Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Jerker A. Eriksson: Flammande vildmark (a book of essays on film)

A book of essays on film:
Jerker A. Eriksson: Flammande vildmark. Essäer om film. 185 p. Helsingfors: Schildts & Söderströms, 2015.
    [The title is the Swedish title of Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939). Literally translated back to English: The Flaming Desert.]

Jerker A. Eriksson (born 22 October 1931), the grand old man of Finnish film criticism, has published a book of film essays, many of which are previously unpublished. Eriksson is at his best in this book. The analyses are sober, the issues are big, and there is a subtle current of humour running through the book.

The first essay is a cinephilic confession, an affectionate reminiscence of the cinemas in the writer's life in Helsinki, most of them long gone but still alive in his memory. Eriksson's cinema memories start in the 1930s with images from the Spanish civil war in a newsreel at Bio-Bio. Bio-Bio remained for decades a famous non stop cinema where one could "enter and exit at will". Non stop cinemas were rare in Finland. First recently have I learned that they were the norm in the United States which is why Alfred Hitchcock had to issue a special ban not to enter the cinema after the beginning of Psycho.

In 1943 Eriksson started to take systematic notes of films. Among the early ones: La Bataille silencieuse, Woman of the Year, The Man Who Came to Dinner... Cinemas were "the universities of my youth" for Eriksson. Air raid alarms were defied. Finland was still a co-fighter with Germany when Sergeant York was nevertheless released here, and in February 1944 Eriksson went to see it. The screening was interrupted by alarms so many times that the film came to an end first at 5 o'clock in the morning.

Eriksson has fond memories of dozens of cinemas. Athena (now our Cinema Orion) was the cinema where he saw Adam Had Four Sons and Reap the Wild Wind, for Eriksson the best thing Cecil B. DeMille ever did.

Cinema was not a highly regarded art during Eriksson's school days. While his schoolmates enthused over Pär Lagerkvist, Sartre, and Svenska Teatern, Eriksson was interested in Humphrey Bogart, John Ford, and Barbro Kollberg in Kungsgatan. When the discussion drifted to the fyrtiotalisterna (the generation of the 1940's, a parallel to existentialism in Sweden) and their world of anxiety Eriksson was thinking about Michel Simon in Julien Duvivier's Panique. But most he loved American cinema.

Eriksson hated the idea of spending a summer holiday in the countryside. His most favourite summer memory is of a Sunday in July 1944 when he saw four films starting with South of Suez. The last film for him had to end by ten PM because there was curfew for the underaged at night.

Eriksson praises a book by the Dane Jörgen Stegelman called Mine Biografer [My Cinemas] which inspired him for these reminiscences.

In 1951 Eriksson started his professional career as a film critic which continued until he was appointed director of the Finnish Board of Film Classification in 1963 where he launched an enlightened era. He has also had a distinguished academic career as a historian, specializing in American history.

A film that came to mean much for Eriksson was A Place in the Sun about which he wrote a famous essay for Jörn Donner's Arena magazine in 1952. Having seen the film 15 times he wrote a treatise balancing a view of society, a comparison between Theodore Dreiser's novel and George Stevens's film written by Michael Wilson and Harry Brown, and an account of the director's cinematic insight. Eriksson's essay became a model for a generation of cinephiles which re-launched a film society movement on a never before seen scale in our land and also founded the Finnish Film Archive in 1957. Many trends of film criticism have come and gone since. Eriksson has been following his own path. He has hardly been even provoked by excesses of passing trends.

Eriksson's 1952 essay on A Place in the Sun is still a world-class contribution to understanding a powerful classic. In the new book Eriksson writes with fresh insight about George Stevens's "American trilogy": A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant, in direct continuation to his writings of the 1950s but with new thoughts and references.

American cinema from the early days of Hollywood until today is the common theme of the essays. There is a fascinating essay on the premieres of Charles Chaplin's early films in Finland (since 22 March 1915, with instant success). John Ford is Eriksson's favourite director; the essay here focuses on Drums Along the Mohawk. From William Wyler Eriksson discusses The Little Foxes. Eriksson finishes his book with an exciting essay on the career of Robert Rossen until the black list, focusing on All the King's Men.

The first essay after the cinephilic introduction is an interesting study on Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg and its American spirit; Eriksson compares it with István Szabó's Taking Sides. It is followed by an analysis of the theme of paranoia in American cinema from the 1930s until today, from Gabriel Over the White House to Edge of Darkness. This chapter is interesting to compare with Matti Salo's recent excellent book on political cinema, Viitta ja tikari [Cloak and Dagger, 2015].

The generation of Finnish cinephiles who started in the late 1940s and the early 1950s is still going strong. They are 80-something and busy publishing works that belong to their best. Besides Jerker A. Eriksson and Matti Salo there is the psychoanalyst Mikael Enckell whose new book Okändhetens följeslagare: Med frågan som drivkraft och mysteriet som färdmål [Companions of the Unknown: The Question as the Driving Force and Mystery as the Destination, 2015] includes an essay on Limelight. And there is the miracle man Jörn Donner who has this year published two books, not film-related; instead he has directed a new film himself, Armi Lives, on Armi Ratia, the founder of the fashion company Marimekko, and has been amazingly busy with many other things.

Special characteristics of Eriksson's film essays include a profound knowledge of American history and literature. He has also the genial, jovial and social attitude typical to the Swedish community of Finland (as have Enckell and Donner, which does not prevent them from being polemical). Common to all is also the unperturbed atmosphere of a generation that has experienced war. Both Eriksson and Donner belonged to the early champions of The Unknown Soldier.

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