Monday, January 3, 2011

The List of Shame: Fanny and Alexander

Would you like to see what the end of the year does to me?  
So (as I’m sure you’re aware of) the world has just put the capper on an entire decade
The closing of a chapter...the finalization of an epoch...the firing of the last gun in a twenty one gun salute.  
Unfortunately, I don’t do well with the death of epochs. 
I get weepy and self reflective, almost as if my time on Earth is supposed to mean something.  I need reminders of why I’m continuing down the path I’m on...rallying cries,  a talisman...
Basically, I need some sort of tangible proof that I’m not completely nuts.  
What’s the benefit of all my blatant navel gazing?  
It gives me something to post blog entries about.   
Are you going to benefit from my navel gazing?   Well, I’ll do my best to make this a universal post that everyone can find some common ground in.  And how am I going to do that?   
By talking about one of the most revered filmmakers among a small and elitist group of film snobs.  
That’s’s Bergman time!

The first film I watched this year was Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982).  
I watched it over a three hour period on New Year’s morning, while I consumed enough caffeine to support a small country.  
There were many thoughts I had that sounded wonderful in the moment.  
Many of them centered around the following topics:  
    • Film is an art form capable of delving into the psyche and providing emotional release.  
    • The need for truly personal filmmaking instead of more contributions to the glut of crass commercialism.  
    • Most importantly, why every time I’ve watched one of Bergman’s movies I point the screen and say:  “That.  I want to do THAT.”  
In the course of watching Fanny and Alexander, I didn’t have the foresight to keep a pen and pad next to me.   
So I’ll do my best to create feeble simulations of my incredible insights.  
Hey, it’s the best I can do.  
(Also as a side note:  I’m including this as a “List of Shame” entry because I had not previously watched Fanny and Alexander.)  
Why Fanny and Alexander is Immune to Critical Analysis
After a lengthy thought process (which was eventually derailed), I have decided that there is no real way to subject Fanny and Alexander to a traditional critique.  
You can’t really describe what it’s like to sit there and watch it.  
Several reasons, really.   
The first of which being that it is all consuming experience.   
We’re talking about a three and a half hour, completely immersive, emotional charged and somewhat exhausting commitment.  
You can either shut down the DVD player or go outside for a walk.  Or you can throw caution to the wind and strap yourself in for the long haul.   
In essence, you meet Franny and Alexander on its terms and on its own time. 
Yes, it does have a plot:   
A young boy named Alexander comes of age in a theatrical family.  His father is stricken ill and passes away, leaving his mother to remarry a very strict Bishop.  Alexander learns to use imagination and a belief in magic to reconcile with the harsh disappointments of life.  
Yes, that’s it.   
It moves at a glacial pace.  There are more than 20 central characters.  Your eyes will be permanently strained from reading subtitles.  
And did I mention it’s a riveting and essential experience?  Why?
Here’s what I got from it.  
Fanny and Alexander primarily about two things.  .   
The way in which film is used to explore something as complex as a person’s emotional space.  
The camera is a really useful tool for expressing this.  Watch the way in which a character in Franny and Alexander will have a revelation in close up.   
You’ll be watching a standard wide shot in which you see everything.  But then a character will have a thought and there’s a cut.  
Bergman’s close ups are abnormally long.  You’re right there as the thought is completely hatched and delivered in real time.   
It’s almost like developing a case of ESP for the viewer.   
The color scheme of the movie changes drastically as the story switches gears.   
The first half of Fanny and Alexander takes place the world of romanticized childhood.   
Everything has a golden glow, and is lit by candles and moonlight.   
When Alexander’s mother remarries, everything becomes gray, blue, and sterile.    
This is all due to the shift in Alexander’s perspective.  Bergman (and the audience) are right there with him as his world is uprooted and turned around.  
It’s a subtle shift.  (Screaming out: “Hey, look at what I just did with the production design” would be tacky).  But it speaks volumes.   
Most importantly, this is proof that “personal filmmaking” can exist.
This is an intensely personal movie.   
(I read on the internet that Bergman modeled the story on his own life.  If it’s on the internet, it must be true).  
It’s not about generating ticket sales.  
It’s not about creating a spectacle.  
It’s about exploring something that is truthful, and creating a work of art.  
Look, I grew up in the era of Lucas and Spielberg.  I understand the value of special effects, and popcorn consumption, and holding your bladder because you don’t want to miss the next thrill.   
But doesn’t that ultimately feel a little empty to you?
And don’t you find it a little discouraging?  
Don’t you want to “feel” something after the sugar rush fades?
And why create something like the art of cinema if it can’t at least serve that higher purpose every once in a while?  
Full disclosure:  I’m one of those people who has “artistic ambitions.”  I want to guide the audience through emotional experiences.  I want to have people look at whatever creative output I come up with and say: “Yes, I recognize that.  I got something out of that.”  Isn’t that what a really good movie is supposed to do?
I want to create human stories.
I know it’s a dicey proposition, especially this day in age.
But my three hours on New Year’s Day were not wasted because I was reminded of a valuable lesson.
“Personal filmmaking” is not a dirty catch phrase.  It’s not an ambition to be ashamed of.  And it’s possible that it can be done well.    
In short, in can exist.  
So there you have.  Some jabbering on about “inspiration” to start off the new year.   
I’ll go back to being dour and bitter next time around.  Promise.  


  1. Hey Dust,
    Yet another of your insightful, wacky and inventive critiques. Very worthwhile reading. Thanks.
    Of Bergman, I recently discovered "The Magician" and had to watch it three times before I could let it go back to Netflix. The man had a theater background, like yourself. I think that's part of what makes those close-ups so strong. His affinity with actors.

  2. Thanks for reading, man! From my understanding, Bergman actually considered himself more of a theater director than a film director. He loved film, but found the greatest satisfaction working with actors. I have not seen The Magician...and there's a giant gap in my knowledge of his films in general (still need to get to the Virgin Spring). But each time I would one I do nod my head and say: "That's it!"