Friday, March 07, 2008


I’ve got to get back to typing out my paternal grandmother’s diary of 1935, an economically terrifying year that the family survived only by teamwork and hard labor. They had one secret weapon: movies. No matter how tough things got, they always had a few cents to go to a movie. And they weren’t bashful about saying what was good and what was bad.

My father, who was on the road as a wool buyer and then as a “field representative” (which was a kind of promoter, as nearly as I can tell, for a wholesale ag co-op) came home on the weekend ready to celebrate by taking the family to a movie on Saturday night. In Portland, the way he did it, this meant going to Broadway downtown and then visiting “Jolly Joan’s” afterwards for a soda. (I mean with ice cream in it, a “float.”) This is the way I saw most Westerns and musicals. I vividly recall the “shift of consciousness” which some call the “willing suspension of disbelief” and which I experienced as a palpable shift of viscera: heart in the throat.

By 1957 I had grown older and more sophisticated, going off to Northwestern University’s theatre department secure in the fragile belief that I knew everything. This coincided with a wave of foreign films so powerful they blew everything away. A buddy of mine was a film student and took me along on treks across Chicago to basements and auditoriums showing strange and nearly unintelligible movies. I was returned to the state of not-quite-comprehension, wonder and heart-elevation that I’d felt as a child. I loved the sensation and went off on my own to the art-movie houses. Now I sit in Valier gloating over Netflix for the same reasons.

One of the first of these movies I saw alone was “Wild Strawberries,” where I arrived a little late, just after the nightmare sequence that begins the movie had begun. I could NOT understand what was happening. I thought it might be a commercial and craned my neck around at others to see whether they thought it normal. Eventually I figured it out. Then at the end I burst into tears at the image of the Victorian family picnicking across a body of water: beautiful, precious and inaccessible. But the middle was so explanatory. This was the first time I’d ever thought about men so frozen by rationality and status that they lost all connection with other humans. I’m still thinking about it. So is Ingmar Bergman.

The DVD of “Wild Strawberries” is sitting here alongside me, but so far I’ve only watched the interview with Ingmar Bergman, shockingly aged, willingly talking about the “damage from his upbringing,” the blessing of his puppet theatre and music, his “too frequent marriages” and nonexistent private life in the early years, his insanity, his country “trying to kill him,” his final successful marriage for 24 years and his failure at coming to terms with his wife’s death. The interview is more interesting than the movie -- maybe -- but I still haven’t watched the movie.

I won’t watch it tonight because I want to rewatch “The Widow of St. Pierre,” which is a tragic costume drama -- French with subtitles. (The imdb critics confide that the dubbed version is a disaster.) This is also also about redemption by heart-softening and repentance but in the present rather than through reliving the past. Is there another formal religion that asks us to be saved by becoming more vulnerable and forgiving? I can’t think of any but Christianity where it is embodied in Jesus. Confucius advised wisdom and Buddha spoke of detachment.

The Widow of St. Pierre” is about the military captain of an island as foreboding and sea-locked as Bergman’s beloved island home. This captain has a wife he loves but there are no children. Perhaps for this reason, the cherishing/nurturing woman takes on the project of redeeming a killer, a simple man who gut-stabbed another for no good reason except that he was drunk. Such projects always end badly -- in this case for all three. They don’t say a lot. (The interviews with the director and actors says plenty.) The woman doesn’t go to bed with anyone but her husband. She watches the killer as though he were her child, even teaching him to read, attending his wedding, and taking him a blanket. The husband, seeing how necessary this is to her, protects her. He is a brave and gallant man who rides a gorgeous, curvetting black horse: he is not impotent. All three have chosen their inevitable fates -- fatal fates -- and slide toward them past all complexity. No choices are even considered. The people of the village, who DO have choices, refuse them.

So put THIS up against “The Searchers” or any other American film I can think of! Even the ones with the theme are not up to the acting and the northern Atlantic is one of the few places on the globe that can match Monument Valley for power and vastness. One of the reviewers suggested that this film is equal to the Truffault-led renaissance of French film that I witnessed back in the Fifties and may herald a new rebirth of fine film. Not that they all should be so serious and fatalistic as this one or as Bergman’s great examinations of the inner life in a dark climate. But we could use a little of that level of “gravitas” in a world where we let an essentially immature set of punishing, over-rational, control-mad politicians lead us into death and debt even as we begin to short-circuit the planetary cycles that keep us alive. They exemplify the stupid villagers, not the protective captain and his loving wife. They don't even have the stature of the murderer.

There have been a few times when I’ve had to choose principle over self-protection. So far, it’s all worked out, but there was damage. I’ve tried not to pass it on. I’d like to think that some of my moral courage came from the movies. Not much of it came from the church, you can be sure. In fact, the pressure to conform when one is in the ministry is stronger than I’ve felt anywhere else. The punishment is the end of one’s professional life.

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