From Bergman to Corman

With these considerations in mind, re-reading Images - My Life in Films left me a little more disenchanted than I was at first glance. One learns about Bergman's dislike of color (because it took away mystery), the importance of lighting (and of Sven Nyqvist), and that some of his early films were devised in order to experiment with complicated camera movements. But he says next to nothing about many of the other things that make Bergman a great film director: his use of close-ups, his work on the sound track, the composition of these incredibly complex, yet fluid action spaces within the frame, in both indoor and outside scenes (such as I described them above in Persona). Biographical details, childhood memories, moral introspection, the theatre, actors and actresses, music and music-making make up a loosely woven narrative that moves from topic to topic, discards chronology, and groups the films under such oddly coy but perhaps cleverly seductive titles as "Dreams Dreamers," "Jests Jesters," "Miscreant Credence," "Farces Frolics." Often, Bergman confesses of this or that film that he doesn't have much to say about its making. Contrary to the title, there is little about images. Instead, what holds the book together is a daunting effort to account for the process of story-conception, of what mood to be in when writing, what memory to follow up on, what dream to cross-fertilize with an incident he has read about, what well of anguish to tap when the plot seems to wander off in the wrong direction. Bergman is also very self-critical of the final result, often lamenting that a film (like Shame [1968], or Face to Face [1975]) could have been much better, had he worked more on the script, or recognized in time a fault in the basic construction. It reminds one of how much legitimation and cultural capital Bergman the film director still derives from writing, from being an author as well as an auteur, and at the same time, how removed he was from the routines of Hollywood script-writing, from story-boarding or using the script as the production's financial and technical blueprint. In this, Bergman conforms rather precisely to the cliché of the European director: improvisation on the set or on location, the most intense work is expended with the actors, while the film is taking shape as the director penetrates the inner truth of the various motifs that the story or situation first suggested to him.

The notion that Bergman's films are autobiographical has both given his films coherence and authenticated them as important. In a sense, Images supports some of the earnest exegeses that exist of his work: one finds the theme of the artist, caught between imagining himself a god and knowing he is a charlatan and conjurer; the motif of the lost companion/partner in an alien city, a war zone, an isolated hospital; the transfer of identity and the destructive energies of the heterosexual couple. But Bergman is also candid about his own compliance with admirers' interpretative projections. Images opens with the admission that Bergman on Bergman, a book of interviews from 1968, had been "hypocritical" because he was too anxious to please.13 In a similar vein, he now thinks the notion, endorsed by himself in the preface to Vilgot Sjoman's Diary with Ingmar Bergman, that Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963) and the silence form a trilogy is a "rationalization after the fact": "the "trilogy" has neither rhyme nor reason. It was a Schnaps-Idee, as the Bavarians say, meaning that it's an idea found at the bottom of a glass of alcohol."14 And yet, as mentioned above, one look at the filmographies of Godard, Antonioni, Truffaut, Wenders, Herzog and Kieslowski shows just how important a prop the idea of the "trilogy" is for the self-identity of the European auteur bereft of genres and star actors.

Brushing Images a little against the grain of its own declaration of authenticity ("I was going to return to my films and enter their landscapes. It was a hell of a walk"),15 it is just conceivable that Bergman's claim to being one of the cinema's great auteurs most firmly rests on his ability to dissimulate, in the sense I suggested above: that the "big themes," the flaunting of moral doubt and metaphysical pain represents not a personal plight somehow transfigured and purified into art (the "romantic" complement of early auteurism), but the doubly necessary pre-text for a cinematic tour deforce. As Bergman describes making Ode to Joy (1949), while his second marriage is breaking up and he is full of self-recrimination: "In relation to my profession, I obviously was not suffering from any neuroses at all. I worked because it was fun and because I needed money."16

