(Each week, sanity dictates that I must indulge in a few positive pop-culture experiences to make up for the Bratz’sand Don’t Forget The Lyrics’s of the world. Every Friday, I offer a few of them.)
1. Wild Strawberries (1957). Earlier in the week, Noel and I conferred briefly over who wanted to wrestle with the deaths—one in the morning, one in the evening—of two of the great titans of European art cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. Truth be told, I was happy to concede the floor of Noel’s ambivalent remembrance, because I had to admit that both directors, while each figuring prominently in my film education, had receded from view over the years. Though the eulogies have been more than respectful, by and large, Bergman especially is a director whose stock has fallen among cineastes recently; I can’t recall the last time a Bergman retrospective has burned through the repertory circuit, and I can’t think of a single contemporary filmmaker whose work I’d call “Bergman-esque.” (Not true of Antonioni, whose still looms large, perhaps because his brand of stylized alienation will never go out of style.) And yet as the week went on, and I thought about the sheer range of Bergman’s achievements—not just the famed dirge-like seriousness of The Seventh Seal and the “God’s Silence” trilogy, but also buoyant comedies like Smiles Of A Summer Night or the sensual reverie Monika or the near-miraculous staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute—I began to realize that my own complacency may be the real villain here. After tearing through Bergman’s (and other major director’s) oeuvre in college and eventually getting my career on track, I’ll admit that my willingness to confront the challenges of his work has waned.
So out of respect to Bergman—and frankly, out of nostalgia for a time when I was more voracious in my moviegoing habits—I rewatched Wild Strawberries, one of his most accessible works and perhaps the most apropos under the circumstances. Precisely 50 years before his own passing at 89, Bergman followed a man nearing the end of his life who has to come to terms with death, which of course is really more about coming to terms with how he chose to live his life. Played by Victor Sjöström—himself an aging Swedish director (the 1928 silent classic The Wind was probably his most notable work) whose failing health was a concern throughout the production—he’s driving cross-country to receive an academic award for his long service in medicine. Accompanied by his pretty daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), Sjöström stops off at the site of his family’s summer home and is overwhelmed with bittersweet memories, mainly of a woman he loved and lost to his livelier, more impetuous brother. He’s later besieged with further reminders of his failures, like when encounters a young woman who’s also torn between the affections of two men or when he gives a ride to a married couple who are so contentious and hurtful that his daughter-in-law kicks them out of the car.
On top of his memories, Sjöström is also haunted by dreams: Of a strange netherworld between life and death where there’s no hands on the clocks; of a faceless passerby who turns to him and then falls limp to the cobblestone; of his own coffin crashing down clumsily from the back of a carriage, which just forges on ahead without it. He’s about to die a bitter, lonely old man, a widower whose wife passed many years before and whose grown-up children don’t regard warmly. What’s remarkable about Wild Strawberries is that he really does experience profound growth by the end, even if it means facing some incredibly painful truths about himself and his intractable nature, which wound up driving away the people he cared about the most. And the thing that’s ultimately touching about the film is that these revelations are private, something he and the audience share together, which both compounds his loneliness and increases our fondness for him as his adventure reaches its unexpectedly warm conclusion.
One thing about Bergman’s death: It was certainly well-considered and I imagine he was better prepared for it than most. Bergman’s tortured relationship to God and death, expressed in the abstract in The Seventh Seal and with a terrifying starkness in Winter Light (the second of the “God’s Silence” trilogy and my favorite of his films), usually suggested the hereafter as a dark, gaping maw, with no Sunday School illusions of some heavenly presence waiting with open arms. Wild Strawberries isn’t any less forthright about the grim prospect of dying, far from it, but it does find some peace in the process of reflecting on the whole of one’s life on Earth, grappling honestly with regrets and missed opportunities, and ultimately embracing the sweeter moments that reverberate in your memory. I hope that Bergman ultimately found peace from a lifetime of searching for it, and the seriousness of his artistic quest will be remembered.
2. Big Love, Season Two, Episode 8: “Kingdom Come.” Few shows frustrate me more than Big Love, because its premise is so strong, its cast so capable, and its potential for greatness so apparent that its failures are far more maddening than those of a show that’s mediocre to the core. The Hendrickson clan—led by Bill Paxton, his first (Jeanne Tripplehorn), second (Chloe Sevigny) and third (Ginnifer Goodwin) wives, and their many children—have a living arrangement that’s inherently problematic, even for practitioners of plural marriage. Paxton’s brand of new-school polygamy puts them in the compromising position of staying true to “the principle” while participating in typical suburban consumer culture. On top of that, there are the petty (and not-so-petty) conflicts that are bound to occur when three women have to share one man and constantly assert their place in the family. (It’s especially tough when the man doesn’t share in their sacrifice or deserve their generosity, but more on that in a bit.)
