Sunday, April 3, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Ingmar Bergman

This is the second in a monthly series in which I watch three films I haven't seen previously*, which feature a star, director or other creative talent I need to get to know better. I will talk freely about the movies in question, so consider this your spoiler alert.

*-usually haven't seen, as you will see below

I kind of surprised myself when I decided to get better acquainted with Swedish master Ingmar Bergman, because I saw The Seventh Seal at a relatively young age, and that made me feel like I had a leg up on other potential Bergman viewers my age. See, The Seventh Seal is my dad's favorite movie (I was going to say my dad's favorite movie growing up, but that honor goes to The Day the Earth Stood Still), so I came to it a lot sooner than I would have otherwise. I also immediately loved it, even though I was at an age (mid-teens, probably) where that was no guarantee. So I've always thought myself to have an affinity to Bergman.

But then, I went the next however many years totally Bergman-free, leaving me eventually Bergman-deficient.

Or did I?

In only the second month of my Getting Acquainted series, I'm already cheating on the rules. But I didn't realize that until I'd already watched the first movie on this list. Read on ...

Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman). Watched: Saturday, March 5th

As I've told you before on this blog, I have an Excel spreadsheet that contains a supposedly complete list of every film I've ever seen. Perhaps too complete.

There are probably some films that I've seen that aren't on this list -- there would have to be, right? -- but those films are very abstract, since it's hard to spend too much time focusing on something that isn't there. The reverse, however, is very easy. If you have a movie on this list that you're not sure you've actually seen, it can eat away at you. You want to take the list's word for it, and in a way, you have to. But is the list really right?

One such movie is Barry Levinson's Tin Men, which is on my list despite the fact that I'm fairly sure I haven't seen it. I have it rented right now from Netflix, to correct that mistake. Another is Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

The confusion with Wild Strawberries came from the fact that I had certainly seen parts of it. In my senior year in high school, I took a class called Art of the Film, which surely bears a large responsibility for making me the film lover I am today. Our film teacher didn't see it fit to schedule an entire Bergman film into our viewing agenda, but he did show us clips from a couple Bergman films. I remember very clearly the famous dream sequence from Wild Strawberries, where Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom) sees the carriage going along the quiet street. There are a number of memorable moments in this sequence: the man whose facial features are pursed into themselves; the carriage wheel repeatedly slamming against the post; Borg peering into a coffin and seeing himself looking back at him. In fact, it was in the context of watching this scene in film class that I was first introduced to the word "doppelganger."

But had I ever seen the whole thing?

This was the question I asked myself in 2011, looking at my list and knowing that I've been keeping it for something like 20 years. At any point during that time I could have legitimately added it after having seen it. Or, I could have added it from the start, misremembering my viewing of parts of Wild Strawberries as a complete viewing. And even thought Getting Acquainted is supposed to be about seeing movies I haven't seen before, I decided it was worth the risk -- if only to give myself an excuse to be sure I'd seen it.

(I realize this is a lot of text expended on something that doesn't have anything to do with whether I liked the movie or not, so I'll get to it.)

After watching Wild Strawberries, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I did see it -- exactly when and where, I can't remember. And I'm a bit ashamed of myself for not having been more certain, because it's quite simply a brilliant film.

What I associated most with Bergman from The Seventh Seal was a) the exquisite chiaroscuro cinematography, and b) a constant grappling with the unknowables of life, death and the spiritual world. I got both of these in spades in Wild Strawberries. Since I've already gone on and on with an endless preamble, I'll try to limit myself in talking about the particulars of this film. But let me just say that the movie is a wonderful journey -- a literal journey as Professor Borg makes a road trip to receive a prestigious award, but a concurrent emotional journey into the man's past, into his dreams, into his very subconscious. There's no real indication that this man is about to die, except for that he's in his 70s (his exact age is revealed at the beginning of the film, but I don't remember what it was). But clearly this man is feeling his own mortality as he accepts an award that serves as a summation of his entire academic career. The reflection it brings about is powerful and deep, as he looks back at himself as a child in his summer home, among other trips down "memory lane" -- though that's way too whimsical a term for what Bergman is doing here.

Perhaps as interesting as the unforgettable dream sequences and waking reveries is the events that transpire on his trip, which starts with just him and his daughter-in-law in the car. First it's revealed that his daughter-in-law resents him and might even hate him, as she blames her husband's antisocial eccentricities -- including an expressed desire to kill himself -- on his father. The dynamic of their relationship changes in beautiful ways over the course of the film. But on the trip, symbols of the issues Borg is grappling with arrive in the form of the people they meet, who become their fellow travelers, including a sort-of love triangle between two young men and a young woman, and a squabbling married couple whose car veers off the road following a near collision with Borg and his companions. The two young men provide an overt outlet for Bergman's philosophical ruminations on faith, as they carry on a fascinating debate about the existence of God.

