I suppose I should preface this by saying that this post does eventually wind its way towards a discussion of The Magician, now out on DVD and Blu-Ray. But before I get there, here are some rambling, mildly personal observations about my complicated relationship with the cinema of one Ingmar Bergman.
I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film so long ago that I don’t actually remember when I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film. Somewhere in the haze of movies I saw before the age of nine or so, I remember the one about the guy playing chess with Death; it’s even possible I saw it in Turkey, which would mean it was sometime before I was seven. I also watched Fanny and Alexander with my parents around the time it came out in the U.S. – so I must have seen it not too long after I made one of said parents stand in line for tickets the morning Return of the Jedi came out. (I should note, however, that I remember almost nothing of that Fanny and Alexander viewing, and I still remember every second of that Return of the Jedi viewing. I had my priorities straight.)
Flash forward a few years. Around the time my parents were splitting up, my mom developed a brief obsession with Bergman. I was 14 or 15, and, having become seriously possessed by the film bug, I welcomed this turn of events. So, we’d go to the video store and rent stuff like The Silence and The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries; I was also spending a lot of time in used bookstores, so I’d find books on Bergman for her (sample title: The Silence of God). It sounds vaguely pathetic, but it was actually a lot of fun. I don’t know to what extent the break-up affected mom’s movie viewing decisions at this time, though; my parents have always been film buffs and she’d seen plenty of Bergman films in her earlier years, so this wasn’t some weird psychological left turn. (There’s a difference between watching a Bergman movie and actually living in a Bergman movie.)
Mom’s Bergman period didn’t last too long. And, being the delusional obscurantist I was, I soon moved on to filmmakers whose works weren’t readily available on video. Uncle Ingmar’s movies would always be there on the shelf; I could reach for one whenever I wanted, which meant that I rarely did. (I was too busy scouring the mail-order gray-market video circuit for a copy of Salo.) While it wouldn’t be fair to say that I forgot all about Bergman, he did fade in my mind, becoming one of those figures you admire but seldom discuss. I bet many others can relate to this phenomenon, particularly with this director.
Things didn’t change much during college, when not a single one of my film classes -- and I took a lot of them, mind you -- screened or discussed a Bergman film. (That’s not to say we avoided the classics entirely. One year, something like five of my film classes did units on Psycho, and week after week I dutifully trudged out to whatever uncomfortable classroom had been converted to a screening room for the occasion to sit through yet another not-very-optimal screening of Hitchcock’s film, so I could later nod sagely through yet another discussion of film-as-rape and the violence of the male gaze and whatnot.)
After graduation, I went back to DC to my mother’s house, and sure enough, there was Bergman again. The American Film Institute, whose theater at that time was still in the Kennedy Center, had scheduled a massive retro of his work. I didn’t plan on going, but one day I found myself heading into the theater to escape a sudden downpour of rain. (I’m still not sure how this happened exactly, because the Kennedy Center isn’t particularly close to anything, except maybe the Watergate, but whatever.) Anyhoo, the AFI was showing The Silence. I watched it. Then, I sat through a screening of Shame, which I’d never seen, and which turned out to be something of a revelation – it’s my favorite Bergman film to this day. And then I moved on to The Passion of Anna, The Virgin Spring, Cries and Whispers, The Magic Flute, Scenes from a Marriage… Christ, it just went on and on.
And I suddenly realized something that I had apparently forgotten: The guy was good, and not at all a piece of musty, dusty keep-him-on-the-shelf-but-never-actually-bother-to-pick-him-up canon fodder. So now, coupled with rapture and discovery, was a new feeling: Betrayal, followed by anger. Here I had just spent four years taking something like twenty film classes, and I don’t think we mentioned Bergman even once. Seriously, how did that happen?
The nature of Bergman’s un-hip-ness came bubbling up to the surface again three years ago, when I found myself in an online debate (read the whole sordid affair here – actually, it’s pretty entertaining, I think) about the legacy of Bergman with a bunch of film writers, among them the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. Jonathan had just written something of an anti-obituary in the New York Times which ran a week after the director’s death. (Some will remember this heady time for cinematic passings: Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, two of the most iconic figures of the Golden Age of 60s European Cinema, died on the same day, which was the film geek equivalent of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day -- here’s my very brief but still blowhardy Antonioni obit for Vulture at the time.)
I’d include Jonathan on any short-list of my favorite film critics, so this debate/argument/kerfuffle was, while fun on some level, also kind of nerve-wracking for me. His piece was titled “Scenes from an Overrated Career” (he admitted that the, um, confrontational title was his editor’s, not his) and made a bunch of points – some valid, some not-so-valid – in arguing that Bergman’s importance had diminished since his '50s/'60s/'70s heyday. (I do still wonder how a late-period Godard fan such as Jonathan allowed himself to make the argument from contemporary popularity with a straight face.) [Updated to add: Jonathan actually published his original draft of the piece at his own website, and it's a must-read for anyone interested in how eyeball-hungry editors like to blow away nuance in favor of "bold," "provocative" statements.]
My initial problem with his argument had something to do with this paragraph:
My initial problem with his argument had something to do with this paragraph:
Sometimes, though, the best indication of an artist’s continuing vitality is simply what of his work remains visible and is still talked about. The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday.
