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Movies beyond surrealism and snow

Times Staff Writer

It might be hard to imagine the connections between the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and B-film shlockmeister Roger Corman, but the producer and director of some 500 films bearing titles like “Teenage Caveman,” “The Wasp Woman” and “Ski Troop Attack” says there definitely is one.

In his stint as an art-film distributor in the ‘70s, Corman put Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers” in drive-ins across the U.S. It’s difficult to know what canoodling teenagers in Texas made of the somber tale of a woman dying of cancer and her two fractious sisters, but, Corman says, “Bergman was delighted because his films had reached a new audience.” Of course, the high brow and the low existed outside the confines of the Hollywood system and were cheap. That appears to be at least part of the reason Corman and his wife and business partner, Julie, hosted a symposium last Saturday about the benefits of making films in Sweden at the Santa Monica home of Swedish Consul General Andreas Ekman, and his wife, Anita, the consul charged with promoting Swedish lifestyle.

Corman, 77, who hasn’t had much contact with Bergman since he released “Autumn Sonata” in 1978, also comes from that generation of American film lovers and artists whose attitudes were revolutionized by Bergman’s surreal exploration of human misery and redemption. (Corman’s biggest attempt to transcend his B-aesthetic is the 1964 rendition of Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” which, more than one critic noted, played like a blood-and-guts retelling of “The Seventh Seal.”)

For all the Swedes on the panel, however, the whole point is to escape the long shadow of Sweden’s most famous cinematic figure, redefining themselves on the world stage as more than the land of hooded figures of death tromping around the medieval countryside. To them, they’re part of a burgeoning, productive film scene and a crew of youthful filmmakers devoted to realistic storytelling with a distinctly social bite. They are influenced by the Dogma 95 films -- but less bound by that philosophy’s strict rejection of conventional studio methods -- making use of less intrusive technology and small, collegial production teams.

“The problem was that everybody in Swedish films was really focused on ‘Where is the new Ingmar Bergman?’ It created a standard that was very, very tough for a person to reach,” recalled Tomas Eskilsson, the CEO of Film I Vast, who’s been tagged in the local press as the most powerful man in Swedish filmmaking. “He created a Swedish understanding of the term ‘auteur.’ It was very important to have someone from the younger generation to say, ‘No. We’re not interested to meet Bergman’s standard. We are interested in doing our own stories in a different way.’ ”

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The evening in Santa Monica was full of Swedish boosterism. For his spiel, the imposingly tall consul general donned a shirt of the Swedish flag, and plugged the Swedish booth at a local film location expo: “The other booths are black and white. Sweden’s is a fluffy, yellow booth,” where you can win a trip to Stockholm. British actor Michael York, most famous for his starring roles in such ‘70s classics as “Cabaret”, was also there touting Sweden, although he has never made a movie in its fjords.

Situated beneath a giant landscape of a snowy Swedish pastoral scene, they were joined by the Joe Roth and Harvey Weinstein of Sweden, Peter Possne, the country’s leading producer and distributor, and Eskilsson, who not only runs a vast production facility in Trollhatten (nicknamed “Trollywood” to Eskilsson’s chagrin), but is charged with doling out the government’s kronor from one of the country’s main regional film funds. He’s backed some 70 films including such co-productions as Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and upcoming Nicole Kidman film “Dogville.” While Hollywood denizens regularly bemoan the flight of studio productions to cheaper climes, this evening was dedicated to the counter-argument. Countries all over the world are rolling out the welcome mat for American dollars. As one panelist pointed out, even Fiji has just instituted tax incentives for filmmakers.

In Sweden’s case, the task is to disabuse the crowd of the cliche that everything is expensive in Sweden, which boasts one of the highest standards of living in the world. Indeed, when Julie Corman asked how much a typical film electrician makes, she was surprised to hear, about $3,000 a month. “It’s $3,000 a week at the studios!” shouted one delighted audience member, although Julie Corman noted that Sweden is still more expensive than the severely depressed regions of Bulgaria and Romania, the newest destinations for the budget filmmaker.

