Guy Ritchie’s Cruel, Juvenile, Fashionable Snatch; Bergman’s Persona

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

by Ingmar Bergman

After an instance
of deliberate, personal cruelty–and only midway through the movie–Ingmar
Bergman brings Persona to a halt. The film literally burns a hole on
the screen, the image unwinds from the reels, the projector stops. It’s
one of the great moral and esthetic moments in movie history. Young Brit director
Guy Ritchie obviously knows nothing about it. His new film Snatch features
blithe, casual cruelty. This herky-jerky, fast-paced crime comedy makes sport
of violence and killing in ways that show how much movie culture has changed
since Persona (premiering in the late 60s) presented the epitome of human
and artistic exploration.

Styles change,
but this movement toward brutal insensitivity as entertainment is more than
just a genre twist. Ritchie–a so-called hotshot after the British success
of his appalling debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels–opposes
the heart, empathy and curiosity that used to be the basis of popular culture
and is Persona’s central amazement. Snatch is made for an
audience that no longer looks to movies, or music, as a way of discovering or
confirming their own humanity ("The coolest movie of the year!" sez
Premiere). Showing off styles of aggression and "hardness,"
Ritchie mistakes cockiness for fascination with the mysteries of personality.
He mixes a multiethnic set of criminals–Jewish diamond thieves with English
and Russian illegal boxing promoters, Irish gypsies and black con artists–but
his plot reveals only a limited awareness of human behavior.

Despite ethnic
furbelows from a motley cast including Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Dennis Farina,
Rade Sherbedgia and Vinnie Jones, these bad guys are all the same: bruising
screwups given to slapstick savagery and florid speeches in the Tarantino mode.
Tough-guy narration ("We don’t hold hands and take windy walks, but
he’s my mate") is detached from meaningful experience. Once again,
every new Tarantino imitation lacks the original’s potential; is less innocent,
less sincere and more cynical. It’s as if American filmmakers lead
the world in crap, and Ritchie shows the Brits just catching up. He piles on
the bad-boy hipness, still imitating the nicknames and funny intros used since
The Usual Suspects, Trainspotting, Reservoir Dogs all the
way back to Mean Streets, where it initially reflected a style of street
life. Now it’s a glib affectation.

leaves a juvenile taste in your mouth. Ritchie avoids the patriarchal complex
that gave powerful authenticity to the young friends’ story in A Room
Romeo Brass. When the credit "Directed by Guy Ritchie"
appears under the freeze-frame of a gun, you know the director needs to turn
off the Wild Bunch DVD and grow up. This adolescent fantasy of underworld
life lacks a credible sense of suffering and ambition, or the social beliefs
that outlaws adopt. British gallows humor isn’t the same as Joe Orton’s
satirical insight or social principles. As the Irish gypsy bare-knuckle fighter
Mickey O’Neil, Brad Pitt plays an Orton type, but his defiance of all social
and antisocial sentiments has less meaning than Pitt’s tongue-in-cheek
send-up of both his Fight Club and The Devil’s Own performances.
When Ritchie cuts to a gangster’s interior thoughts (about Viva Las
the overly repeated gimmick–a cartoon distraction–feels
hip but is insufficient characterization. Ritchie traffics in generalized stereotypes
about criminals. A few have panache: Vinnie Jones as Bullet-Tooth Tony lecturing
the three black stooges about weaponry, a jumbled composition of five men tussling
with body bags. And some bits are freaky-funny: Farina catching a headline "DISNEY
CAVES IN TO ARAB PRESSURE" from The Jewish Press. And Alan Ford
as Brick Top, the meanest cuss, spews venom in a manner that suggests Michael
Caine without cosmetics and dentistry.

But in the
end there’s no one to root for in Snatch. Key figures (Del Toro,
Sherbedgia) are dispatched without a fare-thee-well–a further coarsening
of the genre. And the one gruesome, unfair death is glossed over. That’s
part of Snatch’s design. Emotion is not required, just a panicky,
adolescent reflex response. Let me be clear: it’s not Ritchie’s mix
of violence and humor that is offensive. After all, Persona’s self-reflexive
credit sequence intercuts silent comedy pratfalls with cryptic images of mortality–signs
of life’s irony and incongruity since cinema’s beginning. But the
humor in Snatch reveals no incongruity; its easy nihilism cheers callous
behavior and uncaring response. One of the funniest violent jokes I’ve
ever seen–a long defenestration followed by a split-second car crash–occurs
in Crime Wave, a comedy from a Coen brothers script that Sam Raimi directed
before he lost his touch and went fake-serious. But Raimi and the Coens stylized
a frolicsome universe in which accident and destiny parodied the social realism
that Ritchie secondhandedly exploits. Snatch insults both the fantasy
and reality associated with crime movies. Now all that’s left is for Ritchie
to cast Madonna in his next thuggish jamboree–thereby guaranteeing another
stateside flop. Then we can be rid of them both.


