Friday, September 07, 2007

Ingmar Bergman Taught Us Pragmatism Was No Virtue


Bergman was my hero for many reasons, but one of them revealed itself only upon his death, and I'm surprised I didn't detect this admirable quality either in the contemporary reviews of his work (cinema, theater, literature) nor in the mental "dry-runs" with which I'd test my reaction to the moment it would be announced that Ingmar Bergman was dead.

Ingmar Bergman directs Saraband in 2002:

In short: he had the special gift of exposing puritans, ontology-mongers of any creed. His oeuvre worked virtuosically the space inside and beyond the frame, and it silently declaimed: "There shall be this zone, this zone, and this, and they shall be spaces of relegation divided by shadows fallen to angles, or by the terrible line of the human arm, by turns welcoming, then obstructive and exclusionary; the place of revelation shall be the human face." — An aesthetic that touched so many perhaps because it testified so clearly to that profound and incessant consideration of cinematographic form which resulted in an Incorporation of It All — inexorable cosmos of technique: sculptural compositions in Fischer-helmed deep-focus black-and-white; diagonal tracking-shots concurrent and parallel with those performed off-Bergman-screen on the sets of Mizoguchi and Max Ophüls; natural light radiating as much from within as without (the real-outside and the inside worlds; consolation — Nykvist-helmed, but let's not forget the Fischer-helmed instances too); the slingshot vicissitudes captured by the zoom used in tandem with the cut ("the story of something in the body"); microscoping: abrupt inspection of the materiality of the film-reel, of the process of acting, of direction. And perhaps the greatest marker (or lesson?) of "the Bergman mise en scène", which begins with a rhetorical question: You know about the definition of space achieved by foreground-background clutter, e.g., a lamp here, a bottle there, congruent with some whatever-the-shit deeply-focused on a hearth behind Harriet Andersson? Yeah, take this or leave it, make cinema-form through this particular definition sometimes and at other times don't, for at any given moment, out of scenaristic anchoring (not necessity, extant anchorings) or "something else entirely", there exist countless different manifestations of expressivity, and the auteur will make his choice.

— Can one even really believe this sort of thing brings the word "theatrical" smashing down like pejorative gavel? —

Nevertheless, it does, and with so much variety to love, Ingmar Bergman, who despised sanctimony and all feverish pronouncements that begin at the gilt of the pulpit, fashioned out of the inner-life his own corrective for the censor and swished something like bait for that priestly variety of American cinephile genesized in the lore of the MacMahon and nurtured by misreading Sarris at the expense of Sartre.

Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] by Ingmar Bergman, 1957:

How beautiful, Bergman's explicit and unwitting defiance! Did he know that in devising Death in The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957) he was also, in effect, howling at his critics: "You sons of bitches!!! I'm throwing this shape onto the screen like a dare! Death is the challenge to my own creativity, the challenge to yours as well: it asks can you follow through with the conclusions of your dreams... His figure will be the chess-piece I move, and the chess-piece that counters my moves, throughout this story I've built on a framework any fool would call treacherous..." — The result is that classic outing we return to fifty years on: with elegance and grace Grandmaster Bergman outwits the Machine.

Törst [Thirst] by Ingmar Bergman, 1949:

Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] by Ingmar Bergman, 1957:

(Fie thee, creeping eunuchs for whom the verities are unrecognizable because the highs and lows are alien!

Behold the artist, who makes sustenance from his generalization because he appends it to imagination and rage!

Your good sense will strangle you, and your logic makes you half-alive. If there's no such thing as a good Noé, I'd at least wish you all a pleasant Dumont...)

La Vie de Jésus [The Life of Jesus] by Bruno Dumont, 1997:


Document of one teenager's first realization of the meaning of mise en scène; and the fusing moment of bodily gesture, cinematographic gesture (made by the fusion of two shots on a cut), enacted-will of the director:

Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] by Ingmar Bergman, 1957:

The first Bergman film I ever saw was Document Fanny and Alexander (Dokument Fanny och Alexander, 1982). I watched it on the Starz! Network one evening in Santa Monica, California. The next semester back at school I witnessed Persona (1966) for the first time. Everything in the world that was catching my interest was in this film. (The other movies that would help change my life that same year were Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard [1967], Réassemblage by Trinh T. Minh-ha [1983], and The Hour of the Furnaces: Notes and Testimonials on Neocolonialism, Violence, and Liberation [La hora de los hornos, notas y testimonios sobre el neocolonialismo, la violencia y la liberación] by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino [1968].)

