Ingmar Bergman

WIth Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day, we have lost two giants from the First Golden Age of Cinephilia (the 1960s and the 1970s, when — at least in the US — such a thing as a film culture came into existence for the first time). (I consider us to be living right now through the Second Golden Age of Cinephilia — DVDs have made a wider range of art films, from a broader part of the world, more available than ever before; and internet discussions have led to a more wide-ranging discussion of such films than was ever possible before). I will write about Bergman here, and Antonioni in a subsequent post.

My attitude towards Bergman has really changed a lot over the years. When I was in college and graduate school, in the 1970s, I worshipped him — he was second only to Godard in revealing to me the potentialities of film, the heights of artistry of which it was capable. I found many of his films, basically the whole series, ten major films or so, that ran from Virgin Spring (1960) through Persona (1966), and on to Cries and Whispers (1972), to be uniquely powerful, and indeed devastating. I think that The Passion of Anna (1969), Bergman’s first color film, was also the first film to teach me how powerful color could be as an element of film. I found Bergman’s portrayals of women to be deeply empathetic, and his themes of loss and cultural desolation resonated deeply within me.

As I grew older, my attitude changed. Sometime during or after Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Bergman’s artistry seemed to me to have lost its edge. Either he had become too sentimental, or else his continued vision of pain and destruction had become too shrill and one-dimensional. By the time of Fanny and Alexander (1982), I had completely lost interest in Bergman’s ongoing work. What’s more, I had become more than a bit embarrassed by my younger self’s enthusiasm even for his greatest work. What had once seemed profound now struck me as pretentious. Bergman’s existential anguish, his handwringing over the death of God, his laments about essential loneliness, his contrived psychodramas: all this seemed to me to add up to a moribund aesthetic, the last gasp of an old-fashioned humanism and high-culture snobbery that nobody with any sense could take seriously any longer, in an age of television and rock ‘n’ roll and the first personal computers.

Today, I think that my attitude of contemptuous rejection was as misguided as my earlier enthusiasm was exaggerated. Perhaps I am suffering from a general mellowing of my sensibility, which is one of the most horrible things that often tends to happen to people in middle age. But I can mention two film experiences that led to my current re-re-evaluation of Bergman’s stature as an artist. The first was seeing Sunday’s Children, a film directed by Daniel Bergman (Ingmar’s son) from Ingmar’s own script. This is not a bad film by any means; it is directed solidly and more than competently, if also a bit stolidly and unimaginatively. The content (or the script) is pure Ingmar Bergman, at his most intimate and (presumably) autobiographical. It recounts the solitude and alienation of a young (10-year-old) boy, his initiation into the mysteries of death and sexuality (if I am remembering correctly), and above all his painful relationship with a harsh, perfectionist, unloving pastor father. The film affected me precisely because it didn’t really work: what was missing was precisely Ingmar Bergman’s lyricism, the expressiveness he achieved through lighting, through painfully long-held closeups, and through the rhythms of speech and silence, of tension and anticipation and (all too rarely) release. Again, I don’t want this to sound like I am just dumping on Daniel Bergman; but the things that were missing from his film, the things that were recognizably Ingmar-Bergmanian, but that didn’t have the resonance that Ingmar’s own directed films had — all these things made me realize what my harshly negative judgment of Ingmar Bergman was forgetting, or failing to acknowledge. I came away from watching Sunday’s Children, ironically enough, with a renewed appreciation of Ingmar Bergman’s artistry, of the way he was a true poet of cinema in the visually minimal, and yet somehow ravishing, images and details of his films in the heartwrenching moments of suspension and deadlock and incapacity that these films came to again and again, scenes that moved me however much I remained suspicious of his grand statements and pseudo-profound themes.

The second experience was encountering Persona again, for the first time in years, when –about five years ago — I was teaching a survey class on film of the 1960s and 1970s. I was struck by so many things: things that I didn’t remember from seeing the film in my period of Bergman-adulation, and that I certainly wasn’t even aware of in my period of Bergman-contempt. There was, first of all, the way that Bergman’s camera dwelt so lovingly — intimately and yet also with a certain respectful, or even worshipful distance — on Liv Ullman’s and Bibi Andersson’s faces, as these women smiled, or cried, or screamed, as they glanced lovingly or resentfully or jealously at one another. Then there was the visual tonality of the film, the black-and-white which was (how shall I put this?) stark but not harsh, with a luminosity that is too subdued and depressive to be called “radiant,” but too intensely saturated, too much a visible atmosphere, to be called anything else. The experimentalism of the film, which I had feared might come off as gimmicky and hokey, instead struck me as genuinely exploratory and even brave: I refer not just to the (justly) famous opening sequence, with its series of mysterious images (and, as Michel Chion reminds us, evocative sounds), but also the minimalist scene in the hospital, where Ullman watches the horrors of the Vietnam War on TV, and especially that moment towards the middle of the film, when the rupturing of the relationship between the two women is suddenly transformed into a rupturing of the cinematic apparatus itself. And then, in terms of narrative and thematics: what I had remembered as a murky and heavy-handed exercise in existential angst (Ullman is so distressed by Vietnam or whatever that she decides to stop speaking, because speech is necessarily impure and inauthentic) in fact turned out, upon my viewing the film again, to be something quite different. Something that at first seems stark and clear-cut turns out, as the film progresses, to be ever more ambiguous and equivocal, as everything Ullman and Andersson do, by themselves or to one another, gets entangled in a morass of mixed motives, uncertainties, confusions, and fabulations. The film becomes more and more a labyrinthine reflection upon its own fictionality, and (most remarkably of all) the affective currents which, in the first half of the film, relate quite firmly to the two main characters turn out themselves to apply, in a nearly impersonal way, to the confusions between those characters and their stories in the latter half of the film. In Persona , in short, Bergman deconstructs his own narrativity and thematics as rigorously as any of his European contemporaries of the 1960s were doing — and with more affective power than most.

All in all, Bergman still does not emotionally move me, or intellectually engage me, as profoundly as Godard, Fassbinder, and Antonioni do. But I think that now I am more able than I was for a long time to appreciate the considerable beauties and virtues of his art.

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