Sunday, 29 November 2009

Sparks of the Summer Night

As mentioned in an earlier post, Swedish National Radio commissioned the group Sparks to produce a radio musical some time ago. Their only proviso was that it should touch on some Swedish theme. As Ron Mael wryly observed, they didn’t think they could get much material out of a musical about Volvos, so they settled instead on Ingmar Bergman as a subject. The result, entitled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, was broadcast on Stuart Maconie’s Radio 6 programme The Freak Zone a couple of weeks ago with an ensuing Q&A, and is soon to be released on CD. Maconie chose a few apposite Swedish themed tracks to start proceedings off, including, of course, Scott Walker’s magisterial The Seventh Seal, with its condensation of the film’s narrative. I guess an airing of John Cage’s 4’33 to represent The Silence would have made pretty poor radio in practice.

The musical was written in the usual Sparks manner, with the arched eyebrow of irony permanently raised. And yet they displayed an evident knowledge of both Bergman and film history in general which gave the themes, lightly addressed as they were, genuine depth. Asked what their own favourite musicals were, both came up with interesting answers which point to a diversity of influences reflected in the mixed sound palette of their skewed contribution to the genre. Russell plumped for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued enchantment of the humdrum and everyday; Ron, confessing a dislike of the more traditional type of Broadway musical, instead chose Richard Strauss’ late-romantic blast of extreme operatic expressionism, Elekra. Whilst nothing in The Seduction… matches the melancholy charm or insane intensity of those two examples, they provide twin poles of style and approach, opposite ends of a spectrum from which to draw musical and dramatic colour. Kurt Weill somewhere in the middle there too.

After a minor key, Satie-esque piano introduction, the musical begins with the announcement of Bergman’s ‘Best Poetic Humour’ award at Cannes for the warm-hearted comedy ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ over a pounding percussive synthesised beat. The assumption is that this is an atypical work, an interruption of Bergman’s more customary mode of tormented introspection. In fact, comedy was one of several styles he tried out in early films such as A Lesson in Love and the elevator sequence in Waiting Women, and he had a fine comedic actress in Eva Dahlbeck, who is perhaps the central character in Smiles of A Summer Night’s ensemble cast. The Summer Night has its shadows too, with attempted suicide, romantic torment and a humiliating duel inserted between the laughs and the lusty paean to life. Bergman never entirely eschewed comedy, either. Later films include the bawdy farce The Devil’s Eye, the gothic trickery of The Magician (with its eyeball in an inkwell) and the knockabout slapstick of All These Women (a film which I seem in the minority in finding very amusing). But the premise of the musical is that the success of this film alerts Hollywood to his potential as a prestige talent at a time when European cinema had a great deal of cachet, and that he is therefore tempted to stray from his true dark muse.

After the announcement of the awards, there is a sweeping Hollywood style overture, after which we hear a portentous, actorly voice pronounce ‘I am Ingmar Bergman. You may or may not know anything about me as a person’. A neat way of saying ‘don’t worry if you couldn’t care less about him, carry on listening anyway’. Bergman remains as a gloomily commentating voice throughout, never bursting into song. Essentially he narrates the events taking place inside his own head. This voice was originally spoken by Ron Mael in rehearsals, but he stepped down for the final recording. Asked in the Q&A session who they would like to see play themselves in a film version of their story, Ron settled on Max von Sydow, an appropriate choice in this context. I could see that working, although I’m not sure whether he could get the mad, staring eyes. Bergman wanders distractedly into a cinema in Stockholm to see the kind of big budget Hollywood epic for which he expresses the utmost contempt. When he walks out, he has been magically transported to the streets of Hollywood, where a limousine awaits to take him to a meeting with studio bigshots. The limousine and its driver are constantly on call, and its appearance provides a series of interludes between the main encounters and songs. Nothing is too much trouble for the obsequious driver, who offers Bergman the freedom of the city. The seduction has begun.

What might have been?
Russell sings the part of the studio boss in a song which presents the central theme of the uneasy marriage of art and commerce. It is a full-blown piece of off-kilter Sparks pop, with Russell’s voice swooping up to falsetto heights over a propulsive, driving base. ‘Mr Bergman, we’re not hicks’, he warns him, ‘but we must deliver kicks. Works of art can also work/ for some creepy mid-west jerk’. Throughout, there is a counterpoint voice translating into Swedish, giving the song the form of a bilingual call and response. Once Bergman has gone, he says he thinks that the meeting has gone well, rounding off with a chorus of ‘he’ll come round, they always do’, with the music shifting into a sinister suspense theme. Meanwhile, Bergman, evidently giving the matter serious consideration, wonders how he would do working in English. Of course, given the benefit of hindsight, we can answer (as Ron and Russell do in their Q&A) ‘not very well’, since the two films he did make in English (and the one in German for that matter) were two of his weakest; The Touch and The Serpent’s Egg (and the German film From the Life of Marionettes, the only one of his films for which I have a genuine dislike). We hear his strong rejection of some current Hollywood styles. The music is ‘an abomination’ and method acting ‘ridiculous’. However, when he reaches the Beverly Hills Hilton where he is being luxuriously accommodated, the seduction takes on a literal form as he is greeted by ‘The Hollywood Welcoming Committee’. As the young actress who knocks at his door admits, it is ‘a blatant attempt, I must say/by those who desire you to stay/knowing you’ve a weakness for the girls’.

