Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Wild Sorceries

This is a double-bill coming up shortly in our hidden cinema season. I like the idea of two films coming from such different worlds colliding together, hopefully not resulting in an unsightly wreck. With any luck the underlying themes which link them will become apparent in a back to back viewing and they will reflect an illuminating light on each other, highlighting contrasts and consonances. And people who come to see one might surprise themselves by enjoying the other. Creating such odd couple marriages is certainly one of the pleasures of thinking up double bills. Here are the programme notes, anyway:

The Sorcerors (1967) / Wild Strawberries (1957)

These two wildly disparate films contrast age with youth. In both, members of the older generation draw strength from their encounters with younger people. In The Sorcerors, the connection is vicariously and malevolently exploitative, in Wild Strawberries a direct and benevolent meeting across the years.

Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerors is a piece of guerrilla film-making, shot on the streets of London with scant regard for the niceties of official permission. Car chases were shot from the boot of a car, and the culminating conflagration required a rather swift exit due to its overexuberant use of a larger quantity of explosives than was strictly necessary. The writer Iain Sinclair, a friend of the director, prefers this film to Reeves’ more renowned follow up, Witchfinder General, possibly because of it’s depiction of a London of seedy alleyways and clubs at some remove from the trendy demi-monde at the heart of most films set in the swinging sixties capital. In this it bears some resemblance to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, with which it shares a fascination with the voyeuristic nature of cinema’s detached vision. Powell’s reputation was irrevocably damaged by the critical revulsion at his film, but Reeves’s film, coming from an exploitation angle, was unlikely to do him any harm. The producer of the film was Tony Tenser, a Soho cinema owner who made sex films, but had branched out into classier fare with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-Sac. He had parted ways with his partner at Compton films, Michael Klinger (perhaps a wise move, given the latter’s underworld reputation and supposed connection with the Krays) and had set up his own production company, Tigon films. This would specialise in exploitation horror films, cheaper than Hammer and with a nastier edge.

Getting Boris Karloff on board was quite a coup for Tenser and Reeves, and the elderly actor, who had not made anything of significance for some time, recognised that this could be a final project of some substance (although he did go on to make one more great appearance in another film directed by an eager young cinephile, Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets). Karloff was enthused enough about the film to take some care over the nature of his character, and was insistent that he should experience some sort of moral redemption and stand up to the monstrous temptations of power and control. Thus his central role in the film became a collaboration of age and youth, his experience counterbalancing what might have been a rather shallow nihilism springing from Reeves’ youthful punk attitude. Hope becomes more important with age as the violent and careless energies of youth dissipate. Reeves’ encounter with another horror veteran, Vincent Price, star of his next film Witchfinder General, was to be a rather less agreeable collaboration.

Apart from a brief walk to a cornershop, the elderly couple Marcus and Estelle remain shut up in their claustrophobic flat throughout the film. It’s colour scheme is like the inside of a teapot, a study in browns. The living room is filled with the sound of a ticking pendulum clock, measuring out the hollow emptiness of their days and counting down the few years left to them. This is a corner of London which remains stubbornly marooned in post-war austerity Britain. It is contrasted with the city which gilded and jaded youth Ian Ogilvy, playing Mike, an obvious self-portrait by Reeves, moves through. This is the world of excitement and thrills which they feel they have missed out on, although it is also a world with which Mike is thoroughly bored. This is no paean to how groovily the sixties swung. Indeed, Mike’s voguish psychedelic experience comes not at the basement clubs which he frequents, but in the clinical environment of Dr Marcus’ laboratory. The light-show which helps to render him mindless and subject to the will of the old couple was provided courtesy of Joe Gannon, who normally used it to project images behind the psychedelic free-for-all of Pink Floyd gigs at places like the UFO club. The thanatos driven trajectory of the rest of the film not only reflects a view of the beautiful people which detects the shadows cast back in time by Manson and Altamont, but anticipates Reeves’ own tragically early death in 1969 at the age of 25.

