Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

A Moment of Silence: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

I'm still saddened by the recent death of Ingmar Bergman, although I knew it had to be coming. (When I got the news, I was visiting in Virginia, and had taken with me the DVD of the full-length television version of Fanny and Alexander, which I had been saving up and had been thinking of watching that night.) Bergman and Kurosawa have long been my favorite filmmakers (even though I love comedy). Woody Allen said that Bergman was "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera," and there's a strong case to be made for that.

The Washington Post featured several good articles. Adam Bernstein penned a superb obituary, film critic Desson Thompson wrote a nice appreciation, Tim Page compiled a useful viewing list of "A Dozen Movies From the Master," David Sterritt lead an online discussion, and there's a nice photo gallery. Meanwhile, The New York Times page on Bergman features a bevy of stories, reviews and links, but of chief interest are Mervyn Rothstein's obituary on him, Stephen Holden's appraisal, A.O. Scott's appreciation of Bergman and Antonioni ("Before Them, Films Were Just Movies"), plus the disturbing news that the Bergman archive may be in danger. (Now there's a cause to support.)

The CNN obit isn't bad, and the Wiki and imdb entries are useful.

Meanwhile, Jon Swift employs his trademark dry, ironic wit to critique some of Bergman's recent detractors, and coins the useful film analysis term Derrièrism. (Then there's Jonathan Rosenbaum's odd, somewhat hostile piece for the NYT. I'm all for a honest discussion of Bergman's films, including their flaws, but I question the taste of those who just don't like him, and based on their comments I sometimes have to wonder if these people have actually seen the films.)

I wrote a piece on Sven Nykvist, one of Bergman's two great cinematographers, when he died last year. The post features many stills of Bergman films.

My dad took me to Kurosawa films when I was a kid at the great, departed repertory film theater The Biograph in D.C., but I had to scramble to find Bergman films on my own as a teenager. Not many seemed to be on video, at least at our video stores. I think my first introduction was reading a TV Week blurb on The Seventh Seal that said something like, "A medieval knight returns to plague-torn Sweden to play a chess game with Death." Being the kid I was, I was extremely intrigued, but we didn't get that station and it took me a few weeks to hunt down a copy. Perhaps I entered Bergman's world easier because I'm part Scandinavian, was raised devoutly Lutheran, and was, ahem, a fairly angstful teenager. At the time, I was very earnestly studying philosophy and scouring plays, novels and films for the answers to life's problems, so the existential questions and conceptual density of The Seventh Seal and other Bergman films were very real, immediate, and urgent.

I begged my way into a Bergman class as a freshman in college, which was a wonderful experience. It was great just to see the films, often projected (crucial for Persona), but also to learn much more about cinematic technique and Bergman's style. I left nearly every film moved, and thinking of it long afterwards. At times it lead to a kind of reverse culture shock. As bad as Kickboxer is, it's even worse when you watch it in the dorm lounge after just coming back from watching the sublime Wild Strawberries (and Predator 2 is all the more painful seen right after L'Avventura — wow. There's a Bergman-Antonioni connection for ya). When I was in college, the National Gallery did a great Bergman retrospective, and I was lucky enough to catch some of it on vacation. Interestingly, though, many of the prints we'd see in class (or at the National Gallery) had bowdlerized subtitles (essays we'd read would sometimes tip us off). There's a scene between Anne and her maid in Smiles of a Summer Night where they just didn't translate at least four lines of dialogue. In DC, this obvious omission made the audience start to chuckle. My Bergman professor told us that one year he'd had a student who spoke Swedish, and every time something wasn't translated, or it seemed suspect, the class would turn and look at her. If she blushed, as apparently she often did, they knew something sexual was being left out of the translation. I don't own all of Bergman's films on DVD, but I hope all of them are free of such silly prudishness.

