Thursday, October 05, 2006

Strange Brew

Critics do not generally rank Max Von Sydow’s work in the film Strange Brew among his best, but perhaps now that 20 or so years have passed, it’s time for a critical reassessment.

Strange Brew is the tale of Brewmeister Smith , a great pyschiatriest as well as a brewmeister, whose megalomaniacal desire to rule the world leads him on a downward spiral of violence and murder. Max Von Sydow gives a complex and poignant performance of the brewmeister, rivaling his work with Ingmar Bergman in such films as Winter Light but falling short of his more recent effort in Hamsun.

Although it is an outwardly unserious film, if you look for deeper meaning you will be richly rewarded. Beneath the comedy, Strange Brew is a tragic fable of people leading desperate lives. Like Bergman’s films, it takes place in the great white north and is infused with the chill of the colder clime. Gloomy lighting and long meditative takes convey the burden of the Brewmeister’s worldview and his efforts to rule the world validate him as a misguided hero/martyr. The bathos is experienced on a visceral level when he gazes at the lights on the map of the world he hopes to rule, his personal inadequacy there for all to see. Von Sydow brings depth to this characterization as only he can.

Unfortunately, the movie does not focus entirely on the character of BrewMeister Smith. His tale is told largely through the actions of two of his employees, hapless brothers, a pair of sociopaths whose disrespect for societal norms is demonstrated by their alcoholism and inability to focus on their work. In one part, the brothers create a movie within the movie, but it is unfocused and the set designs and dialogue are unintentionally laughable. These buffoons, with the unlikely help of their dog, ultimately wreck the Brewmeister’s plans. One could have only wished for a more capable foil.

Were it not for Max Von Sydow’s presence I would not recommend Strange Brew, but Max is without question one of the greatest actors of our generation and none of his films should be missed. I’ve been a big fan ever since I saw Steppenwolf in downtown Philadelphia when I was fourteen years old.

A kid I knew, Allen, had moved to the Philadelphia suburbs the previous year and was having a hard time adjusting to his new life. His parents had invited a number of his friends to come visit, but none would let their child go off alone to the big city at the tender age of fourteen. Ultimately, I was invited because I was the only one who would be allowed to go.

We had never been that close. Actually, we had never even been friends, so I ditched him pretty much immediately after I got there. I met some other kids in his class and hung around with them most of the time. They were into hockey and when Allen came around, they’d say, take off, hoser. I didn’t play hockey, but we had a good time playing soccer, smoking a little weed, doing acts of petty vandalism, and torturing Allen.

But during the weekdays everyone was at school, I had nothing to do so I took the train into downtown Philadelphia and roamed the big city streets. In retrospect, it was totally irresponsible of his parents to let me do that, but by that point they were so disgusted with my behavior toward Allen that they didn’t care what happened to me.

I had never been to a big city before and I felt like I was in the land of Oz. I have vague memories of skyscrapers and the hectic city life of people in business suits walking briskly to and fro, but it was the seamy side of downtown that caught my attention and resonated in my life for many years. I walked streets littered with trash and broken glass past sex shops, boarded up buildings and graffiti covered walls. There were very tough looking black guys selling drugs, bums curled around bottles of Mad Dog 20/20, and hookers getting an early start on the night.

Being a Christian boy from the Midwest, I was fascinated by the sex shops and adult theaters. Iwalked back and forth in front of them for large parts of several days, but could never get up the nerve to go into one. Eventually, I settled for seeing R rated movies in regular movie theaters. First I saw Young Frankenstein, which had its titillating moments, but was pretty far from what I was hoping to see. Then I saw Steppenwolf and got my first introduction to Max Von Sydow. It had quite a bit of nudity and sex, but it was the theme of the movie that captivated me. I felt a strong kinship to Harry Haller as he stood in front of the mirror with a razor at his throat. I too was leading a life of quiet desperation, I too felt like an alien shackled by society and its crass commercialization. It was powerful stuff for a fourteen year old.

When the movie was over, I had forgotten about sex entirely. I took the train back out to Allen’s house and thought deeply about the meaning of life.

The next day, however, I was back downtown, walking the devastated city streets looking at the whores and trying to get up the nerve to go in one of the sex shops or adult theaters. Like a lonely wolf of the steppes, I sauntered down a side street I had never seen before and came across a sign that said “Magic Theatre.” It had images of women in bunny bikinis. I felt like heaven had opened up and Jesus reached out and whacked me on the head. This was a sign that God wanted me to see some porn. And maybe some sensual adventures would follow.

I know you. You’ve already figured it out. The sign was not what I thought. I paid my money down and sat in the nearly empty room waiting for my revelation, but it really was a magic show. The only revelation I got was that a guy could hammer a long nail up his nose without killing himself.

But things did get very weird. Allen’s father killed himself that night in the bathroom with a razor, though it was his wrists he cut, not his throat. I was put on the next plane home and didn’t see Allen again for 15 years. Strangely enough, he became a professional hockey player, though he never got beyond the minor leagues. Just by chance, I watched him skate for a Canadian team in Spokane one time, but I made no effort to meet him. I figured he’d probably just tell me to take off. He didn’t do anything to distinguish himself in the game and had a nervous breakdown soon after. I later heard from another friend that he was incarcerated in a mental health clinic near Toronto.

But anyway, when I saw that Max Von Sydow was in Strange Brew, I was transported back to that long ago day in Philadelphia and I confess that when I put the tape in the machine, I thought I might find some deeper meaning. Did I, well no, of course not. Brewmeister Smith is a mighty cinematic figure, but he is no Harry Haller. When the movie was over, the only thing I contemplated was a beer. Still, even though it’s not Steppenwolf, I heartily recommend Strange Brew. There are worse things to contemplate than beer, eh?