Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, has made a career of bringing the fairy tale and the phantasmagorical to the screen. His career is a testament to auteur visionary power and carries on the sci-fi and fantasy interests of the cinema’s first pioneers like the Lumiere Brothers and George Melies. He carried that torch for a long time as the sole working fabulist in the Western film tradition and arguably allowed for the continuing existence of a space from which filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro could one day emerge.
In his first solo film as a director, Terry Gilliam presented producers with a seemingly arduous task: a development of Lewis Carroll’s poem The Jabberwocky. The poem appears within his second Alice novel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Alice emerges through the other side of the titular looking glass and finds a book wherein a poem is displayed. But the text is problematic, it is backwards. She holds the book up the mirror where it reflects the contents in the correct order and renders them legible.
The poem has a definite arc. Some thing is tormenting some place and a young man kills that thing with his vorpal sword, which then elicits the praise of the king. But the text is filled with nonsense vocabulary created by Lewis Carroll (who was a linguist, as well as mathematician, logician, poet, essayist, and novelist). Alice has difficulty understanding the poem and only comes to the conclusion that some one killed some thing. Most producers would be terrified at the prospect of financing a film with so little information. But Gilliam was lucky to have producers who understood what Monty Python was about and that letting the auteurs of that comedy troupe make what they desired would probably be the best way to ensure a good, marketable film resulted. So, Gilliam had a ton of freedom in the process.
What he created was a tableau of medieval Europe where people lived lives of destitution. Dirt, decay, and death cloak people, crumble buildings, and claim all in equal measure. Kings are insane and common, the product of many incestuous unions and a lack of genetic diversity within their bloodlines. All the while, the merchants are the ones who look truly noble and beautiful. People find entry into the guarded city nearly impossible if they do not already have skills and wealth to offer, and even once they enter the city, they may remain destitute and broken down as most average people had to members of guilds to get their jobs.
A beast is roaming the countryside and all of the peasants want it destroyed and plead with the King to entreat the powers of local knights and champions to dispose of the beast. But the clergy have seen their attendance numbers and tithing rise exponentially with the fear of death by Jabberwocky. They plead opposite to the people in an attempt to keep the beast around as a tangible symbol of darkness and evil in their midst. Eventually, the King folds to the people. However, not because he cares one way or the other (he is quite crazy and power-mad as well), but because he can enlist knights to do battle in a joust tournament, which will determine a champion to fight the beast, but will also give him some much-wanted entertainment in the form of gladiatorial-like bouts.
Dennis Cooper (Michael Palin) lives in a small hamlet two miles from the local castle. There are reports of the Jabberwocky’s presence in the environs around the hamlet, but it has not attacked any villagers there as of yet. Dennis is, as his name suggests, the son of a barrel-maker. But whereas his father has a high attention to detail and values the craft, Dennis is a bird-brain type who thinks nothing of the art of the craft and cares more about making a quick buck and taking stock multiple times a day. Dennis has fallen in love with a brutish, portly young woman of ill-manners who has no regard for him and treats him like dirt, yet he plans to make a fortune somehow and win her hand in marriage. When Dennis’ father has a stroke and is laying on his death bed, he tells his son how much he hates him and leaves nothing of the family business or wealth to Dennis, thereby prompting Dennis to leave the hamlet for the big city.
Through a series of odd events, the dunderhead makes his way there unharmed after encountering the Jabberwocky. He causes a ton of calamity in the city, but gets himself roped into going out to assist the champion in his fight against the Jabberwocky. While in the wastes, they find a band of rogues attacking the family of Dennis’ betrothed one and manage to scare them off after the knight falls off of his horse and lands on one of the assailants, smashing him into a pile of blood and guts in the process. Dennis’ betrothed tries to proposition the knight, and not Dennis, for marriage, much to Dennis’ dismay. The knight, being sensible and of good taste, rides away from them fast as possible while Dennis follows behind on his donkey.
Finally, in one of the most atmospheric, foggy, and cinematically exciting moments of the film, the knight approaches the field where the Jabberwocky resides, but the rogues from earlier have brought the Black Knight along as well who commences to fight and destroy the white knight and do battle with Jabberwocky. Somehow Dennis manages to leave as the last one alive with the head of the Jabberwocky in his possession. He is greeted with acclaim in the city upon his return. His betrothed is there and takes the opportunity to finally offer her hand in marriage. But the King has different plans. He gives half of his kingdom to Dennis only upon the agreement that Dennis take his own daughter, the princess’s, hand in marriage. He is forced to do so and rides off into the sunset, unwillingly and all the while calling out for “Griselda,” the one he actually loves who has given up on finding a man and has been committed to a nunnery.
Dennis’ stupidity seems beyond belief, but reflects a real problem within peasant communities of the time. A lack of education and access to a healthy, stable diet can limit intelligence and brain growth respectively. Plus, most of the water available would have been running through lead-laden piping or polluted streams. These facts lend credulity to his utter buffoonish nature. The opportunism of Griselda and her family reflects upon the fact that most marriages were not love-based or love-initiated. They were often set up by parents or go-betweens and made as economic compacts meant to improve the fortunes of one’s family.
The film presents an interesting picture of a dark time in human history (at least for Europeans), whilst presenting powerful fantastic elements in an inventive retelling of medieval knight’s tales. For a long time, this film has been nearly impossible to find on home video releases and has rarely been shown on television. As such, I was excited and surprised to see that the Criterion Collection released the film a few months ago. I picked it up as soon as I found out about the release and have enjoyed seeing the first realization of Terry Gilliam’s auteur mind at work in the cinema.
(To check out my previous Studio Ghibli essay click HERE!)
In 1973, Isao Takahata directed the sequel to his short film Panda! Go, Panda!, The Rainy-Day Circus. During the next few years, he, Miyazaki, and their friends like Yasuo Otsuka and Yoshifumi Kondo worked on various projects. Otsuka directed the first Lupin III film in 1968, while Miyazaki directed the second (his first feature) in 1969. Takahata worked as a pick-up director on Isamu, Boy of the Wilderness in 1974; Dog of Flanders in 1975; Monarch: The Big Bear of Tallac in 1977; and both Future Boy Conan and The Story of Perrine in 1978. He was also series director for Heidi, Girl of the Alps in 1974; 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother in 1976; and Anne of Green Gables in 1979.
So, in 1981 when Toho and Tokyo Movie Shinsha offered him a role as director for a film based on the long-running Jarinko Chie manga, he jumped at the chance and enlisted many of the friends and coworkers he had worked with throughout his career, most notably Otsuka, and most noticeably absent Miyazaki and Kondo.
The story involves a young girl named Chie who works at her father Tetsu’s Yakitori and Kushiyaki (types of Japanese shish-kabobs) bar. Tetsu is a thuggish oafish type who frequents gambling joints, constantly borrows money from his parents, and likes fighting off Yakuza from local establishments. Chie’s mother and father are inexplicably separated, a mystery that makes more surface-level the narrative rather than deepening it in any way. The owner of a local gambling house has it in for Tetsu and sicks his cat Antonio on Tetsu’s cat and Chie’s friend, Kotetsu. Kotetsu beats the cat (I would say handily, but you know) and rips off his testicle in the process. This weakens Antonio and the next day, while fighting a dog, he is killed. The fight and its repercussions eventually lead Antonio’s son to seek revenge on Kotetsu.
