Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Virgin Spring: Finding Meaning in Chaos

People need to make sense of chaos. Anything will do: superstitions, religion, fairy tales. And if your actions contribute in some way to the destruction of a loved one? What then? Find a way of making sense of things that simultaneously absolves you of blame. On the other hand, a person incapable of latching onto conscience-soothing beliefs faces true terror. What better way to explore the benefits of using fairy tales to cope with trauma than in a film based on an ancient folk ballad (i.e., a fairy tale)?

In medieval era Sweden, a servant girl, Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom), struggles to light the morning fire in the dining hall of a feudal farm compound. Flames finally come to life and she opens the roof hatch to let the smoke escape. Then she prays to the Norse god Odin, telling him to make himself seen on Earth. So ends the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman's 1960 film, The Virgin Spring.

In the next scene, prosperous farm owner, Töre (Max von Sydow), and his wife, Märeta (Birgitta Valberg), pray in front of a crucifix of Jesus. The wife pours hot wax on her wrist to further show her devotion. It’s spring, likely close to Easter, and their daughter, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), must take candles to a church in a distant village because tradition indicates the task must be performed by a virgin. Karin begs her father to allow Ingeri to join her on the journey, and he relents.

The contrast between Ingeri and Karen is an interesting one. Ingeri is pregnant and at one point hints that her pregnancy may be the result of rape. But nobody cares. She's a throwaway person. What happens to her doesn't matter. Karin, on the other hand, is a virgin. The daughter of wealthy parents. But is she really a virgin? Or at least, as innocent as her image suggests? Karin tells her mother she danced with countless boys last night. Ingeri saw Karin kissing a boy in the barn during the same night of apparent abandon. Later, Karin's father remembers a time Karin stayed in the distant village over night. Perhaps not the same connotation it might have nowadays, but part of a pattern. All these scenes contribute to the theme that people believe what they want regardless of other contrary evidence.

Karin and Her Mother
Most of the characters in the film have a belief system based on Norse paganism or Christianity. But Simon (Oscar Ljung), a labourer on Töre's farm, may be an exception, at least by degrees. He sprinkles his poetic language with cryptic riddles. At turns, he appears obsequious and clownish; a kind of jester. And like most jesters in literature and fairy tales, he's more intelligent and prescient than first impressions might suggest.

But there's something darker there. In one scene, as he chats with the old servant, Frida (Gudrun Brost), Simon makes a light-hearted, bawdy insinuation about her. She counters with a suggestion about an indiscretion in his past. He laughs and swats it aside with a line about the benefit of fleeing a bad situation. It's in this scene the viewer might first notice a lesion at the corner of Simon's mouth. Perhaps symbolic of a tainted past.

The two girls set off, the blonde Karin in silk dress and on a white horse, the dark-haired, pregnant Ingeri in grubby peasant's dress and on a darker horse. They travel across fields, along the shore of a lake and into a forest until they come to a stream and the ramshackle mill-cabin of a one-eyed old man (‘Bridge Keeper’ in the credits, played by Axel Slangus). Karin carries on alone and Ingeri remains in the cabin with the old man. 

Bridge Keeper and Ingeri
His beliefs are based on magic and superstition. At the sound of galloping horses nearby, he proclaims the riders 'three dead men riding north.' Is he referring to the three goat herders we are soon to meet? They have no horses and one of them is only a young boy. But they hail from the North and perhaps begin fleeing in the direction of their home region after committing the horrific crime at the heart of the film. And, indeed, they do meet a nasty end later in the film. Through observation and speculation, or sheer luck, the old man has hit on a partial truth, at least on a symbolic level. And he seems aware of the real purpose of his belief system, saying "I hear what I want and see what I want."

Karin is brutally raped and murdered by two of the three goat herders she meets in the forest. Ingeri watches, transfixed, from a copse of trees, having trailed after Karin on foot after the incident in the cabin. Unwittingly, the murderers (Axel Duberg and Tor Isedal) and their young brother (Ove Porath) later seek shelter inside the walls of Töre's modest compound. Töre agrees to give them food and a place to sleep, and now we're on a collision course with the brutal, vengeful climax.

Simon of Snollsta
Before that horrific explosion of violence, we see one of the most arresting scenes of the movie, involving the young boy and Simon. After the three brothers have taken refuge at Töre's home, the young boy is the first to realize their horrible mistake. Later, as the boy lies in a bed in the dining hall, Simon at first mesmerizes, then terrorizes him with a story soaked in metaphor, violent imagery and conflict. Simon describes a dangerous journey the boy is on and horrible obstacles he will eventually overcome.

