DVD Review Of I Am Curious- Yellow & Blue
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/24/07
Time is the great leveler of all things, but most especially so in the arts. This Ozymandian verity applies to the great and the petty. There are works of art and artists that go ignored in their own time, because they are ahead of the field- think Gerard Manley Hopkins, Franz Kafka, or Emily Dickinson, to name the obvious, and then there are works of art and artists that have great immediate success, but are forgotten by time. Anyone recall the best selling American author of the 1890s? How about the 1950s? Do the names Richard Bach or Jacqueline Susann bring anything but a wink and a nod giggle? Does anyone seriously think that the drips of a Jackson Pollock, or much of the fraudulent Abstract Expressionism that followed him, will last? How about the atrocious writing of the Beatniks or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets?
It is with these things in mind that my recent viewing of Vilgot Sjöman’s controversial black and white late 1960s films, I Am Curious- Yellow (Jag Är Nyfiken- En Film I Gult), released in 1967, and I Am Curious- Blue (Jag Är Nyfiken- En Film I Blått), released in 1968, came into proper perspective. The films are based upon the two colors of the Swedish flag- a scheme that a quarter century later Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski would use to far greater effect with his Three Colors trilogy based upon the colors of the French flag. Neither of Sjöman’s films are a good film, although Blue is better, for it has a bit better character arc, is less self-conscious, more meditative, and is fourteen minutes shorter (107 vs. 121), but neither are outright horrible films- merely dull and, with time’s leveling, pointless exercises in puerile political masturbation. Blue does reuse some scenes from Yellow- such as scenes at a car dealership and a sex clinic. The films just seem sort of pointless all these years later. In retail language, they had a very short shelf life. Artistically, they are Ingmar Bergman on a really bad day, although Bergman was Sjöman’s filmic idol, and politically they are about as deep as a thimble, larded with the naïve Left Wing tripe that the 1960s overdosed on, in reaction to the dying Right Wing Colonialist culture that arose for a last time after the Second World War. That Sjöman was 42 years old when he made these lightweight films is the only thing surprising because their ranting is more in line with a teenager’s to their parent, when they are not allowed to do something destructive.
The two films follow the same tale, from slightly different perspectives. The putative lead character in both, Lena (Anna Lena Lisabet Nyman), is a 22 year old drama student sleeping with the 42 year old filmmaker Sjöman. The film is semi-documentary, and yet the camera also goes behind the scenes of the making of the film within the film, as well as ostensibly following Lena and other characters, like her onscreen and offscreen lover Börje (Börje Ahlstedt) in places where it could not go, but the viewer is asked to believe unquestioningly. Of course, this mushes up the real, the ‘real’, and the staged, but not in a good nor profound way, and since none of the characters are deep nor well drawn, a viewer really has no interest in sniffing out which level is which, assuming that the levels confuse any viewers of intelligence.
Yes, there are many silly questions about Sweden’s class system asked by Lena, in documentary mode, but given its 1960s setting, and given the atrocities of Maoist China, the ongoing puppeteering of the Soviet Union, the American debacle in Vietnam, France’s agonies in Algeria and other parts of the world, as well as the death of the British Empire, the rage and anger that Lena seems to feel about and towards Sweden seems wholly false, and a put on, as well as her alternating anger and worship of Spain’s Francisco Franco. Also forced and rather pointless are the notorious sex scenes which got Yellow into so much trouble around the world, and especially in the United States. Yet, the scenes are rather tame, as no actual penetrative sex is depicted onscreen and closeup. Sjöman was merely going for shock, and he achieved it, for the dull minded, because there is no eros. One can only be shocked once- never twice, by the same thing, and once the prudes have been shocked there is nothing left for the films to do but unspool till their anomic ends.
The premise of both tales is that Börje, as actor and ‘real’ person, has a girlfriend/wife and child, yet loves Lena, but gets scabies from their romps. Lena, herself, however, seems no more educated at the end of either film than she does at either’s start. And she is such an unattractive character. By this I am not referring to her pudgy physicality, droopy breasts, grotesque areolae and nipples, fat thighs, and bloated face- which are definitely unsexy, but to her rancid personality. She is a spoiled brat who hates her father- who slaved for her after her mother’s death, feels that life owes her something out of proportion to her meager contributions to it, and is just not a nice person- by any definition of the word. Yet, the reason both films fail is that they are dull and aimless.
Yellow begins with a poetry reading by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Why? Yes, he was a 1960s counterculture hero in the West. But what it is doing in the film is never sorted out, nor is the interview sequence with Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, nor a brief one with Martin Luther King. Similarly, the films often seem to not know which level of reality they are working on- be it the political documentary about socialism in, with interviews done by Lena, the tale about filmmaker Vilgot Sjöman, who is making a film, and the film that Sjöman is making about Lena, who is also making a documentary. At times, there are moments in Blue which seem to explicate some of the things that are left dangling in Yellow, but the problem is that the dangling ends in Yellow are simply not compelling enough that anyone would actively seek their resolution, in Blue nor any other forum.
