When I first conceived of these ‘Have You Tried……’ articles, I imagined I would concentrate on obscure directors. For example, I have been planning posts on Mikio Naruse and Marcel Pagnol. Not exactly household names, alas. These articles were intended to be about directors that might not have had the popular currency of the ‘Pantheon’ directors. What I began to realize while planning those other articles is that it is my notion of the ‘Pantheon’ no longer seems to have currency.
From the Fifties on, that is, from the time that people began to write seriously and analytically about film, it seemed that consensus formed around a group of directors who were deemed to be essential to one’s film literacy. John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles were masters working in the US, while on the international scene Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa and Jean Renoir were revered. There were others here and abroad, but the important thing was that familiarity with their work was a requirement to become a well-rounded cineaste. This idea was developed in France by the authors of the magazine Cahier du Cinema, many of whom became important directors in their own right: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. The concept of the director as auteur of the film was championed in America by the critic Andrew Sarris in his important and useful book The American Cinema. An auteur, usually a director, is an artist whose personal style is indelibly stamped on the film. For example, you don’t need to watch more than two minutes of a Hitchcock film to know who directed it. In many ways, Bergman is the epitome of the auteur. He wrote and directed all of his major works, cast them with many of same actors (many of whom were at various times his wives and/or lovers). He had his preferred stable of cinematographers who gave almost all of his films an unmistakable look. Several of his later films were even shot on his own island!
Being someone whose aesthetic is more about explaining the classic as opposed to ferreting out the new, I failed to notice that the Pantheon itself seems to have slipped off its base. Most contemporary writing on film is concerned with the new, perhaps rightly so. A contemporary Pantheon is being erected, enshrining the likes of the Coen Brothers and (*shudder*) Quentin Tarantino. I fear that what will prevent these new(ish) directors from taking their place among the immortals is the ironic stance they often take toward their characters. The Coen Brothers’ A Simple Man depicts an existential crisis in the life of its main character, but there is so much condescension in the depiction of that crisis that it is hard to feel any identification with the character – we feel compelled to deride him. This creates an intellectual distance between the film and the audience which I believe eventually leads to indifference on the audience’s part. In the films of Ingmar Bergman, there is no condescension toward existential crises of the main characters. In fact, existential crises are exhalted!
I will admit that much of middle-late Bergman is filled with obscure (or maybe just personally resonant) symbolism that is difficult to engage with. His bleak view of interpersonal relationships, especially marriage, can be grating after a while, no matter how masterfully it is portrayed. However, when one considers his whole output, there can be little doubt that his body of work contains more essential masterpieces than the work of any other filmmaker, or any other artist for that matter. What makes it all worthwhile is the absolute seriousness and integrity with which everything is treated. This makes the decline in popular regard all the more troubling. It reached a low point with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s shockingly Oedipal, idol-killing New York Times Op-Ed piece a few days after Bergman died.
So, then what accounts for Bergman’s slide in popularity? Several things come to mind:
1- Decades of successful parody, even by rabid admirers such as Woody Allen, tarnished his reputation by making his supposedly self-indulgent seriousness an object of ridicule. As an example, perhaps no iconic film image has been parodied more than the knight, Antonius Block, playing chess with Death in The Seventh Seal –
When taken out of context, it seems grim, medieval and ponderous. In context, there is much lightness and humor in the film. For example, after Death chooses black in the above scene, he smiles and remarks on the appropriateness of the choice. This humor leavens the more serious aspects of The Seventh Seal. The problem is that the lightness of touch is almost always missing in any parody of his work. Since parody has a way of presenting itself as something you need to agree with or you run the risk of being as foolish as that which is being parodied, the parodies of Bergman have solidified a false reputation for ponderousness and self-importance. This is unfortunate because The Seventh Seal is quite funny in places and even ends on hopeful note – sure there is still The Black Death ravaging Sweden and almost all the main characters are dead, but the good and innocent live to enjoy another day. Even the dead ones get to dance with Death:
2- Another reason is that Bergman’s films deal with religion in a serious way. He is engaged in titanic battle with God. It manifests itself in the yearning for God on the part of his characters, which is rewarded by God’s silence. Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister who practiced a very severe form of his faith. His son engaged with, rejected and engaged again with this Calvinist version of the faith. He is perhaps the angriest Christian who never became an atheist.
The problem with all this is that modern audiences cannot handle a serious, gut-wrenching meditation on matters religious. Religion is O.K. in film if it is either being ridiculed or if it dealt with in a transcendent, elusive way, such as in the films of Robert Bresson. Neither happens in a Bergman film. He and God are in it for the long count.
