Annakarinaland

Annakarinaland
Anna Karina in Pierre le Fou

2010-03-31

Grace Slick and the White Rabbit Society

White Rabbit is a ballad about the hypocrisy of the American"establishment" and the disenchantment of the 60's. This is Grace Slick's song and lyrics, with riveting musical accompaniment by band members of the Jefferson Airplane. 

Slick takes to task in this chanson one of the classics of children's literature. She is amazed how parents  read to their young children "The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland" , a surrealistic adventure not unlike an acid trip, and still criticize the rebellion of youth during this time.

White Rabbit retells the story of Alice who grows taller -  expands her mind -  and smaller losing her feminist power,  and who envisions all kinds of magical creatures. It can also be seen as an allegory of American youth who were lost during the Vietnam War. Some went down rabbit holes and died and others protested. ("Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call"). There has been no similar student movement since. After the turmoil, a middle class was created and silenced by consumerism. This was a battle cry to reconnect to the earth with  mind and heart.

Slick's version of Alice is a box within a box. Just as everything is confusing to Alice and she distorts what she sees, she also becomes a distortion for readers. In Slick's rendition of the story, she calls the Queen of Hearts “The Red Queen “(she is after all as red as the hearts, but has no heart). The "White Knight talking backwards" evokes the double speak of the time when war was rampant but was forged in the name of peace on earth. This message is still true today. When "Men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go", was the power of the presidency to initiate unilateral military intervention and the disruption of civil liberties of American citizens.

The dormouse in Lewis Carroll's "The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland" (1865) could not remember anything but probably would have if he had time to think, to learn, to improve his mind and slow down. Slick's ballad indeed spoke to a numbed part of American society that watched an infamous war continue. The mesmerizing White Rabbit is a battle cry for awakening. Student protests and civil liberation movements grew exponentially during this time. Corrupt forces of the status quo include the Johnson administration installed after Kennedy’s assassination, which pounded Vietnam with bombs. The futility of this military venture led many young people to "drop out", " sit in", burn their draft cards, and expand their consciousness in news ways of living that invigorated the culture with color, flowers, poetry, music, film and art. For some, the experimentation of psychedelic drugs to reach the fourth dimension was part of the journey. For others they were catapulted to nirvana through poetry and protest.

Drugs are not what all the song is about, and it is limited to see it only as that. If one was unsure about protesting during this time, Slick proclaims, "Go ask Alice" who should know that "logic and proportion had fallen slowly dead" in the US.  The chessboard, the battlefield for white and black Kings, Queens, bishops, knights, rooks and pawns symbolize the patriarchal military industrial complex of American society in the 60's.

White Rabbit is a Freedom Song, a rally call to transcend the patriarchal order of the time and enter the world of creativity and knowledge. That call is still valid. Slick’s final message spoken through the Dormouse is a response to the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots by her cousin Elizabeth I - after a conspiracy of deception and treachery -  “feed your head” -  improve your mind and become aware.

Why should the FBI have this song out on their list of subversive music? . "You'd laugh so hard you'd crack the walls!" , retorts Grace Slick. The drug metaphors kept her out of the White House when she ironically was invited to a (Mad Hatter) tea party. Could it have also been because Slick often performed in a green girl scout uniform to provoke the "decent people" of America? Or her solidarity with civil rights included painting her face in black and raising her fist on national television was too provocative?


The bravado of the Jefferson Airplane marching in time to Slick’s slick phrasing with drums, lyrical guitars and then solid soul piercing base tones, builds in momentum into a riveting and masterly mosaic of energy. Each stage of the journey is related in the cadence of a Spanish bolero with castanets, drums and electric guitars. Slick sticks to clear and powerful phrasing as she explains the need to get smart like Alice, or else! Although the "white rabbit" is not referred to in the song other than in the title, he is the ultimate messenger of truth, for without him Alice would never have seen her own reality above ground.

The Jefferson Airplane(formed 1965) recorded White Rabbit in 1967 on the album Surrealistic Pillow:Marty Balin (vocals, rhythm guitar); Jack Casady (bass);Paul Kantner (rhythm guitar, vocals); Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar, some vocals); Grace Slick(vocals, piano, recorder) and Spencer Dryden (drums).

