“You know how plays have read-throughs? Well, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is a read-through for a movie of a radio opera,” says director Guy Maddin, describing the June 25 L.A. Film Festival event at the Ford Amphitheatre, a theatrical/cinematic staging and musical performance of a composition by the band Sparks, originally commissioned for Swedish radio in 2009.
The Canadian director's moderne-nostalgist sensibility was a key factor in bandleaders Ron and Russell Mael's choice to stage this inside look at the proposed film version of their story about an iconic auteur lured to Hollywood to make blockbuster movies for the masses.
Maddin has earned acclaim for his recombinant reveries such as The Saddest Music in the World (2003), the silent Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) and the Toronto Film Festival prizewinning My Winnipeg (2007), films that adapt and warp the scratchy grain of early Hollywood melodramas and political propaganda reels in beguilingly burnished melanges, first sucking in and then spewing out the myths and clichés of his — and our — innermost worlds, usually of the psychosexual variety.
The project thus hybridizes the concert experience with theatrical action and a somewhat voyeuristic view of real on-set moviemaking. Maddin isn't giving spoilers, but he does promise surprises.
“It's a little vivisection, without anyone being hurt,” he says with a laugh. “There'll be all sorts of projections, the actors will be moving around, there'll be some audience participation. We're not doing the equivalent of a U2 concert with their $60 million rotating stage, and we're not putting on a laser show.”
The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman offers the pithily amusing what-if of the famed Swedish film artiste's enticement to Tinseltown, where he's wined and wooed, harassed and haggled with. He suffers much interior turmoil, does this serious European man in the land of the hyperunreal.
That's the type of scenario Maddin likes to sink his fangs into, since it offers a juicy opportunity to dissect and enhance a legend. He'll semiprecisely hodgepodge his admittedly flawed memories of Bergman's story with a million other things — just to see what happens.
“This Bergman project is the result of a big collage party mixed up with the Maels' music,” Maddin says. “I'm continually amazed at the occult power that lies in simply taking an image and looking at it while listening to a sound. Who knows how or why certain combinations work better than others? There's almost no logic to it, and it's not a science — it's something occult or paranormal.”
A similar interest in the resonant juxtaposition of times/images/senses is what Sparks had in mind when they thrust Ingmar Bergman into the jaws of Hadeswood.
“We placed him in Hollywood because of the contrasts between his and our worlds,” says Ron Mael. “But we noticed along the way that the cartoony aspects of how we were portraying Hollywood were kind of realistic. You always try to avoid caricatures, but in this case the Hollywood folks are already sort of caricatures, in that sunny, upbeat but maybe a little bit insincere personality of a typical American. We wanted a foil for Bergman.”
In Maddin's The Saddest Music in the World, there's a brief glimpse of a suave actor-type gent who proclaims with a cynical grin, “Sadness is just happiness turned on its ass — it's all showbiz.” The films of Ingmar Bergman, even?
“When we got this commission,” Russell Mael says, “we went back and watched as many Bergman films as we could, and after a while they started to blend into each other. There's an atmosphere that's pervasive and it becomes almost one continuous thing; sometimes you take that away more than a specific plot.”
Applying this idea of an immersion into atmosphere to the Maels' very accessibly written story, Maddin's direction of The Seduction is a chance to try out visual images that are suggestive of narrative, and will add to the music in surprising ways — and perhaps shed some new light on this legend we call Ingmar Bergman.
“I like the idea that movies are a mythic medium,” Maddin says, “and that myths just evolve on their own, out of generations of people. I'm dealing with impressions that have wafted my way about Bergman, through watching the movies and through biographical snippets I picked up in the pre-Internet age, where you found out news very slowly and more erroneously.
“Bergman is a myth, so something related to clichés. I'm fond of clichés and stereotypes if they're psychologically honest or happen to be kind of true. As long as they're not boring clichés.”
LOS ANGELES FILMFORUM PRESENTS THE SEDUCTION OF INGMAR BERGMAN AT L.A. FILM FESTIVAL | Sat., June 25, 8:30 p.m. | John Anson Ford Amphitheatre | lafilmfest.com