Full disclosure: I basically lose it when critics -- and it is almost always critics who do this -- use one filmmaker as a club with which to beat another filmmaker. (This is also why I try to never, ever, ever read Armond White’s reviews.) However, as I noted earlier, I could relate to some of Jonathan’s argument: You certainly wouldn’t have found me arguing about, or watching, any Bergman films while in college. But whose fault was this, really? Might this defining absence say more about the professors and not the students? Wasn’t it strange that, as a film major, I had to leave college to “discover” (or I guess in my case “re-discover”) one of the most monumental film artists of all time?
In addition, I’m not sure the claim that Bergman’s films weren’t widely available on DVD could in any way have been said to be true, even at that time. As I pointed out in the debate, Criterion had released fifteen Bergman films on DVD, which I think may have been the most of any filmmaker, though Godard and Kurosawa have probably overtaken him since; Warner Home Video had released a five film boxed set (and then even re-called and re-issued the set after armies of allegedly non-existent Bergman fans complained that the aspect ratios were wrong). And in the UK, Tartan Video (those fools!) had released a 30-film boxed set of Bergman titles. Jonathan later qualified his statement by saying that fractionally speaking, there were fewer Bergman films on DVD than those of Bresson and Dreyer, but this was a bit of a dodge, to say the least: Bergman was infinitely more prolific than those two filmmakers. That’s like saying Terrence Malick is better represented on DVD than John Ford is. Yeah, sure, technically speaking, but c’mon. (Incidentally, probably the best take-down of Jonathan's points came from Roger Ebert, whose passionate counter-argument can be found here.)
But there is something to the broader argument still: Perhaps, because he made Big Films about Big Themes so early on, Bergman suffered from the fact that so much had been said about his films already. Each theme had been dissected ad infinitum; every nuance had been teased out; all the books had been written (where did I put The Silence of God anyway?). Over the half-century that he was making films, the culture around Bergman’s films had moved from exhilaration to analysis to parody to boredom. His cinema was the first page in our butterfly collection; better to move on to the new finds.
Except that this particular butterfly is not only alive, he may have already flown out of the album. Let’s consider (finally!!) The Magician. Jonathan’s original piece began by noting that the first Bergman film he saw was The Magician, and he went on to note the film’s absence on DVD. Needless to say, this is no longer the case, thanks to Criterion’s splendid new Blu-ray of the film, out this week.
What struck me upon watching The Magician again recently is how queasily relevant and alive it felt, despite its being firmly situated in that somewhat hermetically sealed world in which so many of the director’s films from this period take place. There are plenty of typical Bergman obsessions here: The strange boundary between the artist and the outside world, our competing attempts to master the unknown, the mutability of the self… And like much of his work from this period, part of the film turns on the debate between science and faith, or rather between scientific certainty and spiritual uncertainty. Or, in the words of Dr. Vergerus (played by Gunnar Bjornstadt), speaking with Ottilia Egerman (Gertrud Fridh):
“Your husband maintains that intangible, inexplicable forces really do exist.”“And you deny that possibility?”“To accept the inexplicable would be a catastrophe for science. By all logic we’d be suddenly forced to reckon with—““A God?”“If you like.”
Bergman isn’t one for scientific conviction, of course, and Dr. Vergerus is in for a nasty shock later in the film, after he doubts (on some level correctly) the abilities of the traveling magician and hypnotist Vogler (Max Von Sydow). Vogler himself is consumed by self-doubt, and in this he, of course, resembles the director himself. To quote Olivier Assayas, whose terrific rumination on the film can be found on the Criterion site:
It should matter that at this moment in his work he represents himself as—or rather, as wearing the mask of—a mute illusionist who’s lost his faith in his power and knows only how to perpetuate appearances…He’s isolated, having shut himself off, facing his conscience and demons. Facing the secret of his art, which he’s the only one to know doesn’t exist, that there is no secret, that the king is naked.
For a director once criticized for being too clinical and controlled, this is a remarkably tenuous position in which to put himself: A master of mysteries which perhaps do not even exist, a two-bit illusionist who has not only lost his faith in his power, but maybe never had any (faith or power) in the first place. There’s no nostalgia here for the way things maybe once were; this is just the human condition – fixed and also somehow changing, pushing doubt into the quantum realm.
Maybe the reason why both religious people and atheists tend to embrace Bergman’s films is because more than religion or secularism, he tends to question certainty. It’s worth pointing out that Bergman was raised in a strict Lutheran family by a minister father; in his childhood, religion and God were the unquestionable absolutes. Dr. Vergerus, the confident man of science who is so sadistically sure of himself, could just as easily be Erik Bergman, the confident minister fond of sadistically punishing young Ingmar.
Near the end of the film, Dr. Vergerus is treated to what we’ll call a rather compelling and alarming private magic show by Vogler (on the heels of a rather pathetic and inept one). He’s terrified, but only for an instant: It is quickly revealed that this horrific (and might I add, quite cinematic) supernatural display is in fact all an act. “You induced a momentary fear of death. Nothing more,” the good doctor insists, his heart still racing, to Vogler, who’s just given him the shock of his life. True, but it’s worth pointing out that a similar kind of fear may well have overtaken the film’s audience: So much of the effect of the scene relies on cinematic technique – editing, camera movement, close ups, etc. – that it’s hard to grasp exactly what Dr. Vergerus himself is seeing.
Is Bergman just cheating here? Perhaps. But he’s also obviously placing us in the position of the disbelieving scientist, confronted for one fleeting moment with the possibility that there may be more in this world than is dreamt of in our philosophy. And yes, it is fleeting: It’s all explained away soon enough, as it must be. But it’s hard not to shake the feeling that something has changed – that the artist/director/magician has shaken us out of our complacency, however briefly. The moment passes, but the mystery remains.