INGMAR BERGMAN’S AUTUMN SONATA (1978)

is a damned important filmmaker. As an artist and Catholic, I’ve experienced his body of work and without reserve, I rank him with the likes of , , and . Yet, I’m now in my fifties, and I’ve come to the point where I can relate to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who—late in life—said he was done with the pessimism of composer Gustav Mahler. Likewise, I hope I’m never asked to watch a Bergman film again for the remainder of my life. Not that 366 Weird Movies asked me to; I did it to myself.

For Autumn Sonata, Bergman cast Casablanca actress Ingrid Bergman (no relation). It proved to be her last film before succumbing to cancer. She plays the famous pianist Charlotte Andergast who has abandoned her family to pursue her career. Charlotte accepts daughter Eva’s () invitation for a visit, despite not having seen her for years. Having recently lost her longtime lover, Charlotte wants to stay at her daughter’s Norway parsonage for emotional support. Married to the reserved clergyman Viktor (Halvar Björk), Eva’s world is a far cry from the celebrity and glamour of her mother’s life. The complexities of their relationship are incandescent, and this may well be the most well-acted film of Bergman’s oeuvre.

Ingrid’s casting was poignant on numerous levels. She had longed to make a film with her namesake. Both she and Ingmar had been in exile from Sweden (the director for tax evasion—he was later found innocent). Ingrid had been harshly criticized for abandoning her family to purse an affair with the married Roberto Rossellini and, after her films were widely picketed and banned, she fled Sweden. Ingrid was initially skeptical because the parallels between actress and role were so disconcerting. She overcame her trepidation, however, to deliver a tour-de-force swan song. Ullman is, in every way, Ingrid’s equal, and although this is ultimately an ethical and psychologically healthy chamber film, it is inherently Bergmanesque.

At first, the reunion seems to be a joyful one. Charlotte has barely settled in, however, when old tensions between mother and daughter arise. Eva, a writer, is also a pianist, but she is angst-ridden with an inferiority complex that she blames on her mother. Eva’s fear of playing Chopin to her hypercritical mother is validated. Even the musically illiterate can detect the difference between Eva’s subpar performance and Charlotte’s sublime interpretation. The brilliance of Bergman lies in divided sympathies. We can identify with Eva feeling patronized and shamed, but we also acknowledge Charlotte’s valid aesthetic criticisms.

A more painful source of contention is the surprise of Eva opening her home to her sister Helena (Lena Nyman). Suffering from a degenerative disease, Helena is a provocative reminder of Charlotte’s neglect and narcissism.

The scene in which Eva confronts Charlotte throughout the night is lengthy, riveting, and drenched in emotion. Charlotte’s propensity for bragging and her lack of humility, her inability to listen and perhaps even to fully love, is punctuated by Eva’s demand of silence, and, ultimately by her mediocrity. Yet, we also see Eva’s strength as a giving savior/saint to both her husband and sister—a role that Charlotte is utterly incapable of. Lesser filmmakers would have taken sides and painted the scene solely in hues of pathos, but Bergman is not so monochromatic: he uses humor, awe, and sensuality. Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nyqvist opt for intense extreme closeups, filmed in gorgeous oranges and browns. It’s called Autumn Sonata for a reason, and the engrossing music (Chopin, Bach, Beethoven) is of equal importance to the theatrical-like visuals.

Björk is, as usual, superb, but ultimately it’s not his film. We go through the wringer with Eva and Charlotte, and there is no sophomoric resolution, because reconciliation sure as hell isn’t microwaved. It’s sacramentally built; and Bergman leaves us with the hope, and the feeling, that it will be built. In that, I find Autumn Sonata to be as close to Catholicism as Bergman comes.

*ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED AT 366 WEIRD MOVIES

STOCKING COAL: THE STAR WARS HOLIDAY SPECIAL (1978)

With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector of movie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.

Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late Carrie Fisher even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.

Continue reading

HOTTER THAN HELL ITSELF: KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK (1978)

Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.

At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average Vincent Price movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up  to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).

Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park(1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park could very well be to 1970s TV movies what Manos: The Hands of Fate was for the 60s: a movie so bad that one risks permanent lockjaw from having watched it, which of course is its appeal today (I’ve grown wiser in middle age).

