Rightwing Film Geek

Me and Max

max2.jpgAs great as were the justly-hyped new films by Andersson, the Coens, Reygadas, Maddin, Mungiu, etc. — the event at Toronto I was most looking forward to, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING presented in the Dialogues program by Max von Sydow. SPRING is a very very good film obviously, but it’s not Bergman’s greatest by a long shot (not even in his Top 10, I’d say). Still … a month after the death of the cinema’s maybe-greatest director, to see one of his films presented by his maybe-greatest actor, with an onstage interview and an audience Q-and-A … no explanation is possible or necessary. It’d be like skipping your best friend’s funeral.

It was even better than I’d hoped.

I arrived as early as I could to make sure I’d get a good seat and got one in the very front row. (These fill up slowly even at the mostly-excellent TIFF theaters. At this one, the Isabel Bader, the screen is on a slightly-elevated live-theater stage, and back a bit, so there’s no neck-craning at all.) And I was just four seats or so in from the aisle — prime autograph-stalking territory. And just 20 feet away from where Von Sydow would be when introducing SPRING and then being interviewed afterward by festival director Piers Handling. While waiting in my seat, my parents called and I told them excitedly and breathlessly where I was and who I was about to see: “Max Von Sydow … THE VIRGIN SPRING … The Knight who played chess with the Grim Reaper? … in THE SEVENTH SEAL??” The person sitting next to me in the theater said: “try the priest in THE EXORCIST.” Well … THAT reference my father got.

When von Sydow strides out on stage, in very good physical shape for a man pushing 80 (born 1929), everyone gives a standing ovation, which von Sydow quickly joins, realizing it’s as much for Bergman as for him. When it finally dies down, I’m close enough to see the tears welling up in von Sydow’s eyes when he says of Bergman “I owe it all to him.” And then they welled up in mine, as if the event was no mere film screening, no … BECAUSE the event was no mere film screening, but a wake for Ingmar Bergman. With von Sydow as the chief eulogist.

After the film was over, von Sydow and Handling came down the aisle, but Handling went up on stage first as the stagehands were arranging chairs, a table, microphones, etc. That was the opportunity I was waiting for and had my festival guidebook deliberately marked at the page for THE VIRGIN SPRING. I quickly walk the 20 feet over to von Sydow, hold out a pen, and say “Mr. von Sydow, would you sign my festival book, on the VIRGIN SPRING page here? It would be a great honor and make my festival.” He does so quickly, and I leave him right as Handling calls him onstage to another standing ovation.

 

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Incredibly, I also got to ask von Sydow a question during the audience Q-and-A. This one didn’t go quite so well. Close as I can recall, what I said was “do you know whether Bergman, when casting his male roles, tailored them to your specific personality offscreen, and do the same for the offscreen personalities of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson and others?” He didn’t give a very good answer, saying in general terms without examples, that he did and that “once a part was cast, he would even rewrite some things to fit me, of course.” Not very illuminating, but that was my fault. What I was hoping for was confirmation or denial for a theory I have about Bergman’s whole body of male roles — that, to coarsely generalize, von Sydow played the tortured souls, Bjornstrand played the self-conscious skeptics and Josephson the post-Christians. And I was wondering whether that was deliberate and/or the result of roles being tailored to the men’s offscreen personalities. In my dreams, von Sydow might have even discussed his own religiosity. But asking it that way would have required a whole critical setup of the premises on my part, and thus my committing the cardinal sin of audience Q-and-As, the questioner making a speech of his own. I also didn’t want to be perceived as asking him too personal a question. So I decided to be short and tactful … and it fell flat. Though, with reference to von Sydow’s own religiosity, he may have revealed something in his word choice during his intro, saying SPRING was about religious clash, and how “there was still a lot of heathen beliefs” in Sweden at the time. “Heathen”?!?! Isn’t that a hate crime? Where were the language police? How did von Sydow ever escape the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan after committing such an awful Thoughtcrime??¹

Anyway, unlike most TIFF Q-and-As², this one was genuinely enlightening, partly because a prepared professional questioner had most of the time, and partly because von Sydow was trying to be as forthcoming as he could, and was Old-World gracious about everything. When he answered my question for example, he strode toward the part of the stage near where I was sitting, and looked me in the eye as he gave his answer. Later, when someone asked, “what are your personal memories of Bergman,” he responded slowly and sadly, without coming across as scolding: “I can’t talk about that. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not now.” And surprisingly, while he called the approximately 10 years when he did most of his work for Bergman “the happiest time of my life as an actor,” he said his single favorite role of his whole career, was in PELLE THE CONQUERER.

criterion.jpgVon Sydow recounted his first encounter with Bergman — in the early 50s, as he was starting to make a reputation in Sweden. He and two actor friends wanted to be in one of this hot new director’s movies, and one of them got Bergman’s number somehow, plus wind that he needed to fill a few small roles in his next movie. “So we crammed into a phone booth and told him we were all interested. He turned us down, saying he had completed casting, and I had no contact with him again for several years” — until Bergman was casting THE SEVENTH SEAL.

