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Review : “CJDG – A Film About Carl Johan De Geer” (CJDG – en film om Carl Johan De Geer) – Ahrvid Engholm (Sweden)

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CJDG – en  film om Carl Johan De Geer “, a  documentary by Kersti Grunditz.

Carl Johan De Geer, born in 1938, grew up in absurd privilege and abject unhappiness as a member of one of Sweden’s most powerful aristocrat families, his parents showed no discernable interest in him or his siblings. He grew up on a grand country estate with his grandparents, went to art school in the late 1950’s, and in an epic choice of rejection lived his life to this day as a perennial Swedish underground artist, working in counterpoint to the privilege of his surname, and simultaneously getting noticed by the societal and cultural elites (who sometimes overlap) in that duck-pond of a nation due to that very same last name.” – Johan Kugelberg

This is Ahrvid, who  used to do one of those mimeographed science fiction fanzines“, Carl Johan said  introducing me to me to one of his friends, as we had gathered (December 12th) to to attend the  premiere  of the film about the famed multi-artist.

 Carl Johan De Geer (born July 13, 1938 in Montreal, Canada ; Swedish artist, writer, designer, debater, musician and friherre (baron) of the De Geer noble family) is an institution in Swedish culture. His graphical print “Skända flaggan” (“Desecrate the flag”, 1967) has been listed as one of  the most important pieces of 20th Century Swedish art. In the 1970’s he, together with Håkan Alexandersson (1940-2004), made the TV series “Tårtan” (“The Cake”, 1973) for children, which every Swede has seen and now is a true cult show. The series is about three clumsy sailors who take over a bakery.

We directed it as a collective“, he explains in “CJDG”. “And we didn’t have much of a manuscript. Every morning we gathered and decided what we would do that day. If someone wasn’t needed for that day’s shootings, he would make us our lunch meal.”

In this documentary Kersti Grunditz follows the artist for nine months. We see him preparing art shows in the US (were we also meet Johan Kugelberg, also one of those fanzine publishers from the 1980’s!), hear him holding lectures,  we see him appearing in the popular “Solsidan” (“Sunny Side”) comedy show on TV,  we hear his friends, ex-wives and colleagues interviewed, we see him order coffee in his favourite cafeteria and follow him to his art studio, and much more. Carl Johan isn’t fond of taking vacations. He works all the time. The work includes everything in the arts: painting, photography, writing books and newspaper articles, design, film-making, even music. He played trombone (“Rather than well“, he admits) in the group Blå tåget (“The Blue Train”) which made the hit track “Staten och kapitalet” (“The State and the Capital”).

 

“Desecerate the flag. Refuse arms. Betray your fatherland. Be unpatriotic. The cock.” That message made the establishment go ballistic. The police seized the poster. Carl Johan De Geer was even prosecuted and fined. Now this artwork is seen as quintessential for the 1968 generation.

I came in contact with Carl Johan as a copy of his fiction debut (he had done art books before) arrived to my already mentioned sf newsletter.  (My zine is now  transformed into the Twitter newsstream @SFJournalen.) It was the science fiction novel Det bombade ögat (“The Bombed Eye“, 1982) which later became the basis for his and Alexandersson’s movie “Res aldrig på enkel biljett” (“Never Travel On A One Way Ticket“, 1987) which was shot in the legendary Meyer Studios.

“Never Travel on a One Way Ticket” is one of the darkest and most bizarre movies made in Sweden.

I was invited one day to see this film being shot. The Meyer Studios  was an old foundry with soil floor.  The film is about a detective in a post-apocalyptic future trying to unravel what a better-than-life travel offer publicised is all about. Everything is worn and torn and dark. His films are often rather philosophical, often bordering the surreal and they have a lot of (what he calls) “joke-less humour”.

The soil of the Meyer studios was later analysed“, Carl Johan’s co-worker “Fjodor” told me. “It was found containing uranium, lead, arsenic and other unhealthy stuff.”

These studios were later renovated and now has an architect firm. “CJDG” makes a visit there.

“Never Travel On a One Way Ticket” (1987) is set in a post-apocalyptic future.

 

As the “Res aldrig på enkel biljett” was shot the guy playing a bar owner was missing (possibly preparing lunch!) and Yours Truly was quickly hired as “leg stand-in”. The needed shot would only show the bar owner’s lower half, so they gave me the needed clothes and put make-up on my hands as I opened a small door through which the hero could escape. Three seconds of movie fame!

That film had a lot of Philip K. Dick feeling in it, one of Carl Johan’s favourite authors. He is the son of a diplomat, growing up here and there around the globe and books became a way to cope with a somewhat fragmented upgrowing. He read lots of cheap sf and hard-boiled crime paperbacks. The esthetics of “cheap” commercial art can often be found in his work. In the 1970’s he was a member of the 10-Gruppen design group and made for instance wallpaper with flowers and psychedelic animals.

The saloon of the cinema, Zita, was packed as installed myself in the front row (I prefer to sit there, if possible – it is nice to be able to spread your legs). A representative of the cinema introduced the film and then “CJDG” started.

