Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bergman



First, a huge thanks to Jim Healy and Pat Loughney at George Eastman House for inviting me to join them and Dave Kehr for the weekend in Rochester. We packed a boatload of rarities into two days: three by Raoul Walsh (The Monkey Talks [1927], The Mystery of the Hindu Image [1914], Kindred of the Dust [1922]); two by Allan Dwan (Fifty-Fifty [1916], David Harum [1915]); Edgar G. Ulmer’s Natalka Poltavka (1937); Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935); and Joseph Pevney’s 3 Ring Circus (1954).

Every bit as rare and fun was the company and the nonstop film-talk. The sheer number of films that Dave, Jim and Pat have seen (and can call up instantaneously and vividly from their memory-banks) is absolutely staggering. It has now officially dawned on me that the number of good films in the universe is, for all practical intents and purposes, infinite. (Duh.)


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So, Jonathan Rosenbaum has a controversial piece on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career”) in the NYT. Some eloquent reactions, well worth reading, can be found at: a_film_by, Zach’s place, and the comments section of the previous post here (scroll down).

I have some trouble with several points of rationale JR uses in his critique. First, applying the word “theatrical” reflexively as a pejorative for films is tricky. Cinema is a synthetic art, combining literature, music, theater, etc., but it’s also a synergistic art in that these elements go through some sort of a transformative operation to emerge as something qualitatively different in the finished cinematic work. Since ‘theater’ is an element of cinema, it can be problematic to automatically use the word to criticize a film.

Second, lack of prestige in academia for a filmmaker could be as much evidence of unjust neglect for one reason or another as of declining relevance or quality. Third (as Zach points out), using sexy women to sell Art is hardly unique, either now or in the 60s. Finally, so many of the justifications used in the piece to devalue Bergman can arguably be wielded to praise some other filmmaker ("the power to entertain," "fluid storytelling," "deftness in handling actresses," "his favorite sores and obsessions," "ugly" emotions, "antiseptic, upscale" interiors, "distinctively theatrical").

Rosenbaum’s piece is definitely a putdown but I don't really see it as vicious or scandalous. It’s a contrarian dissent and I think it can be put to productive use. Unlike the middlebrow hatchet job the NYT performed on Derrida a couple of years back, this is an op-ed piece, not an obit, and while clearly not a ‘balanced’ one, I’m glad it’s out there. (Here is the respectful NYT Bergman obit; I agree that the practice of using an obit to settle old scores is pretty gauche.) I think JR’s piece can serve a good purpose by setting in motion some re-evaluation and dialogue. In the a_film_by discussion, several charges are leveled at the piece and JR responds to some of them, acknowledging their legitimacy and adding that "the article is meant to stir the pot, not close the lid.”

Can I confess something? I really admire Bergman both as a film-historical figure and as a filmmaker, but I have some trouble with a couple of aspects of his work. Sometimes his films seem to contain (for me) a sadomasochistic streak that sets up a through-line from the creator’s self-punishment, that punishment then proceeding to characters and then the audience in sequence. I find it hard to come up with a convincing aesthetic justification for this strategy (which in itself, of course, is neutral and not worthy of condemnation) in Bergman’s films; I can also sense the filmmaker taking a certain relish in this gratuitous exercise. This bothers me.

Now, Bresson’s films can be every bit as convulsive and pain-filled and anguish-causing, but I never question his motives or impulses the way I’m a bit suspicious of them in Bergman. (Just my subjective and honest reaction here.)

Finally, what of Bergman’s modernist experiments and their merits? When I first encountered his late 60s films, many years ago, they were my earliest exposure to cinematic modernism. Persona, The Passion of Anna, and Shame struck me with gale force. Antonioni means more to me now than Bergman (both as filmmaker and film modernist), and I am curious, and also a little afraid, about revisiting those 60s Bergman films and wondering how they’ll strike me. Perhaps the Rosenbaum piece provides just the catalyst to do that.

If you feel like it: I'm wondering what your favorite Bergman films are, which ones have held up well for you, and which haven't? And any thoughts on why?


* * *

A few links:

-- Steven Shaviro on Antonioni.

-- At Acquarello's: current and upcoming DVD releases.

-- David Bordwell: "Two Chinese men of the cinema."

-- Michael Atkinson at Zero for Conduct: "I’d like to use The Bourne Ultimatum as a stick with which to beat modern American movies."

-- Isidore Isou, 1925-2007.

-- At Chris Cagle's: several new posts on films from 1947.

-- This one-minute clip, "Tyrone on the News," is one of the funniest things I've seen on YouTube. (Via Panopticist.)

96 Comments:

Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but when voters at IMDb were asked to name their favorite films by Antonioni and Bergman, the clear winner, at 64 percent and 46 percent respecively, were voters who had never seen films by either filmmaker.

August 05, 2007 9:17 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

I still love Bergman, and value his work - it meant and continues to mean a lot to me - but my tastes have changed (a transition, interestingly, which can be completely traced on my blog). I was at one point researching a paper (never written) on the parallax between Diary Of A Country Priest and Winter Light. I was scarcely into the work of Bresson yet, and indeed didn't actually care for him too much. But in the progress of studying the two films in concert, a seismic shift occurred, and suddenly I didn't need what Bergman had to offer me, cinematically. At least not as much, in any case.

