Tag Archive: Max von Sydow


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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+

 

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What does it say about a genre that the film that I consider the height of the market isn’t even a movie that I can give an “A+” to. I like horror (well, I like good horror. 99% of it is just fucking terrible), but I think that as a cinematic avenue, it might be an inherently inferior form. Because I truly believe that The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made (and it’s one of the only horror movies that I actually find to be frightening), but when I think about the other films on this blog that I’ve awarded top marks to, I just can’t put The Exorcist in the same league as movies like 8 1/2 or Tree of Life. I can name exactly one other horror film (particularly if we characterize The Silence of the Lambs as a psychological thriller) off the top of my head that I’d be willing to give an “A” too (Let the Right One In), and there are handful of other horror films that I’d be willing to give “A-“‘s to. And that’s really it. Maybe it’s the way that the vast majority of horror films put scares ahead of engaging character development and therefore sacrifice an ability to emotionally invest the audience in the fates of the film’s heroes and heroines. Great cinema is about great characters and great stories (and occasionally, if your name is Fellini or Lynch or Bergman, about great visual odes to your own medium), and with the exception of Let the Right One In, I can’t really name any horror films that allowed me to become fully invested in fleshed out, three-dimensional characters. Still, The Exorcist earns itself an immense deal of good will by being without question the most frightening film of all time and one of the few movies that can instill genuine disturbance into the mind of this vocal atheist and skeptic.

While the film begins at an archaeological dig in Iraq, where Father Merrin (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) stumbles across some ancient artifacts which may or may not be of demonic/Satanist origin, the actual film is centered in the otherwise quiet Washington, D.C. suburb of Georgetown. Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is a successful actress in D.C. to film a movie raising her 12 year old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), by herself. Their life is normal and happy (besides Chris’ absent husband) until one day when Chris and Regan begin to hear strange noises coming from the attic. Regan also seems to be convinced that she has communed with a spirit through a Ouija board that she found in the home’s basement. Their terror only escalates when Regan begins acting strangely, starting out by peeing her pants in a nearly catatonic state in front of a party that Chris was throwing and then resulting in full on tremors and spasms where Regan’s entire bed is shaking more than any 12 year old girl could possibly cause. After a series of extensive medical and psychiatric tests, none of the doctors or psychiatrists can come up with a reasonable explanation for Regan’s behavior and in a last minute desperation, Chris enlists the help of a local father (in the midst of a crisis of faith), Father Karras (Jason Miller) to perform an exorcism on her daughter who is increasingly under the obvious control of something beyond the normal. Along with Father Merrin, Father Karras attempts to save this young girl but it might cost him his own life in the process.

The Academy Award for Best Makeup didn’t exist yet in 1973 (it wouldn’t be invented until 1980 specifically for the film The Elephant  Man) but if it did, it would surely have gone to The Exorcist. This movie is nearly 40 years old, but moments where I felt the film’s effects had aged poorly were few and far between. This was back before CGI defined every single sci-fi/fantasy/horror film and make-up artists had to rely on good old human ingenuity to create compelling images that were beyond normal human experience. And The Exorcist succeeded with aplomb. Once Regan starts to really succumb to her possession and her body is covered in lesions and sores and pustules and what not, she is incredibly difficult to look at and it’s all thanks to the marvelous make-up work of the film’s effects crew. Possessed Regan is one of the most iconic figures in the history of horror and the film really nailed that disturbing and grotesque feel that I’m sure the movie’s script asked for (as well as the source book material). I’m just praying (figure of speech since I haven’t actually prayed in years) that I don’t dream about her disturbing visage this evening. Her face or the rare glimpses we get of Captain Howdy. That’s pretty much the last thing I need.

The film’s sound design is also a marvel (considering it won the Oscar for Best Sound, that’s not shocking). There’s a lot of subliminal stuff happening in this film, visually and aurally, and the fact that there’s almost always something happening at the edge of your perception adds a lot to the overall creepiness of the film. I’m a firm believer that sound design is one of the most important aspects of any horror film. It can be used to up the inherent paranoia and tension of the genre to nearly unbearable heights. All of the best horror films rely more on the audience’s imagination and a philosophy that what we don’t see is more frightening than what we do. The Exorcist succeeds in the technical department because its’ unnerving score paired with the endless stream of ambient effects and the more brutal and perverse noises played when Regan/the demon are in full evil mode. It’s disorienting to an almost whiplash inducing degree. To make it even better, the film will often slip in a couple frames of some demonic image just long enough for your eyes to register what you saw but not long enough for you to make sense of the image. From virtually every behind-the-scenes perspective, The Exorcist was a resounding technical triumph.

That was all without talking about the film’s spine-tingling script once. The movie takes its time getting to the possession (because it wants you to become emotionally invested in Chris, Regan, and Father Karras [though I would argue it fails to really develop anyone besides Father Karras in an interesting way]), but once Regan really starts to lose it, the movie is a non-stop ride into the heart of darkness. By the film’s end, you’ll never be able to look at a crucifix the same way again, and outside of a Stephen King novel, I can’t really think of a single bit of horror that was so willing to corrupt the innocence of a child. However, the film’s script is where it falters and that’s not even counting the way that I felt the movie tried to be more character driven than it had the acumen to be. For a healthy portion of the film, an argument could have been made (and was made by most of the doctors) that Regan wasn’t possessed. She was just suffering from some particularly violent strain of schizophrenia. I just wish the film had waited a while longer to make it so obviously clear that she was in fact possessed by a demon. I think the movie played that trump card too early, and honestly, it would have been just as disturbing seeing this 12 year old girl shoving her mother’s face into her bloody privates whether she was possessed or crazy. Ambiguity and the power of one’s imagination is the sign of a great horror writer, and this movie just played it’s cards a little too obviously. It’s not something that ever really bothered me when I watched this movie when I was younger, but seeing it as an adult now, it just seemed a little too heavy-handed.

