“We would perhaps grow frantic at the sight of this ebbing away of our short span of time were we not secretly conscious in the profoundest depths of our being that we share in the inexhaustible well of eternity, out of which we can for ever draw new life and renewed time”

(‘On the Vanity of Existence’, in Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), trans. R. J Hollingdale, 1970)


Autumn in the Clouds

Today, as I swim, I can feel autumn in the clouds.

A briskness in the breeze, previously a muggy pall, speaks of renewed vigour in decay.

The creative season is upon us, in all its might and melancholy.



Time Regained

“Through art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves, to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and of which, without art, the landscapes would remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon. Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world only, our own, we see that world multiply itself and we have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, worlds more different one from the other than those which revolve in infinite space, worlds which, centuries after the extinction of the fire from which their light first emanated, whether it is called Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us still each one its special radiance.”

Time Regained, In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust

Bergman, Death, and Redemption: reflections on Essential Bergman, Curated by David Stratton

For the 62nd Sydney Film Festival Australian film critic David Stratton selected ten “essential” Ingmar Bergman films to screen as part of a major retrospective of the maverick Swedish director.

After watching all ten of them, below is an account of my experience:

To watch Bergman is to watch a human being looking death in the eye. Like other great modernist writers and thinkers, Bergman contemplates what it means to be alive through its corollary- what it means to die. Moreover, characters and temperaments reveal themselves most clearly in the face of death.

From the first film in the series – and the ten films were screened chronologically – Bergman’s earliest, the 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night (but by no means his first film – his 16th to be precise!), this intimate relationship with death is explored through the brilliant, macabre scene wherein Fredrik and Count Malcolm, rivals in love, rather than face each other in a duel (since Count Malcolm, as a military man, feels he would have the upper hand), instead opt for a game of Russian roulette, taking it in turns to place a pistol to their heads. Bergman here rewards Fredrik’s courage in the face of death by substituting a blank for the bullet, and leaving him in the arms of his former mistress and one true love, Desiree.

More famously, of course, one year later in the 1956 The Seventh Seal, Max von Sydow as the Knight will challenge his own Death to a game of chess. Once again the Knight will look Death in the eye, here figuratively, and will win for himself a grace in the knowledge of the perfect life, represented by the free, simple life lived by a troupe of actors and their child. Moreover, the Knight’s death is contrasted with the fearful death of a young woman (a “witch”) burned alive at the stake. She, unlike the Knight, believes that the Devil is inside her, and this belief, Bergman suggests, is a construct of her own fear.

In the opening of the 1957 Wild Strawberries, the next film in the series, Isak Borg, an elderly professor, has a surreal dream – incidentally, in one of cinema’s most powerful moments – in which he witnesses his own death. This knowledge drives his course of action through the rest of the film, in which he seeks to make amends for his past behaviour, and tries to understand, through a sequence of memories, how he has become his current bitter self. In this way, Death functions as a cathartic principle, allowing us to face the truth within ourselves, if we so choose. The choice to do so, to win at the end of one’s life a kind of redemption, to use an appropriately loaded term, is what, for Bergman, counts. In this way Bergman suggests it is never too late to seek redemption.

Vogler the Magician (also played by von Sydow) in Bergman’s 1958 film The Face (released by US distributors as “The Magician”) appears to cheat death by staging an elaborate hoax, substituting in a coffin another body for his own. In this way Bergman explores how theatrics, that is Art, can to some extent rival death. Vogler challenges the scientifically-minded Dr Vergerus to suspend his disbelief in the irrational, though Dr Vergerus will ultimately, just as Bergman has already done with “the witch” in The Seventh Seal, assign his own temporary belief in the irrational as a weakness arising from fear. In this complex film, it is Dr Vergerus, appearing as the villain throughout, for whom Bergman saves his greatest admiration – for a character who, once again, displays tremendous courage in the face of death.

In the 1960 The Virgin Spring Tore, a landowner, (also played by von Sydow), will seek retribution for the rape and murder of his virgin daughter by killing the murderers who have unwittingly sought solace in his own house. Bergman seems to suggest, somewhat provocatively, that there are some circumstances where it is justified to take another’s life, since Tore is ultimately rewarded for his actions by the divine miracle of a virgin spring appearing where his dead daughter lay. Bergman specifically admires Tore in the way that he, singlehandedly and fearlessly, puts his own life at risk to avenge the death of his daughter. It is this fearlessness in the face of Death, as discussed above, that Bergman most admires. To a great extent this fearlessness is connected to the character’s faith in God. It is, incidentally, important to distinguish in Bergman’s work, his parody of religion from his attitude towards God.

The revelation of the series was for me Bergman’s 1963 The Silence. In this immaculately photographed and performed film, Ester, the older of two sisters, must face her own deadly illness in her bed in a hotel room. It is interesting to see Bergman changing tack in this film, wherein he becomes more interested (as he will be in his later films) in the characters who are no longer fearless in the face of death but fallible. It is as if Bergman is trying to understand, to humanise and sympathise with, in a way that he hadn’t done so previously, our fears in the face of death, and how this causes us to behave in this life. Ester displays all the signs of fear as she lies dying: she is jealous of her younger sister, Anna; she is angry that Anna and her child should abandon her in the hotel room; she feels tremendous pain, exhaustion, loneliness and helplessness.

In his 1966 Persona, Bergman seems to contemplate the death, or limits, of language, of cinema itself, and, with it, the limits of representation; or, specifically, what separates us from each other. There is a tragic death of “self”, which prompts Elisabeth Vogler (played by Liv Ullman in her first of many appearances in a Bergman film), to lose her voice, and, gradually, her mind. Once again Bergman is now using female characters to explore our sense fallibility in the face of death, or loss of self, as the two identities of Elisabeth and her nurse Alma blur with one another, uncovering feelings of love, hatred, envy,  vengefulness, and, ultimately, instability.

In Bergman’s first colour film, the beautiful but almost unbearably austere 1972 Cries and Whispers, cut with a surgeon’s precision, it is the dying Agnes around which all the action and characters revolve. Here again using female leads Bergman explores the plethora of human emotions that are brought to the surface when a sister dies. The extended death of Agnes is wrought unflinchingly, full of excruciating strenuous breathing sounds and a body wracked with pain. Death is cruel and pitiless, and seems to reflect the compromised natures of the other sisters. It is only for Anna, the family’s devoted servant, that Bergman reserves admiration, once again for a resolute faith, even after the death of her own small child.

The unexpected death of Oscar, a husband and father, in the 1982 Fanny and Alexander, propels the actions of his wife Emilie and children Fanny and Alexander. In this beautifully tender film, Bergman is more interested in exploring the effects that grief can have have, even without us realising it, on our lives. Emilie remarries a priest, who is almost the incarnation of grief itself in all his solemn black austerity, and she thereby almost completely loses contact with her children and family of her previous life. In the closing scene uncle Gustav seems to be a spokesperson for Bergman himself when he proclaims the joy of the simple life, of family and children. Once again played through a male character the young Alexander is fearless in the way that he stands up to the priest figure and it is his fearless actions that will precipitate a redemption for himself, his mother and sister.

In the final film of the series, his 2003 television film Saraband, it is the death now of a wife and mother, Anna, that propels the emotions and actions of the characters. It is hard to tell whether the incestuous relationship between father and daughter, Henrik and Karin, has occurred prior to the mother’s death, but in the logic of Bergman it feels, controversially, like a product of their mutual grief. Once again characters are acting in a fallible way in the face of death, and it is the wisdom of the older characters, the long-divorced Johan and Marianne, who try to hold these younger, more fallible, characters to account for their choices. In this final film in the series, Bergman reminds us that without courage we are bound to let each of the decisions in our lives be overly determined by the presence of death. The path to redemption can only be achieved through fearlessness or faith, the two, for Bergman, closely related to one another.

