This week, Joe McCulloch bet on Secretariat to win, show and place, while Tucker dug up Bergman's Scenes From A Marriage.
Expected reactions, first out of the gate, 2010
Initially it felt awkward knowing that my brother and I were the youngest people in the theater by a solid twenty years, going by what was on the screen; there aren’t a lot of PG-appropriate trailers to run before a Walt Disney scoop of canned corn like this, so it was mostly CG cartoon after 3D cartoon playing to blank faces (and then Tony Scott threatening to run children over with a train, as if in response). But pretty soon I realized that kids ought to be present for this picture, in that it could serve as an invaluably straightforward early exercise in reading motion picture cues. See the mean horse trainer yelling at the stable’s black groomer? Already junior knows he’s bad to the core. A straight-laced lawyer (and tax expert!) frowning at his daughter’s interest in Vietnam War protesting? Might as well drop in a caption announcing HE’S BEHIND THE TIMES. In contrast, Diane Lane’s gentle countenance and sensible period hairdo assures us early of her aptitude at comforting mighty beasts from a Triple Crown winner to society’s clucking prejudice against female racehorse owners to John Malkovich as the eccentric good guy trainer. “Malkovich,” you whisper into a tiny ear. “Malkovich,” comes the reply.
But really, I tend to envy this sort of super-assured inspirational product, so at ease with its predetermined ending, so relaxed in the arms of triumph-over-adversity formula that it drops in a Biblical quote to precede the opening titles and strikes up a soul classic (I’ll Take You There, Staple Singers) to accompany an obligatory “things going alright” scene in which the multi-gendered, racially mixed cast of heroes actually dances around the title animal in joy. There’s no shame here. Characters speak plainly and at length about the powerful emotions they’re feeling, and eventually about how they’re all the finest horse-related people that ever were. There’s comedy, drama, a sensible amount of crisply-shot racing action, and even some wholesome sex appeal in the form of country-fried Disney-affiliated multimedia personality Amanda Michalka, creeping around the snow-speckled windows of her folks’ ‘60s ranch home in a nightie fit to leave the male audience rarin’ to sire a few themselves. Her succession of outfits -- from loose hippie getups to casual-liberated jean shorts to a proper lady gown in the culminating ballroom scene -- neatly tracks the picture’s celebration of female empowerment as just nominally abrasive, and ultimately bolstering to the enduring rightness of the American upper middle class and further, further!
Yes, Secretariat aces the Bechdel test by many heads, so long as we’re not counting the horse as a guy. But just as it’s a sports movie building up to a major triumph we already know, so is its engagement with powerful women predicated on the acceptance of such into mainstream thought, as opposed to radical-ish politics or counterculture living, all benevolently dismissed as harmless affectations of youth. And nothing is more mainstream than All-American Big Money Victory; it’s not for kicks that much of the drama turns on the dreadful threat of the *gasp* *choke* estate tax, or that ultra-rich James Cromwell is redeemed by his willingness to buy into a crucial franchising scheme, while blustering rival owner Nestor Serrano is characterized only in broad male chauvinist and animal endangering terms. “Leering scumfuck!” screams your child, because what right-thinking person could oppose the risk-taking moxie of Diane Keaton, or the seven hundred shots of Secretariat’s massive eyes, burning with first the love of running and later a godly fervor indicative (the reprised opening verse suggests) of the Lord’s verily boundless presence? Impossible! A miracle! Oh Happy Day erupts on the soundtrack as the mighty creation gallops to victory, his jockey’s uniform clean and glowing white, as if transfigured by triumph. Everyone gathers around the trophy, and we can see for ourselves that God is always there for the rich and winning in this eminently reparable land of ours.
Scenes From A Marriage
Ingmar Bergman doesn't care how short your life is, 1973
Scenes From A Marriage was the Carlos of the 70's, a 295 minutes long film originally released as a six-part television series in Sweden. A 168 version played theatrically and had a small VHS run, but it wasn't until 2004 that the film freak gods and Bergman fans known collectively as the Criterion Collection released a three disc collection of the original cut alongside 1974's theatrical version. If nothing else, Scenes From a Marriage is a superb example of the "Film school in a box" ideal that used to be the manifesto of the Criterion Collection. Similar to their intensively detailed five disc collection of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, Marriage is the sort of DVD collection that appeals to obsessively curious film fanatics--useful as archaeology, but more valued as masterclass in the power of editing to shape and control the narrative. All that being said, Scenes From A Marriage isn't exactly the cliched "gosh, that didn't feel like five hours" type of experience. It's a subtle, occasionally boring film that focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between two individuals who, by the close of the film, have caused each other enough pain that it will be difficult for even the most forgiving viewer to want to go much further with either of them. (Bergman felt differently, returning to the characters in 2003 with Saraband, a direct sequel filmed for Swedish television.)
The opening of Scenes is one of those sort of Bergman macguffins where he doesn't attempt to hide the utilitarian necessities used to get his characters where he needs them--a woman is interviewing the couple who form the marriage in the title for television, and that's all. Why she chose them isn't important, it's just an excuse to see them on their best behavior. Unlike the majority of the film, these scenes are one of the only times that Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson will play towards the audience, and it's important for Bergman's plans that they be depicted as deeply in marital bliss as possible. This being Bergman, there's a heavy emotional cost to be paid, and it will mean that much more if the height of the fall is set impossibly high. From here, the film moves into a dinner party with a couple that our protagonists will eventually emotionally replace--bitterly, vindictively and cruelly--still hopelessly entangled in each other.
While the first episode also includes a cruel plot development that I won't spoil here, it's merely one of set-up and misdirection. That style, the punishing, final twist, is never repeated, the film never even tries a trick like it again, essentially turning episode one into the fabric that the next four hours will rend. What follows it is a study of two people talking to each other over the passage of decades, pursuing one complicated argument about what their marriage, their relationship, actually means to them as individuals--the question of who the other is, and what remains of that answer when the connection between the two is severed entirely.
Obviously, they split. That isn't a spoiler. Scenes From A Marraige isn't a film about plot, it isn't about being startled or understood. It's a film about experience--the experience of becoming fully invested inside the dynamic of two people and their relationship. It's part of what makes it such a frighteningly uncomfortable, or unusual, film--Bergman chooses to completely subvert and eventually destroy the expectation that the characters in a film are something that the audience should somehow relate to, that it's necessary or useful at all to the viewer to "identify." It won't take long for any audience member to find something that the husband does that's repellent, and it will only take a bit longer to find the wife to be intensely frustrating--any lengthy relationship has these moments, Bergman uses them to say, where people are stripped bare of what makes them tolerable, and one is left only with the commitment, the agreement to "wait it out." An audience member has, in most cases, none of that--the loose committment to finish the film they started, the idea that they "paid" for it--and here, all of that will be thoroughly tested. It's not that either of these characters are completely unlikeable, but that Marriage demands that the audience's patience be given more on faith than reason. Bergman has a study to perform, this is the laboratory he's chosen, and there's little concern given that the response be one that's shared by a large group--this is it, the film says, this is his experiment. Like it or leave. The experience is exaggerrated in a more rigorous fashion then film usually provides--tight, unwavering shots of faces and movement, claustrophobic sets and the bizarre sensation of being a true voyuer (since both actors so convincingly portray a couple who have known each other in the physical sense so long that their human vanity is completely absent) all contribute to make Scenes something that's almost toxic with the concept of art as personal experiment. Besides all that, there's the sheer length of the thing, set at a frenzied, realistic pace that isn't at all what regular man vs. woman stories normally behave like.
Is it good, is probably the question--these are supposed to answer that kind of question, even when the mere asking seems like a tiresome exercise in box-checking. Yes? It's a unique experience, the five hour film, one that's probably going to exist as curiosity and fetish object as time stumbles forward. The reverence quiet movies demand is impossible to replicate at home, and Scenes needs that quiet to work, it requires an audience who will shut the fuck up long enough to hear Bergman's take on relationships out. Without patience, the tedium can be hard to navigate, and its moments can seem like they'd be more rewarding buried in pot-throwing arguments sandwiched between Tony Soprano killing his friends in weekly installments. Scenes is what it is--a throwback, overlong, boiled in pretension. Worst of all, it's sincere.
No surprise then, that it works so well. Honesty has a place of righteousness, even when you have to create a lie to put it on display.