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Jessica Chastain Saves Miss Julie From the Arcane

Strenuously acted dramas make for strenuous viewing, and Liv Ullmann’s rigorous adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, which uproots the action to 19th-century Ireland, is no exception.

Jessica Chastain plays Julie, the lonely daughter of a baron, who enters into a night of drunken flirtation and emotional abuse with her father’s scummy, manipulative valet, John (Colin Farrell). Chastain is a veteran stage actress, just as Ullmann was before her collaborations with Ingmar Bergman, and Ullmann’s simple directorial style brings out the best in her: There’s just enough bite in Chastain’s arrogant, tempestuous Julie to save the film from being an arcane dramatic exercise with great art direction. As Julie moves from boredom and frustration to despair, the strain is visible in her unkempt hair, her shaking hands, and her face, eventually streaked with blood.

Through Ullmann’s lens, John is a less complex figure, whose grotesque misogyny overshadows the play’s commentary on class tensions. He’s a true, shuddering “shitpile,” as Julie calls him — beware a scene in which he administers a harsh fate to a pet bird — and Farrell plays him as a slick-haired, shifty-eyed charmer bent on destruction. Samantha Morton, meanwhile, wrings truth from a minor role as Kathleen, a pious cook whose steadfast morality clashes with the whiplash emoting of the leads; while all the crying, panting, and sadomasochistic boot-kissing is going on in the kitchen, Kathleen understandably retreats to her bedroom with Julie’s pet pug.

There’s a humanist undercurrent in Ullmann’s portrayal of these very different women, but there’s precious little justice for either one of them. Despite a few dynamite scenes from Chastain, Miss Julie‘s cruelty is more potent than its craft.

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Liv and Ingmar Is an Anecdotal Treasure Chest for Cinephiles

Liv Ullmann is warm and charming, the kind of person you’d want to have coffee with. Her easy charisma, not to mention her coruscating azure eyes, make her an ideal interview subject.

She is just that in Liv & Ingmar: Painfully Connected, reflecting with brutal honesty on her tempestuous relationship with director, partner, and soulmate Ingmar Bergman, or as she calls him, Pingmar.

Recalling a conversation on the set of Persona, the duo’s first collaboration, Ullmann divulges how Bergman took her aside and branded the two “painfully connected,” a portentous label that stuck throughout their 50-year history. She speaks candidly about their seesaw relationship, never shying away from details about his emotional abuse or the forced isolation she endured on the Fårö compound, aka Bergman Island.

Director Dheeraj Akolkar often presents Ullmann’s testimonies over clips of the couple’s famed work, a particularly illustrative technique given that the specifics of their relationship directly inspired the content in (among others) The Passion of Anna, Scenes from a Marriage, and, more tenderly, Saraband. Near the end, Ullmann walks through her former home on the island and discovers a drawing board on which the young couple once drew, meticulously preserved by Bergman until his death.

As she tearfully stares at the decades-old text, you feel the gravity of the couple’s life together. Liv & Ingmar is an anecdotal treasure chest for cinephiles, but more than that, it’s a beautifully told love story. (The Film Society of Lincoln Center screens many of the duo’s films this week, too.)

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David Mamet’s Race, Melissa James Gibson’s This, Liv Ullmann and Cate Blanchett’s Take On Streetcar

In the theater, where your first impression is often the only one you get, matter takes second place to manner. Academics’ dismay notwithstanding, the way of doing a thing usually means more to spectators than the thing itself. This explains, for example, the public’s endless craving for megastars and meister-directors. One reason A Streetcar Named Desire gets constant revival is its embodiment of the theater’s struggle: Blanche and Stanley are like two feuding co-directors, trying to restage, redesign, and rewrite the story of the Kowalski apartment in antithetical terms. Stanley, physically stronger and more truthful, wins the apartment; Blanche proves the primacy of manner over matter by winning the big exit and the audience’s hearts. Stanley’s blunt truthfulness turns out to be, like everything else onstage, an effect, fine when used in the right place, but otherwise a painful intrusion.

