77: The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman (LAFF 2011)

(This review is crossposted as part of The House Next Door’s coverage of the 2011 LA Film Fest.)

Though it wasn’t the official close to the Los Angeles Film Festival, the live musical production of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman is perhaps the best reflection of its ethos. It’s a Los Angeles story that reflects on the city’s cinematic legacy, a clash between the unstoppable force of Hollywood and the immovable object of art cinema, and a display of interdisciplinary virtuosity that’s ultimately a love letter to the power of the movies.

Seduction was originally a radio production commissioned for Swedish public radio and produced by the Los Angeles-based rock duo Sparks as their 22nd album. The musical’s transition from radio to stage—and hopefully to the screen—came about as a series of happy Hollywood accidents. Ron and Russell Mael, the brothers who make up Sparks, were introduced to Canadian surrealist director Guy Maddin when they revealed in an interview that he was one of their favorite directors; the interviewer just happened to be a close friend of Maddin’s. Meanwhile, the genesis of the live production came when the organizers of the Los Angeles Film Festival saw that the band was following the festival’s Twitter account.

At an open-air performance of the musical at Ford Amphitheatre, Maddin takes the stage with the Mael brothers and the rest of the cast. The director reads from his screenplay as we watch the action unfold in front of us and a series of sketches, storyboards, classic movie posters, concept collages, and script snippets are projected onto a giant screen behind them. It’s a technique that evokes Maddin’s films, with the barrage of film clips and text and stills flying by at synaptic speed while performers amble in front of obviously artificial projections. With it, Maddin conjures up a clash between the real and the unreal.

The style perfectly suits the narrative: Following his 1956 Cannes “Best Poetic Humor” win for Smiles of a Summer Night, Ingmar Bergman (Peter Franzen) enters a Stockholm movie theater to watch a blockbuster from Hollywood and finds himself transported to that place—or perhaps it’s more of a sensibility. There he’s given the hard sell by a smarmy Studio Chief (Russell Mael) to come and make big-budget Hollywood movies; Bergman also embarks on a phantasmagoric tour of the city led by an enigmatic Limo Driver (Ron Mael). Franzen dominates the stage as Bergman, gruff and imperious in his grey sweater and black beret, an intellectual as icy as the Scandinavian snowscape he calls home. He’s a lone genius with critical cachet, meaning that in Hollywood’s eyes he’s ripe for the picking. The Chief uses every trick in his arsenal to tempt Bergman, from money to busty blondes to “crews that can read your mind and work all night.”

One of the highlights comes as Bergman is given a tour of the studio commissary; there the Chief tries to sell the Swede on Hollywood’s special brand of artistic expression fused with extravagant consumption. Backed by a chorus of laughing executives and an off-kilter polka melody, he points out the pantheon of émigré auteurs that made the Hollywood leap: Among them are Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, and Alfred Hitchcock (the Chief points out the example of “The Man Who Knew Too Much done twice, in Hollywood done twice as nice!”).

Of course, the whole thing is a Faustian bargain that begins to unravel even as soon as Bergman considers it; at the heart of the drama is an existential crisis straight out of one of the man’s films. Sparks’s rock stylings transform a director-actress squabble into a clash of apocalyptic fury, and Bergman’s situation explodes into a dramatic and delirious escape attempt from his gilded prison; he reflects on the irony that he’s “now an actor in a bad big-budget Hollywood action film.” By the time Bergman crumples on the Santa Monica pier calling out for rescue from a God he’s not sure exists, Maddin and Sparks make a convincing argument that the subsequent film—which will undoubtedly screen at a future Los Angeles Film Festival—will be an intensely fascinating product from a group of offbeat talents. It’s a collaboration the real Bergman would have smiled upon.