Arts & Culture | Reviews

Survival, Shame and Amazing Grace in Film

Two reissues and a reconstruction.

Last year somebody looked at a spreadsheet and decided to cancel FilmStruck. The classic-and-art-film streaming service offered you an education, in one of the only art forms young enough that a single individual can still reasonably expect to really know it in a lifetime, at a cheap monthly fee; it was so outrageously good a thing that its very existence seemed to ask for trouble. In March, corporate restructuring stirred rumours of future trouble for Turner Classic Movies, a similarly good thing. (Why even have a TV in that case?) The person who wishes to continue their cinematic education has only so many options. If you’ve got a good library, use it. (Those usage figures are good for keeping the city council from slashing budgets.) If you’ve got a bad library, use that the best you can.

Thankfully, we still have Criterion. The DVD company (which recently launched an online service of its own) has recently plucked two more movies from the unavailability that seems to plague so many classics in this Age Of Streaming Everything. The least available of the two, at least during the years when I have been paying attention, is Barbara Loden’s legendary character study Wanda (1970). Suite For Barbara Loden (2012), a study/essay/novella by the French writer Nathalie Leger, describes the moment that every fan of the movie dreads, the moment when somebody asks you why you think it’s good: “[A] fog set in, I felt a sudden unfamiliarity with the subject,” she writes. The film does not lend itself to description. Most baldly, it is a study of a marginal young woman. A lot actually happens – bank robbery, for example – but the film is so saturated in Wanda’s powerlessness and unnamable loss that its happenings all feel like waitings. As a result the film feels, as films rarely do, like a suppressed bit of experience, not something you watched – for isn’t most of life waiting? In every shot you smell the rankness, the stale cigarettes and angry silence, of mid-twentieth-century adulthood, which now ironically looks like a lost paradise of long-term employment, generous welfare, strong unions, affirmative action, and bipartisan environmental reforms. Of course I wouldn’t last a day in this setting, and the film is too tough-minded to let me forget that. Wanda “survives” it by traveling light, feeling everything intensely but remembering nothing. 

THE MANY FACES OF BERGMAN 
Speaking of tough-minded, let’s bring back the fine old trend of Calvinists liking Ingmar Bergman. His films aren’t necessarily as depressing as his reputation implies, for there are actually several Bergmans, and they include Comedy Bergman (Smiles of a Summer Night) and Warmly Humanist Bergman (Fanny and Alexander, The Magic Flute) as surely as they include Grappling With Faith and Doubt Bergman (The Magician, based on Chesterton’s play Magic; the Winter Light trilogy), Deep Character Study Bergman (Wild Strawberries, Persona), and Therapy Bergman (Cries and Whispers, Scenes From a Marriage). Therapy Bergman is overrated – powerful, but only in the way getting hit by a car is. Finally, there’s Apocalyptic Bergman, who in some moods is my favourite because, in a world where we have a dozen years to reach zero yearly carbon emissions and yet everybody including me goes about their day, Apocalyptic Bergman is one of the few people who shoots you straight. The Seventh Seal – a very funny movie, to be honest, except when it isn’t – is Apocalyptic Bergman. 

So is Shame, which Criterion just reissued. Shame is a movie about a disintegrating marriage, set on a weird island where the radio issues reports of a war that has been going on for an interminable amount of time. The movie came out in 1968, which allows me to pretend that it and Godard’s Weekend and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, from the same year, are all one insanely long movie from a parallel plane of existence, which reached Earth in separate fragments. They’re all apocalypses, meaning not just that they show a world ending, a society breaking down, but also that they reveal the suppressed truths that a social order ignores. Midcentury social democracy, that lost paradise, rested on empires, on endless war and extraction and exploitation, and perhaps it was always destined to end in the every-man-for-himself scramble of neoliberalism, in the enclosure and liquidation of public goods, in cannibalism of parents by children and spouses by each other, in the fake reassurances and self-righteous denunciations that these films’ characters offer each other. In numbness, and in shame. 

CLASSIC SOUL
Then again, for Christians, shame is neither the first nor the last word. Certainly there is nothing that this culture has done to deserve the reconstruction and release of Amazing Grace, the much-rumoured, long-unfinished documentary which was meant to accompany the 1972 Aretha Franklin album of that name. (The initial director, Sydney Pollack, forgot to make the little clap with the little black board at the beginning of each take, the one you hear people making before yelling “action!” in movies about movies. This made the film footage impossible to sync with the soundtrack until computer technology reached a sufficient level of complexity, which took until this century. It turns out that that little black board is important.) I had read about this film, but never expected to see it. 

Amazing Grace, the album, was Franklin’s return to gospel music after years making “secular” records – though I’m not sure it makes sense to think of I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967) or Aretha: Lady Soul (1968) as other-than-religious experiences. She recorded the album “live,” over two nights, at a Los Angeles church. One knows this already, if one has even a passing interest in classic soul music. Yet the film is a shock. The shock is in the great humility at the center of it. Aretha was, in 1972, and for many years before and after that, inarguably among the world’s greatest musicians, period, and though the concert venue is small, every musician working on the project is clearly aware of the fact. Each performance starts with a long talk about how great Aretha is, how honoured everyone should be to see her perform, what a momentous event we witness tonight, etc. An elaborate space is created at the center of things for the Diva to step into. And she just won’t step into it. She hunches at the piano as if she hopes all that attention will slide off of her, her whole body radiating self-consciousness, except for her face and mouth. She sings with her eyes closed, streaming tears, as though her greatness actually hurts her. At one point, her father, the famous minister and civil rights leader C.L. Franklin, gives a long encomium to his daughter, and she sits looking down, as though she – Aretha Franklin – is surprised to hear people say nice things about her. So great is her egolessness that it even rubs off on Mick Jagger, who we briefly see at the back of the church, clearly transported, forgetting for once to carry himself like Mick Jagger. (A rich young rock star standing on the outskirts of the crowd and not even minding it? This really is gospel music.) When Aretha sings, she puckers and distends her lips, as though she were lifting weights with her face. Which is exactly what she’s doing. She was a gift to the world, and a reminder that we were made to live in a gift economy, not a spreadsheet one.   

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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