Raw – Lessons From The Stand-Up Feature

Thoughts On: Raw (1987)

Eddie Murphy’s second stand-up comedy feature film.


This is a weirdly significant film to me. Being way too young to have been watching this, Murphy’s Raw was my first exposure to stand-up comedy. I can’t even remember how old I was when pushing in the old video tape, but what I will never forget is the full-body reaction, the utter captivation, the drug-like sensation, of watching and listening to the most hilarious shit for an hour and a half straight. I can’t stress, nor explain, how mind-blowing the experience of watching and re-watching this film was to me as a kid. It was basically a kind of magic to me, how someone could stand on stage and ignite a fiery, burning uproar in my gut. And it’s that feeling of pain, of delirious joy as I laughed and laughed and laughed until I was blue in the face, that makes this film significant to me. Never have I howled as much, so wholeheartedly, so purely and thoroughly as I did when watching this film for the first few times.

Raw has then always stuck with me as it’s one of those films that I watch at least a few times every year. And watching the film a few times a year means in totality. I’m constantly watching clips from both Delirious and Raw, showing them to friends and family – even if I’ve shown them a billion times already. What’s more, I’ll often wake up and watch Murphy talking about Michael Jackson, Um-Fufu, girlfriends going on holiday and taking half or Italian guys watching Rocky just to start the day off on some kind of high. So, as should be clear, Eddie Murphy has been a huge influence on me. And I suppose this manifests itself primarily in my sense of humour, but also desire to tell stories. Because Raw was such a revelatory experience to me I obviously had to find more – which meant other comedians. And that yearning or fascination with stand-up has lasted to this day. It was after Eddie Murphy that I went on to find Tim Minchin, Richard Pryor, Aries Spears, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Louis CK, Robbin Williams, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dave Chappelle, George Carlin, Chris D’Elia, Joe Rogan, Mitch Hedberg, Kevin Hart, Jim Jefferies, Joey Diaz, Patrice O’Neal, Bill Burr and so much more. Each and every one of these comics hit that special note and ignited that familiar feeling I first felt when watching Eddie Murphy scream, shout and swear in Raw. And with this came this strange philosophy, sensibility or way of thinking.

My favourite comics seem to have two key characteristics. The first is a harsh, unapologetic truth. From Pryor to Kinison to Diaz to Jefferies, I see ‘dirty comics’ that find funny in very human truths that we often don’t like to talk about. The other attribute I’m drawn to is an intellectual commentary. You get this from CK, Carlin, Rogan and Burr. These comics not only tell stories that make you laugh, but expose and talk about thought provoking ideas. But, what I often find is that these two types, the intellectual commentator and un-PC genuine storyteller, are often one and the same. So, whilst Carlin was more of a ranter, he was also focused on a kind of shock, hard-truth kind of commentary. Simultaneously, whilst Joey Diaz has endless stories about his balls, coke, prostitutes and guns, you get to hear the lessons of his life in his comedy. So, what I love in comedy is the visceral storytelling and the personalities that can say shit no other entertainer can. But, plain shock comedy, just like alternative pseudo-intellectual comedy, grows bland real quick. That’s why I like an element of truth or thought in comedy. When that thought meets visceral exposition, you find the purest form of truth in my opinion. This is because, with a non-PC approach, you can say the things we all (many of us) personally think about all the time. You may talk about sexual things, racial topics, subjects of gender, poverty, evil, corruption and selfishness. And by not just bringing up these hidden and pushed aside topics of truth, but having something to add to them with some kind of original thought, the truth and expression demonstrated becomes something so much more precious.

I think the “it’s just comedy” side of comedy off-sets this idea of visceral, probing truth incredibly well as it gives a comic free-range to create stories with hyperboles, which leaves their ideas with an ambiguous cushion around them – one that engages the audience, entertains them and doesn’t assume they’re an utter nit-wit that has to be fed easy to swallow, plain and simple ideas. Louis CK is probably one of the best comedians when it comes to implying a subtle truth within a hyperbolic comedic premise. Whilst CK may talk about “If Murder Was Legal” and suggest that everyone would kill someone if they were allowed as a way of creating something funny, he also implies something about a side of human nature that isn’t so loving, that does get annoyed, fed up and frustrated. Whilst I could go on to talk about this for thousands of words more, this is essentially why I’m so swept away by certain kinds of comedy. Not only is there a pure, unflinching truth, but its delivered and packaged in an intellectual way that engages as well as respects an audience in a manner that no other art form, or form of entertainment, can manage.

Having said this, I bring up Eddie Murphy’s Raw to ask two questions. The first question is, is Raw a film and does it count as cinema? This is a subtly tricky question. The answer seems to simply be, no, not really. This answer would suggest that, whilst this is a 90 minute recording, one that was given a theatrical release, put on tape, DVD and Blu-ray, we go to see this film for an art form that is not cinematic. We watch this ‘film’ for stand-up comedy. And stand-up certainly doesn’t need a camera to function – it just needs a crowd. What this certainly says is that stand-up features, or specials, fit into a weird realm of cinema. However, despite this, in my opinion, I certainly think that they count as films – just not in a strict way. They are loosely cinematic. After all, A Streetcar Named Desire and Dogville are films. These are basically stage plays. We don’t need cinema to experience these stories, however, they are stories expressed on film and so they are movies. This is why I say that Raw counts as a movie, as cinema. Not only is this a ‘story’ captured by a camera. but it is one dictated, facilitated and contorted by cinematography, direction and editing – a uniquely cinematic combination.

Having asserted that Raw is a film – though a strange one – we can move onto the next, and more pressing, question: so what? What can we learn from Raw as a movie?

With the introduction, I’ve tried to convey what the stand-up comedy and comedians I like have taught me. Primarily, the likes of Pryor, Diaz, CK, Burr and O’Neal have taught me a key idea of truth. What the mentioned comics do like no other artist can is, within the comedic realm, expose hidden truths and provide commentary on them. They are allowed to do this as their form of storytelling is entirely focused on making a succinct point. I repeat, entirely focused. A joke will only work if the audience gets it. And to get a joke you must understand how it tries to manipulate and misguide you. A pretty flat example would be as follows:

What do you call a boy about to stand up to his bullies?
An ambulance.

What this very simple joke does is set up a narrative of a boy about to rise up against his conflicts – be a hero of his story. However, the laugh lies in a sharp turn. Reality barges its way in with the implimence that the boy is about to be beaten to a pulp as he tries to pull on the tights and spandex of a hero. We then laugh because we understand that bullied kids are bullied for a reason – they’re usually weak. Our recognition of this is the laugh. It’s kind of fucked up when you think of comedy in these terms, but that’s simply how it is. And it’s not a form of sadism or hatred to laugh at these kind of jokes as, as previously said, “it’s just comedy”. What this much repeated phrase suggests is the obvious: the boy, his bullies and the ambulance don’t exist. This means that a joke is, to push towards slightly pretension depths, a form of philosophical questioning.

As a philosopher, you may, without flinching, ask: why don’t we just rape the women we’re attracted to? The reason why a philosopher asks this question has nothing to do with actual rape. The question means to expose a hidden truth. After all, if you were to ask an average passing person why we don’t just rape women, you’d likely get a very unsatisfactory answer: it’s not right. With “it’s not right” being the only answer one could provide to this question, you can see a tremendous problem. To explain, imagine you stand with your best friend before a red button. You are in an empty room without windows, without a door, just the button. You have the urge to push the button. Your friend says not to. You ask why. They said “it’s not right”. Where do you go from here? You’ll eventually push the button, right? However, you wouldn’t if your friend explained that the button has a wire that’s connected to him and that if you push that button, a bomb strapped to his chest would go off.

Now, I don’t mean to compare rape with pushing a button out of curiosity – not so plainly anyhow. What I mean to suggest is that asking questions and providing answers provides clarity and so reason to a rhyme. So, whilst no one (blindly holding onto optimism) raised in modern society really needs to be told not to rape someone, we can imagine an alien civilisation landing on Earth who have no mating rituals, instead, just inseminate anyone who catches their eye. Assuming these aliens are intelligent and empathetic, we’d have to explain what rape is, why it’s bad, such and so on. You couldn’t do this by simply saying “it’s not right”. You’re going to need the philosopher.

Comedy works in a similar way to philosophy in this respect. A great example would be found in the works of Bill Burr. A great bit of his is him confronting the assertion that “there is no reason to hit a woman“. Burr accepts, as we all do (again, blindly holding onto optimism) that you just shouldn’t hit women. However, we are all told this in a “it’s not right” manner. Burr questions this, exposing the truth, that is so easily glossed over, that women are humans, that they can be infuriating, that they can certainly be deserving of a punch. He repeats that you shouldn’t hit a woman, but, asserts that there is reason to nonetheless. This is funny in the same manner that explaining why rape is wrong to aliens is helpful. Just as explaining rape to the aliens would ignite a reaction of understanding in them, Burr exposing a caveat in a subject of domestic abuse is funny. There is thus, in both cases, a reflex response to validate these intellectual assertions, which demonstrates how there is both a philosophical questioning going on in comedy, but also the need for the joke/questioning.

Taking this concept of jokes as philosophy, we can extrapolate our first lesson from the stand-up feature film. A great way to approach a story is with this focus on making a point that all comedians have. What makes a joke great is the profundity of its point. What often makes films great is also their profundity, however, there is a reliance on image and action in film that allows weak points to be made. For example, just look to Michael Bay. His films have no profound point to them – not in my view. However, millions have seen and paid for them. Ask yourself this though: if Transformers had to be performed as a stand-up routine, would it get any laughs? I say no – not a chance. Look to a film like Dogtooth, however. There is a succinct and powerful point made in this film about the control parents have over their children…

Could this movie be adapted into a stand-up comedian’s set and be funny? I certainly think so. This is not just because Dogtooth is a slight dark comedy, however, but because there is a conflicting and probing truth exposed by this story that a comedian could capitalise on. What this says about Dogtooth and the approach to cinema that Lanthimos takes is that poignant stories have a point, one that exposes a visceral, easily looked over truth. If you appreciate this kind of filmmaking, I think stand-up comedy is a great source of inspiration and lessons. It’s watching Burr, Diaz, Rogan, Hedberg and Pryor that you’ll then learn the importance of a premise, its twist and its resolution. If you can put this into a script, I believe you’ll have the tools and means to create something special. And you don’t have to be inspired to write a comedy. In simply recognising how comedians expose truth, you can construct powerful dramas, fantasies, crime-mysteries – anything. What comedy will teach you is how to make those stories profound and how to get a reaction out of an audience.

The next lesson that a film like Raw may teach you, which is connected to the previous, is the importance of words or dialogue. Whilst you could learn this from a play, say for instance the 2001 version of Waiting For Godot, stand-up is a much more expressive example of the power of dialogue. When we watch Raw, it is so easy to forget that all we’re doing is watching Murphy talk….

… that’s it. If a stand-up comedian can entertain people for up to 2 hours on stage and this may translate to film, does this not suggest a much greater scope of story that may work in a script? What Raw suggests is that not all films need to be Die Hard, instead, that they can be much more subdued and simple. By watching comedy, you come to understand just how to achieve this, how to fill up a large space of time with minimalist resources. The answer is an unsatisfying one – it’s all about a great performance and some great writing. This is why stand-up comedy is so hard and a film that mimics its form would be so difficult to produce. But, as Murphy demonstrates, this is more than possible.

A lesson within this subject of dialogue that you may learn from stand-up is how people performing talk or sound. As any screenwriter could tell you, when you write a film, you are not trying to write real conversations. If you were to turn a transcript of a real conversation into a film, it’d likely be boring. As a result, when you write dialogue, you don’t want to transcribe real speech. Instead, you want to write movie dialogue. You can learn to do this many ways, and I believe watching stand-up comedians perform is one of the best due to the pure focus on their words and voice. One of the best sources actually begins to move further away from cinema. Joe Rogan’s 2016 special, Triggered…

… is shot almost entirely in a mid-shot or close-up with a few wides. There are no inserts of the crowd, we just see him talk. This emphasises the power of his voice and performance. And what makes this entirely minimalist approach almost a no-brainer when it comes to Rogan is, of course, his podcast…

These are 2, sometimes 3 or 4 hour long conversation-performances (I say conversation-performances as they are for a camera and mic to pick up). All you see is captured by the above shot; just a cut between Joe and his guest. Is this cinema? There is cinematography, a camera, editing and so it has to be in some way, right? Whilst you may call it just a podcast, I believe that the YouTube videos of The Joe Rogan Experience are tantamount to movies – movies I happily sit through dozens and dozens of times.

