Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Day 53: Fanny & Alexander

I'm unsure what to say about a movie which so wonderfully expresses such an incredible range of powerful emotions.  It features both a scene of agonizing grief in which an older woman, racked with sorrow from the loss of her son, wails like an animal in pain and a scene near the end in which a man, overjoyed at the birth of his child, delivers a speech that is a deliriously happy vindication of life, love, and theatre.  The latter is like Henry V's "once more unto the breach" for anyone experiencing depression, clinical or otherwise.  One scene aside, involving two characters who're not really all that important to the film, a scene that only feels extraneous in retrospect because it's so damn good, the experience of watching Fanny & Alexander defies the logic of language, the harsh razor of analysis, and the diminishment of capsulation.  This is my experience with many of Ingmar Bergman's films and I've now come to the rather hasty and extreme conclusion that if one is to write about them, one should be writing poetry.

Since inflicting my own particular brand of poetry on the Internet would drive my readership down, destroying whatever hope I have of sweet coinage, I will make an attempt to relate the experience of watching Fanny & Alexander to the readers of this blog through my stultified prose.  Ladies, get ready to re-experience that sophomore/freshman/Boy Scout tugging at your brassiere.  Gentlemen, get ready to empathize with the humiliation thereof.  And you purple creatures with tentacles and eye stalks, get ready to laugh confusedly because you don't even understand the language but are sure something inappropriate's being said because Cousin Larry's looking peeved.

Fanny and Alexander are two children whose parents run a small theatre.  They are part of a large, happy family with some amount of money and a history in the theatre.  A Christmas celebration early in the film provides a sweeping introduction to all of the members of the family and, though the film is never quite so happy as to gloss over the fact that the matriarch of this clan is sad about aging and quite often feels like crying with little provocation or the fact that one of the men in the family is far in debt, can't afford to heat his house, and is violently angry with himself and his wife, these early scenes are sweet and happy.  When the children's dad dies (while rehearsing for the role of Old Hamlet's ghost), their mother quickly remarries a stern, pious Bishop.  Soon, the two children start to see their Father's ghost.  As you can see, echoes of Hamlet inform Fanny & Alexander, and this isn't particularly out of place, since the film's focus is those who would play in the "little world" of theatre.

The contrast between three worlds featured in the film is illuminated with clarity by the differences in set design and photography for each.  The homes of the Grandmother and her children have a feeling of wealthy austerity.  Clean, well-kept, but somewhat cluttered with baubles at the same time.  The Bishop's home, reflecting his view of the world, is stark, grim.  The windows are barred and the walls are bare.  It resembles a home carved out of stone at times, so bleak is the design.  And then there is the final world, one of magic and wonder.  Reds dominate and facsimiles of humanity appear everywhere, puppets and animatronics bobbing their heads as characters pass by.

Ghosts and magic do play vital roles in the film, but they're not used cheaply.  Bergman's understanding of ghosts is satisfying, since the ghosts in this film reflect a sense of shame about dying.  Magic is as frightening and punishing as the Bishop's Christian piety, though it is also more delightful since it is uncontrollable and spontaneous.  Interesting too, is the way Bergman brings forth the notion that extreme emotions can split the fabric of reality, allowing these supernatural forces in.  But all of this is part of a conflict in the film between illusion and reality; Christian order vs. Natural Entropy; Adults vs. Children.    

I'm sure the word "haunting" has been overused to describe this movie, but if so, it's only because it's an apt description.  When Alexander meets a strange, mystical doppelganger who, cruelly, frees him from oppression, it feels like an ancient fireside story or a Greek myth or some sort-of Pagan ritual brought to life before you.  There's something in this scene that appeals to those aspects of the brain that still believe in fairies, and also to the parts of the brain that insist there are no such things.  The lack of resolution between these two awarenesses of the world is, I believe, what creates the haunting feeling, and it's something the movie does consistently and well.

It's a long film (three hours and eight minutes) but, as the movie would agree, the experience of time is relative.  For me, these three hours passed by swiftly and my attention rarely faltered.  I'm aware that there's an even longer version that originally aired on TV and that this version probably justifies the one scene that I felt was extraneous (it's a scene about the son that's not doing so well financially.  He's barely in the movie after this scene and the focus on his character proves a little undue considering what the rest of the movie is about [though it does provide a larger sense of the family and the grandmother and adds disquiet to the jolliness of the Christmas celebration]).  After watching the theatrical cut, I have every intention of seeing the longer version someday.  It's a beautiful thing to live in a world with movies like this one that satiate the desire for myth and story so completely.  And the movie itself acknowledges this (though it's not talking about itself) in that wonderful, joyful monologue at the end.  

But it feels pointless to talk about this movie in such dry terms since it's invested with such greatness.  Words in this particular paradigm of thought can't even come close to expressing the power of something like this movie.  So, if you'll excuse me, I need to go write some awful poetry.  About awesomeness.

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