Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Norrtullsligan (The Norrtull Gang)

My big discovery of the Walter Reade's Northern Exposures series was the remarkable 1923 silent film Norrtullsligan (The Norrtull Gang), directed by Per Lindberg. In addition to the usual risk of film history losing track of excellent films, this one may have faced the disadvantage of not quite fitting in with the internationally acclaimed Swedish cinema of the time, which was nearing the end of its golden period. (1923 and 1924 were the years that Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller made their last silent films in Sweden before going to Hollywood.)

Lindberg, a shadowy figure in film history, was well known in Sweden as a theater director. He made Norrtullsligan and one other film in 1923, took a long break from the cinema, then shot seven features between 1939 and 1941, dying a few years later. Thanks to the participation of Ingrid Bergman, Lindberg's 1940 Juninatten (June Night) is by far his most widely seen film today, though there seems to be a consensus that the 1941 Det sägs på stan (Talk of the Town) is his best work. In Richard Roud's Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Edgardo Cozarinsky made a case for Lindberg as a major director, prompting a puzzled Roud to observe that Lindberg was the most obscure filmmaker covered in the book.

Norrtullsligan was adapted by Hjalmar Bergman, Sjöström's frequent writer, from Elin Wägner's 1908 novel about the lives of four working women who room together in Stockholm and confront often harsh economic and social conditions. Wägner was a feminist and ecological activist, and synopses of the novel's plot (which was titled Men and Other Misfortunes in English) make it sound like more of a social critique than the movie, which uses ellipsis and psychology to blunt the story's pathos.

Whether Wägner's book was faithfully or freely adapted, it is incorporated into the movie in an unusual way. To see Norrtullsligan is to realize how rarely silent movie intertitles served a literary function. Certainly a portion of the artistic ambition of silent filmmakers went into title writing. Still, whether that ambition resulted in witty and informative text, or in overwrought prose (often the case with great filmmakers), titles were generally subordinated to images, providing commentary and narrative connection only. This is not so surprising, given that the moving image is the cinema's selling point, and that prevailing critical thought of the time saw titles as an impurity that would ideally be dispensed with. Not until Bazin would the idea of cinema embracing its impure status gain any traction with film thinkers. In retrospect, all that screen time devoted to titling in silent movies seems like an undefended beach vulnerable to a literary invasion.

Norrtullsligan is as close as silent films came to a hybrid of literature and cinema. This is not just a result of the quality of the writing (unfortunately, I can't find copies of the book or the intertitles to quote), though I admired the gentleness and reflective tone of the prose. It's more due to the text of the titles having a certain independence from the story. The film is narrated in the first person by Pegg (Tora Teje), and the lengthy titles convey, in addition to story, her feelings and reactions to events, and background information to help us share her opinions, so that the film takes on a diaristic quality. (In the custom of silent movies, the main actors are credited at the bottom of the title cards when their characters are introduced - but Pegg's credit reads, "Me...Tora Teje.")

The length of the intertitles does not diminish as the film progresses, and the story is told differently because of the literary context they provide. The dramatic force of plot developments is generally muted; loose ends are frequently not tied up. One of the biggest difficulties that silent film makers faced is that they had to devote so many of their stylistic resources to pantomiming a narrative. (The arrival of sound had the effect of offloading the burden of storytelling onto the soundtrack, which I consider a great liberation.) Here, Lindberg and Bergman take a distinctive approach to the problem of being expressive while performing their narrative chores. Rather than restage Wägner's meditative descriptions of the women's lives, they give these descriptions a verbal life of their own in the title cards, and then essentially create a parallel work of art with images, selecting details or moods to stage for the camera with no worries about orienting the viewer.

Despite the originality of its concept, Norrtullsligan would not be as noteworthy if Lindberg did not display such delicacy in his direction of actors and his staging. All the actors refrain from signposting their crises - and there are actually more and bigger crises in the film than we might tote up, because Lindberg's evenness of tone sacrifices incident for a slightly nostalgic tone of a remembered past. Devoid of the exterior long-shot beauty that silent Swedish cinema was known for, Norrtullsligan unfolds in a network of apartments and offices, observing the reactions of characters who are neither saintly nor detached, but who transcend their limitations via a grace and quiet humor that the filmmakers impart.

The final scene will do as well as any to convey the psychological detail of the performances. Sitting in a parlor with a group that includes her sometimes supportive, sometimes severe aunt, Pegg coyly lets show the wedding ring that she has just received. As her aunt leans forward to get a better look, Pegg folds and withdraws her hand to make the view more difficult. At the end of the charade, Pegg smiles and accepts her aunt's embrace. The scene is not unusual in itself, but it feels fresh for two reasons. First, Pegg has up until now been direct and without dissimulation, so the act registers, not as mere playfulness, but as a mild expression of anger. Second, Lindberg scales down Pegg's expression and draws out the charade with daring languor. The little game plays out with an odd sense of theater, and Pegg's embrace of her aunt at the end does not dispel our sense that an edge of antagonism motivated her gloating display.


dm494 said...

