17 November 2010

God, Faith, Morality and Right vs. Wrong, The Heavy Fare Served by Allen and Bergman in Two of Their Greatest Films

Wood chipper accident kills tree trimmer
Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
(11-16) 14:41 PST CONCORD -- A tree trimmer was killed in a freak accident in Concord when a rope to which he was attached became entangled in a wood chipper, authorities said Tuesday.
Antonio Barajas, 33, of Concord suffered a fatal head injury Monday when he was slammed against a gate of the chipper as it was operating on Snowberry Court, near Cowell and Ygnacio Valley roads, said Krisann Chazarik, spokeswoman for Cal/OSHA.
The agency is investigating the accident, which happened at 1:30 p.m.
Barajas was wearing a climbing rope, which became caught in tree limbs that were being fed into the chipper, Chazarik said. He did not actually end up in the machine, authorities said.
Barajas was a seven-year employee of Traverso Tree Service of Walnut Creek. Five other workers were trimming trees, but none saw the accident, said Alyce Traverso, the company's office manager and wife of the owner.
"They just heard the chipper make a whir sound," Traverso said.
Barajas leaves behind a wife and their 8-month-old son, she said.

The very nature of existence and the real or imagined presence of God in our lives. The fundamental difference between right and wrong.  Great stuff for heated debate, philosophical musings or lengthy discussion. But can you make a film of it?

Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen did, and quite successfully at that.

Though they dared to tackle these issues on numerous occasions (Allen is still at it) I think their best works in this regard are Bergman's Winter Light (1963) and Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).

They are in some respects a cinematic odd couple. Allen is a New York born Jew and Bergman (he died in 2007) a Swedish born Lutheran. While both were college dropouts, Bergman started his professional career in the theater while Allen was initially a comic. Yet both started directing at a young age, though Allen's earlier films were strictly comedy and many of his later ones have either been comedies or heavily laced with humor.

Of course, Bergman was a huge influence on Allen who has never hidden his admiration for the great Swede. Indeed in his film Manhattan (1979) Allen's character Isaac Davis claims that Bergman is the only true genius in film. It is not then surprising that Allen has tackled the central issues of human existence in many of his movies ala Bergman.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors we are introduced to a pillar of society, a renowned opthamologist who is being honored at a swanky dinner for his charitable fundraising efforts. Martin Landau as Judah Rosenthal is as genial, affable and respectable man as you'd ever want to meet. But he's also got a neurotic mistress (Angelica Huston) who is threatening to expose their affair. Judah's shady brother (Jerry Orbach) offers a solution -- having her "taken care of." Can Judah even contemplate such an option? To save his marriage and career he sure can and does.

To what extremes will an otherwise moral man go to protect himself? It is in the contemplation of okaying the deed and in living with the consequences, that Judah struggles mightily with his conscience. Though raised in a Jewish home, he is no longer a believer. Yet he seeks counsel from a patient who is a rabbi (Sam Waterson) and their discussion includes the question of whether we can have a moral compass without a belief in God. This element is added: Judah well remembers his father's admonition that "the eyes of God are watching us always" a powerful memory, particularly for an opthamologist. And oh by the way, the rabbi/patient, this truly moral man, is slowly going blind.

Allen's character is an unsuccessful documentary film maker who is saddled with making a film about his super successful brother in law, a God like TV producer (Alan Alda). He'd rather be doing a film on an aged philosopher who shares great insight into the nature of man including his relationship with, who else, God.

Questions of right and wrong, good and evil, faith and secularism permeate Crimes and Misdemeanors, a heavily layered film which reveals more of itself with each viewing. Lesser characters and events take on greater meaning as one studies the film closely and begins to realize that there are are no lesser characters or events.
Winter Light centers around a Lutheran pastor (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who is suffering from a severe crisis of faith. All he wants is for God to speak to him. Instead he is faced with God's silence. Not an uncommon malady for any one, even a man of the cloth.

The pastor counsels a parishioner (Max Van Sydow) who is depressed owing to his belief that a nuclear holocaust is right around the corner. He is suicidal and the pastor is of no help. How can the pastor assure anyone of God's divine grace and eternal love when he doubts the very existence of God himself? The outcome for the parishioner is inevitable.

The pastor is an austere, sullen man whose entire persona seems perfectly in keeping with the harsh Swedish Winter and the rigid lifelessness of Scandinavian Lutheranism. I speak as someone so raised. The iconography is spare and dark, the services dry and rote. Bergman, himself the son of a Lutheran minister, perfectly captures the solemnity and lack of emotion in the services, the cinematic opposite of Fellini's Italian Catholicism. The very barren landscape of the Pastor's church is highlighted by the meager turnouts. It's all enough to make one wonder why anyone wouldn't question his faith.

Happily the pastor is much loved by a woman. Sadly he is incapable or uninterested in accepting her unconditional love. Worse, he is cruel towards her.

