Movie Review: The Seventh Seal (1957)


Title: The Seventh Seal
Release Date: February 16, 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

This is a movie I watched sometime back in the 1990s, but didn’t remember too well beyond the “playing chess with Death” scenes (which is what everyone knows about this movie whether they’ve seen it or not).  Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) is a knight returning after ten years fighting in the Crusades and facing a crisis of faith in a God he cannot experience with his senses.  He’s accompanied by his more earthy squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) who functions as more of the movie’s protagonist in that he initiates much of the action within the story.

The film begins on a beach where the knight and squire have just arrived in their home country and Death comes for the knight.  The knight challenges Death to a chess match both as a way to extend his own life and perhaps cheat Death.  They continue playing intermittently through the movie.  We are also introduced to the other main characters, Jof (Nils Poppe) and Mia (Bibi Andersson), a married pair of traveling actors with a toddler son.

Eventually all of these characters come together as they travel the land where encounter signs of The Great Plague ravaging the people, a procession of flagellants, and a woman put to death as a witch. The movie features some intense scenes and deals with serious philosophical issues regarding mortality, faith in God, and the meaning(lessness) of life.  And yet, there are also moments of humanity and joy, such as when several of the characters share strawberries and milk on a pleasant day.  The movie is also surprisingly funny at several parts.

Ultimately, Antonious Block finds contentment in “one meaningful deed” where his is able to distract Death long enough for Jof, Mia, and their baby to escape.  The movie features both striking cinematography and brilliant acting.  It is worthy of the accolades of being among the greatest movies of all time.  I think I’ll wait fewer than 25 years before I watch it again.

Rating: ****1/2

TV Review: Russian Doll (2019)


Title: Russian Doll
Release Dates: 2019
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

This clever tv show features the comedic talents of Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a woman who dies repeatedly and keeps returning to relive her 36th birthday party.  The time loop concept is similar to Groundhog’s Day, a similarity the show doesn’t try to hide.  I also felt it shared some qualities with Donnie Darko, and Run, Lola, Run, especially in that the show feels like a video game character that dies and always returns to the same starting point.  Not coincidentally, Nadia is a software designer for a game company who created a particularly difficult game.

The twist here – and this is a SPOILER if you haven’t watched the show – comes in the third episode cliffhanger where Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett, who could easily be cast in an Alex Rodriguez biopic), a young man who is also repeatedly dying and coming back to life.  While Nadia is struggling with her troubled childhood with her mentally ill mother (who died at the age of 36), Alan is challenged by being dumped by his long-time girlfriend on the night he planned to propose to her. The great thing about this show’s plot is not only to they have to come to terms with their problems in order to get on with their lives (literally here, but also metaphorically) but they also have to help one another to do so.

Russian Doll is by turns really dark, acerbically funny and very sweet.

 

Book Review: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack


Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Narrator: Timothy Reynolds
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Marcus Conway is a ghost.  On All Souls Day, he sits at the dinner table waiting for his family to return, and unspools a stream-of-concious monologue about this life written in a single sentence (this is the second single-sentence novel I’ve read recently!).  The single sentence isn’t as apparent in the audiobook – deftly narrated by Timothy Reynolds – but I do notice that he starts a phrase with “and” a lot, adding a certain rhythm to the prose.  Marcus talks about his own father’s death, his sometimes troubled relationship with his wife and children, and his work as a civic engineer.  Local politics also plays a big part of his story, from voting to a politicians thick-headed insistence on building a school that’s not structurally sound, to even the awful stomach virus that infects his community – including his wife – caused by bad sanitation.  Over time, Marcus unravels the details of his own death and comes to terms with his mortality.  The thing about this novel is that for all the experimental nature of its narrative, Marcus is a perfectly ordinary person doing ordinary things.  McCormack’s writing unveils the fascinating stories within the everyday person.

Recommended booksBeatlebone by Kevin Barry and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Rating: ****

Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust


About 625,000 people, probably more, died as a direct result of the American Civil war from 1861-65.  Death is such an overpowering element of the Civil War that one could write a whole book just about it. This Republic of Suffering (2008) is that book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and now President of Harvard University.

Chapter by chapter explores an aspect of death, beginning with dying.  Religious and moral ideals of the time thought of The Good Death, but death in the war from disease and battle was rarely good.  It was even harder for many soldiers to kill based on the same religious and moral beliefs although the concepts of revenge and mission led to a greater willingness to kill as the war raged on.  Disposing of the dead became a real problem as it was difficult to properly inter the bodies of those killed among battle and troop movements.  Mass burials though loathsome became common, although there also was an uptick in the mortuary arts for preserving bodies and shipping them to surviving family members.

The survivors mourned in many ways both public and private. Many turned to faith for solace or turned away from belief in horror.  The great number of dead lead to new government practices accounting for the dead, locating and identifying bodies, and creating national cemeteries.  The numbering of the dead continued after the war growing into a large bureaucracy.  The accumulated records — the “literal weight of history” as Faust describes it — led to a collapse of two floors in Ford’s Theatre in 1893 killing 22 employees (p. 256).

This is a chilling, yet beautiful historical account of the Civil War from a unique perspective, and very thorough.  It’s definitely a recommend read for anyone interested in the American Civil War, especially those who still believe in the glory of war.

Favorite Passages

Focusing on dying rather than killing enabled soldiers to mitigate their terrible responsibility for the slaughter of others.  As men saw themselves mirrored in the faces of those expiring around them, they struggled to come to terms with the possibility and the significance of their own annihilation.  Dying assumed clear preeminence over killing in the soldier’s construction of his emotional and moral universe.  – p.6

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised.  It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses.  The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.  The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both it existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored. – p. 249

Faust, Drew Gilpin.
This republic of suffering : death and the American Civil War / Drew Gilpin Faust.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
346 p. : ill. ; 25 cm