That sadomasochism you mention is one of the things that appealed to me, though, and then later left a bad taste in my mouth -- especially after I read his autobiography. His filmography is like a litany of mea culpas

August 05, 2007 9:19 PM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

I think I share some of Rosenbaum's cinephilic prejudices. Bergman is one of those filmmakers like Fellini, Coppola or Kubrick that looks like serious filmmaking to people who have never heard of Nicholas Ray. But it was for this very reason that I used to underrate Bergman, the same way I underrated Kurosawa only because he wasn't Ozu. If it's true, as Rosenbaum suggests (though I think he exaggerates this point) that Bergman's star has fallen then surely we no longer need to put him down in favor of filmmakers like Bresson. I think it's fair to criticize Bergman as heavy-handed or sadistic, but to claim that he is simply a skillful maker of filmed theater and not someone who grasps the language of cinema seems completely off the mark. I was recently reading Godard on Godard where he praises Bergman over Visconti. Yes, he says Visconti is the greater craftsman, but Bergman is the greater auteur because his films make one want to exclaim "This is cinema!" Not that we should take Godard's word for it, but it carries a certain weight in some circles where these kinds of arguments take place.

Favorites: Sawdust and Tinsel, Smiles of a Summer Night, Persona, Winter Light

Not so much: Seventh Seal, Cries and Whispers

August 05, 2007 9:22 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I wasn't too convinced by the Rosenbaum piece, but one reason it is important is that it's a reminder that there really isn't any critical consensus on anything. Take any artist of any importance and you will find well respected critics or other artists who disapprove. Filmbrain posted a quote from Welles knocking down Bergman and Antonioni (and in comments, there are quotes from Bergman returning the favor, to Welles and Antonioni) - or look up what Herzog says about Godard - or Godard about Kurosawa or Kieslowski or what Rivette says about Hou Hsiao Hsien...

When artists die, there's a tendency to try to use the occasion to push through a kind of sanctification process: to short-circuit the critical arguments and declare this person a genius for once and all amen! Which can be awfully irritating when you don't quite buy it. And just for the tendency to stop the debate - you have to keep at least some attention focused on the work, and to remember that evaluation of art can be fractuous.

August 05, 2007 9:40 PM  
Blogger Steven Shaviro said...

When I wrote in my blog about Bergman, I recounted how I had first idolized him, then scorned him as overrated, and then in recent years come to appreciate him more. Rosenbaum's article is a lucid, perfect statement (much better than anything I could have said myself) about how I felt about Bergman when I was most negative about him. So, to that extent I really appreciated the article. Though it's too bad that Rosenbaum hasn't found his way to a more balanced appreciation.

August 05, 2007 9:41 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Meanwhile, since this is a different kind of comment than my other one: Girish's comments about theater sound right to me - whatever ends up on the screen is cinema, maybe even cinematic - if it works... Though even beyond that: I'm enough of a formalist (and Noel Burch fan) to at least partially buy the idea that overt theatricality in film is a disruptive element - it makes the film strange, it forces the viewer to think about it. That may work even better when the filmed theater is literally filmed theater, as in Rivette, or something like Dogville, but I think those elements turn up enough in Bergman - the way things are staged and moved, the way actors say their lines... (Though it's been too long since I've seen one to make too much of the style.) The effect pulls against the easy identification with the story, gets you to think about the film as an intellectual object.

August 05, 2007 9:51 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Interestingly, both Sarris and some of the Cahiers writers started out very high on Bergman and eventually qualified their enthusiasm.

Girish talked about sadomasochism, and I guess Bergman does show qualities of both sadism and masochism. But the sadism leads for me, and is the biggest problem I have with the guy. His very assured dramatic sense is closely bound to the strategy of leading a character to a psychological place where he or she will be unspeakably cruel, at length, to someone else. It seems like a scenario that interests Bergman for its own sake. (Sarris once referred to the "undigested clinical material" in Bergman's work.)

Still, I think Bergman is an intriguing guy, and has good film instincts - he certainly cares about form, and has a precise sense of what he wants to do visually. In recent years I started appreciating him a bit more, especially his work from the 60s - I think he was really challenging himself at that point, exploring formal ideas that were in the air at the time. (Bergman fans Robin Wood and David Thomson also seem to consider the 60s films an evolution.) I definitely don't think Bergman should be set up as a form-oblivious filmmaker in opposition to the Bressons and Dreyers of the world.

My favorite Bergman film is Winter Light , but I also like The Silence , Persona , and Shame .

August 05, 2007 9:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Peter, David, Riley, Sam, Steven and Dan.

Here's the link to Steven's post on Bergman.

Riley, I'm wondering how Godard's views on Bergman changed (if they did) through the 60s; Dan's comments indicate that they might've. (I'm in the middle of Godard on Godard this summer too. Such a fun read.)

Sam, I totally agree about the use of theater (or any of the other constitutive elements of cinema, for that matter) as a strategy for rendering the cinematic work "strange"...

And I absolutely love the Raymond Durgnat response to "What is a film?": "This is a film."

Zach either told me that in person or I read it somewhere before; I just looked up Dwoskin's Film Is but can't seem to find the quote in there. Does anyone know the source of this quote?

August 05, 2007 10:08 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

My favorite Bergman is far and away Fanny and Alexander. Oddly enough it's rumored to be autobiographical and Alexander seems a relatively innocent boy--it's his new stepfather who's the sadist. I'm not sure where this would fit in the accusation of Bergman as a sadomasochist: maybe he's reflecting on his past and relishing his misery, or maybe I'm sorely out of my depth in trying to understand the psychology. But I do love the film; it fascinates me and has an austere beauty which is more commanding than warm or welcoming. The film slips from the mundane to the supernatural in a way that I never questioned once, with a wicked ending that struck me as audacious and perfect at the same time.

Actually I'm not sure, in spite of all this, why I love the film so much: often I'll turn off a tragedy just because I can sense the tragedy coming and don't want to witness it, though I have an intense admiration for classical Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon.

