Monthly Archives: November 2016

Moonlight (2016)

The critical stars sometimes align; the right movie arrives at the right time in the right place for the right crowd. With a weighted average critical evaluation of 99/100 on Metacritic after 44 reviews were considered, Moonlight is such a movie.

But then…why did I exit the theater so unimpressed?

It has unimpeachable intentions. Films seriously and directly considering the gay experience have been unfortunately scarce in the US cinema since its inception up until this awards season. Moonlight tackles not only what its like to slowly come to terms with coming out, but the intersection of this experience with growing up as a black Cuban immigrant in Florida. The writer/director grew up in Miami which lends the film at least the superficial air of authenticity.

However, direct access to the subjects of a film can’t bridge the gap left by extremely underdeveloped characters and a disingenuous appeal to the “lyrical”, “laid back”, “subtle” realism of recent US indie directors, ostensibly taking after Terrence Malick etc. The haziness and physical exhilaration of childhood is conveyed through handheld POV shots. An act of violence in a high school is telegraphed with lots of intense shots of facial expressions and a kid walking down hallways. The emotional tenor of scenes is always kept low-key to avoid seeming to prod the audience into specifically feeling something, or in other cases (Moonlight being one) at least much less aggressively coercing one into feeling the “right” emotional response at the desired time.

As we follow protagonist Chiron from childhood through adulthood, the characters surrounding him seem to only exist in their relation to him and particularly his being gay/poor/black. They seem so little tethered to the film proper as to be aggressively auditioning themselves as deus ex machina more than even properly functioning as such. A drug dealer named Juan decides with no discernible or even suggested motivations to try to be a surrogate father figure to the protagonist as a child. Why? Because the film needs him to. We learn little to nothing about Juan besides that he has somehow made a comfortable middle class existence for himself by distributing crack cocaine, and that he really really desperately wants to progress the plot of the film. Juan’s girlfriend takes a liking to Chiron and behaves like the stereotypical middle class mother type. Chiron’s actual mother is addicted to crack and sells herself to support her crack habit. Chiron is actually positioned between the mother and the whore. Neither character seems to exist besides as a contrast to each other or to make Chiron’s life miserable. Later, a bully decides to target Chiron because he thinks Chiron is gay. For the purposes of the film, the bully again exists only to create forward-seeming plot action for Chiron. This sheer functionality on the bully’s part becomes almost surreal once we realized we’ve learned so little about Chiron. We can only presume that every waking moment of his existence revolves around pondering his burgeoning homosexuality or getting shit on by characters around him. Nothing gives a sense of anything having happened prior to the film starting and the characters’ lives are lazily and cleanly intertwined over multiple decades in a way that suggests more something outlined at a screenwriting workshop than life. Both Chiron and his tormentor exist as two ciphers pulled together to torment/be tormented.

If the film had set up a tone invoking a dire nihilism this might be seen as meaningful structural feature. However, the tone established is largely one of haphazard and careless prettiness and directorial flourishes. The development of characters comes from the unsubtle subversion of tired stereotypes instead of the consideration of people as such. This “subversion” has attracted a lot of attention and praise. However, at the end of the day, we still have another movie that feels like Precious-another paternalistically racist film made to reassure the NPR crowd that while on the inside we’re all the same, most black people are still just happily poor (one character outright says this towards the film’s end) or selling/doing crack. The characters being ciphers serves the ultimate purpose of all ciphers in the commercial cinema-to leave an opening large enough for those in the audience who want to believe badly enough to insert their own projections.

In the film’s final third, we’re shown Chiron’s adult life. He’s become a drug dealer and “worked his way up”. Nothing we see about him really suggests that the drug trade was anything more than an alternate way to a middle class existence. We see none of the hardships or inconveniences, or really anything that doesn’t tie a nice little knot with some element of the first third of the film.

Someday a great film will be made about the rich intersection of subject matter that Moonlight bungles. Perhaps this film has already been made and I never saw it. In either case, Moonlight fails to live up to the hype.

