Jeff Zittrain

Ingmar Bergman’s Excellent Adventure

There is a famous sequence in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” where the aspiring rockers play Battleship, Twister, and Clue with the Grim Reaper in order to cheat Death. This is a truly inspired homage/parody of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film “The Seventh Seal” in which a knight returning home from the Crusades plays a game of chess with Death to win his life.

On a Bergman kick after delving into his six- hour “Scenes from a Marriage” (recommended by a friend for reasons I won’t get into), I rented and watched “The Seventh Seal” last week, and was struck not only by the Bill and Ted antecedent, but by a less obvious and elemental parallel.

It concerns the dichotomy of the knight and his squire. The knight is the deep thinker, often off by himself, searching for meaning. His squire, meanwhile, is cynical and matter-of-fact, seeing no meaning beyond the earthly world. Seeing Max von Sydow’s lanky knight deep in thought, off by himself, I was reminded of Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider” and his sidekick/squire, the much-less-deep-(verging-on-barely)-thinking Dennis Hopper.

Not so crazy – “The Seventh Seal” is a road movie after all.

As I thought about using this comparison for this column, the dynamic between the two characters seemed archetypal, repeated throughout history. The dreaming (and crazy) Don Quixote and simple and earthly Sancho Panza sprung to mind. (Then the floodgates opened and I started to lose it: Butch and Sundance? Abbot and Costello? Fred and Barney? Jekyll and Hyde? Barnum and Bailey? Itchy and Scratchy? Bart and Lisa? Bill and Ted?)

Coming back to earth I had to ask: But does it relate to music? 

How about Joe Strummer infusing the Clash with politics while Mick Jones provided the pop sensibilities? (This took a quite literal shape at the birth of the band when Strummer changed Jones’ song “I’m so bored with you” into “I’m so bored with the U.S.A.” on their first record).

And certainly the most famous rock songwriting team, Lennon and McCartney, can be broadly fit into this archetype, with John Lennon the deeper thinker and Paul McCartney the earthly pop craftsman. This would become much more evident on their solo albums, but think of “Julia” vs. “Martha My Dear” from the White Album. Both great songs, but the first is John’s wistful ode to his deceased mother and the second is Paul’s happy bouncing ode to his dog.

In fact, this dichotomy is a theme that runs through a lot of my columns: The jam for larger meaning, or the jam for the jam’s sake.

As gold star readers who’ve done their homework will recall, I mentioned in the first couple of columns that art changes with its context, and its place in the world gives it its power. That’s why it’s hard to see songs shift context, if they lose meaning rather than gain new meaning. The Who playing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” at the 2001 Concert for New York after 9/11 had new meaning, as did the Stones’ “Salt of the Earth.” I think that’s why they picked them. But the Who’s “Going Mobile” as an ad for cellular phones perhaps only gives new and unintended relevance to their 1967 album, The Who Sell Out.

I remember watching the Academy Awards back in 1998, where Jacob Dylan and the Wallflowers were playing David Bowie’s 1977 classic “Heroes” as a song from the movie “Godzilla.” A friend of mine remarked: “How totally mind-blowing – three huge cultural icons brought together – and it adds up to absolutely nothing!”

Yes, the wasteland of empty icons…the island of misfit toys…fragments shored against the ruins…husks devoid of meaning… (iPods on shuffle?)…we used to have a civilization here, now where did we put it…?

On the other hand, when Bowie himself played “Heroes” at Live Aid back in 1985, he said he was so moved that he cried in his dressing room afterwards. Now there’s a song finding new power and relevance in a new context.

We can be heroes!

And yes, Bill and Ted playing adolescent board games with Death also infuses new meaning into Bergman’s bleaker vision. A lamer parody would have kept the game as chess – just referencing the film but not creating with it, unable to make a statement based on the new context.

Shouldn’t music be the same? Understanding your influences and creating new relevancies with them. Making a statement.

So tell me, gentle readers: which bands do you think are doing that now? Who rises to the level of the Wyld Stallyns?