White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice
When she was just small
When men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving slow
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen slowly dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's lost her head
Remember what the dormouse said;
Feed your head, feed your head

2010-03-21

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: New Swedish Crime Thriller Hits San Francisco



Poster for Original Swedish film title: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women).
Poster for Original Swedish film title: Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women).

2010-02-24

Xena: Warrior Princess, The Final Episode: A Friend in Need, Part I and II.

Xena Redux
I first started watching Xena: Warrior Princess about a year ago. I can’t believe I missed the entire six seasons when they were broadcast from 1995 to 2001. I was in Boston for the first three seasons, and Sweden for the last three. I watched Xena now and then in Greece during summer vacations when the show was broadcast, dubbed in Greek. But I had no idea that Xena was Thracian and Mt Olympus was located on the very island of Lesbos where I was, the birthplace of Sappho. Women went to a particular souvlaki café to catch the show on the tavern TV, and I have finally understood their enthusiasm years later.

Once becoming hooked on Xena after a rerun in Sweden featuring an episode about Gabrielle and the Amazons, I rented Season 1 and 2 at the local video store. Soon after I ordered the complete six-season box set. The first set came from China which stalled a lot and some episodes were missing, but I received a refund and got to keep them. It became my portable Xena set for my travels. The complete set remains at home.

WARNING : SPOILERS!
I knew beforehand that Xena dies in the last episode. My sister told me and I was crushed when she revealed the ending. But knowing that made me pay attention to any premonitions of her eventual destruction during the seasons. Xena had died before and came back to life but nowhere as brutal as in the last episode. It is not only that Xena was killed, but how she was killed.

The relationship between Gabrielle and Xena was carefully established over the years. Watching Gabrielle come into her own power and learn to fight was remarkable, but it never ceased to amaze me how skilled Xena was as a warrior. She could take on more than several foes at once, and rescued Gabrielle countless times. In the final episode Xena asks Gabrielle where they should go next. Then in answer to her question, a monk arrives with a beautiful sword that once belonged to Xena and tells her that her services are requested elsewhere in the East.

Akemi and Yodoshi
Akemi is in danger, and Xena can set things right. The soul-eating demon Yodoshi has been snatching people’s souls right and left so Akemi sends for the “Warrior Princess”. Xena met her a long time ago and followed her home to get the ransom on her head from her family. Along the way Akemi stops by her grandfather’s grave. His spirit tells her that Xena needs a better sword. The warrior princess has to fight for a mighty one from sword makers who don’t want to make one for a woman. The monk delivers this to her with Akemi’s request.

Akemi’s father Yodoshi turned into a demon after she put “the pinch” on him that Xena taught her. The pinch causes blood to rush to the brain and death in 30 seconds unless the vein is reopened. Gabrielle is astonished that she would have taught Akemi that. Perhaps now we know why Xena always hesitated to teach it to Gabrielle. She told Gabrielle that Akemi broke her heart and was the first woman to teach her about love. Well talk about it anyway for Xena didn’t understand that Akemi’s rapidly beating heart was a sign of passion. It was hard to figure out what Akemi was up to from the very beginning. After Akemi puts the pinch on her father, she suddenly commits Harakiri with a sword. Her dying wish is for Xena to take her ashes to a special shrine for protection. This tragic event causes Xena to momentarily become an alcoholic, and stumble through the streets carrying Akemi’s ashes. The villagers have hacked off her hair. When they attack her again, the urn breaks into pieces and the ashes scatter. In retaliation Xena sets some of them on fire, a fire that spreads through the entire village. She learns later that 40,000 people lost their lives that day.

On her new visit to the “Land of the Rising Sun” (Japan), the soul-eating demon Yodoshi has prepared a welcome for Xena with a ton of soldiers. They first set fire to a village. Xena asks Gabrielle what she would do in this case, preparation for the new Warrior Princess. Gabrielle suggests using acrobatics to approach the water tower for extinguishing the flames. “Its not what I would have done”, Xena says afterwards, “but it worked”. Xena teachers her the pinch, and tells her that with only 30 seconds remaining in her life, feeling her love for Gabrielle was enough.

Akemi’s ghost lives in a teahouse outside of town with two other ghouls. When Xena visits, one of them stamps her foot bearing an ankle bracelet on the floor, and Yodoshi comes running. He warns Xena what he has in store for her and that she will lose her head. Akemi knows what she is in store for too, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Xena is told that she must die to enter the underworld and conquer Yodoshi. But Akemi doesn’t tell her there is no way back after her death.

Xena's Final Battle?
That this manipulative and child-like waif who teases monks and leads Xena to her death is allowed one more time to reek havoc on the warrior’s life is astonishing after so many tests and ordeals. The fire that took so many lives was started because of Akemi’s sudden death and Xena’s despair, and hardly an act of malice that the fire spread so quickly. Should this end the love she experiences with Gabrielle. Isn’t Xena smarter after all of these years? Isn't Gabrielle worthy of a life with her? Apparently not. Xena buries her copper breast plate, as she did in the first episode, and adorns a royal warrior outfit with silver and crimson trim. She strikes out on her own to conquer an enormous army, without Gabrielle and does well in the battle. She sets their ammunition on fire, which creates a huge mushroom cloud, and takes many of them out with her bow and arrow. Then the Captain instructs his warriors to unleash a barrage of arrows, several which hit her and wear down her strength. Next, the warriors attack her with swords. Xena cries out for Gabrielle, unable to hold her own alone any longer. Why would she have done this if she didn’t have the will to live. And why, for once does Gabrielle not appear. The Captain marches up to Xena and hacks off her head. The screen goes red, and fortunately we don’t have to witness the beheading. A bloody chakram lays on the ground, used only once when it could have saved her life. Later when Gabrielle finds Xena’s naked body hung up outside a shed and we see her devastated and tear stained face, we know the murder has been brutal.

The Underworld
The Captain tells Gabrielle that Xena was a worthy fighter, but she counters that she died dishonorably, was unfairly outnumbered and slaughtered. She asks to see her head, which is propped up on a nearby plank like a trophy. Gabrielle avenges her death by killing the Captain and refusing to cut off his head. She returns to the little teahouse and meets Xena, who has not yet understood she is dead. When she reaches for her chakram she cannot grasp it in her hand. She tells Gabrielle that death is the only way to conquer Yodoshi. Gabrielle believes her and burns her body. On the second sunset she is to take Xena’s ashes in a magic spring in order for her to return. When the Captain shows up again and attacks Gabrielle, the urn rolls away. After defeating Yodoshi and seeing that the souls he has captured will be condemned, Xena tells Gabrielle to forget about her ashes. She has to stay dead to atone for the 40, 000 dead souls and wants them to have peace. Gabrielle is stunned and crushed but accepts it, perhaps all too quickly.

Context vs Subtext Resolved
Writer RJ Stewart scripted the narrative. Throughout the series, and despite subtle hints, it finally sinks in how romanticized the “friendship” of Xena and Gabrielle has truly been (subtext) which fits with the ending. Having Xena by her side in spirit seems enough for Gabrielle. They have experienced being soul mates through declarations of love to each other, or when the frequently injured Gabrielle is held by Xena. In the end, Gabrielle attends to Xena’s corpse and must say farewell to her life on earth. Soul mates or not, enduring screen love is not for same sex mortals like Gabrielle and Xena.(context)

When commenting on the episode years later, director Robert Tapert does most of the talking in the video commentary. It is his creation. Lucy Lawless looks glum while Gabrielle is gushing. In the preceding episode “When Fates Collide”, both Lawless and husband Tapert reveal their interpretation of Xena’s love for Gabrielle. While hanging on the cross, Xena says, “ I love you Gabrielle”. Lawless says the declaration was "forced". "Yes, says Robert,” it was forced”. Did Lucy Lawless mean that she felt "forced" to say this? Or that she should have said it more convincingly. This is the MAIN TEXT, not SUBTEXT. For is it not appropriate to exclaim love after taking Gabrielle’s place on the cross. Alas, sacrifice is the stuff of Greek tragedies. Gabrielle gets to love Xena in spirit for the rest of her life after the final episode, as it pretty much has been all along. At which point with the chakram situated on her waist, Tapert exclaims, “Its Gabrielle; Warrior Princess, but we couldn’t sell it.

I don’t believe in endings where women atone for their past with their lives, where women are beaten and assaulted after kicking ass with superior skill for more than six years. It would be more honest to end in a manner more like Lawrence of Arabia and have Xena fall from a horse in an accident far removed from the battlefield.

Closure
So Sad to Fall in Battle is the story of the Japanese General Tadamichi Kuribayashi who lost the campaign at Iwo Jima during World War II. He refused to risk the life of his men in suicidal banzai attacks, but to fight defensively. Isn’t a suicidal attack what the Warrior Princess must do in the end? She has been on several during the years to clear away the wreckage of her past. How much is enough, and doesn’t Gabrielle’s presence deserve a life long commitment? Isn’t this what RJ Stewart put her through in the end? Should her demise so clearly resemble Akemi’s with an aborted scattering of ashes for the final rest and confinement to the underworld for sins? Why is Akemi’s fate and hers in greater collision than with Caesar or Alti or Ares? By ending in this way, the makers of Xena: Warrior Princess have done both heroines an injustice. Gabrielle is not allowed to persuade Xena to remain alive, as Xena so many times has done for her. Thank goddess for Xena fan fiction like“The Shipper: 7th Season”, more in truth with the characters. Well, let's face it, the final episode(s) of Xena Warrior Princess are epic, lots of spectacular events, but inconsistent and unfitting of a nine year grand finale.

Lucy Lawless has said previously said that “Xena is not real”. Perhaps not, but her character was made “real” through countless courageous and daring episodes affirmed by a dedicated following. Most of us did NOT think this ending was believable. Xena deserved an honorable death, and was not given one: it was this Xena who was not “real”.

Leftovers
One final compelling question remains: in their adventures, Xena and Gabrielle have met historical figures such as Caesar, Homer, and Hippocrates. Why in heading towards the end of the season did Gabrielle not get to go to a play by Sappho on her birthday and meet her, but only get a piece of her poetry?
It is erroneously claimed that Sappho died for the love of a younger man by Greeks who are ashamed of the poet who loved women. There have been legal battles to change the name of Lesbos to Mytilini, the capital city of the island where Sappho was born and had a school for women, and for Greeks to have exclusive rights to “Lesbian”, meaning inhabitant of Lesbos.
Sappho should have been in the Xena series. And Gabrielle and Xena should have experienced corporeal rather than only romantic love. As Sappho wrote, “Aphrodite crowned in gold, please let this piece of luck be mine”.
We'll just have to leave this one to fan fiction.


Moira Sullivan
Swedish Film Critics Association
February 23, 2010
Stockholm, Sweden

2010-01-09


Bitch Slap is 100% Pure Fun : Calling all Xena and Hercules Fans


Pam Grier: Coffy (1973)
Pam Grier: Coffy (1973)

2009-12-30

Anna Karinaland

Welcome to a new European/San Francisco based Cinema Roundtable discussion form: Anna Karinaland
- a forum for HOW cinema is made and HOW critics evaluate it. Soon to be launched here!

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2009-06-24

Revisiting Katherine Hepburn in Venice: Summertime

Katherine Hepburn in Venice


Summertime
UK / 1955

Summertime was shot exclusively in Venice. And for those who have been to Venice, the film is a rare treasure; an historical homage to a city once enamored by tourists, with very few cameras, and mostly well dressed Italians. Today the dress is more casual, and the deluge of international tourists milling around removes a part of this floating museum with every step.
For David Lean, it was his favorite film starring his favorite actress. In her autobiography, Me, Katherine Hepburn remarked, “they called me and said that David Lean was going to direct it. ‘Would I be…’ they didn’t need to finish that sentence.” Hepburn said she first lived on the island of Murano, where the famous Murano glass is made, not Venice proper with its maze of narrow streets and bridges. Together with her entourage, she quickly moved into an apartment near the Grand Canale, the major water route, opposite the famous Gritti hotel where David Lean camped. (She even had her own gondola.) One of the most sought after Venetian tourist items is of course Murano glass: “glass, glass and more glass,” according to the dialogue. Given that Venice footed the entire bill of $36,000 for the film, Summertime is seen as pure tourist promotion.
Summertime is about Jane Hudson (Hepburn), a middle-aged “fancy secretary” from Akron, Ohio who saves up for a three-week dream vacation in Venice. Arriving by train to Piazza Roma via the Orient Express, Paris-Venice, complete with a hand-wound 8-mm camera, she takes the vaporetto, the public water bus rather than a gondola or water taxi. An American couple on board happens to be staying at the same boarding house, Pensioni Fiorini ( a set construction) on the Accademia vaporetta - water bus stop (the Peggy Guggenheim Museum is located here). Jane coyly indicates to the pensioni proprietress that she, like most girls under 50, is searching for something. On her first day out on the Piazza San Marco Jane meets a handsome middle aged man, Renato Di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), an antique dealer, and enters into a romance which becomes all the more passionate because he is married although separated.
Lean had six shades of red goblets blown especially for the film. In one scene, Jane discovers Renato charged almost the same amount for 18th century glass as fresh imitations, a discovery that produces rage. It becomes quite clear that Jane is losing her rocker, displaying a passion that eclipses the bravura of Brazzi. She is hysterical, insisting people drink with her to quiet her loneliness, and has flash floods of intermittent tears. Hepburn actually had problems with Spencer Tracy and the film crew, despite the glass commercials, and she was considered an irritating obstacle to tourism.
Lean’s intention with the film was to capture a child at play: Jane’s awe of Venice and the excitement of new love. An Italian child becomes her escort, one that she at first rebukes — she is not that desperate, but she and Renato later play with wind up toys at a café. “You are like a hungry child that only wants beefsteak not ravioli. Please take the ravioli,” says Renato when she starts to question the affair. “I’m not that hungry,” says Jane. But Renato convinces her of the need for a Latin approach, “the ravioli approach” to love and sexuality. Her red goblets transform to a pair of sparkling red shoes, noticeably evocative of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, as fireworks fills the sky. The charm of Venice and typical Italian love songs give the film the aura of a melodrama, a woman’s weepie, but the storyline is too thin. The film also prods American and Italian stereotypes, such as the shock of promiscuous Italians to the more pristine Americans. (Keep in mind the film has a British director.) The travelogue veneer and the superficial story make Summertime a corny gem.
Hepburn claims Lean absorbed the city and had a photographic gift for conveying his impressions. Indeed, after every minute of dialogue a breathtaking view of the city is displayed, drawing inspiration from the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, which is made to fit his pictures.
In one memorable scene Hepburn falls into the Venetian canal, an action that would be repugnant today in the foul water, filled with industrial pollution from neighboring Mestre. Reportedly, the water temporarily blinded Katherine and today anyone who falls into the canal is advised to take antibiotics. (An urban legend about the incident claims that the fall contributed to Hepburn's Parkinsons illness). Medieval Venice was built on pilings and dead bodies were dropped into the canal to rot. A foreshadowing of the duplicity of the canal occurs when Jane first sets eyes on a gondola floating by, a view tainted by the dumping of sewage from an apartment. It is the also the water that carries her first flower from Renato, a flower that never quite stays in her possession even as she pulls away from the city. “Please help me Renato,” she begs, “let me go.” She has grown up, and if she stays a second longer she will never go. Brazzi actually first interpreted his role as a gigolo, (“another girl will arrive tomorrow”), a portrayal Lean thought too grim.
In the UK, the film was called Summer Madness, a far more appropriate title.

Revisiting Ingrid Bergman in The Visit

The Visit

The Visit
La Rancune / USA / France / 1964

From start to finish, The Visit is commanded by the presence of Ingrid Bergman. She was scorned by Hollywood for leaving her husband for an Italian director, and is here cast in a role that allows her to address the people that exiled her. As a young woman, Bergman was given virtuous roles that endeared her to the public, which was why her exile angered them. (Ernest Hemingway was prepared to take out a full-page ad in Hollywood Reporter in her defense.) Nevertheless, she had tired of superficial roles and was willing to accept low pay for challenging parts in Rossellini’s realist cinema, as in Stromboli, the first picture he invited her to make in 1949. Bergman received a standing ovation at the Academy Awards when she returned to accept an Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express, years after leaving Hollywood. Bergman’s role in The Visit is an irony, as she plays a woman who returns to face her past.

Bergman plays Karla Zachanassian, who as a young girl was beaten by her schoolmaster. Her father was a hopeless alcoholic and her mother the subject of town gossip. At the age of seventeen, she falls in love with Serge Miller, the local shopkeeper, and eventually becomes pregnant. He denies being the father when she files a paternity suit. Later she loses the child and is forced to leave town. She moves to Trieste, and because of her disgrace is forced to survive through prostitution.

Two decades later she returns, extremely wealthy and with a desire for vengeance from the people of the mythical Pan European village. (It is claimed that here Lord Byron wrote his poetry and Brahms composed his music.) She brings a lawyer and two witnesses who confess Serge bribed them years ago to testify that Karla had slept with them, casting serious doubt on her paternity suit.

Karla claims that with this deceit her spirit died, and offers two million dollars, one for the township and one to be divided among the citizens of the village upon the execution of Serge, Karla’s one condition for payment.

It is triumphant for Karla to witness how morals can be discarded for a price. The townsfolk and elected officials that ran a seventeen-year-old girl out of town equally turn against Serge, who says he was only human, asking forgiveness and understanding. As Karla dines in her apartment over the courtyard adjacent to his shop, she watches the town transform from self-righteous indignation over killing a man in vengeance to a demonstration that everything, even human life, is a commodity that can be bought. As in Casablanca, “human life is very cheap.” Yet, she cannot take comfort in the complicity of the townsfolk.

Karla’s secretary is a young woman named Anya, who might be the same age as her dead child, and who perhaps acts as careless as she had when she was young. Karla counsels her in an effort to prevent the same mistake, bidding Anya to leave the married man she is with and offering to take her on the road after her “visit.” This is perhaps Karla’s saving redemption.

Austrian Bernhard Wicki directed The Visit, a writer as well as actor (Wicki played Doctor Ulmer in Paris, Texas). His film, an international co-production made in Italy at Cinecittà, is embellished with well-constructed scenes, excellent camerawork, and outstanding performances, such as when Karla momentarily rekindles her love for Serge. The scene is shot at sunset on a dock with a delicate light hitting the two actors in an embrace in close-up. Karla marvels at how his hair was so black when he was young, how their whole life was ahead of them. For a moment, she loses herself in the past in a wild and passionate moment only to tragically discover Serge has grayed, recalling the life she was forced into. As she comes to her senses, there is an abrupt end to the lyrical scene.

Ingrid Bergman, at forty-nine, was at the peak of her career in this film, and is powerful and dynamic as Karla. She remarked in letters housed at the “Ingrid Bergman Archives” at Wesleyan College that her mature roles were more interesting than in her earlier (and more renowned) roles, such as in Casablanca. The choice of a property like The Visit demonstrates how well she lived out her conviction to evolve and transform as an actor.

Revisiting Bergman's The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal
Det Sjunde inseglet / Sweden / 1957

The Seventh Seal is, in real time, a thirty-minute reprieve from the “apocalypse.” This is symbolized by the Black plague of the Middle Ages during the 13th century, a disease that spread between victims at eight kilometers a day. The Christian clergy randomly blamed people for its spread, in one case burning a young woman of fourteen at the stake. For Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, the film served as an allegory to the cold war of the 50s and the threat of nuclear warfare. Because the rapid advancement of the plague is abundantly featured in the film, the thirty-minute reprieve becomes an evolutionary and meditative journey.
Fourteen years after a Holy Crusade, Antonius Block returns to the south of Sweden. At that time it encompassed Denmark with the festival of saints at Helsingör and Roskilde as geographical references in the film. The most famous scene of The Seventh Seal opens upon Block at the eastern coast of Sweden. Death suddenly appears, covered in a black cloak from head to toe:
“Who are you”, asks Block.
“I am Death,” the figure replies.
“Have you come to get me?”
“Yes.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Everyone says that.”
“But I don’t grant any reprieves.”
“You play chess don’t you? I’ve seen it in paintings and heard it in songs.”
The game begins with moves on board, which serve as plot changes. A field trip to a church with frescos illustrates the story of the plague as a death ritual. The thirty-minute reprieve Block requests is for him to experience one meaningful deed before he dies. He tries to trick and is tricked by Death, who poses as a confessor at one point while Block reveals his game plan.
Block’s quest is for “vetskap” (knowledge), but he is also aware of his corporeality. At one point he holds up his arm exclaiming, “this is my hand,” as in the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion when the liturgy intones “this is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The knight meets a circus family: Jof, Mia, and their little two-year-old son Mikael. Jof predicts that Mikael will one day be able to suspend a ball in mid air, such supernatural powers providing allusions to Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph. It is Jof, however, who appears to have mystical powers — his visions indeed serve to save his family from death. Jof sees not only the Virgin Mary but his death, his family’s, and that of others.
Bergman’s films often depict the artist as an outcast and at one point in The Seventh Seal Jof is asked to dance as a bear, awaking superstitions of the people at an inn who need a scapegoat for the plague. Such a mime evokes the medieval custom of sacrificing a bear for atonement. Likewise, processions led by clergy carry not only witches for burning but a parade of flagellates paying for their sins.
The Seventh Seal is not only a medieval drama play. Bergman also manages to instill his film with references to his philosophy on women, elsewhere seen in Monica, The Story of a Bad Girl, Persona, and Cries and Whispers.
At one point an actor from the circus is seduced by Lisa, the wife of blacksmith Plog. They escape into the forest and are later discovered by Plog and Block's squire, Jöns. The forest is feared for bears, wolves and ghosts but primarily Death, symbolized by thunderstorm, lightning, and rain. Jöns and Plog converse about how Lisa should be killed, as all women, for their deception, harking back to the garden of Eden. “Lust is one thing,” says Jöns. He tells a woman he “saves from rape” that he is tired of “that kind of love.” Plog and Lisa are however reunited and cry out that the actor should be killed, shifting the burden to the artist as outcast. Death, like the church, has a thing to say about the adulterer, who fells a tree the actor has scurried up, leaving a squirrel to sniff at the fresh cut of its roots.
ONE HUGE QUESTION ABOUT THIS FILM IS NEVER BROUGHT UP IN FILM CRITICISM:
Upon meeting the young girl condemned to death, Block cannot help but ask why. He means to interfere and prevent the fate, but supposes she is half dead already. There is plenty of time before she is set on fire, so it is curious that he waits until the last minute. (Was that not a good deed?)
Convinced of “tomheten” (emptiness) Block wanders away to the circus family where he has a bowl of “smultron” (wild strawberries, offered to him by Bibbi Andersson as in Wild Strawberries, made the same year). The symbolism of the meal points to one other existential truism, that for the moment daily bread is enough.
When the travelers make their way to Block’s home they are met by his wife, who prepares the last supper. Death is welcomed into their home and we later together with Jof see them led by Death brandishing a scythe in a dance on the hill. The Seventh Seal is riddled with conventional metaphors about death and women, and the artist as outcast, a fate Bergman himself would experience two decades later when accused of not paying his taxes.
NOTE: Criterion features a new digital transfer special edition of The Seventh Seal, with loads of extras!
Used by permission for:


English 369:
Film History from WWII to the Present
Jefferson Hendricks
English Department
Centenary College of Louisiana