David Mamet’s new play, Race (Barrymore Theatre), is all blunt truthfulness—some of which, this being a Mamet play, naturally turns out to conceal lies, or to mask deeper, darker truths. Played fast, under the author’s direction, its 80 or so minutes feel like a speedy round of post-Shavian ping-pong. Debating whether or not to defend a rich man (Richard Thomas) accused of rape in what’s apparently a clear-cut case with racially inflammatory content, a mixed-race pair of law partners (James Spader and David Alan Grier) and their female assistant (Kerry Washington) rattle around in their spacious office like video-game pieces powered by an unseen joystick, zinging Mamet’s poison-dart lines at one another. The end is a Mamet end: Somebody lied, somebody betrayed the side, nobody wins.

What’s new, for Mamet, is the intellectual explicitness. Ideas are discussed in all his major plays, but the characters discussing them are mostly half-educated, half-crazed, or half-distracted by the situation, so that the ideas themselves tend to peter away into the surreal wordplay of colloquial conversation. The three legal brains of Race and their upscale client, in contrast, are all educated folk with their wits about them, even when angry or distraught, and their parts of speech in full working order. The play is post-Shavian in its freedom from Shaw’s Victorian gentility of diction and in its terse willingness to let unresolvable matters go unresolved. Like Shaw, though, Mamet doesn’t substitute expository lecturing for dialogue: The discussion, provocative and at moments incendiary, comes from the characters, with their partialities and blind spots built in.

More fluid than in some of his earlier directorial attempts, Mamet’s staging keeps the action zipping along, and doesn’t seem (as in those earlier instances) to inhibit his actors. Spader, suavely sardonic, makes a strong impression; the hint of smug mannerism that always goes with Thomas’s air of injured innocence suits his role handily. The cast’s weak link, not overly damaging, is Washington, who hasn’t yet summoned the power to project her presence fully. (Mamet, who dislikes overt emotional display in his works, probably hasn’t helped.) The evening’s showpiece performance—grounded, forceful, funny, and smartly shaded—comes from Grier, swallowing unpalatable news and snapping out equally unpalatable opinions with flamboyant finesse.

Finesse is the word, too, for the best aspects of Melissa James Gibson’s This (Playwrights Horizons). Here, a basically conventional situation—the heroine’s guilt over her one mad fling with a married friend—gets treated with such elegant subtlety that all distaste for its conventionality is dispelled, even though it’s basically no more than a contemporary update of a Kay Francis movie. Using a variety of devices to lure you in, often shifting perspective to cast new sidelights on her material, Gibson carefully eschews the sentimentality that would have made her story seem kitschy; instead, her characters take on depth and dignity.

Occasionally, Gibson contrives a touch too baldly—her tormented souls just happen to have as their best friend a gay memory expert—or overworks a verbal tactic. Long stretches of beautifully vivid writing fall into brief gray patches of repetition, which might easily have been trimmed out except that her director, Daniel Aukin, was apparently fixated on some peripheral, and thoroughly superfluous, fancy business involving set pieces. Luckily, these minor visual nuisances can be ignored, since Aukin hasn’t neglected his central task: getting from his cast five uniformly affecting performances, rich, detailed, and sensibly unshowy. I said “uniformly,” but Louis Cancelmi’s excellent French accent deserves a few extra points, and Eisa Davis’s singing deserves a great many. Gibson’s title, incidentally, though perhaps unhelpful for marketing, is exactly right for her script, which describes a condition to which nobody involved wants to put a name; our awareness that the pronoun is the best they can do carries a built-in pathos.

Streetcar itself, currently on view in a production from Sydney starring Cate Blanchett (BAM Harvey Theater), demonstrates that it can get along nicely without pathos. Harsh-toned, slow, and occasionally a little crude, the staging, by Liv Ullmann, sometimes magnifies Tennessee Williams’s strokes of casual realism, like the elevated train that thunders past the Kowalski residence, into giant symbolic stature, giving the play a slightly stilted air. Instead of hurting, this only makes us realize how iconic everything in Streetcar has become, worldwide.

Blanchett’s Blanche is an icon pushed to the edge of its pedestal. A perfect summation of the role for first-time Streetcar riders, to an old hand her extreme, frenetic approach—this Blanche is well on her way to breakdown from the start—explains the play’s grip on pre-Stonewall gays, evoking decades of drag-queen appropriation of the role. (Cf., for instance, the “Miss Destiny” sections of John Rechy’s City of Night.) Inventively (Scandinavianishly?), Ullmann has her stress Blanche’s sense of shame, though unwisely letting her give in too easily, slackening the tension: You’ve never seen a Blanche struggle less with Stanley in the rape scene. The supporting cast is solid, as is Ullmann’s production, for all its eccentricities, but this show is distinctly about the star, from her appearance in the opening moment to the omitted last line as she exits.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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Liv Ullmann Retro at BAM

With her large, if rare, grin and high forehead, Liv Ullmann was always the least dreamy of the axiomatic New Wave–era actresses—she was no one’s Anna Karina or Monica Vitti—and the most discomfitingly fierce. If any movie star has left her fang scars on our eyeballs out of sheer intensity of purpose and desperate luminosity of gaze, it was she.

