Monday, May 02, 2005

Here's Your One Chance, Fanny, Don't Let Me Down...

No worries; she didn't.

First, though, please recognize the headline as a mad-prop to Reba McEntire. I don't dip into the Country & Western end of the pool all that much, but when "Fancy" popped onto the radio of my local Ithaca bus this morning, I knew it would be a good day. What a friggin' great song. "Fancy" is like "Livin' on a Prayer": faux-working-class kitsch with such absolute conviction you want it immediately installed in the Library of Congress. And has there ever been a more merciless mid-song lyric line than "The welfare people came and took the baby, Mama died, and I ain't been back"? Genius. Work it, Reba.

But, from Reba to Ingmar (as ever, right?). Tonight I had the much-delayed pleasure of seeing the Swedish master's great Fanny and Alexander for the first time, in a restored 35mm print that might even have been 70mm, it looked so ridiculously gorgeous. How beautiful was this? So beautiful I started laughing, twice. Truly, I've never seen such a ravishing color print of a 20-year-old movie. This must be the print that Criterion used for the typically de luxe DVD set they released a few months back, which I'll now be buying as soon as ye olde budget permits.

But enough about the celluloid and the merchandising. The film is a jaw-dropper: one of the best films ever about theater, one of the best about family, one of the best and subtlest about the adolescence of an artist, and surely the only Bergman film likely to please fans of Persona, Dynasty, and Lemony Snicket. The time is the first decade of the 20th century. The opening moments have as many hues of red as Cries and Whispers does and the same eerie, cavernous quiet as The Silence, and yet it's clear from the outset that Bergman is headed in warmer directions. The hushed preparations for a holiday dinner give way before long to a thoroughly charming theatrical interlude and then to a sprawlingly sharp-minded family circus that George Eliot might have written in an atypically frisky mood, perhaps after a few mugs of nog.

The mini-saga that follows is full of wisdom and chill, widows and ghosts, finery and asceticism, possibilities and impossibilities. The human canvas is probably Bergman's richest since the comparably fizzy Smiles of a Summer Night, even though the familiar abyss of Bergmanesque terror and doubt is still palpable beneath both movies. Recognizable faces pass in and out, from a yarmulked Erland Josephson to a young Lena Olin; my favorite Bergman actress, Harriet Andersson, turns up in a small but enthralling role as a housekeeper with unreadable allegiances. Schumann and Britten on the soundtrack, sparingly but perfectly used. An angry doorknob, a gender-queer clairvoyant, a joyous abduction that is tersely subverted by a hauntingly incongruous shot. The middle hour is the least adventurous, but even then, watching Alexander learn to watch people—women, men, in that order—is like watching a young Ingmar Bergman assemble his genius through equal parts intuition, mischief, and dread.

As self-referential as Fellini's , and comparably fun in its own very different way, Fanny and Alexander is simply the best film I've seen since Contempt in February, or maybe since The Travelling Players last June. It's my 16th Bergman movie; Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, for better or worse, are the only directors whose work I have visited more often. Fanny thus joins, in order of their production, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Persona, Shame, and Cries and Whispers at the highest rank of my personal Bergman pantheon. (The others I've seen are Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, The Magic Flute, Face to Face, Autumn Sonata, and After the Rehearsal.) Next up for me will be Scenes from a Marriage, with its sequel Saraband due to hit US theaters this summer. Meanwhile, for anyone looking for a 3 hour and 8 minute visual and narrative've found it!

P.S. Also, for any poor soul keeping track, Fanny is the fourth of my New Year's Resolution films that I've checked off in '05. Any suggestions for where to go next on these two lists are more than welcome!

Thanks to Gary Tooze and his terrific website DVDBeaver for the image captures; as Gary attests, they are from the R2/PAL DVD released abroad before the Criterion set, so the image quality only gets better from here, folks.

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Blogger Dr. S said...

Not that I've seen many of the films on your list (this is to be expected), but I *loved* 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould when I saw it.

8:34 AM, May 03, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First up should be "The Big Carnival," but call it "Ace in the Hole," please. We dislike new titles. And we're snobs, yes. Fly to Chicago on June 11 if you'd like to see it on my big screen. Then "Raise the Red Lantern," if you like pretty things. Then "That Obscure Object of Desire," which is one of my personal favorites. I'll stop now. I hope you find "Easy Rider" to be as bloated and overrated as I did.

9:50 AM, May 05, 2005  

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