Bohemian Rhapsody – glorious yet shallow flattery

Anyone with a true passion for film would say that a great film stays with you long after you’ve seen it. In one way or the other. By that token I consider Bohemian Rhapsody a great film. However, it is not a great film from a cinematic, or even storytelling point of view. There are a few carefully chosen angles and camera pans that did make me stop and admire its cinematography.  It is a well executed film, but one would struggle to find more than two truly memorable scenes which would resonate with both film lovers and fans of the band alike.

What the film does well is preserve the legend of Freddie Mercury, and there’s no doubt as to why that is. Brian May and Roger Taylor made sure that everyone attached to the project played it safe and showed respect to the source material. This might not have been the best idea. I couldn’t help wonder what the film would have been like if it had been directed by a true fan of the band and of Freddie. True fans would accept the darkness with the light, champion it and stylise it. That light does shine through in this production,or part of it. It cannot be kept away, for Freddie’s light shone very bright indeed, a force as great as rock music itself. Fortunately for us viewers, Rami Malek managed to capture a glimpse of that light and show it to the world. It left us wanting more. It left me wanting to discover more about Freddie’s extraordinary talent and his controversial life. Hence, weeks after having seen the film, it is still with me. I find myself wanting to watch it again, to see if any hints, innuendos or references to the musical genius might have been missed. On first viewing one feels they are shown a show reel, a best of of a best of. It is an ordinary presentation of an  extraordinary rock’n roll band. We all know from the very beginning that the story and more importantly the music was anything but ordinary. We are still waiting for the goosebumps we know good cinema undoubtely give.

What the film failed to capture, whilst busying itself with being as PG and PC as possible, was both the essence of the band’s musical legacy and the complexity of Freddie Mercury’s tumoultuous life. We can’t tell for sure which film Bryan Singer would have ended up making, had he finished the production. Fans of both the band and cinema itself would want either one of those, not both crammed up into one, without doing justice to either. The source material is too vast, too sagaesque both in terms of music and the private lives of the musicians to be made into one film. As someone who has now researched their music extensively, it is my belief that Bohemian Rhapsody only manages to show a glimpse of the kaleidoscopic narrative that is represented by the two titanic entities: Queen and Freddie Mercury.

Vice – an exquisitely pretentious piece of cinema

The story goes that when Dr Strangelove was first conceived, it was conceived as a dramatic script. Somewhere during the writing process, a funny idea came to Kubrick’s mind. And then another, and another, until what emerged was one of the best political satires of the 20th century. Adam McKay, the writer-director of Vice is no Kubrick. He is by no means a bad director. He is probably an even better writer.

However, the impression that Vice leaves with the viewer is that the idea of turning this political drama onto a satire seemed to have sprung up on him during post-production, leaving us confused as to what we were watching. He seems to have whipped up ideas as he went along while editing the picture and attempted to gloss over any inconsistencies through the use of fishing visual metaphors.

At times it felt like we were being privy to an avalanche of sensitive information regarding the way the free world is being run. This, I must confess, brought on a feeling of physical discomfort. It almost instinctively made me think that there are levels of corruption that we, as regular folk can only imagine. Either that or Adam McKay is very good at imagining and filling in the blanks left by the Bush administration by using private email servers.

While busying itself with painting a demonic picture of Dick Cheney, the film manages to dehumanise him, thus almost excusing him from all the machinations and Machiavellian dealings we see him carry out in the film. Christian Bale’s performance is an almost perfect representation of what Cheney looked like, spoke and acted in front of the cameras, but there is little depth to it. The monster is one-dimensional and thus less believable and less feared. At the beginning of the story we are told that it’s the quiet ones we should fear, the men in the shadow of those in power, thus giving Cheney an aura of insidiousness. However, there is nothing insidious about Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney. We get very little insight into what his driving force is, other than the all-encompassing American love for his family and his country. Protecting his family and his country gives Cheney carte-blanche to go off starting wars in the Middle-East. And yet, that motive isn’t as well defined as one might have hoped. There’s an indication at profit to be made from the oil in Irak, but that is also quickly swept under the carpet.

