Monday, October 08, 2007

PERSONA: Roots of Captain Howdy

Bibi Andersson and Liv Ulmann in PERSONA.


I recently made a retroactive purchase of MGM's INGMAR BERGMAN SPECIAL EDITION DVD COLLECTION box set. Last night, I decided to begin my viewing at its beginning, with PERSONA (1966), the earliest movie in the set. I had seen it once before but, for some reason, remembered only its most soft-edged imagery; I had completely forgotten what a wrenching acid trip of a movie it really is, but I'm unlikely to forget this now. One of the reasons I resolved to write about the movie today is to better remember its traumatic impact, but there is also a more pressing reason for why I'm writing about the movie here.

PERSONA opens with a remarkable sequence deconstructing its own conveyance of images, beginning with the ignition of the carbon arc rods inside a 35mm projector and the rattle of perforated celluloid travelling through its gate. We are shown some subliminal images right away (including, shockingly for a 1966 film, an erect penis) and also during the subsequent main titles (including barely registering glimpses of a Keystone Kops comedy, or perhaps its Swedish equivalent). For some reason, during this procession of images meant to do nothing more than tap on my consciousness, I had the feeling of being in the presence of the same demonic energy I felt the first time I saw William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST -- probably because it, too, made potent use of subliminal imagery, as Mark Kermode and I first explored way back in VIDEO WATCHDOG #6, one of our earliest issues and still one of our best.

And then, about 46 minutes into this very involving but abstract "poem" about the mysterious bonding between a psychologically withdrawn actress (Liv Ullmann) and her attending nurse (Bibi Andersson), I was witness to something amazing. As some of you may recall, there is a pensive close shot of Andersson...

She is standing behind a sheer drape when, suddenly, the celluloid conveying Bergman's poem begins to disintegrate, along with the mind of the character. First, there is a scratch...

It follows the fluid form of the drape, but quickly is reassigned to other areas of the frame. Then portions of the frame disappear entirely...

And then even the anchored left side of the frame becomes unmoored and floats freely, the print seemingly destroyed and past the point of rethreading...


We fear the image has entirely disappeared, but it comes back just long enough to convey a penetrating glance from Andersson's eye that seems to burn from a place outside her performance.

The intensity of her gaze, her madness, seems to burn a hole into the celluloid, which grows like a cancer...


... until the nothingness of the burn engulfs the entire screen, turning it white.

The white lingers on the screen for several seconds. It is then followed by another sudden procession of intensive subliminal images, the first of which is this one:

It is there for no more than one or two frames, but I have a very good eye for subliminals. Many people would not have detected it, but I knew what I had seen. I had to stop the film at once and step back until I found the Devil in the details. My strange feeling, throughout PERSONA, from its opening subliminals and shock images of a hand being hammered to a crucifix, that I was somehow in the presence of THE EXORCIST was vividly explained.


For years, William Friedkin actively denied any knowledge of this subliminal image of Eileen Dietz as "Captain Howdy" in THE EXORCIST, but once the film came to home video and could be manipulated by those in the know, it became undeniable. (I should point out for the sake of interested historians that, even though Linda Blair's Regan refers to her inner voice/imaginary friend as "Captain Howdy" in an early scene of the movie, the epithet is never heard again in the movie and never mentioned in relation to her demonic possession. It was actually me who first identified this face as "Captain Howdy" in VW #6, and I note with some pride that the ID has caught on.) This is not the exact frame of the face as it flashes onscreen in THE EXORCIST, which you can see on the cover of the first edition of Mark Kermode's BFI Modern Classics book on the picture; the face in the movie bears much the same pallid, ogreish look as Bergman's Devil.

The brief appearance in PERSONA by a pasty-faced Devil is not the only instance I found of the Bergman film's influence on THE EXORCIST. Accompanying the flashing image of this Devil is a turmoil of sound effects, most particularly a chaos of tormented voices being played on tape in reverse. It sounds not unlike (in fact, quite like) the tape of Regan's nonsensical speech which is discovered to say "I am No-one!" when played in reverse.

Furthermore, as the culmination of an extended dialogue scene shown respectively as it plays on the face of the listener and then again as was communicated by the speaker, Bergman and his cameraman Sven Nykvist merge a disconcerting close-up of Bibi Andersson's face with an identically measured close-up of Liv Ulmann, combining their faces into one to accentuate their surprising likeness to one another -- indeed, their mutual "possession" of one another.

Here I gasped because, in this image, I recognized the seed of another dual image:

To the best of my knowledge, this relationship between PERSONA and THE EXORCIST has not been previously explored or detected. It certainly isn't noted by Bergman biographer Marc Gervais in his audio commentary for PERSONA. I would find it hard to accept that these shared images could have happened unconsciously on Friedkin's part; they are too studied. To me, this discovery does nothing to detract from Friedkin's brilliance as the mastermind behind the film of THE EXORCIST; any director could have taken William Peter Blatty's script and made a more straightforward film of it, but Friedkin had the sensitivity and the panache to recognize that PERSONA, too, in its own way, was a story of demonic possession. I not only accuse him of using this imagery knowingly, I also congratulate him for intuiting that PERSONA's extreme, nerve-flaying visual vocabulary was precisely what THE EXORCIST needed to rattle audiences -- a primary and wondrous instance of the commercial American cinema being secretly pollenated by the international art cinema.
BRAD STEVENS (VW contributor, author of MONTE HELLMAN HIS LIFE AND FILMS) writes on 10/9/07: "Enjoyed your blog comments on PERSONA. One thing you didn't make clear (or perhaps didn't realize) is that the devil who turns up in the subliminal image had already appeared in the film during the Keystone Kops-style sequence at the beginning. This sequence is actually Bergman's recreation of a (now-lost) silent film he recalls owning as a child: this recreation had already appeared, at much greater length, in Bergman's 1949 film PRISON."

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