Continue reading

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART TWO: MARTIN

The Mountain of the Cannibal God (directed by prolific trash guru Sergio Martino), is possibly the most well-known film of the Italian cannibal genre, primarily because it has name stars in Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress. Being Martino, it naturally revels in its nastiness, which runs the gamut from castration to decapitations, shots of human entrails, and actual footage of a monkey being devoured by a python. A nude Andress certainly helped its box office. It was yet another video nasty staple in the heyday of mom and pop video stores.

Starcrash (directed by Luigi Cozzi) stars cult fave Caroline Munro in a blatant Star Wars ripoff. There’s other people in it as well, like David Hasselhoff (in his film debut) and Christopher Plummer, but it’s Munro that audiences went to see, and it’s a hoot to boot.

Starhops is a sort of Star Wars parody, but it’s essentially juvenile sexploitation, surprisingly directed by a woman: Barbara Peeters. It’s obscure, for obvious reasons.

The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (directed by Leo Penn) is a Gothic horror TV mini-series starring grand dame Bette Davis, still riding high post-Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? (1960). Adapted from the Thomas Tryon novel, it’s winningly offbeat with a high camp performance from Davis as the town matriarch. For unknown reasons, it’s home video distribution has been spotty, only briefly becoming available on VHS in a badly mutilated version.

Jean Rollin goes zombie with Grapes of Death. Being Rollin, it naturally is going to have a twist—amusingly, zombifying wine. Opulently bloodied, the film has a reputation as being weaker Rollin. Actually, his virtues here outweigh his usual flaws.

They Call Her Cleopatra Wong (directed by Bobby A. Suarez) stars Marrie Lee as an Asian 007 kickin’ ass of a buncha baddie henchman disguised as nuns. Naturally, it was an epic influence on Quentin Tarantino. Low-budget explosions, scantily clad femme fatales, kung fu galore, and wretched dubbing. Sorry, but you can’t call yourself cool ’til you’ve seen it.

Continue reading

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation genre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity quota, but it’s derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

 Behind Convent Walls (directed by Walerian Borowczyk) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, George Romero’s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (part 2). Zack Snyder remade DOTD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

John Carpenter’s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis ( Donald Pleasance) warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a William Shatner mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars Cameron Mitchell and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright,  Jeff Goldblum, and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by Abel Ferrara) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre (Nazisploitation) and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as Gregory Peck playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. As was discovered in the mid 1980s, Mengele was actually hiding on a farm in Brazil, an unrepentant but pathetic figure, jumping at his shadow daily until his 1979 drowning.

Here, Mengele spearheads an underground Forth Reich that is cloning an army of Hitlers. It could just as easily have been titled They Saved Hitler’s DNA. Peck’s performance veers from typical woodenness to bizarre cartoonishness, shorn of authentic menace, which at least suits a movie that feels like bad sci-fi Nazi pulp put out by DC Comics. There’s no frightening banality to it, which is what Fascism is all about (in his last starring role in 2003, Charlton Heston almost unwittingly nailed that quality as Mengele in the little seen, but still not very good My Father, Rua Alguem 5555). The Boys from Brazil is further burdened by comical German accents, including that of Laurence Olivier, who co-stars as a Nazi hunter and seems to be the only one who relishes the script’s pulp. The over-the-top finale literally goes to the dogs. James Mason, Michael Gough, Denholm Elliott, and Steve Guttenberg make up the rest of the big cast. Hollywood congratulated itself and gave the movie a couple of Academy Award nominations.

Continue reading

DORIS WISHMAN’S LET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978)

LET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978) theatrical posterLET ME DIE A WOMAN (1978)

In a round table meeting with a couple of editors, I was discussing a proposed documentary (which we abandoned). As we were dialoguing, I mentioned a scene which would require green screen. One of the editors stopped me short and said: “This is a documentary. You do not do green screen shots in a documentary.” When I explained that the scene was meant to be poetic and dream-like, which did pertain to the subject at hand, my editor persisted: “You still cannot do that. That’s against all the rules of documentary filmmaking.” I ended that with: “So who made these rules?” If I had thought that argument through, I probably would have tied the editor down and shown him two documentary films, which break “THE rules.” One would be Guy Maddin‘s My Winnipeg (2007) and the other would be Doris Wishman‘s Let Me Die A Woman (1978).

Continue reading