Belated Valentine Crap

I knew one week was going to be hellish, but I had no idea it would effortlessly balloon into two and a half weeks. My endurance was severely tried and probably exceeded, as I’m still feeling the aftereffects. I’ve become acquainted with the cane again because my supposed “good” leg is tired of taking up the slack and is actively mutinying. A walker or forearm crutches is starting to look tempting.

overworkedThere was one thing that was helping me through all these tribulations, and that was the prospect of a Crapfest in the coming weekend, when I told myself I could relax, and, as we said in the day, “Blow off some steam”. Blow off, indeed, I was so successful in achieving a state of what we in the trade call “blitzed” that I’m probably lucky I can write about it at all.

I feel much better for that.

First we should note that I was beaten to the fest by Erik, the New Guy. I cannot fault his enthusiasm – he had been fomenting for a Crapfest since January. After cursing his youthful vigor I oohed and aahed at Dave’s reincarnation of the Fest Room, dubbed Den 2.0. Den 2.0 was an order of magnitude better than the old configuration, roomier and allowing the projector a slightly longer throw. Magnificent work. Dave had even called our tallest member, Paul, to get his height, so that he could mount the projector two inches above that. SCIENCE!!!!


“Loooook! Is that Dennis Roddddddman?”

People slowly drifted in while exploitation trailers played. Two people did not make it. Wald fell afoul of some traffic spawned by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, gave up, and went home. Having dealt with the traffic in the Galleria area the weekend of the NBA All-Star Game (where tweets alluded various basketball players were shopping, and therefore the entire county descended on the area, and, in fact, the mall and surrounded streets were eventually shut down), and having wished I could have just given up and gone home, I couldn’t blame him. Dave asked me to text him where the sausages he was supposed to be bringing wound up. Wald replied he had been lobbing them at other drivers.

We tried to watch everything that featured exposed breasts before Alan arrived from his acting gig, and we almost succeeded, but then a trailer featured a breast or two (there was an astounding amount of stuff “based on the Marquis deSade” in the 70s). So it was down to the new version of the faithful: myself, Dave, Rick, Paul, Alan and Erik.

I apparently had the opener. I had been scheduled to present Sonny Chiba’s The Bodyguard (Paul had wanted to see it since witnessing the “Viva! Chiba!” trailer), but Dave had discovered a disc in my bag I had literally gotten just the week before, at the WB Shop’s $5 sale: Gymkata.

gymkataSome of you moaned when I said Gymkata. Well, screw you.

Gymkata was Robert Clouse’s 1985 attempt to re-capture Enter the Dragon lightning in a bottle (there were many more, and most are reasonably entertaining). This one stars Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast Kurt Thomas, as Olympic Gold Medal Gymnast Jonathan Cabot.  Cabot is recruited by the CIA to follow in his father’s footsteps. Pop Cabot went to Parmistan to participate in THE GAME, a sort of organized Most Dangerous Game where participants run through the country and numerous obstacles while pursued by Richard Norton. If they live, they get whatever they want. And what Pop Cabot wanted – or rather, what the CIA wanted – is to place a Star Wars Satellite Station (remember that? Thanks, Reagan!) in the country. Naturally, other countries want that, too. Their own satellite stations, I mean. Not a satellite station for the US.

gymkata1Yeah, you heard me drop the Richard Norton name. If you’ve watched any HK action flick from the 80s through the 90s, you recognized that name, and you realized he’s the villain. Especially since you saw him put an arrow in Pop Cabot while he was crossing a rope over a ravine. Norton’s the King’s right-hand man, wants to take over the country, marry the princess who Cabot the Younger is in love with, you know, the usual.

The Princess is one of the trainers who helps Cabot get into even better shape, and to, as the poster promises, “Combine the Skill of Gymnastics with the Kill of Karate!” And then we get to Pretendistan, and oh boy, does our story really get underway.