Found in Escapes

What if I seek light in
This night.
Flicker lights falling upon my
Cheek, glistening a part of it, a part
Still left hidden.
What if I seek journey here
Sitting at a deserted bus stand, who
Uses them anyway? Maybe,
Some adventures are good untravelled
What if I seek dance in
The still trees and fully
Blossomed but burdened petals
Of this red red flower, Maybe
Some emotions are best unspoken
Nothing has
Broken down in this part of
The world. The passers by
Still passing, the pretentious
Still talking
What if I seek forgiveness in
This waning crescent moon,
This stillness, this halt
This long drawn silence is not
Here to stay forever,
But it’s still mine
So I don’t see anything moving
But my memories, Maybe
Some notes are better unplayed
Some songs,
Better unsung.


Picture: It’s me trying to discover Fort Kochi


Seldom songs will just be played
When it’s not the music
That we need, but
The words.
I would want your love, laying
Right at that couch, in
The living room.
I would want that touch, not
For I need what love gives
But to realise,
All what it failed to make
Of our lives.


Picture : Well, that’s me chilling at the beautiful coastal city of Kochi

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966)


Now that the Clintons and their surrogates in the media are trying to revive the Cold War, it’s as good a a time as any to revisit The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming. The last time I saw Norman Jewison’s classic farce was all the way back in 1984, when it seemed like a welcome antidote to Ronald Reagan, the jingoist Los Angeles Olympics, and Red Dawn, which had been released that Summer. After watching it again, in 2016, I came away with the impression that while it never had very much to say about the Cold War, it has a lot to say about the assumptions of American liberalism.

They are as follows:

Working-class Americans are jingoistic idiots with guns.

The typical Russian is a befuddled everyman who doesn’t really want war.

The United States government is basically good, but largely ineffectual, and absent from the lives of most Americans.

Good looking young people, whether Russian or American, are more interested in sex than in national differences.

The American liberal intellectual is neither a conservative, nor a rebel and a malcontent, but an apolitical, upper-middle-class family man just trying to make a living.

Boys are rough little pains in the ass who totally buy into Cold War Propaganda and American nationalism.

Little girls are pure, innocent angels who don’t.

Working-class American women are as nutty and jingoistic as working-class men.

Upper-middle-class American women are more sensible level-headed than than their husbands.

In the end, American or Russian, conservatives or liberal, communist or capitalist, man or woman, we’re basically all just lovable characters one big sitcom of humanity.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming opens with a Russian submarine in the shallow waters off a small, New England island that will probably remind you of Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming was actually filmed in Bodega Bay, California, but Jewison goes out of his way to make sure we hear the locals speaking with a Boston accent so thick there’s no mistaking it. We’re in Massachusetts. The Captain, a bluff, intimidating, but as we will eventually see, basically good-hearted man played by Theodore Bikel wants to get a good look at the New England coastline, not because he’s spying for the Soviet government, but just because he’s curious about America. That the sub, named Спрут, the “Octopus,” runs aground, not particularly surprising when you realize that it’s a crappy old diesel powered vessel that was probably obsolete at the beginning of the Second World War. This Russian crew is not exactly the Kremlin’s A Team, something that becomes even more obvious when the captain sends a landing party ashore to steal a boat to tow them off the sand bar.

It’s not that the leader of the landing party, Lieutenant. Yuri Rozanov, played by a hilarious Alan Arkin, is particularly dumb. It’s just that he’s not particularly military. He has a lot more in common with Walt Whittaker, a New York playwright spending the Summer on “Gloucester Island” than he does with the Russian Captain. His fake Russian accent and perfect sense of comic timing would recall Yakov Smirnov, if Smirnov had any talent, as well as an earlier generation vaudeville performers. Arkin and Carl Reiner, who plays Walt Whittaker are both descended from East European Jews, and this is important. While Arkin the movie codes Alan Arkin as“ethnic white with hilariously funny accent” it codes Reiner as “ethnic white so completely assimilated he might as well be a WASP.” The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is as much an immigrant and assimilation story as it is a Cold War story. It’s not too much of a stretch to see Rozanov and the Captain as Russians who secretly wish their grandparents had emigrated to the United States before the Cold War started.

I don’t know how authentic Alan Arkin’s Russian accent is but his comic timing is flawless.

