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R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman (+ Persona Essay + images)

Persona image, Bergman

Ingmar Bergman died yesterday.

He lived a great life and did many great things. He is a hero to me.

I was a Bergman fanatic in college. I was profoundly moved in every conceivable way by Persona. I called it my alltime favorite film then, and still consider it my alltime favorite. Bergman has created a massive body of work, and I look forward to filling in the gaps of my knowledge.

Here’s Joe Queenan’s entertaining (and insightful) look at Bergman’s films, all of which he viewed in a few weeks. Ok, Queenan perhaps is having fun at Bergman’s expense, but some of his asides struck me as right-on:

With a handful of exceptions (The Seventh Seal, The Serpent’s Egg) where the director goes in somewhat different directions, Bergman’s movies break down into three broad groups: the ones where men torment women, the ones where women torment men, and the ones where men and women torment each other.

On Bergman and female actresses:

But if Ingmar Bergman had to rely on Max von Sydow playing board games with Satan’s terrestrial emissary, or Erland Josephson ditching a woman 20 years his junior for a woman 30 years his junior (Scenes From a Marriage) or Gunnar Björnstrand demonstrating why he failed to land that job at the Svenska Suicide Hotline (Winter Light), Ingmar Bergman would never have become a household name. Luckily, Bergman realised quite early in his career that the public would respond favorably to his pairing of an endless string of twenty-something Scandinavian beauties with plain, balding, hatchet-faced, bland or decrepit male co-stars – usually old enough be their fathers – rather than having these women share the screen with the Alain Delons and Marcello Mastroiannis of their era. This may be because male viewers found these nubile young women more psychologically “accessible” in these situations, at least as daydream material, with the dirty old men who prey on them posing no real threat because at a certain point they become either expendable or ludicrous. Or it may simply result from Bergman’s personal obsession with his nubile young starlets – he was still sleeping with Harriet Andersson when he was bringing Bibi Andersson on board in Smiles of a Summer Night; and still making movies with Bibi Andersson when he was adding Liv Ullmann to the harem in Persona. (He was also married at the time, but that is another matter.)

Women, not men, are at the core of Bergman’s work; beautiful women trapped in loveless marriages, beautiful women tricked into having children they do not want, beautiful women browbeaten into aborting children they were prepared to adore. As a rule, their spouses, lovers, partners in adultery, or stage-door-johnnies are oafs, roués, self-involved scumbags or middle-aged lechers on the prowl for fresh talent. Bergman’s movies are not about the meaning of life; they are about the meaning of love. And men in Ingmar Bergman movies give love a bad name.

I’ve seen about ten of Bergman’s films. Persona is the best I’ve seen, but I also flipped out at Torment, his first film. It felt authentic and touched raw nerves (much in the same way as Through a Glass Darkly seemed to). Movies like Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries were interesting and philosophical, but not as remarkable as people give it credit for. The visuals seemed more interesting than the stories. I found Scenes from a Marriage hard to endure, but great filmmaking nonetheless (compare to Richard Linklater’s claustrophobic Tape). Here’s a great commentary by Hamish Ford:

Scenes may look less radical, but the apparent safeness of its form and setting allows for a rare intersection between television and popular culture’s traditional domestic space and a more modernist insistence on the various forces of repressed negativity that flow beneath the surface of everyday life.

Rather than succumbing to its more conservative traditions, Bergman utilizes television’s formal limitations so as to pursue a more extreme manifestation of his confronting close-up technique. “The human face,” Truffaut says of this period in Bergman’s cinema, “no one draws so close to it as Bergman does. In his recent films there is nothing more than mouths talking, ears listening, eyes expressing curiosity, hunger, panic.” (22)

The face of Ullmann, anguished performer of so many Bergman subjects, has never been more chillingly open than in Scenes from a Marriage as we almost embarrassingly watch it up close for very long periods without a cut. Forced upon us through such extended looking, the face has never been more confrontingly interior, our relationship with it more disturbingly intimate – as we watch the material communicative nerve ends of our giant onscreen companion as it seeks to look ‘inside’ itself, by means of a gaze ultimately directed straight out at us.

