, communal expressions of primal emotion flashed just as prominently to my mind: whether it was Raval encouraging a mob frenzy against Jof and forcing the artist to dance for his survival, or it was Jons and Block’s utter powerlessness to save the condemned heretic, only offering herbs, or that discomforting final image of Death’s dance party. Bergman, as he also did in Shame, seems to be connecting the individual to the universal. Block playing chess with Death is also us – we are individuals — but we are also individuals bound together by the same rules. Dancing the same dance.

I wrote other notes, like one speculating that Terrence Malick took a cue from Raval’s death scene for a moment in The Thin Red Line where the sun breaks through cloud cover after two men are ordered to their demise. That could be a coincidence. It felt like more of a coincidence when I made the connection.

Bergman does have that gift. He makes art feel connected, and life too. He’s not about style, though he has plenty: his work is about a love for thinking and communicating, even when those things cannot hold the center. His films will make you feel included, not excluded. While me and all my selves walked back uptown I felt lucky to have spent a Friday night looking into The Seventh Seal and continuing to live my odd little life, remaining outside the box for another solitary evening in the city.

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Comparing Cities in ‘Let the Great World Spin’ and ‘A Man of the People’

Civilizations exist, but they are difficult to build and maintain. Two books demonstrating this statement are ‘A Man of the People,’ by Chinua Achebe, and ‘Let the Great World Spin’ by Colum McCann. The fictionalized city traversed by our main character, Diligent, in the former book, is a tenuous seed capable of growing. Through the narrative, Achebe describes the impossibility of such advancement due to both government failures and citizen indifference:

Max began by accusing the outgoing Government of all kinds of swindling and corruption… many in the audience laughed… the laughter of resignation to misfortune. The ex-policeman put it very well. “We know they are eating,” he said, “but we are eating too.” (Achebe, pp. 125)

The setting of the former book is a reversal from ‘A Man of the People.’ McCann delves into multiple characters inhabiting New York City during 1974. Philippe Peitt’s daredevil tightrope stroll between the twin towers serves as a loose framing device. The alternating reactions of the ensemble cast to this event serves as an exploration of their faith. The Catholic Monk believes it to be sign from God, while the experienced Judge is amused. The performance of Petit is a living representation of Manhattan’s magical undercurrent, the mysterious energy pulsing beneath the architectural achievement and ceaseless commerce. Why are freaks drawn here, to create beauty? And does a small spark of that beauty settle inside the people walking the streets, no matter where they came from?

New York City, as an idea, is the completed crown jewel of western civilization, the answer to a mathematical equation adding together wealth, location, freedom, endless death and constant birth. But the free market’s child had been abandoned during the era in which ‘Let the Great World Spin’ unwinds. Citywide debt and rising crime engendered a sense of helplessness among citizens, the hopelessness unique to this specific moment, when both the national and local government seemed unable to implement solutions. The character of Solomon Soderberg, the father of a son killed in Viet Nam, and a weathered judge in the New York judicial system, finds himself taking an existential viewpoint, identifying the city as an entity unable to pause:

New York had a way of doing that… It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief… it happened, and it re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred because there was no necessary regard for the past… no, the city couldn’t care less where it stood. New York kept going forward because it didn’t give a good goddamn about what it left behind. It was like a city that Lot left, and it would dissolve if it ever began looking backward over its own shoulder. (McCann, pp. 247)

Even the bloody late eighties saw embattled Mayor David Dinkins enacting new tactics for the police force, aiding a decline in crime during his final months in office, and providing Rudolph Giuliani with enough momentum to corporatize Times Square. The continuing collapse of the murder rate, along with the nineties’ boom economy, allowed Giuliani to preside over the city’s renewal:

“Dinkins faced a very sharp economic downturn, and he was in the very difficult position of coming in with high expectations from many constituencies,” said John H. Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the City University Graduate Center. “Yet he expanded the police force and rebuilt neighborhoods; he deserves more credit than he gets for managing that time…” Mr. Dinkins’s most lasting achievement might have been in the very area where he now fares worst in popular memory. He obtained the State Legislature’s permission to dedicate a tax to hire thousands of police officers, and he fought to preserve a portion of that anticrime money to keep schools open into the evening, an award-winning initiative that kept tens of thousands of teenagers off the street. (Powell, Michael. Another Look at the Dinkins Administration, and not by Giuliani. New York Times. 25 October 2009. Online)

