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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

the end of a century

Ingmar Bergman, my first favourite director when I discovered cinema in my late teenaged years, died two days ago on July 30, 2007. Over the years I have devoted a sizable portion of my brain to studying his work: twenty-seven Bergman-directed films so far, two theatrical adaptations, nine plays directed by him, and several books of interviews, autobiography, and screenplays. Although I never met him, I feel like I have lost someone close to me. On a world scale, we are all poorer for all that we lost on July 30.

I don't think there was another artist alive whose life and work operated at such a level of myth. Even his birthday, July 14, 1918, carried a whiff of myth: the start of the French Revolution and the end of World War One. Greek mythology is full of stories of family members killing each other. Bergman understood the mythic nature of the primal, ineluctable conflicts within families and turned his own life, and his parents', into modern myth. Other directors have made films from his screenplays about his parents and his childhood: Bille August's The Best Intentions (1992), Daniel Bergman's Sunday's Children (1992), and Liv Ullmann's Private Confessions (1996). In Sunday's Children, we get to experience the complicated pleasure of watching his son Daniel's direction of an internecine encounter between actors playing the director's father (i.e., Ingmar) and grandfather. His artistic stature, as one of the greatest film directors, theatre directors, and screenwriters, is Shakespearean and, with his five wives and nine children, his appetites Falstaffian.

Unfortunately, the myth of the Swedish director of doom and gloom has obscured much of his achievement as an artist. My favourite film of his has always been Winter Light (1962), possibly the dourest, bleakest film ever made. (It makes me smile every time, but perhaps that's just me.) With a screenplay about a doubt-wracked priest, played by Gunnar Björnstrand, who rejects the love of a horny, carelessly godless parishioner played by Ingrid Thulin, it could sound like a stereotypical Bergman plot, and perhaps it is. But this film, like most of his work, is a triumph of style. If one blocked the subtitles and just listened to the spare, unmusical soundtrack, one would be able to feel every bit of the story. And, working with cinematographers Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist, his films achieved some of the most expressionistic black and white since Germany in the 1920's.

I feel especially privileged to have seen so many of his theatrical productions at BAM over the years. I still recall his production of Ibsen's Doll's House in 1991. When Torvald struck Nora in the chest with an open palm, an action not found in the text, the entire audience at the BAM Harvey gasped as one. It is still a thrill to recall it all these years later. No one else could direct Strindberg like Bergman. Back in 1996 New York's Roundabout Theatre staged The Father with Frank Langella. The audience chuckled throughout as if they were watching a domestic comedy. Even when the great Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen did Dance of Death on Broadway in 2001 it felt light and breezy. Strindberg's dream plays are perhaps the most difficult set of plays to direct in the modern canon. When Bergman brought A Ghost Sonata to BAM in 2001, not only did he triumph in communicating the play despite the difficulties of its form, but it was fucking terrifying! And, reader, no one in the audience laughed.

Compounding the loss, Michaelangelo Antonioni died the very same day. Not since July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died simultaneously, have such great, linked figures died on the same day in separate places. Bergman and Antonioni were the last giants of what we often call postwar 'art cinema'. Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini, Truffaut et al. are all gone. (As far as I am concerned, Jean-Luc Godard was only great for seven or eight years.) What linked these directors was a zealous commitment to the æsthetics of cinema, i.e. the deepest explorations possible of the expressive properties of film language and film form.

Ultimately, all film is art, and earlier cinema was undeniably full of great artists of the screen: Feuillade, Sjöström, Lang, Murnau, Ozu. But much of the world only saw their work as entertainment. There are great directors alive today: Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami, but only Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodóvar have anything like a Bergman- or Fellini-sized persona. We call the work of the great postwar directors by the imperfect labels of 'art cinema' or 'arthouse' because their claims to artistry were self-conscious, superlative, and, most importantly, persuasive. They convinced the rest of the world that cinema was indeed a great art that deserved appreciation and preservation. They elevated the world's opinion of cinema in part by, like Bergman, mythologizing themselves. Just read the list of names and it sounds like a roster of cultural heroes. And they were. And now the last of that generation has left us for good.