Bergman's films are almost all tragedies of one sort or another, with maybe Wild Strawberries the most acute. Are tragedies by nature sadomasochistic?

August 05, 2007 10:16 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I know the people who directed that film Tyrone on the News is talking about. It's not bad, especially for a student film. Certainly much better than the film I made as a student.

August 05, 2007 10:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi there, Tuwa...

Ack. Typo: the question isn't "What is a film?" but "What is film?"

August 05, 2007 11:04 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I meant to link in my post but it slipped my mind: Daniel Kasman has several posts on Pedro Costa.

August 05, 2007 11:15 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Hi Girish.

Tragedy tragedy tragedy tragedy. (Malkovich Malkovich?)

I'm not sure if comment editing would be a plus or the absolute last nail in the coffin of my hopes to get anything done away from the computer.

I guess my question, however clumsily posed, is if there's anything substantively different in watching Oedipus seduce his mother and watching a Bergman character be cruel to another (or, by extension, Bergman being cruel to them and/or the audience). I don't know the answer.

August 05, 2007 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, thanks very much for this post; it's a reasoned, balanced response to Rosenbaum's piece, and also a deeply honest one about your own reactions to Bergman's work. If I have time, I might work out my own thoughts about Bergman and Rosenbaum's article and post them either here or perhaps at my own blog, but for now let me say this:

Bergman's The Silence is among my favorite films, and I've always greatly admired Through a Glass Darkly (Persona and some of Bergman's higher profile films have affected me much less, though on the whole I'd say I like them). I find The Silence to be formally interesting and rigorous, heavy on symbolism and metaphor (good or bad, depending on one's perspective), thoroughly horrifying, and beautifully composed. Along with Through a Glass Darkly, it reminds me that a film's value and stature can extend well beyond whatever it might or might not add to film language, whatever critics or academics might think of it at any given time, however it might stack up against the work of other directors; to me, its value and stature evolve not just as its presence as a work of a specific medium, but also as a work of art in general, as part of an aesthetic conversation, as part of an era and a culture. The Silence, like much of Bergman's other work, is about anguish, suffering, the absence of God -- and in that sense, it's about the experience of the 20th century. It's no small wonder that Bergman's own private horrors happened to coincide well with the age in which he lived. And the interesting thing is that the film is about all of this whether or not it's formally groundbreaking, overrated or underrated, universally liked or derided. Perhaps, as Rosenbaum suggests, Bergman's vision could have been wider; but, then, so too could the critical conversation about film.

August 06, 2007 2:00 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

My friend Eduardo Valente did a perfect description of Jonathan's piece: "It's grear political piecel, if a very questionable rethoric exercise". David Ehrestein in his own unique ways did something similar at A film By when he said that it was an attack at Woody Allen and his NY Times readers fans, which of course is not exactly true, but does get closer to heart of the article. What seems so baffing to some is that the piece is an attack at Bergman the institution more than actually Bergman the filmmaker and it has probably more to do with sociology than aesthetics.

Jonathan greatly exagerates Bergman's "downfall" for sure, but it's more imteresting to try to understand what Jonathan's means by it and I'd argue that it has more to do with the way that the notion that Bergman as the first way to film Art and seriousness has indeed faded a lot in the last 20 years. I remember the first time I saw a Bergman (the awful The Serpent's Egg) and how my 14 year old self did a long preparation beacause I would soon been seeing "Art" with a capital A. I'd argue that the sort of culture cache around the name Bergman that get to this reaction (which diminishes whatever impact his films might got from an audience) has most faded, and suddenly comes back this last week.

August 06, 2007 5:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Tuwa, Michael and Filipe.

Michael, it's funny. Just IMO here, but the portentous presence of "anguish, suffering, the absence of God" are exactly what, in Bergman, sometimes strike me as Big Themes straining for significance and wanting so badly to be Art. I have trouble with this sometimes!

But I never get this feeling with Bresson and Dreyer's films, which have themes that are every bit as serious as Bergman's.

Themes by themselves are neutral; it's how they are embodied in a film that's important. This happens (always) in a medium-specific manner, which is why it's impossible for me personally to divorce meaningful discussion of any artistic object from its form. e.g. it's impossible for me to say: "Here's a Matisse painting; let's forget about its form and medium-specific qualities and talk just about its large themes." Just IMO, but I don't think it's possible to do this meaningfully...

I should add here that I admire these Bergman films; I'm simply expressing, with honesty, a few reservations. Maybe it's because I'm Hindu and don't know enough about Christianity to resonate totally with Bergman's films. Although the 'spiritual' in Bresson and Dreyer packs a fantastic punch for me, even while I remain completely ignorant of Christianity. Which I find interesting...

Filipe, thank you for those great points. And I think your friend Eduardo Valente's characterization is dead on!

Tuwa, perhaps someone with more knowledge of Freud than me will respond but that's an intriguing theory...

August 06, 2007 7:49 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Girish, the Dwoskin/Durgnat anecdote comes from the latter's contribution to the old Senses of Cinema festschrift to Durgnat ...

August 06, 2007 8:33 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Oh, but I don't think Durgnat actually ever said this--it was Dwoskin's personal (and very cogent) characterization of the writer.

August 06, 2007 8:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, thanks for that, Zach!
I have a weird, vivid memory of you relating that line to me when we arrived at Xunta in the Village, and it was packed because of a Real Madrid game...(a strange association in my head).

August 06, 2007 9:57 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

Thanks for the plug Girish, the Costa series is terrific and I hope more writing on it starts to pop up soon as the screenings have been well attended.

I wish I could weight in on the Bergman issue but there has been so much writing on it in the last couple days I'm not sure I could add anything new.

Instead, I'll ask your thoughts on one of the movies you saw at George Eastman House, Sternberg's bizarre Crime and Punishment. I found it to be one of the rare films where one could really sense the director's disinterest in the film at hand, and the minimalism of the production, of the decor and of the banal lighting seemed in remarkable contrast to the other Sternberg films of the era I had seen.

August 06, 2007 11:44 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

That bunch of films you saw at the Eastman house sounds incredible. I wish I was there, especially to see the silent films by Walsh and Dwan.

My favorite Bergman is Persona. When I think about it, the film works even though it would seem excessively theatrical, with Bibi Andersson doing almost all of the talking, while Liv Ullman stays silent. I do feel I gain little bits with each new viewing.

August 06, 2007 12:09 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I do find the use of "visibility" a strange measure by which to assess a particular filmmaker's continuing relevance (by that token, Antonioni is in trouble, with so many films not yet easily accessible on DVD, no longer a new format), particularly where much of the argument is quite subjective (is there a decent database of film courses and retrospectives that would allow one to test JR's claim?!). Over the weekend, I watched the Criterion disc of Raymond Bernard's Wooden Crosses and was reminded again that many fine filmmakers (and films) are forgotten or undervalued for no especially good reason at all.

The intensity and quality of some of the responses to JR's article would also seem to indicate that some - quite a few? - film buffs (if not academics) have indeed been thinking about and debating Bergman for reasons that have nothing to do with his recent death - not necessarily because they accept the assessment that he was "great" but because there is something in the work that inspires reflection, debate and passion.

The reference to Google also comes across as a little silly - it's a trite mannerism used by too many writers - and ultimately meaningless: after all, performing the same search with "Michael Bay" and "great" yields 13 million hits, where "Jean Renoir" and "great" yield a paltry 500,000. JR must have a better Google than I do; I get "just" 1.7 million hits from his particular combination of words, anyway.

As to which Bergman films I value, I haven't seen enough recently to fairly answer, but the two of which I have the sharpest memories are Wild Strawberries, which I found almost unbearably sad, and Fanny and Alexander, which I enjoy most for the sense it projects of a sprawling 19th-century novel. The dour asceticism of the later scenes comes as a slap in the face after the bewitching warmth of the first hour or so.

August 06, 2007 1:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, thanks for your thoughts. You know, I think you're right about the relationship between form/medium and meaning, and after I left my comments here last night, I was thinking about how the thematics of a work of art aren't ultimately separate -- the form, the specifics of a medium, do convey meaning. It's just that, in response to Rosenbaum's piece on Bergman, I was thinking sort of along this line: if we say for the sake of argument that Bergman's contribution to the specific medium of film are, as JR contends, a bit overrated, then what value might they still hold, what element might still make them deeply worthwhile, even, well, "great"? Might something be great, beautiful, meaningful, even if it's not quite the brilliant thing its adherents say it is?

I think themes/ideas can have some value beyond form and medium, at least in a personal sense; for example, I'd gravitate more towards a conventional film with specific themes than a more formally interesting one with themes I might find less compelling, that might have less resonance for me. But I'd wholeheartedly agree with you that themes and ideas still can't be entirely divorced from the form or the medium, for it is through form and medium that the themes are conveyed and acquire their meaning -- or they are more successfully conveyed through certain kinds of form.

Bergman's films, as you note, do have a strained quality to them sometimes (I like how you put it: Big Themes aspiring to Art). But I wonder if, even with this, they still hold a rich cultural, even historical, meaning -- and I suppose that's sort of what I was thinking when commenting in response to Rosenbaum's article. From B-movies all the way to Bergman's intentionally "higher art", so to speak, cinema can attain very telling, cultural significance, both in terms of how artists respond to their personal crises and what films suggest about experience in a more general sense. For me, Bergman (I think in large part because of those Big Themes) is too painful to watch regularly; his films hurt too much -- and perhaps that's one reason why I like to see them as cultural signposts as much as anything else. :)

August 06, 2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger Riley Puckett said...

To answer your question Girish, I can't recall what Godard has said about Bergman in later years but it doesn't seem surprising that in the early 70s the filmmaker who had made Le Gai Savoir and Letter To Jane might have had a rather different reaction to Cries and Whispers than he had when he saw Summer Interlude 15 years earlier. As for Cahiers, it's interesting to note that in Camolli and Narboni's post-68 quasi-manifesto that ushered in a new political/theoretical era in the journal, Persona is included as an example of "essential" cinema because it subverts cinematic form. This same essay dismisses Melville among others as bourgeois cinema. And even Rossellini and Dreyer are included in the more ambiguous category "e"--filmmakers Cahiers will still defend, but that are not officially essential.

August 06, 2007 4:21 PM  
Blogger bradluen said...

Rosenbaum's piece is useful, but I don't think it was hard for him to write, and I don't think it required particular bravery, since his corner of the filmcrit world has been calling out Bergman for decades - recall Dave Kehr disposing of his oeuvre in a couple of sentences, similarly usefully if completely unfairly, not noting, for instance, that he elicits perhaps the best performance of that decade from Bibi Andersson.

I'd rather see some non-wingnut take a hatchet to Antonioni, currently worshipped in all corners (well, all those that realise some good movies aren't in English or Cantonese). Blame him for being the progenitor of the isolation and isolationism that wrecks the International Standard Art Film. I won't do it, though, since I think L'avventura is so great it justifies a half century of static imitations. Plus I like Lost in Translation a lot.

August 06, 2007 6:17 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

If there's a productive use of contrarian attitudes it's to tap softly against the otherwise invisible walls that form around the consensus, the settled opinion, the perspectiveless perspective that shows up prominently at obituary time but is always there, before and after, silently driving the decisions about what to distribute, promote, preserve, and mimic. And Rosenbaum, to his credit, has done as much as any prominent critic to remind us of that.

Dave Kehr wrote recently in the Times that much of Bergman's output is available on DVD but Antonioni's work is spotty by comparison, in transfer quality if not availability. Rosenbaum implicitly states the opposite and undermines his own argument in the process.

Still, these walls are worth beating our heads against. They're the ones erected around the idea that Zabriskie Point "was a disaster," as the official obit in the Times tells us. They're the ones that put a vacuous remembrance of Bergman into the nightly news but almost nothing about Antonioni one day later, the time for remembering forgotten artists having been consumed already. (The quarry for the stones in these walls: volume, lack of capacity.) They're the walls that sum up Antonioni as dated and Bergman as rigorous. And unfortunately, they're the walls that divide filmmakers into camps, the greats and the not-so-greats, weirdly putting very good filmmakers on opposite sides of each other.

But my high school English teacher taught me to refer to a work of art in the present tense and to say that Zabriskie Point is no disaster if my lil' eyeballs see it that way, which they do. The film may have turned a career on a dime or put a period at the end of critical thought about a director more accustomed to question marks. But he has the last laugh: in the three decades since his "Hollywood film," we can't count the number of movies that have combined explosives and rock-and-roll, but nobody did it like Antonioni.

I have a contrarian tidbit to add. We live in the age of the death of the newspaper. The obits have been pouring in for half a decade about how the Internet is eating the newspaper's lunch. But look at the diverse and thought-provoking arguments about these two filmmakers that appeared this week in the Times alone, from Kehr, Scott, Holden, and, deigning to swoop in from Chicago, Rosenbaum. And look how neatly their ideas fed the blogs that have continued the discussion. I say the Internet eats the newspapers for lunch. Mmm, pulpy. Tap tap tap.

August 06, 2007 7:50 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

I guess if I'm going to blabber, I should at least answer Girish's questions. I'm a late-comer to Bergman having seen maybe 8 or 9 of his films. My favorite is Persona because it gives me the same feeling I get from, say, Resnais. The fractured identities, the subconscious uncomfortably on display. Maybe I'm just a modernist, or maybe I'm wowed by technique, but I always get a charge from someone using the medium as if he's gone back to first principals, just trying to find cinema's limits.

Scenes From a Marriage cuts deeply, I think, and I really enjoyed what has turned out to be the cap to his career, Saraband, maybe most of all because he didn't go out with a sentimental trip down memory lane but kicking, baring his teeth. There's a fine line between this kind of bite and -- to your reservations, Girish -- the enjoyment that Bergman may have received from such viciousness (a different sort of kick). I'll need to see more of his movies.

August 06, 2007 8:19 PM  
Blogger Paul Doherty said...

Girish: I was able to view both "Hindu Image" and "David Harum" at Syracuse Cinefest a few years ago. I remember an excellent tracking shot in Harum. Living in Buffalo gives you the best of both worlds with Eastman House and the Toronto Cinematheque a short drive away.

August 06, 2007 9:08 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Davis makes an interesting point - the way all this controversy is about Bergman, and Antonioni is kind of passed over. I don't know what to make of it: to the broad culture, it might be just that one weird European is all the media can handle in a week... or it might be that Bergman has always been talked about in the broader culture, even if he has become a bit of a joke about the 50s... But even film blogs seem to be more worked up about Bergman's place in the pantheon: is he more controversial? is Rosenbaum wrong, and debates about Bergman are still live and well, maybe just waiting an excuse to flare up all over the place? is the lack of debate about Antonioni because he's fades more than Bergman? or is it that Antonioni has been accepted into the pantheon fairly unambiguously? His influence is certainly pervasive....

I'm curious. For both of them, I have to more read than write, since I haven't seen as many of their films as I want, nor have I ever really warmed to them. I said on Jim Emerson's blog - if I want to think about life and death and the meaning of it all and man's crisis of identity in the 20th century, I'll watch It's a Wonderful Life or Rules of the Game or Tokyo Story. There are reasons for that, though I haven't quite articulated them... But along with the reasons I prefer the others, there's the fact that I can't quite make up my mind what I think of Bergman and Antonioni.

Anyway, I didn't say anything about my favorites up above, so I will now: I think Persona might be the best of the Bergmans, for various reasons (it's formal experimentation, it's interest in women) - maybe mostly for it's explicit metafiction: the problem of How Can an Artist Speak in the Latter Half of the 20th Century.... I like all the Bergman I've seen, probably Fanny and Alexander and Smiles on a Summer Night the most.... as for Antonioni - I'd like to say L'Ecclisse is the best, though I have only seen it on DVD - impressive enough, but hard to judge films without seeing them on film.... On a side note - I was rather more impressed by Zabriskie Point than seems common - probably partly because I did see it on film; saw it not long after I saw Los Angeles Plays Itself, which praises it; and because I saw it about a month or so after seeing Oshima's The Man Who Left His Will on Film - it shares a number of points with that film - the radicals, and some of the treatment of them, the tours of Tokyo and Los Angeles, the importance of the cities to the films...

August 06, 2007 9:45 PM  
Blogger bradluen said...

Remember that by any measure, Bergman is more mainstream famous than Antonioni. I'd guess the average serious reader of the NY Times movie section has only seen Blowup (and I hope, but probably not, L'avventura) of Antonioni's movies, but has seen the Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander, Persona, Cries & Whispers...

And, what, twenty-something Woody Allen movies?

August 07, 2007 2:54 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Daniel, Peter, Gareth, Michael, Riley, Brad, Rob, Paul and Sam! So much great reading here...

Rob and Sam -- Zabriskie Point needs to be rediscovered! I saw a brand new MGM print last year (my first time) and was blown away. I suspect the DVD release has not materialized because of music rights issues. Looking back, it unfortunately has a pretty sad critical reputation. Even key books on Antonioni (e.g. by Seymour Chatman and Peter Brunette) uncomprehendingly dismiss the film. Might be a good candidate for a blog-a-thon....

Daniel, Peter & Paul -- The films at Eastman House were revelatory in many ways. The Walsh and Dwan were the earliest I'd seen by those filmmakers. You could almost see the grammar of 'classical film' being formed, but still in flux. Paul, you're right: Dwan's David Harum began and ended with mirrored tracking shots (moving toward and away from the bank), which were pretty thrilling. Walsh's The Monkey Talks was absolutely bizarre and strange (and probably my favorite of the films). Daniel, I had trouble with the Sternberg, especially because I'm such a big fan of those Dietrich films he made contemparenously (which are a world apart). The use of light was the most interesting thing about the film (I automatically thought of that entire chapter on light in Sternberg's book Fun in a Chinese Laundry), and I enjoyed Lorre, but the film really didn't work for me. It seemed a weird mismatch of filmmaker and material. I really liked the Edgar G. Ulmer; it was one of his "ethnic" films of the 30s, a subtitled Ukrainian operetta shot on rolling farms, New Jersey standing in for Ukraine...

August 07, 2007 7:40 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Links:
-- Dave Kehr on Antonioni in the NYT (which Rob also linked to in his comment above).
-- Harry Tuttle's post on Rosenbaum/Bergman.
-- Greencine's Bergman post is being continually updated. (scroll down)
-- New issue of Bright Lights.
-- Tucker at Pilgrim Akimbo on Antonioni.

August 07, 2007 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

Cahiers only dropped Bergman at the height of the maoist era. The late 60's writing on him is pretty interesting, at its wordt it comes like the writer is trying to hard to rewrite Bergman in more acceptable terms for the magazine current positions at its best it's actually very engaging and refreshing look at Bergman.

August 07, 2007 8:22 AM  
Blogger cineboy said...

girish, thanks for the mention.

It seems to me that one reason Antonioni has been somewhat "passed over" is that Bergman may be easier (unfairly and disingenuously so) to dismiss with a wave of the hand. He has been parodied so much that Bergman jokes are like French jokes in this country. No one cares that much for the reality behind the joke, they just like the pejorative chuckle. With Antonioni there has been less of that, and people still aspire to the “cool ennui” fashion. Also, Bergman was that “god is dead” guy – and haven’t we got past that already? (I say cynically) – while Antonioni was that soul searching for meaning in a cold universe – and aren’t still there? If I am right, then Bergman may be easier to discuss. Just a thought.

August 07, 2007 10:36 AM  
Anonymous Andy H. said...

The reference to Google also comes across as a little silly - it's a trite mannerism used by too many writers - and ultimately meaningless: after all, performing the same search with "Michael Bay" and "great" yields 13 million hits, where "Jean Renoir" and "great" yield a paltry 500,000.

Hear, hear! I'm watching this particular exchange (Rosenbaum on Bergman, everyone on Rosenbaum) from the sidelines, but I will say that to my mind this is the low point of the article

Favorite Bergman: definitely The Magic Flute (1975). As for the rest . . . well, I was under impression that Mssrs. Kehr and Rosenbaum were in the critical majority, a "majority" with which I concurred. I stand corrected, and it has been illuminating. . . .

I'll stand with the "useful contrarian dissent" people on Rosenbaum's piece, I think. . . .

August 07, 2007 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Andy H. said...

I'm missing something: the "Kehr" links in Rob's and Girish's comments lead to an NYTimes obit by Rick Lyman, don't they?

August 07, 2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Oh, I shouldn't leave that comment there! By "it has been illuminating" I mean "I am convinced that I need to give Bergman another chance."

August 07, 2007 11:31 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

This is definitely an over generalization, but I would say one of the reasons why Antonioni has been "passed over" throughout these posthumous arguments is because his work post-Blow-Up (excluding The Passenger of course) is either widely underseen or widely dismissed, and likewise his pre-L'Avventura work (or, more generously, his pre-Il Grido work) is essentially just underseen. People are basing his legacy and fame primarily on a very small amount of films made over a relatively very short period of time compared to Bergman's very prolific and decade-spanning output, in terms not of what he has made (though he has made a lot) but also of what was seen.

August 07, 2007 11:47 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

Oops, Andy, the first link to Kehr's article in my comment is correct, but my second attempt goes to the Lyman obit. Here's the right link.

August 07, 2007 11:53 AM  
Anonymous Andy H. said...

Merci! I'll run the same question I just posted to Dave Kehr's site by this bunch:

Does anyone know where I can find the Australian DVD of Red Desert mentioned in the article Rob links to above?

August 07, 2007 12:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oops, sorry about that! Thanks, Andy and Rob, for the correction and the new link.

August 07, 2007 12:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy, the Australian DVD is put out by Madman. Here's the DVD Beaver page on the various versions of the film.

August 07, 2007 12:20 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Re: availability of Antonioni's work. It's true. His films are underseen. (I tried to see Red Desert at the PFA not long ago and was turned away, but I couldn't help smiling that the film was sold out.)

I guess what I'm saying is that the same summary judgement that determines the number of memorials and the number of obituary pages also drives the decisions about distribution. The films are underseen for not-always-legitimate reasons. And Rosenbaum, although he's using flawed metrics and analysis (nice Google example, Gareth), is trying to quantify what he feels to be true about the impact of Bergman today. Correctives like this -- and like Scorsese's documentary on Rossellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Visconte, Fellini -- can help.

August 07, 2007 12:37 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

When I was younger, I really loved The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries!!! Both Bergman and Antonioni introduced me to poetic landscapes that I never had been exposed to before, and they were part of the path that took me all the way to the avant-garde.

August 07, 2007 1:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jen, that's interesting. Just curious: were there, or are there, other 'non-avant-garde' films that you admire because you see in them an affinity (perhaps sometimes a secret affinity) with avant-garde cinema...?

August 07, 2007 1:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jonathan Rosenbaum has an Ingmar memorial blog post at the Chicago Reader.

August 07, 2007 2:24 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

G, that is a perceptive question . . . I guess the terms "avant-garde" and "poetry" are so interchangeable for me that I am having a difficult time answering the query. The short answer is yes, I think that many of the international auteurs are a part of the evolution of avant-garde cinema or at least my evolution in avant-garde cinema. :) So I'm rather grateful to Bergman . . .

August 07, 2007 2:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Jen.
"I guess the terms "avant-garde" and "poetry" are so interchangeable for me..."
This is actually a very useful observation (for me anyway).

J. Hoberman in the Voice on Bergman and Antonioni.

August 07, 2007 3:50 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

Interesting that Rosenbaum says he hasn't seen "Fanny and Alexander" (a big hit at the time, and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film). I share many of Rosenbaum's reservations about Bergman, but not for the sketchy reasons he cites (in a relatively short NYT Op-Ed piece, after all). I also thought his emphasis was disproportionate and his tone unwisely dismissive. (And I don't like a bad argument -- especially when I have sympathy for its conclusions.)

August 07, 2007 11:39 PM  
Anonymous jim emerson said...

I should make that "I don't like a bad argument, especially when I have sympathy for the issues it raises" -- not its conclusions. Because I don't share Rosenbaum's conclusions about Bergman, just some of his criticisms.

August 07, 2007 11:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Geez, like we really need this: Camille Paglia, in Salon, on the 'death of art movies':

"On the culture front, fabled film directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day was certainly a cold douche for my narcissistic generation of the 1960s. We who revered those great artists, we who sat stunned and spellbound before their masterpieces -- what have we achieved? Aside from Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" series, with its deft flashbacks and gritty social realism, is there a single film produced over the past 35 years that is arguably of equal philosophical weight or virtuosity of execution to Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" or "Persona"? Perhaps only George Lucas' multilayered, six-film "Star Wars" epic can genuinely claim classic status, and it descends not from Bergman or Antonioni but from Stanley Kubrick and his pop antecedents in Hollywood science fiction."

August 08, 2007 2:09 PM  
Anonymous jesse said...

Funny, if I had written my piece on Bergman just a year ago, it would have been completely different--it was just about a year ago that I converted.

I agree that there is certainly a sadomasichistic streak through many (most?) of Bergman's films--but I think that's one of the things that draws me the most. I've realized from personal experience that there are few things more masochistic than undergoing a crisis of faith...

It was Fanny and Alexander that finally "made sense" of Bergman for me, and I really like Shame and Winter Lights, but it really is The Seventh Seal that touches me the most deeply.

I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about Smiles of a Summer Night, but I think I'd like it much more with a reviewing.

August 08, 2007 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

I knew those weird flashbacks from mid-90's I start to get after Bergman and Antonioni's death would end with someone well-known writing an article just like that.

August 08, 2007 3:41 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Obviously, Camille needs to get out more . . . :)

August 08, 2007 4:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, do check out some nice comments action over at Zach's on Bergman/Rosenbaum.

August 08, 2007 9:49 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Spookily enough, I was writing up this little book-launch speech (which is in the latest issue of yet another Australian magazine, REALTIME) just before Isidore Isou's recent death among the 'Big Three':

http://www.realtimearts.net/article/80/8640

August 08, 2007 11:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that, Adrian.
Last week I was trying to decide whether I should cave in and watch Venom and Eternity on UbuWeb, only to now realize that I already have the film (without realizing it) on DVD. It's part of Kino's new (volume 2) avant-garde set.

August 09, 2007 6:41 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Here's a clickable link to Adrian's piece.
-- Jim Emerson on the Camille Paglia article.
-- David Hudson, pinch-hitting at The Reeler, on Bergman/Antonioni.

August 09, 2007 6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Girish, why don`t you put a search engine at your wonderful blog?

August 09, 2007 9:01 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

My most favorite Bergman’s film is THE SILENCE (1963). The reason is just because it portrays a universe to which my emotions belong, or it is this film which best conveys my feelings. I also love THE HOURS AND TIMES (1991, Christopher Munch), which refers to THE SILENCE.

Jesse, I don’t know if you are interested in films about the crisis of faith or not. But if you are interested in this theme, I strongly recommend you watch some films by Krzysztof Zanussi, particularly IMPERATIVE (1982), LIFE IS A FATAL SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE (2000), and THE SUPPLEMENT (2002). I guess THE DEATH OF A PROVINCIAL (1966, Zanussi) might also concerns some questions about faith, but I haven’t had a chance to watch it yet. Zanussi’s films are very hard to find in Bangkok. However, I think Zanussi’s films are as thought-provoking as Bergman’s films, though less emotional than Bergman’s.