‘Let the Great World Spin’ takes place in the New York City of 1974, where the horizon held few such glimmers of hope. Considering the blackout riot in ’77, and the tumultuous eighties, one could argue the worst only got worse. An understandable desire to escape strengthened the developing suburbs, and also rustic upstate. The great fleeing is excellently represented in the book’s narrative through Blaine and his wife Lara, two burnt Greenwich Village veterans of the late night shadow show, who seek refuge in a cabin:

In 1973 Blaine and I had swapped our lives in the Village for another life altogether, and we went to live in a cabin in upstate New York. We had been almost a year off the drugs, even a few months off the booze, until the night before the accident… we were returning to the old grandma notion of sitting on the porch swing and watching the poison disappear from our bodies… Had lived without electricity, read books from another era, finished our paintings in the style of the time, hid ourselves away, saw ourselves as reclusive, cutting edge, academic. (McCann pp. 118, 120)

Lara ultimately finds happiness by delving deeper into the troubled city she has abandoned, unable to wash her hands of a crime committed by Blaine. Her conscious decision to get involved with the life of a stranger, Carian, the brother of a man accidentally killed by her husband in a car accident – is made more poignant by the signification that she is no longer denying her place in time. McCann delivers this message clearly by invoking time during the conversation where Lara and Blaine fallout over the accident:

-What happens if we make a series of paintings and leave them out in the weather? We allow the present to work on the past. We could do something radical here. Do the formal paintings in the style of the past and have the present destroy them….

-The girl died, Blaine. (McCann, pp. 134)

The novel’s structure, which extended from the seventies into the contemporary time period, displayed the unpredictable effects of complicated decisions, rippling through decades. Cities change, and at the same time, they do not change, and the same could be true for people. Instead of searching the surface for altered behaviors that could be traced to the past, ‘Let the Great World Spin’ seems to argue for a better gauge, reflected through relationships. How did one person touch the life of another? And where does it lead? The dream of civilization is an imperfect monster, crushing thousands incidentally, helping a few intentionally, and housing all the others like science experiment creatures, witnessing their world through the eyes they own.

Diligent, real name Odili, belongs to the first generation of post-colonial Africa. Colonialism was not only terrible for human rights abuses, but also from a practical, state building standpoint. The tyrannical interference set the entire region backward. Just as a single human being would be developmentally blocked by a controlling, outside influence, so too was an entire country:

Just the assumption that the previous patterns of political development would continue is sufficient to argue that these countries would be more developed today. Colonialism not only blocked further political development, but indirect rule made local elites less accountable to their citizens. After independence, even if these states had a coherence others lacked, they had far more predatory rulers. These polities also suffered from the uniform colonial legacies of racism, stereotypes and misconceptions that Africans may not have had and which have since caused immense problems, most notably in Burundi and Rwanda. (Heldring, Lester. Robinson, James, A. Colonialism and Development in Africa. VOX. 10 January 2013. Online)

Of course, the complicated question emerging from freedom: who deserves to create the new world? The militaristic rule emerging from colonialism forced citizens to accept a compromised, and ultimately ineffective governance:

The history of police and military formations in several parts of the world can be traced to the need to protect citizens and ensure territorial integrity. Conversely, in the case of Africa, the police and military were established primarily to crush civilian opposition to colonial rule. Police engagement with the populace was founded on the need to enforce hateful and debilitating colonial laws, including forced taxation, segregation, and quelling of anti-colonial uprisings. At the end of colonialism, the newly independent African government inherited institutions that had internalized a culture of citizen oppression and extortion. The immediate post-colonial police and military were designed to inflict terror on innocent citizens, and citizens had internalized the art of buying their way off unwarranted harassment. (Origin of Corrupton in Africa and the Way Forward. Anonymous. ChikaforAfrica.com. 21 August 2012)