Cemetery of Splendour, a feature film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

We spend approximately one third of our human existence sleeping (and dreaming). Cinema, with its ability to express itself through word and images, with its ability to manipulate time and space, is perhaps most true to itself when it adopts the qualities of dream. At least this is what I feel whenever I watch an Apichatpong film. It is the feeling that cinema comes into contact with itself, over and over again. Cemetery of Splendour (2015), screening as part of the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, is fortunately no exception.

Jenjira, an elderly housewife, is a volunteer at a makeshift hospital in Khon Kaen, a small town (incidentally where Apichatpong grew up) in Isan Province, Thailand . There she tends to Itt, one of a number of male soldiers who have succumbed to a mysterious sleeping illness. The ward of sleeping soldiers, in the hands of Apichatpong, becomes a place of transcendent splendour, where the sleeping and the waking co-exist. In much the same way Apichatpong’s dreaming and waking life merge in the film itself.

Apichat’s magical realism is so startlingly real that the magical, or, better, spiritual, dimensions of his world become part and parcel of our waking reality, without distinction. Goddesses carry scarves from the market. A psychic who might also be an FBI agent sells skin care lotion for a local TV personality. Electric multi-coloured healing lights are set up between the sleeping soldiers, turning the room from green to red to blue to yellow, and back again.

But while in a Lynch film, for example, we become aware of the fact that we are dreaming, with Apichatpong it is a dream in which we lose ourselves completely. It is only until we reach the end that we open our eyes, as Jenjira does, and truly consider the “absurdities” of what we have just witnessed. It is as if Apichatpong’s unconscious has filtered directly into the very depths of our own being. There was a strong sense of intimacy among the audience as we gathered outside the cinema to make sense of what we had just seen.  It was as though we, just like Jen and Itt, had, for a brief moment – at least two hours of our life – experienced the same dream.

Tehran Taxi, a feature film by Jafar Panahi

Screening in official competition at the 62nd Sydney Film Festival, the third feature film Jafar Panahi has made while technically not making films (officially, at any rate), after This is Not a Film (2011) and Closed Curtain (2013), Tehran Taxi (2015) is his strongest “banned” film, not least for the lightness of touch and infusion of hope with which he deals with the weightiest of topics.

Using humour more freely than in his previous banned films, Panahi seems more at ease, both physically as an actor (he features as the central figure as himself playing a taxi driver, picking up (seemingly) random passengers off the street) but also as a filmmaker, delighting in the play-acting of his cast playing out “real-life” situations, while never undermining the seriousness of the predicament in which he has found himself (i.e. that of a banned filmmaker under house arrest).

The line between fact and fiction is deliberately blurred, with characters on more than one occasion alerting us to the fact that the people who appear in the film are in fact actors playing out scenes choreographed by Panahi, or, at the very least, drawing attention to the fact that they know who Panahi is, or that they know that they are being filmed. The virtuosity of Panahi’s craft as director is that one cannot be 100% sure about who is playing a role and who is not, though we begin to suspect as the film progresses that Panahi has choreographed more than we might have initially supposed.

A short, stocky distributor of illegal DVDs is one such character who confuses us, initially appearing as though spontaneously out of the corner of the frame, claiming a “real” moment by recognising both Panahi and dialogue spoken by “actors” from another Panahi film, his performance becomes far more nuanced as the film progresses – such as a particular look he gives when he has been called out by Panahi for having suggested to his client that Panahi and he are business partners.

Panahi’s young niece is particularly delightful. She is absolutely at home playing games with her famous filmmaker uncle, but she has also been given a set of ideas about filmmaking that need to be raised in the course of the film. Panahi disguises the framework beautifully by getting his niece to tell him what her teacher has been telling her about making films. The teacher tells her she must make a “seeable” film, in which Islamic saints need to feature as the heroes, and in which no “sordid reality” must appear lest the film become “un-seeable”. Throughout the film the niece discovers just how hard it is to make a film without any trace of “sordid reality” be it an argument among neighbours, a homeless boy finding some money, or people speaking about “politics or economics”. Through the eyes of the niece, then, Panahi alerts us to the fact that all true filmmaking must in some way encounter a dose of “sordid reality”, and that, therefore, perhaps the teachers are not always right.