Starting in the ’50s, Ullmann quickly gained international prominence with Bergman’s Persona (1966), in which, famously, she barely utters a word but nevertheless emerged a super-cool, intellectually confident demi-goddess in the heyday of second-wave feminism. As BAM’s selective skip through Ullmann’s oeuvre reveals, over the next decade-plus, she was the Dante in Bergman’s every trip through Hell, be it emotional catastrophe (1969’s The Passion of Anna) or war (1968’s Shame) or filial battle (1978’s Autumn Sonata) or Hollywood (1976’s The Serpent’s Egg, Bergman’s obligatory English-language phantasia and a film finally undergoing reevaluation). Pound for pound, the films may be the most vivid showcase for the barn-burning capacities of psychodramatic performance in movies. Ullmann’s full-frontal agony and intelligence are as revealing of our own vulnerabilities as they are of art film’s early allure: the modern self-analytic woman as cinematic spectacle.

As Ullmann diversified beyond Bergman, she became subject to Hollywood and grande dame calcification, but she also began to direct, eventually arriving back at Bergman. She directed the latter half of his scripted family-history quartet, Private Confessions (1996) and Faithless (2000), both throwbacks to the days when imported “specialty films” could be hair-clenching psycho circuses erected upon elliptical symbolism and acres of heartbreaking talk. Fittingly, all Ullmann and Bergman were ever actually doing was the work of therapy: telling painful women’s stories, no holds barred.

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Film

KARLOVY VARY, CZECH REPUBLIC—Most of the year, the oldest spa town in Bohemia, nestled in a picturesque valley 80 miles west of Prague, attracts busloads of senior citizens who come to sip and bathe in the curative mineral waters. In early July, however, beer and Becherovka (the allegedly medicinal local liqueur) flow even more freely than the sulfurous hot springs, and Karlovy Vary takes on the atmosphere of an open-air youth hostel, as backpacking movie fans descend on the most accessible of world-class film festivals. Tickets are inexpensive ($2.50 apiece), standby admission is free, and the program typically imports many titles that premiered on the Croisette a mere month ago. This year, nearly half the Cannes competition was accounted for, along with Berlin must-sees like Alexander Sokurov’s Hirohito meditation The Sun and Tsai Ming-liang’s artcore provocation The Wayward Cloud.

Turning 40 this month (59 years after it was first held, the discrepancy a legacy of a Communist-era mandate to alternate with the Moscow Film Festival), the KVIFF supplemented a big-tent program (which included a survey of recent Canadian cinema and a Liv Ullmann retro) with red-carpet glitz. This edition’s headliners: Robert Redford, secured with the help of Czech-born Madeleine Albright, and Sharon Stone, who made a show of getting down with the people, declaring that “Czechoslovakia [sic] has for me great and profound meaning because of your Velvet Revolution.” Unavoidably for a festival sandwiched between Cannes and Venice, Karlovy Vary’s competitive section offers fewer discoveries than curios. High points this year: Lost Domain, a minor but pleasurable Raul Ruiz M strip; Ali Mosaffa’s Portrait of a Lady Faraway, an Iranian After Hours that detours into Tehran’s contemporary art underworld; and Japanese director Sion Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, an eerie elaboration of his cult hit Suicide Club. The jury awarded the top prize to Krzysztof Krauze’s My Nikifor, a portrait of a Polish outsider artist, conventional in all respects except the casting of an 85-year-old actress (Krystyna Feldman) as the male title character.