I understand the criticism that Bergman feels dated or of a time, and for some films and some elements that may be true. Still, I made an effort to see The Best Intentions, Sunday's Child, Faithless and Saraband in the theater. Even though Bergman wrote all four but directed only one of those, I remember leaving each of them more affected than by virtually any other film of that given year. When a friend came over for dinner and a movie earlier this year, she asked to watch Wild Strawberries, which she had never seen. It leaves a mark. It's still powerful and poignant. To each his or her own, but I just can't think of many filmmakers that so consistently achieved that sort of reaction from so many people.

Bergman had the enviable position in life of being able to do both theater and film, and work with the same fine troupe of actors over and over again, writing parts specifically for them. Bergman could be considered a great director solely due to his facility for capturing brilliant performances on film, and his dedication to creating the atmosphere on a set necessary for that. It's no easy feat, and looking over Bergman's body of work, it's far too easy to take for granted because the work's so consistently excellent it can seem effortless. It's also too easy to take his consistently superior scripts for granted, but that sort of thematic depth isn't simple to achieve. Walking the line of high seriousness and melodrama (as my Bergman professor might have put it) takes a conductor's sensibility for tone, rhythm and shifts. It's easy to parody Bergman. I enjoy many of the parodies out there, and sometimes his somberness has made me laugh. Still, as Holden writes in his piece:

If you revisit “The Seventh Seal” with a smirk on your face, you will likely be struck anew by the power of this life-and-death chess match and the scary ashen face of a black-robed Death. What may seem the essence of portentous symbolism when taken out of context retains its primal force within the film. You are inescapably reminded that in the metaphysical and emotional struggles portrayed in Mr. Bergman’s films, the stakes are all or nothing and extremely personal.

It's also important to put Bergman's innovations in the context of his time, as many of the writers linked above do, including Adam Bernstein:

Bergman's style of intensely personal cinema -- where desire and suffering dominated the characters' lives -- first gained wide attention in the early 1950s. His work contrasted with the output of some American filmmakers, who were making far lighter comedies and dramas or promoting gimmicks such as 3-D and Smell-o-Vision.

Film historian and critic David Sterritt said Bergman made it fashionable among American audiences to discuss movies as an art form. Previously, that distinction was largely reserved for adaptations of Shakespeare or other literary classics.

"He showed that cinema could be a genuine art that could take on the deepest of all human themes," Sterritt said.

In Europe, movie directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut helped break visual and narrative rules. But Bergman stood out for making disturbingly psychological films that explored emotional isolation and spiritual crisis, often about living in a nuclear age.

Women were especially prominent in Bergman's films -- and not as cardboard heroines. Bergman's female characters usually stood on the brink of mental collapse, confused by their doubts and passions.

Men were often hapless bystanders, incapable of understanding their own lives, much less those of anyone around them.

"The people in my films are exactly like myself -- creatures of instinct, of rather poor intellectual capacity, who at best only think while they're talking," Bergman once said. "Mostly they're body, with a little hollow for the soul."

Critics saw in Bergman's films a tendency for characters to use sex as a way of overcoming their sense of isolation and finding tenuous connections with one another. Yet fear of intimacy frequently caused the characters to cloak their true emotions. Bergman underscored this theme by focusing on people who were involved in theater and used disguises and role-playing.

Those are pretty timely, or timeless, themes. Bernstein also features a brutally frank admission by Bergman of what a lousy father he had been, a theme that often appeared in his movies. He does not spare the microscope or scapel from himself at all.

Mizoguchi and Bergman seem to be the only filmmakers of their generation who consistently focused on women (the dearth of women directors being an obvious factor). Like Bernstein, Stephen Holden also focuses on those marvelous performances and their intimacy:

Mr. Bergman’s ruthlessly honest investigation of his demons is what lends such images their crushing weight. However fictional, they are undeniably truthful expressions of one artist’s personal torment, redeemed by fleeting glimpses of eternity and redemption in a long, dark night of the soul...