What this should further emphasis to any film lover or filmmaker is that minimalism and bare-bones storytelling is a viable option. Whilst it may seem commercially daunting to try this, what Joe Rogan and many other podcasters who stream on sites like YouTube show is that, with a good character, this is very possible and endlessly entertaining. And this is arguably what we see in a film like Locke…

However, coming back to the idea of learning how to make characters talk, look no further than podcasts and stand-up specials to learn what goes into performances as well as how conversations flow and structure themselves. Recognising that podcasts and comedy specials aren’t just conversations or talks will then open up the world of cinema to explore and experiment with minimalist, character-driven forms we rarely come across.

These are three great lessons that take a lot of time to absorb. I won’t lie and suggest that I have the universal answers on learning how to make a great movie from watching Raw or any other stand-up feature. What I think makes a lot of sense, however, is that looking at the stand-up feature as cinema is incredibly powerful. And so learning from Raw, Delirious, Triggered, Live At The Beacon Theatre or Bring The Pain in the same way you may a Bergman, Spielberg or Scorsese film is pivotal. If you like comedy, if you are interested in comedic storytelling or even verbal storytelling, I cannot recommend stand-up more.


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Cries And Whispers – Graceful Mortality

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Cries And Whispers – Graceful Mortality

Thoughts On: Cries And Whispers (1972)

We’ve just covered this film in the previous post, discussing its form, Bergman’s direction and links to a few other movies. What we are left to discuss is the narrative and so what this film means…

Cries And Whispers 2

Cries And Whispers is essentially a film about the test one is put to when facing death. And in such, it is a film about two sisters trying to come to terms with mortality. The essential statement of the film, in my eyes, is then that learning the worth of people takes both fear and perspective, a perspective which connotes an idea of grace. To understand the film, I believe you only have to understand the power of this image in respect to the narrative…

This is probably the most iconic image of the Cries And Whispers and it depicts Anna cradling the ‘deceased’ Agnes. Deceased is in quotes as this image falls within a surreal sequence in which Agnes’ dead body talks to her two sisters and Anna. It’s in this scene that the test of Karin and Maria’s reaction to mortality plays out. Agnes asks Karin, the oldest and most distant sibling, to take her hands and warm her. She denies her, saying that the request is repulsive and then leaves. Agnes then asks Maria, the younger sister who is flirtatious and impulsive, to also take her hands. Maria tries, she takes her hand, but cannot handle Agnes trying to kiss her and so she has to escape, she has to flee the room. This leaves Agnes on the floor. But, Anna returns, picks her up and cradles her as depicted above.

So, let’s back-track quickly. Before this scene is the sequence in which Karin and Maria struggle to come closer. Maria initially asks Karin, a few days or hours (it’s difficult to say for definite) after Agnes’ funeral, why they can’t be close. The response is primarily that Karin can’t handled to be touched. After some time and a larger confrontation where Karin admits that she hates Maria, the two embrace and seemingly open up to each other. This sequence is pivotal as there is a truth revealed and then faced by Karin. Instead of remaining silent, she voices all that probably whirrs around in her head; ideas that she hates all that are close to her – thoughts that are so easily bottled up. But, having voiced these ‘true feelings’, Karin is forced to face the reality of them. Saying to Maria that she hates her causes her to break down, suggesting she sees the vindictive spite in her words with a sudden burst of empathy in which she understands how she must seem to Maria. So, instead of harbouring emotions and keeping them protected from the world, Karin actually confronts them before another person.