When Lieutenant.Yuri Rozanov and his men, including a young sailor named Alexei Kolchin, played by the blond, 6’4” John Phillip Law, take Walt Whittaker and his wife “Elspeth” hostage, we’re not really worried anything will happen to them. Afraid of both the American government, and their own, they’re desperate to drag the submarine off the sandbar and make their way back home, but we know deep down inside they’re not bad people. The contrast between Jewison’s Russians and the Russians in Red Dawn, who start machine gunning high school teachers as soon as they parachute into America, couldn’t be more stark. The Russians of The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming are just like us. That doesn’t mean they haven’t unintentionally stumbled onto what could quickly turn into an international incident. To say that the townies, the people who don’t go back to New York or Boston for the Summer, aren’t as level-headed as Walt Whittaker is putting it mildly. Before long, everybody in town has a rifle or a shotgun, and an ever growing lynch mob is prowling the island looking for commies. Even Walt Whittaker isn’t immune from the anti-communist hysteria. He attacks Alexei Kolchin, who Rozanov left in charge while he and the rest of the landing party have gone into town, and disarms him. Kolchin, who’s an athletic, well-built man in his twenties could have easily overpowered the middle-aged playwright, but he still feels so guilty about having accidentally pointed a gun at Whittaker’s little girl that he basically lets him win. Whittaker, on the other hand, even though he had no trouble disarming the young sailor, just can’t seem to make it clear to anybody in town that there isn’t a Russian invasion, just a lone sub that went aground. Whittaker, like Rozanov, is highly effective one minute, a bumbling fool the next.

From the urban, New York intellectual Whittaker’s point of view, the anti-communist mob on the island is just as frightening as the Russians. The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming is a broadly comic, slapstick satire on McCarthyism, but it is a satire on McCarthyism nonetheless. Nobody on this little island off the Massachusetts coast seems remotely competent at their jobs, let alone prepared for a Russian invasion. The Police Chief played by Brian Keith is level headed but ineffectual. His deputy quickly joins an anti-Communist posse led by Fendall Hawkins, a complete buffoon who runs around with a wearing a Massachusetts VFW hat and brandishing a cavalry saber. Indeed, the only person on the island who seems even remotely aware he’s living in a maritime community is the Walt Whittaker, who assures Rozanov that “boats go around all the time around here.” The Russians are as paranoid about the Americans as the Americans are about the Russians, never quite able to admit to themselves that in a small town of less than a thousand people they stick out like sore thumbs, that it would be better simply to find out who’s in charge of the harbor and explain their dilemma. The idiocy of the Cold War, Jewison is telling us, has not only made bumbling fools of us all, but has created a situation where either side could start World War III without even wanting to. Eventually of course the standoff between the Russian submarine, which manages to get itself off the sandbar and sail into town looking for the landing party, is peacefully resolved. When it comes to saving the life of a child, both Russians and Americans are willing to put aside their differences.

But it is the budding romance of Alexei Kolchin with Alison Palmer, a neighbor played by a platinum blond actress named Andrea Dromm that really seems to point the way out of the Cold War. Except for a somewhat dimwitted airport mechanic, Alison seems to be the only adult on the island under thirty. She and Alexei also seem to be in a completely different movie. Where Walt Whittaker, Yuri Rozanov, the Russian Captain and the rest of town inhabit the world of frantic, broad farce, Alison and Alexei are in a world of romance. When they walk the beach with the Whittaker’s little girl Annie, Jewison’s takes get longer, the camera lingering on their good loocks and on the natural beauty of the island. Alexei talks about how he was taught to hate Americans but that he’s never believed any of it. Alison agrees that hating people is a waste of time. Annie waives to Alexei, blissfully unaware that he’s her enemy, or even a foreigner. Young people, Jewison is telling us, couldn’t care less about the Cold War. When Rozanov and Whittaker stumble back into Whittaker’s now idyllic Summer home, it’s not only a clash of generations, it’s a clash of two very different methods of filmmaking, a sitcom crashing into the world of a lazy European art film. When the Russians go, we are sorry to see them torn apart, not only Alison and Alexei, but Whittaker and Rozanov, both of whom would be a fun couple of guys to have a beer with, if only the Soviet and United States government could end their conflict.

