Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Bergman supra Bergman

While less often a viewer at the WHC screenings this semester, I availed myself more regularly of the DVD collection there. One reason might be the widescreen TV I acquired in the fall (just doing my part to help the ailing retailers of America), which made watching at home a more cinema-like experience. And the act of viewing at home has already acquired something of the status of reading -- which is to say that the ability to watch, re-watch, watch in discrete segments, etc., has much to recommend it when viewing movies one wants to study a bit more closely. Much as I like the big screen, viewing in the movie theater retains that outmoded sense of "theater" which has little to do with how we watch these days. I don't watch movies on laptops, much, and never on iPods and phones, but, y'know, things are changing.

Anyway, this semester I watched a string of Bergman movies from the '60s on disc: Virgin Spring (1960); Shame (1968); The Passion of Anna (1969). Bergman has long been one of the unavoidably major film directors of my lifetime, with most of his best work -- but for a few notable exceptions -- appearing before the '70s. That fact makes him "a classic" in the sense that his work from the '50s and '60s always seems to be situated in a world that's not quite the world we know. Even a late '60s Bergman film like Shame, with its setting of endemic warfare by unnamed combatants, and of refugee situations, seems less topical than such material would appear in other hands. And even when Bergman seems to accept something of Godard's aesthetic of film-making immediacy and levels of self-referential "frames," the end effect is not the same degree of timeliness, or datedness, that accompanies one's viewing of so many '60s concoctions. The reason may have a lot to do with the kinds of films Bergman made in the '50s, where the folkloric aspect of the themes and settings kept him from the kind of sentimentality and corniness of so many '50s productions. Bergman never seemed to feel any compunction to depict "the modern world" per se, with its plugged-in status and post-WWII boom in hi-tech commodities. One link in Shame and Passion ("of Anna" was added to the American title), besides the fact of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann at their best, is the faulty phone service in Passion and the faulty radio service in Shame. The films Bergman made on Faro, his beloved island, boast a rigorous austerity that derives from the rustic settings, the stripped-down stories, the deep inwardness of Max and Liv, and a lack of specificity about temporal location.

Virgin Spring, coming at the end of that phase which included the famed medieval tale, The Seventh Seal (1957), benefits mightily from Sven Nykvist's black and white cinematography (his first involvement in a Bergman movie) and thus sets the standard for the visual impact of Bergman films. The sense of a Scandinavian folktale brought to the screen never flags -- evincing that grasp of a bygone world, or at least an artifice of it, that is so convincing in films like Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). Sydow is the rather taciturn and laconic focus of all three films, but when paired with Ullman, as in the color films from later in the decade, he becomes not simply a moral center but a figure for the personal intensities of the director. What Sydow wrestles with on screen has to do with what Bergman himself is at pains to grasp -- not simply how one lives with a woman, in a trivial domestic sense, but how one surrenders part of one's identity and takes on a new one, one that is never wholly or solely one's own. And that fact of emotional involvement shifts the focus to Ullmann, who in both films presents a tour de force of a style of acting almost wholly her own. Other great actors convince us of a character's reality; Ullmann convinces us that she and the character are the same person, that we are watching her reveal herself. In her comments about Shame, taped many years later, Ullmann speaks up for the film's significance in addressing world-scale tragedies like war, and indeed the power of the movie comes from the degree to which its situation is endemic to our times -- because of endless warfare -- but the film also, in the "trilogy" it makes with Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Passion, gives us yet another metaphoric situation for the isolation and lack of moral center in the Sydow character. So that, as moral center, Sydow is in each film a character at war with himself -- a struggle played against different backdrops: quasi-horror film in Wolf, war/occupation story in Shame, bourgeois marriage drama in Passion.

I came away from these viewings with a deeper regard for the ingenuity of good old "ball and chain Bergman" -- the man who made existential struggle the watchword of his films -- because it's clear that he can make almost anything happen on film, in the sense of a storyteller whose focus on what the story requires is his only driving force. Not 'entertainment,' not moralizing, not even 'being deep' or literary or symbolic. Occasionally, ideas don't quite get their full due or seem unnecessary intrusions (as in the "interviews" with the actors in Passion), but even when Bergman seems to be groping or over-reaching, there's a kind of personal presence to it all that reminds me somewhat of a storyteller making it up as he goes along. And that sense -- in the world of contrived and conventional dramas so often offered for our consideration -- is welcome

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