Friday, February 6, 2009

Olde Review: The Emigrants/The New Land

This was part of a series of reviews of the ASUW Film series back in the '70's. Except for some punctuation, I haven't changed anything from the way it was presented, giving the snarky, clueless kid I was back in the '70's a break. Any stray thoughts and updates I've included with the inevitable asterisked post-scripts.

This Saturday's ASUW film program is something very special: Jan Troell's "The Emigrants" and "The New Land"—an unglossed, beautifully done look at a Swedish community's emigration to America.

"The Emigrants"/"The New Land" aka "Utvandrarna"/"Nybyggarna" (Jan Troell, 1971) When it was released in Sweden, Jan Troell's film was all of a piece—a several hours epic called "The Emigrants." Americans are notorious for not being able to sit that long to watch one movie, and so for American distribution, it was cut into two parts (as was Richard Lester's "The Three Musketeers"). Fortunately, the film had a natural break in the middle, as Troell's film was based on two books in a trilogy* by Vilhelm Moberg, so there was little, if any, damage to the story as far as continuity.

And it is quite a story: the tales of how the emigrants left everything they had, searching for a nirvana they heard about called America, and then, when arriving, found the stories were stories and that their struggles had to continue...as there was no way back. (These stories) have always had a special place in the history of film, especially American film. Audiences have long taken an interest in the struggles of their forebears—one of the reasons why ABC's "Roots" has gone through the ratings roof this week. One can possibly attribute this to a kind of lazy pride, clutching the courage and struggles of our ancestors to ourselves. And if so, so what? We're all entitled to a little pride in their accomplishments. It might provide the springboard for some equally courageous acts in our lives. And this pride in the past struggles reaches across racial/religious lines: we can feel proud at the struggle of other peoples' against their misfortunes. Hence, the great popularity displayed by "Roots" this week.

What about the movie, huh?)**

Oh...yeah. Jan Troell's treatment of the sometimes gentle, sometimes violent story of "The Emigrants" is to treat it gently, "matter-of-factly." He has compassion for his community, but that compassion will not allow him to prevent the cruelties of the journey, the country and the people of America. And there is a poetry in this style. Stanley Kubrick found it in "2001: A Space Odyssey," and "Barry Lyndon," and Troell has it throughout "The Emigrants" and "The New Land," with only one exception in the latter.

The film starts in Sweden as Karl-Oskar Nillsson is pressured by family needs to take a wife and we are presented with Kristina. It is
Liv Ullmann and her life previous to the marriage to Karl-Oskar is presented to us in a brief, languorous series of shots that entail an entire life of child-like freedom—sheltered, playful and entirely composed of little incidents, little insignificant moments, that thoroughly define her character and will stay with us throughout both movies as we see her struggle and grow old too early with her husband. Those moments remained in my mind through the films, and I saw them a year apart.

Those few moments of insignificance that tell the story are what define Troell's style of story-telling. It means that
the actors are put under a great strain to present authentic portraits of people, and the cast led by Max von Sydow and Ullmann come through with a total feeling of lived-in performances. You believe every one of the actors are who they are, that the relationships are real, (and) they are a community. There's not a false moment there in a film that is totally composed of moments suspended in time.

I'm not going to go through a list of favorite moments—there are too many that they are a jumble in my mind. but there us one: Karl-Oskar hacking his way through foliage—surveying—walking through this alien country. He pauses, takes his axe and hacks into a tree. He writes his name on the unbarked portion and then, in a way summarizing the whole of what has gone before, lies under the tree and tips his hat over his eyes, his back supported by the tree—his land. It's a scene of total satisfaction. And you felt that satisfaction with him because you've been through it with him. That scene ends "The Emigrants" and begins "The New Land" and I envy anyone who enters 130 Kane
Saturday night and can experience—in one sitting—this epic that is only small in scale.

Broadcast on KCMU-FM on January 28-29th, 1977

Thirty-two years on, if you mention "The Emigrants" to me, that scene is the one that pops up—of Max Von Sydow silently lying under the tree, his hat over his eyes, in a moment of peace and solitude that it has taken an entire movie to achieve. It is remembered fondly. "The Emigrants" was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture and it's hard to imagine it making its way through the rabble in this day and age to become one of The Five. It's narrative structure (what I was painfully trying to explain here) is supported by its images, rather than a straight-ahead narration. The camera sits back and observes, making no editorial comment, picking up telling details by accident as if it was a documentary—a documentary where the light is just right and everything is extremely picturesque.

But it is no more oblique because of it, and it is presented without pretension or artifice, except to make it all look as good as can be. There was a market for this kind of of film in the 60's and early 70's, although one doubts that one could convince today's casual movie-goer of making plans to see these two films about the emigrant experience in early America—that field's been plowed in the minds of today's audience, and it might not be an evening's entertainment to see people working hard to build a life out of the dirt.

But it's worth it, if only to see von Sydow and Ullmann—two of Ingmar Bergman's st√∂kk company—in a couple of their best roles. But there are benefits in seeing a good story well-told.

A couple of observations: "Roots" was on everybody's collective mind when this review was written, so it was probably natural to stem off of it, but there's a bit too much made of it, the review is about "The Emigrants," after all; The comparison to "2001" is apt as far as story-telling style, but not "Barry Lydon"—"Lyndon" has an omniscient Narrator, while "The Emigrants" does not. The review really doesn't do much service to the films, which are marvellous. Troell went "Hollywood" for an ill-advised remake of John Ford's "The Hurricane" (starring Mia Farrow!), then returned to Sweden, where he continues to work today.

* Actually a tetralogy: "The Emigrants" (1951), "Unto a Good Land" (1954), "The Settlers" (1961), and "The Last Letter Home" (1961). (or is it a "quadrilogy?")

** ABT***

*** "About Bloody Time"

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