Friday, July 18, 2014

A whole lotta Bergman going on

Thanks to a new Australian pen pal, there's going to be a whole lot more Ingmar Bergman up in this beeyotch.

I'm being a bit intentionally whimsical with -- well, with pretty much my entire previous sentence, but specifically in terms of calling my friend a "pen pal." But the truth is, I've only met him online, so he's sort of the 21st century version of that.

And he did send me five Ingmar Bergman films to watch, the first of which I watched Wednesday night.

Let me give you some history.

I'm part of the Flickchart Facebook group, in which a whole bunch of us discuss various aspects of cinema that we think other people might want to discuss. (Or sometimes, things that no one would want to discuss, but that's another story.) I recently told the group that I'm looking for an appropriate movie to watch as my 4,000th movie, which is probably less than a month away now, as I currently stand at 3,982.

No one could suggest anything where the number 4,000 was in some way significant, and I won't tell you what I've actually chosen to mark the milestone. But one of the byproducts of this discussion was that a Flickcharter living in rural Queensland (but moving to New South Wales) sent me five Criterion discs, all directed by Bergman -- and a sixth disc that will be my 4,000th movie.

I love this.

See, I've decided that Bergman is one of my favorite directors -- this despite the fact that I've seen only four of his films (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Fanny and Alexander). When I chose Bergman as one of the first subjects in my Getting Acquainted series back in 2011, I had seen only The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries -- but watched Strawberries again during that series because I couldn't be sure I had actually seen it. Not only did I love Strawberries, but Virgin Spring was a big hit with me, and Fanny and Alexander turned into something really special despite its first hour seeming like an entirely different movie than the two that followed.

Strengthening my newfound love for Bergman was the fact that I watched Federico Fellini for the next entry in that series, and was not nearly so smitten with him. I then established an informal dialectic between Bergman and Fellini, deciding (without any supporting evidence whatsoever) that cinephiles would gravitate toward one of these greats or the other, but not both. I'm sure there are people who love Bergman and Fellini equally, but I decided that I was on the Bergman side of this arbitrary divide I had set up between these two great auteurs of world cinema.

But then in the three years since then -- not another Bergman film.

Time to rectify that -- in a major way.

I don't recall exactly how Bergman entered into the discussion on the day we talked about my upcoming 4,000th, but my "pen pal" made me an offer to send me Persona through the mail -- he being one of the only others in the group who lives in Australia. I let the offer grow stale for about a week, not wanting to cruelly accept a casual offer, but did ultimately accept it, and a few days later a package arrived in the mail. (I should say that this particular cinephile passed 4,000 some years ago. He's up over 8,000 -- and is ten years younger than I am. Now that's a life well spent.)

What I wasn't necessarily expecting, but what he alluded to in somewhat oblique terms, was that there would be four other Bergman films squirreled away into the Persona DVD case. They are:

Winter Light
Through a Glass Darkly
The Silence
Cries and Whispers

With my friend's help, I will have more than doubled my Bergman output by the time I'm done with this.

It will probably also be the highest concentration of films by one director I will have seen in such a short amount of time, as the Getting Acquainted series introduced me to no more than three films by any of the directors I studied (though I also studied actors, a producer, and a studio).

And it will be a pretty short amount of time, as I don't want to abuse this guy's good will by hanging on to his movies forever. I already feel guilty enough about him dropping seven bucks on shipping for a person he's never met in the flesh, and as some sort of compensation, have already told him I will send him a yet-to-be-determined cinematic artifact of some level of curiosity when I return the movies to him.

I do have a practical deadline of sorts as well. I mentioned earlier that he is moving to New South Wales. Well, this will only be for a six-month period, after which he, his wife and his newborn son are moving to ... South Korea for two years. I'm unclear on whether it was decided that I should return the movies to him before this, but I'm thinking yes. Besides, I have no idea how to mail something to South Korea.

So I think I will try to watch about one per week until they're done, which should allow me to get them back to him before the end of August. If I'm so moved, I might choose this space to share some of my thoughts.

Not this time, though -- and that may be because I'm still trying to work through exactly what I think of Persona. Parts of it are breathtakingly eerie, but parts of it verge on a parody of an art film, the kind Wayne and Garth were making when they filmed that bit with Madonna. You remember the early 1990s, don't you? The breathtakingly eerie parts win out, but perhaps not by the margin one would think. I don't know, I'm still deciding.

From here I might as well go chronologically, I guess, which would put Through a Glass Darkly up next.

And sometime before I'm finished, my movie clock will strike 4,000.

Stay tuned.


Travis McClain said...

I could talk for hours on end about Bergman. Of the five in your assortment, I've only seen Persona, which captivated me from start to finish. I could have done without the couple of distracting artsy moments (i.e., the filmstrip shots), though. One of the most erotic scenes I've ever seen is in that film, and it's done entirely through expository dialog. Amazing.