I regarded Fanny and Alexander as “sellout” the first time I watched it, but when I watched it again later, it seemed less trivial, more about personal nostalgia. (Wow, Hamish Ford’s article just reminded me that the original TV version of Fanny and Alexander was 5 hours long!) Besides Persona and Seventh Seal, Fanny and Alexander may prove to be Bergman’s most enduring work (if only because it’s the most accessible).

At the bottom of this post is some ramblings I made about Persona in September 2001. I want to add more reactions. I gave a long presentation about this film at college and have talked with cinema friend Michael Barrett about the film on several occasions and we ended up having significant disagreements about key elements of the film. I’ve seen the film a good 50 times and gave a longish presentation about the film. My friend is a sharp perceptive critic, and yet we still disagreed about basic elements of the film (the letter, the boiling water). Yes, there are modernist pretensions (especially in the introduction), but there is a conventional story in the middle. Yet, the film subverts all expectations about narrative every step of the way. There is a story and a character and a situation, but wait, nothing is as it appears. Reality is conveyed in layers, and then torn off at strategic moments.

The desolate surroundings were hauntingly beautiful, as were the women. I still remember key moments (the boiling water, the final words, the Bach violin sonatas playing in the darkness, the actress watching TV). The film had so many surprises, and even while watching the film over a decade later –fully knowing what would happen–I still end up jumping out of my seat.

Visually speaking, Sven Nykvist deserves a lot of credit for Persona’s striking visuals, but it is amazing how much Bergman could do with 60s technology. (Ironically, many of these cinematic techniques are now easy to replicate, but few have been able to use these effects as dramatically as Bergman and Nykvist did. (Photos follow)

First, if you have not seen the movie Persona, for pete’s sake, watch the first 6 minutes of the film on Youtube. And nothing else! You owe it to yourself to watch the rest of the film in one sitting.

(David Hudson at Greencine points us to many other articles and sites about Bergman).

Bergman’s Legacy

Who has taken over Bergman’s mantle today in more recent time? In 2005 I was astonished to discover that such a film existed: Krzysztof Kies’lowski’s Decalogue. Decalogue aims to construct a world of people trapped by ideas and pychological angst. So Decalogue is basically like Persona, except it’s 10 hours long! (It’s also a more coherent story structure, with a larger population of characters and a wider range of emotions).

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations about One Thing. Although panoramic in scope and a little too pretty/wacky, it at least is investigating personal and social issues with as much sensitivity as Bergman would. Sprecher and Krzysztof Kies’lowski would take conventional characters and settings and cinematography to explore existential messages. Persona, on the other hand, tried to break every cinematic rule to explore underlying psychological truths.

Image above: Liv Ullman as an actress in Persona. Image below: Bergman with Bibi Andersson (later his wife) and Liv Ullman (lover and actress). Both starred in Persona, Bergman’s greatest film.
Ignmar Bergman, persona, bibi andersson,  Liv Ullman

Thoughts on Bergman’s Persona (written 2 weeks after 9/11):

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Persona, a good 12 years. I did a presentation on the film for a university, and I studied it to death, as it deserves to be. Two moments stay with me:

  • the patient left in the room after the nurse has left her. The patient is lying in bed, with the shadows taking over her face and the melodies of Bach permeating the room. Gradually her face is consumed with darkness, and there is the sound of sobs. She is lost in her consoling world of art, selfish person that she is. It is a hopeless almost self-imposed isolation, and yet it is also her saving grace, her simple willingness to be swept away by the melodies and darkness. And it is also the moments of her darkness and despair, moments of suffering and raw emotion in a very quiet movie, moments normally hidden from us except in the artificial world of cinema.
  • The other scene: she is staring transfixed at the tv images of war and buddhist monks immolating themselves in vietnam. The TV announcer droned on in English with meaningless talk about politics and wars and armies while the image flickered on. (I write this only two weeks after the endless images of the World Trade Center bombing, alternating between feelings of intense emotional connection and utter revulsion about how tv broadcasts manage to trivialize any tragedy.) And of course, the Buddhist monks are suffering but are following their dharma and detaching themselves from emotional attachments in the world.