The Sweden that is depicted in these films is not one filled with intelligent, sexy Nordic goddesses like Liv Ullman nor Bibi Andersson, nor their male counterparts like Max Von Sydow, but with physically and personally repulsive people that are too like most of the Neolithic viewers who first saw these films, thinking they were finally going to see high brow porno, and ended up with bewildered diatribes and preachments about socialism, religion, violence, lesbianism, impotence, marriage, and venereal disease. Interestingly, male homosexuality, drug and alcohol abuse are not included- nor is suicide, and these are themes have always been most anathema in Nordic culture. This lack of focus shows that both films were not even really dealing with the issues at the center of the culture that spawned them. Imagine a 1950s political film in the U.S. that avoided Jim Crow or McCarthyism, and you’ll see how intellectually, politically, and ethically vacuous both these films really are. This fact exposes the essential puerile shallowness of both films. Any claims that they have to depth are shot by these glaring omissions, as well as the film’s embrace of Maoist jingoism- several books by Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara are featured being read by ‘good Swedes’, even though the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution were coming into perspective in those years.
One also wonders if the would be cultural censors who decided for this film’s not being pornography would have decided such had Nyman been as good looking as Ullman or Andersson. And, despite the film’s title, Lena is not particularly curious about anything, not even sex. She’s a typical young person who thinks far too highly of her own self and contributions. She’s a college-aged knowitall (really a sciolist) who looks contemptuously down upon anyone who differs with her lightweight opinions, and resorts to violence whenever she does not get what she wants, such as at the end of Yellow, when she tears apart her bedroom.
The two DVD package of the films, put out by The Criterion Collection, are in solid shape. The company has done better visual restorations of films, however, and the black and white subtitles that accompany both films are really poor against many of the blanched background scenes. Given the poor sound quality still evident in these films, would it really have been too much for an English dubbed soundtrack? The two films are in a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and Yellow comes with a five minute video Introduction by Sjoman, a trailer, some commentary on selected scenes- which are neither deep nor interesting, an interview with publisher Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia over the film’s legal battles, a featurette, The Battle for I Am Curious- Yellow- on the legal struggles, and an essay by Gary Giddins. Blue comes with less features, but there is more commentary from Sjoman on selected scenes- again not worth much, for he seems to feel these were greater works of art than they really are and is merely redaing from a book he wrote on the films, a deleted scene with commentary, excerpts from a 1968 interview, and excerpts from a 1992 Swedish television documentary Sjöman made about himself- Self Portrait ’92.
The ironic thing is that while these two films made porno safe to be shown through most of America, they were soon forgotten, as the rush to pornographize low budget films (many with titles like I Am Curious- Black or I Am Curious- Lavender, for black and gay films with sex in them) almost killed off real independent art house films for a decade, until John Sayles came along to resuscitate it in the U.S. They also ushered in the noxious Jack Valenti and the silly MPAA ratings system that is still with us. Both films are also far too high on themselves with their knowing wink-nudge deconstructive attitude. Compared to Bergman’s Persona, these films do not hold up for in that film Bergman was letting the viewer know of the film’s artifice while indulging in a tale that still intrigues. These films are pedantic in the worst sort of way- they try to teach, are smug, and naïve to boot. As the normally stolid New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, said at the time of Blue’s release, ‘I’m not very fond of this sort of moviemaking, which tries to disarm conventional criticism by exploiting formlessness as meaningful itself,’ and he was right. Whenever the films hit narrative dead ends, or Sjoman does not know where to go next, he gets self-referential. In Blue, this leads to a ridiculously bad scene where the film’s crew sings a Swedish folk song as Lena goes to visit a prison, for reasons that seem only to be so the film can claim some social relevance. But, these diversions are so transparent that they bore, rather than fascinate. The films’ histories and provenances- as a single film cut into two versions, are far more interesting than anything within and, had it not been for the U.S. Customs seizure of the films for pornography, they would never have even been resurrected by The Criterion Collection, nor any other DVD company with a reputation for quality.
Like Bernardo Bertolucci’s lame Last Tango In Paris, a few years later, neither of the I Am Curious films have relevance for anyone outside of their generation, which is a surefire marker that the art is bad. The acting is uniformly atrocious- Nyman later had a small role in Ingmar Bergman’s 1978 Autumn Sonata, as the spastic daughter, but then faded from film history. Her co-stars were even less successful, and the I Am Curious films deserved their oblivion, for the years’ passage has seen what at least seemed bold and innovative get pared down to dull and pretentious. Both films end abruptly, with no power nor insight, and if done to give verisimilitude to their ‘reality’, it seems a waste, for no one really can buy into what either film is selling- just as their self-conscious tv-style hucksterism seems aimed at children, not adults.
Vilgot Sjöman may have made some good or even great films before or after these, but these are a waste of most viewers’ time, and do not even hold the historical power that the Up films from Britain do, for those films are real documentaries, while these are mere fantasies of a Utopia that never was, and could never be- as evidence by Lena’s simpleminded anti-education raps. Thus leveled, time seeks a new Ozymandias.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the NewCritics website.]
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