This is one of the beautiful things about Crapfest. Some people had said they had seen Gymkata before, but they hadn’t been paying attention, I guess because they were blindsided by Parmistan. Intensely traditional. Guns are outlawed in Parmistan. Now as to the costumes: wardrobe just called up every costume house and said, “What do you have that’s vaguely middle eastern? Yeah, give us all of it. Got some Asian stuff, too? Sure, send it over. Leftover barbarian crap? Throw that in the truck, too.” Parmistan is like no country that every existed, because it’s like all countries that ever existed. Especially in Movieland.

gymkata (1)Paul had thought that there would just be some fighting in a gym or something, but oh no, that’s not good enough for Gymkata. Fight in an alley? That waterpipe would make a swell high bar! Surrounded by homicidal lunatics in an abandoned city where Fakeistan tosses all its insane people (a hell of an obstacle)? Lucky that suspicious structure for tying up your goat in the town square resembles a pommel horse! I’m really sorry they never found a way to work in some parallel bars, but we do get some vaults and backflips in fight scenes. With, of course, the audience shouting, “GYMKATA!!!”

That was an unexpectedly strong opening for Crapfest. During a break, Dave started a copy of The Fantastic Animation Festival playing; I had seen this in the theater back in ’77, and it melted my mind then. I still remembered French Windows, which kickstarted my tardy love for Pink Floyd, but I had forgotten how trippy the rest of the stuff was – though I did get confused where new music had seemingly been laid in for Cosmic Cartoon. The new music was good, but I remembered the Paul Winter Consort and Holst’s “The Planets” being used…

Maybe I had gotten my mind blown back then. But I distinctly finally hearing Paul winters’ “Icarus” album in the 80s and thinking, “Oh yeah! Naked dancer in the surf!” Well, at least Pink Floyd didn’t change… However, that is likely the reason French Windows isn’t on YouTube. So here, have the Cosmic Cartoon:

Dave plays his choice close to the edit, as it were. He picked out the middle position (“the rocking chair” in CB terms), and makes his final decision based on how much the opener hurt him. Since the Gymkata experience was positive, he decided to be what he calls “merciful”, and plugged in Mausoleum.

mausoleum_poster_01I’m okay with this. I’ve never seen Mausoleum. And if you want to peek into the heart of the Crapfest experience, you need look no further than the fact that when Marjoe Gortner’s credit rolled across the screen, he got a standing ovation.

This is also the period of the evening when I started getting seriously sloshed, so be aware that from here on I am using Vodka Filter #3, and adjust accordingly.

1983’s Mausoleum kicks off former Playboy Bunny Bobbie Bresee’s too-brief career as a Scream Queen. In the opener, the young version of Bobbie freaks out at her mother’s funeral, and runs into the title character, where she is possessed by the same demon who apparently possessed her mother. After she grows up into Bobbie Bresee and marries Marjoe Gortner, the demon starts cropping up again, killing people for whatever reason is convenient and making Bobbie’s eyes turn green.

susan 1This all seems rather similar to the last Crapfest’s Abby, but with a somewhat better budget and no William Marshall – and nudity! And the welcome addition of LaWanda Page as Elsie the maid, the only person with any sense in the movie, as she notices things are getting all demony and immediately skedaddles. (Exit line: “No more grievin’, I’m leavin’!”)

The horrific highpoint and Fangoria photo opp is when the nude Bresee is embracing Marjoe after a tough day of whatever job it is that doesn’t insist you wear a necktie, goes full demon, and her breasts transform into demon heads that chew their way through Marjoe’s ribcage and eat his heart.

mausoleum1983dvdvhsbycrI got told about this scene back when it was in theaters and thought it was a nice callback to medieval woodcuts that showed demons with faces on their pecs; finally seeing it was so astonishing we actually rewound the movie and watched it again. It’s all falling action after that, as the psychiatrist who’s been seeing Bobbie since she was a kid finally snaps to the demon thing, gets a wrought iron crown-of-thorns from the Mausoleum that will trap said demon back in said Mausoleum, and then, although the movie has ended, it goes on for ten more minutes as Bobbie and the Psych go to the Mausoleum to load the demon back in its sepulcher. We were hoping for LaWanda to come back with a machine gun or something, but those hopes were unfulfilled.

I mention that Bresee’s career was sadly short-lived because my main takeaway from this was that she was actually very, very good – hell, she went to Mercedes McCambridge for pointers on her demon voice – and she really deserved a lot more work than she got, though she apparently had a decent run on Santa Barbara, I hope so. Especially if the rumors about the producer setting up bleachers so people could watch her sex scene being filmed are true. That’s the sort of thing that requires a karmic balancing.