Dan, I'm afraid I missed the Swedish filmmakers series at Lincoln Center; it seemed to have happened in the blink of an eye. Pity, as I was hoping to catch the Sjoberg and the Troell films. Your comments here about intertitles made me recall some interesting remarks of Jonathan Rosenbaum's about intertitles in Shimizu films and how their significance varies depending on whether one regards movies from a mise en scene or a decoupage standpoint. Do you have any further thoughts about "impure" literary cinema that you feel like making public at this time? I'd be curious to know which filmmakers you see as paradigms for this tendency.

Incidentally, have you been to see any of the Monteiro films at the current BAM retrospective? It would be good to have your reactions.

Dan Sallitt said...

dm494: Bazin pretty much wrote the book on this subject. At that time, the use of film elements from other art forms was generally frowned upon: so much early film thought seemed hung up on the idea that film needed to be pure, to rely on qualities that no other art form shared. (This idea still has power. Read the Wikipedia article on Film Editing: in the first paragraph, you'll see "Film editing is the only art that is unique to cinema, separating film-making from other art forms that preceded it [such as photography, theater, dance, writing, and directing].") Presumably this purism was a reaction to the way that early cinema aspired to legitimacy by emulating theater. There were certainly different schools of thought on how film should realize its potential, but the practice of borrowing from theater and literature was in the doghouse with many early film scholars. (Audiences were far more tolerant.)

One way that Bazin opposed the various unique-to-cinema movements was by conceiving of film in terms of the realism of the image, rather than in terms of montage, kinesthesia, social realism, etc. For Bazin, the simplest thing that a filmmaker could do - just setting up the camera and turning it on - was not a suspicious activity that suggested a theater proscenium unless modified, but rather an essentially cinematic act, the integrity of which should be considered (I was going to say "respected," but Bazin was only occasionally and moderately prescriptive) throughout the filmmaking process. This philosophy forged a link between modernist style and the directness of early cinema; furthermore, Bazin's interest in photographic realism went hand in hand with a (lowercase) catholic aesthetic that permitted the evaluation of works, not according to where their material originated, but rather how the material was approached. Bazin did not so much advocate an impure cinema as he did accept the inevitable creative cycles that drove the arts into each other's arms.

Extending his ideas about the ontological realism of the photographic image, Bazin wrote many of his most valuable essays on the interface and interaction between cinema and other art forms. Among the most impressive of these essays: "For an Impure Cinema: In Defense of Adaptation," a general historical consideration of the influence of art forms upon each other; "Diary of a Country Priest and the Robert Bresson Style," a brilliant review that centers on Bresson's approach to adapting Bernanos's novel; and the two-part "Theater and Film," addressing itself to practical issues of how theater can be adapted for the cinema.

I don't know that I can cite filmmakers as paradigms for an "impure cinema" tendency: there are so many possible tendencies, and no filmmaker is merely an embodiment of any of them. In different ways, the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers absorbed and applied Bazin's ideas on the mixture of art forms: Truffaut, with his pleasure in incorporating the text of novels into lengthy voiceover passages; Rivette, with his open appropriation of theatrical mise en scène; Rohmer, whose interest in the realism of the image is juxtaposed with his taste for lengthy passages of dialogue; and, perhaps more than anyone, Resnais, whose career now seems like one long inquiry into how to adapt works from other art forms. One more example pops into my mind: Fassbinder could be seen as a man of the theater with an instinct for exploiting cinema conventions in the cause of theatrical adaptation.

Dan Sallitt said...

My comment was so long that Blogger made me break it up. As for Monteiro, I'm still trying to figure him out. I'm struck with his intelligence and his flair for paradox, even as I wonder what his postmodernism is really about. Sometimes I think his interest in sex is an extra-cinematic penchant that he should get a grip on; other times it gets under the films' surfaces in a way I like. He seems to like to push the audience around a little, show us who's boss: once in a while I take umbrage, but mostly I just feel that I need to understand him better. I hope to catch several more films in this series.

dm494 said...

Thanks for the reply Dan. I agree with your reading of Bazin and know the essays which you cite. (Or at least I think I do: I'm assuming "For an Impure Cinema: In Defense of Adaptation" is your translation of the title Hugh Gray renders as "In Defense of Adaptation", and similarly for the Bresson piece.)

As for the examples of impure filmmakers you obliged me with, Truffaut and Resnais are some of the usual suspects, I agree, and you're right to bring up Fassbinder, though I would have forgotten about him if I had been the one asked to name names.

Incidentally, Monteiro's SILVESTRE seems another fine example of impurity--and for its recreation of Uccello's "St. George and the Dragon" as much as for its theatrical handling of sets, acting, and space. The film reminded me of PERCEVAL (surely as impure as it gets), but I haven't seen the Rohmer film in quite some time and can't vouch for the impression.

Dan Sallitt said...

dm494: I took the translations of the Bazin titles from the recent Caboose version of What Is Cinema?

I completely missed the recreation of the Uccello painting in Silvestre. Monteiro sort of mixes his approach to folk tales: he places himself in that Bresson-derived tradition of emphasizing rather than hiding the non-cinematic sources; but then he continually spices the fiction with his own distinctive and modern observations.