This revenge and the reintroduction of Chie’s mother Yoshie into the family are the two main plot points that link together the many gags and slice of life elements that make up this tableau of dysfunctional Japanese life in a quasi-magical realist setting with anthropomorphic animals. The film’s opening sequences set up a landscape of hard-living criminal types co-existing alongside average people in the big city, though the city is sprawling like Kyoto rather than vertical like Tokyo. Incidental and atmospheric jazz scores play lightly behind scenes of light-hearted, though real, struggle. Chie is still in elementary school but must work her absent father’s restaurant without even any maternal support. The scenes here remind of the 70s street works of American animator Ralph Bakshi, like Heavy Traffic and Coonskin. But the feeling is almost immediately dissolved in the following scenes as things turn campy and comic.
I enjoyed the film and can see how Takahata began to become more interested in urban living through this film: an interest that would later be apparent in films he directed like Gauche the Cellist, Only Yesterday, and especially in My Neighbors the Yamadas. The film was successful enough to spur on the production company Tokyo Movie Shinsha to ask Takahata to direct a full series about Chie’s life and quirky circumstances. The result would be a full two years of work from 1981-83 on a 64-episode anime series devoted to pictorializing the manga, making it more popular and widespread, and likewise making money for the company. Takahata achieved all three of these goals, created another film in the interim, and continued working alongside Miyazaki and Kondo sporadically. The scene seemed set to explode outwards as everything Miyazaki, Kondo, Otsuka, and Takahata produced or touched turned to gold and their rise to the level of studio heads and auteurs would come in just a few more years time.
[Next up: Gauche the Cellist]
(To check out part 9, click HERE)
The Salvage work commences and Pinion is finding loads of treasure in the now-vacant Whale Squid nest. The murdered bodies of the sentient beings and cousins of the human species litter the oceans, oceans of blood, oceans of gore, morally problematic oceans that give pause only to Ledo who knows why they are problematic, and to superstitious workers who believe in the curses of the Whale Squids that now haunt the sea of mist as spectres. Pinion’s work finds many weapons, cannons roughly 75 times more powerful than the arsenal of his entire fleet. He decides to hoard his wealth for himself and his own people, he won’t share his spoils with the world to make it a better place, and won’t even trade or sell the newfound wares.
Pinion takes on the aspect of a fascist with total control. His power as a worker with a will to help only those who are like him is nationalistic and close-minded. He has made a power grab through his popularity that has rendered him the true leader of the fleet over and above Ship Captain Flange and the other Ship Captains aboard. Pinion calls out on the radio frequency and tells the world of his findings and how he will destroy anyone who attempts to take them from him. Pirates show up to test his strength and are quickly defeated. Pinion takes over their ships, enlists the men as his own, and imprisons the Pirate Captain in a bay below.
Later, he will throw a party for Ledo whose fighting ability and technological superiority has led to the genocide of the Whale Squid, the eviction from their home, and the opportunity for Pinion to reap rewards. Ledo is disillusioned and angry with himself. He will brood and reflect on the evil he hath wrought as well as the propaganda ingrained within him from birth onward by the Galactic Alliance of Humankind. Pinion challenges him the next day to help with the work and quit sulking, but Ledo essentially tells him to fuck off and makes him aware that Pinion is ultimately at his mercy as the man with the machine that could kill every human on the planet without even taking damage.
“What is this? What am I doing it all for? Who am I doing it all for? When did it start? Was it when I first regained consciousness on this strange planet? Or was it earlier, like the first time I got inside Chamber, inside a Machine Caliber? Or did it start at the very beginning when I was born?” Ledo feels as if his life has been less than meaningless. He has actively killed without prejudice his own genetic brothers and sisters. He thinks back to when he exited the Machine Caliber after the genocide and recalls the blood and guts of thinking, feeling sentient beings caked on the outside hatch. The moral pangs reach an existential core that is itself a void, a void the Galactic Alliance filled through meaning in battle, in making the world and the Universe a worse place rather than a better one.
His visions of killing mother and fathers and stomping to death their children excites a physical revulsion and response in Ledo in the form of vomiting. As he reflects, Chamber has one of his inconvenient processing realizations. The light bugs that roam the Earth’s seas are not natural phenomena or true bugs. They are nanomachines made of the same material as the Hideauze shell. the material absorbs electromagnetic waves and converts them into chemical energy for sustenance. They use this energy to exist and to grow and to eventually self-divide. They are connected to the Hideauze in some way, but Chamber is still unsure of how.
Ledo, tired of these academic discussions, makes apparent to Chamber his lack of will to go on fighting and claims that he will fight no more forever against the Hideauze, because they are his relatives genetically. they are evolved from human beings. Chamber then acts uncharacteristically. He gives Ledo orders to fight. Chamber explains that the Hideauze are powerful beings that do not social orders or complex technology to continue existing. Therefore, unlike weaker human beings who do, the Hideauze have not continued to need large brains and intellects. Chamber believes, without great evidence mind you, that the Hideauze have therefore evolved over time to be less and less intelligent, but their space forms have evolved through constant fighting to be more and more powerful physically. they have reached the level of strength of Machine Calibers in space and therefore, should be considered Ultimate lifeforms quickly reaching their peak evolutionary levels of strength. Human beings have relied on intellect and social orderings and the Machine Calibers represent the highest form of evolution within the species of homo sapiens. Chamber therefore believes that the conflict between the two ultimate lifeforms is a teleological necessity and potentially an eschatological end-goal game.
As Ledo thinks about this new approach and questions why and how Chamber is commanding him rather than the other way around, a fleet approaches in the distance. We, the viewers, note that the individuals onboard are wearing hooded cloaks with odd symbols of an eternal eye, masonic style. Chamber notes their approach and a Galactic Alliance signal being emitted from that direction. As they near Pinion’s fleet, Ledo recognizes the Machine Caliber of his friend and superior officer Kugel onboard. Is it possible that both men survived the Hideauze battle and the bungled Telemaki Swing through the wormhole generator in Episode 1?
Till next time,
(If you missed it, check out my previous essay on Nicolas Winding Refn’s fifth film Pusher III)
From 2003-2005, documentary filmmaker directed Phie Ambo followed the career of Nicolas Winding Refn during the lowest point in his professional life up to that point. His career began with the powerful arthouse film Pusher that was simultaneously a blockbuster smash, but some gambles on two later, artier films (Bleeder in 1999 and Fear X in 2003) both failed in the box office. In 2003, Refn and his production company Jang Go Star were both bankrupt, the company was defunct, and Refn owed $5.5 million kroner, or something like a million USD in debts to producers who has financed his last two films. The film begins in the midst of the process of Refn, his producer Henrik Danstrup, and their creditors assessing the damage.
Refn had come back to Denmark after the failure of his last film and had to find a way to make back his money quickly and re-establish his career as well. He and his wife Liv Corfixen had just had a child together, but were living paycheck to paycheck off of her maternity pay, while his small checks for past royalties on films were going toward slowly paying off his debt. He had a script for a film, Billy’s People, co-written and ready to produce, but no producer would take the gamble with Refn that this film wouldn’t end up bombing like his last two had. As such, he scrapped the project and began talks to create two more Pusher films.
The film recounts the months of talks with producers who gave him short deadlines for both scripts. During this time, Refn’s life was a haze of stress, stress-induced sicknesses, alka-seltzer tablets, and writer’s block. But he eventually pulled out of his spiral and created the scripts. Through the Danish Film Institute, he and his producer were given a large tax credit for the first film of around 4.4 million kroner that he used to create the film and handle promotion, whilst the rest of the money were taken by Refn and Danstrup as their salaries, and were then used to pay off their debts, which had been transferred to their now-defunct, but still existing in name, company Jang Go Star. This complex approach allowed them to legally deal with the fewest extra taxes possible and they believed that their worries were over and that Pusher III would make them rich once more. They were wrong.