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Anonymous daniel fugallo said...

Antonioni's loss compounds the sense, very eloquently expressed by you and by Peter Bradshaw here:

http://film.guardian.co.uk/bergman/story/ 0,,2138253,00.html

that the final bridge across a chasm has collapsed. But Bergman's death resounds even more profoundly than that, does it not? He had a serious claim to be the greatest living artist operating in any medium.

4:55 PM, August 01, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Here is the link to the Peter Bradshaw piece that Dan mentioned.

I was pleased to see that Bradshaw shares my preference for Winter Light. It is a great film too little known. Bradshaw is right on in saying that 'Bergman's death robs the cinema of an unapologetic high seriousness'. One sees the expulsion of seriousness equally on the screen and the stage. I am far from those curmudgeons who think the Age of Irony is the end of civilisation, but I don't know what we have gained by disallowing seriousness altogether in contemporary culture. Even older cultural objects are routinely ironized by audiences today. It is impossible to enjoy a screening of a Douglas Sirk film nowadays because the audience will laugh all the way through. His films were never funny, yet many twenty-first-century people somehow can't see that.

But I was disappointed, to say the least, that Bradshaw re-punched Woody Allen's ticket on his career-long free ride claiming Bergman's influence. Bradshaw—inadvertently, I hope—even reversed the order between them: he said that Winter Light 'is redolent of the tormented boyhood of Woody Allen's Alvy Singer in Annie Hall'. Bergman redolent of Allen?

And yes, I would indeed say that Bergman was the greatest living artist operating in any medium. In any other century, he would be recognized as a playwright of the first order. I don't know a more powerful body of modern dramatic writing than his screenplays. Yet because he wrote screenplays, his writing will never be studied and performed like that of Ibsen or Chekhov. On top of that, he also belonged to the first rank of movie directors, whether we think in terms of film style or of directing actors. And besides all that, he may have been the greatest theatrical director who ever lived, and I don't say that lightly. What a shame that so few people outside Sweden could see his work on the stage. And now it's all over. Everything ends.

10:40 PM, August 01, 2007

Blogger Asad said...

Hey Jeff, nice work and thanks for writing this. I too am depressed that a certain cultural world that, to be honest, felt better and more real to me, continues to slide gradually away. Sometimes I have this feeling that all the real adults belonged to that generation and as they go, only kids and grown-up kids are left.

9:50 AM, August 03, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

For those who don't know his work, I should point out that Asad is a lovely writer whose work regularly appears at 3 Quarks Daily.

The generation of artists and audience members under consideration brought ennobling qualities to the consideration of contemporary culture, and such qualities are far too rare today. (I invite anyone who doubts it to recall how their eyebrow rose when they read the word 'ennobling' a sentence ago.)

Even so, I would not want to be accused of damning this generation as a fall from the grace of its predecessors. As I tried to point out, there are still great, younger artists alive today working in film and other media.

Asad's point about only the kids being left behind reminds me of a recurring discussion I have with another friend of mine. We regularly note how much younger older people are today. Fifty- and sixty-year-olds are still cool in ways that they never were in the past. They are more curious and tolerant, and the men are not assholes like the men before them. And we in our thirties are all the more so refusing to abandon the radiance of youth. (New York may exaggerate the effect.)

These are good things. Could they only have come at the price of killing off our capacity for seriousness? No. There has to be a way to retain, or revive, what was great about Bergman's generation while staying true to ours. This would be an apt moment to reflect on how we might do that.

12:29 PM, August 03, 2007

Anonymous a friend of a friend said...

that: "You might want to give him the heads up that Max Von Sydow didn't play the priest in Winter Light. He played the fisherman who kills himself. The priest was played by Gunnar Bjornstrand."

6:07 PM, August 03, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Thanks. I have corrected the entry. Having seen the film innumerable times, I knew that. I don't know how I made that mistake.

10:13 PM, August 03, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite Bergman film was "The Magician". Organized religion never took such a big hit.

8:02 PM, September 26, 2007


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