In the aftermath of this night-time visit, which we assume was successful, Bergman is left desperately repeating ‘I’ve got to contact Sweden’, an attempt to reconnect with his reality. But the phone operator is obtuse (Sweden? How do you spell that?) and the lines of communication seem to be blocked. The following day finds the chirpy limousine driver taking him to the Commissary for a bite to eat. Here he is introduced to ‘directors of a foreign stripe/who’ve done quite well, see if they gripe’. The following ‘list’ song offers examples of émigré artists and the works which they made, all set to a jaunty shuffle in a Kurt Weill style, with hollow ‘ha-ha-ha’ laughter chorus. The potted history is served up thus: ‘Ah, Billy Wilder sure you say/he had to come, no other way./ But Sunset Boulevard as such/ I’d say we let him keep his touch’; ‘Jacques Tourneur, Cat People, great/ Simone Simon right here so grey(??)’; ‘And Murnau, genius just like you/Made Sunrise, top gear in my view’; ‘And Edgar Ulmer made Detour/A classic if you like film noir’. The Mael’s evidently know their cinema.

Bergman is on the verge of being convinced again. He tells himself ‘I must not be hasty’ and contemplates how he might apply his working methods within the system. But his imaginary encounter with a Hollywood star is a disaster. This role is sung in the manner of an operatic diva, a style which suits her attitude as she choruses ‘who do you think you are’. Bergman is then shadowed by a tour bus, filled with star spotters. ‘Give Ingmar a wave’, they are encouraged, and he is assailed with vapid cries of ‘Ingmar, you’re a genius’. This makes his mind up, and he declares ‘I must escape here and return home’. He is caught in a drama in which he experiences the themes of his own films, which he outlines as nightmares, hopelessness and the loss of identity. ‘This Hollywood is not a place, it’s a sensibility’, he realises, and it’s difficult to escape from an idea. Nevertheless, he tries to sneak out of his hotel room and leave by the back exit. But the concierge, who sounds like the limousine driver, is keeping an eye out for him, and the Studio powers are soon informed. ‘How could they be so small/To turn us down at all’ they sing. ‘He thinks he has a choice in all this’, they angrily chorus.

The music switches to a percussive synthesised chase score, with the voices of radio co-ordinated pursuit providing a pitiless, robotic commentary on the progress of what has become an all-out Bergman-hunt. ‘They’re after me’, he says with dawning awareness and astonishment. As police cars, dogs and helicopters join the chase, he realises ‘I am now an actor in a bad big-budget Hollywood action film’. The studio boss, meanwhile, weighs up whether they can afford to let Bergman go, holding his fate and even his life in the balance. His conclusions do not bode well for the fleeing Swede. He is completely lost and doesn’t know which direction to take. As he bitterly concedes, ‘it’s not as if I see a sign saying Sweden this way’.

Bergman's saviour
Finally, he finds himself at the shore of the ocean, an arrival marked by a short burst of what sounds like serialist music. Here, Bergman comes face to face with his despair and admits that ‘I need a saviour’. At this low point at which he admits to his helplessness, he lets loose his one, subdued song, the plaintive recitation ‘Oh my God, do you exist?’ And as if his prayers have indeed been answered, a figure approaches him along the beach. It is Greta Garbo, who tells him ‘I’m here to bring you home’. Greta asks him to be her date for a trip to the cinema, where they go to watch her in Gosta Berling’s Saga, the film which brought her to Hollywood, although it was it’s director Mauritz Stiller who MGM boss Louis B Mayer was in fact interested in. Bergman drifts off, and when he wakes, Greta is no longer there and the film is over. He leaves the cinema and discovers that he has been transported back to Stockholm. Greta has indeed been his saviour, a guardian angel using her own sad burden of experience to deliver him safely home.

The musical delivers its own Hollywood ending, with Bergman given a rapturously triumphant homecoming song with massed, everyone join-in call and response in true Gilbert and Sullivan style. Russell settles into his falsetto range to sing ‘and the seduction failed, as anyone can see/They mispronounced his name, but here at home he’s he’. The final, summary lines are a valedictory ‘But Bergman, well, he examines all/ But most of all himself, goodnight that’s all’, a farewell echoed by Bergman himself. It’s a denouement which displays an affection for the director and his work which is displayed throughout. There is much humour to be had from placing Bergman in a tongue-in-cheek escapade such as this, which bears the hallmarks of a 60s Richard Lester film at times. But Sparks manage to maintain the balance between outré quirkiness and an evident knowledge and respect for their subject. Such an apparently mismatched alliance avoids the over-reverential light in which Bergman can sometimes be cast, and allows us to have a little fun with his reputation (unearned, I’d say) for gloomy introspection, but not at his expense. The themes of artistic freedom and commercial imperatives are universal ones, after all, and could equally be applied to groups like Sparks, who continue to insistently plough their own furrow. In the Q&A session which followed the Freak Zone broadcast, Ron revealed that they’d had talks with Guy Maddin about a possible film adaptation. What a perfect collaboration that would be!


Davenport said...

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when something happens, please.

Brian said...

Guy Maddin and Sparks are two of my favorites but, beyond that, I've never imagined them in the same context... That said, it's an inspired idea for a collaboration and I'm hoping it comes to fruition.