So what can The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming tell us about today’s conflict between the United States and Russia? Sadly, I think, the urbane liberalism of Norman Jewison and Nathaniel Benchley – who wrote the original novel the movie is based on – no longer offers any answers. It’s not dumb conservatives like Fendall Hawkins who are pushing for a new Cold War, it’s the very liberal elite that, in the 1960s, were beginning to question the old one. It’s not a mob of ignorant townies we have to worry about. It’s people who graduate from Harvard and Yale. Walt Whittaker no longer writes musical comedies and pals around with Russian sailors. He writes conspiracy theories about secretive ties between his political opponents and Vladimir Putin or long, jingoistic think pieces about how the Russians are trying to manipulate American elections. Perhaps Benchley should have looked deeper, explored the ways that Fendall Hawkins and his mob were being manipulated by the ruling class and by the corporate media, but that, of course, would have been a different film. And it wouldn’t have been as funny.

Masculin Féminin (1966)

The full “Miss 19” scene from Godard’s Masculin Féminin

These days, Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin seems to be one of those films more talked about than actually watched. I have no idea if people still go to see it in France, but for me it’s always been that “children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola movie,” something I’d eventually get around to, but a dated relic of the 1960s that did not demand my immediate attention. Lazy American film critics, of course, have always loved the line “the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola.” It let’s them sum up a complex film, one that takes multiple viewings to understand, in one quick, snappy slogan. I suppose it’s part of some cosmic joke that Jean-Luc Godard, a master troll who could write ad copy better than Don Draper, would make it so easy to reduce a nine-six-minute masterpiece to one or two intertitles, but I suppose it’s one of the risks of being a genius.

I suppose that as an American, I don’t sufficiently appreciate the extent to which a Frenchman would resent the destructive effects that American popular culture had on France, especially in the years following the Second World War. In one of the film’s best scenes, the gorgeous French pop star Françoise Hardy gets out of one side of a car with an American army officer while two young Frenchman paint “US Out of Vietnam” on the other. Blink and you’ll miss it. Who the hell in 2016 cares about Françoise Hardy? In 1966, however, any Frenchman would have gotten the joke. Françoise Hardy was not only a beautiful French woman palling around with American imperialists, she was famous only because she was a “ye-ye girl,” an American style pop singer who was helping to pollute France with a prefabricated corporate product disguised as music. Any smart Frenchman in 1966 would have also remembered how and why the United States got into Vietnam in the first place, to protect the remnants of the French empire.

In 1966, Godard was thirty-six-years old, still a relatively young man, but far too old and well-educated to fully understand the youth culture that had come along with the massive Baby Boom generation. So he projects himself Paul, a twenty-one-year old leftist intellectual played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who became famous as the child hero of Traffaut’s 400 Blows. In one of Masculin Féminin’s fifteen, often improvised vignettes, Paul interviews a young girl who has been chosen by a French fashion magazine to tour the world ass “Mademoiselle 19 Ans,” Miss 19. It is a masterful little piece of filmmaking that manages to dramatize not only the discomfort the thirty-six year old filmmaker felt in the presence of vapid, shallow, yet beautiful youth, but also the difference in the way men and women communicate. Miss 19 isn’t as stupid as Paul, or even Godard, thinks she is, but unlike Paul she has not developed the image of herself as a intellectual or a revolutionary. She’s happy that the magazine has given her a car and has paid for an extended tour of th United States – which she likes partly because “women take a more active role than they do in France,” something the snobbish Paul misses completely – and doesn’t really want to overthink her good fortune. Paul the cranky young man is appalled. “What do you think of socialism?” he asks her. “I don’t really understand it,” she admits. “Do you know what a reactionary is,” he says. “It is a good thing or a bad thing?” He’s even more appalled when she says she thinks it a “good thing,” that she doesn’t like people who just “say amen” to the spirit of the age, which in the 1960s, of course, was radicalism.

