The Seventh Seal

Heavy-handed allegory can be avoided by pretending that there is no allegory at all (there is a certain cleverness in the big lie), but it can also be hidden away and denied by a refusal to admit the sign, not the thing signified. Ingmar Bergman does just this in The Seventh Seal: he has Death enrobed as the grim reaper and going through the common, medieval paces. Death plays chess, leads the danse macabre, and appears forebodingly in corners of grim castles as he is supposed to do while incarnate.
This is Death doing what he must, and yet there is an odd self-deprecation in this death, it is as though Death is whimsically doing what he ought, what people expect, while all the time being aware that by doing so he strikes a slightly ludicrous figure, a masquerade of seriousness over a pointless abyss. Thanks to his tongue-in-cheek thoughts, we catch glimpses of his humor—he cannot hide it—and with this assumption of character his allegorical nature is forgotten. To reinforce this confusion, Bergman has Jof, of the simple type, see visions of Mary and Christ which we also are permitted to see and to believe in… since we are able to see them, why should we doubt the authenticity of Antonius Block’s chess match against Death? So it seems as though Death is both common and not out of place.
Death, now well disguised as a character, flirts in and out of our vision without evoking the attention due to him from those he encounters, and we are brought almost to the point of belief in his humanity. He goes so far as to kill those he encounters in human, all-too-human, ways, and here we are struck by the reactions of those he meets; it is not Death as a walking and talking man that suggests something amiss, but the surreal calmness with which he is often met: a man patiently sits in a tree and suggests mitigating circumstances as reasons for keeping his life, without attempting to hop out of the tree, while death busies himself with felling the tree.
And here, in the reactions of those who die, we see Death unmasked; there is too strange a calm, too objective an approach to death. When we realize this we abruptly see the entire outlandishness of our companion, Death, standing upon the idea of taking the common expression ‘he met death’ most literally—too literally to permit conscious analogy, too seriously to avoid the comic depictions of Death. Bergman embraces death in all aspects, and only by doing so is he able to move beyond a morality tale (or, perhaps, its cynical cousin) to this stark, masterful study of the human soul and the soul’s belief in its own immortality.

