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Mourning (and assessing) Bergman


Some of the best things I've read about Ingmar Bergman's place in cinema, written since his death (UPDATED 8/01/07):

E-mails to Roger Ebert from filmmakers and writers including David Mamet, Paul Schrader, Sally Potter, Haskell Wexler, Paul Theroux, Richard Linklater, Gregory Nava, Studs Terkel, David Bordwell, David Gordon Green, Paul Cox...

Gregory Nava: This was not the escapist fare of Hollywood, or the pat spirituality of Biblical epic films where God spoke in hallowed tones from a burning bush. With Bergman, God was a spider that lived in the upstairs closet! A shocking and necessary jolt to my Catholic sensibilities. Yes, these films changed me forever -- they cemented my dream to become a filmmaker because if film could do this -- then surely it was the greatest art form of our time. I will never forget the first time I saw the horses standing in the surf against a setting sun, and death with his black cape raised approaching the world-weary knight.

"I hope I never get so old I get religious." -- Ingmar Bergman 

Peter Rainer, Los Angeles Times:

He worked out of his deepest passions and, for many of us, this made the experience of watching his films seem almost surgically invasive. He pulled us into his secret torments. Looking at "The Seventh Seal" or "Persona" or "Cries and Whispers," it's easy to imagine that Bergman, who died Monday, was the most private of film artists, and yet, no matter how far removed the circumstances of his life may have been from ours, he made his anguish our own.

Another way to put this is that Bergman -- despite the high-toned metaphysics that overlays many, though not all, of his greatest films -- was a showman first and a Deep Thinker second. His philosophical odysseys might have been epoxied to matters of Life and Death, of God and Man, but this most sophisticated of filmmakers had an inherently childlike core. He wanted to startle us as he himself had been startled. He wanted us to feel his terrors in our bones. A case could be made that Bergman was, in the most voluminous sense, the greatest of all horror movie directors.

"If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up!" -- Bergman actor Max von Sydow, in Woody Allen's "Hannah and Her Sisters"


Woody Allen's "Love and Death": A Bergman (and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy...) parody from someone who loved Bergman.

Roger Ebert,

What he saw as God’s refusal to intervene in the suffering on earth was the subject of his 1961-63 Silence of God Trilogy, “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” (a pitiless film in which a clergyman torments himself about the possibility of nuclear annihilation) and “The Silence.” In his masterpiece “Persona,” (1967), an actress (Liv Ullmann) sees a television image of a monk burning himself in Vietnam, and she stops speaking. Sent to a country retreat with a nurse (Bibi Andersson), she works a speechless alchemy on her, leading to a striking image when their two faces seem to blend.

So great was the tension in that film that Bergman made it appear to catch in the projector and burn. Then, from a black screen, the film slowly rebuilt itself, beginning with crude images from the first days of the cinema. These images were suggested by a child’s cinematograph which his brother received as a present; so envious was Ingmar that he traded his brother for it, giving up his precious horde of 100 tin soldiers.

Michael Atkinson, Zero for Conduct:

Another thunder lizard falls – over a half-century after what has come to be known as "the art film" emerged onto postwar American screens, the Greatest Generation (semi-irony siren, please) takes another hit with the passing of an 89-year-old Ingmar Bergman, at once a dinosaur, a one-man New Wave, a mammoth formal influence, a pioneering pop existentialist, a despot in his own nation of cinematic currency, an unexploitable navel-focused artiste who did not bow to the world’s entertainment will but instead made it bow to him, an unestimable provider of cultural fuel to the rise of college-educated counter culture between 1959 and 1980, and, let’s face it, an astonishingly adventurous sensibility that embraced virtually every stripe of expression available to him, from melodrama to the world’s most overt symbolism to gritty realism to epic pageant, farce and avant-garde psycho-obscurism.


"De Düva: The Dove" -- a staple pre-feature short in art houses, late into the 1970s.

Still, he hasn’t been missed much – today, of the Art Film era uber-auteurs, Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa and Bunuel remain potent currency in one form or another (new work, old scripts, reissues, docs, tributes, etc.), but Bergman seems to have faded dramatically from view. Clearly now, the respect he received was always on the verge of dissolving into contempt; going back as far as the 1968 short ""De Düva," things "Bergmanesque" – bald-faced psychological symbology, brooding seriousness, spiritual crisis, Scanda-angst – have been remarkable grist for farce. (Saturday Night Live, Second City TV and Johnny Carson all had their sport back in the day, and there’s no counting the Bergman citations in the history of The Simpsons.) For people who never cared to know from imported cinema, Bergman represented the self-aggrandizing absurdity of Euro-film, even more so, remarkably, than Fellini – perhaps because Federico’s excesses exuded a carnivalesque pandering toward the eternal low-brow. Bergman always aimed high and deep, philosophical and God-searching and proto-Freudian, and his doggedly literal questions were more vital to him and his devoted audience than Yankee ideas of showmanhip. His only competition for Bullgoose Depressive was Antonioni, but Antonioni had the advantage of modern Mediterraneanism, cool-hip visuals and urbane desolation. Bergman had only the dayless winters, the Svealand plains and a seemingly neverending supply of Protestant guilt. Today, we are aswarm with Antonioni imitators, but no one seems to want to be the new Bergman.

[Editor's note: This was written the day before the news of Antonioni's death.]


But nowhere, not even in the gradually reevaluated "The Serpent’s Egg," is there a lazy, unambitious or unoriginal directorial moment. It doesn’t happen every day that we lose one of an entire art form’s aboriginal movers. When will he reenter the pantheon?

Dan Callahan, The House Next Door:

After a while, life and work and a few laughs turn us all into Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) in Woody Allen’s "Manhattan": “I mean, the silence, God’s silence…OK, OK…I mean, I loved it at Radcliffe, but alright, you outgrow it!” Surely Allen means us to reject the self-loathing, brittle Wilke, who churns out novelizations of popular movies instead of trying to create serious art. But her comments nail the Bergman/Antonioni pretensions and the mindset that would most appreciate them. She also sees Bergman’s “fashionable pessimism” as “adolescent.” This hits even closer to the bone. Wilke has a point. Several points, actually. She is also evil. Her pop mindset rules today, and we have to do everything we can to topple it. Paying attention to the virtues of Bergman and Antonioni is definitely a step in the right direction....


If being unforgiving is adolescent, then Bergman was adolescent until the end. But his images of bliss linger as much as his vicious dialogue (and the nastiness was always mitigated by the lilting music of the Swedish language).


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