Ingmar Bergman’s
career had climaxed
in the late 1950s with the period films The Seventh
and Smiles of a Summer Night, but he reached a peak again with
Persona–a pared-down, modernist exploration of themes that obsessed
him: Faith, Women and here, explicitly, Film. Persona’s return engagement
at Film Forum (starting this Fri., Jan. 19) amounts to a reintroduction to Film
as exciting as when Persona first appeared and perplexed the movie world.
In fact, Bergman’s experiment with extreme presentations of form and
content may be even more significant for today’s post-Pulp Fiction/Guy
Ritchie/ Crouching Tiger era when audiences only think they’re
hip to every way a movie can work.

Some people
may have forgotten–or never known–how powerfully movies can contemplate
human experience, how thrilling the cinema apparatus can be without explosions,
car chases, shootouts and fireballs. Persona uses the simple situation
of an actress, Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann), who has stopped speaking, and the nurse,
Alma (Bibi Andersson), who is assigned to attend her recovery. Their companionship
becomes a test of wills. As Alma reveals more of herself to Elisabeth, the relationship
between the women turns into resentment, erotic tension and eventually a deep
interpenetration of their psyches as each woman intuits the weakness and longings
of the other.

Bergman goes
so far into this conceit about identity that the film reflects upon itself–and
Bergman rethinks his own psyche and creative impulses. "I had it in my
head to make a poem, not in words but in images," Bergman told an interviewer.
His classical temperament might never have been so daring without responding
to the artists of the moment who, in the 60s, had shaken up movie esthetics.
Persona has now-obvious links to the trails blazed by Godard (in the
Holocaust photo montage) and Antonioni (the anonymous landscape that mirrors
characters’ emotional distress). Each of Persona’s 87 minutes
vibrates the excitement of film pushed to its most expressive degree. It moved
audiences then (winning the National Society of Film Critics prizes for best
film, director and actress) and should astound them now as proof that the cinema
can reveal the elusive depths of the soul.

Not since Dreyer’s
The Passion of Joan of Arc was there such big-screen concentration on
the face: the voluptuous fullness of Ullmann’s lips and crystalline eyes
and Andersson’s extraordinary emotional exhibition. From Alma’s legendary
erotic monologue (now in explicit subtitles) to the lavatory scene where she
attempts to stop the feelings welling inside her, Andersson inscribes a complete
human experience. It’s Andersson’s face (Ullmann’s the hidden
mystery) that Bergman focuses on as the film’s moral fulcrum. That’s
the moment when the film breaks–revealing Bergman’s reaction to cruelty
and his overriding quest for art’s responsibility and significance. To
my knowledge no academic has even attempted to plumb the complexity in that
image of Andersson’s interrupted gaze.

From the ineffable
Persona to the full-color, numinous Cries and Whispers (1972),
Bergman’s concentration on women revolutionized female acting. (Without
Andersson and Ullmann–and the contemporaneous Vanessa Redgrave–there
would be no Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton or Jessica Lange or Jennifer Jason
Leigh or Emily Watson.) Persona not only deconstructs its own narrative,
it also examines performance psyche. The repeated scene of Alma interpreting
Elisabeth’s silence isn’t an artistic miscalculation, as some 60s
critics misunderstood it. Its brilliance comes from the suspense and intensity
of theater and acting that, Bergman acknowledges, sustains the cinematic and
human illusion.

If Guy Ritchie
were worth a damn as a postmodern filmmaker he might have similarly used Snatch
to examine masculine personae. Instead of parading rough-hewn rooster antics,
he might have overlapped the squint-eyed, sexy wit of Brad Pitt and Benicio
Del Toro just the way Bergman superimposes Andersson’s and Ullmann’s
eyes, hair and skin texture–searching for the poetry in their appearance,
the enigma of their personalities. Ritchie hides his (and the audience’s)
ignorance and immorality behind the momentum of action and violence. Bergman’s
great achievement in Persona was in poetically expanding narrative to
question the form’s morality and our own. He opened it up and got deeper
than ever. Andersson contested Ullmann not for ivory-tower art’s sake but
for the socially inspired belief in human connection. See Persona. Film
culture hasn’t caught up with it yet.