Deliberate Clarity: The Thermals and The Seventh Seal

Last night I watched the Ingmar Bergman film The Seventh Seal. It’s probably the first european art movie I had ever heard of, and it carries a ponderous reputation. I’m happy to report that this is not the case. The film practically zips along–its examination of faith and death is bracing, not headache-inducing. My teenage cousins, who happen to be staying with me this week, joined in watching and enjoyed themselves. It was funny, even.

Of course, the film does not have a fluffy subject. The Seventh Seal is the story of a medieval knight, back from the crusades, returning to his home amidst the Black Plague. As he plays a game of chess with Death, our knight struggles with the nature of faith.

Creator Ingmar Bergman makes the concerns of the film readily apparent. Instead of concealing his knight’s religious inquiries in other language, the knight just comes right out and says he wants proof of God’s existence. Instead of hinting that the knight desires to accomplish one good task before dying, he has the knight announce this aim. This straightforwardness reminds me a lot of the most recent album by The Thermals, Now We Can See, which tackles similar issues with a deliberate clarity.* Nearly every tune addresses death and dying, right out in the open, in a midtempo pace.

A lack of subtlety usually offends. When an artwork is unsubtle, it usually gets repetitive and doesn’t nourish the brain. So how does Bergman (or The Thermals) pull it off? In part, I think it’s because both are searching for clarity. The quest to understand has made them better communicators. They cast their artistic nets widely to improve their yield. But each also juxtaposes the search for meaning against more complex systems. If the knight seems like a point A to point B kind of guy, this is because he so strongly contrasts with the story’s ritualistically tangled (and member-hungry) Catholic church. If The Thermals feel so clean-cut, it’s in part because their peers in independent music have developed such highly orchestrated, obscurantist sound-poems.** But that’s not the sum of it. Both Bergman and The Thermals drive their clarity to the brink of enlightenment, but ultimately come up empty-handed. Unlike other unsubtle works, the ultimate meaning of death is never revealed. They haven’t got it figured out.

I’m still struggling with this concept of the Satisfying, Unsubtle Work. Do you have an example? Please write in.

*I wonder if they’re Bergman fans. The previous Thermals album concerned the distortions of religious zealoutry, which is certainly on Bergman’s mind.

** I like a lot of these obscurantist sound-poems, and even feel a bit ashamed for enjoying an album like Now We Can See, which seems so musically unadventurous and unprogressive in comparison. Then I get ashamed for being ashamed in the first place. Oh, it’s so complicated to be me!


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July 2009
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