The wonderful thing about Wild Strawberries is that even though it deals with some heavy stuff, the tone is ultimately light and joyous -- it's intensely life-affirming, even as Borg seems to be knocking on death's door in tangible ways. The film transpires over the course of one day in Borg's life, but Bergman packs in so much more than a day's worth of soul-searching and exquisite moments of grace.

The Virgin Spring (1960, Ingmar Bergman). Watched: Saturday, March 12th

If resolving the "Did I see Wild Strawberries or didn't I?" question was a happy byproduct of getting three Bergman films on my viewing schedule, The Virgin Spring was what caused me to choose Bergman in the first place.

The Virgin Spring hadn't really been on my radar until the past year or so, when it has come up on at least one other film blog I read. It came up in the context of a discussion of how seriously to take various people who claim that they love cinema. The blogger was making the point -- admitting a certain amount of snobbery in himself as he did so -- that he didn't want to have a film discussion with you if you didn't know that Last House on the Left was based on The Virgin Spring. Fortunately, I did know that at the time I read this post -- but I might not have known it only six months earlier. (It's alright, I still consider myself a good film buff.)

I'd only just seen the two versions of Last House on the Left I've seen in the last couple years, as well. The first I saw was one of the worst movies I've ever seen -- David DeFalco's 2005 film Chaos, which I guess was originally envisioned as an overt Last House on the Left remake, but was ultimately unable to secure the rights to the name. (Good thing, too -- it's probably one of the most violently misogynistic movies I've ever seen, without a single redeeming virtue.) In order to get the nasty taste of Chaos out of my mouth, I borrowed my friend's DVD copy of Wes Craven's 1972 original. This I liked much better. I still have not see the official remake of Last House on the Left, which came out in 2009, but I do have a curiosity about it, because a friend of mine was recruited to direct it but turned the job down.

Knowing how violent and depraved the two versions of the story I saw were, I was curious indeed to see how a version from 1960 would handle the same issues. The answer is: in a pretty violent and depraved way, for the time. No, no one's nipple gets cut off with a knife (that actually happens in Chaos), but the rape and murder of 15-year-old Brigitta Pettersson (Karin Tore) is fairly graphic in its own way. The primary physical violence done to her is a blow to the head with a blunt object, but what's really unsettling is the way the men toss her around like a rag doll while having their way with her. It takes a pretty good filmmaker to show essential restraint in the actions being depicted (what other choice did he have in the late 1950s?), yet still leave the viewer shocked and horrified.

Whereas Wild Strawberries has an undeniable lightness in its tone, this one returns to the bleakness of The Seventh Seal -- as well as its approximate time period in history. Not only is there the violence of the original attack, but there's also the violence of the retribution exacted by the girl's father (Max von Sydow, also the lead in Seventh Seal) against the unwitting criminals who take shelter in his house. This involves a lot of furious strangulation and the kind of realistic roughness I didn't think we were really seeing in the movies until a decade later.

The Virgin Spring may not be quite in the same league as Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal, but that may be due primarily to the plot-heavy nature of the movie. (Not to say that the plot is complicated, because it isn't -- just that the narrative is perhaps more important here than its subtextual themes.) There's plenty of Bergman's signature touches, particularly the way the light falls in this movie, through openings in walls and ceilings, splashing across the character's faces. This is the Bergman I recognized from The Seventh Seal, even more so than in Strawberries. I also love the incredible subtlety in how the great director directs his actors. The scenes where Brigitta's family realizes that a) she's dead, and b) these are her killers, are handled with such delicacy that it's almost unbearable. Just the imperceptible recognition that creeps across Brigitta Valberg's face as she realizes that her houseguest is unknowingly presenting her with her daughter's blood-soaked garments, as "a gift" (and what a perverse mind to imagine such a thing as carrying intrinsic value) ... it's astonishing. In that one moment when she realizes her daughter is dead, she must contain a flood of grief that wants to escape, because she knows that she'll be killed as well if she acknowledges a relationship with the owner of these garments. Whether it would actually be possible for a human to do that or not, it's an amazing feat of acting and directing.

