A whole year has gone by since I last saw a film in a theater, and I can’t say I feel any great urge to break my fast–I’m simply too busy. But I do watch old movies on TV, and in the past week and a half I saw two that disappointed me, albeit for very different reasons.
I wouldn’t have bothered with The Seventh Seal had it not been for a houseguest who, like me, had never seen Bergman’s 1956 “breakthrough” film and longed to get her cultural card punched. I took a shot at Wild Strawberries three years ago and found it underwhelming for reasons that I set forth in this space:
When I was young, Wild Strawberries struck me as exactly what old age must be like. (Had it been a novel, I would have scribbled neatly in the margin of the last page, “This is true.”) Now that I’m middle-aged–and eight years older than Bergman was when he made it–I know better. It’s far too benign, albeit gorgeously so. It reminds me of what an old music critic once said to me about Der Rosenkavalier: “It’s by a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth.”
The Seventh Seal, by contrast, is utterly preposterous, an atheist parable stuffed full of symbols so transparent that the densest of viewers can see them coming a mile down the track. I found it so boring that I was forced to resort to amusing myself by trying to imagine how Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca might have spoofed it on Your Show of Shows back in the days when TV comedians were smart enough to do such things. I suppose it’s a matter of clashing sensibilities–or maybe not. Sibelius’ music, for instance, doesn’t make me giggle, but Bergman’s ever-so-Scandinavian films remind me of what Guy Davenport is supposed to have said about Goethe: “Sometimes, on reading Goethe, one has the paralyzing suspicion that he thinks he’s being funny.”
Richard Brooks’ 1967 film of In Cold Blood has an eerie verisimilitude arising from the fact that Brooks shot it on many of the actual locations where the horrific events described in Truman Capote’s book took place: the Clutter farmhouse, the courtroom where Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were tried, even the gallows on which they were hanged. The casting of Robert Blake as Smith gives the film an extra dollop of retrospective reality. Alas, Brooks’ painfully literal-minded script consists of half-digested, barely dramatized chunks of the book disgorged at enervating length by the actors, most of whom, Blake excepted, are no better than competent (though it’s nice to see Charles McGraw, the tough guy with the buzzsaw voice, in a brief but memorable cameo).
As I’ve said before, the only way to successfully translate a first-class work of art from one medium to another is to subject it to a complete imaginative transformation. Otherwise the new version will be (A) tautological and (B) superfluous. (That’s a joke, son.) Good example: George Balanchine’s masterly ballet version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bad example: Andr