I’ve written a lot today (3000 words for Game of Thrones alone) so I’ll draw this to a close. Had you asked me what score I was going to give this movie before I actually watched the movie (based on my memories of the film), I would have said “A+” but it didn’t work out that way. I guess my tastes have matured a little bit since I was younger. I haven’t watched this movie in high school so I feel like I came into this film with the perfect mix of nostalgia and freshness to make a good, objective review. Still, I do honestly believe it’s the best straight up horror film of all time. I actually think in retrospect that Let the Right One In is a slightly better movie, but I almost don’t like characterizing it as a horror film. If you’ve somehow missed seeing The Exorcist at any point in your life (my sister watched it for the first time today and was decidedly not impressed), it’s one of those films that any self-respecting movie fan has to see. I think it’s survived the intervening years since it’s release like a champ even if I’m not quite able to call it a perfect movie.

Final Score: A

I’m a pretty calm guy. I wasn’t for a really long time. And then at some point in my life, my ability to give a shit just sort of broke. It broke way too much though to the point that I occasionally wander through life in a completely apathetic and detached haze. I’m starting to get better, but that was definitely a period in my life. So, when the existence of a film is enough to piss me off, there’s probably something fundamentally unethical about it. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a supremely infuriating film that it’s safe to characterize as kitschy, sentimental, trite, and exploitative. Even the strength of some of the better scenes in the film and two superb performances couldn’t make me forgive this film for its very nature which offended me on a deep and personal level. I might have only been twelve years old when 9/11 happened and I may not have personally known any one who lost their life in that horrific tragedy, but I’ve got enough brains to know when someone is trying to cash in on a national tragedy. This is one of those moments. Unfortunately for the film, it wouldn’t have even been saved had the story involved some fictional tragedy for all of its cheap and unearned “emotional” overkill.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn in his big screen premiere) is a precocious and incredibly intelligent young boy (that may or may not have a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome) whose friendship with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) is the only real thing in his life. They create adventures together to help Oskar’s problem-solving skills as well to force him to increase his social skills. When Oskar’s father dies in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar withdraws into a year long state of shock and trauma. However, when Oskar accidentally breaks a vase when he enters his father’s closet for the first time since his death, Oskar finds a key and the only clue is the name “Black” written on the back of the envelope. Oskar believes this key is part of the last adventure his father had planned for him. Getting every person with the last name Black from the NYC phone book, Oskar sets out on a quest to find who the key might have belonged to and what lock it could open so he can finally say goodbye to his father.

Before I get into the ways in which this film is an unmitigated failure/offensive (to anyone who isn’t cheaply manipulated), let me at least point out its good points. For his film debut, Thomas Horn was astounding. Unless that kid actually has Asperger’s syndrome, he did an excellent job of capturing the rage, grief, vulnerability, and terror that Oskar was experiencing every day. Actually, he played Oskar so well that I almost have to wonder how much he was acting or if he was just like that in real life. I was honestly more impressed with him than Brad Pitt in Moneyball (for which Pitt received an Oscar nomination). Along with Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in Hugo, it was  a great year for child actors. Similarly, Max von Sydow more than earned his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the renter living with Oskar’s grandmother that may or may not have been Oskar’s biological grandfather. His character was a mute but even without uttering a single spoken word the entire film, he displayed more emotion and characterization in his short time on screen than the wooden and ineffective Sandra Bullock could in the whole film. When Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn were both on the screen at the same time, they were the only moments in the film where I felt truly engaged with the material enough to overlook its structural flaws.

Unfortunately, that only represents a small portion of the film. The rest of it has the film turning what could have been an interesting meditation on loss and tragedy (as well as the reality of mental illness in children since that child definitely has some type of autism) into jingoistic feel good schlock. We’re not still in a “too soon” period from 9/11 to make decent 9/11 related material. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 was an excellent meditation on national tragedy and the small acts of heroism that kept 9/11 from being even worse. That film felt authentic even if we had to guess about much of what was happening on that plane. With the exceptions of the scenes where Oskar was really being forced to deal with the reality of his father’s death, nothing about this film felt real or genuine. It felt manufactured to elicit a very specific set of responses. And the fact that it used such a terrible event in American history to garner these reactions (rather than making us care more about the characters or making them seem more defined and alive) is what makes this film so offensive. This movie doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about 9/11. The characters aren’t engaging enough to justify the setting they’re using. The writing isn’t clear or focused enough to support the muddled and sprawling aspect of the narrative. Also, I enjoy slow films but the two hours (and some change) that I spent watching this movie felt like they dragged on more slowly than the four hours of Lawrence of Arabia.

If you couldn’t tell, I didn’t like this film. It bothered me (and not in that good Todd Solondz kind of way), and I found myself making frustrated sighs the entire film when there another instance where I felt the film was trying to cheaply manipulate my emotions. However, my dad and little sister both enjoyed it, and by the end of the film, my dad was crying pretty profusely (normally, I’m the crier in the family during sad/touching/very happy moments in movies but my eyes were completely dry during this film). So, maybe I’m just a broken human being because I wasn’t affected by this movie whatsoever. So, the way I look at it, is that if you enjoy cheap and emotionally manipulative and insignificant films (i.e. The Help), then maybe you’ll enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For everyone who’s a little more cynical and skeptical and knows when movies are deliberately trying to take advantage of you, you should steer clear.

Final Score: C+