[Essay] Breaking Urns: From Ingmar Bergman to Yo La Tengo — John Talbird

In Thomas McGuane’s 1971 picaresque novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, a fire rages through downtown Livingston, MT. The morning after, the mayor, gesturing toward the damage, promises his constituents, “We’re going to prettify this son of a bitch or die trying.” This duel—between the flaming mindlessness of nature and the civic responsibility of capitalism, between the destruction of chaos and the aesthetics of form—is at the heart of this improvisational and surrealistic novel. Its protagonist, Nicholas Payne, is perhaps insane, but definitely a nonconformist in a conflict-ridden time. This tiny ranching town of Livingston—the West as suburban manifestation of middle-class values—is not incidental to the action nor to the time period of the story. We have Nicholas Payne—embodiment of the rolling stone, coming through town and attempting to take his object of desire Ann Fitzgerald—versus her parents—capitalists and Republicans, homeowners and good citizens—who hire out their ranch hand as Payne’s would-be murderer. It’s not just a novel of the so-called generation gap, but also of competing epistemologies. 

Bill Gunn’s contemporaneous film, Ganja & Hess (1973)—also psychedelic and surreal, also of its time—like The Bushwhacked Piano, makes place central to its action in its analysis of this era in US history, though from a Black rather than white perspective. Also, unlike Piano, this film is nearly stationary, situated in almost only one place, the palatial Westchester home of the main character, Dr Hess Green (played by cult actor Duane Jones), a wealthy anthropologist. Green, stabbed by a ceremonial dagger from an ancient African civilization, becomes a vampire, often luring victims to his home. But it is the few other locations that are just as, if not more so, important to this narrative as his secluded mansion is. In a few scenes, he ventures into nearby New York City for blood, killing “disposable” people like the hustler and prostitute he finds in a seedy bar or the woman standing with a baby outside the door of a housing project. The only other location of note comes near the end of the film when Green, sick of soul at the blood on his hands, goes to a Black church for redemption, anticipating his eventual suicide by starvation. This scene is mostly improvised in a real church, many of its congregants the actors, a gospel band on stage. Filmed with a handheld vérité camera, the scene goes on for nearly ten minutes and drives home the importance of the Black church as place in African American life, especially in the Civil Rights struggles of the previous decades.

Both of these early-70s texts exemplify the postmodern narrative with their fragmented plots and shifting points-of-view. They crank themselves up and crack themselves open to the real, historical world, unspooling their stories kaleidoscopically so that fact and fiction bleed into each other. Compare either of these narratives to the 1957 Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, a classic of modernist cinema. In fact, don’t even watch the whole film—just look at the opening, the film logos, credits on a black screen. The only other cinematic embellishments are a gong ringing at the appearance of the title and the following intertitle in all-caps which gives us any exposition we need, and are going to get, in the sealed world of this film:

IT IS THE MIDDLE OF THE 14TH CENTURY. ANTONIUS BLOCK AND HIS SQUIRE, AFTER LONG YEARS AS CRUSADERS IN THE HOLY LAND, HAVE AT LAST RETURNED TO THEIR NATIVE SWEDEN, A LAND RAVAGED BY THE BLACK PLAGUE.

The location of a beach in Sweden, the epoch of the Crusades and the plague (and also the historical period of the making of the film, postwar WWII Sweden which remained neutral throughout the war sheltering thousands of migrant Jews escaping the Holocaust) are incidental to the action which explores Big Ideas, primarily the concepts of death and faith and human attempts to put off that final moment as we “play for time.” Unlike Ganja & Hess or The Bushwhacked Piano, The Seventh Seal is a closed system, a laboratory for Bergman to explore an idea to its logical conclusion. It’s one of the last great modernist narratives, a mode we already see fraying in Bergman’s contemporaneous Wild Strawberries with its blurring mixture of dream and narrative. The modernist mode is almost completely dispensed with by the time we get to 1966’s Persona, with its metafictional breakdown of plot elements and fragmentation of narrative and style or The Passion of Anna in which the actors break the fourth wall to discuss the psychology of their characters. 