No filmmaker has explored relationships between men and women with such depth and passion. His achievement is inseparable from that of the extraordinary actresses — like Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and, most of all, Liv Ullmann (with whom he made 10 films) — who people his work and who embody both the women in his life and his own feminine side.

Whereas the majority of men in Mr. Bergman’s films are selfish, grown-up little boys, at once grandiose, lecherous, feckless and narcissistic, the women whom they love and betray are their connection to what really matters in everyday life.

Bergman achieved greater mastery of the medium over time. Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, his 12th film directed, by my count) features a striking flashback sequence near its opening and some very intriguing visual compositions. Later films were even more assured. He and Nykvist played with light extensively, and focused a great deal on capturing the expressive nature of face and hands. Some of Bergman's detractors intimate he was too stage-bound or even "un-cinematic." In my experience, when people use "cinematic," they really mean "spectacle," as in summer drek such as Transformers (there are both good and bad popcorn films, just as there are good and bad art house films). I'd argue "cinematic" means using the unique qualities of the medium to tell a tale, in the case of film telling a story with well-chosen images, sounds, camera moves and montage (among other elements). It's true Bergman's pieces are primarily chamber pieces. He does use the landscape in his film, often memorably, but not as prominently or relentlessly as John Ford, Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, David Lean or Antonioni. His chief landscape is internal and emotional. But he's cinematic not only because Sven Nykvist and Gunnar Fischer could really light a scene and compose a frame. While the basic "message" of the nightmare sequence in Wild Strawberries has been conveyed in other stories in other media, Bergman fully exploits the tools of his medium: an over-exposed look, surreal images, a creepy and calculated sound design, a specific progression of images, events, reaction and emotion and only very little dialogue to set things in motion. The story is told cinematically, and could not really be told with the same effectiveness in another medium. The Silence offers very little dialogue but a palpable mood, and for the most part tells its story visually. Bergman had wanted to call most ambitious and experimental work, Persona (the word originally meaning "mask") simply "Cinema." It's an exploration of the limitations and power of the medium itself, probably unrivaled in that respect, and the unique experience it offers simply couldn't be told in another form. The medium may not be "the message," but it's a integral part of the story and the storytelling. Meanwhile, in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman opts for a relatively "invisible technique" approach, as he often does (contrast that with what my professor called the "Italian camera" of The Silence, roaming about on its own accord as a character in its own right). The "Making of," documentary highlights some scenes in Fanny..., but as I wrote in my piece on Nykvist:

Not only do Bergman and Nykvist employ a broad palette of color to paint the different locales and moods, they also employ some astounding camera moves – but none of the work draws attention to itself. Unless you’re watching for it, you’re not likely to notice that certain scenes are filmed in one take. The opening of the film starts near Christmas time, with rich reds and greens and a sinuous dance of characters and camera. A middle section at the Bishop’s house is stark, bleak and grey. And near the end, the film employs a mystical, dream-like feel – evoking the daydream of the opening sequence.

I'll add that one of the dolly shots introducing the Bishop's house is brilliantly unnerving. Fanny and Alexander, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, Sunday's Child and a few other Bergman films feature some of the most effective "horror" moments in cinema.

That's not to mention the much more realistic and unsettling horror of watching a marriage disintegrate in the scathing, engrossing Scenes From a Marriage. While I don't have the same intense emotional response these days that I did when first watching The Seventh Seal or Fanny and Alexander, and am less obsessed about the "big ideas," I find what I really appreciate most about Bergman now is his unflinching honesty about intimacy and relationships in films such as Scenes…, from small cruelties to simple joys. As I remarked in my review of Saraband (bottom of the post):

…There's simply no one else who delves into intimacy, yearning, and alienation with as unflinching a gaze as Bergman. In the Bedroom was a good film, but American Bergman-lite. Eric Rohmer, another great master, comes closest to Bergman in terms of capturing the complexities and subtleties of real life on film, but Rohmer is French and far happier than the brooding Bergman. Rohmer is the cinematic equivalent of Chekhov without the extreme tragedy, while Bergman is pure Dostoevsky...