While the film is very rich in ideas as well as modes of execution, what it is lacking in is the consistency to present a story. It may even be accused of suffering from the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ syndrome, which makes the subject matter alone deserving of respect, regardless of the way it is presented to the public. After all, a biopic about a hated man and a crucial part in American history should have the same gravitas as a biopic about what is arguably considered the best frontman that has ever graced the music stage, and thus get as many accolades. While neither film manages to truly earn its Oscar worthiness, the saving grace for Bohemian Rhapsody was Rami Malek’s astonishing performance. In the case of Vice, Christian Bale’s central performance might have driven the film too far into caricature territory had it not been for the supporting performances of Amy Adams, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk and Sam Rockwell, the latter’s portrayal of a buffoon president being welcome with a knowing grin. After all, it’s hard to imagine G W Bush depicted in any other way. Amy Adam’s Lynne Cheney almost succeeds to be a well-rounded character, despite a few far-right outbursts that come off as a bit too much for a 2019 audience.  

All in all, Vice is a passable film that raises as many questions about American politics as it answers, and which could have probably been even more enjoyable had it fully embraced the Brechtian aesthetic it merely toyed with.

Cary Grant vs the Production Code

Cary Grant wasn’t born in Bristol in 1904. Rumor has it he was born on the set of She Done Him Wrong in 1933, having been spotted on the studio lot by none other than Mae West. She cast him in the movie and a long successful career was thus started. And what could be easier? He was young, tall, dark, handsome. He had a lot of charisma, talent and sex-appeal. He also seemed to fit very well into that mad world of 40’s and 50’s Hollywood.

He was no longer Archie Leach. Archie Leach was left in Bristol, still performing pantomime at the Hippodrome theatre. If anything, Archie Leach remains in movie history as the clumsy and naive barrister played by John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda (1988). In fact Cleese was paying a tribute to Cary Grant, borrowing his real name for the protagonist of his award winning comedy.

Funnily enough, by coincidence or not, the film that made him a star, She Done Him Wrong, prompted the creation of The National Legion of Decency. The sexual chemistry between Cary and his co-star, the sultry Mae West did not go unnoticed by the censors, the film being banned in Australia, Finland and Austria, as well as the state of Atlanta. Cary Grant’s career would soar from this point on and his talent as both a comedian and a dramatic actor would gain him international fame and respect in Hollywood.

It is easy to forget that the Production Code was set in place for the majority of Grant’s career, forcing quite important restrictions on his performance. He was one of the many actors to be working within the boundaries of the Code, but he was one of the few that seemed to thrive on it. His comedic talent of delivering double entendres helped him keep things decent enough for the censors and exciting enough for the audience to enjoy.

He helped create the fast paced kind of comedy, based on extremely snappy and witty dialogue. Comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1940), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), to name a few, were very much ahead of their times and are still getting big laughs out of a modern audience. Even in more serious roles, Cary Grant was showing his suave leading man attributes. His collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock on films like Notorious (1946), North by Northwest (1959), To Catch a Thief (1955) has become legendary. Hitchcock never took the risk of casting Cary Grant in a role as a villain, but he did state that Grant was willing to take such a step, not shying away from challenges in his career.

He expressed a particular dislike in the style of Method acting and its three main representatives: Marlon BrandoMontgomery Clift, and James Dean. He was quoted as saying “Some producer should cast all three of them in the same movie and let them duke it out. When they’ve finished each other off, James StewartSpencer Tracy and I will return and start making real movies again like we used to”. (source www.imdb.com)

He showed thus lucidity in observing that times were changing and acting was changing as well. His style of acting belonged to the golden era of Hollywood, where the Code was making things difficult and exciting at the same time and where braving through a restrictive set of rules to make a picture was a work of art in itself.

 

Ingmar Bergman – famous works

From Jean Luc Goddard to Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci, Ingmar Bergman’s body of work has influenced many great directors, who have recognized and appreciated his unique style. As Bertolucci puts it in an interview shortly after Bergman’s death, he managed to capture “the depths of the human spirit, going even further into the interiors of men and women, in a black and white that turned his characters into ghosts and his ghosts into characters”. Inspiring himself mostly from his reality, learning from the pain and suffering of others, his recurrent theme in his films is death. Two of his best known films, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries have death as one of the main themes, but the way in which it is presented differs greatly from a film to the other, even though there are many similarities in style between the two.