Surprisingly to me, von Sydow said Bergman gave little explicit direction³, something to the effect of “he gave us general ideas and if we weren’t doing something right, he’d tell us.” But he was not a control-freak, which von Sydow said he liked. “Actors don’t like to be given orders. You want the sense of having some input and some control over what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s boring,” he said. Surprisingly, this was more or less the direction style of another of my favorite directors, but a man who doesn’t have Bergman’s reputation as a great director of actors — Alfred (“actors are cattle“) Hitchcock.⁴

Despite Bergman’s reputation as an expressionist, von Sydow said he tried to make things as realistic as possible in THE VIRGIN SPRING. It wasn’t simply eschewing directorial-tricks like underscore music in the climactic revelation to the mother of who the killers are. But Von Sydow said Bergman also didn’t like “dramatic shadows that had no reason to be there.” When Bergman saw the dailies one day, he realized Sven Nykvist⁵ had the killers casting ominous-looking shadows as they returned unwittingly to the family home. He said Bergman threw a fit … “why? It’s the dead of night,” and before there could be modern illumination. But there wasn’t time to reshoot, and the shadows stayed in the film. Von Sydow also said he didn’t like his performance in the last scene, a very long take which focuses on his post-murder penitential speech. He was shot mostly from behind (though over the course of the shot, it turns into a profile), which he thought was “cheating,” but it was what Bergman wanted. “He said I should direct myself toward God, not the camera,” von Sydow recalled.

Most of all, von Sydow came across as likeable, and as an Old World gentleman, and even his few difficulties with hearing and accented (though otherwise perfect) English contributed to that feel. When asked “what was the most difficult thing you had to provide Bergman,” he paused and gave a one-word answer “Quality.” And paused again before repeating the word and then elaborating a bit. When he was asked the sort of vulgar contemporary question about whether his VIRGIN SPRING character went ballistic against the killers because of “repressed sexual feelings for the daughter,” von Sydow handled it with class and simple directness: “No. Not at all.” When asked what he thought of the theory, he said “sounds like something somebody just came up with,” which I think is a to-Swedish-and-back-to-English translation for “pulled out of his ass.”

 

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But my favorite moment was (of course) a funny anecdote about shooting THE VIRGIN SPRING. In one scene, von Sydow’s character wrestles down a birch tree, to get branches for a cleaning sauna. As you can see from this still above, this tree was isolated and thus von Sydow’s actions more dramatic (he’s locked up the killers and is getting ready for his revenge) and thematically apropos (he’s alone). Von Sydow said “we sent location people all over, but we couldn’t find a usable tree.” The problem was not finding birch trees per se — there are millions of them in Sweden; it’s finding birch trees all by their lonesome, not part of a forest. “So,” von Sydow said, “we found a usable open field and decided to plant one we had just cut down.” When the crew and von Sydow went out there, a bunch of nearby farmers showed up and “couldn’t believe what these crazy people from Stockholm were doing, planting a lone birch tree in the middle of nowhere.” “There’s thousands of trees over there in that forest,” von Sydow recalled the disbelieving farmers as saying. So the team shoots the scene … an exhausting one for von Sydow. But the next day, they look at the previous day’s footage: catastrophe. Some light found its way into the camera and completely blew out the image. “The only things you could see were all-black and all-white,” von Sydow recalled, “since you couldn’t see me, you saw the tree shape fall over all of a sudden, for no reason.” So they had to reshoot. And go back to the same fields. To face the same farmers. Now doubly nonplussed at this bunch of picture folk who can’t even do their crazy games right.
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¹ In a similar vein, when introducing THE WALKER, Paul Schrader used even worse Hateweapons. He was referring to Washington’s (supposedly) being the only place in the US where homosexuality can be grounds for blackmail. He said “in Washington, it’s the sin that dare not speak its name; in New York, it’s the sin that won’t shut up.” SIN?!?!?! That is Badthought! Get that man in a re-education camp!! NOW!!!
² I will never forget the very first question I ever heard at my very first TIFF. It was a Dialogues showing of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, presented by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney. The first question he had to field still holds the record for “dumbest question ever” — “so why couldn’t they leave the room?”
³ I recalled once having read/seen an interview with Liv Ullmann in which she said the only “character trait” Bergman gave her for Maria in CRIES AND WHISPERS, other than what was in the script, was “she’s the sort of woman who never closes the door after she enters the room.”
⁴ Doris Day, in her memoirs, said something almost identical about Hitchcock’s lack of direction of her in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I can’t find the exact quote quickly, but according to Wikipedia‘s paraphrase: Hitchcock “said everything was fine; if [Day] wasn’t doing what he wanted he would have said something.”
⁵ Throughout, von Sydow pronounced the surname of Bergman’s ace cinematographer, who von Sydow said was as great in his field as Bergman, as “NOOK’-vist.” Which sounds wrong to me (I want to say NIGH’-kvist), but he’s the one who speaks Swedish.

October 3, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 9 Comments

TIFF Capsules — Day 9

ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON, Eric Rohmer, France — 6

I’m afraid I may be becoming an auteurist zombie with my grade on this movie, an adaptation of a 17th-century novel in the chivalric style, about a 5th-century love split by a misunderstanding. ROMANCE is the weakest film I’ve ever seen by my favorite living film-maker, but not an uninteresting one, exactly because I had such difficulty with it.¹ To state what is most obvious, ROMANCE is very badly acted movie. Atrociously acted. At the bad middle-school, Max Fischer Players level of reciting clearly-memorized lines. It’s so bad that it HAS to be deliberate … this is Eric frickin’ Rohmer, right? And he did make PERCEVAL, a medieval-set heroic tale that was just as stiffly and artificially acted. Right? He did. Except … PERCEVAL was clearly performed as an onscreen text — absurdly artificial cardboard sets, characters self-narrating their actions, a visible music chorus, complete with Foley artists in costume. I can’t entirely embrace PERCEVAL, but it was clearly an anti-realist period film (though I think THE LADY AND THE DUKE much superior in that vein). But there’s none of either earlier film’s visual strategy in ROMANCE, which is shot plain-vanilla style in natural settings that neither evoke the past or signify anything at all. And seeing ROMANCE the same day as THE VIRGIN SPRING didn’t make me more receptive to the “medieval stylization” claim. Theo pointed out to me later that Rohmer begins ROMANCE with a card saying the film would try to recreate how a 17th-century audience would imagine this chivalric-romance story. Which I got, but doesn’t seem like an explanation. Would (or could) Enlightenment audiences have imagined an-already-past piece in the style of cinematic realism? I have such regard for Rohmer that I have no doubt he achieved what he wanted to. I just don’t have the foggiest notion of what exactly that was. And why.

