Review: En Och En (One and One)

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

How, one wonders, did the three directors of this odd seriocomic romance-tragedy divide up the responsibilities? Did Josephson direct Thulin’s solo scenes and Thulin Josephson’s, with Nykvist handling all the scenes they’re in together (the majority)? Or was it a case of everyone mucking in, the two stars handling the histrionics and the cameraman running the technicalities? Whatever the truth, it’s a film without an auteur, though there’s lots of “authorship” on display; and it spoils the movie. Parts of it are terribly moving, and most of it is true enough to the awkward corners of most of our lives to make the film’s quality of unease all-pervading. But, damnably, it fails narrowly just where it’s absolutely vital that it should succeed – with the result that the ending, which should be heartbreaking, gives one a sense, admittedly a guilty sense, of relief.

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Review: Best Boy

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The line between cool observation and active participation in a documentary film is a flimsy and untenable one. How can anything remain truly documentary with a camera whirring away as an extra guest keeping its unblinking eye focused on the people it considers? If the project is of the “Loud Family” sort, the people cannot even ask the camera to leave the room for a moment, because everything must be captured “as it actually occurred.” What is irritating about some documentaries is the pretension that whatever is observed really would have happened just as it appears before the camera—even if that camera hadn’t been there. I don’t believe that, having probably seen too many nervous smiles and stiff movements (and many an overacted moment) in everything from documentary features to National Geographic specials. But when a filmmaker recognizes and acknowledges the degree of responsibility he takes on when he plunks a camera down in the middle of people’s lives—well, some very intriguing things can happen.

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Review: L’Amour viole

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Seattle exhibitor that gave a one-week run to Yannick Bellon’s film about a rape victim and the emotional and sociopolitical aftermath of the crime advertised the picture under its French title, L’Amour violé, admirably seeking to avoid the sensationalistic come-on of the U.S. distributor’s banner translation, Rape of Love. As it happened, local reviewers right down the line restored the U.S. title in their articles and indeed in their headlines, and went on to bracket any discussion of the film’s merits within their own various editorials on rape as a social issue. Myself, I felt little inclination to go see some female director’s tract movie on the rape question, and almost let the film get away from me. Almost but, happily, not quite. For L’Amour violé provided to be no tract, feminist or otherwise; even better, it turned out to be a damn good film in the ways that count with every movie, whether freighted with social import or not. And I found that the exhibitor (Seven Gables Theatres) was not only discreet but also precise in hewing to L’Amour violé as the title: “rape of love” ever so slightly distorts the emphasis of “love raped” and steers us away from the delicacy of Bellon’s subject and concerns.

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Review: Used Cars

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Is there a cure for Southern California? Oh, I don’t mean the smog, the materialism, “the City of the One-Night Stands,” any of that stuff—don’t bother me none. What’s getting to bother me in a big way is the barrenness of cinematic output from those children of Sunny Cal who seem to be running hog wild on the movie scene these days. We could argue about when it started. I couldn’t get too bent out of shape if somebody wanted to insist that Big Wednesday was A Bad Sign a couple of summers ago, even if I found that particular exercise in oafish metaphysics rather endearing; it surely did tend to crawl up its own nether orifice, striking monumental poses (and that’s a difficult position to strike monumental poses in) over a landscape of aspiration and endeavor so specialized as to have nothing but abstract meaning for any non-Californians—and maybe just nonsurfers—in the audience. And now Milius, for whose directorial career I continue to have high hopes, appears to prefer the role of ursine Godfather to all the up-and-coming—or at least oncoming—cinéastes south and Right of Zoetrope. First he exec-produced 1941 for Spielberg, and contributed to its story base along with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose I Wanna Hold Your Hand Spielberg himself had exec-produced. Now he and Spielberg have exec-produced Zemeckis–Gale’s Used Cars, which by its very title sounds like a godawfully appropriate sequel to last Christmastime’s multimillion-dollar wrecking-derby-masquerading-as-a-hohoho-comedy. And in some important and increasingly distressing ways, it is.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 1]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

