Sunday, July 09, 2006

Conversations: Ingmar Bergman and John Simon



Simon: Are there any young film-makers that you particularly like? I hope you don’t like Godard?
Bergman: No, no, no.
S: I detest him.
B: Yes, I do, too. In this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me….
S: What about Bellocchio? Have you seen China Is Near?
B: Terrible, terrible, very homosexual, very artificial, aggressive in a very empty way.
S: What about the early Truffaut? Did you like those first ones?
B: Very much; very, very much.
S: What’s happened to this man?
B: He wants to make money; it’s a very human desire. He wants a comfortable life. He wants to make money and he wants people to see his pictures.
S: Well, don’t you think his early films were seen by people?
B: But perhaps not by enough, and he didn’t make enough money, and he likes the comfortable life of the modern film-maker.
S: But the trouble is his new films are not going to make much money.
B: Then he made a mistake. Because if you lose both the money and your dignity, then it must be a mistake.
S: What about Bresson? How do you feel about him?
B: Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it.
S: I liked Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne and A Man Escaped, but I would say Diary Of A Country Priest is the best one.
B: I have seen it four or five times and could see it again…and Mouchette…really…
S: That film doesn’t do anything for me.
B: No? You see, now I’ll tell you something about Mouchette. It starts with a friend who sees the girl sitting and crying, and Mouchette says to the camera, how shall people go on living without me, that’s all. Then you see the main titles. The whole picture is about that. She’s a saint and she takes everything upon herself, inside her, everything that happens around her. That makes such an enormous difference, that such people live among us. I don’t believe in another life, but I do think that some people are more holy than others and make life a little bit easier to endure, more bearable…that is my feeling, but this Balthazar, I don’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring.
S: You could almost say the same thing about the donkey, that when the donkey has taken on other people’s suffering…
B: A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.
S: Do you like animals in general?
B: No, not very much. I have a completely natural aversion for them. Have you seen this picture Il Porcile (Pigpen)?
S: Yes, terrible. I think Pasolini is awful altogether.
B: Yes, awful, awful. Meaningless. Completely.
S: There was a period in your life and work when the question of God was all-important, but not anymore, surely?
B: No, it’s passed. Things are difficult enough without God. They were much more difficult when I have to put God into it. But now it’s finished, definitely, and I’m happy about it.

From Ingmar Bergman Directs by John Simon (1972).

33 Comments:

Blogger Tuwa said...

B: Terrible, terrible, very homosexual, very artificial, aggressive in a very empty way.

Huh. A few questions bumping around the old noggin: homosexual movies are by definition bad? Persona isn't artificial? How does one be aggressive in a meaningful way, and how does one be aggressive in an "empty" way? Or does Bergman just mean that the movie's guilty of tough-guy posturing?

Not to defend Bellochio--I haven't seen anything he's done, and the film might be terrible for completely different reasons--but I'm somewhat puzzled by Bergman's statement. And it's probably unfair to bring up Persona, since it's obviously artificial in places, much more so than Bergman's other work. But that last bit just strikes me as more allusive than illuminating; can anyone who's seen the film explain what Bergman might be objecting to?

...
Also, is anyone else delighted when famous directors with strong personalities flame each other? I'd love to know what Godard's response was.

July 09, 2006 9:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Yeah, I had to post that.
Some batshit crazy stuff in there, no?

I like how this conversation is quite vivid (I can literally hear the speech cadences of these two guys in my head) and un-stiff and catty and crazy and just plain...interesting.

I like what little I've seen by Bellocchio. (Tuwa, I did a post a couple of months ago about him here.)

July 09, 2006 10:06 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I'll just say that this crystallizes why I don't have much patience for either of these personalities. Pasolini was an immeasurably better filmmaker than Bergman and an immeasurably better writer on the arts than Simon--they're both just jealous!

July 09, 2006 10:38 PM  
Blogger Eric Henderson said...

None more crusty. If I get that old or that straight, I'll either kill or castrate myself.

July 09, 2006 11:00 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Their Pasolini bit just kills me; how pathetic.

I watched Pasolini's TEOREMA again last week, made just a couple of years before this interview. I can't get over what an unbelievably amazing film that is.

Eric, I had to laugh.

Here's a little piece by Charles Taylor on Simon in Salon.

July 09, 2006 11:27 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I do like quite a few Bergman, even a fairly controversial one like Virgin Spring (heavy religious propaganda, or so it would seem, I think), but he does have strong opinions about a lot of people.

As for Pasolini--coincidentally, did an email-based internet roundtable discussion of his most controversial work here:

Salo roundtable

With an interesting follow-up article here:

Reflections on Salo

July 10, 2006 4:46 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I guess this all just for fun, but I'll have to defend Bergman, or at least his position. Although he's panned other masters...
First he speaks his mind, which is not so common in the movie industry!
Second, he's a filmmaker. Which makes him a special cinephile (and he's not giving a critic's judgement there). Thus another auteur with a personality too far from his own vision of cinema will look wrong under his aesthetics.
I'm not shocked if an auteur express a strong taste, however unjust or mean.
Artists take a stance, it's their job, they don't have to be objective or fair (unlike critics!).
And that's why we shouldn't mind what Mr. Bergman likes or dislikes.

... my 2 cents :p

July 10, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, thanks for posting those links.
I recently located Salo (which I've never seen).

Harry, let me just say this:

I agree that Bergman is a filmmaker not a critic, but what he has done here is make critical judgments about the value of certain cinema. If I find those judgments to be poor and thoughtless, I see no reason to go easier on him simply because he's a filmmaker.

July 10, 2006 7:54 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I tend to expect directors to be evangelists for their own particular style of film--not because they always are, but because it's such a pleasant surprise when they're not (anyone else catch Robert Altman praising City of God?) Maybe that's what Harry was getting at.

July 10, 2006 9:24 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

There's a filmed interview with Satyajit Ray (early 1970s) called Introspections where he talks about his likes and dislikes in contemporary cinema: he speaks admirably of Jerzy Kawalerowicz (which is how I got to know JK's films), admires Antonioni and Bergman, admits that he only finds Kubrick's films "interesting" from a technical perspective but that his films "don't particularly appeal" to him, is confounded by (what is now called) middle period Godard.

Without the benefit of seeing the interview conducted and reading only a transcript of it, I can see how Ray's discussion can also be interpreted in a negative light too, which is not at all how the interview reads in the proper audio-visual context. I see the Bergman interview in this light too. Sure, it reads crusty and mean-spirited, but the whole context isn't there. Suffice it to say, I can't really get worked up about it.

July 10, 2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice point, Acquarello. I don't know that Ray interview; it sounds interesting.

True, the whole context isn't there, but this is actually not uncommon. Take the example of us web-cinpehiles, exchanging thoughts and opinions on-line, having just our disembodied electronic words speak for us, without recourse to non-verbal cues, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc, that we'd have in face-to-face conversation. We make judgments every single day based on this (imperfect) form of communication.

July 10, 2006 10:13 AM  
Blogger CK Dexter said...

What a strange, funny, and fascinating interview!

I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me….

This strikes me as oddly astute. Not as a commentary on Godard, who's my favorite director, but as an expression of how anyone feels when watching a film by a serious filmmaker that they fail to connect with it. It's very telling about the psychology of art appreciation: there's an exclusionary sense of insider status ("you and me, audience, we really get it, not like the rest of them") that is part of the delight of an artwork, but that alienates and aggravates when we feel ourselves to be outside the work, unable to find a way in.

I particularly enjoyed the comment about a "completely natural aversion" to animals. What on earth does that mean? That liking animals is "unnatural"? What an intriguing thought!

The repeated claim that "Balthazaar is boring". I certainly felt it to be so, but I enjoy the way he insists upon it as an almost objective characteristic of the film. And I think it may be true--though not in a necessarily pejorative sense. Indeed it may be thematically appropriate. Every event is shown without import, appearing as a non-event, a non-happening, a senseless empty change with no broader significance. The donkey's life is boring because it has no form, sense, or direction, composed of things happening in such a way that nothing ever happens. I think that's why, despite the boredom, the final seen is so deeply sad: it's an utter, utter waste. So much so that nothing is lost: it was a non-creature living a non-life.

I think I am inclined to go easier on him since he's a filmmaker. Which is not to deny that his comments are thoughtless and injust, but to question the absolute value of thoughtfulness and justice in an artist. To connect this to the question of anorexia--perhaps selection is always unjust, a degree of injustice (of instinct and stubborn prejudice rather than thoughfulness) is a necessary and valuable part of defining a successful artistic style, method, and practice?

July 10, 2006 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

My father knew Simon both personally from Harvard and professionally, and did not think highly of him. I remember part of an article Simon wrote in the New Yorker where he complained how the odor of popcorn in a movie theater made him ill. Simon may have appreciated "cinema", but he hated movies.

July 10, 2006 12:13 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Girish -- I'd like to comment on this post, but I first need to scrape my jaw up off the floor.

July 10, 2006 12:25 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

Pretty much this is why Bergman's career went downhill from the mid-Sixties: he didn't understand how to take his own art further. Not that Godard, Pasolini, Bellochio were the only ways to take his art further, but I don't think Bergman was really open to ANY ways of doing so, which is why he, in this interview, doesn't seemingly even want to understand ANY film-maker whose career began after 1955 or so.

July 10, 2006 1:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, folks.

I just wanna say one thing:
I didn't post this conversation in order to make outraged giggly fun of Bergman ("Oh look--he casually panned both Godard and Pasolini--what an idiot!").
(Though I confess I was outraged that he did that.)

Like CK, I actually found this conversation to be interesting and revealing (in both positive and negative ways, both intentionally and unintentionally).

July 10, 2006 1:17 PM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Pretty much this is why Bergman's career went downhill from the mid-Sixties: he didn't understand how to take his own art further.

Wasn't he in the middle of financial, personal, and national crises in the 1970s though? And are you forgetting Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers (among others)?

Still, a fascinating interview girish, thanks for posting it. Like CK Dexter I also find Bergman's identification of his dislike for Godard particularly astute, although while Dexter thinks that feeling may apply to any film one doesn't "get," I think the criticism is particularly apt for Godard, whose films are so constructed upon cinematic intertextuality and self-reflexivity that it is easy to feel the director is always operating on a completely different level of meaning than even the most cine-aware spectator is able to be aware of.

July 10, 2006 1:55 PM  
Blogger David said...

Here's Bergman on some other directors, from very recently: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/vine/printthread.php?t=144728

It's equally outrageous, I suppose, but then again, Bergman, like so many other easily identifiable auteurs, seems to have somewhat limited interests in his subject matter and style (only "somewhat" though--I don't know if anyone else has been able to find so many ways to convey grace-under-severe-pain in the movies). Then again, one of Bergman's three favorite movie is, of all things, M. Hulot's Holiday, and he supposedly "likes to watch BMX racing on television." But I think it's also worth remembering (assuming, of course, that I remember this correctly--here we go: http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ejohnson/critics/godard.html) that one of Bergman's biggest advocates at the time was Godard himself, despite his wickedly good parodies in Masculin-Feminin and Week-End. And when it comes to such issues of taste, I'll trust Godard.

July 10, 2006 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is

An ex-girlfriend of mine (from Sweden, no less) once said the same thing to me about Bergman.

It's also quite telling how Bergman "gets" Mouchette, but the superior Balthazar leaves him cold. Is his hatred of animals such that it would prevent him from looking deeper than the surface? Most odd.

July 10, 2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"And are you forgetting Fanny and Alexander and Cries and Whispers (among others)"

Which, to me, aren't much different than his earlier movies. That doesn't mean they're poor in quality, it's just like they feel like territory that Bergman had already worked over a few too many times.

July 10, 2006 3:25 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 10, 2006 4:23 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 11, 2006 5:22 AM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

I'd read this before (for a Bergman/Bresson essay I never finished), and it just makes me laugh. In a good way. Between this and Magic Lantern, I have a picture of Bergman as a slightly cranky, slightly insecure hypochondriac with a bit of a self-loathing ego. And I love him for it a bit in the same way that I love Vincent Gallo for being such a crazy Republican - I don't agree with much that he says, and think he's downright wrong a lot of the time, but those personal flaws give way to artistic strengths.

July 11, 2006 6:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, everyone.

Back in a few hours with a post.

July 11, 2006 7:08 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The thing is Bresson relies on a major fallacy : anthropomorphism. which is a purely artificial construct we have to agree with to give sense to the film. Of course the donkey doesn't feel the human sentiments we project onto his deadpan face. Balthazar is not a messiah suffering to save humanity from evil... we make him that way through cultural subtext.
So if Bergman expects a film to be realistic (like his), this one looks faulty, and he misses half of the film, the most important half.

I'm pretty sure if Bergman was pressed to elaborate, he would agree the artificial concept is interesting and that the craft is masterful. But it just contradicts his own film theory too much to suit his taste in films.

They only talk about "like/like not", not about aesthetic superiority.

July 12, 2006 2:35 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

On anthropomorphism, I wonder what Bergman thinks of Westerns--any filmmaker of Westerns worth his salt will make expressive use of horses and cattle, at the very least.

July 12, 2006 6:46 AM  
Blogger Joshua said...

I love the part about how Bellochio is "very homosexual"! (Not as much as I love the parts about how he hates Godard, because everyone should hate Godard as much as Bergman.) First of all, it's hilarious, such a snide, vicious thing to say. But I think (and I didn't read all the comments here, so maybe someone else picked up on this) that Tuwa is wrong to think Bergman is saying that homosexual movies are bad. Take the entire dismissal together and you'll see what he (and many other people of his era) meant by calling works of art "homosexual." Gay aesthetics have long been obsessed with artificiality, with surfaces and mirrors and excess. It's the entire meaning of kitsch and of camp (the great gay artforms) and of the Wildean aesthetic. This can be vacuous or, as Bergman puts it, "aggressive in a very empty way" -- which is, yes, the tough-guy posturing. All things in the homosexual aesthetic are outsized and played up -- especially masculinity. For a filmmaker like Bergman, who saw even his own artificial conventions (as in Persona and The Seventh Seal) as a means to penetrate more freely into a spiritual and intellectual reality, these aesthetic notions pushed by predominantly queer filmmakers would have been repulsive. Of course, Bergman is a bit of a reactionary (no one could claim otherwise) and his inability to see the importance of the purely aesthetic artistic notions of gay artists is lamentable, but he still has a point.

July 25, 2006 5:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Very helpful, Joshua. You hit the nail on the head, IMO.

July 25, 2006 7:09 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Joshua, you say All things in the homosexual aesthetic are outsized and played up yet also take that to mean that Bergman is not saying that all homosexual movies are bad. I don't see how we get from "all" in your statement to "some" in Bergman's, though I'll admit your reading of it is much more generous and interesting than mine.

That said, I don't think I agree that all things in the homosexual aesthetic are outsized, simply because I'm gay myself and much of my fiction, music, and art is very subdued. I prefer it that way; I don't usually have much use for camp or other forms of "excessive" artifice. Of course, how much is excessive will change depending on who you are and what your goals are but I don't think it's inherently tied to queerness any more than it is to eye color. So I'd question (read: disbelieve) the "all" in your statement just as I questioned the implied "all" in Bergman's which correlates "gay" with "empty" and "terrible."

Still, I'll grant you that your reading of Bergman's claim is much more interesting (for the relevant history, if nothing else) than mine, which was nothing more than a nearly automatic rejection.

July 25, 2006 4:14 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

Tuwa,

you're right that I was being imprecise and reductive. Perhaps the phrase deserves capitals: The Homosexual Aesthetic is just a name meant to refer to a specific type of gay male aesthetics that was predominant certainly until the 70s (and is still, I'd argue, the main artery of gay aesthetics -- though, there is a great deal to argue that the "homosexual aesthetic" is quite dead, having been transformed into a political aesthetic on one hand and dissolved into a more general aesthetics on the more radical end.)

I'm not, by the way, defending Bergman's aesthetic judgment. I just don't find it offensive from a gay perspective. He's wrong to automatically dismiss the contributions this aesthetic made to cinema -- it is not ALWAYS simply empty (what I describe as the Homosexual Aesthetic is certainly present in Cocteau's very rich and "full" films -- especially "Beauty and the Beast.") Cocteau relies on surfaces and textures and visuals to create his visual poetry. Bergman did some of the same things, but the difference is that Bergman is never poetic, he is always intellectual. Which means Bergman could use a little homosexuality in his films.

July 26, 2006 3:10 PM  
Blogger Joshua said...

One more thing -- I also don't think the comparison of queerness to eye color holds much water. We need not argue about inborn versus learned homosexuality, but surely it must be admitted that whatever causes us to be gay, queers, unlike blue-eyed people, have formed a culture with all the intricate values and codes inherent in the concept. Most (I'd say all, but fear being reductionist again) gay artists either express or resist gay culture, just as most black writers express or resist black culture. Toni Morrison may not be understandable without a pretty good grounding in Faulkner, but she's not also not understandable without knowledge of the black culture, aesthetics and storytelling traditions. And Pasolini isn't understandble without understanding the ways his work intersects with his queerness and with queer culture. Gayness isn't a culturally irrelevant trait like eye color or body hair, it is, like race or religion, a cultural phenomenon -- especially when we discuss it in cultural contexts.

July 27, 2006 5:14 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Which means Bergman could use a little homosexuality in his films.

That's funny; I'd tried to imagine what a Bergman movie about two gay characters would be like and I came up with Happy Together.

Your point about gay culture is interesting, but I wonder about the language. I don't think expressing and resisting it are the only two options for GLBT people, though they might be most common. Someone could also be indifferent to gay culture (yes, even as one could be indifferent to eye color or sports). "Resisting" it wouldn't really be an apt description if the person isn't attracted to the aesthetic in the first place.

You're right that the gay/eye color comparison was sloppily expressed (and tempts a derail). I definitely don't want to get into discussions about why some people are queer and others aren't; all I meant was that I don't think that being GLBT necessarily affects aesthetics in certain ways. Though, yes, understanding the surrounding culture is usually a plus.

July 27, 2006 9:37 AM  
Anonymous Mattias said...

When Bergman did an interview with the Swedish critic Jan Aghed a couple of years ago he commented on several directors. It was an interesting read:

On Godard:
"I've never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a fucking bore. He's made his films for the critics."

On Antonioni:
"In my collection I have a copy of Il Grido, and damn what a boring movie it is. So devilishly sad, I mean. You know, Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realising that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films. But I don't feel anything for L'Avventura, for example. Only indifference. I never understood why Antonioni was so incredibly applauded."

On Welles:
"For me he's just a hoax. It's empty. It's not interesting. It's dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of - is all the critics' darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it's a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie's got is absolutely unbelievable."

To be fair he also praises Carné, Tarkovsky, Murnau and others.

September 05, 2006 8:01 AM  

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