In the “East of the West” Central and Eastern European showcase, a focal point for the assembled journalists and programmers, the winner was also a safe one: Ragin, an adaptation of Chekhov’s loony-bin short story “Ward 6.” More convincingly unhinged were the nightmare nuptials in the manic Polish farce
The Wedding, though based on Slovenia’s trio of entries, Ljubljana is the emerging Euro capital of family dysfunction (best of the lot: the excitable backstage melodrama The Ruins). Slovak director Martin Sulik’s The City of the Sun tackles a fraught subject—post-’89 economic upheaval—within the familiar confines of the unemployment ensemble dramedy (Full Monty, Mondays in the Sun). More poignant and considerably funnier, Petr Zelenka’s Wrong Side Up details the sadsack frustrations of a forklift operator at the Prague airport. The most resonant political statements could be found in Gauder’s scattershot animation District, billed as “a post-Communist South Park” and set in a run-down, multiracial section of the Hungarian capital, where the street kids strike oil beneath the cobblestones. The ‘hood avoids annihilation only because Bush confuses Budapest with Bucharest.

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Irreconcilable Differences

A fusty, quaint blast from the art-house past, Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband rolls out with anachronistic boldness—were imported
movies ever this hermetic, this psychodramatic, this high culture? Yes and no: This new film, shot for Swedish TV when Bergman was 85, holds to the mandarin’s late taste for head-to-head emotional warfare and chamber-piece economy. But the all-digital piece is a minor-key coda, skimpy on ideas and reliant on nostalgia for 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage, to which it is a sequel of sorts. Busy in his autumn years writing deep-dish film scripts (The Best Intentions, Private Confessions, Faithless) and directed TV plays, Bergman hasn’t returned to form now so much as fallen back on his lazier tropes. Perhaps it is inordinately harsh to say Saraband resembles Woody Allen’s Bergman manqué Interiors more than any other Bergman film outside of
After the Rehearsal. But I prefer Allen’s WASP-family meltdown, if only for its regard for realistic conversation and Maureen Stapleton’s exploding sexuality.

Saraband is conducted in 10 dialogues or monologues, beginning with Liv Ullmann’s Marianne, three decades after Scenes, directly addressing the camera about her inexplicable impulse to visit her ex-husband Johan (Erland Josephson) at his remote cottage in the mountains. Her motivations are never cleared up, but their semi-amused, semi-bitter relationship is soon subsumed by the nearby presence of Johan’s middle-aged son from an older marriage, Henrik (B Ahlstedt), and his teenage daughter Karin (Julia Dufvenius), who are both penniless cellists occupying an outlying guest house rent free. Like
Scenes, the action is restricted to duets, and it becomes clear that Johan and Henrik hate each other’s guts and that Henrik, whose wife had died a few years earlier, is lost in grief and obsessively attached to his willowy, earnest blonde goddess of a child.

Hyper-confessional logorrhea has become uncommon in movies and takes getting used to now. In any case, Ullmann’s tolerant heroine, our confidant in this relatively fruitless tangle of family needs and fears, is all but shunted aside. Modest as the movie is, Bergman doesn’t skimp on the watery-eyed combat and infinitely dissected neuroses, lively ingredients that may be sufficient balm for cineastes pining for the olden days of Janus Films logos and reliably turbulent Euro-cinema. Still, the distance between Bergman’s vision of human intercourse and reality has always edged toward pretension and self-involvement, and without more thematic weight for buttress, the project slips into the abyss. The academic-reference-packed dialogue, the reading of Kierkegaard, the utter lack of ordinary modesty or pragmatism, and the casual lack of concern for one’s own children (“I know nothing about our daughters,” Johan shruggingly says at the outset) are all far from convincing. The frantic bond between Henrik and Karin is another bizarre matter, manifesting as a manic cello-mad co-dependency before setting sail, in one strange, dishonest moment Bergman never prepares us for or feels the need to explain, into incestuous waters.

The actors work like sheepdogs, of course, but their roles give them one note to pluck in each scene. Ullmann, for one, seems less concerned about filling out her inconsequential character than dressing the sets with grande-dame mannerisms and crinkly-eyed cuteness. Saraband doesn’t ask to be considered prime-cut Bergman, and it isn’t, although its slightness may not matter to the art-film starving class. His style may date, but that’s another way of saying it has been indispensably assimilated into our ideas of what profound, thoughtful cinema is supposed to be. Like a wedge of low-grade Stravinsky, revived and performed, the movie could be considered an addendum to a looming and unique catalog, in which no work is insignificant.

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Last Dance

First, the cliché: Liv Ullmann is Ingmar Bergman’s muse. One understands the actor-writer-director’s resistance to such pigeonholing, but Ullmann has acted—gloriously—in more than a few Bergman classics, and she’s also directed two of his screenplays. Now she pops up in Bergman’s Saraband
—her first acting stint in 10 years—and joins co-star Erland Josephson to reprise their characters from the 1973 Bergman classic
Scenes From a Marriage. The Swedish master, who turns 87 next week, seems to mean it this time when he says this is his last film.
Tellingly, the director gives Ullmann—literally—the last word.
It’s two words, actually—in close-up, spoken directly to the camera, and to devastating effect.

Saraband, Bergman’s latest HD video work (first broadcast on Swedish television two winters ago), is characteristically dark, but as Ullmann tells it, the film’s origins were surprisingly jokey.
During down time on the set of Faithless
(the second Bergman script she directed), Ullmann and Josephson amused themselves by improvising comic bits of dialogue as
Marriage
‘s Marianne and Johan, now 30 years on.
“It was so funny,” says Ullmann. “Johan was already gone in the head and I had to explain everything to him.”

They told Bergman about it, who used it as a jumping-off point for his Strindbergian meditation on parent-child relations.
In other words, Saraband is no sequel to Marriage. True, after several decades, Marianne has decided to visit her ex-husband at his country house, but once there,
she becomes a passive observer to a three-generation drama. Even by Bergman’s standards, the mutual humiliations and abuse are harsh.
“I don’t understand such hatred,” says Ullmann, but her gently watchful Marianne counterbalances the dire proceedings.
“Ingmar knows that we look at life in many ways very differently,” she continues.”So subconsciously, I think that is why he liked me there—as a Greek chorus, to question things.”

Saraband is dedicated to Ingrid, the director’s fifth wife, who died in 1995, and Bergman continually returns to the haunting image of Henrik’s deceased and loving wife, Anna, whose influence on the household is palpable.
Ullmann muses, “It would have been impossible [to make the film very soon after she died]. Now she is alive, a full person, but in spirit, and it takes a while before you are that.” But what of the film’s heart-wrenching final two words (no spoiler, really): “My child . . . “? Surely the master’s last dramatized utterance—put into the mouth of Liv Ullmann, no less—wasn’t arrived at casually.
Ullmann only offers hints: “It’s personal, that story between Johan and his son; something similar may have happened in Ingmar’s life.”
But then her expression changes radically. “Maybe Ingmar is the child [and he is saying], ‘All the movies I have done have been about being a child not understood by my parents, trying to find love and failing.’
And he finally allowed one person—Marianne—to finally say, ‘I understand you, I see you, I recognize you.’
Wouldn’t that be a wonderful ending for a great filmmaker?
I think that would be a lovely goodbye.”
Stan Schwartz

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Next to Godliness

THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY

June 2

The first crepuscular salvo of Bergman’s “God and Man” trilogy (all three are available in a DVD set from Criterion), this mysterious chamber wail from 1961 stands on its own, and might be the gnarliest joint of psychodrama in the man’s portfolio. The proverbial Family has, by now, degenerated to three men—a father, a husband, a younger brother—and a single, clinically insane woman, vacationing on the edge of the world together as the sky’s Godless ceiling closes in. It’s a movie as primal scream lab, and as the hub of this troubling wheel of interrelationships, Harriet Andersson earned the actor’s Nobel of our dreams with this one film. Grief-crippled father Gunnar Björnstrand, with a single scene in the darkened beach house, stakes a claim for the decade’s most heartfelt supporting performance. This is Bergman’s horror movie, equal venom doses of Poe and Kant—a nightmare of love that climaxes at an extraordinary, bloodcurdling pitch with the slow opening of a closet door. MICHAEL ATKINSON







Scenes From a Marriage
photo: courtesy Photofest/Film Forum

SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE

June 3

In the same year (1973) that The Mother and the Whore looked at bohemian Parisians mucking their way through dissatisfying trysts in the wake of the 1960s, Ingmar Bergman’s six-part Swedish TV drama, Scenes From a Marriage, turned the camera in another direction, onto a “ridiculously bourgeois” couple who have traded their activist pasts for posh interiors and offstage children. The ties between scientist and poetaster Johan (Erland Josephson) and divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann, never more beautiful) unravel, as in Edvard Munch paintings, in close-ups of repressed sound and fury at last emerging. The three-hour edit familiar to American audiences is a relentless nightmare of uncoupling worth more schadenfreude per minute than any reality-TV courtship. But as shown here in its five-hour entirety (Criterion’s new DVD includes both versions), Scenes is a more compassionate experience, a novelistic account of two desperate souls learning across decades to share their inescapable loneliness. BENJAMIN STRONG