Censorship is, unsurprisingly, a major theme that runs throughout the work: in the way teachers are educating Iranian youth (through the niece); in the way that cultural commodities are distributed on the sly (such as the DVDs and CDs in the film); in the way that we learn about the authorities executing and locking away dissenters (such as through the ebullient “flower lady”who is actually a lawyer); and in the way that ordinary Iranian citizens are afraid to approach authorities for fear of over-zealous consequences (such as through a childhood friend who prefers to take his story to Panahi rather than to the police).

However, most cinematically, and therefore most powerfully, the theme of censorship is at the heart of the film in the stylistic choices Panahi makes: cameras rigged up inside the taxi surveil himself, his passengers, and (with some quick rotation) the world outside; the DVD distributor man uses his mobile phone to record an accident; Panahi’s niece uses her own pocket camera to record Panahi and the world around her;  a colleague gives Panahi a scene to watch on an i-pad. One gets the feeling that cameras are as ubiquitous as cars. Cameras (and therefore filmmaking) for Panahi are thus, finally, a form of freedom, and, moreover, in the hands of a curious next generation, a beacon of hope.

Therefore, while the last confiscation of his taxi cameras might represent a victory to the authorities in a minor battle, it will not win them the war.

The Daughter, a feature film by Simon Stone

My experience of watching an Ibsen play is that in the very first scene I have the feeling that someone has fired a bullet, and then I spend the rest of the play waiting for it to hit. Inevitably, after a long, suspended trajectory, it does.

Simon Stone literalises this idea in his adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in his stunning debut feature film The Daughter, produced by Nicole O’Donohue and Jan Chapman, and screening tonight as the first in the official competition at the 62nd Sydney Film Festival. The film begins with a bullet being fired into an evocative mist, only to claim its first victim in the form of a lame duck. Those familiar with Ibsen already know that this duck is a metaphor writ large, and that this bullet will claim another victim, all in the passage of time.

This feeling of inevitability conjures the spirit of ancient tragedy, something Ibsen himself was tremendously interested in. So palpable was this sense of inevitability for the ancient Greeks that they coined a term for one’s sense of helplessness in the face of this more powerful force: that is, “pathos”.

Stone, having turned his hand to the ancients on more than one occasion – his theatre production of Seneca’s Thyestes is one example – is no stranger to pathos. So it is no surprise to find a strong sense of pathos running rampant throughout The Daughter. This is exacerbated by one of his boldest stylistic choices, in the editing where often the dialogue spoken by the actors become separated from the actors themselves, acquiring their own force, independent of the human agents. Its as if, freed from the throats of the human players, the words are written by the hands of the gods themselves, pulling the characters who utter them helplessly along behind.

An equally bold (and I think by and large successful) choice is that Stone savours the ensemble cast, in a manner unexpectedly reminiscent of Ray Lawrence’s Lantana (a recall perhaps aided by memories of Geoffrey Rush’s performance). While audiences may struggle to find their sense of equilibrium in the first half hour, as Stone rapidly shifts our sense of point-of-view, it soon becomes clear that Stone’s real interest is not so much in taking us along the journey of a central protagonist (although Odessa Young’s raw performance as Hedvig, or equally Ewen Leslie’s wounded Oliver might vie for the honours), but rather of the journey into the machinations of family dynamics, in which each character is in some way complicit.

In this way, the one responsible for the crime (and some may be tempted to point to Henry (played by Geoffrey Rush) – but note that even he cannot bring himself to kill the wild duck at the film’s opening) becomes strangely amorphous: it’s as if the complex web of human interactions themselves are to blame. A crescendo of compromised relationships descend into a cacophony of cadences, each sending ripples out into the misty valley: a dissonant chorus of human voices obfuscating clarity.

In this misted land of compromised ambiguities, it is only the sound of the bullet that rings out loud and clear: an act of clear decision; an act of defiance by the one pulling the trigger. It is a clarion call – a deep plea for Stoic certitude within a sea of compromised human emotions, all too often defined, as we each of us know only all too well, by chaos and confusion.