THE WALKER, Paul Schrader, USA — 7

In the midst of all the snooty art films at a festival like TIFF, the good ones and the bad ones, you still need at least a couple of palate cleaners: English-language entertainment films with few ambitions beyond telling a story, making you laugh, giving you a thrill/chill or two. So for the ninth day of a fest, THE WALKER is a perfectly confectionary film. Schrader pretty much made this movie 25 years ago. A “walker” is basically a publicly-presentable escort/companion for older socially-prominent women (no sex occurs, and gay men are particularly valuable since can appear publicly with women without suspicion). In this Washington-set movie, Schrader more or less tells the story of AMERICAN GIGOLO with Woody Harrelson as a gay Richard Gere. There’s a dash or two of political intrigue added in, the latter of which is little more than another example of what I call “liberalism as product placement.” But Schrader handles the mechanics of the semi-political thriller deftly, Harrelson effectively plays both sides of the street — a bon-vivant and a man unexpectedly finding himself pushed into a corner. And any movie with a Diva Row like this one — Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall — can only be called “fabulous.”

ERIK NIETZSCHE: THE EARLY YEARS, Jacob Thuesen, Denmark — 3

When reviewing a 1981 film, Roger Ebert asked himself the following question, the most basic one a film critic can ask: “Why is Heaven’s Gate so painful and unpleasant to look at?” and answered that “it is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen” and concluded that “a director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.” Since the momentous December 1996 day when I walked half-awares into an Atlanta theater playing BREAKING THE WAVES, Lars Von Trier the director has never failed to make my annual Top 10. But Lars Von Trier the writer, when directed by others, has never avoided an all-caps CON (the only other such title is DEAR WENDY), and both WENDY and NIETZSCHE, a roman a self-clef about LvT’s years in Danish film school, have (among others) the same basic primary visual problem: a beige-brown palette that is simply ugly and dirty to look at. You DO want to try Windex on ERIK NIETZSCHE. The material isn’t all that bad — the pseudonymous “Nietzsche” finding his way through film school — and often very funny (the portrayals of the other students and professors have the feel of getting back on your own high-school class). But it’s extremely one-dimensional and the LvT self-promotion bandwagon has worn out its welcome. And the film’s as ugly as ass.

THE VIRGIN SPRING, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1960 — 8

I’ll describe my particular interactions with presenter Max von Sydow in another post, but to speak strictly of SPRING as a movie (we have all seen it, right?). Von Sydow pointed out after the film how the central scene of discovery, when the mother sees her daughter’s clothes among the thieves’ belongings, Bergman simply held on the mother’s face for a very long time. No cutting away and no underlining score, or any of the other things that a film-maker would do today. “He takes the time to make you feel her loss,” Von Sydow said (quoting from memory; may be a little off). He’s obviously correct about Bergman taking his time when he needs to, but I was struck just as much by almost the opposite reaction — just how efficiently-paced SPRING is. Bergman doesn’t waste a moment in a film that is as lean and fast (but without seeming hurried or harried; that’s the genius) in its storytelling as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Whatever may be said about his other movies, Bergman knew that medieval legends went straight to the point. Uniting my observation and Von Sydow’s — every scene is exactly as long as it should be. SPRING may also represent the peak (or at least “most typical”) example of Bergman’s black-and-white visual style: a bold chiaroscuro with harshly-defined lines around the objects, but with the pearl-gray ambience producing soft shadows, the result of using a kind of diffused light typical of the overcast North. Given that Bergman so comprehensively creates texture, this movie’s medieval setting and parable story produce the effect of looking at tableaux or a series of church icons (like the Stations of the Cross, say) from a time where movies didn’t exist. The thing that struck me most anew in this viewing of SPRING, my third or fourth, was how spoiled and naive is the young girl of the title (like Narcissus, she pauses to admire her own beauty in a pool of water), and how Birgitta Petterson’s performance, effective in this context though it is, seems to belong in another movie. She’s all sunny and light-hearted, as if she doesn’t realize that she’s living in medieval times. Camille Paglia would no doubt have a field day applying her theories of date rape to this girl’s reckless behavior, plus the archetypes Bergman plays to the nines — blonde-vs.-brunette, say. But I will always think that Gunnel Lindblom as the pagan maid isn’t giving is a bit … much of the smoldering hatred act.

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¹ I hasten to say that ROMANCE is not at all “difficult” in the LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD sense of “hard to follow.” Indeed it’s almost too simple, a romantic misunderstanding followed by efforts to straighten things out.

September 24, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

I no longer have to think about the answer to the question “who’s the world’s greatest living director?” Eric Rohmer now has the title unquestionably all to himself.¹ Ingmar Bergman died Monday. Appraisals are already pouring in (including this pre-death one by, of all people, Joe Queenan) and I learned of this invaluable site.