MONIKA

June 10

While Monika (1952) is generally viewed here as a minor early work, French critics have always placed it high in the Bergman canon. A bittersweet study of a doomed youthful love affair, Monika is without a false note. No sighs, whispers, whimpers, or existential angst. Lars Ekborg and Harriet Andersson are confused, gauche, poorly educated, and live in chaotic family environments. A compulsive gum-chewer addicted to trashy movies, she’s more than a bit of a slut—and he loves her. Fed up with their lives in Stockholm, they take off for an island. It’s summer and they’re Adam and Eve in the Garden. But by autumn, they’re broke, she’s pregnant, and when they return to a dreary apartment in town, their idyll has turned into a sad chronicle of the death of love. Andersson, who had never played a major role before, charges the film with precocious sexual power. This marvelous actress, who became a principal figure in his close-knit repertory company, was never more striking than in Monika. Incidentally, it’s the only film in which Bergman successfully portrayed working-class characters. ELLIOTT STEIN



THE SILENCE

June 16

Bergman’s allegorical working-out of his pained relationship with his mother, The Silence was tremendously popular when released in 1963—a year from the shank of the art house age, when on-screen metaphysics tacitly promised compensatory portions of nudity and dwarves, both in short supply on big screens stateside at the time. There are unforgettably dreamy sequences in this unhurried story about a young Warholian sissy-boy, his rutting bombshell mother, and his cerebral-but-tubercular aunt who get stranded in a vast deserted hotel in an unnamed Euro-nation shivering with the Cold War rumblings of tank maneuvers. Gunnel Lindblom as the mother makes the ambiguousness of her weird beauty irrelevant as she marches out a performance that’s absolutely tumescent with carnality. Every possible incestuous permutation is flirtatiously projected onto this unlikely triangle, and wherever in the world they may be, the humidex sure keeps them sweaty. The movie feels more programmed with symbols than inhabited by humans, but the formally gorgeous camera work and the vibrating austerity of the soundtrack create atmospheres of loneliness and despair as powerful as anything in the master’s filmography. GUY MADDIN


THE VIRGIN SPRING

June 18 and 19

Deep in the Swedish forest, we happen upon another of Death’s sick-joke chess games, a volley of brutally pure oppositions: shadows and sun dapples, fire and water, man and the elements—the most arresting image in The Virgin Spring (1960) captures peasant father Max von Sydow battling to subdue a birch tree. A swinish pair of goatherds rape and murder a blond, apple-cheeked churchgoer while her dark and feral, pregnant half-sister looks on in agony and ecstasy; and then the will of the divine scorekeeper turns the tables and tightens the screws. (But what of the little boy also present at the scene of the crime, who is harrowed for the sin of witness—sickened by any nourishment that comes near his lips, like the God-scourged wraith in The Violent Bear It Away?) Bergman’s affinities with Dreyer were never stronger than in this transcendent adaptation—or sublimation—of a medieval Swedish ballad. The director would later ponder the possibility of a void where the heavens should be in his “God and Man” trilogy, but Spring is a stark and stunned contemplation of a world in which God is very much alive, and yet everything is permitted. JESSICA WINTER


HOUR OF THE WOLF

June 23

Bergman’s Gothic propensities were an embarrassment to some of his more deep-dish admirers back in the day, but films such as The Magician (1958, screens June 20 and 21) and Hour of the Wolf (1968, also newly available on MGM DVD) hold up a lot better than, say, the missing-God melodramas. Here, painter Max von Sydow (anguished, yes) and girlfriend Liv Ullmann set up a homestead in an island cabin off the coast of Sweden, only to be set upon by a crowd of aristo-ghouls (decadent, you bet) including a bloated Lugosi ringer and an old woman who “keeps threatening to take her hat off” (“She has no face!”). Push all thoughts of an allegory for the artistic process to the back of your mind, step on them hard, and you’re left with a pretty solid horror film, with intermittent drafts of the truly unheimlich that make it clear why the film should be a David Lynch favorite; a few of the ghosts’ American cousins turn up to offer obscure advice to Laura Palmer in the great, neglected Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. B. KITE

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An Enemy of Nixon and Baraka

After orchestrating the seminal 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin continued organizing coalitions for jobs and freedom (the signature of the 1963 March) through labor unions, the Democratic party, and the civil rights movement.

