Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P. Ingmar Bergman

The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman passed away earlier today at the age of 89. There are excellent tributes to the man's life and filmography just about everywhere, including here, here, here, here, and especially here. Perhaps best known for his iconic image of Death playing chess with Max von Sydow's knight in "The Seventh Seal," he became one of the most revered figures in international cinema beginning in the late 1950's, only to have his reputation suffer something of a decline in recent years. For better or for worse, his name became associated with a heavily metaphysical, Strindbergian sensibility that some critics eventually found, at best, airless, and at worst, an artistic dead end. But no one could deny his brilliance as a filmmaker, from the sheer beauty of his symbolic imagery to the wonderful expressiveness he managed to elicit from his actors - most notably, among his regulars, von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, and my personal favorite, Ingrid Thulin. Nor could anyone fail to see how deeply personal his films were - each film was like an exorcism of his most intimate fears, existential angst, and emotional experiences.

And it's this personal quality that still endures today. Perhaps fittingly, I will always associate him with my childhood and, most particularly, with my father. Both my parents admire his work immensely, but it was my dad who I realized quite early on was something of a Bergman fanboy. He was - and still is - particularly obsessed with "Wild Strawberries" and "Fanny and Alexander," finding the former to be the most poetic of Bergman's films, the latter the most joyous. I saw these two movies multiple times while I was growing up, and they still stand among the most indelible aesthetic memories engrained in my consciousness. The eerie dream sequences of "Wild Strawberries" seriously freaked me out when I was very young, and as a meditation on mortality and human selfishness it's pretty unsparing - yet what I remember most keenly about it is its exquisitely lyrical quality, and the gentleness of the protagonist's final reconciliation with his past life and approaching death. "Wild Strawberries" is haunting in the best sense of the word, and an indisputable masterpiece.

As for "Fanny and Alexander," it's well known for being the most frankly autobiographical of Bergman's films. But that's less interesting than how seamlessly it fuses Bergman's gothic and supernatural sensibilities with his appreciation of the richness and warmth of human relationships - and the connection of both to the world of theater. Told from the perspective of an imaginative adolescent boy (and to a lesser extent, his younger sister) during a traumatic year in which he endures death, alienation, abuse, and, finally, reunion and new life, it captures the child's perspective of these events better than almost any other film that comes to mind.

That's not to detract from the rest of Bergman's canon, from the feather-light "Smiles of a Summer Night" (another of my dad's favorites) to the uberdark "The Virgin Spring" and the searing psychological intensity of "Persona" and "Cries and Whispers." But that's what's so remarkable about Bergman, whose range has, I think, been rather unfairly deprecated: no matter who you are or what your tastes, you're pretty sure to find at least one of his films that will resonate powerfully with you. And that, to my mind, is the mark of a great director.

Apparently the Gods of Cinema got greedy on July 30 and decided to claim not just one but two giants for their pantheon...Michelangelo Antonioni passed away on the same day as Bergman. Now I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen an Antonioni film, so I feel ill equipped to pay a really meaningful tribute to him - but the New York Times has a a good obituary that's worth reading.


Blogger M. S. said...

This is a beautiful appreciation, Lynn. I wasn't aware that you were such a life-long fan of Bergman's work. His film The Silence is among my top favorite 20 films; I've also greatly admired his Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, Persona, Cries and Whispers, and many of the films you mention. His work could be harrowing, painful, and unremitting, but it was truthful too, and, as you and others note, he could be light, joyful, and humorous. Few filmmakers are as integral to European cinema, to cinema in general, as Bergman. (And I share your enthusiasm for Ingrid Thulin; a remarkable actress.) Thanks for writing this.

--Michael S.

10:33 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks, Michael - and thanks for linking me on your blog. I'm not really a Bergman expert - the only films of his that I've seen more than once are the two I mention. Nonetheless, I feel like I grew up with him. Some of the earliest film criticism I read consisted of studies of Bergman that I found on my parents' bookshelf, next to the original screenplay for "Fanny and Alexander," which I read and reread obsessively for a while during my teen years. His death has spurred me to see more of his films, including a couple of the ones you mention, such as "Winter Light."

12:35 AM  
Blogger M. S. said...

Lynn, a few years ago Criterion put a nice box set called "A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman," which contains Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, each available separately from Netflix. Criterion also has Bergman's Autumn Sonata in their catalog (among some of his other films), but I've never seen it.


1:04 PM  
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