When it comes to new hope for the American cinema, filmcrit types are always in the market. New hope in 1980 took the form of a low-budget festival film with the misunderstandable title Return of the Secaucus 7. It wasn’t a documentary, wasn’t a tribute to sullen or snarling radicals, wasn’t even a where-were-you-in-’72 American Graffitistyle slice of overpacked nostalgia. What it was was this genial, witty, low-key comedy, with just the right touch of rue, about a group of friends getting together for an informal reunion one summer weekend, and trying to get used to the idea of turning 30—and just a wee bit comfortably bourgeois. The screenplay was a beauty, ostensibly laidback and wide-open, yet carefully detailed without letting the pointedness show; the characters expertly drawn, no fuss, and so cleanly individualized (among other things, everyone’s dialogue has a logic and texture all its own) that for the audience and for one another they step right out of any assigned boxes, free to explore a wide range of possibilities. The result was a droll ensemble portrait shot through with the cozy vitality the Sixties used to call natural, without any of the boring unintelligence that so often went along with it.

The Return of the Secaucus 7
“The Return of the Secaucus 7” (that’s John Sayles second from left, hiding behind his cast)

The film marked the directorial debut of John Sayles, himself age 30 and one of the most solidly talented writers of contemporary American fiction. About the time Secaucus 7 went into national release, Sayles accepted an invitation to meet with a scriptwriting class at the University of Washington and share some of his experiences. Virtually all the Hollywood personnel who graciously and generously gave of their time to support this course delivered themselves of frank and cogent remarks about the realities of the film biz at the dawn of the Eighties; but even in this company Sayles was conspicuous for the comprehensiveness and lucidity of his commentary. He talked for better than two hours, first supplying a general commentary on his background in film and the circumstances of Secaucus 7‘s making, then opening the floor for questions. Having never heard so much good sense about films and filmmaking collected in one place before, movietone news requested permission to share it with a larger public; the unassuming writer-director seemed surprised that anyone would think so highly of his off-the-cuff remarks, but he agreed. “We’ll send you a transcript so you can check it out.” He thought about that a moment, then said, “No. If I said it, I’ll stand by it. Just go ahead.” And that, with very little editing and rearranging, is what we did.

I’d always been interested in doing screenwriting, realized that there weren’t too many ways into it. I didn’t want to go out to Los Angeles and start knocking on people’s doors trying to get an agent, so I went a route that isn’t much help to most people, which is that I wrote two novels and got them published. I got a literary agent out of that, and his agency had a deal with a film agency on the West Coat, so they were automatically representing my novels as screen properties. I wrote a query letter to them saying, “I also write screenplays”—which I hadn’t done at that time—”do you want to see one?” They said, “Sure, send one,” so I wrote one and sent it off to them, and they said, “Sure, we’ll represent you.” So I moved out to the West Coast.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 2]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 1” here.

Your characters in Secaucus 7 are very natural; it’s as though you knew them like friends. I’d like to know how you developed your characters, how you chose them, and how you made them come alive.

I don’t really remember writing the picture. I wrote that in two weeks. But I sort of had the idea in my head beforehand. I wrote a few of the parts for actors who I knew I wanted to use. They weren’t those actors, they weren’t playing themselves, but I said, What can I write for David that he would have fun doing? I’d start writing this character. What can I write for Maggie that she would have fun doing? Another character. As the story started to fill out, I wanted to balance certain things, so I’d write another character. And then the trick in the directing was, I wanted to have that great luxury of the screenwriter, to tell them to say what I’d written and not paraphrase it or anything like that. There was no improvisation in the film. Even the charades game was totally scripted. Even the little one-liners and sound effects—not the ums and ers, but everything was scripted.

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“And then I just go ahead and write that dialogue” – John Sayles [Part 3]

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Continued from “Part 2” here.

How do you feel about writing these low-budget films? Do you see advantages in it, or are you hungry for millions of dollars per budget?

If I had millions of dollars I’d probably make millions of small films. Part of it is what I’m good at. I’m not real interested in being a field-marshal. I recently wrote a thing that isn’t going to get made because of budget reasons, that Steven Spielberg was going to produce. And he’s really good at having a huge project and is really a good organizer, and he’d probably be a good administrator—not a great politician but a good administrator of huge programs, because the things get made and things happen. I’m not interested in that or real good at that. The things that I want to do can be done more cheaply, and might as well be done more cheaply. It goes against my grain to see money that should be going on the screen going up in overhead and the cocaine budget.

