Ingrid Bergman at MoMA

With the 100th anniversary of the birth of screen legend Ingrid Bergman coming up next month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York has announced a special film festival in honor of the late Swedish actress and three-time Oscar winner. MoMA will be screening 14 of Ingrid’s movies, selected and introduced by her four children, including actress Isabella Rossellini.  Several of Ingrid’s most famous movies will be shown, such as “Casablanca” (1942), “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945), and “Notorious” (1948) – my favorite Hitchcock film, as it happens – among others.  In addition several of her European films, less well-known to American audiences, will be screened. These include four of the Italian films she made with her second husband, director Roberto Rossellini, which are considered some of the most important works of European Neorealist cinema in the Post-War era.

While it is great that so many of Ingrid’s performances will be shown to audiences who have never had the chance to see her on the big screen, there are a few notable absences.  I find it somewhat odd, for example, that MoMA of all places would not include “Spellbound” (1945) with Gregory Peck, since certain elements of the production were designed by Salvador Dali. Neither will be attendees be seeing “Anastasia” (1956) with Yul Brynner, for which Ingrid won her second Oscar, nor the now-legendary Sidney Lumet ensemble film, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), for which she won her third.  It would also have been nice to see the sophisticated romantic comedy “Indiscreet” (1958) with Cary Grant which, while admittedly more of a specialist taste, has always been one of my favorite films of hers because of its very grown-up, cosmopolitan script, and whose Technicolor positively glows on screen.

That being said, I’m pleased to see that MoMA will be screening “Autumn Sonata” (1978) with Liv Ullman, Bergman’s final film and the only one she made with another towering Bergman of the cinema, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The two Bergmans had always wanted to work together, but as so often happens, sometimes these collaborations only happen in the autumn of one’s years – appropriately enough for the title and subject matter of this work. For those whose image of Ingrid is of the compassionate but resolute, strong yet tender beauty, this performance is quite a departure. It shows not only that she could act – John Gielgud’s catty comments notwithstanding – but that she could confound your expectations.

At first the role of the famous performer, all warm smiles and graciousness, seems to be Ingrid the actress playing a musical version of herself. Yet as the film develops, she plays against type in such a way that at first you don’t realize that her character is actually quite monstruous. The viewer is both drawn to and, upon reflection, repulsed by her character at the same time. It is not surprising that Ingrid received her 7th and final Best Actress nomination for the role, and that it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.  Even if you can’t get to New York to see it, if you enjoy good acting you should definitely add this one to your screening queue.

Ingrid Bergman: A Centennial Celebration runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from August 29th to September 10th.

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I’m All About “Eve”

This weekend I had the good fortune to view (in convivial company) the classic 1950 film “All About Eve” on the big screen for the first time, at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland. Now as regular visitors to these pages know, I have been a huge fan of this film for many years. I have seen it more times than I can recall, and can also recite almost all of the dialogue from memory. I also own a copy on DVD, naturally enough.

However there is something truly unique about seeing a classic black and white Hollywood film from the golden era on the big screen. No matter how familiar you are with a particular movie that you have seen on a television or computer screen, there is nothing quite like the experience of being in a theatre with a large group of people, seeing it on a huge screen, surrounded by sound. And truth be told, despite having lived in Washington for many years, this was only the first time I visited the AFI Silver Theatre, which is a wonderful space showing a wide range of both classic and contemporary cinema.

With “All About Eve”, this film in particular does not necessarily need to be on the big screen to be enjoyed. There are no great action sequences, and the film itself is not unlike a stage play, in which the dialogue is far more important than the action. However because the characters in the film – not unlike the actors who portray them – are so much larger than life, seeing them several stories tall really does add to the feeling that you are watching a hugely important work of American cinema, which “Eve” definitely is.

There are many reasons why I might recommend that you check out “All About Eve” if you have never seen it before. It could be because it is such a devastatingly accurate look at the misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships between men and women, for one thing. Or it could be because of its steely-eyed look at the problem of unfettered ambition and how it can harm other people. Yet I think on the whole if you enjoy hearing the English language well spoken, and you also enjoy a carefully crafted book, fiction or not, that becomes the primary reason to see the film. The words of the magnificent screenplay of “Eve” fill the air on the film set in a way that few films have done before or since. Paradoxically, this is a sensory feast for someone who loves to read.

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Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and George Sanders in "All About Eve"

“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5” for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.