Monday, February 9, 2009

The Great Movies: "Persona"

Ingmar Bergman, 1966

Here's what the emperor’s clothes look like, according to the blurb on the cover of the Persona DVD:

This "exceptionally beautiful specimen of movie-making" (The New Yorker) is recognized as a modern masterpiece and "a landmark in late twentieth-century art" (Time Out London).

The New Yorker is a fine publication, of course, and no doubt Time Out London is good too. And, I've long made it clear that I have the deepest respect for Robert Ebert, whose "Great Movies" list is of course the reason I had to watch this movie. However, in the case of Persona, I don't just disagree with their assessment. I'm really kind of embarrassed for them.

Persona is a movie that thinks it is using the medium of film in daring, innovative ways, and that it is probing deep philosophical questions about identity and experience. It certainly isn't probing deep, philosophical questions, however. It is merely batting around the kind of superficial questions about the nature of reality that fascinate you when you are in junior high school and again, if you have a regular regimen of smoking weed, in college.

The characters act in unnatural ways and say things that no one has ever said in real life. They are not people but variables in a dumb philosophical thought experiment. It is intellectually painful, but fortunately it is also very tedious, which dulls the pain.

It is hard to say how innovative the cinematography may have seemed at the time, but to modern eyes it is almost unbelievably pretentious. We get sudden, inexplicable collages of clips from old films spliced with quick cuts of shocking images, such as quick glimpse of an erect penis that is the film's first and most random shot. We get occasional stylistic incongruities, such as a deliberately sappy narrator who appears once and only once to explain a transition in the action. We get occasional moments where the film is made to appear to break or melt in the projector. We get a long and especially dull scene shown twice, consecutively, from two different points of view. These kind of bombastically high-art shenanigans would be forgivable in a first-semester film school project or a hard-rock video, but in a full-length feature film they are insufferable.

Plot: After a dumb opening montage of random imagery, which no doubt conveys Deep Meaning if you are In The Know, a brutally expository exchange of dialogue sets up the story, such as it is: A famous actress refuses to talk, and a young nurse is assigned to her full-time. You know, because people are so often given round-the-clock medical attendants when they are acting weird.

The doctor decides that the hospital is not a good setting for the actress, so she sends patient and nurse to her own private beach house. You know, like doctors do when they think their patients need a change of scenery. What, your doctor never lets you stay at her beach cabin? You should change your HMO or something.

Anyway, while at the beach the two women act very strange and have experiences that are supposed to suggest that there is some kind of ambiguity or blurring of their individual identities. Whatever. The one who talks tells the one who doesn't talk the least sexy sex story ever told. One or both of them may be in love with, hate, or be completely indifferent to the other. It is all very ambiguous, yet manages to be not even the slightest bit intriguing.

Visuals: The visuals are great! They really are. A good experiment for Persona would be, watch it with the sound off and play a hard rock album instead. Or, if you have a regular regimen of smoking weed, a Pink Floyd album. I am almost sure you would have a superior experience that way.

Dialogue: Preposterous.

Prognosis: Recommended for storage in research libraries.


Ben said...

So, you really liked it, huh?

Chance said...

This is the best Great Movies review ever.

Jennifer said...

"It is intellectually painful, but fortunately it is also very tedious, which dulls the pain."


Michael5000 said...

@Ben: Actually, I didn't much care for it.

Anonymous said...

I want a doctor that will put me up in a beach house.

I recently read and saw a bit about Scopitone remakes. I have little idea what Scopitone is, but after watching what have been lauded as the remakes, it reminded me of this movie description.