Thursday, September 2, 2010

This Blog Post is Not Self-Referential

Films: Persona, The Purple Rose of Cairo
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television (Persona), DVD from Rockford Public Library on middlin’-sized living room television (Purple Rose).

Were I a smarter man, I would not have chosen Ingmar Bergman’s surreal black and white thought experiment Persona as the first Bergman film for this blog. I would have gone with something simpler, or at least easier to track. It is a film like this that makes Bergman easy to spoof, and probably has influenced a few hundred thousand film students in making their own film projects with meaningless juxtapositions and shots of bleak landscapes.

Ostensibly, Persona is the story of Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who freezes on stage one night. From that moment, she slides into a sort of willful catatonia, refusing to speak or really interact much with the outside world. She is, we are told, physically and mentally sound (although I’m not so sure about the second part of that). After a long stay in a hospital, she is sent off to a beach house with her nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

But wait. That’s not how things start. We start with a series of unconnected images. The film opens with what looks like problems with the projector. We see a lamb evidently being slaughtered, a man having a spike pounded through his hand, a spider, and then what looks to be bodies in a morgue. It looks that way until one of the bodies opens its eyes, and another one shifts around and looks at us. And then we get into the story of Elisabet and Alma.

Alma talks; Elisabet listens. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alma talks about everything, and much of it is trivial initially. Eventually, after drinking more than she should, Alma talks about the one time she was unfaithful to her fiancé, a casual fling on a beach during a day spent sunbathing nude. She also talks about the subsequent abortion. It’s clear that Alma is harboring a great deal of guilt for these events, but it is unclear as to the exact reason. It’s possible, and likely in her mind, that the guilt comes from having done something she regrets. The implication, though, is that the guilt stems from the fact that it appears this impromptu beach orgy is the only satisfying sexual event of her life.

The next day, Alma drives to the nearby down to send off some letters. One letter, written by Elisabet, is unsealed, and Alma reads it. She discovers that Elisabet is actually studying her, and revealing all of her confessed sins in the letter. Now furious and betrayed, Alma returns to the beach house and breaks a glass on the patio outside. She refuses to clean this up, and watches as Elisabet steps on a piece of broken glass, cutting her foot.

And then the film breaks. It tears vertically, freezes, and burns and the screen goes white. We’re treated again to some of the images from the opening of the film, and watch as one of the two women walks around in the house while the camera is out of focus. Suddenly it snaps back into focus, and we’re back to the story. Alma tears into Elisabet and threatens her with a pot of boiling water, which forces Elisabet to finally speak. She storms off and Alma chases her, begging for forgiveness.

Suffice it to say that at this point, it becomes evident that the two women are merging into a single personality—Elisabet’s will is dominating that of Alma, and Alma is essentially becoming Elisabet. This is shown in several different ways, initially by a visit from Elisabet’s husband (Gunnar Bjornstrand) in which he mistakes Alma for Elisabet, and then by a merging of the two women’s faces in what is certainly the most shocking scene of the film. We see Alma’s face screen left, Elisabet’s screen right, and the two women look almost identical. There are differences in the nose and around the mouth, but the eyes are the same. Alma welcomes this initially—she accepts Elisabet’s husband as her own and agrees that she is truly Elisabet.

So, what the holy living hell is going on here? It seems to me that Elisabet is attempting to force Alma to become her. The pain of her own existence is so acute, so intense, that the only way out for her is to force someone else to become her so that she can live in seclusion without the pain of putting on the mask of real life. That’s got to be at least part of it based on the name—it isn’t called “People” or “Women”, but Persona, which calls to mind such words as “identity,” “public identity,” “character,” and even “façade.”

Despite this, Bergman never lets his audience forget that it is watching a film. The introductory sequence, the broken film and out of focus camera work in the middle, and the actual filming of the crew filming a scene at the end serve as reminders that this is not real. We are an audience watching a story take place on a screen. We’ve been watching what we have always been trained to believe, both willfully and by trickery, is life instead of a film. But really, we’ve just been watching personae adopted by the actors, who then go on with their lives once the filming is over.

The film is shot in stark black and white. Most of the scenery—the hospital, the beach house, the beach itself—is bright white while the women wear black outfits and little or no makeup. The camera moves very little if at all in most scenes and there is almost no set decoration, which forces the audience to pay attention to the women. Bergman frequently places his camera in such a way that one face appears in the foreground and the other behind, partially obscured. Even before we get the blending of faces near the end, the two women are already becoming one, since they are often shown in this way, one partially obscuring the other.

The genius here is that not only is the story about this idea of persona, the public façade that everyone has, but that Bergman constantly reminds us that these are actors playing a role. In discussing these personae, they are themselves adopting personae.

Is it Bergman’s greatest work? I don’t know. I haven’t watched nearly enough Bergman to know. It is justifiably considered one of the greatest films ever made, and its influence on films that followed it is understandable and justified.

Anyone who has ever seen both a Bergman movie and a Woody Allen movie knows that the first is a huge influence on the second. There’s something about Woody Allen’s style that screams existentialism, either when he’s being serious (which he does well) or when he’s going for comedy (which he does very well, especially early in his career). Allen, for all the strangeness of his personal life, is a consummate filmmaker. He rarely makes a good film—his stinkers are complete misfires, but his better films are truly great, and he’s made a lot of great films. It’s also evident from watching his work that he dearly loves movies. He undoubtedly loves to talk about movies and spends a lot of time thinking about movies. It comes as no surprise, then, that he’d make a movie about movies.

Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo contains a different sort of self reference. It’s less of a meta film then it is a film within a film. Even more than that, it’s a love song to movies in the same way that Allen’s Radio Days was a love song to the days before television. In this film, Cecilia (Mia Farrow) is a not-so-good waitress in New Jersey during The Great Depression. She’s married to Monk (Danny Aiello), who is a shiftless, out-of-work, philandering gambler. Cecilia loses herself in the movies, going to a show every week. She also attempts to leave Monk time and time again, but can never quite get there.

The latest film is The Purple Rose of Cairo, and she loves the film tremendously. In the film, an explorer is dragged away from an archaeological dig in Cairo and brought back to New York where he falls for a singer at the Copacabana. But everything changes when on a repeat viewing of the film, the character walks out of the screen into the real world and approaches Cecilia on the day she loses her job.

This is one of the great scenes of Allen’s career, or really anyone’s career. The character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) steps off the screen and the other characters immediately react as if they are characters on a stage. A minister shows up in the scene even though he’s not supposed to be there until reel six, and the maid comes out and complains that someone is playing a vicious joke on her since Tom has left the film. What makes this scene work, however, is the reaction of the audience. While Tom and Cecilia run out of the theater and the manager has a minor nervous breakdown, the bulk of the theater patrons sit, smiles on their faces, happily eating their popcorn as if this is precisely what is supposed to happen. The characters have a minor existential crisis when the manager threatens to turn off the projector.

Tom is a completely engaging character, a true movie character of the 1930s. He’s a sort of perfect man in his pith helmet and wide smile. He’s an odd mix of things, and while vaguely three-dimensional, he really isn’t. For instance, he talks about his father, but then claims to have never met him because the film’s story occurs at some point after his father has died. He is, after all, a character, and knows only those things that are written into him. Cecilia takes him to an amusement park that is currently abandoned as a place to hide, and he is excited because he understands amusement parks—they are written into his character. Popcorn, he doesn’t understand, having never eaten it, but has seen it eaten by the endless waves of theater patrons.

The movie company, of course, panics now that one of the main characters has left the film, and they bring the actor who played Tom Baxter, a man named Gil Shepherd (obviously, also played by Jeff Daniels). What follows is, I think, completely unique in film stories. Cecilia is wooed by both men, forgetting her bum of a husband. Both the fictional Tom and the very real Gil romance her, forcing her to make a choice. Her choice is best left to spoilers.


Cecilia has the opportunity to step into the film world with Tom and forever be a character on the screen. She opts not to, essentially forcing Tom back into his screen romance forever. Instead, Cecilia decides that it would be better to live a real life with Gil. Naturally, Gil leaves her, and she is without a job, without a home, and without a husband, and both of her romances have left her. The film ends with Cecilia again sitting in the movie theater, this time watching Top Hat and again finding solace in film.


So what does it all mean? It means that movies are movies. They are flights of fancy and a way to take us somewhere else than the mundane real world that most of us live in, but that they’ll never be more than that, and they shouldn’t be. The idea that they are imagination and nothing more than that may be sad, but it’s also ultimately true. Movies are there for us to love, and for us to fall in love with, but they aren’t and cannot be reality.

Allen’s film is, of course, self-referential, as any film about film must be. That it’s a different sort of self-reference than Bergman’s means nothing. This film is, as I’ve said, a love song, and like any great love song, it ends too soon.

Why to watch Persona: Bergman’s existential masterpiece.
Why not to watch: Seriously, WTF?

Why to watch The Purple Rose of Cairo: If you love movies, it’s what you dream about.
Why not to watch: The ending is a wrist-slitter.

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