Moving further back, we come to the sequence in which we get Karin’s flashback. This is one of the hardest scenes to watch as it depicts a cold relationship between Karin and her husband that leads her to mutilate her genitals by forcing glass into herself. She does this to smear blood on her face and show her husband, what I assume to be, anything that suggests she’s alive, that she is a person; his wife. This ludicrous act is the result of Karin bottling herself up for so long, it is her pleading for something, anything; a reaction from her husband – sexual, emotional, anything.

The only information we’re given that implies why Karin is the way she is, is Maria. To compare Maria’s flashback to Karin’s we see two very similar instances of self-harm. Whilst Karin mutilates herself, Maria’s husband stabs himself in the stomach having found out (or presumed correctly) that she cheated on him. So, whilst an unresponsive, uncaring husband is the catalyst for bloodshed in Karin’s flashback, an unresponsive, uncaring wife is the catalyst for bloodshed in Maria’s. We can thus imagine the relationship between these girls as they grew up was one with great tension. As we find out in the opening flashback, Maria was the main source of their mother’s attention. She bathed in affection and love and this explains why she searches after it in the doctor. He, like her mother, is an authority figure who may shower her with love, who acts as a kind of challenge. There is thus a sadomasochistic sense of affection in Maria – love is almost a game to her. But, whilst Maria has the emotional spine to play these games, it seems that Karin refuses to play. In not even being mentioned in the flashback sequence, we can imagine Karin to be the oldest sister that fell out of the spotlight of her mother’s affection quickly – maybe being the only one who was critiqued and blamed–which explains her formality and rigidity. What this sets up is two daughters who have terrible relationships with a concept of affection or love – who will certainly find it difficult to relate to one another.

Knowing this, we can come back to the scene in which they come together. Having this idea of their faults and perceptual/emotional downfalls voiced, Karin and Maria find a new and equal plane of truth where it is ok to open up to one another. However, the tension remains. This is what is exposed in the scene where the ‘deceased’ Agnes asks them to show affection toward her. Karin cannot release her fears of affection and Maria cannot indulge the lie she spins. After all, it is the game Maria plays with an idea of togetherness and affection that is the wrench in the cogs. As is shown when she tries to seduce David, the doctor whom she had an affair with previously, after treating Agnes early on in the film, Maria wants the conflict of a game to underlie her acts of affection – and this seems to be why she cheats. This also seems to be why she cannot be fully open or honest with Agnes, let alone express actual love. Her dead sister poses no threat or authority, she is not cold and Maria does not have to win her over. There is thus no competition, just true affection with Agnes, which makes Maria incredibly uncomfortable. This is why she runs away from her.

What Bergman is clearly depicting through these two sisters is a conflict I believe is universally understandable. It is incredibly hard to be open, honest and truly loving. It seems that we all have significant people in our lives, be it a parent, sibling, friend or partner, that, no matter what, there seems to be an insurmountable conflict with. And in such, we all have people that we know we should love, that we know we should be fair and honest with, but simply cannot bring ourselves to be completely close or open with. What Bergman demonstrates, through Agnes’ flashback, is why this seems to be the case. In short, we have difficult relationships with parents and siblings because they’re formed when we are children. This is one of the strangest ideas that we rarely confronted in a transparent manner. We are born as bundles of fat, slobber, poop, puke and gums. Our parents love us, they take care of us, they teach us and watch us grow up and away from this state of utter weakness, dependence and reliance. And as we grow, we get stronger, more intelligent, we become people of our own. This become most apparent between teen boys and their fathers and has been portrayed a plethora of times in movies. One recent example I can raise is seen in Fences. Troy, as played by Denzel Washington, watches his son grow up to hate him. And this vitriol reaches a point where there is that old-as-time confrontation between a father and a son where there’s an idea raised that ‘I’m not afraid of you anymore’ and ‘I could beat you up, old man’. We won’t delve into details of how this plays out in Fences, but, my point is simply that this teenager that is on the cusp of adulthood who is standing up to his father in a physical altercation was once a baby in his father’s arms. This baby has grown to get to this position, has developed this deep-seated conflict, because there is a horrible tension of authority and power between a developing person and those that knew and looked after him in his weaker states. This is exactly why puberty is so hard. It’s not so much about hormones, sex and development, but the conflict of authority that you face in becoming an adult.

We all have things in us that aren’t perfect, things that make us who we are, especially when it comes to the bad relationships we seem to feed and maintain. This is what we see in Cries And Whispers. There is a conflict between these three girls because they have grown up together, have gradually developed authority, physical strength and intellectual prowess of their own. But, because this conflict was pushed aside and left to silently exist between these girls, their mother and other authority figures in their childhood, there are various poisoned relationships that have survived to this point in their life.

Understanding this, we can take a step back from the narrative and question where Anna fits into all of this. There are two fascinating aspects to Anna. The first is that she is a maid and the second is that she has lost a child. Whilst I don’t know what it is to actually be a maid, I feel I have an empathetic sense of what it means to serve someone, to live your life, very literally and blatantly, as a figure at the bottom of the pack. Having said this, humans love ambiguity when it come to social situations. We love sports, reality TV, fights and debates because that ambiguity is played with. In all of these competing events, there is a constant question of hierarchy being asked. It’s always, who’s right; who’s wrong; who’s biggest; who’s smartest; who’s strongest; who’s fastest? These questions are always answered when the victor’s hand is raised and thus we see that humans do seek a cathartic break from an ambiguous question of where someone’s place in the world is. However, after the victor’s hand is raised, we know they have to defend their title; to try and win the next competition after all points are set to zero again. And in such, we see only a momentary need for truth and a yearning for that ambiguity, for questions of where people stand in a hierarchy. This is so integral to human society and rarely does this paradigm of social ambiguity fade away, or be made transparent. In the case of Anna, however, we see that it does. She knows her place in the house. And it’s not even as if she has any other maids to socialise with, to engage in a socially ambiguous atmosphere with. This would drive many people insane and would probably lead them to stab their masters/mistresses in their sleep and then set the house on fire. Not Anna though – and this is what is so intriguing about her.

We also cannot forget that Anna has lost her child, but has faith that God has taken her baby away from her with reason. So, with Anna, we see a hopeful transcendence of this idea of ambiguity – existentially and socially. She refuses to question why her daughter was taken, but assures herself that there was reason and so can find solace in her solitude. This is so important to realise as a similar paradigm of coming to terms with ambiguity, chaos and arbitrariness plays out in our pivotal image…

Love is the crux of all we have discussed thus far. All characters, under the guise of childhood and socially ambiguous hierarchy, have conflicts with love. As described, Karin and Maria cannot grasp or express love. However, Anna can – and this is because of the lessons she has learnt through losing a child.

Life brings with it many ambiguities; questions of who, what, where, when, how and certainly why. These are such pressing existential questions to all people as we know our lives are finite. And so, because we will die, we revere life; because we face great ambiguity, we hold onto what we know. Love is tantamount to holding onto what you know. This is because you can overcome, as Anna does, the conflicts of ambiguity life presents with faith, trust and a love in something. Love, like faith, is an illusion of togetherness. And so it is a way to feel bonds; the strength of a crowd. Anna loves God, just like Agnes (just like millions of people do), because God is the highest idea of power humans have ever conceived of. To love God, to feel like you are bonded with God, is to feel apart of the greatest power and authority in the universe. This, without providing anyone real or tangible answers, gives them a profound emotional sense of ease – all because God is all-knowing and there is no ambiguity in life to God. This is how Anna seems to be able to carry on in life having lost her baby daughter. Having trust, or faith, that God has answers and the power to look after her allows Anna to let go. In the same sense that people love and bond to a God, they will also bond with one another. This is what we describe as love in relationships. Love is something we use to say that another person is a significant part of you and that you have a great sense of trust in them. We come to love people by then exposing ourselves to them, by showing them weakness. This is why both emotions and sex are so important between couples. Not only, through emotions and communication, do we give a sense of what’s going on in our heads to the other people as to sustain a bond of love, but, through sex and other physical acts, we provide tangible actions of our own commitment and affection. The same can be said for all relationships beyond couples. However, instead of sex, the physical acts are often ones of material exchange or simply hugs, kisses or some kind of touch. Without these, people’s relationships breakdown as there is no trust, no belief, in a love between people.

