The Gloom Stays in the Picture
(From The Blockbuster Tell-All Memoir Of Sweden’s Movie King)

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“Quiet on the set!”

It was Alf F. Sjöberg, head-honcho both at M.G.M. (Malmö-Göteberg-Morose) and Inhibited Artists, laying down the law on the sound-stage of his big 1950 Christmas release, It’s A Miserable Life.

I was just a kid then, with high hopes and stars in my eyes — lucky enough to have landed the role of “The Dancing Kleptomaniac” via the influence of my latest leading-lady and bed-mate, a buxom redhead called Anna Olsen. (Never heard of her? She later made quite a name for herself — first in Hollywood as Ann-Margaret, then in Japan as the baseball slugging-sensation, Sadaharu Oh.)

I hadn’t made too many friends, working on the flick, for novice that I was, I had my own ideas about Scandinavian cinema. For example, many in the cast felt that, because Miserable was a Christmas picture, some of its more somber elements might be expunged: that the George Bailey character (played by Jimmy Stewart in the story’s Hollywood version) need not commit suicide at the film’s conclusion, nor need his wife Mary be burnt at the stake; and it was also felt that the gruesome crucifixion of the angel Clarence would do little to contribute to the picture’s Yuletide appeal.

I disagreed with these views, feeling they did not represent the tradition of Swedish film as we knew it. Would a Victor F. Sjöstrom, I asked, a Mauritz F. Stiller, a Carl F. Dreyer or an Alf F. Sjöberg himself produce a picture that allowed cheerfulness to penetrate the overall mood of despair? I thought not…and now, the mogul in person was here to see what was what — responding to a cast telegram threatening to move to Finland were I not immediately dismissed from the film.

Sjöberg, chomping on one of his trademark pine-bark stogies, barreled across the sound-stage and scowled. “What’s this?” he grimaced, stopping at one of the Christmas-decorated flats. “Tinsel? Who ordered all these colored lights and this fake snow?” Naturally, no one dared speak. (The last company member to answer back to the mogul had subsequently been left stranded on an ice floe.) “We’re northern Protestants here,” the man continued, shaking his head in disbelief. “What kind of spectator is going to pay to be entertained?”

Simple words…and yet it would only be years later that I fully grasped the wisdom they contained.

Bibi Anderson was a real hot number. I met her working on the set of my third picture for Worried Brothers, a little documentary on the Umförs fruit market I called, Wild Strawberries. At the time, I was still married to Bibi’s distant cousin Harriet Anderson, and living in Stockholm with Harriet and her dog, Fido (Anderson). Bibi telephoned me one afternoon to discuss her role (she played the wife of an optometrist whose clients kept seeing the Madonna) and in no time at all the two of us were thrashing about in my study as though neither had ever heard of sin and damnation (both preferable, it seemed, to divorce court.)

As usual, the home office was making noises about my next production. Some mid-level know-nothing felt this new picture should be more “existential;” another felt it should be more action-packed. Together they produced a nutty compromise script about Death himself (surprisingly, he was already a member of the Swedish Actors’ Union) stalking a depressed knight and his traveling companions across a plague-ridden, 13th-century Sweden. The catch was that each time the Grim Reaper was about to claim a victim, the dashing hero (“Christiana Jones,” they called him) would burst onto the scene with his whip and in his ranch hat to save the day. What a turkey sandwich! Perhaps the best thing about the flick was its boffo original title — Raiders of the Seventh Seal. (Of course when Hollywood later got hold of our script, they remade it entirely into the well-known adventure classic, Muppet Treasure Island.)

Flash forward ten years. By the late sixties I was living full-time on the Färoe Islands with Bibi, but cheating on her with Liv Ullmann. (No, wait a minute — I think it was the other way around: I was living full-time with Liv but cheating on her with Erland Josephson.) Brother, was I headed for trouble.

I knew many in the Scandinavian film industry relied on “controlled substances” to boost their physical stamina. I too had toyed with these, but only in a minor way. (And, like anyone else in Sweden, I also celebrated National Day by running up the old flag then snorting a line of pure Svealand iron ore.) Yet I was no match for the seductive powers of that white paste that began circulating among the glitterati of the early 70’s: it gave you the strength to turn into an eight-hour television marathon a script perhaps fit for no more than a half-hour soap-opera. (Otherwise, the critics liked my Scenes From a Marriage, but felt that it didn’t contain enough robots.) Cocaine, speed, angel dust — none could compare in potency with our own peninsular product. I mean, of course — the lutefisk.

