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.
Labels: cinema, Ingmar Bergman, theatre