Dinner break! As we cooked and cut the pizza, I supplied a copy of The Ed Sullivan Show featuring the Rolling Stones. “Why must you always sully our Crapfest with quality?” came the moan. You’d think this is a lesson they would have learned by now: Quality makes the knife cut deeper. Then, there is my rejoinder, “You have no idea what you’re in for.” This was the complete show, with all the other acts, and commercials. And leading off tonight’s really big show: clog dancing.

rolling-stones-ed-sullivanI first found out about these discs at the Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, where cinema omnivore @bobfreelander asks bloggers to submit their older movie discoveries over the last year. Within two days I had the Stones disc and a similar one featuring the four appearances of The Beatles. These are endlessly fascinating to me; I remember back in the day – and I would have been about 7 when the first Beatles episode hit – that Ed was what we looked forward to, it was what capped off the weekend. It was the best, the show everyone vied to get an appearance. There’s a reason there’s a song about it in Bye Bye Birdie.

This was actually one of the more normal Sullivans I now have. Petula Clark does two songs, there are long monologues by the very young Flip Wilson and Alan King, an early, trippy Muppets sketch (Jim Henson shakes hands with Ed) and it ends up with the censored version of Let’s Spend the Night Together”, “Let’s Spend Some Time Together”, with Mick rolling his eyes every time the changed words come up.

I don’t know if I’ll ever spring any of the others on future Crapfests, though there is something astounding in each episode. I now realize just how annoying Topo Gigio was, and that Senor Wences wasn’t all that great. But there is one episode where the warmup act for The Beatles is none other than Cab Calloway, and I’m surprised the studio didn’t collapse into a Cool Singularity.

Here, have an ad:

Now, for the third and final movie of the evening. My copy of Exorcist II: The Heretic was a favorite, but we were also burned out on demonic possession. I wanted to see one if the movies Erik had brought: School of the Holy Beast, a Japanese nunsploitation movie. I’d had no idea there was such a thing, until Erik mentioned it, and I said something like “Holy crap, there are Japanese nunsploitation movies?” So there you go. I had to see it.

school beastNow, as a non-believer brought up as a Protestant, I admit I am a hard sell for these things. And once you’ve seen Bruno Mattei’s Guardian of Hell/The Other Hell or Juan Lopez Monteczuma’s Alucarda, or Ken Russell’s The Devils, it’s hard to believe there’s anything in the subgenre you haven’t already experienced. Then, with the Japanese, you know you’re getting the tale from a unique angle. The movie is apparently based on a popular manga, surprise, surprise…

So Maya, an attractive young woman, becomes a nun at the very convent her mother’s death took place. We’re eventually going to find out that her mother was pregnant with Maya when the Abbess tortured her, probably trying to induce an abortion. Her mother hung herself and birthed Maya at the same time, and a sympathetic nun spirited the baby to the outside world, where she was adopted and grew up to be Maya.

There, I saved you a bunch of time. School of the Holy Beast can be very confusing to your typical gaijin (translation: us) when faced with a bunch of asian women of approximately the same age all dressed in the same uniform, which obscures everything the clueless occidental could use to differentiate characters: hair style, figure. We were pretty sure who Maya was, however, because she was the Worst Nun Ever, constantly winding up in the Persecution Room (yes, that’s what it’s called) where half-naked nuns are ordered to whip each other for punishment.

The probable lynchpin scene here – yeah, the one all you pervs are waiting for – is when the naked Maya is tied with briar vines and made to suffer “The 13th Punishment” which is being whipped by bouquets of roses in slow motion. It’s artistic, at least. I guess. I’m still trying to sober up at this point.

School of the Holy Beast-3Maya finds out the particulars of her mother’s death, but who was the father? The Holy Beast of the title, the priest who oversees the convent and drops by ever so often; a man who survived Nagasaki and mentions Auschwitz. He ‘s slept with the Abbess, too, and already raped Maya. He also brought in his new consort, a sort of Witchfinder General, to find the witch who’s been causing all these troubles in the rank.

Yeah, I forgot to mention that while tossing the nun’s rooms for contraband, the Vice Abbess – appropriately enough – finds some pornography in Maya’s belongings and confiscates them. Supposedly to burn, but she really sticks them in a desk and brings them out when she’s alone to… you know. Maya then obligingly sneaks out and smuggles two men in, disguised as nuns, to rape the Vice Abbess. This is played for laughs, just in case you weren’t offended enough.

switchblade nunThings get downright Shakespearean at the end, with Maya swinging on a rope to knock the murderous Witchfinder out a window and onto the spikes of a wrought iron fence(“The skill of gymnastics! The kill of karate!”); the Abbess falling into an acid pit that, for some reason, she has under her office; and the Holy Beast himself going nuts, declaring  Maya God, and then deciding to kill God.

