Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Alan Webber: Ingmar Bergman Resurrected

Film fan Alan Webber discusses the perceptions about Ingmar Bergman's work in honor of BMFI's two upcoming classes about the Swedish auteur and our screening of Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

Ingmar Bergman Resurrected
By Alan Webber, BMFI Patron and Film Fan

When I was a young adult in the late ‘60s and thought seriously about movies for the first time, Ingmar Bergman was a God. He was always part of the conversation when serious cinema was discussed and he even became part of the language of movies. A film was “Bergmanesque” if it was in black and white, had subtitles, had pretensions to high art, and was incomprehensible. But, unknown to me, there were always serious reservations in intellectual and critical circles about his value and importance as a filmmaker.

Ingmar Bergman is the subject of two upcoming film classes at Bryn Mawr Film Institute
This is humorously dealt with in a scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). Isaac (Woody), a 44-year-old television writer, has just been introduced to Mary (Diane Keaton), who is the current mistress of Isaac’s best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy). Isaac is walking with the two after accidentally meeting them at a gallery with his current flame, 17-year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). While strolling, Yale and Mary have been discussing new additions to their personal “Academy of the Overrated,” which currently includes such notables as Isak Dinesen, Carl Jung, Gustav Mahler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Walt Whitman. The conversation proceeds with further additions to the Academy:
Mary: Ah, well, how about Vincent van Gogh?

Isaac: Van Goch? She said Van Goch? Van Goch...

Mary: Or Ingmar Bergman?

Isaac: Bergman? Bergman is the only genius in cinema today, I think.

Yale: He's a big Bergman fan.

Mary: God, you're so the opposite, I mean you write that absolutely fabulous television show, it's really, really funny, and his view is so Scandinavian, it's bleak, my God, I mean, all that Kierkegaard, right? Real adolescent, you know, fashionable pessimism, I mean, the silence, "God's silence": OK, OK, OK, I mean, I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but I mean, all right, you outgrow it, you absolutely outgrow it.

Isaac [aside]: Get her away from me, I don’t think I can take much more.
Ingmar Bergman makes the "Academy of the Overrated" in Woody Allen's Manhattan.
In this scene, Keaton confirmed all my beliefs about Ingmar Bergman at the time; I had probably not even seen one of his films yet, though I was an avid movie fan.

At the time of Manhattan’s 1979 release, Ingmar Bergman had been part of the psyche of serious American moviegoers for nearly 25 years and he had been making films in Sweden since 1946. Beginning with a series of films in the mid-50s which included Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1957), Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Magician (1958), Bergman introduced a new seriousness to cinema which critics and audiences around the world relished with abandon. As Stephen Holden has noted: “Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church... (he) was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of intellectual study.” The doctrine of this church was that film was art of the highest order and many young people in the '50s who saw a Bergman film for the first time were overwhelmed with an almost religious conversion. For a young Woody Allen it was primarily Wild Strawberries that struck him the most profoundly and told him Bergman was a magical filmmaker. He noted: “There had never been anything like it, this combination of intellectual artist and film technician. His technique was sensational.”

The Seventh Seal - Art or “Fashionable Pessimism”?
But, as Mary reflected in her wonderful and funny response to Isaac above, there were dissenters in the ranks. Many critics lashed out at his films as obscure, meaningless, and perhaps, as Mary says “adolescent fashionable pessimism.” But he would often win back critics and audiences alike with films like Persona in 1966. Yet in 1968, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker thought that Bergman was "a tiresome deep thinker of second-rate thoughts…absurdly gloomy and self-absorbed – a man living in alone in the world and stewing in his own intellectual juice." She felt that a “pall of profundity” had come to signify his work and many people had unfortunately “come to believe that this pall was art.” Ouch! That’s a pretty devastating commentary from an important thinker. Ironically, it came in a glowing review of Bergman’s Shame (1968), which she called a masterpiece. But it was the “pall” that kept me and many others from looking at his films with any seriousness and attention. I took it for granted that they were beyond my capacity for understanding. In the late ‘60s, I was more interested in the charms and sentimentality of Frank Capra and the seriousness of George Stevens. In the ‘70s, during a great golden era of American film, my interest then turned to Terrence Malick, Sidney Lumet, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen.

Times changed and for many it appeared by the early ‘70s that the religion of high art that dominated the 1950s and ‘60s was increasingly quaint and provincial and Bergman’s reputation began to slide. And today, as Richard Corliss has noted, “not many artists worry about God’s silence” at all and there are “few tortured agnostics.”

April 1966 - A Bergman Obsession
Even upon Bergman’s death in 2007, in spite of the glowing accolades, some voices were heard commenting on OP-ED pages of his relative unimportance to current cinema studies and maintained that Bergman truly was “overrated” and that his star had rightly faded as evidenced by the fact that he was not being studied in film schools or debated among film buffs with the same intensity that accrued to Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.

So is Ingmar Bergman still relevant today? Does he remain an important filmmaker? Woody Allen appears to think so:
"I think his films have eternal relevance, because they deal with the difficulty of personal relationships, lack of communication between people and religious aspirations and mortality, existential themes that will be relevant a thousand years from now. When many of the things that are successful and trendy today will have been long regulated to musty-looking antiques, his stuff will still be great."
I know I’m going to give him another look. I must. Bergman is a towering figure in the history of film.

Alan Webber is a BMFI patron and film fan.

Through a Lens Darkly: The Films of Ingmar Bergman, Part I begins November 28 at BMFI, taught by Maurizio Giammarco, Ph.D., of the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University. The class is sold out, but a second class continuing the discussion of Bergman and his work will be taught in January. Details will be posted soon on BMFI will also be showing Wild Strawberries on the big screen on Wednesday, December 12.

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