The revenue for what the film made had to paid back to the producers who gave them their money and when it came time for Refn and Danstrup to receive their cuts, it had to be taxed as income. So, they paid off most of their debts, but then owed one million kroner to the government of Denmark! The pressures of this situation wore on the two men, but especially on Liv Corfixen who had to worry day in and day out about whether she and her husband would be financially solvent or in debt. Refn’s constant gambling with other’s money in the hopes that the Pusher films would be big enough to make him money turned out to work, but not in the way he initially promised to Liv.
So now they owed just 1 million kroner, but in the process of making the past film, they also had to use money they did not yet have to edit the picture into a powerful shape after it was turned down by a distributor for lacking kinetic energy. These and other difficulties pushed the two to borrow large sums of money from the bank for the film’s production. When the second film succeeded financially in the box office, they got the deal for the third picture: 2.3 million kroner. And in usual fashion, Refn decided that they should pay off 1 million kroner in debts and take the rest to gamble on another film after Pusher III. His next film would not be released for 3 more years, but when it was, that gamble took off in a big way and really re-vitalized and re-launched Refn’s career beyond his wildest imagination. And that’s saying something as all three Pusher films were among the biggest Danish film releases for their time.
We can map trajectory of Refn’s career onto his films. We can see the brilliance of a young auteur at work in Pusher, doing his best to make the film as powerful as possible. We can see his vision expanding in Bleeder and Fear X as he grows a big head, takes larger gambles, and hopes that his powers as a great filmmaker will win the day financially in the box office. Once he fails twice, we can map him onto the character of Tonny in Pusher II who is a constant fuck-up who wants to care for his newborn son. And in Pusher III, we see him in Milo who just goes through the motions as one things after another dominoes on top of him and makes his escape nearly impossible. But he can also see Refn in Milo as Milo beats the odds in his own game of chance, a game of death, but feels somewhat jaded by his life of crime, even though it has its exhilarating ups. Refn would not complete another film for three years. We can only assume he was taking a breather after a nine-year whirlwind, knock down drag out, sturm and drang episode of near-epic proportions.
[Next up: Bronson]
Pinion’s Salvage crew and Flange’s peoples are aboard their ships on the fabled sea of mist and most crew members have a bad feeling about the situation as a result of the eeriness of it all. Stories proliferate about how no one has ever left the sea of mist of alive. We find out that this is not technically true as well. Pinion and his brother entered the Whale Squid’s territory years prior to salvage ancient technologies from the ocean’s floor, but his brother invaded a nest directly and he was killed by the Whale Squids there. Pinion was left alive or somehow managed to stay alive even though he was attacked by a few of them.
Down below, in the fabled sea, Ledo and Chamber are attacking the Whale Squid, Earth-type Hideauze, and immediately realize that they are weaker than their space-type counterparts. In fact, they seem to be 1/120th the strength of Chamber who has little difficulty defeating many of them and only has to be concerned with running low on energy in the process. Over the past thousands of years, the Earth-type Hideauze have had no real competition for resources in their seas, and as such, evolved through a lack of harsh selection factors into a weaker race that remained benign compared to their space counterparts that grew stronger and more vicious.
As Ledo and Chamber draw them out in droves and attack, they come close to the surface and Chamber activates his shields. The Salvage wrecker workers toss out large explosives into the sea and destroy the Whale Squids in the vicinity. As Ledo continues his assault, he gets closer and closer to the Whale Squids, eventually locating their nest and destroying all of the fully-grown members, plus many young polyps, which Chamber refers to as Hideauze larvae. The polyps emit high pitched shrieks when damaged or killed. Killing them all upsets Ledo, so he leaves a number of them alone for the time being.
As they break into the core of the underwater nest, they realize that they are in some complex, ancient research facility. There are data chips strewn about the ocean floor inside that Chamber analyzes, decodes, and assesses. He says that the information is classified by the Galactic Alliance of Humankind and that Ensign Ledo has no clearance for this Research Society Lab data. Ledo balks at this information and reminds Chamber that in the absence of a commanding officer, Ledo is the commanding officer. He forces Chamber to reveal the information and a series of increasingly complex and troubling videos stream over Chamber’s internal console.
Ryan Matsumoto is the Earth’s first astronaut who trains constantly to go into space and man the Earth’s Space Station. The fifth Ice Age is upon the Earth and growing worse every day as fewer and fewer places remain habitable. The Citadel of Science lab, the one they are currently within, works to strengthen the human genome along with support from activists known as Evolvers. Although there are doubts about the efficacy of human genome manipulation, international regulations have become completely obsolete with the dawn of the technologies’ ubiquity and ease of access.
As the Space Station grows, the Continental Union and some of the world’s most powerful governments gain control of it and begin creating a multinational fleet against the Evolvers and the research facility. They target these people with large bombing raids, but there are military coalitions and nation-states on both sides that help even out the balance and prevent the Continental Union’s total victory. Meanwhile, scientists continue to bio-engineer humans to survive in space. They create a being known as a Symbiot, the Hideauze, which are human beings that can travel through space. Ledo realizes that the Hideauze and Whale Squids are creatures evolved from human beings.
The Continental Union creates a wormhole interface drive outside of the ISS to escape the galaxy with all of their technology and to strand the genetically engineered humans and the Evolvers on the Earth, where they believe they will most likely freeze to death and cause no future problems. But the Evolvers and the Symbiots take over the technology and use it to escape themselves and to proliferate themselves throughout the Universe.
Ledo has a crisis on his hands. His whole life, the Galactic Alliance of Humankind has kept this information about the Hideauze’s origins a secret. He has been trained to kill them indiscriminately and with extreme prejudice even though the Hideauze display no proclivity to attack first and only protect their territory from aggressors. Ledo has killed hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of his biological cousins. Sentient beings with emotions and intellects. Fathers and mother who were trying to protect their children. And the children themselves, the little blue eyes not so unlike Ledo’s own. The only moral panic analogous to Ledo’s from our own perspective is that experienced by soldiers after particularly brutal and mindless wars here on Earth. I can only imagine my own grandfather, a Green Beret in Vietnam, special ops. Told to search and destroy men, women, children, burn down whole villages in the name of American propaganda that served no purpose but to kill and maim innocent human beings in the name of an unwinnable political cause. Dreams of American atrocities committed by his own hands haunted him the rest of his ailing, Agent Orange-infected life, and I imagine, similar visions will haunt Ledo.
The creators of Gargantia wanted to create an anime that would encourage young people that the world is not so bad and that they can take their destinies into their own hands and go forth and act within the world. Hitherto, the series has shown us some of the beauty of life, but also of its fragility and of the manipulations that state actors will make of frail human actors with usually, as yet undefined psyches. Young men and women called to arms for causes even when, for example, the U.S. has not been involved in a virtuous conflict for seventy-three years.
(Click HERE to check out part 7)
Ledo is set on a path to destroy the Whale Squid, earth-type Hideauze. He believes it is his mission and purpose in life to do so and even though he has been softly introduced to the notion that one’s purpose is a moving target, an amorphous substance one can manipulate and direct in different ways, the newfound presence of these beings on Earth presses him on to battle. Two facts also push Ledo in this direction. He wants to protect his friends and Gargantia, and especially Amy, from the destruction that the Whale Squids may one day bring to them. Second, Chamber has finally located Earth’s coordinates within the Universe and sent out an SOS message to the Galactic Alliance of Humankind. Unfortunately, they are so far away that the message will not reach the alliance for approximately 6,582 years, 16 hours, and 20 minutes. If I’m not mistaken, information can travel much faster than bodies can and these bits of SOS data should be travelling at hundreds or thousands of miles and hour faster than Ledo and Chamber would be capable of.