That was a pretty nutty time.

We kept losing Alan through the second half of School and Dave was threatening to go to sleep, too. So we grumbled and pulled together our traps, swearing not to wait so long ’till the next time. Den 2.0 is awesome, and we never came near to testing its full potential. So until our next Crapfest, stay safe, stay sober, and avoid mausoleums, convents, and countries where everybody is dressed like a grade school production of The Arabian Nights. Dormez bien.

The Man With The Iron Fists (2012)

man_with_the_iron_fistsIt’s not going to surprise anyone when I say I love kung fu movies. That’s a label that covers a wide variety of movies, and while I can’t claim to love them all, I do find almost all of them interesting on some level. One thing that puzzles me – and mainly in a rhetorical sense – is why there has not yet been a Great American Kung Fu movie. Now, kung fu tropes have been a part of American cinema for years; I’m talking here about The Matrix movies or Kill Bill. But there the kung fu is in service to another story – it is not a primary motivator, they do not take place in jianghu, The World of Martial Arts. Their characters are proficient in the martial arts, but those arts do not permeate the very fabric of the world the way they do in Asian movies.

And now, perhaps, The Man With The Iron Fists has answered that question.

Man With the Iron Fists, in case you’re not familiar, is a movie directed by, co-written by, and starring RZA, a man likely best known as a musician, rapper and hip hop producer. His credentials there are exceedingly strong, and there is no doubt that he is also a fanatic about kung fu movies. The monster group he co-founded in the early 90s was The Wu-Tang Clan, and their first album was named The 36 Chambers, for pete’s sake. I can’t judge the music, I’m not the target audience for hip hop, but there’s no doubt RZA knows what he’s talking about, kung fu movie-wise.

That said, Iron Fists didn’t do so well at the box office; reviews have run the gamut from lukewarm to outright hate. The most even-handed one I ran across is Paul Freitag-Fey’s at the Daily Grindhouse site – and even that one is all too aware of the movie’s flaws. But, as always, I have to see these things myself and make up my own mind, and so, after a hellaciously busy two weeks, on the verge of exhaustion, I put the disc into my player and willed everyone to be wrong about it.

My will was weak.

Take THAT, viewer!

Take THAT, viewer!

Now, the first remarkable thing about Iron Fists is that RZA actually set out to make a wuxia film. It is set in China in the mid-to-late 19th century, and is pretty much concerned with the jianghu as centered in the largely corrupt and extremely violent Jungle Village. Iron Fists shares a Macguffin with my favorite Shaw Brothers flick. The Kid With the Golden Arm: a cart full of government gold, headed for (mumble mumble). In Kid, it’s for the relief of flood victims. In Iron Fists… I’m just not sure.

Because here is the most severe blow against Iron Fists: the first cut reportedly came in at four hours. The same report says that RZA wanted to release it as two movies (which may have worked, we’ll never know), but it was instead cut down to 95 minutes – 107 if, like me, you watched the unrated extended version on disc. That means the first half to two-thirds of the movie is driven by narration, which is always a sign of trouble.

The-Man-with-the-Iron-Fists_07The first thirty minutes are incredibly frenetic and confusing. There’s a huge fight under the opening credits that I’m still not sure has any bearing on the story itself. A patriarch of the Lion Clan, Gold Lion (Chen Kuan Tai, himself an old school kung fu movie star of no small import) is assassinated, which does have a bearing, and the gold is being sent down the road for whatever purpose… it’s either for Jungle Village, or it’s just passing through Jungle Village… in either case, I’m not interested enough to go back and check.

The treacherous lieutenant of the Lion Clan, Silver Lion (Byron Mann) wants the gold, and is aided by a mysterious cloaked figure who will later be named as Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu, eventually). Gold Lion’s son, Zen Yi (Rick Yune) calls off his marriage to look into his father’s death. Zen, I should mention, is supposedly, anachronistically called The X-Blade, but seemingly only in the trailer. He has a “suit of knives”, which pops out porcupine-like quills as needed, though God only knows where they retract to when he’s finished. Not that this is the most outrageous weapon I’ve ever been asked to accept in a kung fu movie.

