Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The New Talkies in Portland, 5/3/08: The Passion of Anna

Everyone I’ve talked to about Cynthia Sailers’s treatment of The Passion of Anna mentions one scene in particular. Max von Sydow, the human epitome of Scandinavian despair, slowly reads a typewritten letter. Ingmar Bergman runs the camera in close-up across the sentences, at the same speed and with the exact visual pauses that von Sydow’s character might use, as if the words are worth the same intensity and attention as any less inward, more kinetic filmic event.

Part of what makes the scene so memorable, at least as Sailers used it in her piece, is the way it casts the solitary act of reading as a concentrated instance of group dynamics. Through the medium of the letter, von Sydow brings his character into a new connection with the person who wrote it, and the person it concerns; mirrors his situation as an actor speaking Bergman’s script; and ventriloquizes Sailers’s own version of the letter in her capacity as the film-teller, who pulls the voiceover of the reader reading the letter—that age-old device for depicting interiority—into her own orbit of concerns.

Fittingly, Sailers’s concerns seemed to be largely those suggested by the scene: the tension between individuals and groups; the provisional, even ventriloquized, nature of the self; and the ontological uncertainty involved in the act of playing at being someone else. Sailers’s script, which drew on her training as a therapist, explored the oscillation between the drive for solitude and “a longing for affinity” (Bergman’s phrase) with others, a theme her piece teased out over ten one-minute scenes skillfully assembled from across the film. Linking them was a backbeat of aggression and violence provided by a subplot involving the random killing of animals on the island. The atmosphere of muted Nordic gloom, all significant pipesmoke and woodcutting and stoical swigs of aquavit, added to the powerful sense of inwardness her piece seemed to worry and torque.

The climax in Bergman’s film comes when von Sydow’s character, Andreas, realizes he’s been a stand-in all along in Anna’s mind for a prior Andreas, the husband she killed in a car accident. (Not so unlike the position of von Sydow himself in his long partnership with Bergman.) When Anna tries to recreate the trauma incident with Andreas 2, Sailers turns from interpersonal psychology to questions of being, as Andreas prepares for a new birth of sorts from the womb of the car: “My body pursues its own ideas. I was aborted”; “born as a girl.” My predominant impression from the scenes Sailers chose, and the script she read across them, was of how plastic the self is, and how apt we are to resist that insight, expressing our yearning for connection with others—its own kind of self-disappearing—in terms of violence, anger, and cruelty. In the final scene though, as von Sydow faced his psycho-spiritual rebirth, her piece had me thinking that Andreas had pushed through the shell of the ego to an entirely new beginning: semblance, truth, jouissance.


konrad said...

What was it about von Sydow's relationship with Bergman that mirrored his character's role as the ersatz Andreas?

It seemed like in the moment of naming the three suns, Cynthia drew an equivalance between 3 core concepts of identity by simply ordering them: semblance = truth = jouissance -- an epiphany that made the character feel uneasy.

In the final scene in the car it was ambiguous, who was speaking, Anna or Andreas, and it made me feel like they were aspects of a single personality -- which of course is a way of representing group personality as having an origin or correlate in the multiplicity of a person's identity.

rodney k said...

Hi Konrad,

I was thinking of Bergman's use of von Sydow over several films as parallel to Anna dropping Andreas into her own "script" of her life. In those classic actor/director collaborations--Mifune/Kurosawa, Chatterjee/Ray, von Sydow/Bergman--it seems to me you get an imaginative doubling (director and his ersatz) that matches some of the doubling-trouble in Cynthia's script.

You're right about the ambiguity: Cynthia sent me the script, and I see now the monologue at the end was intended as Anna's, but thought the fact that I could take it for von Sydow's was significant for the reasons you mention: a double (group) birth?

konrad said...

Yes, the dualism of the ideas of the stand-in, the puppet, the ersatz, the shadows on the film screen, and their partners: the ventriloquist, the director, the benshi, the actor.

RE: that ambiguity: i also think of how the last monologue ended irresolutely. The two characters in that amniotic, fogged-up car, bound together, racing toward destruction. The word "abortion" swirls around the moment: the accident is aborted (Andreas grabs the wheel), and the relationship is also in that moment aborted, when he speaks and gets out of the car (willfully but reluctantly).

What does Cynthia say? Something about being "in between" (the moor on one side and the forest on the other, which describes the landscape) and then the last sentence relates that to "sawing off the branch on which you sit?"

I think her script gets that moment in the film to express how a personality (Anna) has to reject part of itself (Andreas) to be born (to fully become, "how i became a girl" in the script).

At the same time this is a self-destructive act, destroying a potential of another form or path one could take. Cynthia's text seems to project a parallel analysis across the triplet: person, couple and group.

And Andreas (rejected, but also having saved himself) is left to wander, and he grinds to a halt.