An article about the Criterion Collection's 39-film box set, "Ingmar Bergman's Cinema," to be released on November 20th with snippets of Roger Ebert's reviews of certain films
• Introduction to The Great Movies III
You'd be surprised how many people have told me they're working their way through my books of Great Movies one film at a time. That's not to say the books are definitive; I loathe "best of" lists, which are not the best of anything except what someone came up with that day. I look at a list of the "100 greatest horror films," or musicals, or whatever, and I want to ask the maker, "but how do you know?" There are great films in my books, and films that are not so great, but there's no film here I didn't respond strongly to. That's the reassurance I can offer.
The blog entry "In Search of Redemption" inspired an outpouring of reader comments remarkable not only for their number but for their intelligence and thought. It became obvious that many of us go to the movies seeking some sort of release or healing. Many of you mentioned titles that especially affected you; two of my most-admired films, "Hoop Dreams" and "Grave of the Fireflies," were frequently listed. You all had your reasons. Now Ali Arikan, a longtime contributor to this site, has written me about why he was so affected by a relatively unlikely title, "The Out-Of-Towners" (1999). His reasons were personal; he can post them below if he chooses to. But in connection with his explanation, he quoted the first paragraph of one of my reviews.
I have long known and admired the Chicago Reader’s film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, but his New York Times op-ed attack on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career,” 8/4/07) is a bizarre departure from his usual sanity. It says more about Rosenbaum’s love of stylistic extremes than it does about Bergman and audiences. Who else but Rosenbaum could actually base an attack on the complaint that Bergman had what his favorites Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson lacked, “the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits?" In what parallel universe is the power to entertain defined in that way?
View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.
View image Sven Nykvist, behind the camera.
Roger Ebert interviewed the late master cinematographer Sven Nykvist in a fascinating visit to the set of "Face to Face" in 1975: Sven Nykvist photographs Bergman's films. He is tall, strong, fifty-one, with a beard and a quick smile. He is usually better-dressed than Bergman, but then almost everyone is; "Ingmar," a friend says, "does not spend a hundred dollars a year for personal haberdashery." Nykvist first worked for Bergman on 'The Naked Night' in 1953, and has been with him steadily since 'The Virgin Spring' in 1959. This will be his nineteenth title for Bergman, and the two of them together engineered Bergman's long-delayed transition from black and white to color, unhappily in "All These Women" and then triumphantly in "A Passion of Anna" and "Cries and Whispers."
Nykvist is in demand all over the world, and commands one of the half-dozen highest salaries among cinematographers, but he always leaves his schedule open for Bergman. "We've already discussed the new film the year before," he says, "and then Ingmar goes to his island and writes the screenplay. The next year, we shoot -- usually about the fifteenth of April. Usually we are the same eighteen people working with him, year after year, one film a year."
At the Cannes Film Festival one year, he said, Bergman was talking with David Lean, the director of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago." "What kind of crew do you use?" Lean asked. "I make my films with eighteen good friends," Bergman said. "That's interesting," said Lean. "I make mine with 150 enemies."
You might say horror movies are the mutant black sheep of the cinema. Some film devotees deem them too ungainly and disreputable to be taken seriously, as if they were deformed, illegitimate stepchildren who should be quietly locked up in the attic and not talked about. And yet... and yet... I suppose you can dislike (if not quite dismiss) entire sub-genres -- Hollywood musicals, maybe, or biblical epics -- but I don't see how you can seriously call yourself a film lover if you don't have some appreciation for horror movies. After all, they are so near the core appeal of the medium: Was there ever a genre better suited for shadowplay, unspooling in the dark before the collective (un-)consciousness of a crowd of spectators?
There has been no more assured and powerful film debut this year than "Eve's Bayou," the first film by Kasi Lemmons. Reviewers have compared it to work by Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and other Southern Gothic writers; it reminded me of a family drama by Ingmar Bergman. It's made of memories that still have the power to wound. Its shadows contain secrets that will always hurt.
NEW YORK -- Woody Allen was filming his new movie down around the corner of Broadway and 19th Street the other day, and he was under a certain amount of pressure. One of his stars, Mia Farrow, was pregnant and was playing a pregnant woman, and now the doctor was speculating that she might deliver before she was finished with the role. His editor, Sandy Morse, was also pregnant, and might deliver at any moment.
Bora Bora, Society Islands -- To get here you take off from Honolulu and fly into tomorrow, crossing the international date line for a refueling stop on Samoa. Then you fly back into yesterday and land on Tahiti, switch to an Air Polynesia flight to a coral landing strip, take a motorboat for another hour's journey, and arrive after dark at the island James Michener called the most beautiful in the world. It's a long way to go to visit a movie location, but then Dino De Laurentiis went a long way to shoot his movie.
Stockholm, 1975 -- When he is in Stockholm, Ingmar Bergman lives in a new apartment complex called Karlapan. It's comfortable, not ostentatious; Bergman doesn't often have friends in because he considers it not a home but a dormitory to sleep in while he's making a film. His wife Ingrid prepares meals there, but if the Bergmans entertain it is more likely to be at his customary table in the Theater Grill, a stately restaurant directly across the street from the back door of the Royal Dramatic Theater. The table is not easily found, or seen; it is behind a large mirrored post, so that Bergman, who can see everyone in the room, is all but invisible.