You have to be impressed by an artist who seem to be able to do everything. Directing how an art show in Los Angeles should be set up – no big deal. A gallery owner saying “and you might want to do a book about this also” – sure, practially done. Making a big painting for the government – a piece of cake. Telling a TV crew how they should work…

I noted a lot of details from the film, but find my scribblings done in half-darkness are harder to read than usual. If I do some WWII Enigma decyphering I could present some snippets:

* Carl Johan has also done some acting. He was a policeman in the show “Söderkåkar” (“Southern Houses”) and the ape in “Tårtan” – and played himself in the already mentioned “Solsidan”.

* He had a complicated relationship with his mother, who lived in a huge but run-down apartment with stacks of paper and trash everywhere.

* He has  made a film about his grandmother, who was a Nazi sympathiser, “Mormor var en god nazist” (“Grandmother Was A Good Nazi”, also shown on national TV).

* One of  his  coming projects will touch upon the murder  of Prime Minister Olof Palme.

* He went  to the Stockholm Trade Art School (known as Konstfack) and made a living through much of the 1960’s doing photography. His pictures appeared in many of the big magazines.

* The De Geer family belongs to the nobility  (which since long has no formal role in Swedish society,  though) and one  of his forefathers was Prime Minister. He had a complicated relationship with his father too. The family was  rather conservative, and not at ease with the maverick left-slanted Carl Johan. When his father passed away he inherited  the colossal sum of 3000 crowns…(about 350 Euros).

* He has been married several times. One ex-wife, Marie-Louise Ekman, who appears in “CJDG”, became boss of the  Royal Dramatic Theatre,  the top  theatre  institution in Sweden (but this “Royal”  thing isn’t taken too seriously in the  circles  where  Carl Johan moves). His present wife Marianne is also an artist and since they’ve been married for 27+ years I guess that’s his true love.

 

Carl Johan De Geer in his studio.

 * He  was one of the editors of the avant garde art magazine  Puss (“Kiss”), founded in 1968.

 * He lives near Slussen (just south of the Old Town in Stockholm)  and bicycles to his art studio in Årsta to the south-west most of the days, a studio that to my eyes looks rather well organised.

* He  has written a partly autobiographical book, Jakten mot nollpunkten (“The Hunt for Point Zero”, 2008) and his Det bombade ögat was expanded to a trilogy with two follow-up novels and published as a “cheap paperback” with a hard-boiled crime cover (Carl Johan likes those cheap paperbacks, as said).

* I have only mentioned a tiny fraction of his films and TV shows (usually done with Håkan Alexandersson; he would direct and Carl Johan would do props and film set and contribute to the manuscripts). A few more examples: “Privatdetektiven Kant” (“Private Detective Kant”), “Dr Krall” (about a veterinarian), “En spårvagn till havet” (“A Streetcar to the Sea”), “Hammar” (a hard-boiled story and crime novelist Mickey Spillane  appears in it!), “Noa” (inspired by Noah from he Bible), “Råttresan”  (“Rat  Race”, another science fiction flick, involving a mad scientist), “Werther” (inspired by the Goethe novel), and much more. His filmography on http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Johan_De_Geer lists  32 films/TV shows, but is only a selection…

The science fiction novel Det bombade ögat (“The Bombed Eye“, 1982)

* He has been guesting some of our local science fiction conventions (but that’s not mentioned in “CJDG”).

After the premiere, Carl Johan said that as a filmmaker it felt strange to see others doing a film about him.

 

After the film Carl Johan came to the front an said a few words as the compulsory flowers were handed to him. And then we gathered for some Nachspiel in the Rönnells second-hand bookshop just across the street from the movie theatre.

It is difficult to actually “review” a documentary. The film just followed a selected period of Carl Johan De Geer’s life, but I liked “CJDG” (though I am partial in my judgement, since I have followed his career for many years).

What impresses me is how full of energy Carl Johan is, at the mid-70’s age! And this film surely shows this energy.

©Ahrvid Engholm

CJDG – EN FILM OM CARL JOHAN DE GEER” by Kersti Grunditz

„Following the preparation of “Ledtrådar” (“Clues”), the first retrospective exhibition of Carl Johan De Geer, director Kersti Grunditz examines the life and work of the famous and controversial Swedish artist. De Geer, after a bourgeouis upbringing, abandoned his noble heritage for the bohemian circles of Stockholm, and in the spirit of the progressive sixties, began to form his trademark do-it-yourself aesthetics. Since then, he has alternately been a printmaker, painter, set designer, sculptor, writer and filmmaker. The choreographer Grunditz brings out, by focusing on the movements of the artist in work, an abstract sense of the “clues” referenced by the title of the exhibition. The film adds alternative perspectives and contexts of the life and work of De Geer by way of interviews with friends, collegues and collaborators such as Marianne Lindberg De Geer and Eric Ericson.

»CJDG« offers us an image of the seemingly chaotic universe of this artist who, according to his collegue Marie-Louise Ekman, “has a very unique way of describing the world. Making it seem both very comical and very absurd. He puts things together like no one else.

http://www.stockholmfilmfestival.se/en/festival/2014/film/cjdg_2014

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