A Night to Remember

If you manage to begin this movie without knowing it is about the sinking of the Titanic, the opening scenes will cue you—and then all shall be known.
The first time you watch it you will feel as though you are re-watching it, and each time you watch it thereafter it will seem fresher than before. Suspense does not drive this movie, nor does any sort of Character development as we would generally understand it. There is no central love story, no main character (although the acting is superb), and as we bid adieu to each person our attention does not slacken. Each is introduced as a well-known character, and leaves as a good friend (including the card shark and coward), but still we realize this tragedy transcends the fate of the passengers. This is a strange film: it is a film about a boat, or rather, three boats—The Titanic, the Carpathia, and the Californian—and their ill-fated night in the Atlantic.
The Titanic is the technological pride of the British people, and that pride is taken beyond anything we see today, except perhaps the Apple-fanatic’s attachment to his operating system. A perceived slur against the ship prompts patriotic correction by nearby strangers, and we note the satisfaction of the principals aboard and the reverence shown them by the first-class passengers. If the Titanic is the tragic hero, then perhaps human pride is the flaw, and yet within the context of this larger tragedy, a more subtle conflict is developing.
One of the tactics of the film immediately noted is the jarring juxtaposition of silence and noise throughout the film. While whistles screech and rockets whistle, while water thunders over bulkheads and the third class passengers mob stairways and eventually the deck, the ships officers, engineer, and wealthy passengers remain composed and calm. Bookending the chaos between itself and those magnificent men and women, as though the chaos were the battlefield and humanity the soon-to-be-extinguished foe, is a sea strangely, silently swallowing the Titanic, a sea so strangely silent in its malice that the ‘plop plop’ of life boats striking the water is eerily carried across the waves.
Across these waters in the final moments of the Titanic, though, comes another sound: the sound of a hymn sung by a solitary bass. And perhaps music is a fitting expression for the final victory of humanity against fear and chaos as the ultimate expression of passion controlled by form.
The abyss, the chaos, loses both its fascination and its power before the presence of the One Who Orders. It is strange that we now believe that those things which are ordered, or repetitious, are not alive, or not powerful. Sameness once hinted at the presence of the divine: the stars and planets were Gods because they were unchanging. Now the discovery of patterns in our brains is leading us toward an acceptance of the belief that life itself is neither meaningful nor existent, as though order were contrary to life. Leave these considerations for those who doubt the existence of the soul and eternal life, you say, and rightly so, but be careful lest a similar error deprive you of that life.
Form is the backbone of the life of prayer, and of our prayer life: The Mass depends almost entirely upon the words said, the emotions of the priest matter not a bit, unless they influence his will; monks live a life known for its structure; The Church recommends the Daily Office to all Catholics, extolling it above private prayer. Even the prayers recommended for private devotion are structured: what is the rosary but the repetition of the same few prayers again and again in a set order, and yet it is the favored prayer of the Mediatrix of all Grace. I have found in my spiritual life unformed prayer (parading as an unmitigated and exclusive good under the name ‘prayer from the heart’) has always lapsed into nothing if unsupported by a structure—through its inability to withstand the emotions. The very desire to regulate this prayer is a recognition of the need to give it form: when I say I will spend 10 minutes a day in unformed prayer I have subjected it to repetition, and then isn’t a repetition requested by Christ (the Our Father; He doesn’t say ‘the first time you pray, pray Our Father…’), our Lady (the Rosary) or even our Spiritual Fathers (‘read scripture daily’) better? Well-informed form is in the end the subjection of ourselves in our emotions and our will to the Truth…and the Truth will set you free.
Approach this thought from another angle, which returns to A Night to Remember: that of the good of social form. It is easy enough to no longer say thank you every time you are expected to, rightly believing that often it does not come from the heart; it is simple to forego handshakes and smiles, platitudes and apologies, in the hope of living a more honest life. Beware; isolation, pride, and hate lurk in the background. With few exceptions, the rejection of social norms stems from pride parading as honesty, and in the subjection of the polite to your judgment there is the danger of placing your opinion of your intelligence above your love for others.
I recently watched A Night to Remember with a group of friends and at the end the only criticism voiced was that the characters were unnaturally composed while facing nearly certain death. But this film closely follows eyewitness accounts, it in fact underplays the formality, giving each tendency to a single character (just one gentleman dresses formally to face death), which perhaps permits its attribution to eccentricity instead of to culture and custom. To counter our current fascination with individualism, which leads to isolation, perhaps as we watch A Night to Remember we might bear in mind that culture is the democracy of the deceased, that there seems to have been some consensus that fate is not the arbitrator of our faith, and that our human dignity is well defended by our adherence to tradition

The Third Man

On watching The Third Man I was surprised to find the most cliché of stories hitting hard. From the first scene we are introduced to one and then another of our standard detective story cast: a friendly policeman and an efficiently ruthless one, a helpful frightened servant, a sinister foreigner (somehow more foreign then all the others, and, of course, a baron), and, after the others have made their appearances, the love interest first seen on stage and then accosted in her dressing room. Throughout the introduction, Holly, our idealistic American protagonist, is driven by his own zither soundtrack from one encounter to the next at a pace so rapid that he even outpaces the scene setup crew and exposes the movie’s first secret: Holly, a writer of pulp westerns, is furiously creating in his mind a story to explain everything around himself, and it nearly works. But he didn’t account for Graham Greene, who screen wrote The Third Man.

But even in Holly’s near-miss the movie works, it works even before Graham Greene breaks down the dime-store façade with true moral dilemmas and the emergence of subtle temptations. How?

Films can embrace and explain what, if unembraced, would be stylistic flaws. This is most readily done by bringing the art of the whole into the story itself somehow, as we saw in The Battle of Algiers. Perhaps musicals are a good example of this: the sorts of characters we are introduced to are the type who break into wild song without provocation, and it does not, then, seem so strange that these same people will live somewhat wild lives—you may think they are a bunch of clowns, but you do not feel unduly manipulated by the director. There is a danger here since there is a great correlation between your appreciation of the music and your acceptance of the characters: if you find the music in Phantom of the Opera or Les Choiristes over the top and sentimental, then you will find the characters the same, but if you love the music you will love the movies. Maybe this effect should be called the breaking of walls one through three, when the machinations are embraced in some way by the protagonists.

