The movies that make you think

I said to someone recently that I’d prefer to discuss Bergman films than the footy scores. That’s a bit of an exaggeration – I live and die by the scores – but I’m done after about 20 minutes, which is when I like to engage in more meaningful conversation, such as Ingmar Bergman movies. This was always the case more or less, just that now I’ve got much less patience for the sort of superficial discussion that passes as conversation so often.

All that is by way of preamble to a discussion on some classic movies I’ve watched recently.

I watched Last Year at Marienbad last month and was intrigued, to say the least. There’s something hypnotic about the story, and how it’s told, but at the end of it I no more knew the truth of it than anyone else.

A couple of weeks ago I actually watched a Bergman movie, Winter Light. It’s a bleakish tale about a minister who has pretty well lost faith. There’s a troubled parishioner he utterly fails to help (and who consequently shoots himself), and a woman who loves him. It’s despairing in many ways, but fascinating, crisply made, beautifully acted, and with a thought provoking script. This is what I like about Bergman movies, and others like him, they get beneath the skin. There aren’t superficial effects here, rather he addresses human nature, human frailty, and first causes. He makes movies like I want to write books. There’s truth in his vision and authenticity you recognise.

In this case, it ends on a slight upswing as the minister, muddled and depressed, is given insight into true faith by a devout follower wanting to discuss something he had pondered.

In the coming weeks, I plan to watch a few more classic Bergman movies – The Seventh Seal, Persona, and – my favourite of his – Wild Strawberries.

Then last week I watched again a crackerjack American classic from the fifties, The Sweet Smell of Success.

Burt Lancaster is one of my favourite actors of the era. He had presence on screen, and was an intelligent, thoughtful man off it. In this, he’s typically great as the toxic J.J. Hunsacker. Tony Curtis is fantastic also as Sydney Falco. In a lot of ways, this is an utterly depressing movie that highlights much of the worst of human nature. It’s about cynical people who exploit and play upon human frailty from greed or ambition or misguided love. The action takes place over the course of a couple of nights in NYC and rushes along as the Falco character tries to do the dirty work for Hunsacker and get in his good graces. Lives are damaged, relationships destroyed, and at the end of it the tyrant Hunsacker is abandoned, and Falco is beaten up, all his contrivances come to naught.

One of the things that occurred to me watching is how contemporary it seemed. This is a movie that could be made today with very little change. It just goes to show too that while we think things are bad now, they’ve always been bad one way or another.

In Hunsacker we have a virtual populist fascist. Back then he was a gossip columnist – today he’s a politician. He thinks he does holy work, has zero self-awareness, he upholds the integrity of the American people, and is casually, brutally violent. There is no compassion in him, no compromise, no insight into other perspectives or any allowance for it. He sees himself as a noble crusader when in fact he epitomises a kind of tyranny.

Falco is the classic opportunist, willing to trade anything if it means he gets ahead. His conscience might squeak from time to time, but it’s easily bought off. There are no ideals, no integrity, no beliefs in a man such as that, he stands for nothing but himself.

It’s a great but merciless movie. If you want to see a similarly cynical movie from the same era check out Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole.

We live in bleak, cynical times, but hard to find two more cynical films than those two from the fifties. They’re great movies but they don’t make you feel any better about humankind.

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