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.

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