Dokument Fanny och Alexander [Document Fanny and Alexander] by Ingmar Bergman, 1982:

Persona by Ingmar Bergman, 1966:


There is a lineage between me and these films. One year after first screenings, each picture would lead me (reverse-respectively), to Cerro Pelado by Santiago Álvarez (1966); Trinh's Naked Spaces: Living Is Round (1985); and Godard and Gorin's Tout va bien (Everything's Going Fine, 1972), followed by JLG's own Allemagne 90 neuf zéro (Germany 90 Nine Zero, 1991) and JLG/JLG, autoportrait de décembre (JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December, 1994).

Persona led me forward and backward, I can't remember in which order. The Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) and The Wild Strawberry Patch (Smultronstället, 1957, renamed "Wild Strawberries", all delicious and doily-like, for Anglophone territories).

Vargtimmen [The Hour of the Wolf] by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

Smultronstället [The Wild Strawberry Patch] by Ingmar Bergman, 1957:

Let's not dream of the parable that pits "realist cinema" vs. "psychocinema" (neither type exists), that teaches the difference, contrasts the political gestures, states a preference or defines the adherents. Comforts one's sense of the world by affirming "there's something for everyone". No, the parable of the lineage isn't so clearly cut. The lesson I drew from the extraordinary effect these films had on me provided no direction, gave me no guidance... It only said:

What you're learning hard in life is borne out on the screen, and neither place can prepare you for the other. You'll know things through recognition, from time spent feeling in the dark, when the mirror yields its chill and silver flake, at the moment without illusion.


Five miracles in Bergman:

— The squirrel leaps onto the tree-stump in The Seventh Seal.

Det sjunde inseglet [The Seventh Seal] by Ingmar Bergman, 1957:

— Karin is moved in The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960).

Jungfrukällan [The Virgin Spring] by Ingmar Bergman, 1960:

— Papa speaks in Through a Glass Darkly (Såsom i en spegel, or As in a Mirror, 1961).

Såsom i en spegel [As in a Mirror / Through a Glass Darkly] by Ingmar Bergman, 1961:

Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973), in the middle of the night in a dark house somewhere in the world.

Scener ur ett äktenskap [Scenes from a Marriage] by Ingmar Bergman, 1973:

Fanny and Alexander (Fanny och Alexander, 1982) escape.

Fanny och Alexander [Fanny and Alexander] by Ingmar Bergman, 1982:


And Fanny and Alexander is the richest expression of the Bergman morality — a cosmic interplay of anarchy, favorites and cheer, successor of Shakespeare and Marivaux, contemporary to Renoir and Welles — that happens, also, to predict a supernature beyond theism — one which begins in the fierce dominion of the uncles' and grandmother's affection for Alexander and Fanny; which radiates with measure and gravity from that portrait of Anna in Saraband (2003).

Fanny och Alexander [Fanny and Alexander] by Ingmar Bergman, 1982:

Saraband by Ingmar Bergman, 2003:

That film, the last and shattering masterpiece of Bergman's cinema, is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as other "ultimate final-films" like Eisenstein's Ivan Groznyj II: Boyarsky zagovar (Ivan the Terrible II: The Boyars' Plot, 1946/1958), Max Ophüls' Lola Montez (1956), Dreyer's Gertrud (1964), Rossellini's Il Messia (The Messiah, 1976), Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and Monteiro's Vai-e-vem (Go-and-Come, i.e., "Come-and-Go", 2002). But unlike, say, the Ophüls, Kubrick or Monteiro films, Saraband makes no attempt to summarize its creator's oeuvre. The Bergman that exhibits this trait is Fanny and Alexander which, maybe exactly because it arrives eleven films from the end of the oeuvre (in an intensification of the fourth-from-finish position occupied by Renoir's Eléna et les hommes [Eléna and the Men , 1956]), has the perspective, the right vantage for moving forward and backward as it does in order to "do its own thinking", to represent "the third image" that instills its constituent elements (The Silence here [Tystnaden, 1963], Whispers and Cries there [Viskningar och rop, a.k.a. "Cries and Whispers", 1972], and passing through nearly every film in the work) with even greater force, as though by relativistic momentum. Like light through a prism — darkly now —

[adapted from a comment I wrote on the Chicago Reader blog] —

Fanny and Alexander is moving not only for its scope, the sharpness of its characterizations (particularly the two uncles, the grandmother, Josephson's antique-dealer/kabbalist "Isak Jacobi"), and its rapturous visual beauty, but also for the way in which the pacing of the story (indeed, of the "découpage") seems to figure, cinematographically, the gestation of the consciousness of the artist himself, embodied within Alexander.

Most remarkably, Bergman has constructed the picture like a "prism" of all (or at least the most significant entries, of which there are many) of his previous films. Resonances abound, from the repetition of dramaturgy, to visual cues, to pieces of dialogue, and so on, that establish the film not only as "the conscious summary of Bergman's work," but as an expression of the very "interiority" of artistic creation and the human soul which, to paraphrase Nabokov/Shade, shall and must "live on, fly on, in the reflected sky." And incidentally closes the circle that joins the interchange between old age and childhood — childhood which, for Bergman, has always been the seat of grace. How strange to misunderstand Bergman as somehow positing that the absence of God would equate to a moral void! Fanny and Alexander is the total grace of consciousness.

As a P.S.: Sometimes the existence of God was on his mind, at other times of his life the existence or non-existence of God was simply not an issue of interest. [...] Going back even to Smile of the Summer Night (Sommarnattens leende, a.k.a. "Smiles of a Summer Night", 1955) or even, yes, The Seventh Seal, we can see that IB has always been one of the supreme secular humanists of the cinema, in that high satyrean vein shared by Renoir, Vigo, and Shakespeare.

Tystnaden [The Silence] by Ingmar Bergman, 1963:

Viskningar och rop [Whispers and Cries] by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

Såsom i en spegel [As in a Mirror / Through a Glass Darkly] by Ingmar Bergman, 1961:

Sommarnattens leende [Smile of the Summer Night] by Ingmar Bergman, 1955:


Serge Daney on Fanny and Alexander, 26 September 1983 [my translation] —

"More than five hours of film to say that time does not pass — en voilà, a paradox! It's not that we're inside some logic of apprenticeship (Alexander's) that corresponds to duration — but rather to initiation. Of course, that's a big word, but it shouldn't surprise us (didn't Bergman once adapt The Magic Flute? [Trollflöjten, 1975] ). Fanny and Alexander isn't just a portrait of the auteur as a beardless young man, an evocation of the artist's childhood, or a "testament" — it's a bit more than that: a poetic piece of art; the ledger of Bergman, man of cinema and theater, for taking account of his double-profession. [...]

Trollflöjten [The Magic Flute] by Ingmar Bergman, 1975:

Fanny och Alexander [Fanny and Alexander] by Ingmar Bergman, 1982:

"The Ekdahls .... are aware of living in the world of appearances, that is, a world where one must take up a role. But a role is not a mask; it drops off easily (and the Ekdahls' dignity consists of acting as though nothing were there). The Vergerus are hyper-aware that the mask and the face are joined one-to-the-other. As such, this is horror. A face is a naked surface where everything can be read as though on top of a unique (and irremovable) mask. It's the world of morality, of torture, and of sicknesses of the flesh. The absence of God is conveyed by the hatred of the priests who speak in his name. The Jacobis have known forever that masks are fabricated, and in Isak's house there are Aron, who has God inside his theater of marionettes, and Ismael, who is at once a man and a woman. It's the world where there are no longer any magic tricks; a world without a face."

Fanny och Alexander [Fanny and Alexander] by Ingmar Bergman, 1982:


And François Truffaut, in 1975 [Leonard Mayhew's translation] —

"Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers was a worldwide success though it had all the elements of failure, including the sight of the slow torture of a woman dying of cancer — everything the public refuses to look at. But the film's formal perfection, especially the use of red in the decor of the house, constituted the element of exaltation — I would even say the element of pleasure — so that the public immediately sensed that it was watching a masterpiece. And it made up its mind to look at it with an artistic complicity and admiration that balanced and compensated for the trauma of Harriet Andersson's cries and her groans of agony. Others of Bergman's films, no less beautiful, were treated coolly by the public — and perhaps all they lacked were the red walls."

Viskningar och rop [Whispers and Cries] by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

When Bergman films a room in master-shot (and especially in the later pictures), he seldom resorts to the "mise en scène of geometries" discussed above. Instead he performs something far more difficult: instilling the "absences," that is the open zones, of the space with the presence of the living beings located elsewhere in the frame — or the beings that are not technically "present" there at all. Dreyer could do this too, but whereas in his cinema the resonance of the "presences" in the frame produces a kind of low hum, in Bergman's the effect can be likened to a whisper. In either case, one of the great mysteries of the cinema.

Höstsonaten [Autumn Sonata] by Ingmar Bergman, 1978:

Bergman assembled a "chamber-work" in more or less every film, sometimes maybe only in one segment of a picture. He carried the practice all the way to Saraband in 2003, which he constructs as ten distinct chamber-works arranged by chronology.

At times the chamber-containment ruptures and emotion leaks out into open-space. Time, reality's master, has no obligation to reality's form. If it deigns ever to take organizational shape, that shall come as music.