Signs of my dependency had already shown themselves earlier in my career. I put on weight and, like other addicts, never went out without my butter knife, lemon juice and packets of Wäsa crispbread. (Lutefisk junkies could usually be identified by the permanent sprinkling of breadcrumbs visible down their shirtfronts.) The stuff all but eradicated your inhibitions– — witness the night in 1972 when I tried to copulate with all four members of the singing-group, ABBA, simultaneously.

My run-in with the law came about due to a phone-call from my brother Morris.

“You want me to pick-up a suit-case for you in room 313 of the Adlon Hotel?” I asked Morrie from my end. “I don’t understand.”

“Brother,” said Morris. “I’ve got a pal bringing in a load of watches from Switzerland, and I need an unknown face to courier it.”

“Me, an unknown face?” I asked the man incredulously. “Are you joking?”

“Ingie,” he replied. “You’re not thinking. Sure, you’re our great national film director — but the cops aren’t interested in that. I’m the one with the rap sheet longer than a treatment by Tarkovsky.”

It was true, my brother had already been prominently featured in a number of very public financial scandals — the last involving millions received from the Stockholm government for a “Swedish Space-Program,” and Morrie’s construction of the world’s tallest ski-jump.

“Besides,” added my brother. “After your latest art-house flop, I doubt your face is still known in this country to more than a few dozen eggheads and nymphomaniacs…”

“Thanks bro’.” I knew I could always count on my elder sibling for a healthy ego-boost.

To make a long story short, I went to the Adlon Hotel to pick up Morrie’s “watches.” I should have been suspicious of the fact that, when I got hold of it, the suitcase seemed to be leaking a viscous, fishy-smelling liquid; also, by the fact that wherever I went with the thing, about two-dozen stray cats followed in its wake. Even before I could board the get-away tram (not a car, because in Sweden even crime is socially responsible), the Royal Foodstuffs and Narcotics Squad had nabbed me. Since I was a first offender (the magistrate didn’t count Hour of the Wolf), I got just six months in Halmstad Minimum Security.

It made a body think to be in lock-up: All the world’s a stage…Art holds a mirror up to Nature…What kind of spectator is going to pay to be entertained? I think I finally learnt the lesson of Alf F. Sjoberg, all those years ago: life goes on — and oy, the gloom stays in the picture!

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One Hundred Years of Suburbia

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I

I remember the day Uncle Rámon took us down to see the mall. “People say the mall is infinite,” he explained as he led us children toward the atrium. “And that a man could spend a lifetime there going from store to store, and still not find the one having the thing he wanted, and also in his size. Even shopping for ten lifetimes,” my uncle continued, “a man might never acquaint himself with more than a fraction of the merchandise on offer: The only certainty is that when the man finally leaves the mall, regardless of how many purchases he’s made, he still won’t have with him the thing he originally came for.”

“Are all things, then, for sale at the mall?” I asked Uncle Rámon.

“Everything the human mind can conceive. Today, for example, I’ll be shopping for some unicorn food, a Jimmy Carter, two square circles and a perpetual-motion machine. Also, I’d like to get one of those new T-shirts they have that say, ‘I’m With Estupido’…”

Of course, there were many in Paidup Mácondo, our village, who considered Uncle Rámon somewhat strange. His equilibrium had been shaken by a life that had seen its share of tragedy: early on, he’d lost his children in a particularly large restaurant coatroom; later, his wife, Mercedes 300SL, had perished in the Great Famine of ’97, when for two weeks all the boroughs’ caterers and deli counters had been directed closed by a city health-ordinance. Since that time, the colonel lived at the villa in the company of his half-wit half-brother, Enriqué Pokémon, who shared with the old soldier a passion for landscaping. (In his youth, Enriqué Pokémon had been a member of the horticultural brigade that had helped transform the Sequoia National Park into the Sequoia National Golf Course.)

The great love of Uncle Rámon’s later life was a girl named Clarita, who worked at a video store in the Infinite Mall. Alas, my uncle was sufficiently put off by the war of the sexes to be hardly capable of speech in the presence of a beautiful woman. In the case of the comely counter-girl, the man was reduced to communicating exclusively by means of a small, portable tape recorder, into which he’d enter such locutions as he projected to constitute his half of a day’s pending conversation. (One evening, Clarita brought her own machine, and leaving it behind to chat with that of the colonel, the two villagers were able to spend some quality time together at the local Aqua Slide.) My father, Miguel de Grand Vitara (no half-wit, half-brother he to Uncle Rámon, but a full-fledged, bona fide sibling, and mental case) used to tell the colonel:

“Rámon, why don’t you do like me and buy a satellite dish? Then you would have so much television you would forget about that video store and the girl there who makes you miserable.”