This makes it impossible for Ledo to ever return to the Alliance. Therefore, Gargantia and Earth are his new permanent homes and he must protect them from the Whale Squid Hideauze at any cost. But will his leaving Gargantia for a while to attack Whale Squid territory with Pinion’s salvage crew open Gargantia up to potential pirate attacks? How will they protect themselves without the Machine Caliber and with a much smaller fleet? Amy doesn’t want Ledo to leave her and Bebel, but cannot voice her frustrations to him. Bebel, however, can. But Ledo is unshakable in his plans and gives Bebel a memento to remember him by until he returns, if he returns: an old Hideauze-nail ocarina that was gifted to him as a child by a young one who looked much like himself. A child he designates as probably his younger brother. The changing of hands of this memento signifies Ledo’s growing connection to Bebel as a surrogate brother.
Meanwhile, Fairlock has previously had a large heart attack due to all of the stress of the situation in Gargantia. He dies surrounded by his loyal ship captains and his aide Ridget, who he bequeaths the golden key of leadership to and passes down his chain of command. Ridget is unsure of herself and works herself too hard to reconfigure the ship’s plans. With Ship Captain Flange leaving with the ships of the people he represents, as well as a number of other leaders departing alongside Pinion and his Salvage crew, much work needs to be done to make sure the new Gargantian fleet functions well in their absence. Ridget takes all of the work upon herself, but finally Bellows visits her and ensures her that the only reason Fairlock could do it all was because he had help in the form of aides like Ridget. she realizes she is not alone and entreats the help of all the citizens of Gargantia going forward. As a result, everything falls into place.
We learn a little bit about the fleet’s political and social structures in this episode, as we have learned much about their society in each previous episode. Gargantia is unique as an anime in terms of how strong, dynamic, and logical the social structures of the world seem to be and how well the series’ writers introduce them throughout. We find here for instance, that Gargantia is just the name of the largest ship at the centre of the fleet. It is represented by one of the ship’s people as the Fleet Commander. Every other attached ship in the fleet has its own unique identity both of its people and of its political ordering. Some are more democratic than others, but ultimately each ship has its own Ship Captain as political leader and literal helmsman. These Ship Captains make up the council of Gargantia alongside the Fleet Commander who has final say on all matters. But the Ship Captains are free to leave at any time and as such, this keeps the Fleet Commander from becoming too authoritarian and controlling, as he or she would immediately influence others to leave the fleet and thereby weaken Gargantia, which could prove a future existential threat. The society is set up in such a way that everyone in power is accountable and has more of a reason to cooperate with one another than to feud.
Finally, Amy’s friend Melty must leave Gargantia alongside Pinion and Flange because she is a member of Flange’s ship community. Amy wants to follow Ledo as well, but stays behind because of her brother Bebel, who must remain behind because of his illness and the fact that the only qualified doctor around to treat him is Dr. Oldham: a resident of Gargantia who will not be leaving with the others. Ledo leaves without saying his goodbyes and Amy resents his decision to leave to kill the Whale Squid and also fears for his emotional state, which may be fragmenting his personality as he kills more and more foes: an act of genocide he will come to regret in future episodes.
Pusher III was released in 2005, two years after the former film Pusher II. Refn was still trying to rebuild his name as a marketable arthouse filmmaker after his disastrous box-office bomb, though critically-acclaimed and excellent film, Fear X. He had moved back to Denmark to make his films on smaller budgets and in the vein, thematically, of the film that put him on the back: Pusher.
On the third and final Pusher film within the trilogy, Refn continued to use the talents of cinematographer Morten Soborg whose style and techniques were somewhat within the Dogme 95 standards as I’ve discussed before. This third film is no different in the fluidity of the camera work and the emphasis and creation of emotional mise-en-scenes that map out and exteriorize the interiority of characters within the narrative. But on each successive film, the arthouse sensibilities seem to have diminished slightly in favor of more conventional modes of storytelling and a stream of consciousness style of recounting that loses its ability to focus in deeply on dramatic and powerful moments (There are dozens of such moments in Pusher, and the subsequent film Bleeder even ups the ante in this regard, but in Pusher III, I only witnessed two such moments).
The film follows Serbian drug lord Milo during a day in Copenhagen in which everything goes haywire. He is dealing heroin these days and has a shipment coming in from some Albanians. But when the shipment arrives, they only find ecstasy, which Milo does not know how to sell. Milo confronts the Albanian contacts he has in Denmark who assure him that they will send a new shipment of dope in the following days. Milo decides to buy the dope later and to buy and sell the ecstasy now. He pawns it off on a low-level drug dealer and friend, Muhammad, and demands a cut of the money when his own deal goes through. He will then use that money to pay off the Albanians.
Unbeknownst to Milo and Muhammad, the ecstasy is actually just vitamin pills that were sent to screw over a different dealer, the one who got the heroin shipment in the initial transaction mix-up. Muhammad tries to sell the stuff, but is laughed at after the ecstasy is revealed as fake. Muhammad thinks Milo sold him out and does not contact him that day. Meanwhile, the Albanians press Milo for the money for the ecstasy and Milo tries to track down Muhammad to get his money. He sends out a corrupt cop friend of his to arrest Muhammad on bum charges and bring him to him.
The Albanians press their favor with Milo in exchange for giving him more time to wait on the money. They commandeer his house and turn Milo into a servant. While there, they attempt to sell an underage girl to a local Prostitute-turned-pimp Jeannine (The Duke’s, of Pusher II, ex-wife), but she recognizes the trickery and leaves without making a deal. One of the two Albanians leaves to go do some business, while his Polish friend sticks around and orders Milo around in the process. The girl tries to run off when the Polish man exits the room momentarily, Milo catches her and brings her back inside, the Polish gangster starts to beat her, Milo kills him with a hammer, she leaves, the other guy (the Albanian) comes back, Milo kills him. the corrupt cop shows up with Muhammad bound and gagged, and Milo puts him into the trunk of his car and spirits him away to his friend and ex-muscle Radovan’s restaurant, where they commence torturing him, find out about the bad deal, put him into a meat locker to freeze to death, and go back to Milo’s to clean up the bodies.
All the while, Milo is dealing a heavy drug addiction that is taking a bigger toll on him as he ages. He has been going to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but the stress of these bungled deals and his daughter’s upcoming marriage, as well as the reception party for the event (during which he must cook and provide services for guests), all lead to a relapse after Kurt the Cunt, just returned from hiding out in Norway (from The Duke whom he owed former debts that were later dissolved when The Duke wound up dead by the hand of his own son Tonny in Pusher II), gives him some cocaine as a gift and fealty offering.
In Pusher, we see Frank’s world crumble before his eyes over the course of a few days through bad luck, bungled drug deals, and an inability to get the money he needs to pay Milo for debts outstanding. He narrowly escapes Denmark at the film’s close and may ultimately be the winner of the situation, as he now must live a quiet life somewhere far off and keep his head. But he may be able to find a more honest way to make a living in the process and redeem himself. In Pusher II, Tonny is under similar circumstances and eventually puts himself on a pretty long shit-list as well. He escapes the underworld with his infant son and we as viewers hope he has a successful future living in obscurity much like Frank, whilst simultaneously raising his son outside of the criminal underworld that shaped himself so negatively. But in Pusher III, there is no redemption. Milo is god-damned professional and finds a way out of the most intractable of situations. But he is ultimately still trapped by his drug addiction and his tumultuous life of crime, which seems inescapable, and one day, not so far away, when he is no longer so spry and witty, the underworld may become the death of him.
