Two years ago: I was skeptical about Netflix, but a number of factors changed my mind. Now-folded indie mag Paste planted the first seed with a blog post listing five reasons to join Netflix. Criterion Collection movies available for streaming? It sounded too good to be true: many of the best foreign, classic and independent films available at the push of a button. Revival screenings of these films are rare, and Criterion DVDs are typically $39.99 at retail. The deciding factor, however, was the closing of Evanston video store After Hours. This was like losing a dear friend, and I had to cope by giving into the Netflix temptation.
And now, the Criterion Collection has decided to move its films exclusively to Hulu Plus. I beg your pardon? Sure, Hulu has some movies, but I was under the impression that the site was only really used to catch up on ABC, Fox and NBC TV shows. Maybe Hulu Plus is a bigger deal than I am aware of, but I do not know a single Northwestern student with a Hulu Plus subscription. In fact, to my knowledge, I have never met anyone who pays for Hulu. Because of this partnership between Hulu and Criterion, all Criterion movies will be removed from Netflix streaming by the end of the year. Upon hearing this crushing news, I did what any normal person would do.
I added every single Criterion movie available to my instant queue.
Knowing that a movie is streaming on Netflix can be the determining factor for whether or not a college student will watch it, I started this column to suggest classic Criterion titles. Each week, I will look at a different director and focus on the titles still available for instant streaming. Many of them will be subtitled and black-and-white, but why not if they are streaming on Netflix?
Scenes From a Misunderstood Career
On July 30, 2007, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman died at the age of 89. Most filmmakers are far past retirement by their 80s, but Bergman released the widely acclaimedSaraband only four years before his passing. Still, Bergman is often not regarded in the same light as humanist masters such as Yasujiro Ozu or Jean Renoir because of his apparent focus on serious dramas, death and godlessness. I would argue that his body of work is much more complex than such simplifications suggest.
In fact, his breakthrough film, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), was a comedy about sex and love, a tangled web of relationships. A lawyer is married to a young virgin. The lawyer’s son from a previous marriage is in love with his young stepmother. The lawyer’s former lover, an actress, is having an affair with a count. Have these interconnected characters in a country house with three others, and you eventually end up with four happy couples. Smiles of a Summer Night indulges in the chaos of its network of affairs, rekindled romances and elopements. Although one might expect a dark ending from Bergman, the film is playful and optimistic. And just as Desiree the actress carefully seats everyone for a meal to maximize the effectiveness of her romantic plotting, Bergman strategically places and moves the camera around the dinner table to convey the unspoken conversations among the various characters. It’s a calculated battle of the sexes that shows Bergman had a key understanding of human relationships and a killer sense of humor.
This sense of warmth can even be seen when Bergman explicitly dealt with death. In Wild Strawberries (1957), a 78-year-old physician takes a road trip to a ceremony where he is to be recognized for lifetime achievement. The film focuses on protagonist Isak Borg’s journey through his memories and dreams as he struggles with old age. Nightmares confront him with some of his darkest memories and deepest anxieties about the end of his life, but ultimately, this is a film about Isak coming to a sense of peace with his life. Bergman does not ignore the existence of unanswered questions about life and death. Instead, he focuses on the small ways in which we come to terms with our regrets. One of Isak’s worst memories is the love of his life marrying his brother. Bergman has the same actress play this romantic interest in flashbacks and a young hitchhiker Isak meets on his present-day journey. By establishing a warm friendship with this young woman, Isak lets go of his anxieties. Wild Strawberries is certainly a film about death and the imperfections of people, but it is also about redemption and the necessity of forgiving oneself.
And finally, there is the big question: Is there a god? Bergman asks this question throughout his career, and although he is often described as an atheist, he was in fact one of the few “tortured agnostics.” His outlook often held on to the glimmers of hope. This is particularly evident in The Virgin Spring (1960), a medieval tale that inspired Wes Craven’s debut feature The Last House on the Left (1972). Largely cold and pessimistic, Bergman’s film chronicles the rape and murder of a young virgin and the consequent vengeance when the responsible bandits unknowingly find themselves in the home of their victim’s religious family. The film questions the existence of a Christian God in a world of sin, but the titular spring is a divine sign that provides home for the family and the audience. Bergman questions the existence of a higher power, but he gives us a sign to show that he at least hopes there is something greater than ourselves.
I am in no way suggesting that Bergman’s films are all optimistic or that somehow humanist touches alone justify his canonical status. However, the thematic intricacies of films like Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring show why Bergman’s art has stood the test of time. Just about any film written and directed by Ingmar Bergman is going to spawn a wide variety of interpretations, and that is why we still watch his films again and again to this day.
You can sign on to your Netflix account now to stream Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring or Fanny and Alexander.