Thursday, July 08, 2004

Jag Ar Nyfiken – or, I Am Curious (Yellow & Blue)

Why, in the midst of so much turmoil in the world, am I spending valuable time writing about film? First of all, the work up for discussion this week presents an interesting perspective on resistance and it played an important part in the battle against censorship. Secondly, in addition to informing myself on the latest travesties perpetrated by the Bush Administration and acting out against them, I try to balance the insanity of the new and improved Gulf War with satisfying experiences of artistic expression (books, music, exhibits, Hello Kitty bath mats…). These days it seems possible to become part of the madness unless we seek refuge in a nurturing oasis from time to time. With all that in mind, here is an encounter with one of the most controversial films in the history of cinema.

I Am CuriousYellow and I Am Curious – Blue, are ground breaking films that appeared at the dawn of the hippie generation (1967), which, as some of us remember, had much to do with protesting the war in Vietnam. The films were made in Sweden by director Vilgot Sjoman and represent a unique blend of political documentary, an examination of women’s rights, and a travelogue of the female psyche and its search for sexual freedom. Ideally, the two films should be viewed in succession: I Am Curious – Yellow first, and I Am Curious – Blue, second. Today, the level of spontaneity in both works continues to surprise audiences as they did when released four decades ago. For readers that are unaware of the unique history behind I Am Curious, a brief summary is on its way.

Filmstaden Studios surprised Sjoman when they agreed to grant him total artistic freedom and 100,000 meters of film for a project without a script. The director struggled to make I Am Curious and had difficulties completing his largely unprecedented vision. Nearly a year of shooting passed and as the film began to take shape, Sjoman realized that the material was developing into a two-movie sequence (he received more film before the project reached completion).

After several additional months of editing and post-production, I Am Curious Yellow was released to an eager Swedish audience. Notwithstanding the controversy that later ensued, the studio was happy to have produced two films instead of one (they would release I Am Curious – Blue later that year), and Yellow reached 1.3 million viewers on the initial run (out of a total population of 8 million Swedes).

Upon international release, I Am Curious – Yellow was immediately banned in Norway and Finland. When publisher Barney Rossett bought the rights to the film and brought it to the states, it was seized by U.S. postal officials and declared obscene. Two years later, after fighting obscenity charges in several state courts, I Am Curious won its case in the U.S. Supreme Court and helped to change the laws governing obscenity in cinema. Attorney Edward DeGrazia defended the films for Rossett’s Grove Press – long revered for their ability to defeat similar cases brought against writers like Henry Miller, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs, and a host of (banned) Soviet writers. Eventually the films were distributed in America, breaking box office records ($20 million) and making their mark as the highest grossing European releases of the 1960’s.

Given that much of America was still coming out of a cultural slumber induced by the McCarthy era, it is not surprising that Jag Ar Nyfiken challenged the censors. The film openly portrays a woman on a mission to satisfy the urges of her irrepressible curiosity. Lena (played by Lena Nyman), explores the terrain of her body, her rights as a woman, the class system in Sweden (a nation priding itself on not having a class system) and the intertwining of church and state, while often defending herself against the reactions of others. Sexual relations are portrayed in a quirky realism that reads differently from what viewers are exposed to today and are presented with a naturalism that allows the fictional narrative to maintain a refreshing naiveté.

The film opens with a lecture by the poet Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, who later (once he finds a functional microphone) will discuss revolution and the current political climate. After interviewing his filmed image, Lena takes to the street and interviews anyone that will talk into her tape recorder, and I Am Curious - Yellow becomes a testament (read: predecessor) to the Michael Moore manifesto (roll the camera and let the people speak for themselves – or – give them enough rope and…). The film shifts its focus, and scenes of the movie-in-the-making provide structural links between the film’s diverse narrative styles. Director Sjoman speaks with Lena about her role. The film crew determines the best angle for an upcoming shot (that is never presented). Lena appears to be involved sexually with the director (off-screen). Lena practices Yoga. Lena appears to be involved sexually (off-screen) with another character in the film. Lena interviews Martin Luther King Jr. on the topic of non-violent protest (or is she interviewing a film of MLK?). In interviews, Swedes state that non-violent protest is cowardly. Viewers are left with more questions than answers. Fiction and truth are difficult to sort.

The technique of presenting behind-the-scenes-while-in-the-scene is deemed fresh when it appears in contemporary films like Soderburg’s Full Frontal or Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. But clever technique is not all that Sjoman has to offer. A disorienting quality in the shifting narrative keeps viewers on their toes while balancing disparate elements that fit together in surprising ways. One unexpected aspect of the film is that many candid responses from interviewees resound with a complacency (and an ignorance of the issues) that feels reminiscent of modern day America. In addition to this influential take on filmmaking and the information it provides us, I Am Curious is a timely counterpart to present day themes of censorship and resistance.

Finally (and unfortunately), these films are only available on DVD and laserdisc. The good folks at The Criterion Collection (a panel of film historians and master restoration crews that distribute great cinema on DVD) have released both films in one package with LOTS of bonus materials: interviews with the director, film historians, and a discussion on censorship with attorney Edward DeGrazia and publisher Barney Rossett. For innovative cinema that sways giddily between political documentary, acute realism, and fictional narrative, I Am Curious – Yellow and I Am Curious – Blue are well worth the trip to your local video store.

Oakland, CA


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