The fear of the first film represents to me something of an amateur’s fear of beginning the art of filmmaking. It was Refn’s first foray into film and he had no clue before its release whether or not it would make money and he would be able to secure funding to continue his career in that direction, or if he would fail and end up a janitor in a movie theater instead. The hope of the second film represents a response to that film’s history as well. Refn had failed to garner the box office receipts he needed on his previous two films and his production company went bankrupt in the process. It was now or never and if this film did not please investors, all could end once again, but he approached that future much more hopefully, and the film’s ending was much less bleak than the endings of his two previous films.
But just as he began slack artistically on each successive Pusher film, the feeling of the third film is jaded. The film ends with the camera’s sustained gaze on Milo standing above an empty pool, in the cool Scandinavian morning air, smoking a cigarette, and seeming pretty crushed by everything around him. He seems hopeless and tired and ready to die and I believe that this might reflect Refn’s thoughts at the time. Not to say he was jaded and suicidal in general, but that his only successful films hitherto had been the Pusher films and any time he had tried to inject more artistic sentiments into his films, and thereby more of himself, audiences did not respond enthusiastically enough to save the films financially. He seems to have taken a break from filmmaking at this time, as his next film, Bronson, would not premier for another three years. But after this period of reflection on his career, he managed to create a powerful film that re-establish Refn’s name as more than just Danish crime film sensation, but as a real potential heavyweight within arthouse circles.
[Next up: the 2006 documentary on Refn’s career up to this point, Gambler]
(To check out Episode 6’s essay click HERE!)
The technological civilization of the Galactic Alliance of Humankind was once Ledo’s home. He learned his total aggression against the Hideauze through that society, which was openly hostile toward the Hideauze: a species of space-faring beings who seem to only attack when provoked. Last episode, Ledo consumed part of an octopus at a fancy dinner he attended with Pinion. But upon first seeing the animal, Ledo became terrified and then went into fight mode as he believed the creature to be a Hideauze. It was then alluded to that Whale Squids existed in the oceans seas and were much larger and creepier than the octopus. This in turn prompted Ledo to wonder whether the Whale Squids and the Hideauze were one and same.
Later, he and Bellows went on a deep-sea salvage mission to investigate and plunder a large, sunken ocean liner. During the mission, a Whale Squid passed overhead and Ledo immediately recognized the being as a Hideauze, or at least extremely similar to a Hideauze. The Whale Squid was minding its own business and just passing through the area when Ledo put his Machine Caliber mecha, Chamber, into full battle mode. This episode begins with the attack. Chamber shoots at the being with missiles that are not particularly effective underwater, the Whale Squid becomes defensive and fights back, attacking Bellows’ weaker, Yunboro mecha first and detaching its limbs from the body core. This attack displays the Whale Squids reluctance to kill human beings, as it is most likely sentient and chose to immobilize its attackers rather than kill Bellows by damaging the core: a feat it could have easily established.
Chamber and Ledo go back on the attack at this point, Bellows calling for him to stop his senseless violence all the while. Eventually, the Whale Squid latches onto the Machine Caliber’s frame and Chamber latches back and squeezes the more wieldy, amorphous fleshy body of the Whale Squid, crushing it and killing it in the process.
When Ledo and bellows return to Gargantia, the city’s officials and people are in a state of shock as they revere the Whale Squids and regard them as sacred. They believe, rightly, that many more Whale Squids will come for them in the future to retaliate against Gargantia for the blood that Ledo shed. Just as when he killed a large group of pirates and provoked their potentially deadly revenge, Ledo has once again gone too far. Again, his lack of knowledge about Gargantian society, and Earth society generally, has created a difficult situation for the city that has taken him in, the city in which he is a Stranger in a Strange Land amongst otherwise caring peoples who consistently forgive him his failings. But this time they are outraged.
Ledo then proceeds to learn, over the course of a day, more about the Whale Squids and the people of Gargantia. The Whale Squids have never been known to attack a human being or a fleet unprovoked. Although he believes that the Whale Squids have never attacked Earth humans because of their lack of technological strength and inability to really threaten Whale Squid territory, Amy reveals that Earth philosophy for living with other beings is “Coexistence, Coprosperity.” They believe that the Whale Squids are beings just like them who want to live freely and without existential threats to their well-being and the well-being of their offspring. By respecting the territory of Whale Squids, they have ensured that the Whale Squids respect human territory, or at least never find a need to go beyond their own place in the seas. As the Whale Squids mass onward toward Gargantia, this lesson bears itself out. Fleet Commander Fairlock speaks over the city’s PA system, calls for a total power outage onboard, and asks everyone to remain completely quiet. And everything goes off without a hitch. The Whale Squids pass on peacefully, fully aware that the humans mean them no more harm than the harm that Ledo inflicted on their member earlier in the day. This means that they may have interpreted the event as an accident in response to the lack of will by humans to harm them.
Meanwhile, Ledo has expressed his wishes to leave the fleet and attack and annihilate all of the remaining Whale Squids in the ocean. While Ridget, Bellows, Fairlock, and most of the city’s council are against the idea and advise him not to attack them, whilst Amy also unsuccessfully makes an emotional appeal to Ledo to stay in Gargantia with her and to leave the Whale squid alone, other factions have been entertaining machinations of their own designs. Pinion wants to bring Ledo and Chamber deep into Whale Squid territory to plumb the depths of previously unsearched oceans for great treasures that could enrich Gargantia, as well as his own pockets. He enlists the help of a rich industrialist, Ship Commander Flange, aboard who is part of the council and is willing to go along on the mission. This action makes Fairlock relent and allow the two to go forward with their plans. Mostly because of the potential technological treasures they may manage to dredge up in the process. Surreptitiously however, Pinion has another reason for wanting to go deep into Whale Squid territory with Ledo and powerful Machine Caliber: something happened to his brother years ago and it is intimated that it had to do with the Whale Squid. Pinion’s greed and will to revenge his brother spurs him onward in his quest for blood.
Finally, a third great crisis is taking place in Gargantia. The Fleet Commander has a check-up with his doctor at the beginning of the episode and it revealed that Fairlock is not in the best of health. After the hectic events of this episode and the hard decisions that Fairlock had to make regarding how to avoid annihilation by the Whale Squid fleet and whether to allow Pinion, Flange, and Ledo to plunder Whale Squid territory, Fairlock has a massive heart attack. His fate is unknown by the episode’s end, but it seems that the younger, less experienced Fleet Commander top aide Ridget may have to step up and take on many new duties in this time of crisis, in this time of storm and stress and great change in Gargantia.
(If you missed the last essay on episode 5, check it out HERE)
In this episode, as in the previous three episodes, Ensign Ledo continues to learn more about fundamental differences between the society of Gargantia and his own space-faring peoples in the Galactic Alliance of Humankind. He also continues to develop as a person, as an individual. The information overload begins when he gets his weekly pay for services rendered by Chamber, his AI Machine Caliber, who has been helping out workers on the docks. The money confuses Ledo who first must identify what it is and only finds an analogue in the meal vouchers that his own society produced for work. Chamber helps him interpret the values of the money and realizes that one coin is worth a meal and a dollar value is worth one hundred coins. Knowing he could not eat hundreds of meals in a week, Ledo questions what the extra money could be for and wonders if he has been overpaid.