More than any other director, Ingmar Bergman was the man who taught me that movies were, or at least could be, more than “just movies” or “mere entertainment.” That films could even be profound quasi-religious experiences. He was also one of the few artists who seemed to have a direct line to my soul — albeit in reverse overall, but while fitting near perfectly upon mine in certain details.

Bergman moved during the course of his career from being a tortured Christian to a tortured post-Christian. God was a constant character in Bergman’s late-50s and early 60s films, but He more or less disappeared after THE SILENCE. In that respect, Bergman played Virgil to my Dante.² Or as I put it here regarding him and Hitchcock: “both Christians who had enormous difficulty being believers.” In the latest edition of Crisis, Michael Foley writes:

There are, needless to say, a vast number of films that point to important truths about human existence without necessarily tapping into something that is quintessentially Christian or Catholic.
This can be true even of films that are bleak and godless — literally. If so many movies today are depressing and desperate, it is because they are an accurate (and hence instructive) mirror of the hell that is life bereft of grace or hope. As Pope John Paul II is reputed to have said, “We owe secular artists appreciation for showing us what the world without God looks like.”

It would obviously be a crude-minded injustice to reduce Bergman to an unintentional cautionary tale against atheism. Among other reasons, his films are far more complicated than that — partly because hell-on-earth cannot literally exist and partly because even though Bergman became an atheist, he was serious enough that he could never live happily with that thought.

The first two Bergman movies I recall seeing were the Medieval morality tales THE SEVENTH SEAL and THE VIRGIN SPRING, both of which I liked a lot. What was immediately obvious was that these movies were different — worth simply looking at and to think about. I also saw them, more or less, at the time I was recovering from adolescent atheism and reverting back to the Catholicism of my boyhood. I already knew of Bergman’s reputation for dark, brooding religiously-based Angst, but these movies spoke to my soul in a direct way.

In the early 60s, Pauline Kael mockingly described Bergman as appealing to “schoolboys who’ve just heard for the first time that God is dead.” But remember that “God is dead” was said by a man who saw that this was as terrifying as it was liberating. And that was exactly the appeal Bergman had. But when at the end of THE VIRGIN SPRING, a character makes a penitential vow, it somehow didn’t matter how relentlessly grim the rest of the movie was. The famous dance on the hillside at the end of THE SEVENTH SEAL works similarly — the last thing we see is the family in the background of the above image happily driving away to a few discreetly lyrical notes.

As I noted above, one of the fascinating things about Bergman’s whole ouevre is the way his films change as he ages. God hardly appears after THE SILENCE, except in the form of one or two one-scene faithless pastors, and in FANNY AND ALEXANDER. Thus, Bergman moves from the perspective of the Knight in THE SEVENTH SEAL to the Squire. Or rather, and this is what made him speak to me so specifically, he had moved to the perspective of the Squire who once was the Knight and wishes he could be again. Thus THE SEVENTH SEAL typifies why I like Bergman even when he poses challenges to my Catholic faith — that he is serious about the stakes in what Allan Bloom called “the most important question facing every man at all times — the religious question.”

Bergman doesn’t take God’s silence or even God’s cruelty as an excuse for smug posturing — he looks on the possibility with dread (Angst, even). Never forget that Heidegger, the man who gave us the current usage of Angst, began adulthood as an Catholic seminarian and that Bergman and existentialism were strongly influenced by Kierkegaard, to whom I was introduced by a fundamentalist Calvinist theology student.

Then, after a mystifying experience with PERSONA that cause me to dismiss the film for years as a mere exercise in cryptography, came WILD STRAWBERRIES. And the face of Victor Sjostrom. Very little, in conventional terms, actually happens during the film’s picaresque except the accumulation of flashbacks and events during the old professor’s car ride to receive an honorary degree. Some of these episodes are riveting in themselves as stand-alone sequences (the bickering married couple; watching the family gathering from his boyhood; the opening dream of clocks without hands, etc.). But Bergman famously said that the most interesting thing to photograph is the human face, and the whole drama in this film is in Sjostrom’s face. What matters is how Sjostrom reacts throughout to such moments as the two youths who debate God’s existence or the resemblance between the girl he picks up and his heartbreak of a lifetime.

WILD STRAWBERRIES was an surrealist/Expressionist visual stunner to be sure (the harsh lighting and silence in the opening dream sequence is a vision of hell without a single flame). But what has stayed with me for almost 20 years is that it was the first time I recall watching a film’s drama primarily through a psychological prism, through an actor’s face, through reactions and refractions, rather than action per se. This disposition, toward psychology and “the pilgrim’s progress of a soul,” is one I retain³ and WILD STRAWBERRIES was an early case of that sea change in my viewing habits. Like SEAL and VIRGIN, STRAWBERRIES ends with a moment of grace as Sjostrom lies back on his pillow to a few notes of music, like the Softened Scrooge of Sweden.

This pattern, of Hell drenched in a few cathartic final moments, continued throughout Bergman’s career. His famed Swedish TV mini-series SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (I’ve only seen the 170-minute theatrical cut; reputedly the five-hour version links the disintegration of the marriage to an abortion) is in no serious sense a “happy movie.” But its principal subject is love, and, in a perversely Existential way, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE is actually a moving and romantic film about the subject because it shows how love can remain in the end, even when it is dead (“Love is Dead”?).

