Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In the beginning was The Word…

In the timeline of my life, I have two “Savannah periods”—one from 1983 to 1992, and the second from 2000 to 2008. (I’ve nicknamed the two time frames “Savannah Period I” and “Savannah Period II”…and it seems to suit them.)

During Savannah Period I, I spent much time attending my alma mater, Armstrong State College—which has undergone a lot of changes over the years. It is now known as Armstrong-Atlantic State University, and that’s pretty darn impressive for a school that wasn’t too far removed from a community college when I was matriculating there. (This may be one of the reasons I’m fond of the new NBC sitcom Community—some of the elements in that show hit a bit close to home.) I was enrolled there from 1984 to 1986, and then took a small sabbatical to raise some funds, returning in 1987 and finishing the following year. (I often joke that the only reason why they allowed me to graduate was because the savings and loan company who lent me financial aid was starting to lean on my mentor-advisor, Dr. Dennis Murphy.)

This is sort of a roundabout way to introduce today’s post—while attending ASC, I decided to squeeze in a film class one quarter…and the nifty thing about this was that once you took at least fifteen hours of courses, any additional hours didn’t cost extra. I enrolled in the class primarily due to curiosity and in the hopes that I might broaden my film horizons.

I have only a hazy recall of the films that the instructor showed in the class; I remember it was the first time I saw John Huston’s Fat City (1972) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), and other movies included That Cold Day in the Park (1969; a curious Robert Altman film that I haven’t seen turn up on any cable channels since), The Thief (1952; for which the instructor later apologized after showing it), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Mickey One (1965) and the Carl Theodor Dreyer classic Ordet (1955). The teacher had been illustrating a number of film techniques by showing clips of Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), so I guess he decided to include an entire Dreyer effort in the bargain.

Ordet is the story of a Danish farming family overseen by widowed patriarch Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), whose reputation for challenging religious orthodoxy in the tiny conservative hamlet frequently outrages its inhabitants—particularly tailor Peter Petersen (Ejner Federspiel), who has refused to give Morten’s son Anders (Cay Kristiansen) permission to marry his daughter Anne (Gerda Nielsen) due to Morten’s “heretical” beliefs. Borgen has two other sons: Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen), an agnostic married to wife Inger (Birgitte Federspiel) and father to two daughters, Maren (Ann Elisabeth Groth) and Lilleinger (Susanne Rud)…with one on the way, as Inger is “great with child.” The remaining son is Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), a scholar of Kierkegaard who’s been overcome by madness to the point where he’s convinced he’s Jesus Christ. Inger experiences great difficulty when the time comes to give birth to her child; she loses the baby and then joins the stillborn child not long after. Mad Johannes has made a promise to young Lilleinger that he can raise Inger from the dead—but when he regains his sanity, does he have the necessary faith to follow through?

I remember that Ordet received a rather derisive response from the class when we watched it—and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that I myself found the film’s premise risible (though the only “catcall” I succumbed to was in a scene in which Johannes returns to the farm after having gone missing for some time; I think I remarked, in Ed McMahon-like tones: “Heeeeeere’s Jesus!”). This reaction didn’t endear us to the instructor, who dismissed us as little more than “plebes”—but I did, after class, admit that I was part of the scorners and that this might have been due to the fact that I was a) an agnostic, and b) familiar with a movie that had a similar premise but went the opposite way as a jet-black satirical comedy (I am, of course, referring to Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class [1972]). While he gave me credit for being honest, I lost a lot of leverage in the class because I simply couldn’t warm up to the film. (I remember that the essay final we had to complete allowed me a little redemption; he noted that while he thought my arguments were bullshit, they were well-written bullshit. I’m a bit fuzzy on what the essay was about but it had something to do with whether or not you felt movies that relied on editing and montage were more “realistic” than those utilizing a stationery camera; I argued that films who relied on a static camera technically weren’t films but recorded stage plays.)

Since I hadn’t seen Ordet in roughly twenty to twenty-five years, I recorded it off TCM the other night and sat down with it yesterday, looking to see if maturity (mine) might change my perspective. Sad to say, I’m pretty much of the same mind—which can be interpreted as either I haven’t matured or the movie wasn’t very good to begin with. I’m pretty sure it’s the former—but while I can cotton to some films that deal with the subject of faith, Ordet isn’t one of them; I couldn’t help but wonder if they had bothered to take the deceased Inger to an undertaker…and if they hadn’t, why she hadn’t gone a bit ripe in the meantime. Granted, I don’t dislike the film—it’s a powerful piece of filmmaking with some images that tend to remain in the memory (an example of this is the scene where Johannes leaves the house to “preach” in the fields; passing a clothesline where laundry has been hung to dry it has a rather ghostly effect, what with the gray sky and all), and I particularly like the juxtaposition of the acrimonious conversation between Borgen and Petersen in which they argue about what seems to be miniscule differences between their respective faiths (they both worship the same God—why should there be any disagreement?) and a similar exchange between the parson (Ove Rud) and the family doctor (Henry Skjær), whose differences are far more pronounced (the doctor believes strictly in science) and yet the tone is playful, not rancorous. (It’s also interesting that when Johannes announces that he will resurrect Inger, it’s the man of God who pronounces him crazy…while the physician holds the pastor in check.)

My best friend from high school and I were talking on the phone Sunday night and when she quizzed me as to whether there was anything worth watching on TCM, I mentioned that I was kicking around the idea of staying up to see Ordet, since it had been so many years since the last time I saw it. Well, the old body clock starting whispering it was time to hit the hay around 1:00 am (which is why I ended up recording the movie) but my friend stayed up to see it—and chewed me out two days later. She claims I neglected to mention that the film was a foreign film and that she was infuriated by the fact that she had to “read” the movie. Which reminds me of the time when I once recommended The Thin Blue Line (1988) to a Ballbuster Blockbuster customer, only to have him return the movie and complain: “There ain’t nothin’ but talkin’ in it!” (So Ordet is now known here at Rancho Yesteryear as the film where “There ain’t nothin’ but readin’ in it!”)

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Harper said...

I only watch foreign films with subtitles. How else can we truly experience the movie fully? Dubbed English is horrible, distracting and detracting to the artistry of the film. All you can do is shake your head at people who just don't get it.

The Derelict said...

I love Ordet, but that might have something to do with my being one of those hardcore Catholic religious-types. ;) Glad you gave it another try and were able to appreciate some of the visual imagery.

Btw, the first time I saw Ordet, I watched it right after watching Bunuel's "Viridiana" -- how's that for a double bill! :D (I loved both movies too, which I'm not quite sure what that says about my faith, heh)

faustina said...

Incredible! We were both going to Armstrong at the same time! I started in Summer of 1984 and graduated in Dec of 1987 with a BS in chemistry. We might have seen each other in the cafeteria! Crazy small world...