3- As stated above the male/female relationship is unsparingly dissected. No one comes out looking good. The mastery of character analysis is superb, but the findings wear the viewer down after a while.
4- His films, especially those from the late 60s/early 70s seem to come from a highly personal symbol world. This often thwarts the understanding, and hence the involvement of the audience. Often the only audience response can be the ‘game’ response – “Let’s play the game to figure out what Bergman’s symbols represent and thereby find the key to the film, and thereby be able to ‘get’ the movie.” Of course, this is no way to deal with a great work of art. If it is all a cagey game on the part of the creator, then who cares? I doubt that Bergman is ever playing games with the audience. He is not a cynical artist. I believe that the films of this period, such as The Hour Of The Wolf, Persona and The Silence come from such a personal and troubled place, and instilled in Bergman such an urgency to express something, that it is small wonder audiences struggle with them. I know I do.
So, why should we bother? Because, when it all comes together, nothing can compare to the impact a Bergman film has. It is cathartic, devastating, elating and confounding all at the same time.
If you are encountering Bergman for the first time, or if you have fallen away from the path of the True Believer and want to get reacquainted with his genius, let me suggest you sample the following films:
1- Smiles Of A Summer Night (1955) – Bergman’s early works were often women’s films or comedies of manner. Many of them are quite enjoyable, like Waiting Women or the quasi-neo-realist Summer With Monika, the film that single-handedly gave Sweden the reputation of being a sexy nation. The culmination of this first period was Smiles of a Summer Night, his international breakthrough, which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It is a wise romantic comedy in the tradition of Der Rosenkavalier or Le Nozze di Figaro. Perhaps best known today as the inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, it is a good way to ease into Bergman’s oeuvre. A sex farce, yes, but not without the meditations on aging and death that we have come to expect from Bergman.
2- The Virgin Spring (1960)- Of course, The Seventh Seal is Bergman’s towering achievement in evoking the world of medieval Sweden. It is possibly the one Bergman film you have seen. Let me recommend this companion piece. Also a tale of early Christian Sweden, it is quite distilled compared to The Seventh Seal, a chamber work compared to that great symphony of a film. A simple tale of violence and revenge resulting in grace, Bergman is working from the aesthetic of the medieval Mystery and Miracle plays. Stunningly photographed by longtime Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist. The end of this film should generate a lot of discussion about whether or not Bergman’s world view is as bleak as reputation has it.
3- Wild Strawberries (1957) – Perhaps my favorite film of all films. It has been a beloved companion since I first saw it back in the early 70s. Bergman deals here with the passage of time more effectively in the 91 minutes of this film than Proust does in the thousands of pages of his novel. Aged Dr. Isak Borg is to receive an award in Lund for his years of service. He makes the day-long drive from Stockholm to Lund with his frosty daughter-in-law Marianne. Along they way they pick up a young group of students going to Italy and a couple who are emblematic of Bergman’s sour view of marriage. As they wend their way south, they visit places that were emotional landmarks in Isak’s life. They visit his bitter ninety-plus mother, they stop at the family’s old summer house and as the film progresses the border between past and present, dream and reality dissolve. When the magnificent final image (see above) appears, you and Isak have travelled through life and time and have arrived at a dream past that always and never exists.
A beautiful aspect of this film is that Isak Borg is played by the great Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom. He was a pioneer in both Swedish and American silent films and was both idol of and mentor to Bergman.
4- Winter Light (1963) – The middle part of a very loosely linked trilogy, Winter Light depicts in real time the crisis of a Lutheran minister who has lost his faith and is failing everyone who depends on him. The almost Hindu-like call to duty, (he will officiate at the next service regardless of his personal feelings!), is complicated and powerful. A small and brutal film, with magnificent performances by Ingrid Thulin and Gunnar Björnstrand.
5- Fanny And Alexander – (1982) As surprising as it was that Giuseppe Verdi ended his illustrious career as a composer of tragic opera with the gossamer comedy of Falstaff, it was also surprising that Ingmar Bergman, the gloomy master of Nordic angst ended his long film career with a sprawling, life-affirming Dickensian family saga. Watch either the three-hour theatrical release or the five-hour original television version, although I believe the multipart television is even more satisfying. Fear not! Despite all the turn-of-the-19th-to-20th century trappings and the complicated family interactions, this is not Downton Abbey. There is enough meditation on good rewarded and evil punished to remind us that we are firmly rooted in Bergman’s Lutheran heaven/hell. The opening Christmas sequence is one of the great set pieces of all cinema.
So, please help me restore Bergman to his rightful place among the Cinema Gods. Watch as many of his films as you can. I look forward to discussing them with you!