If nothing else, Saraband delves not only into the redemptive power of love, but also a poisonous, possessive brand of it that can be passed on from generation to generation. While at its most brutal, Saraband, like other Bergman films, deals with characters who feel that one they love has failed them somehow, in the end it becomes more a meditation on the unavoidable imperfections of close relationships. All four characters face this truth, even if some never fully reconcile themselves to it.

Kurosawa once said "The artist must never look away." That exemplified both he and Bergman.

Rosenbaum's piece muses about the popularity of Bergman today compared to say, Hitchcock, in higher education as well as rep houses and DVD availability. Well, some of the other articles note Bergman's profound influence on other filmmakers, and it's significant. Meanwhile, most of Bergman's films are available in the U.S. or are becoming so, so I question Rosenbaum's accuracy, but as for general "popularity," I think it's simply that he's not an everyday filmmaker. I love Crime and Punishment and King Lear too, but I can't read or watch them every night. Bergman features are more in the vein of "event" films that demand more than a casual viewing. They're also not for viewers who don't want to be unsettled, as A.O. Scott observes:

Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman, for their parts, were the supreme modernists of world cinema. Mr. Antonioni helped to push Italian film beyond realism, infusing landscapes with psychological rather than social meaning and turning eroticism from a romantic into a metaphysical pursuit. Mr. Bergman, heir to a Nordic strain of modernism represented by Strindberg and Ibsen, developed a film language dense with psychological symbolism and submerged emotion. The two of them upheld, as filmmakers, T. S. Eliot’s observation that “poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal,” though they have little else in common (apart from exquisite black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of Aldo Scavarda and Gunnar Fischer), are both hard to watch. Not because the content or the imagery is upsetting, but because they never allow the viewer to relax into a conditioned expectation of what will happen next or an easy recognition of what it means.

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Scott nicely captures the imaginative and intellectual dimension to Bergman's appeal, while Desson Thompson does a fine job of expressing the more personal side of the attraction:

Bergman's art was more than just personal. He offered his perspective as a glistening prism for all of us. And for this fan, Bergman understood his audience's intensely personal secrets -- yesterday's row with the spouse, tormented thoughts about death, foolish dreams of grandeur, jealousy over that well-to-do family next door, the emotional devastation of our childhoods, and so on.

And where we thought of them as silly, private matters, he elevated them with a perspective that made us feel honored to be human. By showing that childhood, family memories and the regrets, ecstasies and sorrows of his own life were important to him, he made us feel our lives were equally significant. And rather than exclude us from his own torments, he drew us in.

Well put. Great art has many measures, but I think one is that it can withstand intense scrutiny and another is that it provokes significant thought or emotion. Great cinema in particular often transports the viewer into another world. You know if you've seen a Bergman film; it does leave its mark. And as with Shakespeare, viewing the same Bergman film ten years later can yield a very different but equally rich experience.

I thought it'd be good to close with a few clips and comments on specific films. Tim Page's list of twelve films, linked above, is quite good. I'd say the four best to see first are Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Fanny and Alexander. The following have a few slight spoilers, so be warned.

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955): The was the film that first brought Bergman international attention. It's one of his few comedies, loosely remade by Woody Allen as A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and the stage musical A Little Night Music. It's actually got several dark undercurrents, but it's a fun, entertaining and knowing piece.

