Brink of Life

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.

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 Duva, 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.

So, as much as the grim Swede may have seemed in his meridian to be an indomitable voice, his pantheon status has been as fragile as an eggshell. In today’s cultural market, he’s been a nowhere man. Still, as cinephiles with memories know, fashion will not win in the end, and Bergman, a classical giant with modernist ordnance, will eventually reemerge as essential for all ages. Whereas the iconic dream symbolism of Wild Strawberries, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, The Devil’s Eye and Hour of the Wolf can still curdle, and those films remain powerful and fascinating despite, not because of, their famously distinctive Bergmanesqueries, Through a Glass Darkly strikes a dazzling balance between familial psychodrama and spiritual upheaval, The Silence is almost a piece of Soviet science fiction, and Persona remains a masterful layer cake of psycho-diegetic pastry, vulnerable to dozens of readings and satisfying none (though it still seems to me to be a pas de deux between the psychiatric patient-filmmaker, craving connection and vomiting his secrets into the abyss, and the therapist-audience, who sits silently and judgmentally and gives nothing back). Shame is a blistering, world-beating, non-specific portrait of domestic warfare that didn’t need Death on the beach or handless clocks. If Cries and Whispers seemed Bergman redux (and amped up with self-mutilation and unsettlingly gorgeous color cinematography), then Scenes from a Marriage, Face to Face and Autumn Sonata resound still with determination to squeeze every drop of blood from broken hearts. Fanny & Alexander, of course, is exactly the kind of rich, timeless, cautionless magnum opus we can only receive, like benedictions, from artists who’ve paid their generation’s dues of sweat, risk, tears and honesty (the film’s iconography, from household spaces made menacing to ghosts and suggestions of God himself, virtually catalogues Bergman’s ‘50s-‘60s filmography). The earlier films are perfectly appointed genre dramas; the latter, indulgent self-examinations (that goes for the last, family-biographical screenplays, too). 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?





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  • 7/30/2007 11:08 PM Matt wrote:
    "When will he reenter the pantheon?"

    Has he ever *completely* left? Criterion, at the least, has launched a one-man army to keep him in, consistently giving his work spine numbers. Their slightly controversial decision to launch the Eclipse line with Early Bergman seemed like a pretty unsubtle eff-you to the types who've tried to eject him. Now, if only they'd do up MONIKA or SAWDUST AND TINSEL.
    Reply to this
    1. 7/31/2007 9:40 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      True enough, Matt, Criterion fights the good fight all over the place -- but they've also made efforts at keeping vintage Jacques Becker, Seijun Suzuki and Maurice Pialat centered on the English-speaking-cinephile-world's dinner plate, with little visible success.  It's an organic flux, these generalized zeitgeisty reputational standings, and Bergman has been made fun of for too long, I suspect.  Which is not to say he's not a long-standing titan in my pantheon; seriously, after you jot down Renoir, Bunuel, Dreyer, Ozu, Hitchcock, Welles, Godard, Bresson and Mizoguchi, who's your number 10, if not Bergman?  Arguments can be made for Antonioni, Murnau and maybe Rivette, but still.  I'm just saying, I'm sensing that fewer such list-makers, rare and sick species that we are, would think to include Bergman now than 15 or 25 years ago, much less 40 years ago when Persona was still making through the globe's cities. 

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      1. 8/1/2007 6:40 PM Steve wrote:
        Considering that Seijun Suzuki was practically unknown in the West at the time he made BRANDED TO KILL & TOKYO DRIFTER, Criterion's efforts haven't been in vain. There are now more Suzuki R1 DVDs available than Mizoguchis. Similarly, Pialat seems to have exited the black hole he fell into in the U.S. between LE GARCU and his death. If only Facets had the same ability to draw attention to its releases, Luc Moullet, Johan van der Keuken and Kazuo Hara might enter the American canon.
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  • 8/1/2007 3:08 AM Penny Foxtrot wrote:
    Your blog entry reads like self-parodying fashionable pessimism. "...his pantheon status has been as fragile as an eggshell. In today’s cultural market, he’s been a nowhere man."

    Michael, do you honestly believe the crap you've written, or are you merely -- as my high-school geometry teacher used to say -- pushing the pencil? "Today's cultural market" is a joke at best. What kind of a yardstick is that? And Bergman can't re-enter the pantheon because he hasn't left it or been removed from it. Hey, it's the pictures -- and the critics -- that got smaller. I'll never forget the moment when Seattle Weekly's former lead film reviewer (a duncecap by the name of Brian Miller) told me that he couldn't relate to Saraband because Bergman's characters weren't toting cell phones around. The implication being that if Bergman made a film about shallow yuppies gabbing into their phones, then said dumb critic would probably be apoplectic with equally shallow praise -- "Jeez, it was as cool as Wes Anderson, hah yah!"

    So, the issue isn't really whether Bergman (God rest his soul) is so this or so that. The issue is that 99% of the people currently being published on the topic of film are absolute complete idiots. They can't string a thought together, let alone a sentence, and their only aesthetic, to the extent to they have one, is trash. What a boring, lifeless group of buddy-system hacks. The bloggers being no different in their unstylish ignorance than staff reviewers at papers and glossy mags.

    As for those few of us who have some discernment and the moxie not to be shy about it, well, we'll always have Bergman. And we won't need Woody Allen to explain his ascetic pleasures to us.
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    1. 8/1/2007 7:27 PM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Lawd, the heedless crap people will write when hiding behind asinine web pseudonyms.  There's little dispute here of my thoughts about Bergman not being taken seriously enough by the modern cultures; in fact, Ms. Foxtrot seems to agree with me there, but seemingly protests that it doesn't matter if everyone else doesn't revere Bergman or indeed pays him lip service but rarely enjoys his films, critics or whoever else, as long as she, Foxtrot, knows the score.  Perhaps Foxtrot's right -- I'm the last man to demand that the cultural EKG on anything, but especially re: art film, is to be respected or deferred to.  I just observed that among his peers Bergman was as much of a hoary old modernist joke as a pantheon godling.  As for Foxtrot's denigration of everyone save she that writes about movies in any format, I'm relieved to hear someone several smidgeons more pessimistic than I.  But that hardly means Foxtrot is exhibiting here a mote of what she finds lacking at large; on the contrary.  Discernment and moxie are boastable values, except that the minute you boast of them you demonstrate your deficit thereof.  What's seems certain is that she doesn't read very carefully.
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  • 8/2/2007 10:42 AM Joe wrote:
    Didn't Bergman come in at #8 in the 2002 "Sight & Sound" Directors' poll for Best Director? His films are far more accessible than they were in the 60's or 70's. Amazon UK offers the 30 dvd Tartan set "The Ingmar Bergman Collection" and the individual dvd's sell for less than $15.00 including postage. That sounds pretty good for a guy outside the pantheon.
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  • 7/31/2009 10:42 PM Ed Brett wrote:
    Mike. Baby, Answer one question. Since the last time we spoke face to face what are the two greatest films made. Now think about it. Dont get to cerebral. I'm happy I've found a way to communicate with you.
    Been through hell buddy, believe me.
    I will give you my 2 greatest.
    Reply to this
    1. 8/17/2009 11:41 AM Michael Atkinson wrote:
      Well, I believe you. Feel free to email me normally. Two best since, what, 1989? Not too cerebral?! Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry and Eastwood's Unforgiven.
      Reply to this

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