I wonder if Godard got his own joke. In many ways, he’s a cultural reactionary. He’d rather have his beautiful young actresses listening to Mozart than to American pop music. Paul might just be the luckiest young nobody this side of Kevin Federline. He not only gets to sleep with Madeleine, the pop singer of his dreams played by the real life pop singer Chantal Goya, her roommate Catherine developes a hopeless crush on the pompous little communist dilitante. I suppose Godard sees Catherine, played by Catherine-Isabelle Duport, as “plain.” She’s anything but. Godard’s poetic sensibility always gets the best of him. Even the girl who gets shut out is beautiful. As Paul and Madeleine grow apart – he tries to build her up into something she’s not and she can take him or leave him – Paul and Catherine come together, at least visually, which, of course, is what film is all about, images, not words. Jean-Pierre Léaud always seem to struggle to connect. He’s overbearing and overly masculine. She’s coy and standoffish. Léaud and Catherine-Isabelle Duport, on the other hand, have a genuine chemistry, a natural physical rapport. Watching Paul’s rought, working-class friend Robert, who’s got it as bad for Catherine as Catherine has it for Paul, is heartbreaking. “It’s none of your business,” she repeatedly says to Robert, who repeatedly tries to bully her into admitting she loves Paul, revealing how much she does every time she denies it.

I don’t suppose the young Godard would make something like Masculin Féminin today. He’d be even more out of touch with the hip youth culture – the very title of the movie locks his characters into the “gender binary” — than he was in 1966. Women are no longer coy, standoffish beautiful objects for leftist men to admire and misunderstand. There are of course teenage boys and girls marketed as vapid pop idols, but even mainstream popular music has embraced the left. To Godard’s credit, he understands how quickly his film is going to become dated. Both Paul and Madeleine give hints that they will become far more radical as they enter their mid-twenties, and the late 1960s. She’s fascinated by sex work, a theme Godard had alread explored in Vivre sa vie in 1962. When Paul surprises two gay men making out in a public restroom, and his gaze lingers just a bit too long, we realize just how much Paul has to learn about the radical counterculture of the 1960s. Similarly, when Paul and Robert overhear a white woman and two black men reading lines from Amiri Baraka play The Dutchman, it’s Godard’s admission that as a white European he really doesn’t quite get either the American Civil Rights movement or American popular music. “When Bessie Smith talks about her black ass,” one of the men says as Paul and Robert look on uncomprehendingly, “it has nothing to do with sex. She’s telling you to kiss her black ass.”

In the end, however, it really doesn’t matter if Jean-Luc Godard understands the youth culture of the 1960s any more than we do. Masculin Féminin is not an objet d’art set in stone. Godard wrote most of the lines he gave the actors the night before he shot their scenes. Rather, it’s a free wheeling experiment of a man trying to understand the 1960s youth culture, an open-ended work in progress trying, and always failing, to hit a constantly moving target. It would perhaps benefit today’s youth if they revisited Masculin Féminin, if they stopped trying to put a radical spin on ponderous, overbudgeted comic book movies and stale reboots of reactionary crap from the 1980s and expanded their horizons. I don’t think the methods Godard explores in his early masterpiece have aged at all, even with social media.

Day Breaks: Understanding Life’s Journey through Full Circle

Norah Jones has witnessed a magnitude of success that was quite overwhelming for her own devices. What could’ve been just another experimentation of a pseudo jazz artist, developed into this whole new genre of contemporary music that had overlapping tones of pop and blues. Come Away With Me as a record librated Norah from a sculpting phase of an artist where one simply tries to shape oneself to fit the voids carved out by the industry.

The resounding success of her debut studio album led to a series of transcending musical adventures where genres such as country and indie pop were also explored. In a span of four studio albums we saw Norah grow musically with her commercial prowess unable to keep up with such diversification.

It was in 2012, that Norah Jones deviated the most from her self produced ‘style’ and released Little Broken Hearts that brought electronic undertones to both her music and vocals. The mixed reviews from the critics and lukewarm reception from the audience kind of faded Norah’s presence from the music scene for at least four years. She did have a couple of collaborative albums being released with The Little Willies and Billie Joe but both the works were merely covers of classical hits.

So after this history of rise and apogee of Norah Jones’s musical trajectory, how do we perceive her new album. Well, the answer comes from the singer herself.

Day Breaks has been translated as an album that shows the completion of Norah’s full circle. This term is quite intriguing for it not only represents a journey but also the various threads of realisation that a person has imbued while embarking upon it. Like a circle is made up of many points that lead to the meeting of the starting point with the end, a full circle journey is one’s professional or personal travel that crosses various moments with each having its own space and value in the whole.

