Friday, March 26, 2010

Remastering the Film: Ingmar Bergman

Some filmmakers, like Tavernier or Fellini, seem to arrive fully formed, their art at its zenith from the very beginning. Others, however, take several years, through trial and error, to arrive at their mature style. Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) had to make twelve films over seven years before finding his true voice in his first great film, Sawdust and Tinsel in 1953. That voice was developed as much in his work in Swedish theater during the long winter seasons when the light is not favorable to filmmaking as in his films. Bergman's writing was heavily influenced by Sweden's great dramaturg, August Strindberg. His films reflect several influences, not least of which were the great Swedish directors who came before him - Alf Sjöberg, who gave Bergman his first big break as a scriptwriter in 1944's Torment, and the man who is regarded as the father of Swedish film,Victor Sjöström, whom Bergman had a chance to direct in Wild Strawberries (1957).

Once he established himself as a formidable creative force in 1953, Bergman embarked on a string of films that were unprecedented both in their brilliance and versatility: the comedy Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), the medieval morality tale, The Seventh Seal (1957), the dark and deceptively comic The Magician (1958), and the stark retelling of a Nordic legend, The Virgin Spring (1960).

Then, at the height of his fame, for reasons that are still obscure, Bergman fled to a small island called Fårö (1) and only emerged to make rigidly narrow, self-styled "chamber films," the first of which, Through a Glass Darkly (1961), set the tone of several of his subsequent films. These films deserve serious reevaluation, since they were nearly all hailed as "masterpieces," a term that guarantees an end to discussion. Winter Light followed, which I regard as Bergman's last great film. The rest of his films of the '60s were called "postmodern" (always without the hyphen): The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, The Shame, The Passion of Anna. The critics who hailed them believed, essentially, that Bergman had emerged from the chilly isolation of the "trilogy" purged of things like linearity (not to mention clarity) and was a more advanced and cerebral artist, suddenly expert at a looser, abstract style.

I, for one, do not believe in Bergman's metamorphosis any more than I believed that most of what passed for abstract expressionism was art. Woody Allen called Bergman "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera." John Simon called him "cinema's Shakespeare" and compared his sudden plunge into obscurity in the '60s with the comparable shifts in style of Picasso and Stravinsky. I find Simon's comparisons far-fetched. There are film artists who made more fatal errors than Bergman (2), but too often his attempts at versatility were misfires. When Simon attacked Fellini for his supposedly discovering a nonexistent intellect, he should have been equally critical of Bergman. (3)

In the '70s, Bergman's work fell into a marked decline. Among other mistakes, he made what I consider his worst film, which was actually a TV mini-series, Scenes from a Marriage, which not only presents one of the most nightmarish views of matrimony ever conceived (3), but in the last episode, "In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World," (4) Bergman places his central couple, Johann and Marianne, divorced and re-married to other people, blissfully in bed together - therewith sowing the seeds of two more failed marriages. Bergman had five wives and several mistresses, so there is no need to speculate about his views about marriage, let alone fidelity. (5) The series was so widely praised, however, that it was shown in its entirety, in six episodes, on America's Public Broadcasting Service.

While I am quite prepared to call Bergman one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the medium, I do so critically, accepting his failures (which are numerous) as well as his triumphs. His long career proved how very difficult it is, even under the best conditions, to produce a great or even a good film. That he made as many as he did - as stingy as I am, I give him credit for six great films and at least as many good ones (6) - is a testament to his importance.

(1) Bergman's home on the island was recently sold. It was valued at €3-4m.
(2) Like Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, et al.
(3) Vernon Young called it "two blood-stained towels marked HIS and HERS."
(4) The title of Lina Wertmüller's only film in English was The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain.
(5) He defined relationships in a line from one of his early films, Prison: "Hell together is better than hell alone."
(6) The "good ones" include Waiting Women (1952), Summer with Monica (1953), A Lesson in Love (1954), Women's Dreams (1955).

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