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?