Meanwhile, at the Pink Blossom bordello (the finest in the region) Madam Blossom (Lucy Liu) welcomes an unusual traveler – a British expatriate with the unlikely sobriquet of Jack Knife (Russell Crowe), who wields a combination pistol dagger that whirls like a drill. Jack books a room with three prostitutes and settles in for his vacation.

the-man-with-the-iron-fists09 (1)Got that? Good. Now realize that none of these characters is the star of the movie, the main character. The title character.  That would be the perfectly-named Blacksmith, played by RZA, who is not only a blacksmith, but is also black! Get it? He manufactures the bizarre weapons for all the local clans, like the Lions, the Wolves, and the Rats (we are not allowed Tigers or Bears for the obvious joke).

No wonder Blossom – and nobody else, really – bats an eye when a lone Brit arrives in town. He has no novelty value.

The tale of how Blacksmith came to be in China is a fairly interesting story that will just have to wait until the third act, we still have a lot of narration to get through.

Zen Yi arrives and is promptly waylaid by the villainous Brass Body (David Bautista) who can, yes, turn his body to brass. Zen Yi barely escapes, rescued by Blacksmith and hidden by his girlfriend, Lady Silk (Jamie Chung), one of Blossom’s finest.

The gold arrives, escorted by the Gemini Killers (Grace Huang and Andrew Lin), a matched pair whose fighting styles play off each other and whose weapons, when locked together, form a yin-yang. The worst casualty of the truncated running time is character development, and it is apparent the Gemini Killers were meant to have a much more significant chunk of time. As it is, they arrive, have a quick meal, are set upon by the Lion Clan, and then polished off by Poison Dagger in typical cowardly fashion. In just a little more time than it takes to tell about it.

man-with-the-iron-fists-img05Also when Poison Dagger finally takes off that cloak, we are obviously supposed to recognize him. We don’t. Or maybe it’s a kung fu joke, because Poison Dagger has the same flowing white hair as Pai Mei, villain of many a Shaw Brothers flick. Wait, I just saw a press photo of him in court garb – so he’s in one of the Imperial Court scenes back in Narration Land. No wonder I didn’t recognize him.

We recently crossed over a 1000 words, so let me try to be brief(er), The bad guys try to make Blacksmith tell where Zen Yi is, and when he refuses, they cut off his arms. He’s rescued by Jack Knife, who turns out to be an undercover agent for the Emperor. Blacksmith has, yes, iron fists made for himself  while we are regaled by the Origin of Blacksmith. A) he’s a freed slave B) his mom was Pam Grier C) blamed for a white man’s death, he jumped onto a ship D) which was wrecked off the China shore E) where Blacksmith was found by a bunch of monks out for a stroll.

liuNot bad. It explains what a black man is doing here, how he learned Chinese. Then, we learn, after being taught by none other than Gordon Liu, he is also a kung fu master of some skill (he just strayed significantly from The Path – to say the least! – which is why karma was such a bitch). Skillful enough to make the iron fists work as if they were actual hands. And skillful enough that, later, he will punch Brass Body so hard he apparently opens a singularity and makes the metal guy explode.

The last third of Iron Fists isn’t that bad; it’s just that the hectic patchwork of the first two acts has used up all the viewer’s patience, and without the necessary time spent developing the characters, there is no empathy for any of them, no sense of tragic loss or ultimate triumph. At least the damned narration vanishes.

We expect a lot from seasoned pros like Lucy Liu and Russell Crowe, and we get it. The movie provides some nice roles for Asian actors, but only Byron Mann and Daniel Wu get to make any impression, with Mann truly outstanding as Silver Lion. Sadly, the weak link is RZA, who possesses a low-key charisma and some personality, but not the presence or intensity necessary for an action star.

Man-with-the-iron-Fists-RZA-on-Set-with-Cinematographer-Chi-Ying-ChanHe fares a lot better as a director. Iron Fists is well-made and pretty assured when it isn’t trying to patch holes created by slashing the story to ribbons. I can’t fault RZA’s ambition, but I would have loved to see what he might have done with a script without such an epic scope, with a story that could have fit comfortably in 95 minutes. Judging from the final 30 minutes of Iron Fists, it could have been sweet.

The end credits set up the sequel, but that’s likely never going to happen. I do,  however, look forward to whatever RZA does next. This had to have been a tremendous learning experience, and I want to see where that education leads.