The Seventh Seal (1957): This is the one most parodied, but it still has power, and further catapulted Bergman's reputation. Death has a human face and uses often casual language — "I'm Death." This was shot rapidly, pretty much guerilla-style, and actually, while many of the images are iconic, the camera work is more rough and tumble than many other Bergman pieces. I believe Jean Renoir, among others, really adored how the scene with the flagellators was shot. I love Gunnar Björnstrand's performance as the cynical squire Jöns, playing wonderfully off the earnest searching of the tormented Antonius Blok (Max van Sydow). Nils Poppe as Jof the clown is also very winning, as is the lovely and endearing young Bibi Andersson as Mia, his wife. The film trivia book Retakes reports:

For extras in the village tavern scene, the director hired residents of a Stockholm geriatric home. The climatic Dance of Death on the hilltop was totally improvised in ten minutes after the regular working day when most of the actors had gone home. A beautiful cloud appeared in the sky; Bergman hastily dressed his working crew in the actor's costumes and filmed the sequence quickly. (Union regulations would now prevent such spontaneity.)

Here's that memorable opening:

Wild Strawberries (1957): This may well be Bergman's best film. It's an episodic tale ("a string of pearls," my Bergman professor called it), following an elderly doctor as he travels by car to accept a lifetime award. As he progresses, he revisits key locations in his life and relives his memories, prompting a re-evaluation of his life and a gradual transformation. The Seventh Seal is a much more confrontational film, whereas this one sort of sneaks up on you. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who hasn't wound up liking it. Timeless themes beautifully executed. Woody Allen uses some of its devices in Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Deconstructing Harry. (The lead actor, Victor Sjöström, was the "father of Swedish film," an influential director probably best known in the United States for The Wind (1928), a great silent starring Lillian Gish, with a memorable dust storm sequence.)

The film trivia book Retakes reports:

Considering himself retired, Sjöström had been exceedingly reluctant to join the cast, and Ingmar Bergman had to use all his powers of persuasion to enlist the elderly actor. Once working, however, Sjöström was visibly enjoying himself. The only time he became cranky was when Bergman held him on the set beyond the customary hour of his evening whiskey. One such time was the meadow scene in which Sjöström stands with a benign expression of spiritual calm; in actuality, said Bergman, the old man was boiling mad because he was going to be late for his glass of whiskey.... Gunnar Sjöberg's role of engineer Ahlman was based on film critic Stig Ahlgren, who had often attacked Bergman's work.

Here's that famous dream sequence:

The Virgin Spring (1960): This is one of Bergman's Oscar-winners. Also set in Medieval times, it features another great performance by Max von Sydow. It also contains one of the least glamorous rape scenes ever put on film, with Bergman wisely going for an understated, restrained approach with the camera. It's the sort of scene that's disturbing because it should be.

The Silence (1963): This film caused a splash when it debuted due to its frank treatment of female sexuality and nudity. The final film of Bergman's "faith" trilogy (with Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light, both superb as well), the original title of this was "The Silence of God." I haven't seen it in several years, but as a college freshman this was one of my favorites. I really loved its minimal dialogue and the palpable mood Bergman creates. Because the main characters don't speak the language of the country they're briefly staying in, they often need to communicate with gesture, and it adds to the feeling of isolation in their struggle for expression and connection. All the performances are great, with a memorable turn by the older man (Håkan Jahnberg) playing the waiter, a smoldering performance by Gunnel Lindblom as the sensual Anna, and a harrowing performance by Ingrid Thullen as the more intellectual Ester. The film lends itself well to deep analysis, but I think its chief virtue is that it needs to be felt and experienced.

I wish a little more of the lead-in was included in this clip (Ester, who has some sort of lung condition, has been writing and talking about her life, including her dissatisfaction with past relationships, with the waiter who cannot understand her). I actually wrote an essay on this key scene:

It's more unsettling in the context of the film, knowing the characters and their situation, but I tend to think sequences such as this are far more frightening than, say, giant spiders on screen. It also really shows off how powerful chiaroscuro lighting can be in black and white film.