It's not difficult to see religious connotations in the parable. A description of hell, good triumphing over evil and, in the following lines, eventual redemption for sins a person may have committed: "But at the very moment you think you’re doomed, a hand shall grasp you and an arm circle around you, and you’ll be taken far away…where evil no longer has power over you." 

And following the scene, the film cuts to an image of Christ on the cross. But despite its elaborate flourishes, Simon’s tale is absent the wild rationalizations made by the other characters yet still intends to make order of chaos, to help the boy overcome guilt and move on in life. Simon's monologue is surely one of the most overlooked and powerful in film history.

The Young Boy
Immediately after the conclusion of Simon’s tale, something takes place off screen in the dining hall. It seems the tale may have led the young boy to the verge of a confession about the murder his brothers committed. Or perhaps something more sinister takes place. Viewers never find out for sure. Regardless, Simon rushes out of the hall just as Karin's mother, Mareta is about to enter, telling her that "They struck the boy."

In the folk ballad on which the movie is based, the men who kill Karin are revealed to be the sons of Töre, cast out years earlier due to the impoverished state of the family before the farm prospered. In other words, they are Karin's brothers. No indication that the film includes this final noirish twist. In fact, the age of the youngest brother in the film wouldn't allow this scenario to be possible. At most, there might be an allusion to this twist from the folk ballad when one of the brothers offers to sell the soiled dress of the dead Karin to her mother, claiming it's all the brothers have left of their 'dead sister.' Karin's mother now knows the horrible truth but doesn't let on to her daughter’s murderers. She rushes to tell Töre, which triggers the film’s famous revenge scene.

Before Töre sets out to avenge his daughter's murder, he takes a sauna while flogging himself with birch branches. Like all such rituals, it is done to assuage guilt, which, together with jealousy, is also a theme throughout the film. Perhaps the ritual will also give him guidance. Or at the very least, attach grand, righteous meaning to the task at hand. Upon finishing his sauna, he strides to the food hall, where the murderers have been sleeping for the night. He does away with the two older brothers: first plunging a dagger in the neck of one and then driving the other into the flames in the central fireplace.

Is the young boy spared? No. Töre hurls him against the wall, killing him. He is perhaps the most innocent character and suffers the same fate as his brothers despite the fact he didn’t take part in the rape or murder. He has no coping mechanisms, no ability to rationalize, and remains mute throughout the film. He experiences the true terror of what has happened to Karin and what, unjustly, happens to him. Perhaps, too, together with Simon, the small boy sees more clearly than anyone else in the film. 

When Ingeri leads Töre and his wife to Karin's body, they move her and water springs forth from where her head had rested. This is absolute proof to Töre of divine intervention. A sign from God that he must build a church at that spot. Not the more likely reality that, because it is spring and Karin had been left to die on a slope below a stream, the water overflowed and gravitated towards the depression her body made. The guilt of his earlier actions is all but forgotten.

The Virgin Spring has been classified under the genre ‘rape and revenge.’ That crude description does a disservice to this film. Like most fairy tales, it’s deeper and more powerful than its simple, linear presentation suggests. And just like the characters, viewers of this film will see the action through their own personal lens of life experience and world-view. Religious and superstitious types may have a more literal take on the film while skeptics may share the interpretation included here. 

In a world of chaos, terror and, finally, eternal non-existence, many people latch onto irrational explanations to get them to the finish line. Every random act can be attributed to divine intervention. Every misstep explained away. It’s a game that validates your status, ignores those with less power and has a particular flavour that just happens to suit your chosen fairy tale and level of intellect. The alternative is to let chaos sweep you into eternity before you have a chance to make sense of the world.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Book Review: A Purple Place for Dying by John D. MacDonald

A Purple Place for Dying
In the third Travis McGee novel A Purple Place for Dying, McGee travels to an un-named state in the Southwest (likely New Mexico) to meet with the young wife of a local good ol' boy who has numerous business interests and holds all sorts of sway in the county. He is much older than his wife, and he was a friend and business partner of her father before he died. They were married after her father passed away a few years earlier.

The woman, Mona Yeoman, suspects that her husband, Jass, has bilked her out of most of the fortune her father left her when he died. McGee meets Mona Yeoman at the local airport and they drive out of town to a cabin she and her husband own. As they walk around outside the cabin and she explains the details of  how she wants McGee to help her, someone lines her up from a distance with a high-powered rifle and blows the back of her skull apart. The mystery begins.

