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

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Directed 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.

Snatch leaves a juvenile taste in your mouth. Ritchie avoids the patriarchal complex that gave powerful authenticity to the young friends' story in A Room for 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 Vegas) 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 Seal 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.

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