There’s nasty recriminations, abandonment, second marriages and even a hard-to-watch scene in which Erland Josephson beats Liv Ullmann and then screams at himself in a pitiless rage. There’s a rawness to the emotions in Bergman’s color movies that his black-and-white movies tended to politely and coolly intellectualize in that Scandinavian chamber-play way. I’m thinking first of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and even WILD STRAWBERRIES to some extent. And not just of SCENES among the color movies, but also Ullmann’s portrayals in FACE TO FACE and AUTUMN SONATA.

And yet. And yet — Johann and Marianne still love one another and still need one another. In their final reunion in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world, Ullmann cries out for him and the look on Josephson’s face as he rushes to her side says it all. They are forever part of one another and will be because even man’s best efforts can’t tear some things asunder. It’s even perfectly possible (although I don’t advise it, it makes the film less interesting) to leave SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, if uninfluenced by SARABAND, thinking “well, maybe they can or should get back together.”

We get a similar catharsis in another of those Bergman color movies. FACE TO FACE, where Jenny sees her grandparents with one another and learns what the doctor meant in the atheist prayer about becoming real and so rejoins the “army of crippled wretches.” And the last shots of the epiphany in this very dark and mercilessly oversaturated movie (a common Bergman trait in color) is in bright sunlight. By the mid-70s Bergman had pinned all his faith on human relationships, often as symbolized by the touch of another.

But in AUTUMN SONATA, we got something very different. Here love fails, because Ullmann’s character (Eva) is clingy and needy, making demands upon her mother Charlotte, played by Ingrid Bergman. Or as Roger Ebert put it (it doesn’t seem to be on his site):

“And Ingmar Bergman, standing apart from this material and regarding it with clarity and detachment, refuses to find any solutions. There are none, I suppose. A lesser filmmaker would have resolved everything at the end in some form of neat Freudian bookkeeping, but Bergman finds in his story only two people, each demanding love from the other, each doomed by the past to fall just short of the ability to love.”

The key to this is that AUTUMN SONATA begins basically identifying with Eva and her preparations for Charlotte’s visit. But in the course of two virtuoso scenes — one at a piano, the other a late-night quarrel — identification shifts to at least neutrality. Here’s the earlier and first-named scene, unsubtitled, but it hardly matters.

In the latter scene, Eva becomes less and less sympathetic as she becomes more and more damning and becomes more and more demonstrative (there is a lengthy take of pure acting genius when Ullmann chokes back tears on cue). The look on Charlotte’s face as she spits out the half-known, half-revelation “you hate me” is also genius, because it’s when the film definitively shifts identification, but never entirely over to Charlotte. The film fits and contains “both/and” precisely because Charlotte is shown as neglectful, while Eva is shown as a clingy whiner (Pauline Kael hated the film for the latter reason, wrongly assuming that the film totally sides with Eva). I put it this way once:

There’s a similar long take focusing on Eva’s curdling face while Charlotte demonstrates all of Eva’s piano-playing faults, and your reaction then is “poor Eva, Charlotte is a pig.” Now it’s “poor Charlotte, Eva is a pig.” Each is in her own way a pig, but not a mere pig — that is, the pigdom of each feeds off the pigdom of the other in particular unique ways.

And so the open ending is absolute genius and hard-eyedly realistic. They DON’T reconcile because, as Ebert notes, Bergman realizes that the past can’t be set aside because we ARE our pasts, that Eva is as deluded in the end as she is in the beginning. The last lines of the letter are a letter Eva writes to Charlotte (paraphrasing from memory) — “I will never let you out of my life again. Even if it’s all for naught and it’s too late. It must not be too late.” The wish is father to the thought; Eva wants it all to happen again. I mean, if you were Charlotte, would you even look at that letter when it came to you (and it’s obviously from Eva) given what happened in the course of film time? The husband actually gets the movie’s last shot and the look on his face as he puts the note back into the envelope tells us everything. He is the wisest character in the film — awake to both Charlotte’s and Eva’s flaws. And yet … since the surface tone of the last scene is not hopeless and it doesn’t take an imbecile to think that the quarrel may have been cathartic — you can see this same movie playing itself out again and again — hopeful beginning, tension building, demons reign.

Eventually, I did come around to considering PERSONA a masterpiece, and I did so when I stopped trying to “decode” it, particularly the famous beginning and the rhyming middle sequence when the film “breaks.” I eventually came to realize that the film must, by design, disintegrate after this because Eden has been destroyed by sin’s introduction. The idyllic world of the film’s middle section, the two women set apart, and the start of the film, with nurse and patient clearly delineated — they cannot contain the pain and the hatred that the shard of glass has introduced into that world. And done so directly, as opposed to through representation as with Elizabeth facilely watching the TV, say.

The glass also represents the disintegration of identification and role (“who’s the hunter, who’s the game,” in Patty Smyth’s opinion), and so everything that happens after that may or may not be a dream or a fantasy. But to try to definitively answer what’s what misses the point — as opposed to Fellini’s 8 1/2 which, as I say in the footnotes, is rigorously tied to one subjectivity but which is hence completely transparent. PERSONA, at least by the end, is not and cannot be. In other words, I had been trying to impose order where disorder must reign.