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“I don’t like those hard goodbyes” – Strother Martin

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Introduction by Richard T. Jameson

Strother Martin thought the folks from the Seattle Film Society wanted to meet him just because he had done some jobs of work for Sam Peckinpah and they had had Sam to tea a year or so earlier. Not that that gave him any trouble. Like any other veteran character actor he had long since got used to being the face and voice that people marked immediately without being able to attach a name. Unlike many other character actors, he had been wrong on that point for quite a few years—at the very least, since late 1967, when filmgoers first heard the line “What we have here is failure to communicate” out of the mouth of the pusselgutted chain-gang overseer in Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. Plenty of people, not just film-society types, could be relied on to look right fond whenever the name Strother Martin was dropped, and say “Oh yeah, I like him, he’s always good.”

Martin1edit
Strother Martin in Seattle in 1979 (photo by Tom Keogh, scanned from Movietone News 66-67)

The Martins were having dinner with two other cast members, Marjorie Bennett and Meg Wylie, who Joined us for the first part of our chat in an improvised semi-private diningroom. Bennett, especially familiar for her work in Robert Aldrich pictures (she and Martin had both appeared in one-scene roles in Kiss Me Deadly; her son from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Victor Buono, was out bulking in the lobby a few yards away), held forth in her best sinister-pixie style on everything from Rudolph Valentino to the fireweed-honey-from-the-sky ritual at Snoqualmie Falls Lodge. The rest of the company delightedly deferred to her. Then, after she had retired for the evening, Martin settled down to talk about, well, Sam Peckinpah, he thought, but we insisted we were interested in Strother Martin, too.

The Strother Martin we met was a fellow markedly different from the variously desperate, deranged, and depraved characters he had so often essayed. Mostly he spoke in soft, gracious tones, with a particularity of reference and inflection consistent with the classical tastes and sensibility he frequently evidenced. Every once in a while, though, when an anecdote required the quotation of a line from The Wild Bunch or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that familiar backwoodsy twang cut the air. (He was particularly proud of the appreciative reception a Harlem moviehouse audience had given his pronunciation of “pussy” while cussing out the hockey team in Slap Shot.) From time to time he lit a cigarette and got about two puffs out of it before Mrs. Martin quietly reached across and stubbed it out.

That was in March 1979. A year later, Strother Martin appeared at a Filmex program, “Characters,” devoted to the work of people like him; the entirety of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid performance was screened. One hoped that Martin and those other colleagues present—Richard Loo was a few seats away—would be called up to take their bows. It didn’t happen. They signed a few autographs. Within months, both men had passed away.

The following remarks were recorded and transcribed by Tom Keogh and Lesley Link. As the tape started to roll, Martin was talking about an unlikely director….

…I would like to own the film on the life of Delius that Ken Russell did for the BBC? Did you see that? It was done on the PBS stations. Max Adrian played Delius. It’s Ken Russell’s best film, and it’s about one of my favorite subjects. It’s a great film; it’s better than Women in Love. I read once that Glenda Jackson said it was his best film. Such a wonderful biography. He’s meddled with a lot of composers and he’s made me very angry. I didn’t go to see “Tchaikovsky” [The Music Lovers] and I was terribly disappointed in the Mahler film, I just hated it. But I admire his images and his imagination.

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Grizzly Man: The Overwhelming Indifference Of Nature

It’s easy to see why Werner Herzog was so fascinated by Timothy Treadwell, the former beach bum turned self-made wildlife activist and grizzly bear guardian who spent thirteen summers living amidst the grizzly bears of the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska until he, along with his girlfriend and traveling partner, Amie Huguenard, was mauled, killed, and devoured by his beloved cause.

Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude
Timothy Treadwell: Grizzly Adams as new age surfer dude

As his documentary Grizzly Man suggests, Treadwell saw himself as a new-age Grizzly Adams with a video camera and a quest to save the habitat from humanity. He could be a real life folk version of the dreamers from Herzog’s dramas, less manic and not as prone to epic gestures but no less obsessed. Treadwell relentlessly videotaped his sojourns and the magnificent footage that he left behind captures a serenity and savagery of the wilds at times reminiscent of Herzog’s best films.

But the footage also serves his self-made mythological identity—”the lone guardian of the grizzly”—by constantly and pointedly placing himself in every shot, like the host of a non-existent nature show/nature reality series. His footage is accompanied by grandiose stream-of-consciousness running commentary, a mix of naturist idealism, poetic romanticism and a kiddie-show host blissing out on the wonders of mother nature. He speaks of the isolation of his solo forays into the wilds, even though he was accompanied and assisted by female partners/girlfriends on practically every trip, and is careful to never mention their presence, let alone allow them to share credit in his adventure. Amie, the girlfriend who was killed with Treadwell, is only glimpsed only twice in the background of footage Treadwell left behind, and even there is barely present.

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Losing Focus: Three Herzog Shorts – The Dark Glow of the Mountains, The Ballad of the Little Soldier, Little Dieter Needs to Fly

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1984), suffers from limitations imposed by its subject: the effort of two daredevil climbers to scale two difficult mountains back-to-back, without a break in between. They describe this as something never done before and much more dangerous than climbing one peak. The aesthetic problem, though, is that the available footage was evidently limited to what Herzog shot in conjunction with interviews, and there is no real visual evidence of danger or drama.

Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains
Werner Herzog in the Dark Glow of the Mountains

The interviews are colorful enough, in their way. One climber boasts that, thanks to frostbite on previous climbs, he is down to four toes; his colleague, perhaps somewhat sheepishly, admits to having all ten, but does note [hopefully?] that, with the difficult project they are undertaking, that could change. Aside from the unique and unprecedented nature of the stunt, and its danger, neither climber cites any particular reason for doing it. The more seasoned of the two—the one with four toes—concedes that he climbs compulsively, and gravitates toward doing new things; unless I’m missing something, that is another way of saying he does it to keep from getting bored. This is quite a jarring contrast to the ski jumping in The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), which Herzog transformed into a mystical pursuit of the transcendent and the poetic. It seems odd to find Herzog, a decade later, celebrating the things mountain climbers do to ward off boredom. And without climbing footage, the film is inert; even the announcement that they have successfully climbed the second mountain registers as curiously flat, almost anti-climactic.

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On Staring Into the Camera: Aguirre and Bears

(This piece was presented as lecture to a general audience at the Seattle Art Museum following a screening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I left it as is, so it might feel more spoken than written, which was the original idea.)

Near the end of Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s amazing documentary about a man who lived and died among bears, Herzog finds a close-up shot of a grizzly bear’s face. The shot was part of the vast amount of footage shot by Timothy Treadwell, the naïve and self-dramatizing manchild who spent 13 summers communing with Alaska’s grizzlies and ended up being eaten by them. Treadwell was someone who saw a variety of emotions and personalities in animals. Herzog, as he makes clear in his narration, sees only the absolutely blank, completely amoral cruelty of nature. Herzog’s films will do that, simply hold a shot and stare at something (or the absence of something) until any kind of sentimental or romantic effect between camera and subject is completely erased.

aguirre2
Aguirre, the Wrath of God

And yet this device can have mysterious results. One of the greatest moments in any Herzog film comes in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, after the soldiers aboard the raft have thrown their horse into the river. After the horse scurries onto land, the camera finds him on shore, looking out of the choking jungle. The horse simply stares into the lens as the receding camera on the raft curls downriver away from it, its motion serving to slowly wipe the animal from view as the vines overtake him, abandoning him from the expedition and from the remainder of the film. But the horse, like any good actor, maintains the moment, and his blank stare, following the camera, following us, looks forward to that grizzly bear, stubbornly giving his insensate glare to the viewer.

That look into the camera is unsettling – there’s a reason that in classical filmmaking the actors are instructed not to look into the lens. It breaks the fourth wall, it implicates the viewer in the onscreen action, it’s almost naked. Of course these are the reasons Werner Herzog uses the effect in his films. He is too much of a modern filmmaker to present the world as a piece of polished storytelling. In Aguirre, he has made a film that does not merely depict the collapse of an expedition of conquistadors in 1561, but one that seems to embody that collapse, with a sense of danger threatening to break apart its frames, a grasp of storytelling that founders at times, and a lead actor who appears almost as deranged as the character he is portraying.

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Rescue Dawn: The Challenge of the Extraordinary

When I first saw Rescue Dawn—in fact, when I saw the preview trailer—I said to myself, Aha! After a whole generation, here’s another green film from Werner Herzog.

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle
Steve Zahn and Christian Bale: lost in the jungle

Herzog has made a lot of remarkable films. But so long is the reach of Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, and so profound their visual stamp, that it is impossible not to see Rescue Dawn as their cousin—perhaps even their completion. Here again is the green of the jungle, both inviting and forbidding, both enchanting and deadly. Here again is the stubborn determination of a half-mad man not to be beaten by nature at its rawest and most implacable. Here again is civilization and its power politics ebbing away to insignificance in the face of a single man’s grandiose vision and relentless will to win.

Werner Herzog has always been interested in men like this. It’s shallow to say that he has outgrown or otherwise abandoned the vision of his celebrated earlier films (particularly the Kinski films), with their obsessive dwelling—literal or metaphoric—on German culture, German politics, German guilt. Whether it’s Don Lope de Aguirre or Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald or Timothy Treadwell or Dieter Dengler, and whether the film is fiction, documentary, or adaptation, Herzog remains committed to an exploration of the powerful, charismatic personality, and its tug of war with the world.

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Fitzcarraldo: The Idea Was a Bold One

[Originally published in The Informer, January 1983]

“The project fell through, but the idea was a bold one.” The story of Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s life—perhaps his epitaph—is writ large very near the beginning of Fitzcarraldo, by his own loving Molly. Fitzcarraldo is in a recursive nightmare: To bring opera to Iquitos, he must have money; to get money, he must produce rubber; to produce rubber, he must have land; to do that, he must borrow money, buy a ship, and show some evidence of successful exploitation in a few months’ time; and to do that, it turns out, he has to haul a ship over a mountain. The danger of this kind of recursion, of course, is that the means continually threaten to become the end; and that is finally exactly what happens. Fitzcarraldo never loses sight of his goal, never loses his enthusiasm for the project; but he ends up settling for a one-night stand rather than a functioning opera house.

Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again
Klaus Kinski takes on the jungle once again

Through it all, Fitzcarraldo keeps his humor; and Klaus Kinski’s performance, though not his best, is easily his most likeable. For all his lowering Teutonicism, he manages an impish Irishman’s twinkling grin that is utterly winning. One has to tell him—as does another character in the film—”You’re a strange bird, but I must say I like you.” That’s Don Aquilino, a rich exploiter of the jungle, bored with his money, like the others, but unwilling to use it to back Fitzcarraldo’s venture—like, one imagines, so many potential backers for the films of one Werner Herzog.

It’s tired by now to point out the Herzog-Fitzcarraldo analogy, but it’s foolish to ignore it. “Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald is moving against the Amazon!” Keep Reading

Stroszek

Even when he made Stroszek (1978), Herzog’s work had reflected parallel interests in documentary and narrative fiction forms. The sublime Fata Morgana (1971) (despite Herzog’s preposterous claim that it is a sci-fi film about an intergalactic war) and the wonderfully perverse Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), almost as much as the explicitly documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) and several documentary shorts, clearly came from the documentary tradition. Even ostensibly fiction films like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (1974) had a kind of documentary feel (the wondrous shots of the natural world in Aguirre, the only-half-mocking “case history” conclusion of Kaspar).

Bruno S
Bruno S

Stroszek marked a decisive, if temporary, move toward the narrative mainstream, a road movie no less (years later, in Rescue Dawn [2006], when Herzog had been largely focusing on documentaries, he returned to genre film-making, with a POW escape movie, producing decidedly conventional results). German ex-con Bruno Stroszek (played by Bruno S, the schizophrenic who had played Kaspar Hauser) joins with two friends and goes to Wisconsin to pursue the American dream. The group gradually disintegrates, Bruno’s piece of the American dream, his mobile home, is repossessed and he takes to the road.

Herzog uses the basic outline, of people on a common quest that goes sour, to explore, as ever, mankind confronting a universe that is indifferent or actively hostile to human aspirations. From its opening shot, of prison bars, to the final image of the cosmic stupidity of a dancing chicken, tightly framed by a window and bathed in the same orange light used in the early prison sequence, a sense of futility pervades the film.

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Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

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