I call it ORANGES

Art Reviews, Cultural Bric a Brac, Jargon Free

Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

I am an independent writer living in Los Angeles. I write Visual Art Reviews, General Cultural Essays, and Book Reviews.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007, A Tribute

Often, artists who focus best on alienation show us forcefully the depth and limits of intimacy. Sartre fits this description very well, and one of Beckett’s great contributions was his ability to uncover an impossible, almost dirty intimacy atop horrible losses of self and exposures to neglect almost unimaginable. Ingmar Bergman, I would argue, was the cinema’s greatest artist of both alienation and intimacy. He was an artist of the utmost integrity – never cheap, always emotionally and intellectually rigorous. I treasure his movies, and I am sad that he died, even if it was at age 89 at his home in Sweden on July 30th.

The first scene to endear me to Bergman was the end of The Seventh Seal, 1957, the first movie I saw by the Swedish master. The characters have gathered together in a small house, and we suddenly see Death blocking the doorway. We somehow knew he was there, we knew he was always there, but the shock of seeing his pale face is intense. The camera shifts and suddenly we stare through the eyes of death himself. In front of us, each person becomes a representation how we live our lives, each incredibly flawed, some resolute, others almost pathetic. There is the religious crusader, the cavalier fearless lover of life, the oppressed peasant girl, and finally the squirrelly, cheating, but ultimately loving couple. Each approach death in their unique way, and we, taking the eyes of death, choose one – but, and this is what made Bergman an unqualified genius, do we choose their life or their death?

Great art is full of moral choices, and the best art makes the choices seem essential. No one does it better than Bergman. After each of his films, I felt routed, renewed, and often for weeks, the works lingered and forced me to look harder at my life. I don’t think I will quite ever get over Through the Glass Darkly, 1961 with its vision of God as a spider and the revelation that art could push a writer to relish his own daughter’s madness for the sake of his craft. Karin, played by Harriet Andersson, frantically screams at the end of the film, a gesture as poignant as Munch’s existential gravitron The Scream or Ibsen’s sun-stroked finish to Ghosts.

Through the Glass Darkly is a mixture between a chamber play and Medieval moral drama. All the characters are trapped on a small island, and Bergman used this idea in many of his films. Long a director of Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater and a force in the European theater circuit, Bergman translated the theater to cinema very successfully, giving one great pause to think of the differences between the two mediums. I think of Persona, 1967 which drew two women up tight into claustrophobic, close living. The camera becomes a map of personal and cinematic space, squeezing the air out of faces and sets. The result is permeable identities, eruptions of dementia, and human emotion pushed to its breaking point. In Persona, the line between two subjectivities completely dissolves. Intimacy is achieved under the most desperate of conditions.

Fanny and Alexander, 1982 was a personal look into the depths of Bergman’s own past, the son of stern Lutheran minister who was in love with his tempermental mother. The film depicts how childhood trauma can unlock creativity and fantasy, and proposes an exploration of Bergman's own journey to art and cinema. In Fanny and Alexander, Bergman achieved a diligently earned grace. It was little wonder he considered it, until Saraband, 2003 to be his last film.

Bergman fought his most troubling questions openly on screen and one of the things that separated him from many working today is that wasn’t afraid to give answers. I’ve named just a few of my favorite Bergman films – there are so many more. Bergman, along with Rosellini, De Sica, Fellini, and many many more European Auteurs, tunneled through the despair of a post-war Europe lying in ruins. These artists took modernity seriously – its negative and positive impacts on the psyche, even the strain of its demands on the senses. The ends were shocking, and so is life.

I know that I, still in my twenties and still very much a young upstart, found their work a starting point for a world that I did not know very well – a world handed to me in pieces by American education’s shallow approach to history. Their films seemed to make the wider world’s problems somehow more tangible, problems beckoning to be looked at in a deeper way. I wish I could do Bergman more justice, but I will leave it at that.