Wednesday, June 07, 2017

I am Curious Yellow

I first saw I am Curious Yellow (1967, dir. Vilgot Sjöman) soon after it became legal to see it in the United States, which would have been in 1972. My interest in it then was twofold: it was highly controversial for its purportedly pornographic content. It was also considered a film of the avant garde. Seeing avant garde films was a mark of distinction. Seeing films purported to be pornographic was a matter of personal curiosity. I don't remember much about it, except that the sex scenes were disappointing. It had other subjects to address and over the 45 years since I first saw it I had totally forgotten what they were. I do remember thinking at the time it was not a good film.

Recently I watched I am Curious Yellow again. I was curious to see how it held up. I was interested in whether it had any real value, whether I had missed something of significance since that time I was initially so interested in the pornography it was supposed to contain. In the late 60s and early 70s, it was supposed to be an iconic, milestone film.  Having seen it again, I have several observations:

1. It's a highly political film, focused on the counterculture of the late 1960s, on the heightened political consciousness of those years. As a Swedish political statement, it focuses specifically on the issue of economic classes, since the main character Lola occupies herself by interviewing various people about whether they believe Sweden has economic classes.  Other important political issues, such as women’s rights, the Vietnamese War, and freedom of expression, are referenced.  It’s clearly influenced by, and trying to capitalize on, the youth movement. Nonviolence is a question the nation of Sweden was debating when the film was made, and at one point the government decides to take a nonviolent stance towards invasions from foreign powers. All citizens are required to take a three-month course in nonviolence.

2. I had wholly forgotten that the film features three historical figures. One was all Olof Palme, a minister of education in Sweden when the film was being made (he later became Prime Minister and was assassinated in 1986). He appears in several scenes as himself, speaking with students and being interviewed by Lena. He's one of the few people in the film who seem coherent and intelligent. Another person who seems out of place but also as intelligent and coherent is Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Wikipedia, the interview with King was filmed while he was visiting in Sweden.  The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko also appears, talking to students about his poetry and about revolution.

3. The film has sporadic elements of social and political satire. It makes fun of government officials, of journalists, of anyone who’s older than the main character, who thinks that anyone much older than she is not enlightened or intelligent.

4. it is a coming-of-age film for Lola. She's trying to "find herself." That of course is a hackneyed theme of many films of the 1950s and 60s, and of many films since then. Lola is trying to find herself through having sex with a garment store worker (and with 23 other men on whom she keeps files), and she's also trying to develop political awareness by taking part in political protests and interviewing people about social and economic issues in Sweden.

5. In a way that should complicate it, but which doesn’t, since the film is simplistic, I am Curious Yellow is a film within a film.  Much of the action takes place within the film being made.  This is largely not a matter of import, though it does contribute to the film’s willingness to make fun of itself. Lola (Lena Nyman) is the name of both the actress in the main film and of the character she’s portraying in the film within a film, both of which, not surprisingly, are titled I am Curious Yellow.

In practically every way I can think of this film is a mess. It's not coherent. It is not interesting. Lola is self-absorbed, dimwitted, stubborn, narcissistic. The other characters are mostly not interesting. The acting isn't very good. The film drags. The editing is poor: the interviews about the Swedish economic class system go on forever. Some of them needed to be edited out. Its political positions are hazy, though we can guess generally what they are. It's not a very significant film. There's not much good I can say about it.

I think the director Vilgot Sjöman wanted to be another Bergman, who is mentioned once during the film. Instead, this is a film directed by a Swedish version of the American director Ed Wood.  Let it be noted that other commentators have a different view of this film: they see it as intelligent, humorous, innovative, a landmark.  I don’t.  As with so much else, however, I could be wrong.

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