Unique style

Thomas Elsaesser writes in his study ‘European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood’ what he finds to be the things “that make Bergman a great film director: his use of close-ups, his work on the sound track, the composition of these incredibly complex, yet fluid action spaces within the frame, in both indoor and outside scenes”. One can find all this in both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, which appear to be two very different stories when first viewed, but at a closer analysis, similarities arise from all corners, establishing Bergman’s style unique. Yet he doesn’t make a template of his work. His films remain “Bergmanesque” but they never become dull, being approached as a lesson on life.

Two journeys

Wild Strawberries is a story of an old doctor and his journey to be honored for his entire activity, while The Seventh Seal presents a knight of the Middle Ages returning home from the crusades. The journeys presented in the two films have apparently simple goals: the doctor has to go to Lund to receive an award, and the knight is coming home after ten years of crusades. Yet the style in which these two journeys are presented shows that there is much more to it than to reach the physical destination. The protagonists from both films (Isak Borg and Antonius Block) are threatened by death and haunted by questions of their own existence, life and the regrets they have. The style in which both stories are told brings them together and helps us understand one character by understanding the other.

Threat of Death

The threat of death is depicted differently in both films but there are certain elements that are central to both scenes. In Wild Strawberries Borg sees his own death in a dream. The whole dream sequence is played beautifully and most effectively, with the contrast between light and darkness, silence and sudden noise being central to the whole scene. The setting plays also an important role, as through the deserted street, where one can’t see where it starts and where it ends. It can make reference to the deserted beach in The Seventh Seal, where Antonius Block first meets with Death and they start a game of chess. In this second film, silence and sound also play an important part, as once Death has made an entrance, one can no longer hear the sound of the waves crashing to the shore. It is dead silent as well as on the empty street in Borg’s dream. The pacing is of the essence in these scenes as the slow action allows the viewer to observe all the details, which prove to be more important than the action itself, revealing key information on the characters (their fears, their questions and desires).

Godless and godly characters

Antonius Block and Isak Borg are quite similar characters portrayed in very similar manner. They both have questions about life and death, about God and his existence. Borg has acted all his life as if he was God and feels now that the day of his reckoning has come. Block has fought all his life in the name of God and finds all his struggles have been in vain. They both embark on a journey that is meant to help them find an answer to their questions; they both meet interesting people on the way, which helps them to some degree achieve their goal. The style of both films is very dark but contains many elements of humour inserted in the story telling. 

Family portraits

One of the recurrent themes of Bergman’s films is family. It is true that the ways in which family relations are looked at are very different in both films, but the central idea of redemption remains in both films and the style is quite similar. In the midst of all kinds of threats from all sides, family remains unified at the end of the film even though not much seems to be resolved. Darkness and light are intertwined in both films, suggesting the viewer an inner struggle within both characters. At the end they are both somewhat at peace with their imminent deaths, knowing that they leave a happy and united family behind, that have just escaped from death’s trap. We notice that both Mia and Jof and Marianne and Evald are threatened by the concept of death, only that in Wild Strawberries the threat comes from the inside, namely Evald’s view on life and death and his refusal to have any children.

Life changing experiences

Both films focus on issues of existence, on how fear and constant struggle can be at the same time human and grotesque, how life experiences can transform a person, turning them into outcasts in the middle of society. The difference between the two protagonists is that Block realizes how he has estranged himself from his own persona. War has changed his view on life and God, making him question everything and in the end feeling more lost than ever. Just as Borg, Block needs to solve unfinished business before he dies; both films follow the same style when it comes to fulfilling that last task by using the journey motif. Block’s journey has begun long before he is presented to us, while Borg seems to reinvent his own life by embarking on a rather unplanned journey. Borg had slipped into a state of oblivion, living in denial of his own self. It is the dream of his own death that makes him realize he’s not immortal and that he too has a task to fulfil before he dies. Death thus is a strong element in both films, but the style in which it is presented and the effect it has on the protagonists differs greatly. In The Seventh Seal death has a face and represents almost a constant threat. In Wild Strawberries, death is not seen but merely feared of and this fear acts as wake-up call on Borg’s conscience.