Unique, perhaps, among these strange films, is the Third Man since it takes the machination itself as a theme. It embraces the dime store masquerade through the workings of Holly, a writer who just off the train sees and is convinced of foul play before he ought to be. Midway through the film, however, the façade is blown by the all too dangerous man in the doorway, and raw post-war Vienna dominates the screen. The transition is rough, although playfully presented by Orson Welles as something ordinary. And this presentation of the crude life of the Vienna black-market as acceptable is not unreasonable, not to Holly at least, for in the alluring veneer of Holly’s façade there is a flaw lurking, and waiting in this weakness is the great temptation of the film. A temptation which, perhaps, Holly is not directly tempted by, but which is in some way artistically tempting and a natural companion to the way Holly lives his life. The temptation is presented under the semblance of money-wise crime, not the ideals Holly operates under, but nonetheless serves as a vehicle of dehumanization with the same destination.

Babette’s Feast

Can there be an epic almost exclusively filmed within one house? Except for three brief scenes, Babette’s Feast is set within the confines of a remote community in Jutland, but there is no doubt it is a story greater than its surroundings. What seems to be a quiet, intimate movie revolving around two sisters, their small community, and their nearly silent servant is, in the end, an epic.
Babette’s Feast takes a few moments to develop into a coherent story, perhaps because it doesn’t take the time to do so. Plot-driven movies will often laboriously explain their premise within the first few scenes, often before the title shot—as if they were excusing their labor and relegating the scenes to the ambiguous role of a prelude. Babette’s Feast, on the other hand, is presented to us by four episodes, only loosely strung together. That is not to say, however, that there is some disconnect between the scenes, that there is incongruity. It is a single presentation, unified, when by nothing else, by the mode of presentation. The pieces are not truly vignettes, but would only be so if told orally by the inexperienced: If I were to explain the scenes to you one after the other, you might well wonder whether I were telling a single tale, or might well believe I was developing one of those elaborate jokes which end in terrible puns.
Babette, a poor Frenchwoman, does not seize the stage, but enters unobtrusively after the other prominent figures have been introduced. We are initially presented with an old man and his daughters. There is something strange about this pious family (I’m not certain I willing call them a family, as the daughters seem to have sprung from their father’s piety instead of his loins). What this is we are left to wonder, but our uneasiness is corroborated by the visits of two foreigners, one of whom, instrumentally, is a papist. There is no doubt there is an absence in the lives of the sisters, but it is only with the arrival of Babette and her asking of a favor that it is revealed.
What does it mean to give one’s very best, as Babette asks to do? As humans, we have a gift unique among animals, we have the image of God in our makeup, and the brotherhood of Christ in our blood. This means that we have in our possession something truly greater than ourselves; if in our art we were to be satisfied with mere self-expression we would be dealing in drivel. Art becomes more trivial, and perhaps more dangerous, the closer it comes to an artist, and the further it falls from the Truth. But when Truth Himself is the artist, perfect art is perfect self-expression; it is, in fact, Himself.
The circumspect introduction of Babette, and further, of the unifying culmination of her art, is in keeping with her role in the film. She is both a servant asking without pretense for a place in the household, and the true artist without sinful pride, asking only that she might ‘give her very best’; she is a Christ-figure, and her feast a replaying of the meal on the road to Emmaus, with a world-weary general as a disciple. The sisters are not comfortable with Babette; after all, she is a foreigner, and likely a papist. They do not wish to part from her, and yet they only apprehensively give way to her desires. They are neither content with having a servant nor particularly happy to help a stranger in need, although duty and their father’s memory drive them on—and perhaps they only know strangers, for sacrifice has no place in their lives. But it is the sacrifice of Babette, the giving of her best, which permits their acceptance of the Love which they had once rejected.