Thursday, January 5, 2012

My Family and Bergman's Seventh Seal

I think I'm dumb...
or maybe just happy...

Well, I said this wouldn't be solely about games, so let me start off with movies...

Over the holidays, I had the opportunity to re-watch one of my favorite old foreign films, The Seventh Seal, by Ingmar Bergman. The circumstances were, as is usual in my life, interesting. It was approximately 10:30pm on my son's eleventh birthday, my parents and my in-laws were over to celebrate, and my son was  downstairs enjoying those first few hours of being officially eleven by playing his newly acquired game, Skylanders.

My sister-in-law, a film buff of sorts, was lobbying to watch The Seventh Seal with her daughters. Their birthday present to her was to allow her to pick three movies that they would watch together, no complaints. She had decided to explore how far this could be pushed by watching Bergman's film, black and white and in Swedish, along with a french film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I'm not sure what the third movie ended up being, but I like to think it was equally painful to the 21st century adolescent mind.

I mentioned that I owned a copy of The Seventh Seal on DVD. It is actually one of my favorite films and I used to show it to my students in a World Literature class. (A side note here - The millennials do NOT like black and white, and they do NOT seem to like subtitles. I usually had to talk them through a great deal of the movie, explaining this, asking that, and that skill served me well in our little family viewing session).

A surprising groundswell began that culminated in my going to the basement to The Vault (actually a tupperware that contains my DVD's-for-school collection). The crowd thinned out a bit, with siblings-in-law and cousins deciding that the transition from birthday cake to Bergman was a bit much. When the film began, Bergman's 21st century audience turned out to be my two older children (a sixteen year old daughter and a fourteen year old son), my parents, my in-laws, my sister-in-law, her two daughters, my very tolerant wife, and I. Quite a diverse crew: three generations with tastes that ranged from The Umbrellas at Cherbourg to Toddlers in Tiaras.

From about 10:30 until about 12:30, I had one of those surreal experiences that can only be blogged about. My daughter almost immiediately fell asleep. In her defense, her favorite element of television dialogue seems to be the "bleep" sound that goes along with expletives. I swear sometimes it sounds like her shows are broadcast in Morse code. She said afterward that she "heard them talk about horses eating each other and that was it." The dialogue in question was in the first ten minutes or so of the movie. Oh well, she's young. Lots of time left for culture.

My parents watched dutifully and discussed symbolism. Half of me was proud. The other half realized what had made me an English teacher. Thanks, mom and dad.

My sister in law noted the humor (in some interesting places - more on that in a moment). And my in-laws slept some and watched most and, in the end, seemed to enjoy the experience.

What was my impression? I have seen the movie in the neighborhood of ten times. I have shown and talked generations of high schoolers through it. And, every time, I am struck by how profound and beautiful it is.

Let me start off by addressing the humor. There is definite humor in the film. Plog the Smith is at least funny. And Jons the Squire, while dark and cynical, definitely has his moments, my favorite being his narration of the conversation between Plog and his promiscuous wife, predicting the lines of each as the wife slowly seduces Plog back to her arms. But that's it for me. I find, contrary to my sister-in-law's interpretations, the rest of the movie a sobering exploration of the meaning of life in the face of the inevitiability of death.

For me, the movie is about the existential questioning of Antonius Block. Block left ten years before the action of the film to reclaim the Holy Lands in one of the crusades. He has fought for God and has returned disillusioned. And his return is to a land ravaged by the Black Death (a strange Black Death where people die sitting against a rock, tending to their livestock in a barn, or even overacting in a forest - but I think I have to give Bergman some artistic license here). Twice in the film he tries to pray and finds he cannot. He constantly looks for consolation and proof of God's existence. He asks Death about what answers he holds (Death claims to have none). He asks a girl about to be burned at the stake for "consorting with the Devil" if she can direct him to said Devil so that he can ask him about God. He wants the answers. He wants something more than faith. And, in the end, he is given nothing.

The central image of the film is Block's extended game of chess against the physical embodiment of Death. Block claims to play chess with Death in order to have time for one significant action. And in the final moves of the game, Block claims that the small amount of time he bought with his skill at chess was worth it. Death asks him what he has gained, and Block's response is, "that's my affair."

So, what did he do in that time?

The most significant thing he did was to save a simple family of actors. As my father pointed out, they may correlate to the Holy Family. The man's name is Joph (Joesph) and the woman's is Mia (Mary).They even have their own holy child (okay, Michael is his name - the correlation is not perfect). Joph has visions, but is known to exaggerate them (Mia mentions that he claimed that he had seen the devil paint their wagon's wheels red, but that she then discovered red paint under his fingernails). Mia takes care of the child, is loyal and loving to her husband, and, in one scene, is generous to the stranger Block, his squire, and a plague survivor that Block and he have picked up along the way.

In this key scene, we see what is important in life. Not crusades, not riches, not pride. Block is struck by the simplicity of the companionship of this couple and the simple, sweet meal of wild strawberries and fresh milk. He says that he will carry the memory with him always, and that "it will be sign," a specific and - forgive the pun - significant line that lends a sacredness to the scene. This is worth saving, and Block, who knows that his dark experiences have closed the capacity for this experience off from him at some level (when he sees his wife again after ten years, for instance, they have a strained exchange where they each admit how much the other has changed), saves the holy family by knocking the pieces off the chessboard and leaving Death, who is about to win, to replace them in their proper places. This brief interruption allows the family to escape, where all the rest who travel with Block die in film's final scenes.

So, what has Block gained? What has he saved by saving this family? First, he saves faith. This doesn't have to be a Christian faith, per se, and it's not a faith that Block can share. It is the simple faith of the child, along with the generous faith in other people that Mia and Joph both possess. Mia does not feel threatened by this dark, brooding knight or his cynical squire. Joph has faith in others as exhibited in the naivete that almost gets him killed in a local inn. Joph is also allowed that Christian faith. Of course, the paradox is that it is easy to have faith when you have visions. Or maybe Joph's faith allows him to have these visions? Any way, the film leaves us with the impression that Joph, for all his faults, is worth saving. (Another interesting side note - Block sees Death. He's the only one other than Joph who does see him. So, for some reason, supernatural occurrences are not enough to give Block faith. I guess he knows Death exists and is willing to accept his embodiment, but the idea of a soul or supernatural beings who struggle for them is too much for him?)

Block also saves youth and love. The young couple, with their child, love each other very much. They laugh and play with Michael. Joph composes songs for his wife and sings them. She, in turn, holds and caresses him. And she is concerned and protective of him when he returns from being bullied.

I like the movie for its significance to the history of film and for its existential explorations of the meaning of life. But I love the film for the conclusions that it reaches. Faith and love. I can see that. I am at my happiest with those that I love, my children, my wife, and my family. And, while I am no visionary like Joph, I try to maintain the faith of Mia, a simple faith in the good nature of others and a simple optimism that the stormy night will bring the dawn (which occurs literally in the film). Let's face it; the problems of the world are dark and complex and seemingly unsolvable. But the way we cope with this is to believe in each other, see the good there, and, like Antonius Block, carry each other and those simple, happy moments with us. You know, the viewing was surreal. I alternated between teaching people about how I teach the film and learning from what others said about Bergman and his symbolism. But, when all is said and done, I think it will be one of those moments I carry with me. 

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