Bergman the auteur

The style Bergman has applied to his films, especially during the “middle period” to which the two films we’re analysing belong, is very complex in its simplicity. The dialogue is very important in helping to portrait the characters especially when it alternates with moments of complete silence which are very expressive in creating an image around the characters. It is true that one can distinguish the theatrical style in his films, but that is of secondary importance as one cannot expect much realism in a Bergman film. His reality is what we are being presented, and as theatrical as his storytelling style may be, he can’t be accused of artificiality. In both The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries the problems the protagonists deal with are very personal to the filmmaker. It is his signature and his filter on life. He even stated that The Seventh Seal was “’excellent therapy’ for his morbid obsessions. He presented life as he experienced and saw it. Both Block and Borg can be seen as images of Bergman at different stages in his life, even though Borg resembles more the figure of Bergman’s father, who had a great impact on Bergman, while Block more like the filmmaker himself. The close-ups are a trademark of Ingmar Bergman’s style of filming and storytelling as with a facial expression he manages to make it easier to render feelings.

Style of narration

The narrative style is very reflective. In Wild Strawberries the protagonist narrates as a voice over what has been happening to him, reflecting on the points he considered to be flagrant: his two dreams namely the dream of his own death and the one of him failing at the most important exam of his life. They both suggest that Borg is afraid not only of his death, but also that he may have not achieved anything significant throughout his whole life. In addition to his dreams, his youth comes to haunt him as if to ask the same question. In The Seventh Seal, even though there’s no narrator, one might say that the narrative style is also reflective, as there are many scenes of monologue. Block is narrating his inner thoughts to the viewer. But instead of presenting what has been happening to him, we guess it from his revealing of his thoughts and torments (the scene at the confessional). Bergman gives an insight on Block’s mind and what he is thinking through his monologues, which is presented somehow clearer than in the case of Borg, where the 1st person narrative is used. 

Elements of humor

Humor is a very important part in the narrative as well as in helping portraying the characters. Borg and his maid have a very interesting almost comical relationship that hides a deep respect and appreciation on both sides, despite the obvious taunting. There is a comical element in The Seventh Seal as well, though the overall style is much heavier. The humour is induced by Block’s esquire who proves to be a very wise man but also a very subtly funny one, mocking those around him whenever he gets the chance (the relationship between the blacksmith and his wife for example, or the way in which he presents his marital status: “I am married but I have hope my wife will be dead by now”). In The Seventh Seal even Death has some sense of humour, especially when he chops down the tree where the coward and lustful actor Skat finds refuge. Though picking him as his victim is not completely at random. Skat represents betrayal and he is portrayed in contrast with the angelic family of Jof, Mia and Mikael.

Symbolism

The symbol of the wild strawberries is worth being taken into consideration as it relates to key moments in both films and also to Bergman’s style of using details as key elements in his story-telling. In The Seventh Seal, the wild strawberries represent the simplicity and innocence that is associated with Mia, Jof and Mikael. They are the only image throughout the film that comes close to holiness, bearing a striking resemblance to the Holy Family. Similarly, in Wild Strawberries, whose title couldn’t be more suggestive, the wild strawberries represent Borg’s lost love, youth and innocence, which he looks upon nostalgically. Both Borg and Block catch a glimpse of that long lost bliss in their life. As he helps himself with strawberries and milk from the bowl, Block says “I shall remember this moment. The silence, the twilight, the bowls of strawberries and milk, your faces in the evening light […] I’ll carry this memory between my hands as carefully as if it were a bowl filled to the brim with fresh milk. And it will be an adequate sign – it will be enough for me”, suggesting that this was the sign from God that he had been looking for.

Bergman shows his unique craftsmanship by using almost the same style, almost the same cast to depict two stories that couldn’t be more different to each other, yet couldn’t be more similar. He has used his own life as the nucleus for most of his films on which he added more or less the same “ornaments”, using the same palette and the same range of “tools” but with such different effects. He is an auteur and he has created films that can be easily identified as his own, but he has never created a pattern in his work, which could turn him from a true artist into a second rate dull filmmaker.