It hardly seems like the makings of a watchable film. But Winter Light is not only intriguing for the issues its explores, but is beautifully told by Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. By the framing of shots and the use of light, the movement of a character into and out of light or darkness, invite us to ask questions about the characters, faith and God's silence. And as in Crimes in Misdemeanors, there are no small characters or events.

Judah claims that "God is a luxury I can't afford." In Winter Light the sexton of the church supposes that Christ's greatest hardship was being seized by doubt in his final moments and facing, "God's silence." It's not the stuff of most films but when handled by directors like Bergman and Allen, the weightiest of questions seem perfectly appropriate to tackle in a film. Wow.

10 November 2010

For Veteran's Day, Some of the Best Movies of Our Lives, With Veterans Even

You'll see a lot of suggestions for films to watch on or around Veteran's Day and I'm here to provide still more. However, unlike other bloggers, critics or reviewers, the suggestions here are not just war pictures. Mine all feature a war veteran or two. It is, after all, veteran's who we honor on November 11 (nee Armistice Day). Brief digression: I can't be the only one who's excited about next year's Veteran's Day, specifically when the clock tolls 11:11 am. Yes, it'll be 11:11 on 11/11/11. How cool is that?

A second brief digression. It is a scandal that while the United States "honors its troops" at every possible occasion, veterans here practically have to go begging for the most basic services, especially those who are disabled as a consequence of combat.

Here are now are a few films for your Veteran's Day, all with veterans featured prominently.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). This is the mother of all veteran's films. The multi Oscar winner is first and last about the fates of three veterans returning to their hometown at the end of World War II. It has the immediacy of having been made at the very time it depicts. Some of the best movies about an event or time period are ones that are made contemporarily. This is a case in point. While Hollywood has churned out umpteen films about WWII, this is one of a handful to deal specifically with the lot of those fighting men upon their return home. Dana Andrews, Fredric March and Harold Russell play the trio and, along with co stars Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, form one of the greatest ensemble casts of all time. You'll not see a better depiction of the difficulties faced by ex servicemen in adjusting to civilian life. The idea of picking up where one left off after facing the holocaust of war is laughable. Nothing is the same even when returning to a stable family. Imagine being without such a home or without one's hands. The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the better films of any kind ever made. On the topic of veterans, it's the gold standard.

Heroes For Sale (1933). Among the scars and hardships a solider can return from war with is an addiction to drugs, often painkillers that were administered to ease the suffering caused by battle injuries. Meet Tom Holmes (Richard Barthelmess) the main character in this tale. His addiction costs him his job and after rehab, sends him on the road seeking better prospects. Add to that, the medal for bravery in the line of fire he deserved has gone to another, a coward at that. Holmes overcomes hardships only to be one of the many victims of the Great Depression. A terrific film from America's most under appreciated director, William Wellman.

The Roaring Twenties (1939). Another wonderful movie that follows the exploits of an American GI returning from the Great War. This time its Eddie Bartlett played by James Cagney in one of his many outstanding performances. Talk about not honoring vets, Bartlett can't get his old job back! One thing leads to another and the next thing you know Eddie is in the bootlegging game. And before you know it he's got his own gang and is raking in the dough. Sadly, this is a rise and fall story. It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the failure of the country to take care of its vets led the previously honest Eddie to a life of crime, a life cut short at that.

Born on the 4th of July (1989). Strictly in terms of showing the lot of veteran, this Oliver Stone film is second only to Best Years. This is the true story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic who entered the army a gun ho "love it or leave it" patriot and returned from the war a paraplegic as the result of a gunshot wound. It was not long after coming home that Kovic made the radical transformation into a an outspoken opponent of the war. Born on the 4th follows Kovic's life from entering the war, fighting, hospitalization and through anti war activism. Tom Cruise gave the best performance of his career to date in the starring role.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962). It's bad enough to re-adjust to society after fighting in a war but when you've unknowingly been brainwashed into being a political assassin, well that just sucks. Such is the fate of returning Korean War POW Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) in this political thriller from director John Frankenheimer. Fellow POW Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) was not similarly programmed but he's dealing with some serious post traumatic stress disorder in the form of cryptic dreams about their experiences. Not terribly realistic (or is it?) but still a helluva film and a powerful look at PTSD.

06 November 2010

The Virgin Spring, An Example of Bergman's Touch

I am a great believer in having as many types of films made as possible. Along with a laugh-a-minute Marx Brothers comedy, you need a good mystery and of course a film that asks the most serious of questions.

It is the latter category in which the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman excelled.  As evidence I submit The Virgin Spring (1960) which I watched today for the first time.

Towards the end of the film Max Van Sydow's character, Tore speaks to the heavens saying: "You see it, God, you see it. The innocent child's death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don't understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness. I know no other way to be reconciled with my own hands. I know no other way to live."