What I dig about Bergman - and I've seen somewhere around 15 of his films by now, I think - is the sense of following a stage troupe. Actors and themes are reused throughout his filmography, relying on our investment in the familiar to surprise us with some new variation each time out.

I've only seen two Fellini films so far (the requisite 8 1/2 and Amarcord). I loved them both, though it took me a second viewing to really get into 8 1/2. I think I'm drawn to Bergman for the theatrical storytelling, but drawn to Fellini the way I'm drawn to autobiographies and memoirs. I love both. I think it reflects my balance between extroversion and introversion, but I could be wrong.

It's also my considered opinion that Bergman is best experienced in groups, like your five film collection. It's easier to see the common threads of his filmography that way, and as I've already noted, that's a major part of the appeal of his work. It's been way too long since I last watched anything of his: None so far in 2014 and just one, Hets [Torment], on 18 September last year. (Yes, I'm aware that flies in the face of my gorge-on-Bergman suggestion.)

I need to finish this damn library audit of mine so I can justify getting hold of several of his movies again...!

Vancetastic said...


That's interesting that you put your finger on how erotic that scene was in Persona. I felt it too, but was not consciously considering the feat involved with creating an erotic scene of unequaled power just through dialogue. Pretty intense.

I look forward to recognizing the stage troupe quality of his films as I watch more of them.

I can't really put my finger on why I didn't connect with Fellini better. To be sure I did not connect with Amarcord, and I just guessed that this was in his period of decline (I couldn't tell from your phrasing whether you considered both 8 1/2 and Amarcord to be requisite, or just 8 1/2). I did like 8 1/2, but not as much as I figured I was supposed to like it based on the praise directed at it. It was when I saw La Strada (far more depressing than I ever would have guessed) that I started to wonder if Fellini wasn't for me, and my middling reaction to La Dolce Vita sealed it. Oh well. I do want to see Nights of Cabiria though, since I don't want to give up on Fellini. I've decided I'm much more of a Vittorio De Sica guy -- I love The Bicycle Thief, and just really enjoyed Marriage Italian Style a few weeks ago.

Okay, so the largest percentage of this comment was devoted to discussing Fellini rather than Bergman.

Travis McClain said...

I can't believe I forgot that I'd seen La Strada. As for the other two, 8 1/2 is unquestionably *the* Fellini film, with La Dolce Vita (which I have yet to see) half a step behind it.

Incidentally, I read in an interview last year that La Strada is Pope Francis's favorite film. I wouldn't have even known what to guess his favorite movie would be, but as soon as I read that, it felt obvious.

What's interesting to me about it is that I think within the film, Gelsomina has compassion for Zampano and we as the viewer feel compassion for Gelsomina...but I don't know that we really consciously feel compassion for Zampano. If we do, it isn't like what she feels for him.

In all the Bergman I've seen, he's never quite directly engaged such concepts as Fellini did, with one notable exception: Sawdust and Tinsel. If I had to pick a single Bergman film to present as an introduction to his filmography, I'd pick that. I was more captivated by Persona, but I honestly thing I was more affected by Sawdust and Tinsel.

Both Bergman and Fellini give us characters that are recognizable people, but belong to a different world than ours. They're fantasies of who we would like to be, or could be, but both are about taking stock of all that has led to the present and trying to figure out how to face the day in light of those experiences. Bergman's characters often have to absorb something heartbreaking. We watch as these things happen to his characters, and then we leave them to process the events on their own without us.

Fellini's stories seem to be more about the process itself, his characters already having experienced things but not quite sure what lessons they were supposed to have learned to apply to matters at hand.

I find both storytelling concepts insightful.

Vancetastic said...

Such beautiful, enviable insight for a comment that likely only took you three minutes to write.

You've put your finger on my problem with La Strada, I think. Zampano is so thorny and difficult to sympathize with that I can't understand why Gelsomina keeps giving him chances. Perhaps I needed a more Hollywood resolution to this one, though that is hardly an outcome I would proscribe for most films. In this case I think I needed it to like the film more.

Travis McClain said...

I've seen, and even been part of, enough imbalanced relationships over the years that I feel like I understand Gelsomina. For one thing, he gives her purpose. It's a parasitic relationship, sure, but it's a purpose - more purpose than it's implied she had at home before being sold to him.

The other part of it is that Romantic notion of goodness winning in the end. There's the scene where Zampano abandons her at the diner to take off with a random hook-up. It's humiliating, but she handles it patiently, stoically. At this point, she's already committed herself to the idea that he will eventually prove himself worthy of her investment in him. She never says a word about it, but her face tells us that she's filing the incident under "Things to Forgive and Laugh About Later".

In the end, we're left with the choice: We can resent Zampano for failing to live up to Gelsomina, or we can try to see in him what she saw. The former reaction is the more reflexive, but I find it interesting to consider the latter perspective.