in Criterion Month

Autumn Sonata (1978)

It’s June and I’m looking through my Blu-rays for any Criterion movies I hadn’t seen yet. That’s when I’m reminded of my prize jewel, my greatest shame: Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema. A 30-disc monster containing 39 movies – arranged as a film festival – and a 248-page book, I bought this tome years ago. I was so proud at the time because I was able to take advantage of both half-off plus a pair of coupons I had earned as a Criterion Channel charter member. It carries a hefty list price of $300 and I managed to only pay $130 plus tax. But $130 is a lot of money to spend just to fill space in my IKEA bookcase.

Instead of actually opening the box set, I check Criterion’s website to see what movies I should consider drafting this year. Persona is the obvious choice, my biggest blind spot in regard to Bergman, but John’s already been there, done that. Seven years ago and I still haven’t motivated myself to watch it or any of Bergman’s movies. But the last few years don’t count, right? Who needed additional existential dread once the pandemic started? So… what else is there? Fanny and Alexander is probably Bergman’s next most famous title. That or maybe Scenes from a Marriage, which gets a bump because it has an American remake from a couple years ago. Problem is, both of those are miniseries and I really, really don’t want to commit that kind of time. I’ve been dragging my feet this long, it would be crazy to dive into the deep end.

So I browse through the Bergman movies I know less about and eventually find Autumn Sonata, his last film made for the cinema. It’s also his only collaboration with Ingrid Bergman, which is interesting but also something I think I can joke about on the draft podcast. It’s not too long, just 93 minutes, and the premise sounds interesting, something about a woman and her pianist mother. A solid draftee for me. Still, I leave it off my initial 10 picks as a backup. For whatever dumb reason, I still only wanna watch this in case one of my others gets taken. Then, when we actually do the podcast, John drafts another Bergman, The Virgin Spring, and I can’t resist the coincidence of also picking a seasonal-themed movie by the same director. Sorry Wings of Desire, maybe next year.

It’s mid-July, a month later and I still haven’t forced myself to watch Autumn Sonata. I need to get ahead, I have to write so many reviews in a row soon. But I just know it’s gonna be a bummer! As fun as procrastinating is, by Monday night I realize I’m out of time, and finally settle into it. The movie is serving up some realness: it is indeed about a mother (Ingrid Bergman) and her daughter Eva (Liv Ullman). They haven’t seen each other in seven years and in that time Eva has had entered a loveless marriage and had a child of her own who tragically drowned. Since then Eva has also become the caregiver for her profoundly disabled sister. The mother, who is a pianist, comes to visit and just kind of sucks. I make it as far as a brutal scene where Eva plays Chopin on the piano and then then the mother plays the same piece to show her how it’s really done before my TV cuts to black. The power’s out.

All the previous week and weekend, my brother Kevin and I have been dealing with getting an air conditioner and new furnace installed in our house, as well as demolishing our backyard to make way for a hot tub he bought and is coming next week. It’s been low-key chaotic and infinitely distracting. On top of all of this, now there’s a problem with the electricity somewhere in Kevin’s part of the house. It’s darkened his living room and bedroom and shoots sparks out of the circuit breaker when we try to flip the switch back. So he tries to fix it at the panel and that means constantly killing power to the rest of the house. Eventually we conclude it can’t be anything but a short circuit, which means Kevin just has to live without power for now. And my night it spent, I have no energy left to go back to Autumn Sonata.

It’s Tuesday, the day this review is supposed to go up. I’ll watch the last hour during lunch, I tell myself, and have plenty of time to get the review up. Unexpectedly, my father arrives in the early afternoon. He’s here to find the short circuit for us, which is awesome and generous. Except Kevin has gone into the office for work and I’m way too embarrassed to watch a movie while dad is over working on the house. Instead I finish my workday while he fixes the house (the power came back without him finding the short, which meant he got to deploy his favorite warning: “problems that go away by themselves come back by themselves”). Then we go get dinner at a food truck and catch Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning: Part One in IMAX. It is two-for-one ticket Tuesday, after all, and you know we can’t resist a good deal in this family.

Now it’s Wednesday and I’m overwhelmed. Not only do I have a lot of work to do, there’s a cavalcade of inspectors coming to the house today to check the HVAC guys’ work that I’ll have to let in and show around. Plus, now that my Autumn Sonata review is overdue, I’ll have to cram that in with my other review, Hopscotch, that was supposed to be my focus today. Also I only have frozen food in the freezer and my allergy meds make me nauseous if I don’t eat, so I need to go to the store at some point. And I feel guilty because none of these tasks are hard but having all of them in one day is stressing me out!

After work and the store, I do what I always do when I’m stressed: I lay in bed and watch YouTube videos on my iPad with the cracked screen where my cat bit it. The algorithm is pushing the first few original Drunk History videos on me, I oblige it. A snake and leech-covered William Henry Harrison begging “make sure the government runs good” still makes me laugh. The summer sun goes down. The days are starting to get shorter again now, I think Bergman would like knowing that. Finally I realize I could also just watch Autumn Sonata here in bed on the Criterion Channel, which is a disservice to the expensive disk I bought but feels good right now. I load it up and stream the last hour. It crushes me. Of course this was great! And I panic because while I could write endlessly about Tom Cruise jumping a motorcycle off a cliff, complex Scandinavian mommy issues are a lot harder for me to unpack.

It’s 11 pm on Wednesday night. Closing in on 48 hours after I was supposed to publish this post. I decide that, in the absence of a sufficiently good story, the truth will set me free. I’ll cop out on analysis and do a blog post. As I start writing this, I tell myself I’m a genius and this is the best Criterion Month post ever. A few minutes later I hate it. But it’s too late, gotta push through. Gotta hit publish. Gotta do a whole ‘nother one of these tonight. My bad.