Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman Has Finally Lost That Greatest Game of Chess

I try really hard to avoid blogging about film here. It's an area of my geekdom that I could see eclipsing everything else of interest to me that I write here. It would very easily turn this into a cinefile blog, and I'm not sure I want it to become that. On the other hand, I probably should establish a geek vent somewhere if not here quite soon. For the sake of my girlfriends sanity if nothing else. ;)

For now though, I will make an exception to my quite bent rule, and share my thoughts on the passing of Ingmar Bergman.

A while back I read somewhere that Burt Reynolds once said he would rather be shot in the leg than watch an entire film by Bergman. There have been times when I've fully understood the sentiment. Bergman has struck me as many things, but not an easy filmmaker to watch. As a result, I'm sad to say that I've seen little of his huge body of work. Swedish cinema in general is a weak spot of mine. I'm decently to well rounded in French, the general UK, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and early German cinema among others, but I've probably seen less than 8 Swedish films in total. Beyond Bergman, Americans are seldom exposed to Swedish films. The two I recall best and know for a fact were Swedish and not directed by Bergman, are the original Solaris and Speak Up, It's Too Dark. The latter was through a film class and I doubt well known though.

Be it because of our general ignorance to Swedish film, or his simple overbearing presence, Ingmar Bergman has been seen as the center and near entirety of Sweden's contribution to international cinema. One could compare him to the likes of Akira Kurosawa. In content and importance there seems ample grounds in doing so. Few directors have ever been able to live up to Kurosawa's approach to shooting, making every frame a painting that could stand on its own, but of what I've seen of Bergman's work, he might have even surpassed him. The opening shots of Hour of the Wolf (a fantastic film for horror buffs looking for substance a la Roman Polanski's main contributions) are some of richest I've ever seen, like rivers for your eyes to drink. For a cinematographer I can think of few filmmakers more important to study the work of. Though unlike Kurosawa I'm at a loss to name a single other director from Bergman's home country to compare him to (with Kurosawa we at least have Yasujiro Ozu and Ishiro Honda). Bergman didn't seem to lead a wave in his country the way directors like Jean-Pierre Melville and Shohei Imamura did. Instead it was in the international scene that he made the biggest splash. The fingerprints of his work can be found all over world cinema. Stardust Memories, perhaps my favorite of Woody Allen's films, would never have existed if it didn't have Wild Strawberries (and Fellini's 8 1/2) to rip off. His famous chess scene in The Seventh Seal is one of the most recognized and parodied (again by Woody Allen among others).

Recalling conversations, looking over the web at various comments (most notably over at Ain't It Cool News) it seems that if there were ever a cinematic equivalent to the literary concept of the Twainian classic (something praised but never read), Bergman's work would be one of it's finest examples. If he was always in truth a cinefile's filmmaker, then his following is doubly remote on account of this generation's ever-shortening attention span. At least in the case of his most well known work from his early years (Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries) the pace lingers along. There is actually a scene in Hour of the Wolf where the lead character watches a minute pass on his watch. Bergman would make a modern editor's head explode, but for those that stop worrying about where the story is going, there awaits pure cinematic beauty. In many respects the approach to pacing puts Bergman in a category with (for better and worse) Michelangelo Antonioni. Where they differ however is that Berman usually does care about the overall story he is telling and Antonioni, with works such as Blowup and The Passenger, had little to no interest in the conventional focal points of cinematic storytelling. In both cases, it seems that the desired cinematic experience has been greatly lost for those viewing the films at home. Like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia or Stanly Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the works of these two filmmakers demand theater viewing to fully be enjoyed - not just as they were intended - but in the only format where they will fully make their sense.

Besides the lack of opportunities for viewers to see Bergman classics on the big screen, the other set back I find is the method of acting is difficult to watch. Painfully scripted and at times dryer than most deserts, it is like watching a French New Wave conversation about the meaninglessness of life, only without the passion and overall sense of character. This is most evident in car ride near the beginning of Wild Strawberries. The confession of dislike for the lead is lifelessly blunt, the tension stagnant. I sat there wondering, does he want me to care about these people?

The greatest disservice overall to Bergman's work seems to me to be the disregard for the fact that the man directed over 60 films. Having seen three or four from roughly the same phase of is career (and under the wrong conditions) in no way equips me or any other film geek to judge the whole of his work. Before The Seventh Seal, he made comedies, and his later work I'm totally ignorant of.

As is that strange trend in the arts, Bergman's death will most likely be the best thing to happen to his work. It will jar movie geeks like myself into realizing that we've let a huge body of work slip by with little regard beyond a few jokes. I hope the Virginia Film Festival this fall takes the death of such a major figure of cinema into consideration.

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