The mystery also involves the man Mona Yeoman was having an affair with. His name is John Webb. He has disappeared, as has the corpse of Mona Yeoman. Upon reporting the murder of Mona to the local sheriff and then returning to the scene of the crime with him, McGee is stunned to see that her corpse is nowhere to be seen.

When McGee starts his own investigation, he meets Isobel Webb, the sister of John Webb, the man who is missing and now presumed dead. Isobel quickly becomes McGee's book-length challenge. The challenge is to try to uncover what makes this frigid woman tick. Yes, she's quite a beautiful woman, but she behaves like someone who has either experienced a bad relationship or no relationships at all. She dresses in a frumpy manner, and becomes haughty at any hint that a man is flirting with her. In lesser hands than MacDonald, this stereotype could quickly become cringe-worthy. Even so, it is a bit hard to wade through at times. Perhaps back in 1964 when the book was published, the notion was not so ridiculous that beautiful, prudish women needed a good seeing to so that they could behave the way women should behave.

Despite the absurdity of the frigid-woman stereotype, McGee and Isobel do engage in some entertaining scenes and dialogue. The character of Jass Yeoman is also explored to a reasonable degree. And there are some pretty good passages when things kick off and violence ensues. However, like the previous Travis McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, the lack of insight into the people who have done the crimes is a serious weakness. As the book progresses, the mystery of who may have targeted Mona Yeoman and John Webb is relatively interesting. But after Jass Yeoman is subsequently murdered and it becomes clear that one of his illicit children and her half-brothers are behind the blundering attempt to ensure she is the only one in line for the inheritance, any tension that may have existed quickly dissipates. This is largely due to the fact that the characters that did the crimes are paper-thin caricatures.

As with the previous McGee novels, his cynical outlook on life and his numerous internal rants are what make the book worth reading. But while his views on women were previously quite entertaining if somewhat outdated and shamelessly chauvinistic, things take a nasty turn in A Purple Place for Dying. The constant comments about particular characters as well as women in general will definitely be a turn-off for some readers. Here are a few quotes from the book to demonstrate this. In this passage, McGee refers to Mona Yeoman, who is murdered in the first chapter:
So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants, and suddenly she was fallen cooling meat, and it was too damned fast.
About Isobel Webb:
Then it was the catalyst of things, of course. All of them. Night, death, fright, closeness, the security of the den. Male and female in the most primitive partnership of all. This was a twisted virgin, frightened by men, sex, pleasure, wanting—thinking it all of a conspiracy of evil against her. 
Later, McGee would seem to redeem himself somewhat in the eyes of modern feminists:
"Iz, if we get out of this. If I get you out of this. If you're ever in my arms again. Just one word will do it. Every time. No. That's all you have to say. No. And it stops. So don't say it as a nervous habit. Say it when you mean it. No. There's nothing wrong with my hearing."
But shortly after, McGee concludes his monologue on his honour code regarding women and negates some of that apparent chivalry:
"And you can say it any point you want, right up to the moment when we are, excuse the expression, coupled. From then on, it's Molly over the windmill."
In fact, a psychologist would probably have a field day analyzing the mind of John D. MacDonald vis-à-vis the words and actions of Travis McGee in A Purple Place for Dying. The height of the unpleasant attitudes towards women comes in the book's final pages when we find out the real motivation for murder by the illegitimate, half Mexican daughter of Jass Yeoman. You see, Yeoman had kept in touch with her, brought her into his home, and then decided to rape his own daughter. This information is delivered in a rather bland, matter-of-fact way, accompanied by one last caricature—this time of the woman who was raped—lunging at McGee like some kind of wild animal because he hints at this horrible information as a way to make her confess. Which she promptly does.

But this news about the rape (or perhaps many rapes over a period of time) really doesn't result in any negative comments from McGee towards Jass Yeoman. Throughout the book, McGee mentions that he really likes Jass. He's painted as a real man's man. And the rape revelation doesn't appear to change those feelings at all. In fact, McGee seems to have a hard-on for two male characters in the book: Jass Yeoman and the sheriff. Strange stuff.

I would still classify A Purple Place for Dying as well worth reading, if not for much of the writing, then at least as an exercise in seeing the progression of John D. MacDonald as a writer. The Travis McGee series has been widely praised, but the qualifier usually is that the quality of story telling improves greatly in subsequent novels.