The Seventh Seal

2008-12-21

in Daily updates, Films and movies, Rants

Tonight, I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with Gabe. My overall impression is that the film is a bit like high runway fashion: impractical, often incomprehensible, but likely to filter down and become part of many subsequent pieces of mainstream art.

All told, I prefer more straightforward storytelling. Excessively arty and intellectual films annoy me. This film doesn’t quite cross into that territory (unlike films like The Hours and Lost in Translation, which I strongly disliked), but it has a similar rarefied, abstract quality. I don’t feel annoyed for having watched it, but I don’t think I got any of the messages the film-maker intended, either.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan December 22, 2008 at 4:17 am

I shall make an effort to see it. The Hours and Lost in Translation are two of my all time favorite films.

coyote December 22, 2008 at 7:29 am

I think The Seventh Seal may be more about visual composition than comprehensibility. Certain scenes (take that silhouetted dance of death, for instance) are so strong that many people find themselves snickering (often inappropriately) at visual references in everything from Monty Python to Paul Gross’ Passchendaele.

Speaking of snickering, for a strong parody of that rarified abstract quality to which you refer, check De Düva (The Dove). It’s a 14 minute, ummm, classic. . .

R.K. December 22, 2008 at 8:56 am

All told, I prefer more straightforward storytelling. Excessively arty and intellectual films annoy me.

This suggests a certain laziness of thinking – wanting everything to be immediately comprehensible.

Milan December 22, 2008 at 9:39 am

Films that are intellectual but not especially pretentious – like The Seventh Seal – mostly just fail to entertain me. I don’t think film is a good medium for unnecessary puzzles.

Films that are pretentious and, arguably, not especially intellectual – like The Hours and Lost in Translation – actually anger me. They remind me of bad modern art, trying to pass itself off as brilliant through sheer bravado.

Tristan December 22, 2008 at 11:58 am

What those two films have in common, I think, is that what they clarify is emotions rather than concepts. Does this make them not “intellectual”. I guess that depends on how you draw the limits of the intelligible – are emotions intelligible even if they aren’t “concepts”?

What does it mean for a film to be “intellectual”?

Milan December 22, 2008 at 12:07 pm

Coyote,

Visually, the film certainly reminded me of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. There were a number of scenes where I realized, after the fact, that something made more recently was a reference.

Tristan,

Perhaps intellectual films are those where the people making them intended to change how the audience thinks about something. As such, something like Schindler’s List would count, whereas the Indiana Jones films would not (except perhaps insofar as they are a comment on perceptions of heroism).

My initial guess is that the degree to which a film is ‘intellectual’ is closely linked with the degree to which those creating it were making an intentional social or political statement.

robin December 23, 2008 at 1:02 am

There is a brief review of The Seventh Seal on my blog:
http://www.robink.ca/movies/the-seventh-seal-1957/

I like it more than you do.

Emily December 24, 2008 at 1:59 am

In my opinion it’s kind of ridiculous to label films as ‘intellectual’ or otherwise. A good film, I think, works on a number of levels that are varying between immediately accessible to more complex cultural references. Woody Allen created a lot of ‘intellectual’ films, and as I rewatch them I garner more references as I pick up more cleverly composed ideas and cultural referentialia, but I could definitely enjoy them as a clueless teenager as well.

We enjoy compartmentalizing films into ‘artsy’, ‘intellectual’, ‘action’, ‘humour’ which make it easy for surface level sifting, ie., I don’t feel like watching something artsy (something that generally requires more attention, patience, cerebral contemplation), I feel like watching something with action (I want to watch sweaty chested men blow up buildings with large missiles, mindlessly).

But, once you begin to try in earnest to compartmentalize, genre-compartmentalization is limiting and often really inaccurate. ‘V for Vendetta’ is considered to be an action film, I think, but it also works on a number of other levels, one of which could be considered ‘intellectual’.