However, from all this death and darkness "springs" hope. I didn't know what the title meant until the very end. I knew that Brigitta was a virgin -- unlike the envious, pregnant maid who accompanies her on part of her trip and witnesses her murder. But the spring part eluded me. Did it have to do with the season of the year? Perhaps, although it snows for part of the movie. No, the spring is a water source that sprouts from underneath the body of the dead girl, when her family finally finds her. And here's where Bergman's religious soul-searching rears its head again. Upon finding his daughter's body, Herr Tore (Von Sydow) beseeches God, asking why God would turn a blind eye to both his daughter's murder and the brutal revenge he himself is guilty of. As this major crisis of faith is unfolding -- in a time in history when God was the center of everyone's world -- the water source reveals itself, flowing freely from under the body. I was not expecting this and was quite astonished by it.

Fanny & Alexander (1982, Ingmar Bergman). Watched: Saturday, March 26th

Fast forward two decades. Although Bergman continued to write for the screen after this film, he only directed one more film in his career after Fanny & Alexander, which I understand is considered by some to be his most accessible and popular film.

Well, I considered that accessibility to be highly in doubt when I saw how long the thing was. Fanny & Alexander was one of the first films my wife added to our Netflix instant queue after we got our BluRay player capable of streaming movies. In those early days I just loved scrolling through the titles, which also show the movies' running times. I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I saw that Fanny & Alexander was three hours and nine minutes long.

Consider the incredible storytelling economy of the first two films discussed here, which run 90 minutes and 88 minutes respectively, and you'll share my disbelief that Fanny & Alexander runs longer than both of those films combined. That imposing length makes it a near impossible viewing in the baby era, and I dismissed it as such for the first six months we had our BluRay player. However, once Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring each asserted their own compelling reasons to be watched this March, it seemed only logical that I should hazard a viewing of this movie that was also on the cusp of being watched in its own way, since it was already in our queue. Even if I'd have to watch it over several sittings.

Well, I did chop up my viewing of Fanny & Alexander, but not as much as I imagined I'd have to. A couple Wednesdays ago I watched the first 20 minutes. I'd been planning to watch more, since my wife was out for a couple hours and I knew I'd have an uninterrupted period to focus on it. But then I realized that this was also my opportunity to watch Survivor in real time, rather than having to shift my viewing to 11 o'clock at night when I'm falling asleep on the couch. So Fanny & Alexander got shelved for about ten days.

When I resumed last Saturday morning, I ended up finishing. Well, I got as close to finishing as I could manage, having to watch the final ten minutes in two separate sittings, comically enough. (I intended to finish after returning from a wedding that night, but watched only five of the final ten minutes before succumbing to sleep.)

I really liked Fanny & Alexander -- I mean, I liked it a ton. However, I can definitely shave an hour off that movie, and oddly enough, it's the first hour I can shave. Reading up on it now, I'm finding out why -- Bergman distilled the movie from a six-hour TV miniseries. Which is why its first hour is almost entirely a case of laying the groundwork for the two hours to follow.

The basic plot of Fanny & Alexander is that a woman remarries a domineering bishop after her husband dies, and she and her two children (the title characters) must live like prisoners in his fortress of a home. However, none of this plot begins until the movie is more than hour old. The first hour is spent on introducing us to a cross-section of characters -- some of whom will be important later on, some of whom won't -- as they interact over a joyous Christmas Eve celebration in the first decade of the 20th century. This first hour is a visual smorgasbord, as the mansion where the action occurs is sumptuously decorated, and there are songs, dances, feasts and presents. Over this hour we learn about the sometimes-scandalous relationships that exist between the various characters, an extended family both literally and figuratively, which sometimes cross several social classes to make it down to the servants on staff. It feels like Upstairs, Downstairs at a Swedish Christmas.

The thing that's really weird is that almost none of this is essential to what the rest of the movie will be about. It's merely color, so even if it's wonderful color, it's a bit deficient from a narrative perspective.

When the children's father, Oskar, dies, events start to move forward rather quickly, with their mother, Emilie (Ewa Froling), hastily marrying the nefarious bishop Edvard (Jan Malmsjo). If the words "hasty" and "marriage" ring any bells for you, it's no coincidence -- Hamlet's mother Gertrude hastily married Hamlet's uncle in Shakespeare's most famous play. And here's where Fanny & Alexander surprised me again -- it's actually kind of a version of that play, in a strangely overt way.