In the lead single Carry On, Norah goes back to perch behind her piano and belt out a soothing melody about the most ordinary yet unfelt moments of romance. Though the lyrical context has matured, the glimpse of that innocent smile breaking between piano solos is still the same. Day Breaks have given a rebirth to Come Away With Me with a refined flavour of instrumental profoundness. There are welcoming features of organ, double bass and saxophone. This is not just Norah going back to her debut era but it’s also a celebration of what she has become today.

So, how does this full circle album treats us? The very idea of going back to your roots, embracing your beginnings, is potentially very impacting in one’s quest for answers about self. We often tread upon various versions of ourselves and get thrown into this twisted maze of complexities about our own identity. It is during this mayhem, that going full circle becomes an answer to that much needed calmness.

Reiterating it yet again, going full circle doesn’t reflect loss or giving up. Neither does it stand for denying what the present shows itself to be. One should not confuse this idea with lack of prospective thinking or death of creativity. This is because you can never make a circle until you merge all the points. Or you ignore to tap upon them. When you go full circle you not only begin to understand your own evolution as a person but also find yourself at a position where you can objectively differentiate between substance and superficial. You get the power to describe your own history and take pride in what you’ve done. Such constructive approach towards past can build strong foundations for future realisation of one’s potential. Therefore, instead of crumbling walls of pride, going full circle makes you preserve the ones that matter.

One should hardly pay attention to the commercial success of Day Breaks because that’s not what Norah seems to prioritise with this album. This album is a realisation, a celebration that has made us realise what Norah Jones was, is and can potentially blossom into.


Picture Credits – Rolling Stones

Shame (1968)


American war movies almost always follow a set pattern. I can think of few exceptions. A young draftee, or an older civilian, is thrown unexpectedly into an armed conflict. The first taste of combat leaves him feeling unnerved, poorly prepared to face the prospect of an imminent death. Sometimes, like Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, he becomes a capable, yet quickly disillusioned veteran. At other times, think of Timothy E. Upham from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, he initially reveals himself to be a coward, but then manages to redeem himself as a man and as a soldier. At still other times, like Luke Skywalker or Buster Keaton’s Johnny Grey, the hero is a natural born hero. An American, once confronted by gunfire, at least in American cinema, rarely if ever fails to measure up.

As a Swede, Ingmar Bergman doesn’t have the luxury of that fantasy. Sweden, surrounded by neighbors like Germany and Russia, and not having the natural protection of Switzerland’s mountains, has always preserved a careful neutrality. The Vikings are ancient history. Gustavus Adolphus has mostly been forgotten. Shame’s Jan Rosenberg, even in the form of the 6’4” Max von Sydow, is an effete sissy who can’t keep his wife satisfied, and who devolves into a quivering mass of nerves at the slightest hint of danger. Like Dustin Hoffman’s David Sumner in Sam Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, his closest relative in American cinema, Rosenberg eventually becomes comfortable with the idea of killing. Unlike Pekinpah, however, Bergman doesn’t approve of his hero’s transformation. As the movie beings, Eva Rosenberg, his wife played by Liv Ullmann, can’t stand him. At the end, she hates him even more. Rosenberg starts out as a coward. He ends up as a thief and a murderer. Shame is not widely discussed these days, but if you put me on the spot, I’d probably rank it as one of the best war movies ever made. The only American film that even comes close is Robert Aldrich’s now almost completely forgotten Attack, but Attack is a movie about soldiers who know what they’re getting into. Shame is a movie about innocent civilians who get caught up in a civil war they don’t even understand.

By 1968, Ingmar Bergman had fallen out of fashion. At one point his students at the Stockholm University even walked out of his class to protest the overly bourgeois nature of his movies. Shame opens pretty much the way those students would have expected, with a high-bourgeois married couple dealing with their marital problems away from the larger political issues of the world. Jan and Eva Rosenberg are two classical musicians living on the tiny Baltic Island of Fårö which is just off north of the island of Gotland, which, in turn, is just off mainland Sweden’s southeastern coast. While Fårö’s population of just under 500 people might indicate that it has no strategic value, and that the Rosenbergs’ decision to sit out the war on a small farm, far away from civilization, was the right one, they are soon proven horrifyingly wrong.