An actress needs to imitate and emphasize, but has lost her ability to do so. She wills to lose that human connection (which is the source of so much suffering). Yet, even when she withdraws, she is again drawn into so many things, the nurse’s stories, Bach, the monks. Just as the actress’s willpower about not talking is ultimately worn down by the nurse, the film demonstrates how this detachment (so vital to the artistic experience) cannot be sustained unceasingly. Eventually a person falls back into the world of taking out the garbage, telephoning family members and going to the grocery store. Persona calls attention to the allure of both worlds and the impossibility of pursuing one at the expense of the other.

Postscript:

Amazingly, when I submitted this post to IMDB on October, 2001, IMDB removed the reference to September 11. In response I wrote to them: “You removed the parenthetical statement about the WTC bombing, a decision I find incredible. Yes, I think the comparison between the actress’s paralysis to the TV images in the movie and American’s paralyzing addiction to WTC bombing images needed to be made. In the movie, the actress’s reaction to these images was paralysis and fear. The violence was so remote to her, and yet her response was to wither away in a corner of her hospital room. Over the last two weeks, many media critics have complained that the endless replaying of the exploding Twin Towers has created the same sort of paralysis in viewers. (One of my neighbors reported being unable to turn the TV off; it was making him sick and very depressed). Because viewers are helpless to respond to these TV images invading their homes, their reaction is to cocoon themselves, remove themselves from ordinary lives and focus on the disturbing messages fed to them by TV.

“Your decision to remove the reference to World Trade Center seems to deny that cinema can speak to our current predicament. It seems to say that the arts cannot provide insight in these dangerous times in which we live. Actually my main motivation in responding to “Persona” was to make precisely that point. Why are you so afraid to admit this art can occasionally have relevance to our lives?”

Liv Ullman, hospital, Persona

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • victor enyutin 1/27/2011, 10:20 pm

    “The Serpent’s Egg” (SE) by Ingmar Bergman
    SE is Bergman’s social-psychological study of fascist sensibility (regardless of its ideological masks) – through mobilization of intellectual and aesthetic resources of cinematic art. With a precision of a historian of culture and the daring intuition of an artist Bergman uses a number of dizzying substituting analogies, first of all, the one between Hitler’s failed Munich putsch in 1923 and full blown German Nazism (1933 – 1945), and secondly, between this realized Nazism and hypothetical American fascist future. From the conditions in Germany of early twenties where SE locates its narrative, Bergman looks ahead into the dystopian American future as if he looks at the coming of German Nazism. The film was released in 1977 – at the height of American democracy, and this adds the third Bergman’s analogy to the previous two: American democracy of late 70s precedes an intense totalitarization of US at the end of 90s–the beginning of 21st century (Bergman predicted in this film), like failed Munich putsch had preceded the coming of Nazism of 1933 – 1945.
    The film addresses us, Americans of the 21st century – we today, according to Bergman’s tormenting prediction, are going through the same processes Germany was going in twenties (invention of wars, economic collapses, militarization of economy, growing aggressiveness and brutality of right-wing propaganda, contempt towards American workers, pauperization of population, conservative attacks on helping the elderly and needy, defunding public education and social security, proud proclamation of use of torture, surveillance of American citizens without a Court order, etc.) In short, SE while narrating the story of two Americans trapped in pre-Nazi Germany, paradoxically talks to the viewers about their world and their life today.
    It’s of no surprise that in SE Bergman has several American movie stars – David Carradine as the main protagonist, Glynn Turman (as a man humiliated and traumatized by being put into a situation of the necessity to prove his heterosexuality) and James Whitmore (as honest and helpless priest). Liv Ullmann’s semantic control over the widest scope of emotional self-expressiveness makes her performance in SE an object for studying by future film directors and actors. The film traces in detail the destruction of human soul under the survivalist pressures and a collapsing democratic values of tolerance, compromise and mutual care.
    Among the particular topics analyzed by Bergman – the fall of Christianity into official state religion, sexual humiliation as a fascist fun, growth of suspiciousness and scapegoating, the omnipresence of a mass culture of forgetfulness, militarization of entertainment, de-existentialization of thinking into a calculation, and separation of science from humanism.
    Please, visit: http://www.actingoutpolitics.com to read the article about SE (with analysis of more than thirty shots from the film), and also essays about films by Kurosawa, Godard, Resnais, Bresson, Bunuel, Antonioni, Pasolini, Cavani, Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Alain Tanner and Moshe Mizrahi.

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