His friend Amy appears and helps him to understand that the money is for his enjoyment in activities beyond mere consumption of food. She brings him out to eat, but he orders seaweed bread: the cheapest and most nutritious food on most restaurant menus. Ledo, it seems, does not even yet understand the concept that eating can be an enjoyable experience. He views meals merely as opportunities to refuel his body, which is a good approach as it promotes good health and prevents one from becoming overweight and diseased as a result. But he definitely loses something in the experience.
Ledo is still searching a job in Gargantia and with Amy’s help, he manages to find a job fishing. Fishing jobs in Gargantia are achieved through the use of Yunboros, or mech suits, that use their physical presence to corral schools of fish and net them as large groups. Once Ledo enters a Yunboro and is lowered into the water, however, he finds that the machine is unwieldy. The machine itself cannot swim. This is the users job, to move his or her limbs inside and make the machine swim manually. Ledo is confused by the unresponsive machinery that doesn’t even have an AI system built-in and does not answer to voice commands. As such, Ledo makes a bad fisherman and instead must instruct Chamber to do the job for him instead. Once again, Ledo is jobless and feels useless within the larger collective of Gargantia.
Later, Pinion takes Ledo out to eat at one of the city’s fanciest restaurants. Ledo proceeds to order seaweed bread again, but Pinion intervenes and orders the day’s special for both himself and Ledo instead. When the food arrives, two revelations are made. The first, that the experience of eating well-prepared food suited to the human palate is a joy in and of itself. The second, that the Hideauze exist on Earth as well as in space. The final course of the meal is a large steamed dish of octopus. Ledo freaks out upon the dish’s reveal as he finds it anatomy to be similar to the Hideauze. Pinion and his friend Bellows, who has just arrived at the restaurant, tell Ledo that if he freaked out over a small octopus, he surely does not want to see a Whale Squid. This prompts Ledo to further research the Whale Squid at a later date.
Meanwhile, Bellows and Pinion are headhunting Ledo in an attempt to gain him as a worker for their competing Salvage companies. They believe that his Machine Caliber could be a massive asset to them both in its powers to analyze wreckage from afar and to excise large objects from the ocean floor due to its power. All the while, Ledo is paying little attention to the conversation. Amy and her friends are performing a dance for the restaurant patrons on this day: a special occasion in Gargantia that calls for a Festival. The girls are skimpily clad and Ledo is pretty interested in their dance. He watches Amy intently and it seems we can see the interest and then the desire forming in his eyes and in his mind as his sexuality awakens, which had previously been suffocated by the Galactic Alliance’s a-sexual society wherein children were born not to breeding pairs of human parents but to matched donors of genetic and sexual materials to be raised in a collective by machines and maids.
Later that night, Ledo will play his ocarina for Amy as they sit under the stars. The object, once deemed meaningless through its lack of use in human survival by Ledo, is now recognized by him as increasing pleasure in certain instances through the beauty of the music it creates. Amy is impressed that he is coming to understand some of the finer cultural points about human life in Gargantia. Ledo then asks Amy to dance for him again. She does so, blushing all the while, and Ledo seems near lecherous in his interest, though we as spectators know that his interest is still pretty innocent and has not yet developed to that level of calculation.
The next day, Ledo will visit Bebel to ask him about the Whale Squids and gain more information on them. Ledo also gives Bebel a gift of a Crab toy he bought at the fair yesterday. This demonstrates that Ledo is learning more about how he can use his money to not only bring about pleasurable experiences for himself, but for others as well. He expresses this newfound realization about the social and emotional efficacy of The Gift. Bebel responds that not only can he use the money for this purpose, but he must recognize that the presence of the money itself and the fact that he obtained it through pay means that Ledo performed a service to Gargantia through his and Chamber’s work, and that the money symbolizes that Ledo has give help and support to others. This seems to bolster Ledo’s emotional state and drag him further out of his depression. He has found a way to be useful finally.
The episode ends with Ledo deciding to work for Bellows’ Salvage Company rather than with Pinion. While they trawl the ocean’s depths and search out an old, wrecked ocean liner, a Whale Squid hovers nearby. The look of the majestic sea-beast is very similar to the Hideauze we witnessed in space fighting the Galactic Alliance in Episode 1. Chamber and Ledo realize this immediately as well and reflexively begin their ascent to attack and destroy the creature before it can attack them!
Ciao for now,
Indisputably, my all-time favorite film director is Sweden’s greatest export: Ingmar Bergman. His film The Seventh Seal really began a period of awakening for me on the power of arthouse cinema, of cinema as the product of an auteur’s vision wherein one can explore one’s own past experiences and present anxieties. That film hit me at a time when my own existential dread and fears of annihilation upon death were reaching a second fever peach (the first time was around the age of 8 or 9). But his meditations upon death, his laying bare all his compunctions and fears on the subjects as well as his basic lack of knowledge of what comes next after death, and his meditations upon death as a return into the nowhere state of Nothingness in interviews about the problem all disturbed me at the time, but eventually allowed me to become reconciled to death. Now, the fear is no longer present in an existential sense for me.
Bergman’s crisis of faith trilogy (The Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light) hit me at around the same time and helped me to mentally escape the claustrophobic christian sentiments and beliefs that had stifled me creatively and hindered my own sense of freedom in the world for so long till that point. His Summer films (Summer Interlude, Summer with Monika, and smiles of a Summer Night) ran the gamut whilst introducing and analyzing various relationships from tragic, idealistic, and comic vantage points that were realistic about the difficulties of relationality between human beings. They gave me hope for a future with another while also making me more realistic about how hard one must try to make things work and that some people are just incompatible and will hurt one another in the process of trying to bridge our built-in communicative gaps: the internality of our own minds.
This communicative gap or inability to communicate effectively between persons is made more drastically apparent by his late 60s films on identity, personality and communication: Persona, Shame, and The Passion of Anna. And this dark, pessimistic approach is heightened by 1978’s Autumn Sonata wherein one finds that- as Jean Renoir tragically quipped in The Rules of Game- that everyone has their reasons.
Bergman’s oeuvre has the had a powerful effect on me as I suspect it has had on almost all of those who have watched his films. So, when I endeavored to finally watch and analyze and study Fanny And Alexander both for my own edification and as preparation for this week’s film analysis here, for this blog, and for you, I expected nothing less than a powerful film with the capacity to change viewers and introduce new concepts and themes to their worlds. I was not disappointed in these hopes.
But first a bit of background. The 1982 film is not the final film by Ingmar Bergman, though it is his final theatrical release. It is not the final production of an Ingmar Bergman script for theatrical release as other directors adapted his screenplays in the following 35 years. And Bergman continued to work narratively at a brisk pace for the rest of his life within another medium, The Theatre, where he produced and directed more than 20 more plays over the course of his next twenty years. But Fanny and Alexander is certainly something like chef-d’oeuvre within his body of work that represents a definite end of an era.
The film had the highest budget of any Swedish film ever made at the time at a whopping $6 million. But it had one of the widest release internationally of any Swedish film and made back its money. It received six Oscar nods and four wins: Best Foreign Language Film to Ingmar Bergman, Best Cinematography to Sven Nykvist, as well as Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. It includes a Swedish all-star cast of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Gunn Walgren in their final roles for film, as well as Ewa Froling, Allan Edwall, Jan Malmsjo, Harriet Andersson, Pernilla August, Erland Josephson, and Stina Ekblad. It is set during the early 20th century, specifically during the 1910s in the home of a rich family, the Ekdahls, in Uppsala.