Never abandoning his conviction that nonviolent direct action is the way to a just society, Bayard debated Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, among other advocates of black power who approved violence when necessary. The hatred preached from some of the aeries of black power struck Bayard as an ineffective “psychological purgative”—manifesting itself as a dead-end separatism.

With characteristically judicious language, in “An Open Letter [to Bayard] from Poet and Black Nationalist Amiri Baraka,” that rhetorical warrior charged: “Bayard, when you denounce us nationalists for teaching hate, based on your white folks’ analysis, you are actually functioning as the big gun of white oppression. . . . You are a slaveship profiteer, a paid pervert for the racist unions, and I feel it necessary to expose you.”

So did Richard Nixon. Bayard, making me envious, was on Nixon’s Enemies List. At a party celebrating that honor, a reporter asked Ba-yard’s reaction.

“I’m delighted,” he said. “Anyone who has his policies on the poor, the homeless, on those who need medical care—I hope I shall eternally be an enemy of a man who takes this view. Furthermore, I have never liked liars.”

When not organizing, Bayard, as he had been for decades, was traveling around the world as a nonviolent agitator for peace and human rights. In 1959, long before the March on Washington, he had, in the Algerian Sahara, been arrested for protesting French atomic-bomb tests. And he had been in India in 1948 for the first World Pacifist Conference.

In the PBS documentary Brother Outsider, Bayard’s longtime associate Rachelle Horowitz says of him on that trip: “He loved putting on various outfits. . . . Since he was so tall . . . parades of people would follow behind.” And Devi Prasad, a world-renowned direct-action pacifist, said of Bayard:

“He was a handsome, tall, black American. . . . He was one of the first people who openly accepted homosexuality; he didn’t hide it. . . . And I considered him very natural—and he had very beautiful companions, very handsome companions, so why not?”

Also in Brother Outsider, the luminous actress Liv Ullmann recalls being with Bayard later in his life. They first traveled together “to help refugees from Cambodia. And we traveled other places . . . until he died. . . . We came to one refugee camp, and they needed blood. A lot of us were really afraid to give blood. And [he] was the first one to say, ‘No, we will all give blood. Here’s my arm, and get going.’ And there was nobody who dared to say no.

“And I,” Liv Ullmann continued, “who have been so scared of those things all my life. . . . I was lying there on the ground and I did what Bayard did. And I’ve never felt so good in my life. . . . It was the way he did it. It was normal; this is what we are supposed to do. It’s normal to care about somebody at your side.”

Whenever I saw Bayard walking toward me on the street in the Village, I felt the same expectation as when I met Duke Ellington. Elegant in bearing, dress, and diction (as if he had been raised by an Oxford don), Bayard was the very embodiment of the life force—sharp of wit, observation, and delight in being Bayard Rustin.

A posthumous coda to his life (Bayard was also a musician and a compelling singer, who had once worked with Josh White) appeared last December 22 in Education Week, the most informative of all publications on schools:

“So proudly did West Chester, Pennsylvania, claim the civil rights luminary Bayard Rustin as its most famous native son that the school board decided to name its new high school after him.

“But that was before they found out that the late Mr. Rustin was gay, had belonged to a Communist group, and had refused to serve in World War II [he spent three years in prison as a conscientious objector]. Now the board is rethinking its decision, sparking a debate that is drawing national—and unwelcome—publicity.”

As the debate in West Chester smoldered on, I thought of how Bayard would have enjoyed this ironic postlude to the time when, growing up in that segregated city, he decided to dine in a Jim Crow restaurant.

“There was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion,” he recalled during the P.O.V. television documentary on his life, “on which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood! I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out because they took up a collection.”

In West Chester, Pennsylvania, now, the $67 million Bayard Rustin High School will open in 2005, after the school board voted 6 to 3 to overcome the opposition of hundreds of resident petition signers. Explaining the decision, school board president Rogers Vaughn said:

“The contributions that Mr. Rustin made [aren’t] just to civil rights but to the whole United States.”

The vote came after a report by a committee of teachers, students, administrators, school board members, and community leaders who had met privately with historians, and with people who had known and worked with Bayard during his years of nonviolently creating consternation. Said the committee: “We have not seen, read, or heard anything that would give us reason to change our recommendation for the name of the new high school. The more we learned, the more we were convinced that Rustin is the right name.”

And National Urban League president Hugh Price told Education Week: “His hometown should not only name a school after him, but they probably ought to have a [high school social studies] course built around his life.”

Now, that’s an idea for New York City’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, to pursue—if he dares.

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Anna Karina’s Magnificent Movieness

The sad-eyed, raven-haired Guinevere of the international art film’s belle epoque, Anna Karina will always possess a hallowed place in movie history: She was its first postmodern heroine, its first obscure object of cinephiliac desire. Godard’s ambiguous ardor for Karina, still visible to the naked eye in the seven features they made together between 1961 and 1966, had everything to do with his love for cinema. Karina’s unique relationship with Godard’s camera (an electric nexus of casual hunger and locked gazes that has eluded Godard with any other actress, and Karina with any other director) is unprecedented in its reverberating fascination. The era’s other iconicized women—Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau, Liv Ullmann, Stephane Audran, Machiko Kyo, etc.—all had their communicants, but Karina’s role in the slipstream defined Movieness by being all things to all witnesses: star, beauty, impulsive Every-waif, director’s inamorata, self-conscious movie image, genre spoofer, liberated gender-combat totem. Perhaps most thrillingly of all, she was the audacious, and always somewhat remote, heartthrob at the center of cinema’s bravest self-exploratory liaison.

So, meeting Karina today, at 60 and decidedly removed from the grainy, restless seventh heaven in which we’ve come to know her so well, is a shock. For one thing, she’s tall. “Oh, everybody is surprised by that,” she says in a bouncy, cigarette growl. “I just looked small because my eyes are so big. It’s the structure of the face—Sophia Loren and Ursula Andress always seemed enormous, but actually they’re quite petite.”

Celebrating Rialto’s refurbished re-release of Band of Outsiders, Karina is more than happy to revisit her Godardian odyssey, but unsurprisingly her portrait of filmmaking with the master offers up no secrets. For one thing, she never asked questions—as in, Why is the center of a heist film taken up with the three protagonists just hanging out and dancing in a bar? It seems impeccably spontaneous and lovely to us after the fact, but on the set it must’ve seemed, well, irregular, no? “I did as I was told. I had my character; we’d discuss it—what she’d wear, what she’d think. . . . C’mon, this was Jean-Luc! You didn’t interrogate him. People would always accuse us of improvising, but it’s absolutely not true. Jean-Luc’s scripts were always carefully revised, red pages, blue pages, yellow pages. Sure, often he’d make up dialogue on the spot, but everything was rehearsed, particularly the dance sequence in Bande à Part. When I hear about actors trying to control their movies—tsk, tsk. When I work with a director, he’s the director; what he wants me to do, I do. Especially with Jean-Luc: He’s such a genius; you must trust him completely. And I did. Anyway, every actor should once direct a film, so next time he’ll give less shit.”

Godard a workaday autocrat, Karina an obedient ingenue? While life couldn’t have been that ordinary, it adds a shine to the Godard-filmed Karina, an impulsive and stunning creature who inhabits the film sphere alone. Of course, for Karina that was merely the beginning: In the years since their collaboration, the Denmark-born ex-model has been fiercely active, having made dozens of films, and also performed in scores of TV movies, cabarets, and plays. (Next, she’s appearing as a chanteuse in Jonathan Demme’s The Truth About Charlie.) This last year has been spent mostly on the road, singing and promoting her new CD. But she’s still pestered and beloved for those intimate little experiments as new audiences continually discover them. “It’s a gift, an honor—these movies were made so long ago, and yet young people come up to me and thank me for making them. In Japan, the U.S., Europe, wherever, youngsters as young as 15, they don’t say, ‘I like that old movie,’ they say, ‘My God, that’s it, that’s life, that’s how I think.’ You know, back then Jean-Luc was criticized for being too new. Now it seems just right.”

Her favorite of the seven films? “Which is yours? I bet I know: Pierrot le Fou.” She nailed me good, God knows how. “For me, it’s difficult to pick one—if you had seven children, how would you say which one you prefer? After all, it was a love story, wasn’t it?”


Click here to read Amy Taubin’s review of Band of Outsiders.