Odili intellectually understands the corruption of the new government, but initially has the discipline not to be swayed emotionally. The novel portrays him as a reasonable person, seemingly only enflamed by the politics of women, a trait that both serves the narrative and makes him an empathetic figure for males attracted to girls. Diligent’s quick witted, humorous, and generally clarion disposition in the opening pages are quite effective at distancing the western reader from the potentially dangerous setting. One comes to understand the setting is less dangerous for people behaving like Diligent. His early behavioral stability is not only a likable character trait, but a self-protection mechanism, too. Diligent begins as an entrenched teacher more concerned with the obnoxious flattery of his superior, the school principal and proprietor Mr. Nwege, attempting to impress the visiting local minister Chief Nanga, than any political ideals. He’d been involved with a student’s branch of a reformist minded political organization while attending college, but became discouraged by both corruption and the people’s inability to discern the truth about their constantly lying leaders:

Chief Nanga was a born politician: he could get away with almost anything he said or did. And as long as men are swayed by their hearts and stomachs and not their heads the Chief Nangas of this world will continue to get away with anything… he had that rare gift of making people feel – even when he was saying harsh things to them – that there was not a drop of ill will in his entire frame. (Achebe, pp. 66)

Unstable societies such as the one described in ‘A Man of the People’ will challenge their citizens in a different way than New York City. The phrase that serves as the title for Achebe’s book could apply to politicians across all regions. Americans running for political office will wear masks carefully pieced together by public relations firms, designed to connect with voters on surface levels. However, the brilliance in Achebe’s exploration of this phrase, within the context of a post-colonial Africa, could be found in the immediate pages of the novel. The reader observes Odili while he observes Chief Nanga, his former teacher treated like a returning king. Achebe does not break into a long explanation that summarizes why the two will eventually be personal and political rivals. The reader is only made to understand that a fragile system creates turbulent social, political, and personal identities. Nanga has gone from being a teacher to wielding power. The equivalent of Odili, in a place like America, most likely would not rationally see himself assuming the power of Nanga, without a fortuitous break or the decision to pursue politics as a career. But in post-colonial Africa, the lines are thinner. Herein resides the realistic and literary value of the Nanga character being a former teacher, the current job for Odili. The phrase ‘the student becomes the teacher,’ is universally understandable, and effectively conveys, even to western readers without any knowledge of the region, the close proximity between Diligent and his old teacher, despite them leading incredibly different lives.

Life shows that the actions of people are often driven by both their perceived opportunities and boundaries. In ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ all the major players have either been molded by the city, or are being changed, the permanence of both processes beyond their conception. Despite all the dysfunction, the city remains a container, not a blank space. Corrigan, arguably the most important character in the novel, his daily presence in the Bronx influencing events far past his death, came to New York from Ireland on a priestly mission. The city is somewhere to go, a complicated, sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful, sometimes unbearable reality, but a reality above anything. When a city and state can barely function on a daily basis, controlled by soldiers disconnected from the citizens they are supposed to serve, without any semblance of a local economy beyond dependence on foreign product, while also lacking the infrastructure to support such dependence, this setting could be labeled as more of an existential problem than a real place. Human beings delineate the real and unreal through the methods that constitute routine. When the roads aren’t being built, when the schools aren’t being funded, when the generals sleep in mansions and feel poisoned after drinking a different brand of coffee, certain dissidents will step forward and want to change the situation. In this respect, for all the flaws of New York City, the character of Judge Soderberg, in ‘Let the Great World Spin,’ seems to demonstrate the human ability to move forward within the chaotic system. He is a Judge, and in a certain sense, he is everyday in New York City. He is the exhausted force continually pushing back against chaos, the shaky hand flipping the calendar. But what would a man like Solomon Soderberg do, if he were in Diligent’s situation? A man like Soderberg would attempt to create a place over which he could preside. Diligent eventually believes he must oppose Chief Nanga. Similar to Lara, he realizes that different surroundings (in his case, Nanga’s mansion, where he is an invited guest) have caused him to deny the reality of his setting (the unnamed state). And also similar to Lara, his awakening occurs due to a personal incident. Chief Nanga seduces his girlfriend, Elsie. At last, Odili registers what has been stirring within him throughout the entire novel, to that point. Chief Nanga, and his brethren, cannot build the new world. He must. In life and fiction, setting is often destiny, and different people can be surmised to come from different places.


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