Persona (1966): Persona is a great film, but I wouldn't recommend it as the first Bergman film to see for most viewers. It's his most experimental and arguably the most challenging, at least in terms of form. There are times I feel it's more a film one studies than one enjoys, because Bergman intentionally distances the audience at times and reality isn't always clear. Still, many Bergman devotees adore this film above all others, and it features engaging performances by Liv Ullman as Elisabeth, a famous actress who has gone mute, and Bibi Andersson as Alma, her nurse, as they two of them are secluded at a beach house for Elisabeth's recovery. Many of the film's small choices and individual scenes are fascinating. In addition to the signature scenes, Andersson has a riveting monologue as she curls up in a chair, about a shameful episode on a beach in her past. The conventional choice would be to go to a flashback, but with understatement Bergman just stays on her. It's not necessary a "theatrical over cinematic" choice. It's just that what's most important is not so much the incident itself, but its effect on Alma now, and the act of her sharing it with Elisabeth. It's a good indicator of Bergman's sound instincts. Persona is a film that examines the limitations and conventions of cinema itself, but its emotional core centers on issues of intimacy, trust and betrayal (as do most Bergman films). While it's always good to see a Bergman film in a theater, this film specifically depends on being seen projected in a theater for full impact, at least on the first viewing.

Here's the opening:

Shame (1968): I wanted to mention this one because I only saw it for the first time a few years ago and it's not as well known as some of the others, but it's fantastic. It features Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman as married musicians on a war-torn island. It deals the most overtly with politics of all of Bergman's works, mainly from the point of view of ordinary people being caught up in situations they really want no part of. The main focus though, of course, is the state of the relationship, intimacy, and the familiarities that come from being long married. When I saw this one, I thought, "damn, how many four star films can the guy make? How can he turn these out so often, and be so consistently good?"

Scenes From a Marriage (1973): Originally made for Swedish television, a shortened (but roughly three hour) version was released theatrically and brought Bergman new acclaim. I only saw this a couple of years ago, rushing to find a copy to rent before seeing Saraband, which features the same characters (but is not a traditional sequel and is self-sufficient). I was rapt the entire time. This may be the most unflinching of all the unflinching Bergman films, and like all his work, is heavily based on his own life for at least its emotional reality even if he changes details. The performances are extraordinary, naturalistic and often heart-breaking. This is the Russian ideal for Chekhov performance, on screen — it's real life, warts and all. I don't think anyone can see this without acclaiming Liv Ullman especially as one of the all-time greats (as Marianne). Both characters are intellectuals, but the sort who rationalize excessively to avoid true self-reflection, especially the self-absorbed Johan (Erland Josephson). I often felt the urge to shake them. His cruelties are all the harsher because they're so unnecessary, and because Marianne so clearly loves him despite everything. He, too, has his lingering affections, and there's a familiarity that binds them that is at times intensely dysfunctional and at times, against perhaps all reason, profoundly calming and lovely. I still need to see the full version, but I sometimes think this film should be required viewing for all couples. I find the very end brilliant and astounding, and a mark of Bergman's true artistry and maturity as a man who really knows life and just refuses to pander artistically. I shan't spoil it, but for me it shares the sublime nature of Uncle Vanya.

Fanny and Alexander (1982): This also won an Oscar (four, actually), and in some ways this may be Bergman's best film. It deals with the pains and joys of childhood, of death, of cruelty, the perils of intimacy and the trials of marriage and other relationships, but it also captures more of the magic and sense of wonder than many of Bergman's others films. It also started on Swedish television and was recut for a shorter, theatrical release about three hours long. Loosely autobiographical, it's just gorgeously shot, and justifiably won Sven Nykvist an Oscar. Bergman references Hamlet throughout, and includes touches of Strindberg, but this film is uniquely him. While the theatrical version is longer than the average feature, it's also one of the most friendly to the new Bergman viewer. Meanwhile, for Bergman fans and students of cinema, it definitely deserves repeated viewings. (The Nykvist post features many stills from this film.)

Here's the opening, the television version apparently, although the quality isn't great:

And that's it for now! As the line goes, the rest is silence.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful work!