Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal Turns 60

Like a lot of great classics, The Seventh Seal is basically a road movie, with all the requisite digressions and diversions along its circuitous path. Set in the 14th Century, a knight named Antonius Block (a young, strapping Max Von Sydow) has returned to Sweden after 10 years of fighting in the Crusades accompanied by his faithful squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). But instead of a hero’s welcome, Block finds a cold and barren land; its populace ravaged by the horrors of the plague. The only figure to greet him is the black-cloaked angel of death, who has come to add Block to his ever mounting toll. However, Block proposes a desperate gambit to forestall his demise. He and Death will play a game of chess, and as long as Block avoids checkmate, he will be allowed to live.

The Seventh Seal is a sort of Don Quixote in reverse. While Cervantes’ scruffy knight is filled with absurd illusions of grandeur, Antonius Block is a withered husk of disillusion. No longer believing in the lofty ideals that led him to the Holy Land, Block seeks not to destroy Christendom’s enemies, but to peacefully enjoy his few remaining days. He and Jöns befriend a ramshackle traveling theatrical troupe, and a lazy afternoon picnic of wild strawberries and fresh milk bring Block the only joy he has known for a decade. As the knight and his new friends continue their surreal trek, a tempest of biblical metaphors and a delayed date with destiny await them. While never far away, the grinning, hooded shadow of the Grim Reaper stands ready, his freshly sharpened scythe gleaming in
the moonlight.

For most of my youth, I was a simple country boy. I liked nothing better than trading baseball cards, stealing apples from the neighbor’s orchard, or fishin’ down at the creek with a bent pin. All that changed on a rainy afternoon in 1971, when a visionary high school English teacher - whose name has been lost to the fog of ancient memory - rolled the school’s clunky Bell and Howell projector into our classroom. He then laced up a tattered 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, ostensibly as an illustration of the concept of symbolism. As the film ended and the classroom’s buzzing fluorescent lights harshly bloomed, I found that my life had been changed forever.

I’d never seen a movie like that before, with good and moral people openly questioning the existence of God - or at least wondering just what the hell He was up to - and grimly confronting their own mortality, without the hope of a rescuing cavalry charge from just beyond the hill. It profoundly changed me, and over the next few months I would completely lose interest in high school football - or any type of physical exertion, to be honest - prom dates and sporty cars. I would develop a passion for great art, great music and the exotic cultures of other lands. I would become one of those strange, introverted kids whose previously innocent mind now pondered the vast questions of existence for which there will never be satisfactory answers. I have Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to thank for that. On second thought, don’t watch this film. It will ruin your life.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 2

The second part of my guest post is up, detailing some of my favorite foreign films from 1960 to present. Again, many thanks to Bob from Holland for the opportunity. Check it out HERE.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 1

Many thanks to Bob from Amsterdam for giving a chance to expound on some of my favorite films. You'll find part one HERE, which has my faves up to 1960. While you're over there, be sure to look through Bob's vast treasure trove of posts covering many aspects of film history. European Film Star Postcards is always fun and educational!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Waiting for Guffman Turns 20

Waiting for Guffman is a hilarious ensemble comedy from the delightfully twisted mind of Christopher Guest. Filmed in his patented “mockumentary” style, the film satirizes and skewers a number of targets, including small town boosterism, amateur theatrical productions and the vainglorious nature of performers. However, as usual in Guest’s screenplays, underneath the laughs and absurdity are rock-hard kernels of truth that will have you gleefully nodding in recognition. Guest’s sardonic scenarios work because they drill down to humanity’s wobbly core of folly. He then takes that foolishness and turns it up to 11.

The film is all about the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, and a plan to celebrate the mundane burg’s 150th anniversary with a lavish musical. Guest plays a local hairdresser named Corky, recently returned after a brief stint as an actor in New York, who is hired to write and direct. The show, entitled “Red, White and Blaine,” presses local realtors, dentists and mechanics into service as singers and dancers with predictably hilarious results. All goes well until a theater critic from the New York Times agrees to attend the performance, giving Corky and his motley troupe twinkly - and totally delusional - dreams of stardom.

Over the years, Guest has developed a recurring roster of talented co-stars, and Waiting for Guffman  gives them plenty of room to shine. Local power couple Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara nail their audition with an uber-tacky version of “Midnight at the Oasis” that will have viewers rolling in the aisles. Eugene Levy is great as an orthodontist smitten with the stage, while Bob Balaban strikes perfect comedic notes as a staid high school band teacher frustrated with Corky’s erratic direction.

But it’s Guest who steals the show with his flamboyant hipster reading of Corky serving as a perfect foil to Blaine’s rustic dullards. Every small town has a character like Corky; an artistic type with dreams of escaping his backwater origins, but not quite enough talent to make the leap. The film also has a highly memorable and quotable moment when, after a disappointing meeting with the town council, Corky delivers one of the great lines of 1990’s cinema:

“I can’t put up with you people because…you’re…you’re…bastard people!”

Red River Turns 70

Red River is a sprawling epic western, with just enough unique and offbeat artistry to make it a true American classic. It is a hig...