Saraband by Ingmar Bergman, 2003:


A regret: that Bergman didn't live long enough to see, by chance, any of my own films; so I will never feel a validation or hot scorn parceled by this man who surely was and remains one of my papas of cinema. Kubrick was another, and one dead too soon (March '99, a thunderbolt) — yet at the moment I traipse down the maudlin path I remind myself that both geniuses frequently exhibited pedestrian, at times borderline and even outright stupid, taste in movies. I think it results from an "evaluational compulsion" which comes out of the control mania that informs their own film-work. Jean-Marie Straub said to some students not too long ago (I paraphrase here), "The minute you step behind the camera and say 'there's no God', you're through"; supposing you're not through (since every finished film is some kind of afterlife), what you really can't do is disavow faith sitting in front of the screen — you have to believe the cinema will save maybe not all of us, but at least you yourself.

Oh, what difference does it make at all... — my maudlin path's the real self-deceit! Bergman had his Bach, and Kubrick his assault-rifles and makeshift melon targets. For movie-lovers attentive, sensitive, faithful, there's much evidence that Ingmar Bergman, agnostical skeptic in his own projection-room, both believed in and was that higher power.


In Bergman's memoir Images (Bilder, 1990), a passage reprinted from his workbook entry of 13 April 1974 [translation by Marianne Ruuth] —

"So now I have completed The Merry Widow. It was with great relief that I dismissed the troublesome lady (Streisand). I have also said good-bye to the film about Jesus."


2007's summer has been like any other — humid, static, overstaying its welcome by months.

In the dozen odd years I've visited Bergman's work, the phrase Winter Light has always seemed to me a reasonably fair replacement for the 1962 film's actual Swedish title — The Communicants (Nattvardsgästerna)... in the abstract — with the onset of the colder season, communication again becomes possible between individuals; calm resumes; mystery's resensate... Of course this ignores all that's implicit to Bergman's proclamation of Tomas and Märta as "communicants"; they can only speak at one another, they can't relate. Contrast with their successors Johan and Marianne, "The Illiterates" in Scenes from a Marriage, who speak endlessly and seriously to one another, and perform in essence a fugue and variations on the theme of understanding, talking as though their lives depended on one another, which they do, as they love each other deeply, beyond separation, and forever.

Nattvardsgästerna [The Communicants] by Ingmar Bergman, 1962:

Scener ur ett äktenskap [Scenes from a Marriage] by Ingmar Bergman, 1973:

Upon learning of Bergman's death I had this concern: Was he now involved in eternal afterlife, in everlasting reunion with his late wife Ingrid as he had in recent years predicted? — when her presence became for him increasingly palpable in the Fårö house? — when her ghost began to pay him regular visits? (Understand the dedication on the title-card of Saraband as being in both Swedish and English.) Or has the soul of Bergman been "snuffed out" immutably, been voided, — become a density, silence, the real eradication?

Saraband by Ingmar Bergman, 2003:

No idea. Useless to speculate. Here in earth-time a month's passed since Death of Bergman. Our lives go on while every Jersey day the sun's out and mocking. Oh summer '07,

"I'm tired of your loving care. Your fussing. Your good advice. Your candlesticks and table-runners. I'm fed up with your shortsightedness. Your clumsy hands. Your anxiousness. Your timid displays of affection. You force me to occupy myself with your physical condition. Your poor digestion. Your rashes. Your periods. Your frostbitten cheeks. Once and for all I have to escape this junkyard of idiotic trivialities. I'm sick and tired of it all, of everything to do with you."

— Thank god for the cinema. Thank god that "the movies will go on, like a train in the night." — The September sky is darkening. Peace returns to earth. Back to writing the scripts, back to writing the blacked-out stories of lives and honing in on the ghosts that present themselves. I'm concentrating hard......... The reality of perceptible things; the flash that's in the mirror — which contains the other? How many midnight cinemas to this localverse alone?

So many times I've thought I've heard a voice over my shoulder: "Do you like Ingmar Bergman? Do you like Tsai Ming-liang.......?".........

The rooms are never empty.

Après la réconciliation [After the Reconciliation] by Anne-Marie Miéville, 2000:

Scener ur ett äktenskap [Scenes from a Marriage] by Ingmar Bergman, 1973:



  1. I really appreciated this Bergman article, so fantastically written too

  2. Hello, I would really appreciate if you tell me how I can have an index like yours which is in order of alphabet. My Email:
    Yours Sincerely
    Farshid Rezaee

  3. A real gem of an article about an equally brilliatn director. Hats off to Bergman...!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.