A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975)

Tamino: Josef Köstlinger
Pamina: Irma Urrila
Papageno: Håkan Hagegård
Sarastro: Ulrik Cold
The Queen of the Night: Birgit Nordin
Monastatos: Ragnar Ulfung
First Lady: Britt-Marie Aruhn
Second Lady: Kirsten Vaupel
Third Lady: Birgitta Smiding
The Speaker: Erik Sædén

Director: Ingmar Bergman
Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman
Based on an opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder translated by Alf Henrikson
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
Production design: Henny Noremark
Film editing: Siv Lundgren
Costume design: Karin Erskine, Henny Noremark

For me, Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute is a kind of linguistic palimpsest, with the English subtitles* superimposed on the Swedish translation of the German original. Not that I know Swedish,  but I've picked up enough of the sound of the language from watching movies that I can recognize a word or two. And I do know the German libretto fairly well from following along on recordings, so that when a singer begins a familiar aria, I hear the German in my mind's ear along with the Swedish being sung and then refracted through the words on screen. You'd think this would be distracting, but it isn't -- in fact, it only helps me appreciate the care Bergman took in making the film. Opera is not designed for the movies: It has moments of tightly choreographed action after which people stand still to sing, and you want more out of a movie than starts and stops. But what Bergman does so brilliantly is to supply close-ups and cuts that give the film an energy, often following the rhythms of Mozart's music. We don't get close-ups in the opera house -- thank god, because singing opera does unfortunate things to the singers' faces -- but Bergman has wisely chosen good-looking singers and had them speak-sing along with a previously recorded version, so there's little facial distortion. The Magic Flute is a problematic opera: Emanuel Schikaneder's libretto is a mess that never quite resolves the relationship between Sarastro, the Queen of the Night, and Pamina. Bergman solves this by creating one: In his version, Pamina is the daughter of Sarastro and the Queen, and he has abducted the girl because he doesn't trust his ex to raise her right. There's no justification for this in Schikaneder's text, and even Bergman hasn't quite resolved the problem of why Sarastro lets Pamina be guarded by Monastatos, whose chief aim seems to be to sleep with the young woman. Nor has Bergman solved the misogyny and racism of Schikaneder's libretto. Women come in for a good deal of disapproval in the opera, and Bergman hasn't eliminated that. Monastatos is tormented by the fact that he's black -- a Moor -- although he is given a kind of Shylockian moment of self-justification, and even Papageno, who is the pragmatic, commonsense type, reflects that there are black birds, so why not black people. (I'm not entirely sure that line of Papageno's even makes it into the Bergman film.) Most productions today gloss over these antique prejudices as best they can, however, turning The Magic Flute into a kind of fairy tale for the kids, with colorful sets and cute forest animals dancing to Tamino's flute. Bergman is no exception in this regard: The film is set in the theater, and he opens with a close-up of a lovely young girl** with a kind of Mona Lisa smile, and follows her eye line as she gazes at the images painted on the curtain, then scans the other faces in the audience, old and young and of various ethnicities. The film, which like his other childhood-centered classic, Fanny and Alexander (1982), was made originally for television,  is certainly one of Bergman's warmest.

*I don't know who did the English version, but it's a very good singing translation, not just a literal prose version of the original.
**She has been identified as Helene Friberg, who had bit parts in other Bergman films.

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