The "big themes" were doubly necessary, I am suggesting, because they helped to define his cinema as "Swedish cinema," and because they allowed him to reinvent himself as a filmmaker: prerequisites for creating a "work" that can be recognized as such at a time when Hollywood still had genres and stars, rather than directors as stars. As to Bergman, the figurehead of a national cinema, Images makes clear how many overt and covert threads connect his films to the key authors and themes of Scandinavian literature. Bergman's immense achievement was to have recognized and made his own dramatic situations, constellations and characters echoing those of the great Scandinavian playwrights, especially Strindberg and Ibsen, and using his life-long work in the theatre as both a permanent rehearsal of his film ideas in progress, and as the place to forge the stock-company of actors and actresses who give his films their unmistakeable look, feel and physical identity: Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand, Ingrid Thulin and Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson. Even so audaciously private a film like Persona uses Strindberg's one-act play The Stronger and even so ostensibly an autobiographical work as Fanny and Alexander borrows, apart from its explicit references to Hamlet, several motifs, names and allusions from Ibsen's The Wild Duck, and Strind-berg's Ghost-Sonata and Dreamplay.17

Beyond their role of giving him a form (the chamber play) and a set of dramatic conflicts (Ibsen's bourgeois family, falling apart through the "life-lie"; Strindberg's couple, tearing each other to pieces in sexual anguish and hatred), the dramatists Bergman is attached to remind one of the importance of the spoken word, of the vernacular, the texture of speech and voice for our idea of a national cinema, and indeed for the European art cinema as a whole. It suggests that one function of the auteur cinema as a national cinema, before the advent of television, was to "transcribe" features of a nation's cultural tradition, as figured in another art form (the novel, theatre, opera), and to "represent" them in the cinema, thereby giving it a haptic presence: often enough only in the eyes of others, other countries' cinema audiences or celluloid tourists, but sometimes also recognized (or gratefully rewarded) by the nation itself.

One can follow this process in Bergman's career, where the films from the late 1950s onwards tend to be more or less self-consciously crafted images, first of the Nordic "character" from the middle-ages to the mid-i9th century, and then of middle-class Sweden today. From The Seventh Seal to The Virgin Spring and Sawdust and Tinsel to The Face, from Wild Strawberries to Hour of the Wolf (1968), from Cries and Whispers (1972) to Fanny and Alexander, there is an uneasy acknowledgement of the identity others have thrust upon him, as a national icon and (often ambiguous) national monument. One response is parody or pastiche: is it merely hindsight that discovers in Bergman's big themes often a wonderful excuse for putting on a show? Re-seeing The

Seventh Seal I was amazed and amused by its Grand-Guignolesque elements, not just the strolling players but even the young girl's death at the stake. Its deftly staged spectacle, its atmospheric touches, its wonderful sleights of hand and sarcastic humor prompted the perhaps blasphemous thought that Max von Sydow's knight back from the Crusades was closer in spirit to Vincent Price in a Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe horror film than he was to Dreyer's Day of Wrath or Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc.

Hence, perhaps, a trauma that seems to have haunted Bergman briefly, even more urgently than his brief arrest by bungling Swedish bureaucrats for tax fraud: the fear of an arrest of his creativity. The tax business resulted in his six year-long self-exile to Germany, and seems to have wounded him to the quick. But so did the pun in a French review of autumn sonata (1978, starring Ingrid Bergman), suggesting that "Bergman [is not only directing Bergman, but] does Bergman."18 Images in a sense is the record of having laid that ghost to rest, for it gives rise to the theme of an artist becoming a pastiche of himself, a fear he sees confirmed in the later work of Tarkovsky, of Fellini and especially Bunuel, whom he accuses of a lifetime of self-parody.19 Tying in with the Schnaps-Idee of an auteur's trilogy, self-parody is perhaps the fate Bergman believes is in store for all those European auteurs who outlive both the economic and the cultural moment of the national cinema with which they came to be identified. From more recent times, the case of Werner Herzog or Wim Wenders come to mind (though the counter-examples are just as interesting: Rossellini, when he began to make his great historical films for television, or Godard, when he took on video as if to remake and "take back" his own earlier films, commenting on them by way of spraying them with ever more metaphysical "graffiti"). In Bergman's case, the farewell to the cinema was not only the signal to carry on with the theatre, but it also led him to reinvent himself as an autobiographer, novelist, scenarist, and the self-reflexive, slyly exhibitionist essayist he shows himself in Images, treating his big themes with an irony, a humor and a detachment not always present when he was turning them into films.

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