Damn it, I wanted to love this movie.

Twitch twitch

My week, artist's interpretation.

My week, artist’s interpretation.

I’m alive. Not very nimble or demonstrative, but I’m here. On my second day of “rest”, if your definition of rest includes mundane chores like going to the grocery store and having your car’s oil changed. I was thankful for the timing of President’s Day, as it gave me an actual weekend to recover.

The best part of last week was going to the monthly meeting of the local School Board, when the two people who normally run the cameras while I ride levels on the sound board were both absent, and i found myself running the robot cameras for the first time. Many freshman mistakes were made that night, but as my supervisor at the District said, “If anybody complains, I’ll tell them to come run the cameras next time.”

I look forward to going back to my usual work station next month.

You remember how I keep saying the 60s didn’t really die until the early 70s? Well, the week from hell won’t die until tomorrow night, when we have yet another private show.  Toughest part of this one should be maneuvering through rush hour traffic to get to the hotel. Then I get to be an asshole for two acts, then die.

The flip side of the President’s Day coin, too, is that being unsalaried, I have to move my regular Monday hours across the rest of the week. The ring I’m holding out for myself is a Crapfest this Saturday. I’m looking forward to that.

Sunday involved a lot of movie-watching. Both parts of the animated Dark Knight Returns, which was superb, although I was sadly underwhelmed by Michael Emerson’s Joker (Peter Weller is an excellent Batman, though). Skyfall, which was good, and The Man With the Iron Fists, which wasn’t, but I intend to talk about that later this week. Also watched the 1973 The Outfit, because Daily Grindhouse wants to start the podcast up again. It was a pretty good, stripped-down version of the Donald E. Westlake novel, and it really made me wish Robert Duvall had done more badass roles.

Now I need to do some writing for pay, so please excuse me. I just didn’t want to interject another lengthy pause on the blog.


I’ll Be Back

29266688if I live.

This weekend… Ha! Weekends! What the hell are they? This weekend was just the prelude. Friday morning I was pressed into news anchor duty at our weekly newscast; the usual anchor was down with a kidney stone and a stomach virus. We’re shorthanded as it is, so I got to put on makeup, a tie, and be presentable.  The results were acceptable, if not stellar.

Then, Friday night, a traveling show, a very special kind of hell, this time involving mys on and my wife, who was subbing for an absent actor. It was an evening full of hurry up and wait, and then oh my god get set up, get set up now, followed by more hurry up and wait, then doing the show, then hurrying up and waiting to tear down our stuff and pack it away. The room was apparently chosen for it’s extreme distance from the freight elevator.

Next night: regular show. Then, Sunday morning, can you please read at the 8:30 service, it will be super easy! Except for the getting up after only a few hours of sleep!

All this prelude. Prelude, to a week where the occasional fart is going to have to be carefully scheduled. Regular work, Monday through Friday, except for Wednesday, when I come in later to tape a lecture. Monday Night, School Board meeting. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights? Shows, all of them. Well, at least I get Wednesday night off.

“Listen, could you do the evening service on Ash Wednesday? It will be super-easy….”

Writer’s meeting Thursday afternoon. Can’t miss this one, I missed last week’s due to being in the middle of a State Park shooting a story. I said I’d have another script finished by tomorrow, then found out I don’t have the desired script template.

Like I said, if I live, I’ll be back.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

7th sealIn my quest to fill the many holes I had in my film education, I don’t think I’d yet approached anything so iconic as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The movie is so well-known that The Simpsons makes jokes about it at leisure, the chess game with death is imitated and riffed upon (at some length in one of my favorite movies, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), the back of the Criterion blu-ray extols it as “…one of the benchmark imports of America’s 1950s art house heyday, pushing cinema’s boundaries and ushering in a new era of moviegoing.”


I think, like a lot of people, I was expecting a grim vista, an allegory of Man’s search for meaning and God in the midst of the Black Death. Well, there is a fair amount of that. What I was not expecting, given the movie’s reputation, was the sweep of emotions, the comedy, the rapid switching of audience allegiances with the characters.

In other words, I was expecting good, but I wasn’t expecting something that would swing in on my Top Ten and start bashing other movies out of the way, like Aragorn and Gimli on the bridge to Helm’s Deep.

(Was that last reference nerdy enough? I worry sometimes.)