See, before he died, Oskar, an actor, was rehearsing the role of the ghost in a staging of Hamlet by his theater troupe. Soon after he dies, he begins appearing to young Alexander (Bertil Guve), much as Hamlet's father's ghost appeared to Hamlet. Whether this is in Alexander's imagination or not, we don't know. The dialogue repeatedly explores this, both in talking about the limitless worlds of our imagination, and in the consequences of lying -- a subject of great interest to Alexander's vindictive and abusive stepfather. The more uneasy the relationship gets between Alexander and Edvard, the more it resembles the vengeful agenda of Shakespeare's protagonist against his uncle. This story and Hamlet's story retain a structural similarity in other ways as well -- there's a portion where Alexander escapes the confines of the bishop's home, much as Hamlet is sent away from Denmark in the play, and there's also a story about how the bishop's original wife and children drowned in a river outside his home, which echoes the way Ophelia kills herself in Hamlet. Before all this had fully revealed itself, I was starting to feel pretty smart about making these connections, until Bergman reminded me how blatant he's intending these comparisons to be, through a line of dialogue. Sensing Alexander's hatred for Edvard, Emilie admonishes Alexander that he's not Hamlet, that she's not Gertrude and that Edvard is not Claudius. So much for my apparent incisiveness.

In the end I found Fanny & Alexander to be essentially two very rich, very different movies combined into one. The first part has essentially no plot; the second part has one of the most familiar plots in literature. Mashing it all together is not the most conventional choice you've ever seen, but it works, somehow. The brilliance of Bergman ties it all together. I understand the film is semi-autobiographical, so perhaps it's also his most personal film.

This was not like the other two films in the sense that I didn't recognize the same interplay between light and shadow that I consider to be the hallmark of Bergman's black and white films from the late 1950/early 1960s. That said, it did win an Academy Award for the same cinematographer (Sven Nykvist) Bergman used in The Virgin Spring, if not in the other two films I've been referencing, and it certainly looks gorgeous in all the ways a person would want it to look gorgeous. (It also won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction and Best Costumes.) Clearly the film also demonstrates Bergman's career-long struggle with issues of religion, here presenting the primary religious figure as a dogmatic force of sheer malevolence. Interestingly, Bergman also dabbles with other forms of spiritual mysticism, including introducing a couple benevolent Jewish characters, one of whom displays his darker side by acquainting Alexander with voodoo, and helping him use it against Edvard. Not sure how that particular element played at the time, or whether it received any criticism.

Okay! Enough about Bergman. Some of you may be trying to read this quickly on your lunch hour.

And on to April. Like last month, I will keep you in suspense about whose movies I'm watching this month. Check back here around the first of May for a complete recap.


Travis McClain said...

I saw my first Bergman movies last September as part of a Criterion Collection viewing challenge. In addition to The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and The Virgin Spring, I also streamed Smiles of a Summer Night. Since then, I've also seen Persona.

My initial reaction was that The Seventh Seal was the greatest of these, as it was not only visually arresting and artistically pursued the ambitions of the story, but it felt like a masterpiece should feel. Not very objective of me, I'll confess, but there you have it.

Wild Strawberries I found resonated with me more strongly for some reason. Perhaps because it reminded me in some ways of Pixar's Up, but without the silliness.

I was initially least taken in by The Virgin Spring because its story does feel relatively simple. After a week or so, though, I found myself dwelling on the performances. The famed attack scene is certainly haunting, yes, but it's Max von Sydow whose performance I found really got to me. The muted anguish, the smoldering hatred...even (and perhaps especially) the complete breaking down in the finale; it's one of the most powerful performances I've seen yet in a movie.

Oh, and incidentally, I would admonish your movie snob friend that, while Last House on the Left was based on The Virgin Spring, both were in turn based upon a centuries old folk ballad. Bergman's interpretation may be the finest on film, but it wasn't the originator of the story.

Simon said...

I've only seen Seal, Spring, and Persona. I feel like such a failure.

Especially since I have plenty of time to watch F&A, but no patience.

Vancetastic said...

Travis, I agree that The Seventh Seal is the best of the bunch. Now that it's been about 20 years since I've seen it, I want to see it again. Yeah, I knew about the folk ballad inspiring The Virgin Spring. More than anything, the problem I had with his comment was that there should be no litmus test for what makes a good film fan a good film fan. I don't think that was his point, exactly, and he did admit to indulging in a little button-pushing and snobbery. I just think it's difficult to hold someone to one particular standard for discovering movies. Certain things can slip through our fingers while we're seeing other certain things. As long as we're seeking things out and expanding our horizons, we're good.

Simon, that's only one fewer than I've seen, and I don't feel like a failure, so there, you're off the hook. Fanny & Alexander is worth it, but I think you have to be willing to watch in multiple sittings. I don't know about you, but that's the only practical approach for me to watch a longer movie these days. If it affected my enjoyment in some way, so be it. Ever since I watched the comparatively short The Motorcycle Diaries in four separate sittings, and still loved it, I've learned to let myself off the hook on this topic.