It takes extraordinary courage to make a film that asks profound questions about existence, especially when it goes in with no preconceptions about what the answers are. Bergman specialized in such films. The Seventh Seal (1957) being just one other example.

In Virgin Spring, God is the main character. We never, of course, see the supreme being and he or she is only seldom referenced, but its God's movie all the way.

The Virgin Spring is the story of a wealthy family in rural 14th century Sweden whose teenage daughter is raped and murdered while journeying to the nearest church by goat herders. The synopsis seems hardly likely to encourage people to see the film, but its done pretty well for its self since being released 50 years ago, including recognition at the Oscars, Cannes and the Golden Globes.

What has drawn viewers and critical acclaim to the film undoubtedly has to do with Bergman's effective way of telling the story and the questions that story asks about, among other things, faith. Lubitsch had a "touch" with his films that made them clever, witty and appealing. Bergman similarly had a touch. One that made the kind of unsavory fare served in The Virgin Spring palatable. Characters were multi dimensional irrespective of how much screen time they had. The worst of the lot were always clearly human and despite their actions, tolerable to watch. Protagonists were flawed (i.e. human) and sentiment was nowhere to be seen.

In Virgin Spring we are invited to watch. The camera allows us to get aquatinted with characters but not intimate. Medium shots with sparing use of close ups keep the film a viewing experience but an engrossing one. It is thus easier to form our own judgments about events and people. The victim here has a half sister who is culpable in her fate. She is at once sympathetic and abhorrent. The vengeful father is more complex that most films would allow him to be too. He is both unwavering in his convictions and doubtful after their outcomes.

Bergman was a complete filmmaker in that he had no major weaknesses. This overall competence allowed him to take on the heaviest of material and not only not make a mess of it but make something quite special.

There is a wonderful simplicity to The Virgin Spring. This makes it all the easier to feel God's presence in the story. We need not be believers ourselves, just needing to accept the fact that a higher power is very much at work in the minds of the characters.

Faith is a heavy cross to bear and can serve as a wonderful reward to the believer. It is also tested mightily throughout a lifetime. It is further complicated by the unique relationship with and perception of their higher power that each believer brings to this most special relationship.

The Virgin Spring can seem a difficult movie to watch. But it's a beautifully told story that rewards us with a golden opportunity to consider some of the central issues of life. I think it so cool that you can get that out of movie.

03 November 2010

I Love a Parade

Photos from today's San Francisco Giants' victory parade. All taken by my oldest daughter.
Our view down the parade route.
The parade was led by the world's greatest marching band, the University of California marching band. (Go Bears!)
Giants' GM Brian Sabean accepts my apology for having ever doubted him.
Manager Bruce Bochy and the World Series trophy.
SF Mayor and California Lt. Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, a life long Giants' fan.
Game 4 hero rookie pitcher Madison Bumgarner.
Closer Brian Wilson parties like a rock star.
Catcher and superstar Buster Posey.
Bay Area native veteran slugger Pat Burrell.
And so it ends. That's my index finger indicating the Giants' position in the baseball world.

01 November 2010

At Long Last!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The first baseball game I remember going to was game one of the 1962 World Series (I'd been to many before). I was eight that year when the Giants lost in seven games to the Yankees. We were so close that I naturally assumed that a title was coming "next year." Little did I know that next year would be 48 years later.

The San Francisco Giants have been one of the great loves of my life. I have alternately enjoyed them and suffered because of them through a little bit of thick and a whole lot of thin. But when you love someone or something unconditionally you stick to it no matter what.

I'm so happy tonight that the Giants are at long last World Champions. For the team and for all the fans like me who've adored the Orange and Black, whether for 50 years, 20 or 13 like my oldest daughter (I told her I was so happy she didn't have to wait as long as I did for this experience).

I can't help but think of many past Giants who I rooted on: Cap Peterson, Ed Bailey, Jim Davenport, Willies Mays and McCovey, Juan Marichal, Jack and Will Clark, Ray Sadecki, the Baby Bull, John "The Count" Montefusco, Jeff Leonard, Kevin Mitchell, Johnnie LeMaster, Tito Fuentes, Jimmy Ray Hart, Ty Cline, Ron Pruitt, Mike Krukow, Duane Kuiper, Juan Uribe, Robbie Thompson, Mike Sadecki, Billy Swift, Randy Moffit, Greg Minton, Bobby Bonds, Steve Scarsone to name but a few.

I also want to give a shout out to some of the people who've taken in Giant games with me over the years: My late great parents, my big brother, Megan Elizabeth, Miranda Kathryn, My Giants brother Paul, Phil, Johnny, Keith, my handsome young nephews, Harvard Steve, Gary, my darling wife, Tim, Jeremy, Jesse, Michael, Natalie, Eric, George and of course many more.

Holy Christy Mathewson, the Giants are World Champions!