I have some small quibbles with the show, but here’s the big one: Whenever it cuts to Juniper Creek—the grim polygamist compound lorded over by “the prophet” Harry Dean Stanton, and populated by dirt-poor, inbred disciples that include Paxton’s immediate family—I immediately lose interest. In theory, this shouldn’t be. The idea of Juniper Creek is a good one, because its depraved, dustbowl miseries stand in such sharp contrast to Paxton’s slicker, more materialistic arrangement. Add to that an oddball cast out of a David Lynch movie and the Juniper Creek scenes should be just as compelling as the scenes at Casas de Hendrickson. And yet, they almost never are, partly because the Juniper denizens are played too broadly and partly because they exist primarily as an outside threat to the Hendricksons when the inside ones (and the ones presented by their nosy neighbors) would do just fine.
But credit where it’s due: This week, Big Love offered up maybe its strongest episode to date with “Kingdom Come,” and it worked mainly because it played to the show’s strengths. Sure, there was Juniper Creek intrigue involving Paxton’s attempts to buy a company that operates video poker machines, but the really juicy material was all inside the house. Two events cause pre-existing problems to come to a head: The first is the revelation that Paxton’s son has been having (lots and lots) of premarital sex with his girlfriend. The second is Paxton’s selfish request to have “a night off” scheduled every week, which throws off the delicate balance struck between his three wives, who alternately wonder what they’re doing wrong and why he’s let his greed and ambition get in the way of what’s really important.
The hypocrisy of Paxton berating his son for sullying his “temple” with premarital sex really rankles considering the freedom with which he indulges at the marital trough. (And nearly outside the marriage, too, back when he was sizing a Serbian waitress for a possible fourth wife.) But the real star of this episode is Tripplehorn, whose character has grown increasingly disconnected from life under “the principle” since the family was exposed in a very public way at the end of last season. She’s tired of sharing an ever-dwindling piece of her husband, and his proposed “day off” is the last straw; if she’s had to sacrifice a full-time husband for a 1/3 of the time husband over the years, she’ll be damned if he doesn’t make sacrifices, too. When their son tries to absolve his “sin” by proposing to his girlfriend, his take on plural marriage—that if the first wife isn’t doing much for him anymore, he’ll add on—has a devastating impact on his mother, who will never stop feeling stung by the implication that she wasn’t good enough to have exclusive rights to her husband. Her speech to her son’s girlfriend about the difficulties of living under “the principle” puts her intense ambivalence in plain language—and it’s definitely enough to drive the girl away.
And how about the Paxton creep factor? This guy is so utterly unworthy of these women—individually, much less as a willing collective—and it’s nice to see them banding together in their dissatisfaction with him. This season, which has by-and-large been an improvement on the last, shows how they’re really getting more sustenance from each other and from their extended families than from a husband who’s been increasingly absent, in mind if not in body. Here’s hoping that the show continues to focus more intently on problems within the Hendrickson home and a little less on Juniper Creek. (And given how “Kingdom Come” ends, maybe that will happen.)
3. Siskel & Ebert & Roeper & [Other guy]: I don’t think I’m alone among cineastes in having some affection for Siskel & Ebert (or Sneak Previews, At The Movies, Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, and the show’s other incarnations over the years), because it was an important gateway drug into the movies and movie criticism. There are obvious limitations to what TV criticism can do, but it was a start for many of us, because when you’re just toeing the waters, you’re not exactly ready to dive into that Film Quarterly subscription yet.
In any case, when it was announced this week on Roeper & [Other guy] that the Ebert & Roeper website would be launching a review engine loaded with thousands of archived clips, I was pretty excited to take a nostalgia trip through ancient Siskel & Ebert episodes. What did they think of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night 2? Would Spot the Wonder Dog—who come out during their “Dog Of The Week” segment—make an appearance? And what odd three-piece suits and movie-critic sweaters were, um, fashionable during different periods?
Sadly, I’m disappointed to report that those queries came up empty. The new search engine only goes as far back as the mid-to-late ‘80s, so all of that golden Sneak Previews material is gone. According to Ebert, it’s gone for good, too: Movie review shows are not evergreen like Sanford & Son, so no one really felt it was important to archive episodes that would never find their way to reruns on television. Only total nerds like me would find it gratifying to watch a show about what’s new in theaters during mid-February, 1983. I doubt anyone at the time could have conceived that old Siskel & Ebert clips could be broken down and used as a resource comparable to a film guide. It’s understandable how these episodes were lost to history, but it’s a big loss, nonetheless.
Still, it’s a lot of fun to plumb through the existing archives, which have plenty of juicy material. My first search on the site was to find their old review for Cop And A Half, which is one of their funnier disagreements (and, coincidentally, the first film I ever reviewed), but I ran into immediate problems with the formatting, which only showed a small portion of the screen. I was worried that the problem would recur—presumably, the kinks haven’t been entirely worked out—but the search engine turns out to be a pretty smooth ride, and it’s easy to lose hours trolling through old reviews. (Did Ebert really piss all over Blue Velvet in some odd chivalrous defense of Isabella Rossellini? Yep.) There’s a good 20 years worth of material that’s survived more or less intact and some special shows, too, so I’d encourage you to head over there and watch your working hours evaporate.