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Bergman and Bill & Ted

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The older I get, the younger I sometimes feel. And the older I get – and the more serious life seems to become, the less seriously I seem to take it.

Case in point. When I first saw “BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY” in the summer of 1991 at a discount movie house with my friend Troy – I hated it. Well, I hated it that night. It was ridiculously silly and insanely plotted.

As a the months wore on – I began to remember the film with quite a genuine affection. Sure – some of the humor was sophomoric at best. Some of the jokes landed flatly. And most of it was sheer insanity. But the insanity of it was also infused with a tremendous amount of imagination. And a fair amount of grim shadow. The film’s realization of both Heaven and Hell are – in retrospect – thoroughly inspired. Bill’s encounter with his grandmother in the depths of Hades is blisteringly funny – in large part because it speaks to something so fundamentally true; growing old sucks – and the very young will never understand that until they face it down themselves.

And William Sadler’s performance as DEATH easily steals the film in every moment he’s on screen.

So – here’s something to consider.

The most inspired moments in the film involve our heroic Dudes battling the Grim Reaper for their souls. I can’t recall a better homage to the great Ingmar Bergman – and the imagery this film is nicking from – because they ultimately get the spirit of the thing right. As they circumvent the apparent seriousness of the contest – two men battling Death at games of strategy to regain their souls – by playing Death at Battleship and Twister – the filmmakers actually attack the heart of what Bergman was conveying in his darker – but equally funny – vision.

the_seventh_seal Thinking back on THE SEVENTH SEAL – Bergman’s allegorical meditation on humanity’s ultimate standing with God and wrestling with the implications of mortality – this brilliant, lovely film that I always remember as being dour and painfully serious is IN FACT ridiculously silly and insanely plotted. Because – in it’s weird way – THE SEVENTH SEAL is a comedy. A dark comedy. A thoughtful comedy. A beautifully rendered and poetically wrought comedy. But it’s a comedy.

It’s a comedy in the way Chekhov was writing comedy. A protagonist must somehow right the turbulent world around him or her.

The idea of a knight returning from the Crusade – only to be met by Death incarnate to collect his soul – is a comic bummer of huge proportions. The knight suggests they play chess and – should he win – his soul is restored to him. It’s ludicrous. It’s been fodder for so many parodies BECAUSE it’s so ludicrous. And yet – Bergman’s balance of humor and pathos allows this thing to be ludicrously watchable. He allows us to laugh at it AND to be compelled by it AND to be a bit fearful of it.
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I found it riveting as a kid. It has a fantastical nature that allows its mature, grossly depressing subject-matter to live and breath with a whimsical air. It IS whimsical. Even the film’s more gruesome images detailing a village’s plight with the Plague has an aura of strange, other-worldliness about it. This is NOT naturalistic cinema. This is fantasy exploring adult themes. This is like a Swedish PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Bergman’s films often had a way of ending with a ray of hope – when they just as easily could have ended bleakly. Many a great comedy ends this way. Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT could just as well have taken a turn for the worst and had Shirley MacLaine successfully kill herself instead of being rescued by Jack Lemmon at the last minute (in a scene that is both winningly funny and tearfully painful).

Great comedy usually comes from a place of great pain. That’s no great revelation. We’ve been exploring that notion since Aristophanes.

But what Bergman did that was so inspired in THE SEVENTH SEAL was finding the humor in life and still allowing that humor to be austere. The humor in this film doesn’t play for laughs. In many respects – it doesn’t even care if you laugh or not. But the humor is there.

So – will BILL AND TED prove to be just as influential a cinematic experience? I somehow doubt that. But it does serve up a wickedly fun and silly mucking about in some serious mire.

And remember – Bergman – severe, opaque, bleak Scandinavian auteur – is the man who also wrote lines such as “No matter which way you turn, you have your rump behind you.”

The line could very easily have been followed with a “Dude!”

For me – the most interesting aspect of this re-investigation of both films is that I propbably couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have made any of these speculations that summer night I went to see that delightfully bizarre BOGUS JOURNEY with Troy at the discount movie house because I would have been taking myself too damn seriously.

I would have turned up my nose at the very notion that this film could compete with other – more sainted – art films that I was digesting at the time.

But I was – in my narrow-minded attempts to be INTELLIGENT and WELL-THOUGHT – missing something much more important. This film was a GOOD COMEDY. It was imaginative. It had solid comic performances. It had a clever script that really knew how to play the ‘low-brow’ expectations of the audience against the quite intelligent ideas the film was expounding on. It was heads-and-shoulders above its predecessor – which was a lazy, cobbled and not much more than an episodic series of one-note jokes that didn’t amount to anything (the meeting with Socrates and Napoleon trying to bowl not withstanding – these moments still get me to laugh in spite of myself).

As I get older and become a more experienced writer – this is something I’ve learned. The thing about “genre” that a lot of “high-art” could take a lesson or two from is this.

GENRE stories – i.e. horror, or comedy, or thriller – have expectations of doing very specific things. Horror should get you to scream. Comedy should get you to laugh. Thriller should get you to tighten your fist in gripping anticipation.

GOOD, again, GOOD “high-art” does the same thing. It should get you – as the audience – to watch or read or listen and go “OH SHIT!!! WHAT HAPPENS NEXT???”

Bergman – in his quiet, reflective way – could often do just that. He would have you wondering WHAT HAPPENS NEXT???

Certainly – BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY is a joyously frivolous example of a great comedy getting us to laugh when they want us to and make us wonder just WHAT THE HELL IS GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT???

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