And of course, at that point, PERSONA does basically fit together. For example, the confusion about who’s whose husband (including in the husband), especially when contrasted with the erotic charge of Alma’s famous long monolog about the boys on the beach, become possible. The monolog’s very unseenness means it comes from a united subjectivity, while the threesome’s(?) explicit displayedeness crushes eros under the weight of chaos. As the interview book “Bergman on Bergman” put it about the end:

Torsten Manns: That’s when Alma begins to become schizophrenic; her speech disintegrates. She notices that the other woman is projecting herself into her. With her.
Ingmar Bergman: Yes, words cease to exist for her.
TM: But that’s part of the schizophrenic syndrome.
IB: As I see it, Alma’s aggressions in this dream situation take on such enormous proportions, she finds she can no longer use words. She becomes violently disturbed; loses her ability to express herself. She’s like a machine that has gone to pieces but just goes on turning madly, and her words, without any ordered context, just come tumbling out. Bibi found it frighteningly hard to memorize those word-series. To learn a totally meaningless series of words by heart is said to be about the hardest thing you can do.
TM: It’s to be found in Beckett’s Godot
IB: Yes, Lucky holds his long monologue – sentences all chopped up. He makes an endless speech based on fragments of sentences. But in Persona, there aren’t even two words that fit together.”

All the subject matter in the world wouldn’t make any difference though, if Bergman weren’t the stylistic virtuoso that he is and didn’t have the actors that he did. Even if one finds Bergman a pretentious ass, there’s no denying that he assembled one of the greatest stable of actors ever assembled in one guy’s body of work. And as I wrote here about Sven Nykvist, his usual cinematographer:

Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that … made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.
For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA.** As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.

And look at these two pairs of images, all shot by Nykvist — the first pair is from FANNY AND ALEXANDER:

this latter pair is from CRIES AND WHISPERS:


Notice how in both cases, in one image the color is dazzlingly saturated, almost to the point of ugliness, while in the other it’s far more muted, to the point of poverty in the FANNY AND ALEXANDER shot. Without seeing the movies in question, it might look like an empty trick, but Bergman/Nykvist played with color and light for dramatic and even theological purposes. In the pair of images from CRIES AND WHISPERS, for example, one is a human-lit interior, of both a set and the human soul, while the other is an exterior scene with natural light shining down to grace us.

Despite all these great achievements (and I haven’t gotten to the greatest yet), Bergman’s critical esteem has been slipping in recent decades, to the point where he’s basically been supplanted in the cinephile pantheon category of Dour, Dark, Boring European Killjoy by Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl-Theodor Dreyer. There’s some history here. When the cinephilia bug bit me in the late-80s, all of Bergman’s best and best-known films were already on good-quality home video and relatively well-distributed at video stores. By contrast, Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Dreyer — to name just a few “difficult” or “arty” auteurs — were either mere rumors or available only in one or two films only in quickie or pirated or public-domain forms.

But not Bergman. Along with the considerably less-“arty” Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa, his movies were easy finds at that time. And Bergman was himself a superstar, known to people who didn’t watch his movies (and would have hated them if they had). For about a quarter-century from 1955 to 1980, give or take, Bergman was the most recognizable “brand-name” art-house film-maker, and the knowledge of him lingers to this day. More than one person at work earlier today said he knew who Bergman was without having seen any of his movies. He made the cover of Time, back in 1960 (can you imagine Michael Haneke or Wong Kar-wai there today). Van Halen alluded to his works. SCTV parodied him. And the famous image of Death in THE SEVENTH SEAL was grist for comics from Woody Allen’s LOVE AND DEATH to BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY. I even recall a MAD Magazine parody of a Garfield strip as done by Bergman (“We are insignificant specks in the scheme of eternity. We should die,” Jon says to Garfield. Then Odie enters the strip.) There’s more here too.

One night in that period, after coming back from the video superstore (a new concept at the time) with several tapes, a couple for the whole family to see, and Bergman’s THE MAGICIAN to watch by myself. My mother asked (you have to imagine this conversation in Glaswegian “patter”): “what’s that other one?” I said, “oh it’s a Swedish film.” She said: “are you watching manky⁴ Swedish movies?” My father rolled his eyes and said “I don’t think it’s THAT kind of Swedish movie. Probably the kind of Swedish movie where they winge about death.” On another occasion, a Swedish co-worker at the newspaper in Augusta, Ga., asked me, when she discovered I was a film buff, what I thought about Bergman. I started to launch into a panegyric before realizing that Karin was not herself a fan. “We don’t like him. He’s given all us Swedes the reputation for being gloomy,” she said.

Part of Bergman’s low standing today among cinephiles, I am convinced, is simply backlash against this unprecedented adulation, plus the related contempt that such familiarity breeds. It’s far easier to laugh at an allegorical Death, because we all have, than to laugh at, for example, an allegorical Donkey.⁵ But part of it is also that Bergman’s nakedly- and selfconsciously-serious style does not play well in The Age of Irony. Nor does his God-hauntedness play well in an era of evangelical atheism that makes best-selling authors out of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Angst and the long dark night of the soul are simply not emotions today’s viewers can easily tap into.⁶

But that very topic, unfortunately, is the subject of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest achievement — CRIES AND WHISPERS, one of my Ten Official All-Time Favorite Films.

It’s a stylized period piece about the ultimate existential fact: Death. Or more so, Dying. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s not an easy film to sit through: in fact, CRIES AND WHISPERS may be the most emotionally grueling movie I’ve ever seen. But seeing it was an epiphany like few I’ve ever had, inside or outside the movie theater. Counterintuitive though it may seem, it’s the ideal depressing movie for times of depression.

Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying of cancer. She and the servant Anna (Kari Sylvan) are joined at the family mansion by her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Ullmann), for the last days. There are some flashbacks that reveal that the sisters have grown apart. The behavior of the two visiting sisters to their husbands is psychologically of a piece with what we see among each other in the present, and each has a husband they deserve: a prig and a cuckold, respectively. The only real love in the movie is between Anna and Agnes, exemplified in this famous Pieta shot (which has caused the crude to read lesbianism into the film). Only Anna prays in the whole movie, not even the film’s one pastor, who prays over Agnes’s body in the conditional tense.

Scene after scene plays with perfect, dream-like control, characters seeming to float slowly on the floor, talking in clipped, polished lines and remembering their pasts largely in enormous closeups. One especially great scene consists of Ullmann and Erland Josephson (the first picture above) looking into a mirror during a crude seduction attempt by Ullmann and, in one unbroken take, reading one another’s faces and seeing both the flaws in the other and in themselves as refracted through the other (as I said, the characters in CRIES get whom they deserve).

Then there is the ultimate and perfect Bergman scene IMHO to end with, and one especially poignant on this day. The present-tense drama is over: Agnes has died; her sisters have left the family mansion; Anna is left to read Agnes’s diary. And here’s the flashback to the end on YouTube, which I’ve watched so often that I know everything Agnes says, even though this Swedish clip only has Portuguese subtitles.⁷

I can’t watch this scene without tears welling up and physical chills coursing throughout my spine. The closing title-card words mean “and the cries and whispers cease.” Bergman has (kinda, after his fashion) come to terms with death by his character being “profoundly grateful” for the grace of life’s holy moments even in the midst of everything else. It’s a hope, but one that doesn’t come cheap or easily.

In the Criterion DVD of WILD STRAWBERRIES, one of the extras is a Swedish TV interview in which Bergman says he has come to grips with death being the absolute end. For him. But when he talks about his recently dead final wife, he refuses to believe that she is forever gone. Harsh judgment and existential authenticity is OK for himself, Bergman says, but not for others. But now, on this day, Bergman is one of those “others.” Who thus will never leave the rest of us. I doubt Bergman left the world on terms of friendship with God. Which makes all our prayers more needed than ever.
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¹Among those film-makers for whom it’s reasonable to surmise that we have their whole career or near-enough-that.
² Yes, I know that sounds horribly pretentious, even for me. But that really is how intimately I have thought to know at least Bergman-the-artist and my reaction to him over the decades.
³ The four films on the very top of my Official All-Time Favorite List — A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, TIME OUT, REAR WINDOW, and 8 1/2 — can all fairly be called that, in spite of the four films having virtually nothing else in common.
⁴ In general, this word means “filthy,” with the here-extended meaning of “pornographic.”
⁵ My readership is extremely unrepresentative on the point, but I’m still confident at least a sizeable minority don’t get that allusion.
⁶ The two persons who’ve expressed the most contempt for Bergman in my presence and drawn my ire therein are both not simply atheists but anti-theists.
⁷ Here is one account of the voiceover, which seems to follow the Portuguese as best this Spanish semi-literate can discern, and is certainly consonant with my memory: “Wednesday the third of September — The tang of autumn fills the clear still air but it’s mild and fine. My sisters, Karin and Maria have come to see me. It’s wonderful to be together again like in the old days, and I am feeling much better. We were even able to go for a little walk together. Such an event for me, especially since I haven’t been out of doors for so long. Suddenly we began to laugh and run toward the old swing that we hadn’t seen since we were children. We sat in it like three good little sisters and Anna pushed us, slowly and gently. All my aches and pains were gone. The people I am most fond of in all the world were with me. I could hear their chatting around me. I could feel the presence of their bodies, the warmth of their hands. I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, “Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.”
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** Still from AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Desem at The Criterion Contraption

July 30, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Dour Scandinavians update (1)

Last week, Sven Nykvist one of the great cinematographers — if not the greatest — died. And there’s the trailer Bilge put up to Ingmar Bergman’s HOUR OF THE WOLF (just about the most important Bergman-Nykvist collaboration I *haven’t* seen)

His work was inevitably tied to that of the great director Ingmar Bergman, with whom he shot about two dozen films. But he also worked with other Scandinavians, shooting the Liv Ullmann-directed KRISTIAN LAVRANSDATTER (which I have not seen, shame on me), and Lasse Hallstrom’s WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, plus works by such important American directors as Philip Kaufman (THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING) and Woody Allen (several titles; the best-known being CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS). And let’s just say I hope he was well-compensated and put his kids through college for lensing MIXED NUTS.

But for a measure of Nykvist virtuosity, look at these shots from UNBEARABLE — how he adapted Bergman’s close-up heavy style to produce two iconic sexual presences (Lena Olin in the hat; Juliette Binoche with the camera; both in their English-language debuts) yet could also make convincing fake “newsreel” footage of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

But probably his important non-Bergman related work was when exiled Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky came to Sweden to make THE SACRIFICE. In Chris Marker’s documentary ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH, we see the two collaborating despite neither speaking the other’s language. It’s another measure of his brilliance that Nykvist was able to get the kind of images that made Tarkovsky Tarkovsky — an oversaturated but dirty lushness in the nature shots, e.g. Just as he got the kind of images that made Bergman Bergman — a bold chiaroscuro in the overcast pearl-gray Swedish light in the black-and-white movies; a mercilessly bright, decadent and pastel-free hues in the color ones. Two movies in that latter category — CRIES AND WHISPERS and FANNY AND ALEXANDER — won Nykvist his two Oscars.

For an example, look at this shot from AUTUMN SONATA. As I said about the Thai director “Joe” having a distinctive look to his films based on the lighting near the Equator, the Swede Nykvist seemed to work best when working with soft, diffused light in nature and a harsh interior contrast. Every time I see CRIES AND WHISPERS (one of my 10 all-time faves), I get a physical chill down my spine and goose flesh all over when we get the outdoor scene that ends the movie — so different in feel, look, breath and ultimately hope from everything that went before it.

Nykvist did direct one film of his own — THE OX, an early starring role for Stellan Skarsgard, with Bergman vets Liv Ullmann and Max Von Sydow in significant supporting parts. Sweden submitted THE OX as its entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and it did nab one of the five nominations, but lost to Italy’s MEDITERRANEO, a film I have neither seen nor ever heard a good word about (Gilligan’s Island with subtitles and a more-bosomy Ginger, it looks like). But 15 years after seeing it, I have nothing but fond memories of THE OX — dour, but so superbly acted (how it could not be) and classically structured. Nykvist also made it just *look* so right, without being showy or overly pretty or ostentatiously ugly. But THE OX is not like Bergman or even Tarkovsky in that plays out according to the moral framework of a traditional Christian-era tragedy. There’s little of Bergman’s existential Angst, and none at all of Tarkovsky’s Orthodox Holy-Fool-ism. To be perfectly frank, sitting before my computer now, I only have good memories of THE OX, and can’t recall why I only graded it a “7,” except maybe that I thought of it as “Bergman-lite,” given who all was involved in making it. I’m not engaging in “speak no ill of the dead,” I don’t think — I may need to take a look at it again.

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Stills from UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and AUTUMN SONATA from Matthew Dessem at The Criterion Contraption.

September 28, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Ingmar Bergman criticizes

Girish Shambu¹ posts a very funny excerpt from John Simon’s “Ingmar Bergman Directs” of Simon and Bergman kvetching over some of the great directors of the late-60s and early-70s. I remember reading it years ago and cheering that Bergman (whom I love) so loathed Jean-Luc Godard (whom I loathe) and had no use for Pier Paolo Pasolini (whom I generally don’t *get*). It was a nice bit of critical bookkeeping and synchronicity, although somewhat sullied by Bergman’s elsewhere-stated dislike for Alfred Hitchcock.

update: Actually Bergman’s opinion of Hitchcock wasn’t nearly as negative as my memory had it being. Here is the exchange:

Simon: How about Hitchcock? Is her someone you learned from?
Bergman: Yes, of course.
S: Technically, I suppose. But isn’t there a great intellectual emptiness in his work?
B: Completely, but I think he’s a very good technician. And he has something in Psycho, he had some moments. Psycho is one of his most interesting pictures because he had to make the picture very fast, with very primitive means. He had little money, and the picture tells very much about him. Not very good things. He is completely infantile, and I would like to know more — no, I don’t want to know — about his behavior with, or rather against, women. But the picture is very interesting. I learned a lot from all those Americans who knew their profession.
S: I find it’s a terrible notion in modern film criticism that these people were artists, when they were really technicians. We must distinguish between an artist and a technician.
B: Yes, that’s important.
S: Modern film criticism tends not to distinguish. People like Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks don’t know what art is. They merely have marvelous techniques, some of them.
B: They have told their stories and they have made their films in a good, effective way. That is a duty: effectiveness in telling a story.
S: Yes, that’s a very good minimum, but it’s only a minimum.
B: But it’s difficult.

Bergman, in other words, admired Hitchcock and the Hollywood studio film-makers more than Simon did, because they had a skill he admired — telling a story well, efficiently and effectively. And while Bergman’s narratives were rarely difficult or incomprehensible, nobody would call him a yarn-spinner. Now this exchange with Hitchcock from the book “Schickel on Film” makes a lot more sense than it ever did:

[S]omething like original sin was in [Hitchcock’s] view always operating in the world, and his films universally reflected that fact, though I’m not sure he ever acknowledged this, to me, self-evident fact. One day, over lunch, he said he had read somewhere that Ingmar Bergman had expressed admiration for his work, and it puzzled him. He could not see anything they held in common. “Well,” I ventured, “you are both post-Christian artists.” He looked at me quite blankly and quickly returned the conversation to its original track, which was, as I recall, some true crimes he had been studying.²

Still, though the subtextual similarities with Hitchcock are clear, the commenters at Girish’s site are correct that one simply wouldn’t expect Bergman to care for Godard. Their sensibilities are just too different. It’s not that Godard’s films are “emotional” and Bergman’s “intellectual” — no film is more nakedly-emotional than CRIES AND WHISPERS. But that Bergman treats everything, including the emotions, seriously, and he expects the same from his viewers and in his own viewing. Godard’s game-playing, self-referentiality and wild tone shifts would almost certainly drive Bergman (as it does me) up the wall.

To highlight an article noted in Girish’s comment fields, Bergman also stays up-to-date with film-makers, is just as prickly as ever (Orson Welles is a total bore who fills his films with worthless performances), and apparently is a Stephen Soderbergh groupie (though I’ll bet that’s just Scandinavian stick-togetherness). But he still hates Godard … ♥♥♥
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¹ I’ve met Girish at Toronto in the past, via J. Robert IIRC, and know enough to know his tastes are a bit different from mine … at least within that tiny slice of the universe called art-house snobs, to which we both belong.
² I absolutely think Schickel was on the money with this comparison. Their styles and genres obviously have nothing in common, but Hitchcock and Bergman were clearly both Christians who had enormous difficulty being believers.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment