Persona as Paradigm The Mind of the Body

But it was neither for its themes nor for its spiritual uplift that I became a believer in Bergman's genius, because as already indicated, it was not his metaphysics but the physics of his films that made me go to the cinema, and write about his work. Although I might not have put it this way, it was the intelligence of the body in Bergman's work that I looked for in the films from the mid-1960s onwards, which made them not necessarily more profound than his "masterpieces" (e.g., The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries), but distinctly more cinematic and therefore more classical, in the sense that the classical American cinema has always been a cinema of bodily intelligence.

Returning to Persona, the story of an actress, Elisabet, who after a nervous breakdown, is nursed back to health by a young woman, Alma, and gradually seems to "absorb" part of the nurse's personality, the question immediately poses itself as to where the film's life and the characters' life-force reside. Is it in the (fragile, unworthy) selves they peel away (and thus in the morality of stripping the soul naked of all pretence), or in these selves' wily and ingenious self-fashioning during the encounters with an "other"? If one looks at the scene which precipitates the nervous breakdown, showing us Elisabet on stage, one can see that the action is at each moment sufficient unto itself. The very way in which the scene is formally organized points to its function, interprets it - indeed explains Elisabet's otherwise so puzzling decision henceforth to remain silent. The disposition of figure and space, of character movement and camera movement convey the urgency of her choice in a manner more immediate and convincing than any verbal explanations given by the doctor. We first see Electra/Elisabet with her back to the camera addressing an audience in a theatre. Gradually she turns round, approaches the camera, until her face is in close-up and she is looking straight at us. The real significance lies not in the verbal commentary (which merely fills in the context) but exclusively in her physical movement. The shot begins with her facing the theatre audience and ends with her facing us, the cinema audience (both audiences are "abstract" as far as one can make out, since the auditorium in the theatre appears in fact to be empty of spectators). This corresponds directly to a process of reflection made manifest in space in that she has quite literally come to a turning point in her life. The transition from an outer world of appearance to an inner revelation of being is given substance by the movement which in a fluid motion joins the two audiences -differentiated as they are by the ontological gap that separates cinematic image and physical reality, and which Bergman has here used to signify the difference between emotional reality (Elisabet's sudden awareness of herself and the emotional involvement of the audience in the film) and external existence (Elisabet's role as actress and the illusory, unreal image on the screen).

This movement from an outer to an inner world is furthermore reinforced, given a concrete spatial embodiment, and hence its ultimate visual reality by the position of the camera. Elisabet is on stage, as a metaphor of a social world, and she turns backstage (where the camera is), to indicate a more intimate and immediate reality. The transition which her movement describes is therefore from an outer, seemingly ordered (but false) world to an inner, often chaotic (but necessary) world. For just as the business that habitually goes on backstage in a theatre is necessary in order to produce the "show," so the chaos of one's inner self may well be the necessary precondition of one's active "social" life

(cf. the similar use which Bergman makes of the backstage metaphor in Smiles of a Summer Night [1955], or the juxtaposition of the trailer and the circus ring in the interpersonal dramas of Sawdust and Tinsel [1953]).

Where the scene in Persona essentially differs from the earlier ones is in Bergman's awareness as to its directly cinematic implication, expressed by the position of the camera and the extreme economy of its use. In this scene, Bergman has not only given the essential movement of this film (its constant dialectic from inner to outer realm), its fundamental theme (the possibility of communicating and living this inner reality) but also vindicated the cinema as a unique medium of revelation and illumination of what is perceptible neither to the naked eye nor to be put in words. By placing the camera backstage with its mechanical eye turned towards the auditorium, Bergman has indicated the ultimately impersonal scope of cinematic art: observing life and giving us its veridical image, the cinema in a simultaneous movement transforms it, recording an inner ex- Persona perience as action. In this unique capacity of being at once supremely realistic and highly interpretative, even visionary, lies the justification of the cinema, its seriousness, even as it deals in nothing but illusion. The scene described above could serve as a very persuasive argument for the auteur theory - a scene whose minimal overt "content" reveals a maximum of cinematic meaning. It was as if Bergman in Persona had discovered the kind of economy of means that seemed to many of us to make the American cinema superior to European art film: the recognition that the cinema is at once the most unreal, the most "faked" and the emotionally most real and most authentic of all aesthetic experiences, and that its fascination resides in the irresolvable oscillation inherent in this contradiction.

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