Wild Strawberries features Victor Sjostrom in the central role of Professor Isak Borg, who is travelling across Sweden to pick up an honorary award which is also something of a tombstone. Sjostrom had been a distinguished film director himself, both in his native Sweden, where he made such films as The Phantom Carriage, and in America, where he made the classic The Wind with Lillian Gish. He had also been a father figure to Bergman as the creative director of Svensk Filmindustri (the SF logo you’ll see at the beginning of the film) when the young Ingmar was just starting out. He nursed a typically neurotic Bergman through the traumatic experience of his first directorial effort, the appropriately titled Crisis. Isak Borg may be partly Bergman’s attempt to come to terms with his own distanced and judgemental father, a Lutheran pastor with the not dissimilar name of Erik Bergman. Borg has withdrawn from society over the years, building himself an unassailable ivory tower of supercilious intellectualism. As in The Sorcerors, the quietude of his surroundings is amplified by the ticking of a clock, which serves to mark the passing of moments and also his remoteness from the world. The prospect of his award triggers off a series of dreams which disturb the foundations of his retreat, however. The dream sequences mine a seam of the gothic which runs throughout Bergman’s oeuvre. It is most evident in his best known work The Seventh Seal, and can be seen as late as his ‘final’ film (before his comeback) Fanny and Alexander, in which Death is observed by a child moving through the eerie stillness of a suspended domestic afternoon. The opening dream, unfolding in the unforgiving, harshly over-exposed light of midday, has the feel of one of Charles Beaumont’s more paranoid Twilight Zone episodes. The pivotal central dream has a Kafkaesque atmosphere and features an inquisitorial examination hall nightmare which will undoubtedly occasion a few shudders of recognition.

If the dreams alert him to the need for change, the long car journey which takes him past the haunts of his youth serves to draw him back into the world, as well as to reconcile himself with the past. Early on, he and his daughter Marianne, played by Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin in her first role for him, pick up three young hitchhikers, and it is they who serve to reconnect him with a life beyond his own inward concerns. In particular, it is Bibi Andersson’s Sara, who doubles as the sweetheart of Isak’s youth, with whom he connects across the ages. This was a connection which reflected the actual relationship between actor and actress, with Bibi Andersson allowing Victor Sjostrom to enjoy a bit of playful flirtation with her.

The younger generation in this film, in contrast with the rather unswinging sixties youth of The Sorcerors, are watered down Beats, sweet collegiate Kerouacs with their sandals, check shirts and guitars, and innocently sincere debates about religion and love. Sara, with her affectation of a pipe, could be a model of for the Indie version of Juno decades later.

Along the way, on the road or in the spaces of memory, other Bergman regulars are encountered in smaller roles, satellites around Sjostrom’s central role. Max von Sydow eschews his characteristic mood of introspection and anguish as the chipper petrol pump attendant and family man who represents the world of ordinary happiness which Borg has turned his back on. Gunnar Bjornstrand, often heretofore found in lighter, comedic Bergman roles, is Borg’s uptight and emotionally frigid son. Ultimately, this is one of Bergman’s kinder, more forgiving films, perhaps drawing on the immense warmth and humanity of Sjostrom’s performance. The Swedish title, Smultronstallet, would be more accurately translated as a wild strawberry patch. In Sweden, the brief fruiting of these patches represent the natural generosity of nature during the short span of the Scandinavian summer, a generosity reflected in the openness of Bibi Andersson’s character, both here and in The Seventh Seal, where she offers Max von Sydow’s knight the bowl of wild strawberries which she has picked. The smultronstallet is also an oasis of the past. It is a place of recalled childhood moments, of time suspended and distended, an inner space set aside for Isak Borg to go back and visit in his dreams. His final return to his cherished island of memory, a recreation of a past from a Carl Larsson picture, is a moment of real beauty. It is echoed in the final scene of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, a tiny glimpse of paradise with an almost unbearable weight of poignancy in a film of astonishing intensity. But that’s another film for another time. Meanwhile, let this warm-hearted, humane film inspire you to seek out your own wild strawberry patch...

Oh, and I’d avoid the ads for cut-price hypnotherapy in you local newsagent window if I were you.

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