The atrocities of World War II—the Holocaust, Dresden, the dropping of atomic bombs and so on—and then all the post-war proxy-wars, most especially Vietnam, ossified and then shattered narrative wholes, all those well-wrought urns. Gunn and McGuane and their generation of artists were just children at the end of WWII. Bergman, who was an adult at the start of the war, never completely shed his modernist roots, making the tiny and secluded island of Faro an ideal location for filming—even his big-concept analysis of German-style fascism, Shame (1968), was shot there. Persona was also filmed there. This is Bergman’s most po-mo text and, I think, his greatest. We go inside the mechanical world of cinema, opening inside a film projector, and then are confronted with various fragments of scenes in multiple black and white film stock and, even after the story emerges from this mess, about an hour into the action the film gets stuck in the gate and disrupts the entire narrative. Bergman loses control in this film—blissfully, intentionally, unavoidably. The narrative seems to buck under him like a wild horse birthed from celluloid: it bends and breaks and reforms. 

The postmodern approach to the text is all very much the standard in the current age—not just the “high” arts of literary novels and art films, but even in popular music, at least since the 1960s when artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Beach Boys gave everyone the permission to crack open pop songs, break down genre lines and spill the pieces all over the floor. One of the greatest bands in the world is Hoboken, NJ’s Yo La Tengo, a band for which the postmodern is a country in which we all should live and listen. They go from soft folk to psychedelic drone to noisy feedback to dance funk and back again on single albums. Their classic 1998 Elect-O-Pura is a crucial artifact of po-mo experimentation and rule-breaking. Trippy, shoe-gazy, beautiful “Decora” opens and then shifts to the nighttime drive sound of “Flying Lesson” with its metronomic drum and bass pushing through guitar feedback with Lou Reed drawl. That second track’s subtitle, “Hot Chicken #1,” may make you look forward to “Don’t Say a Word” (track 10) which is subtitled “Hot Chicken #2” and, with its gently strumming guitar and Georgia Hubley’s plaintive vocals, sounds something like 60s-era British pop music. What do these subtitles mean? How are these very different songs at different points on the record connected? Are they related to the 60s-era country songs by the Flying Burrito Brothers, “Hot Burrito #1” and “#2” and, if so, in what way(s)? Also adding to our confusion, on the back of the album, each of the tracks comes with editorial statements that seem to be referring to the individual tracks. “Decora”: “A rehearsal.” “Flying Lesson”: “Sound is music and quick lights and the people who make our sound their own. That’s when we’re really turned on.” “Don’t Say a Word”: “A break like this is worth its weight in publicity.” And so on. It’s not hard to make meaning from these statements. But it turns out the band plagiarized these quotes from an obscure book on the obscure 60s-era New York band, the Blues Project, a band also known for breaking genre lines. No boundaries are sacred in postmodernism, even those between discrete texts, juxtaposition a way of still making it new. 

Twenty years later, this is what postmodernism is and how it’s been incorporated into the mainstream so that it’s a part of our blood and breath. A century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This poem, “The Second Coming,” was published the year after the Armistice of World War I, the bloodiest mass-scale extinction of human life up until that point, about 37 million people, soldiers and civilians, all dead. It’s a dark, apocalyptic poem, seems not only a vain attempt to digest the mass-scale slaughter of world war, of the industrialization of death, but also predict the coming, even bloodier World War II. In just two stanzas, twenty-two lines, Yeats predicts the end of the world, or at least the end of everything the West (i.e. white people) has taken for granted for several hundred years. And yet, Yeats, perhaps the first great modern poet of the English language in the new century, also seems to be predicting what will happen to art as it “fall[s] apart.” 1918 was not just the end of World War I, but the birth of Ingmar Bergman. There is destruction, the kind of destruction that humans do to each other, the kind embodied in our modern wars, our racist carnage, our acts of imperialist capitalism and fascist wall-building. But there’s also creative destruction (distinct from pussy-footing capitalistic “creative disruption”). Artists must know their histories, but they should also destroy the texts of those histories, break them before they fall apart, make something new with the materials. 

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John Talbird’s novel, The World Out There, is out by Madville Publishing . He is also author of a chapbook, A Modicum of Mankind. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Potomac Review, Ambit, Juked, The Literary Review, and Riddle Fence among many others. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, on the editorial board of Green Hills Literary Lantern and Associate Editor, Fiction, for Retreats from Oblivion. A professor at Queensborough Community College-CUNY, he lives with his wife and son in New York City. More of his writing can be found at johntalbird.com.