Sure, Bergman starts us right off with the chess game with Death. Knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is sleeping on a rocky beach, along with his squire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrad). Up crops Death (“I’ve been at your side for a while.” “I know.”) and Block, since his chess board is curiously already out and set up, proposes the chess game.  What I didn’t know, in my filmic ignorance, is that the chess game is ongoing throughout the movie; Block has a reprieve so long as he manages to hold checkmate at bay, or wins.

The-Seventh-SealBlock has just returned from a decade spent in the Crusades, a decade during which his faith has taken a severe beating, and his life’s course has become a quest to qualify if God actually exists, or not. He has been through such horrors that he requires physical proof, even resorting to asking a condemned witch how he, too, could see the Devil, because he has some questions for Old Scratch. These are, of course, questions that will not be answered – even Death is not forthcoming on the subject. The fact that he has returned to his home country to find an ever-spreading plague isn’t helping his demeanor any.

That I had expected. What I was not expecting was to become so involved with the character of the Squire. Jöns has similarly lost whatever faith he had, saying “Our crusade was such madness only a real idealist could have thought it up.” His is not the way of questioning; he has come to believe that all that remains after death is emptiness, and moves through life with more of an air of acceptance, of proactivity, as it were. If there are any examples of what would one consider knightly duties, saving a young woman from a rapist, or putting a scoundrel down, it’s Jöns that does it. It is beneath Block. Jöns has his bad moments – he’s far from perfect or even heroic – but he remains my favorite.

1Then we begin spending some time with a traveling troupe of actors: a family of three, Jof (Nils Poppe), the juggler who sees visions like the Virgin Mary walking the toddler Jesus; Mia his wife (Bibi Andersson) and Mikael, his one year-old son; and Jonas Skat (Erik Strandmark), who is more than a bit of a rogue.

Now, I was getting into the travels of Block and Jöns, and found myself a little impatient with the juggler sequences. Was this going to pay off? I should have know better. Of course it was going to pay off.

Block, Jöns, and the girl he rescued (Gunnel Lindblom) wind up at the same village where the jugglers are doing a show – which will be interrupted by the Flagellants, a group of people going about the countryside, singing hymns, carrying lifesized crucifixes, and haranguing everyone that they’re going to die because God thinks they suck and generally killing any hope for the actors passing the tip hat. Also, Jonas runs off with the local blacksmith’s wife, which is going to propel the plot for a while.

There will be a point where Block and Jöns join the jugglers – Jonas is still MIA with the wife – and they share a simple meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk, while Jof plays his lute. It’s a quiet, peaceful setting, and Block speaks of how the memory of that afternoon will sustain him. It’s a beautiful moment, made all the more poignant as one realizes that if Block was truly looking for the existence of God, it was never more obvious in that moment of peace on a sunny hillside.

There is a scene of almost Shakespearean comedy in the local tavern, where the blacksmith Plog (Åke Fridell) is sobbing into his ale over his lost wife. He and Jöns have a back-and-forth scene about all the things that are wrong with women, and why he is better off without her, and each one just makes the blacksmith sob harder. Later, when Block, Jöns and Plog are escorting the jugglers through a scary wood, and they find Jonas and the wife walking about, there is another marvelous scene where Plog and the actor trade insults, with only a little help to the slower blacksmith by Jöns.

flagellantsLater, camped in the woods, Jof, with his talent for visions, is the only one that can see who Block is playing chess with, and quietly gathers his family and sneaks out of the camp. Block sees this, and remembering that Death has said some things about the trip through the woods with typical Death-style foreshadowing, knocks over some of the chess pieces to distract Death while the actors escape. It is one of the most knightly things we have seen him do, but it will cost him. Shortly after, Death wins the match.

I hope I haven’t said too much, as I leave you here, still ten minutes before the end of the movie. As with all movies that I like, or love, I want you to experience it for yourself. And probably the greatest recommendation I can make is that, while writing this, I have been urgently seized with the need to watch it again. Fabulous filmmaking, all the more remarkable considering Bergman was using equipment left over from World War II, and filming in a very small studio – apparently it is possible to see apartment lights in the background of one nighttime shot – and still produced a movie, that while epic in subject matter, still manages to feel small, intimate, and wholly believable.

At the very least, I haven’t spilled any plot points the trailer didn’t:

(You might want to hit the YouTube logo and watch it on their site – I couldn’t find one where the burned-in subtitles didn’t turn to mud)