Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Am Curious — Blue

I Am Curious — Blue is the second of Vilgot Sjöman's two Curious films, and like its companion piece (the Yellow version), it's an uneasy mix of sociopolitical documentary, sexual drama, and a metafictional treatment of the filmmaking process itself. In both films, Sjöman throws a lot of different material together in the hopes that some of it will work, and in both films some of it does. On the whole, though, Blue is just as dated and meandering as Yellow, a tired mish-mash of radical politics and sexual titillation that seldom ventures beneath the surface of the ideas it raises. In both films, all the actors play themselves, or at least characters who share the actors' real names. Sjöman himself is among the cast, as well as his somewhat reluctant lover and star Lena Nyman, who shuffles indecisively between Sjöman, Börje Ahlstedt (who's married and has a kid), and Hans Hellberg (who is also in another serious relationship, with Bim Warne). There's a certain droll humor to the way the film incorporates its metafictional elements, which inevitably appear abruptly at the corners of scenes: the camera will pan left across a dramatic scene and then suddenly reveal all the equipment and loafing crew members sitting off to the side watching the acting. In one of the better moment, Lena speeds by in a car along the highway, but the camera stops following her when it stumbles across Sjöman and the rest of the crew posed along the highway, singing and intently meeting the camera's stare.

There's less to like about the film's actual drama, which is rather rote and lifeless. Torn between at least two lovers, and also feeling somewhat committed to her director, the actress Lena decides to blow them all off, instead wandering off to the countryside, where she interviews various people she meets, scrawls revolutionary slogans on placards outside prisons, and meets a tough, pretty bar singer (Sonja Lindgren). The film never commits to any one mode, which would be fine if its individual components were interesting in themselves, which they're too often not. The interlude with Lindgren is a notable exception, a haunting and erotically charged sequence that culminates when a fascinated Lena witnesses a lesbian couple making love at a nearby house. The scenes of Lena and Sonja cavorting at a lake, and Sonja later intoning a poignant ballad while accompanying herself on guitar, have a sensual beauty and purity that the rest of the film struggles to match. Sonja herself is fascinating, her hard face and distant stare silently testifying of her eventful life; she's one of the only characters in the film who seems to have a real back story, a real life beyond the boundaries of the film frame, a soulful depth beneath the surface. Sjöman, more interested in political truisms and sexual melodrama, doesn't delve into or linger on these hidden depths, but to his credit, his camera does capture them faithfully.

In fact, Sonja embodies the film's themes better than any of the more pointed moments of political commentary. She's a single mother, raising a child in spite of the disapproval of others — a disapproval that, according to Lena's interviews, doesn't even exist, since no one is judgmental in the abstract, or else everyone knows the right answer and no one wants to admit that they still harbor sexist and unenlightened feelings. The interlude with Sonja suggests the kind of film Sjöman could have made, if he was interested: a warm and very human drama in which prosaic realities are used to illustrate and evoke more abstract political concerns. Instead, too often he approaches things from the other direction, with broad sloganeering and trite storytelling.

More interesting, in a kind of anthropological way, are the film's documentary elements, in the form of Lena's probing questions about the changing attitudes towards sex, religion, gender, class equality and income gaps, prison reform, overpopulation and birth control. It's a kind of time capsule of late 60s political and social thinking, tracing both the extraordinary shifts towards more permissive ideas and the continuing retrenchment of conservatism in other areas, such as the widespread impression that no further social change is needed to achieve equality. Lena simply walks up to people — at dances, on the street, at political rallies, at church — and asks them very pointed, politically charged questions that are clearly driving at foregone conclusions even before her hapless subject answers. Her interview with a young religious man is especially so blunt that one wonders if it's staged; she's shooting fish in a barrel, asking him about sex before marriage, contraceptives and world overpopulation until the guy, in way over his head, simply stammers to a halt and admits he's stymied. Even those viewers most unsympathetic to religion — and I'd consider myself an atheist — would have to start feeling pretty bad for the guy, who's badgered with the most inane of theological paradoxes and battered into submission by Lena's smug, superior attitude. We get it, Lena, you care about world hunger and you have sex before marriage. Aren't you special?

At her best, Lena's interviews are more probing and go after less obvious targets in much more clever ways. One of the better sequences is one in which a series of people are asked about their occupations and incomes, and the cumulative results are used to reveal income disparities between different jobs and different genders — most strikingly, a male schoolteacher admits to making double the salary of a female schoolteacher. These are not earth-shattering revelations — and surely they weren't in 1968, either, at least not to the film's presumptive, largely left-wing audience — but at its best I Am Curious presents these ideas with enough style and panache to keep things interesting. At its worst, the film degenerates into empty posturing and 60s radical chic, like a parody of what most people think of when they think of Maoist-era Godard. One gets the sense that Sjöman aspires to Godard, but he lacks his idol's ineffable wit; his "radical" poses are too often either aggravating or, even worse, simply boring.


Sam Juliano said...

Well Ed, I wasn't going to comment on this review (as excellent as it is) simply because I'm not a fan of this film remotely, even though as a collector of every single Criterion release, I had to own it. This film seemingly attempts to make accepted criticism invalid, by existing as something without shape or form, but in essence one shouldn't admire a film solely on style. I think your argument that the film 'degenerates into empty posturing' is quite right, and I did find the 'radical poses' you bring up as ineffective and boring.

That said, I know some find Sjoman's sense of humor engaging and his presentation of humanity and his obvious love for Lena.

Alejandro Adams said...

Maybe it's because the Sixties were incontrovertibly "over" by the time I saw these films, or maybe it's because I have never viewed anything through the prism of Godard (I literally can't watch his films), but I took much of the political posturing in the Curious series as ironic. A better way to put it is that the films seem to express--or perhaps merely record--an ambivalent tension between the filmmaker and his subject/muse. If the films make fun of their heroine, they do so without the scorn or remonstration which one tends to expect from satire, thus rendering the irony almost undetectably discreet. I congratulate the ambiguity of Sjoman's purpose alongside the the consistency of his vision, but that doesn't mean I think these are great films.

Plus, I hate Godard.

James Hansen said...

I tried to watch Yellow back when the Criterion first came out and just found it, as you say, pretty lifeless and just plain boring. I really like how you pull through that criticism to keep looking at the films anyway, especially through the lens of Godard, but first time around I couldn't get past how lame I thought it was. I'll pull through one day and maybe watch them though...