Indeed, so powerful was my father’s antenna (I mean the one on his roof, not his head) that it eliminated entirely the need for movie rentals. One could watch anything with it, from real-time Norwegian chuck-wagon races to classic sitcoms that had been dubbed into Comanche. (The only trouble with these was they always had the Indians winning on F Troop.)

But spending so much time on the couch watching TV, my uncle began to put on weight — with the result that his amorous hopes were dealt a further blow in the form of a doctor’s warning; that is to say, until the colonel’s LDL and HDL levels were better regulated, the man was advised to engage in no lovemaking. What could my poor Uncle Rámon do? He still visited the video store to play his tape recorder at Clarita, but both knew that between them there could now be no love — no Love in the Time of Cholesterol

II

Speaking of cholesterol, it wasn’t only Uncle Ramón among our villagers who could be said to be afflicted personally with urban sprawl. Most of our adults, in fact, had long since lost the ability to wear sizes of less than three digits’ magnitude, and almost all were incapable of entering the oversized cars and trucks — the so-called esyuvés — that had lately become popular. Then again, the esyuvés themselves in time grew larger, until it became common for owners having trouble finding their cars in parking lots to discover that this was because they were still inside them. (Finally, the cars and trucks became so big that they no longer needed to be used; in a paradox typical of life in our village, it was observed that a school-going child might simply enter the hatch of his family’s driveway-parked Pontiac Escalade LXT, and, merely by making his way inside it to the front passenger seat, exit the vehicle directly before the gates of his place of learning.)

Indeed, time and place generally were matters of confusion to the residents of our town (a saying in Paidup Macondo went, “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Wednesday”). The women found that if they were to reserve the best dates and locations for their social functions, it was necessary to send out any invitations to them some years in advance of the fact. (If it so happened that the wedding celebrations of two children yet unborn were booked into the same hall on the same day, the respective mothers could usually settle things amicably in an encounter known as a “cage match.”)

Place too was a matter of bemusement to the mothers of our town, for as soon as one “season” ended — be it at Palm Beach or St. Moritz — plans for the next were already well underway; and such was the absorption of the women in their preparations that they commonly thought themselves in Anguilla when they were really in Vail, in Bermuda when they were really in Newport and in the Hamptons when they were really on Long Island.

These children of Paidup Mácondo were no less subject than their parents to the peculiarities of life in the region. I remember, for example, how about the time Uncle Rámon took me to the Infinite Mall, there came upon the youth of our village a strange plague of incoherence. It began one afternoon when the Valdez twins, Juan and Two, could not make themselves understood to the clerk at one of the mall’s Frostee Freezes. (The twins, incidentally, were the sons of the famous Juan Valdez, the Colombian peasant who for years had handpicked each and every bean for the coffee of Europe and North America, until fired one day for asking to sit down.)

“Yo!” said Juan Jr. to the clerk on that afternoon. “Heezi-Wacheezi, bro! You’ve got to pedal-to-the-metal and word, man. Wassup! And incidentally, any of you guys happen to see my heckelphone?”

“Awesome, man,” added Two Herrera. “Lay us on with some of that most excellent sweet brown, rad sap, dude!”

The ice-cream man had no idea what the twins were talking about, so other youths tried to help:

“Ya hatchem yabloko, krasnya sabatchka!” said one.

“Cujus regio, Ejus religio…” offered another.

“Whether I shall be found to be the hero of my own biography,” began a third, “or whether that honor shall fall to someone else, it shall be the purpose of these pages to relate.”

It’s not entirely clear who added, “0111-011-0111-011-0000-110-000-01010-0001…”

Of course, it was all to no avail. By nightfall, the children of Paidup Mácondo could no longer understand even one another. The plague of incoherence raged in our town for months, infecting its adults as well, until one morning the lot of us woke to discover we’d elected as governor of the province an Austrian-born ex-bodybuilder who could not speak Spanish at all…

O, Paidup Mácondo! How dear to me are my memories of your manicured lawns and eight-lane sidewalks, your byzantine Voting Propositions and dog-leash bylaws…I would have thought your blandness was forever! For who could have foreseen the whirlwind that would pitch one day to peel away your façade of affluence? Who could have predicted it would be found, in the end, that your story was never one of wealth but of insolvency, never of capital but of overdrafts, never of dividends but of liability? No man, certainly (and obviously not that jerk from Morgan Stanley). O, Century of tastelessness and conformity! O, Un-paid-up Paidup Mácondo! Who could have guessed at its conclusion your tale would be revealed as no more than, well — A Chronicle of a Debt Foretold!

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