on the Bergman Season at the Star and Shadow: 1st Sept 2014 to 21st Sept 2014
retrospective season at the Star and Shadow of four of Ingmar
Bergman’s films, the Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a glass
darkly and Persona was a chance to view and to appraise a director
who is regarded as one of the foremost film makers of the twentieth
century; an opportunity to understand what he offers today’s
audience in the age of the iphone.
reputation is huge. But he has also been mercilessly parodied as a
gloomy scandinavian whose films for the most part trail dark despair
about the human condition.
views of human nature and the incapacity of humans to communicate have
been criticised for their emotional and spiritual bleakness.
seeing the films my feeling is that these negative reactions to
Bergman are understandable. However they are unbalanced and less
than fair to Bergman as an artist film maker and thinker. Of course
much his work will not be what some cinema goers are looking for.
Bergman’s films are not about entertainment value although they can
certainly be entertaining. The films are personal. They represent
Bergman’s own understanding of world.
one key quality stands out in relation to Bergman’s work. He is not
selling anything: a belief system or a justification. Although
Bergman made films before 1951, in 1951 his financial situation
forced him to work for a year making cinema advertisements. And this
year seems to have been critical in developing his film making
technique and also in shaping a personal resolve that his films would
not sell anything. Like the man in the Leonard Cohen song, he would
not be a dealer in solutions, and this had a defining effect on both
the form and content of his films, and the way Bergman shot and
composed his scenarios, in particular his use of the Close Up of
which more later.
to be a wheeler dealer in cinematic snake oil remedies was a
fundamental moral imperative for Bergman. He could only work from
the position in which he was truthful to himself. To thine own self
be true. Bergman’s being truthful is an overwhelming and
fundamental impression gained from viewing his work. They come
across like a casting of the shadows of his own inner dialogues, onto
the complex exterior form of his films.
these dialogues questions arise that are part of the weave of daily
life; the nature of our relations with and communication with others,
the reality of our aloneness, issues of our identity and place in the
fold of life. These questions emerge in the films through the
interplay of script character and image. Bergman not only refuses to
answer the questions, he states unequivocally, that for us, there are
no answers: Karin in Through A Glass Darkly says she has seen God and
that he was a large hairy spider; when the Knight in the Seventh Seal
asks about the existence of God, the after life and all that, Death
replies that he has no secrets to reveal. Something the knight
you might say this is bleak stuff. But my impression from the
audiences is that they were
overwhelmingly appreciative of Bergman’s moral stance. The AP people
understood that Bergman was an artist prepared to say that: life,
communication is hard – that we have to understand that there are
often no answers – that in some respects life comprises problems
not challenges. These may be unfashionable notions but some audiences
find a moment of black and white honesty, more positive than the rose
tinted philosophical twaddle, wrapped in High Definition cosmic
reassurance, peddled by directors such as Terrence Mallick.
there is honesty about our condition, at least we’ve got our feet on
the ground. The elements: the sea the sky the earth, are always
present in Bergman’s cinematography almost as reminders. The knight
as he progresses across the plague ridden Medieval Sweden, is framed
by earth sea and sky. For Bergman these elements surround us
externally, as do our memories and dreams internally. They are not
answers but resources for individuals to understand.
in a Trial at Law when an attorney finally asks a key question and the
witness responds with an actual answer, there is a palpable shock in
the Court room; so likewise there is shock in the cinema seat as
Bergman without flinching asks questions; and his films, as crucibles
sweat out the responses.
to the earlier point I want to look at the particular use that
Bergman makes of the close up. In film, it is the face, above all
that characterises the close up. As social beings we are face
readers, we read faces not just of others, but we see faces in
flaking paint, clouds and patterns in the sand. The face is a sign
that we interpret. A face always suggests a possibility. Bergman’s
facial close ups define the experience of viewing his films and are a
key element in the relationship between the films and the audience.
characterising feature of Bergman’s close ups is that they are
uncompromising: they are shots of long duration, they are mute and
within them there is little or no movement. They present as a pure
quality, an unindividuated affect, a passivity. Bergman’s close
up’s: Death’s face, the Wallpaper in Glass Darkly, Liv Ullman in
Wild Strawberries and Persona all have an impersonal quality, as if
they do not belong to the actors but could be masks taken on by
anyone. The way they are shot and edited into his films gives them a
quality that can absorb the viewer. In their immobility their
muteness and duration the close ups draw the audience into the shot
giving the audience the space to contribute something of themselves
into the fabric of the film, a sort cinematic short circuit of the
near and far. Absorbed by the close up, which is pure possibility,
the audience become the interpretants of the film, actively engaged
in its unravelliing.
the technical means of communication proliferate and multiply in our
society, perhaps there is also an increasing awareness of how
difficult it is to communicate. The thin wavering dieing signals
that we get from our friends, the notices of unavailability and the
ansaphone messages never returned, are like the signs from God at the
waning of the Middle Ages. A warning that we need to start and think
differently. Perhaps that’s a message Bergman still gives out to the
iphone generation of movie goers.