Imagination and Deception
The 320-minute film’s first segment recounts a Christmas in the family home of the Ekdahls. The matriarch of the family, Helena Ekdahl (Gunn Walgren), entertains her three sons Oscar (Allan Edwall), Gustav Adolf, and Carl, their wives Emilie (Ewa Froling), Alma, and Lydia, and their five children, most importantly the children of Oscar and Emilie, Fanny and Alexander. While most characters are admittedly akin to facets of Bergman’s personality or those of his sister, father and mother, Alexander is his true proxy within the film. We see the beginning of Alexander’s interest in the theatre and in film through his interactions with the family’s theatre company, Isak Jacobi’s puppet collections, and his father’s cinematographe machine with its Zoetropes and ghostly projections accompanying valued storybooks.
Alexander is a precocious youth whose imagination is leads him inevitably toward interest in these topics, but also toward a proclivity toward making up situations and convincing himself of their reality. He begins to act out in this way when his father dies and is replaced by his mother with a priest, one Bishop Edvard Vergerus, who practices a form of ascetic and domineering death-obsessed Christianity at odds with the more pagan, down to Earth, celebratory, wise Christianity of his Ekdahl relatives, especially as expressed in their Christmas festivities (by wise Christianity I mean a type that takes Wisdom literature like Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes as models for action). First, Alexander tells his fellow classmates that he his family has sold him to a travelling circus and that he will not be returning next semester to school in lieu of beginning his career. This white lie was fantastic and obviously made in good fun, but signifies Alexander’s dis-ease with his current life in the hallowed, claustrophobic halls of the parish. It also shows his intense interest in possibly one day entertaining a life as an entertainer and lays bare his desires to leave and stake out a life more akin to that of his late father who was a mediocre thespian, but enjoyed his craft.
Later, Alexander and Fanny are left alone in the parish without their mother, who has left to seek legal counsel on whether she can leave Vergerus and his authoritarian enclave. Alexander learns that Vergerus once had a wife and two daughters and that the girls died by drowning. He concocts a story, which he recounts to one of the caretakers in the parish (played oft-times sympathetic to children’s plight and other times as backstabbing and conniving, in thrall to the wishes of Vergerus, by Bergman regular Harriet Andersson). The tale goes that Vergerus locked his daughters and their mother up in a tower in the parish and that the two girls escaped and fell through a local river’s ice before drowning or freezing to death. The latter aspect of this story is true, but the former is quite false. It is an attempt to project Alexander and Fanny’s own current life conditions onto events in the past in a way that makes sense of them. After all, Vergerus is an SOB of the highest order. How could two young children not rebel against such a man and become locked in their quarters as Alexander and Fanny now have?
Alexander’s overactive imagination gets him into trouble with Vergerus on both occasions and he relishes the opportunity to teach Alexander a lesson about lying. Vergerus finds some sort of sadistic pleasure in punishing Alexander physically through pawing jabs and slaps against the head, and eventually through lashes by his switch. and on both occasions, Vergerus forces Alexander to concede his wrongdoing, apologize, accept punishment, and in the process, he humiliates the boy. Bergman himself had an overactive imagination and often provoked the ire of his own devout father who retaliated through physical and verbal punishment in a similar fashion. Although we can see the machinations of Alexander’s mind in the film and understand why he might make up such lies that get him into trouble, a quote about his childhood from Bergman problematizes the notion that the deceptions on his, and by proxy, Alexander, are wholly purposeful, however:
“It was difficult to differentiate between what was fantasy and what was considered real. If I made an effort, I was perhaps able to make reality stay real. But, there were ghosts and spectres. what should I do with them?”
Is it possible that Bergman wove webs of deception so dense and realistic in his own young life that he himself was unable to unravel them? We may never know for sure, but we can rest assured that if there are clues to this question, they lie within this film. Alexander’s first lie is relatively minor and manages to do little harm beyond making his mother upset that he would rather leave for a circus than stay at home, or worse, that he subconsciously believed that his own mother cared so little for him that she would be willing to sell him to a circus. We can tell that Alexander himself does not believe this deception and as such, he has little difficulty owning up to it and admitting his deceit.
During the second lie’s formation in the telling of the tale to the parish servant, Alexander’s face alights and he seems to find real joy in his creation. The servant knows better than to believe the story, but finds the power of the recounting so overwhelming as to slowly come to believe it herself. This power of enthralling a willing listener and viewer is what drives much of the exhibitionist personality to do what it does. But this is also the key to a great filmmaker or storyteller: that he or she finds joy in the process of spinning a yarn and entrapping their quarry (the spectator, viewer, reader, or listener). When the parish servant realizes she is being deceived, she recounts the deception to Vergerus who is not only hurt by the words, but enraged. He forces Alexander to admit his wrongdoing, beats him mercilessly, and forces him to sleep alone for the night in the parish’s cold, empty, secluded attic. But the admittance by Alexander is more difficult this time around because he hates Vergerus, wishes to hurt him whenever possible, and wants to win the battle of wills. Another potent reason for his reluctance is the realization that his story holds some relation to the truth insofar as it exposes the injustice of Vergerus toward Alexander and Fanny, as well as the moral decrepitude of the parish priest whose Christianity is little more than a bludgeon.
Creativity and Spectres
Alexander has a powerful imagination that goes beyond mere creation of lies of that reveal elements of the truth. His creative potential is, as we have seen, strong enough to enthrall the consumer of his deceptions through the force of their evocations, even if that consumer is himself, the one who consciously created the deceptions in the first place. His creativity also uncovers a realm between Being and Nothingness where spectres reside and move and mourn and contemplate.
The first such spectre that appears in the film is the ghost of Oscar Ekdahl: Alexander’s father. After Oscar’s death, Vergerus consoled his widowed wife Emilie. The two developed a bond and announced their intention to marry. during the proceedings, Alexander looks into the adjacent dining room of the house and locks eyes with the image of his deceased father staring back at him. The portent of doom proclaims aright the inevitable failure of union between two souls so unlike in manner and direction as Vergerus and Emilie. Alexander notes this as well and the vision of his unhappy father cements the doomed nature of this union within Alexander’s mind.
A later meeting with the spectre occurs during Alexander and Fanny’s difficult times in the parish house. A piano rings out dissonant notes and chords with a slow, tremulous, atmospheric attack. The children go to investigate the noises the sounds and find an unoccupied piano seat. Fanny seems unable to see the figure hunched over the keys while Alexander sees the spectre of his father once again vividly before him, not speaking, but offering consolation and sympathy through his gaze.
Finally, Alexander will see his father once more while he explores the house Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the man who was once Helena Ekdahl’s lover and is now a family friend who has kidnapped, and thereby saved, Alexander and Fanny from the household of Vergerus. The spectre of Oskar reclines upon a couch and stares into the very depths of his son’s heart. Alexander tells him that it would be better if he went into the light and stopped causing pain for him through his constant reminders of his physical absence and inability to help out. Oskar seems to challenge Alexander to work to save Emilie from her connections to Vergerus.
There are two more significant spectres in the film that present themselves to Alexander. The first spectre is the dual spectre of Vergerus’s two daughters who drowned. They appear to Alexander while he is trapped in the parish’s attic and they chide the boy for lying about how Vergerus treated them. They reveal that Vergerus was a loving father and that their deaths were mere accidents. As they played upon the ice, they hit a thin sheet and fell through. The current pulled them downstream and they were unable to resurface and therefore died of asphyxiation. They torment Alexander for his lies and reveal that Alexander’s creativity is a double-edged sword. He can conjure up or channel the spectre of his father who can offer consolation and potentially make the process of grieving more easy. However, Alexander can also unwittingly bring into focus the spirits of those who don’t have such positive regard for him and may in fact wish to do him harm, just as does the final apparition of the then-dead priest Vergerus at the film’s denouement that signals the inescapability of Alexander’s harsh upbringing in the parish and the effects of that experience that will likely follow and haunt him for the rest of his life. Just as the events of Bergman’s religious upbringing haunted him throughout his own life.