In the first twenty minutes of Shame,  you think that the biggest problem Jan will have to deal with is the lack of proper dental care. He has a bad wisdom tooth. But Shame’s transformation into a war movie is so jarring and so sudden that neither of the Rosenbergs, nor the viewer, even quite recovers. What makes Shame so effective is how it puts us in the shoes of an ineffectual bourgeois couple trying to avoid war, then hits us hard with the very war they’ve been trying to avoid. I’ve rarely been quite as terrified watching a 48-year-old art movie as I was when a group of F-86 Saber jets roars overhead and napalms the forest running alongside the Rosenberg farm. Bergman puts us in the place of a Vietnamese peasant being attacked by the Americans. You feel a visceral disgust at the environmental degradation, but also horror that the next attack might destroy your ability to feed yourself. When paratroopers fighting to overthrow the government surround the farmhouse, grab Eva, and coerce her into making a quick propaganda film, it’s probably the most effective dramatization of the vulnerability of women in the face of an occupying army I’ve ever seen. Eva is far braver and far stronger than Jan, but when confronted by a platoon of men with automatic rifles sticking a camera in her face she reacts like any of us would. She’s not only terrified and confused, she’s positively disoriented. This is what “shock and awe really looks like.”

After the paratroopers leave, we hope, like the Rosenbergs, that the worst is behind them. It hasn’t even started. Once Shame has declared itself a war movie, the action never lets up. The Rosenbergs, who are scared but not quite over the belief that they can sit out the war without taking sides, are never allowed to regain their equilibrium. The disintegration hinted at during the films opening minutes is mirrored by the disintegration of civil society all around them. The very bourgeois mentality that convinced them they could sit out the war – the idea that the world has an order that will eventually be restored – is what makes them so spectacularly unprepared for the trials that await them as the conflict goes on, and on, and on. The internment camp they are taken to after they’re captured by government forces and accused of collaborating with the rebels, is all the more terrifying because of Bergman’s low key approach. The torture is clumsy and believable. The bureaucrats who run the camp aren’t monsters, but citizen bureaucrats – think PTA members on weekend duty as prison guards — “just doing their jobs.” The Rosenbergs’ release, the permission to go back to their farm, is no release at all. They are not free. On the contrary they have become clients of a powerful man, Colonel Jacobi, who fancies Eva, and who believes he can coerce her into becoming his mistress.

It doesn’t take much coercion. It’s not so much that Jacobi, played by long time Bergman collaborator Gunnar Björnstrand, Squire Jöns from The Seventh Seal, is a good man trapped in a bad system. He’s a horrible man. He threatens to send Eva to a concentration camp is she doesn’t fuck him, but he’s really not that much worse than her husband, whom she now utterly loathes. In Pekinpah’s Straw Dogs, David Sumner uses the violence of their attackers, and his effective response, as a club to beat his wife back in line. In Shame, Jan tries to do the same thing with Eva. He fails, miserably. As Jan becomes more and more comfortable with violence, Eva becomes wiser and more compassionate, a witness to the horrors of the war raging around them, Liv Ullmann’s face a mirror that reflects back the dissolution of the civil society she never thought she’d be called upon to defend. After the rebels retake the farmhouse from government forces, and Jan gets to kill Jacobi, Bergman takes little satisfaction in the execution. It’s clumsy, cruel, and, more importantly, realistic. Jan doesn’t become Dirty Harry once he gets his hands on a gun. He can’t shoot straight. Jacobi’s death is drawn out, painful torture, not a quick bullet through the head. When a young government deserter, barely seventeen or eighteen, shows up at the farmhouse, Eva wants to feed him and give him shelter. He pleads that he’s hungry and hasn’t slept for days. Jan coldly murderers him for his new pair boots.

Shame closes with Jan and Eva trying to escape Fårö by sea. They succeed in getting off the island, only to end up trapped in a watery hell. That, Bergman has demonstrated, is what war is like. Even though Jan and Eva have developed in opposite directions — Jan towards evil and Eva towards good – they wind up in the same place. It makes no distinctions between male, female, hero, coward, child, adult, government loyalist or collaborator, good or evil. In the end, it sends us all to the same meaningless grave. François Truffaut once said that it was impossible to make a genuinely anti-war film. He was wrong. Shame is that film.