Part of the reason for Sweden’s relative inexpensiveness is that the average Swedish film -- according to Possne -- costs $1.5 million as opposed to the $60 million for the average Hollywood film. Yet, modest budgets do not mean scarcity. Unlike some countries whose megaplexes are almost completely dominated by the “Matrixes” and “Harry Potters” of the world, Swedish theaters boast about 20% local product.

Even 84-year-old Bergman is reentering the thriving production scene, having recently opened a film studio on Faro, the island on which he lives off the coast of Sweden. (Brand-new, so far it’s just playing host to Swedish TV production, although Corman says he’d be happy to make a film there.)

While attracting American dollars is important, the Swedish panelists were also concerned with the larger question of securing a spot on the world’s cultural map. Before the dog-and-pony show began, they congregated in an upper anteroom with a stupendous view of the Pacific Ocean. Metaphorically, however, they weren’t looking to California for validation.

Indeed, for almost everyone in the room, the signature figure in the rebirth of Swedish film is the ferociously talented 34-year-old Lukas Moodysson, the director of the bittersweet comedies “Show Me Love” and “Together.” The first is an exceptionally cleareyed view of the petty cruelties and unexpected sweetness of the Clearasil set, as two teenage girls fall in love.

Set in 1975, “Together” is a comedy of manners about a commune, where Moodysson manages to at once sympathize with human foibles and satirize self-importance, as when one couple banishes their child from reading “Pippi Longstocking” because the main character is a capitalist stool pigeon.

“Show Me Love” created a sensation in its home country, proving particularly to young audiences that Swedish films could be cool. Bergman even gave it his imprimatur, praising it publicly.

“His endorsement made me very happy, but I don’t think it has affected my work in any way apart from giving my self-esteem a boost,” Moodysson said by e-mail. “I like Bergman, but he hasn’t really meant all that much to me personally.” His latest film, “Lilya 4-Ever,” which opens today, is as harrowing as his earlier films were amusing. It’s the tale of an abandoned, vulnerable Russian teenager who finds herself a sexual target in the supposedly freedom-loving society of Sweden.

Although American filmmakers and audiences seem to crave escapism, the iconoclastic and politically minded Moodysson is obsessed with confronting, not ignoring, reality. He said the genesis of “Lilya 4-Ever” “has something to do with the awareness that right at this very moment, in my own hometown, there’s a child desperately trying to get away from someone’s clutches. That awareness cuts like a knife.... We live our lives in a protective bubble. I wanted to break out of that bubble.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Moodysson thinks little of Hollywood. “Hollywood is the antithesis of my work. Hollywood is so much about propaganda, money and brain-dead entertainment, it rarely deals with art or real life.” While there will always be Europeans drawn to Hollywood’s flame, a number are trying to attain the benefits of Hollywood’s reach without the blandness of its aesthetic.

Many of Moodysson’s Scandinavian cohorts are trying to make European-style films, but in English. “We want to get a bigger market for our pictures,” said Possne, who’s put together a slate of Swedish-language English pictures. “For Sweden, it’s the art market around the world and a big market at home. We want to show the world what we can do.”

Almost all the well-known Dogma filmmakers, from Von Trier to Thomas Winterberg (“Celebration”), Soren Kragh-Jacobsen (“Mifune”) to Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”), have made their upcoming films in English.

Translation can be a tricky proposition. Often one of the first casualties is humor, which is culturally specific. Indeed, Eskilsson, who has seen almost all the new Dogma films (a number were filmed on his lot) concedes, “to be honest, a large number of those films are a lot bleaker than the ones they made before. I think something happened in the process. In Scandinavia, we twist the characters a bit, and it’s not easy for an American or English actor to understand what we really want to do.”

All agree: One can’t just transpose Swedish situations into English, or fly to America for three months to churn out a film, then fly home again.

As Eskilsson noted, “You have to take into account that it’s a much bigger challenge.”


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