Having said this, I think it becomes very transparent what the scene where Karin and Maria run out on Agnes means. These two cannot actually love or present evidence for a bond between themselves and their dead sister by staying with her and taking her hand. The reason why comes back to ambiguity and childhood; they refuse to state or come to terms with where they are in relation to Agnes on a social scale – they want to hold onto ambiguity. However, Anna is perfectly comfortable with having it clear where she and Agnes stand with each other. Anna takes care of Agnes in an emotional sense, which reflects back some amount of emotional well-being to Anna as she feels apart of something. But, Agnes also takes care of Anna in a material sense, providing her a home and food. Again, this reflects back to Agnes, as home is only home when Anna is around and Anna also feeds/provides food for Agnes in her weakened state. So, there is a clear bond and understanding between these two women that is not present between anyone else in the film. What’s so interesting about this is the juxtaposition between God, human relationships and the ambiguity faced in respect to the idea of faith or love. Whilst God provides solace in spite of the ambiguity of life to people such as Anna, God is an intangible being that you may never truly encounter. People and the love you feel for them also provide solace in spite of a social ambiguity. However, people are real – they are in front of us; we can reach out and touch them. This is why there’s such a distinguished conflict between having faith in people close to us and a higher power. The faith in people that we call love is a bond that is much more pressing and inescapable. And so it’s the nature of this trust in people as tangible beings that results in it being so hard to truly connect with people. What’s then so special about Anna and Agnes’ relationship is that they have found a balance. Whilst there is a trust, a love, a respect, an openness and understanding between them, there is a physicality given to their relationship. This is exactly why they share a skin-to-skin contact in their most intimate moments…

It’s all about security; knowing where you stand with someone. I hope now that the power and significance of this image is clear. And having this clarity, we can push on to the final scene of the narrative. Having opened up to one another, then denounced their dead sister, Karin and Maria fall silent, they refuse to talk about their relationship, nor how they connected and they sell the house, leaving Anna without a job or home. We thus see that there is no change, that the conflicts between Karin and Maria are not overcome after their experience with death – their sister’s mortality. What we then see is that they fail to learn from the lesson provided. They lost someone close to them and do not manage to come to terms with who she was and what her worth was. Only Anna seems to understand and see Agnes in such a light. The only silver lining is provided with Agnes and Maria splitting to go take care of their own families. The significance of this is provided when we, again, hear the following words from Agnes’ diary…

Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life… which gives me so much.

We hear these words as the sisters walk, in their white dresses, and talk to one another. What this suggests is that Agnes, in her terrible health, came to terms with what must have been her conflicts with love as she grew up. She finds gratitude for life because she sees the worth of the people around her – the fact that they help quash the overwhelming ambiguity of life in an everyday and social sense; they help her face her mortality with a calm grace. So, in this statement, we see that Agnes, like Anna, has found some sense of enlightenment and maybe a key to a graceful existence where life and people do not beat her down, pin her to reflex and an existence dictated by external forces (such as a childhood). The crux of the film then lies in colour symbolism. As suggested in the previous post, the crimson represents many things (love, anger, passion, blood, hatred…) whilst white is quite simply purity or naivety. The kind of purity Bergman means to connote with Agnes, Anna and the two sisters, who are often enveloped in white, is one of grace. For the four women to end the film in white dresses, free from crimson walls and in an idyllic natural setting, suggests equilibrium; that, just as Agnes knows love and gratitude in this moment, so may her sisters. Colour symbolism suggests that all that is ambiguous in life and emotionally provocative (red) can be overwhelming, but come to terms with once that ambiguity is overcome, is learnt to be dealt with and managed, providing a graceful and peaceful naivety (white).

So, in the end, this film is a complex exploration of ambiguity, trust, love and mortality as forces at play in the lives of all people. With the ending comes a question of if Karin and Maria may find balance and resolution later in life, but also a suggestion that they already know this equilibrium. Because they are sisters, they have an inevitable bond, just as we all do with someone. They cannot perceive or capitalise on the balance that belies this relationship , but there is always time. With time, stifling emotions may be managed and a more accepting bond embraced. And such is the timeless and eloquent message of Cries And Whispers in my perspective.



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