A rule of thumb I use is a very personal one. I start from ‘I am an open-minded person, who isn’t an expert in art or media, who is willing to consider this as a piece of art…’ and taking that stance, if a work of art or a piece of media has no influence on me, is totally impotent, or seems hopelessly contrived, I either decide that the art has failed, or I have failed the art.

Often if I feel that I have failed the art then I’ll just do a little research and see if I missed anything terribly important.

Tristan December 24, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Emily,

I would not be so quick to dismiss what is meant by an “intellectual film”, I think he’s caught on something essential:

“those where the people making them intended to change how the audience thinks about something.”

I am inclined to think this is right, and that this is the purpose behind all art. Remember from “Hand Puppet Nuit Blanche” where I say that one does not see non-representational art, but one sees “according to it”. What this means is the art (for me, primarily sculpture), changes how you see the things around the sculpture, and derivatively, how you see other things.

This seems like a good explanation of what I like about both “The Hours” and the Bill Murray film, although in different ways. “The Hours” helped me appreciate, or understand, in some small way, what it means to be depressed, to suffer “clinical” depression. So it is not so much that I “see’ the story, but according to the story, I’m able to understand others’ stories. I consider this issue fairly important, as what gets called (and you may know I’m critical of this) “clinical” depression has been something more than a few of my friends have been subject to. To a first person rational actor, clinical depression simply makes no sense whatsoever. So, it makes sense that we’d want to have art that would help people see it, even if they art only let them see it a little, imperfectly.

For “Lost in Translation”, what is seen (and Milan, you have pointed this out) is alienation. “Oh no, things are so different in Japan”. This, and Milan you are right about this, is not in itself interesting. However, the reason I think I like Lost in Translation is it not simply that it argues that the American experience in Japan is one of alienation, but the film shows that alienation at such. In other words, it does not simply “tell” that their experiences are alienated, but it “shows” what it is like to experience alienation. This is far more interesting – because it is always more interesting to demonstrate what a “concept” (term being used loosely to include emotions) means ‘in general’ rather than simply in a specific case. Of course, the film is a specific case – but what is interesting about it (if it is interesting, I may be wrong about all of this after all), is that the specificity of the experience reveals something partially universal about the experience of alienation. I say “partially” universal because of course it is not something like logical universality (but, is there any of this anyway?)

Anyway, I might be wrong, I might just like these films because I’m fetishizing the other.

Milan December 29, 2008 at 2:50 pm

Emily,

But, once you begin to try in earnest to compartmentalize, genre-compartmentalization is limiting and often really inaccurate

While I agree in general, I do think a useful distinction can be made between films that have a conscious and well-developed agenda (beyond ‘make money’) and those that don’t see themselves as having a social, political, or intellectual function.

Perhaps ‘intellectual’ isn’t the best term for what I mean.

Tristan,

Perhaps all I am reproducing here is the supposed distinction between ‘real’ art and the commercial variety. Art destined for the walls of Starbucks isn’t intended to “change how the audience thinks about something.”

Does it make sense to consider art that seeks to influence superior to art that simply seeks to cover the walls in a way that is pleasant but not thought-provoking?

Hilary January 3, 2009 at 8:44 pm

another thing that I think is pertinent is the extent to which audiences today expect movies to be heavily (or entirely) plot driven. I don’t believe this is necessary for a good movie.

I have enjoyed movies that others have found incomprehensible, etc. because they were not plot focused. Broken Flowers, for example, only had enough plot to string the character studies together. I enjoyed it, as an exploration of characters and themes, but I know many people REALLY disliked it because the plot made no sense. Well it wasn’t about plot. There are certainly movies that have good plots but poor characterization etc.

It reminds me of the CIG categories: Story, Character, Style, Theme, Emotion (renamed Life). These are the elements, and some movies focus more on one area than another. Perhaps the best movies excel in multiple areas, and the worst fail in all of them. But expecting that all movies will have Story (plot) as their focus seems unreasonable.

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