Monday, July 30, 2007

THE DANCE OF DEATH

Ingmar Bergman died today, the Swedish filmmaker who brought us the indelible image of the dance of death at the close of his landmark film The Seventh Seal (1957). I remember coming under the spell of Bergman’s movies in my teens, watching as many of them as I could on PBS, eventually HBO, then later still at the old TLA repertory movie house in Philadelphia. That was in the late '70s, a decade not particularly notable for new Bergman work -– but by then he had become known as the filmmaker of choice of Woody Allen, who did amusing take-offs on Bergman in Love and Death (1975) and then tried to make a Bergman movie with Interiors (1979) -– don’t go there.

The best Bergman –- who a friend affectionately dubbed “ol’ ball and chain” –- was in the '50s, the decade of Summer Interlude, Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries, and of course The Seventh Seal. The latter seems to me only to improve with the years. Set in the Middle Ages, the film seems more and more “timeless” in the sense of not belonging to any particular time and place. It doesn’t feel like a cinematic period piece at all. In general, these films have the quality of the theater: Strindberg, whom Bergman admired and whose plays he produced, but also Chekhov and Ibsen. They are northern European, certainly, and could probably only have been made in a country like Sweden, relatively untouched by the war, but, thanks to Bergman’s films, suffering as much angst as anyone. But in the '50s, that era I associate with the apotheosis of kitsch and melodrama, the humanism of the films is what stands out. They are poetic to a degree that makes them almost literary, part of an effort to make cinema not only artistically successful as spectacle and characterization, but as symbolic and psychologically compelling.

Hence the “ball and chain” epithet. In the '60s, Bergman’s films are rife with psychological crisis that is also existential, and in a way that none of the other big name auteurs tried. Even in Antonioni, the parables of man’s crisis are specifically aimed at modern man, urban, socialized, imbued with anomie to the marrow. In Bergman, the crisis condition is simply man’s fate, forever and ever. There really isn’t any way out. It’s as if earthly life is purgatory with no fixed time of atonement. And we don’t even know if there’s a God, so atonement becomes a rather vague concept, adding to the crisis. And adding to the bleakness is the use of the island of Faro as the setting for a number of films, and all those intense close-ups of souls in torment. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann were Bergman’s standout performers, always willing to unmask themselves before the camera, able to play a range of characters all recognizably Bergman characters. When I think of Ullman it’s her unflinching gaze into the camera, when I think of von Sydow, it’s his averted gaze, with that slight curl of a rueful smile on his lips.

Persona (1966) is the film I would set aside as something completely different. It’s the same year as Antonioni’s Blow Up, and the two would make for an interesting double feature as both try to plumb the “modern problem” par excellence: if art is supposed to imitate life, what happens to art when life itself has become a form of imitation? Both films are about reality not as something you know and live with, but as something you try to find, something underneath all the images of what you think it is. It’s a grim film at times, but also oddly playful, as if Bergman might have got wind of the idea (it’s the '60s after all) that it’s ok to laugh, even if the joke’s on us.

But the film of Bergman’s that I consider far and away his masterpiece, the “one film” if we have to pick one, is Fanny and Alexander (1983). On DVD now you can get the five hour version made for Swedish TV (which became Bergman’s medium from the late Seventies, as though in the era of “blockbusters” it was best to be as insular as possible and withdraw from movie biz). A shortened version of Fanny and Alexander was released theatrically and received a Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1984. In this film, Bergman gets even closer to the Chekhovian mastery he had almost managed in his '50s films, only the film is closer in spirit and theme to the fiction of Thomas Mann. Which is to say that Fanny and Alexander is more like a film-novel than any other movie I can think of, its mood and perspective fully mature, warm without being sentimental, its images seen with a clarity that fully inhabits them.

And speaking of Bergman’s images, they would not be what they are without the work of perhaps the greatest cinematographer of them all (certainly my favorite) Sven Nykvist, who died last year. Nykvist understood and used lighting like Vermeer. His camerawork is truly painting with light. Together they made movies like no one else.

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