There are two approaches to analyzing the ontological state of these spectres. the first emphasizes their psychological role in the life, development, coping, and growing of Alexander as a young boy. In this view, the spectres are mere phantoms of the mind in the imagination of a particularly precocious and creative young man. Bergman’s own avowed atheism and long-held belief that life terminates in the void of Nothingness would seem to support to this version of events as spectres cannot exist under such metaphysical conditions. The spectres here are real, but only in the mind of Alexander. Carrying ontic presence not on the order of real human lives and physical objects, but on a secondary order of ontic presence as creations within the mind of an existing entity, much like States and the concept of Money exist.
This is problematic on a few serious counts, however. First, Bergman’s quote seems to assert that although he had trouble differentiating between reality and fantasy, that this was not due to a psychological problem on his part. The two were hard to differentiate because the spectres and ghosts were just as real as the reality around them. Second, in later life Bergman began to catalog experiences of supernatural, or otherwise normally unexplainable phenomena, he had witnessed through his life from his early memories as child through to his latest experiences as an old man. He felt that he and his late wife would surely find a way to bridge the gap between Being and Nothingness and that life does not truly terminate upon death, but may in fact carry on in some imperceptible manner. Third, the spectre of Oskar appears not only to Alexander, but to Helena Ekdahl, Oskar”s mother, as well. Helena may have an overactive imagination like Alexander (she is his grandmother after all), but the appearance of the spectre to two people on four separate occasions makes the claim for its existence much stronger.
Thus, Alexander’s creative imagination makes him more than a potential auteur. It makes him into a seer of sorts who can access memories of the In-Between Ones and dialogue with spectres before their final jumps into the Great Unknown, whether that be into Nothingness or into something else entirely.
Magic and Mystery
With the potentiality of a new framework for existence, metaphysics, ontology, and ghastly communication at play in the film’s text, Bergman introduced philosophical spirituality into his worldview and into his oeuvre as well. The notion that spectres remain behind for a time in the event of a death unforetold and unforeseen, or after a particularly violent death, and the connected notion that there are seers triggered by creative imaginations who can detect spectres and converse with them, is a system that seems to have virally infected the filmography of Guillermo del Toro to great effect (especially in The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak). But Bergman’s new approach to the world and his cinematic vision of that approach go far beyond just these concepts.
Bergman closes the film with a quote by August Strindberg from his play A Dream Play: “Anything can happen, all is possible and probably. Time and space do not exist. On an insignificant foundation of reality, imagination spins out and weaves new patterns.”
If reality did indeed provide a significant foundation for life, human beings would not find themselves straining constantly to explain its inner working. The fields of knowledge like philosophy, alchemy, science, and physics would never have been developed and we would have few questions about the fundamental laws of the world and how things operate. Our imaginations work creatively to gather data to build new paradigms of knowledge and systematization, but we know that these paradigms are never exhaustive and always contain large faults that are only later momentarily fixed by a new paradigm’s arrival on the scene.
As these new paradigms grow larger and more complex to fit more and more complex data and patterns, the new theories and paradigms consistently violate Occam’s Razor, the simplicity criterion that states that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. At some point we may find that it is simplest to just accept certain mysteries and vagaries of Being as unexplainable, or so complex in their provisional explanation as to strain credulity and most of the razors within the scientific pantheon and the philosophy of science.
Isak Jacobi is a Jewish merchant who is friends of the Ekdahl family. He offers to buy an old chest from Vergerus, but surreptitiously. his real plan is sneak into Fanny and Alexander’s room and steal away the children right from under the nose of the priest. He does so pretty quickly and manages to hide the children within the chest. When Vergerus arrives with the deed of property for the chest that Jacobi has just paid for, Jacobi shows Vergerus the contents of the chest to ensure him that he is not being cheating in any way. Vergerus does not see the children within the chest because Jacobi has thrown a large black blanket over them and performed sleight of hand and a bit of magic trickery in the way of redirecting Vergerus’ gaze.
But Vergerus is no fool. He knows of the connection between the merchant and the Ekdahl family and suspects Jacobi immediately of trying to spirit away the children. Vergerus runs up the stairs and checks their room after calling out Jacobi and using a few choice demeaning slurs against this Jewish mystic. The jig seems up when all of a sudden, the unthinkable occurs. Jacobi yells at the top of his lungs and entreats the help of mystic powers through his laying bare of himself. An image of the two children is miraculously projected into their bedroom and Jacobi is able to take the children away with him to safety.
Jacobi’s warehouse is a veritable labyrinth of corridors, wardrobes, puppets, and all sorts of occult and Kabbalahic paraphernalia. His two nephews Aron (Mats Bergman, Ingmar’s son) and Ismael Retzinsky (Stina Ekblad) live with him in vastly different capacities: Aron as a free agent and magician who works for Isak and Ismael who lives under lock and key as a dangerous, but prescient idiot savant. While traversing the corridors of the warehouse labyrinth at night, Alexander happens upon a room filled with puppets. He asks questions about his suffering and receives answers from the other side of door that remains barely cracked open. The voice is ostensibly God’s voice. It doles out powerful messages and eventually reveals its hand and its face. A puppet controlled by Aron who is attempting to scare Alexander. Aron then shows Alexander a special room wherein a Mummy lies reclining upon a table. It breathes at a regular pace and its face turns toward Alexander, but all the while we know and Alexander knows that the event is no more than a performance of a magic trick.
What he experiences next, however, is no mere trick.
He and Aron continue their journey through the warehouse toward Ismael’s cell. Once inside, Aron gives Ismael his daily breakfast. Ismael rises and reveals his androgynous, pale, alluring (Stina Ekblad is a woman) features to the moonlight shining through his barred windows. He requests that Alexander be allowed to remain with him in the room, alone, for the next thirty minutes. Aron relents and the two are alone. Ismael is a free spirit who derives his name from the Old Testament figure Ishmael, the first son of Abraham, and the one whose “hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” He has a mystical connection to Alexander and views them as twin spirits, potentially even the same spirit occupying separate bodies. During their symbolic union, Ismael reveals Alexander’s deepest desire to destroy Vergerus. He asks Alexander to act upon it. As a result, Vergerus’ ailing sister, who is another idiot savant who is on the same channel wavelength as the two boys, purposefully knocks over the lamp on her bedside table. The fire explodes, she is lit afire, and immediately heads toward her brother’s room, where she grabs onto him and burns him to death.
Magic and enigmatic religion are elements missing from the hard, cold, and sterile Christianity of the Church. Meanwhile, the Ekdahl home that prides itself on a cheerful, wise Christianity and an affinity for the art of acting, lends itself to creative, productive modes of imagination that render their most precocious youths into seers who can channel the spectres of the In-Between Ones and manipulate events through psychic connections. The religion of mystery and questioning and the belief in the Kabbalah and its powers at the heart of the mystic Judaism of Jacobi and Ismael creates spaces of mystical power and instantiations of spiritual force. Bergman seems to be trying to condemn the directionality of the Church over the past hundred years by recourse to what a dark, reflective, and serious, albeit more life-affirming approach to spirituality may bring. In this way, his philosophical spirituality is a formulation of his own then-emerging worldviews into a non-systematized system wherein mystery and enigma remain valid and respected.
If you seek out the miraculous without a heart to do so, the journey will always be in vain.
Best Regards and Happy Holidays,