"Buy our film, the only film that comes in two versions, one yellow, one blue. Same but different, that is true! Unique to view, the one that's blue. Ugly and nice, we repeat it twice: this is the yellow version, yes, the yellow version!"
So begin the titles for "I Am Curious - Yellow" - the first of two films in Criterion's 2-disc set of the legendary improvisational diptych by provocative Swedish filmmaker Vilgot Sjoman. One would initially suspect the first movie's title has something to do with a more traditional skin flick, some kind of journey towards sexual ecstasy, or maybe poetic statement on human intimacy, but "I Am Curious - Yellow" and the companion film "I Am Curious - Blue" tie themselves to the colours of Sweden's flag, and therein lies the key to the film's not-too subversive political content.
As he explains in "Self-Portrait -92" (18:26) on Disc 2, Sjoman had already achieved remarkable notoriety in his native land with "491," a 1964 film he was approached to make, and when completed, required viewing by Sweden's cabinet ministers before being initially banned and subsequently granted a release, after requested cuts. Nudity and allusions to taboo topics were hardly new to Sjoman at the time - his first film, produced by Ingmar Bergman, dealt with incest, and Sjoman also wrote a play regarding a lesbian sculptress - but what "491" did for the filmmaker was plant a seed for the use of improvisation (denying the studio and censors a script to edit) and the 'introduction of politics in commercial film through sex;' in the case of the latter, political ideology and pointed criticisms could be the jam in a sandwich of nudity and graphic sex - via full frontal shots, and simulated fellatio and cunnilingus.
Sjoman managed to get 100,000 Crowns from the studio for a proposed film that lacked any script, and between 1966 shot, edited, re-shot and re-edited his film into two parts. "Yellow," the first part, is the most coherent and satisfying of the two, while the journeyman aspect of "Blue" - where heroine Lena moves from dissecting the Monarchy to the Church, and tries to find her reckless mother - is less successful, but remains a fascinating collection of scenes and characters dropped from "Yellow," and reworked into a film with longer sequences lacking any dialogue.
The nudity in both films is pretty frank, even by today's standards, and that's what got "Yellow" in trouble in several countries, mandating either edits or a complete ban. Disc 1's interview with Grove Press founder Barney Rosset and attorney Edward de Grazia covers the publisher's own mandate to print, and later on acquire filmed works by controversial artists, and the lengthy court challenges that eventually led to "Yellow" being granted an exhibition permit in the U.S.
Though both men admired the obvious artistic qualities of the film, they also recognized "Yellow" could serve as another high profile vehicle to challenge the obscenity laws at the time - a ploy which may also have diverted attention away from more controversial printed works. A key point by these frank civil libertarians lies in their admission that court challenges are frequently launched by the well-to-do middle and upper class, who with time and money at their disposal, can further personal causes; either way, both de Grazia and Rosset stuck with their beliefs and in the end made it possible to screen some sexually frank works for adult audiences in the U.S. without fear. Ironically, once art theatres made money from 'legit skin,' regular foreign art films were pushed to the side in favour of more profitable skin flicks.
"The Battle for I Am Curious - Yellow" (8:49) is a montage of stills, with author Peter Cowie covering the film's legal troubles in the U.S. - spanning more than two years after seizure by American Customs - and offering a good background of "Evergreen" magazine and Grove Press publisher Rosset. Perhaps the most amusing fact lies in Rosset's original investment of U.S. distribution rights - $100,000 - which ultimately yielded $8 million in profits during the film's initially spotty two-year American run.
Criterion's 2-disc set is another beautifully assembled package that presents both films in sublime transfers, with gorgeous black and white cinematography and clean soundtracks, and related audio and visual archival information, so viewers can understand the film's original impact.
On both discs director Sjoman supplies sporadic commentary for specific scenes, as he reads excerpts with added thoughts from a production diary published at the time of the first film's release, in 1968. Varying in length, it's really Sjoman at the time, explaining the film's improvised scenes, working with his actors, and giving his own take on watching himself as the fictional director of a fictional documentary, and his character's flashes of jealousy as actress Lena moves from an affair with her director to her male co-star. Sjoman also describes the construction of scenes which combine staged reaction/re-ask shots with true documentary segments, as Lena asks people on the street, labor unionists and government officials - including Sweden's future Prime Minister Olof Palme - about the country's class system, and the crown prince's current girlfriend as a lead-in to attacking the Monarchy.
The film's frequently cheeky tone owes a lot to actress Lena Nyman and director Sjoman, who introduces "Yellow" via a brief video segment, and comes off as a respectable social agitator with a taste for the naughty beneath his benign, septuagenarian visage.
The director also discusses the film's reception in Sweden, and on Disc 1, Criterion provides a gallery of quotations from the U.S. trial that initially maintained the film's banned status; readers can glean over excerpts from several trial witnesses, including Sjoman, and Norman Mailer.
For a film that changed the depiction of sex in film, and affected U.S. film exhibition, the unused trailer for "Yellow" (with a brief video intro from Sjoman) gives a good impression of the film's plot: Lena explains to a doctor how her mouth keeps asking questions, and she's completely unable to stop pestering people with her desires to agitate and understand Swedish society. Basically a one-scene teaser, the interview and brief montage end with a "coming soon" heading before cutting to black.
Though Sjoman reassembled his footage into two films, a deleted scene (4:39) for "Blue" is included on Disc 2 (with a video intro from Sjoman), and it's quite in tone with that film's constant questioning of the state/Swedish society, and the Church. We watch as Lena and an assistant physically disrobe a cardinal and berate the figurehead for the Church's failures and hypocrisies. Unlike the finished trailer, the deleted scene has grease pencil marks for edits and fades, and was dropped from the final film because the director felt it went a bit too far
"Self-Portrait -92" (18:26) on Disc 2 contains a few segments from a longer self-directed documentary, and Sjoman has fun playing a patient to the audience-as-head shrink, lying on a couch and describing to the camera the effect of "491" (with fascinating authentic news footage, and comments from the cabinet members), and clips from a few of his films, including a documentary of Ingmar Bergman during the filming of "Winter Light" in 1963.
Lastly, both discs come with foldout 8-page booklets: for "Yellow," Gary Giddins provides a lengthy analysis of both films, and rightly cites some stylistic parallels with Dusan Makavejev's 1971 film, "W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism;" the "Blue" booklet reprints a vintage '68 interview between Sjoman and John Lahr, which makes for an interesting contrast to Sjoman's more contemporary opinions on the commentary tracks and video segments.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan