I Watched Persona While Polly Ate Breakfast

I watched Persona while Polly ate breakfast. I figure what better way to examine the mystery of the pug that refuses to eat from her bowl than the story of an actress who refuses to speak.

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I think it’s been about twenty years now since I really got into film. When I first started to venture past the hot rentals and began exploring some of the classics and foreign offerings on the shelf. I started with Hitchcock and Coppola back when Fox Video in West Pittston, PA was going under and their classic rack was on sale for a song and the promise of a good home. Then I moved on to Scorsese and Kubrick before the doors to Cassavettes, Bunuel and Godard were opened. But despite my burgeoning love of the art form, I never really went past The Seventh Seal when it came to Bergman.

I don’t know why I never really dug into him. I liked The Seventh Seal quite a bit. It was perfectly bleak in all the ways a man in his early twenties looks for things to be sad and scary and hopelessly full of dread in the presence of a world that seems both complex and boring. But once I started down the path of the guys who had been influenced by Bergman, I never bothered to go back to the source. After a few pompous years of being a film snob, I pulled an about-face and started leaning heavily into the magic of genre movies, like the sleazy Italian Polizias of the Seventies. I wanted greasy mustaches and gallons of fluorescent fake blood. I wanted a bottle of J&B in every scene, a trippy score and morally repugnant characters that flirt with redemption. I guess you could say I had drifted so far away from the source I could barely make out the faintest trace of its influence.

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But now, as Polly eats her breakfast and I search through the streams for a foreign movie without gunfire or explosions that I can watch with the volume down low so my fiance can sleep three big steps away in our studio apartment, I find myself back at Bergman’s door.

I made a mistake one day, many years ago, when I decided to put on Wild at Heart one afternoon when I was lounging around my parent’s house. It was raining, or snowing, or something outside and the family unit gathered around the tele to pass the time. I hadn’t seen Wild at Heart before, but I liked Lynch, so I figured why not give it a run. I probably should have known better.

I don’t know what a person is supposed to do during a movie when there is a sexy scene on the screen and you’re not alone with the person you get naked with. It’s a little uncomfortable.

I’m not going to suggest that Bergman was out-smutting the modern movie, that’s impossible, but the scene at the heart of Persona, when Bibi Andersson is telling the story of a strange sexual tryst on a beach with another woman, this scene is about as provocative a sequence as I have ever seen. It was just as mesmerizing as Quint’s speech in Jaws. Andersson is sitting in a room, unburdening her soul, while her mute patient listens from the bed, and I swear for a moment I thought I should close the blinds in the off chance someone who understands Swedish might happen to wander by and think some creep is watching a dirty movie to start the day. I even turned to the sleeping eyes of my special lady and thought, ‘please don’t wake up, I don’t want to have to explain what they’re talking about on the screen.’

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How much do you want to say, should you want to say anything at all? That’s one of core dilemmas at play here. What should you share and who can you trust? And should you ever trust anyone at all?

Andersson’s character, the young nurse Alma, reminds me of some of the worst drunks I’ve come across on night’s where I’d been reliant on someone else for a ride and couldn’t just run away. When you find yourself caught in the wake of a meltdown as they unspool some twisted tale of sadness and regret to a borderline stranger. It’s not a conversation, but a confession. There was absolutely no reason for Alma to trust Liv Ullmann’s character, the mute actress, Elisabet, who is obviously tailspinning on her own. They barely know each other, but Alma projects a familial relationship on her and begins to loosen up, like she isn’t on the job anymore. Is it because Elisabet is an actress, a performer who has wedged herself into the public space that allows Alma to feel like she knows her?

I have a hard time remembering that famous people are human beings. I don’t envy them because I don’t believe they are real. George Jetson and George Clooney exist to the same degree with me. When I walk through a store I can’t process the concept of historical figures roamed the planet like the beasts in the organic produce department. I can’t picture a celebrity trying to cut their dog’s walk short because they have to pee, or putting their foot against the back of the stall door in a public restroom because the sliding lock barely makes contact with the other portion of the latch and if the air conditioning generates even the slightest breeze this thing is coming off its hinges and they’ll be left sitting there with their knickers around their knees.   

In these modern times, we follow people who have carefully crafted the image of their reality to generate content in an effort to build their brand. And yet we confuse these actions for honesty and begin to feel like we know them, and can speak with authority on what they are like. This is why Alma felt Elisabet was receptive to her offerings and could receive her as an equal, and possibly a friend.

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For some reason, I always seem to come back to the end of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye when presented with a story or situation that seems morally treacherous, and time and again it seems to be the best advice ever… ‘don’t ever tell anybody anything, if you do you start missing everybody.’

Alma was only in a position to be betrayed by Elisabet because she foolishly let her in. She misread the situation and thought there was a connection, but there wasn’t. It sucks, and it’s shitty, but now she’ll know better.

Polly won’t eat from her bowl because I’ll accommodate her. She’s young, but she’s smart and has already figured out that I’m dumb and I won’t let her starve. Elisabet too is a fraud, but she’s famous and knows that she can take a time out. Was she studying for a role? Was she having a meltdown? Was she trying to get away from her life? Is she drowning in regret? Does the film melt away because these are only questions that people of privilege have the luxury to examine? Questions like whether you’re lying or not only matter in the theater. But like the Bard said, are we ever off the stage?

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