August 09, 2007 10:41 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Late again, as ever. Still: I'm of the opinion theatricality in film is something to be appreciated, and dealt with, not tossed off as lazy filmmaking. Some of the most cinematic movies I love are theatrical. (Miami Vice, anybody? Rules of the Game? Altman's entire career? Persona? Mulholland Dr?) There's a sense of the public space of the theatre as a place to do philosophy, to work things out, to show what's always been there in a new light. Plus, it ties into why people who do love Cassavetes love Cassavetes (among others): we're always performing. This is, in fact, at the heart of an essay I wrote about The Life Aquatic last May that only now am I willing to zshare with the blogosphere. My use of theatricality is a little more pointed in a slightly different direction in this essay but, still, it matters. (A lead-in, on my blog, if you like.) I think this ties into what I like about Bergman. Yeah, it does: Bergman's all about performances, too. How your tongue may have swore to it but your heart did not. Plus, think of how Fanny & Alexander opens: the supertitle over the stage he's playing with says "Not for pleasure alone." Meaning, there's still a joy inherent in the theatre but there's a weight, as well.

August 09, 2007 11:50 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

I don't know if anyone's against the presence of theater or theatricality in all cinema--Rosenbaum loves Rivette's work, for instance; certainly there is a lot of great theater-connected cinema that even the most diehard "cinematic" purists love. (Ryland, can I get you to expand on Miami Vice as theatrical, though!? You've just thrown in a great provocative possibility!)

The problem of theater's ominous big-brotherly influences, as I see it, has two parts:

(a) whether Bergman or any other "accused" filmmaker works in such a way as to avoid formal investigation, i.e., purely functional form: not inept or invisible or even necessarily conventional (in the way it feels), but built entirely upon pre-established conventions. Some of Bergman's work for me and I'd wager many other detractors isn't too "stagey" or "uncinematic" (that's lazy shorthand we'd do better to leave behind) so much as it is rooted in preconceived pathways. On this point, if with very few others, I'm aligned with Rosenbaum's sentiments in his recent op-ed: ever since I've started paying attention to form & aesthetics in cinema, I get very little "new" from Bergman's cinema--my eyes don't burn and spin, the poetry doesn't humble and reconfigure me, i.e., in a few words: there's nothing that reduces me to impressionistic hyperbole! This could very well be just my problem, but I've yet to read or hear anything that shows me how to engage with Bergman better. So I persist.

(b) if the above condition is actually met ('functional form'), is this kind of cinema good anyway? Is it great because it engages in big themes or makes a viewer feel a special way?

I'm a classicist at heart, or at least large parts of me are--when I think of cinema's pinnacles and strongest pillars I'm moved reflexively not so much to '60s art cinema and more to the likes of Ford, Mizoguchi, Rossellini. These old masters--who blazed trails but also churned through a great deal of conventional paths (personal or institutionalized)--were hardly "innovators" in the same sense that we generally talk about Resnais or Antonioni being innovators. So it's not really "innovation" I'm after. But the films of the classical giants seems to operate with greater intelligence, beauty, and intensity than Bergman's, who to me seems contained by what we'd call "film language" whereas someone like Mizoguchi uses it to break outside of form. I'm oppressed by the self-referentiality in Persona; I'm stunned or lulled or convinced into contemplation and horror at some of the camera movements in The Loyal 47 Ronin.

This is just my perception, my as-yet-unrefined value judgment. I don't hold it up as "evidence" against Bergman. But I think the question we skeptics should ask is not if Bergman's work is too theatrical, not formalistic enough, but whether the theater and the form are treated and employed to their highest potential.

August 09, 2007 12:58 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Lots of terms being thrown about that I realize I don't understand fully, at least in relation to film (classicist? naturalist? theatrical?) I think maybe I have an idea what they mean in this context but I'd rather know....

Are there any introductory film history/film theory texts any of you would recommend?

August 09, 2007 1:31 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

If you think Persona is theatrical you're reading the dialog, you're not looking. And I thought it was boring to write on Bergman because everybody knew why he was so great... What a shock this week has been.

Méliès was probably to greatest innovator of all to date. Well how high do you place him in the pantheon? Innovation is an historical indicator. Precedence doesn't imply mastery of one technique. We could argue how many filmmakers are better at what Bergman does (not at what he does not), but he definitely mastered his technique. Which was multiple : screenwriting, as well as mise-en-scene, and image. We can't just dissmiss his entire oeuvre because he didn't invent the Cinematographe like Bresson... Nobody measures up to Bresson on this aspect!

August 09, 2007 1:43 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Tuwa, I used 'classicist' as shorthand for a certain very loose area of narrative (but artful) filmmaking prior to the New Waves--i.e., Ford, Renoir, Mizoguchi, Sternberg, et al.

It doesn't necessarily mean anything in particular, certainly nothing coherent or at all systematic, it's just a word to connote a certain field of names and their styles (especially whatever those styles have in common, which is maybe best defined in parallel to the things that Fellini, Antonioni, the Nouvelle vague, et al. did).

As for 'theatricality'--the meaning's still being hashed out I think. Nobody seems to agree on the extent to which Bergman's aesthetic is indebted to theater, the extent to which it interacts with the theater, and the impact either of these has on the quality of Bergman's oeuvre.

Reminded by Harry's comment: Fred Camper wrote on a_film_by that he thinks Persona could have worked better as a stage play. Would anyone else agree?

August 09, 2007 1:57 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

"that Persona could have worked better as a stage play"

I disagree on principal. This suggestion entertains the notion that a work of art is an approximation of a separate idea, just a concrete translation of a pure and untethered truth. Is Persona (the film) the best representation of that truth? I prefer to find the truth not elsewhere but in the mingling of the film -- or play -- with the thoughts in my head.

We could ask which art form might best communicate what was in Bergman's head, and I have no opinion on that.

August 09, 2007 3:14 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hmm. Blogger's acting a bit strange since last night. Not losing comments but playing occasional peek-a-boo with them for a while.

August 09, 2007 4:05 PM  
Anonymous cinebeats said...

Great discussion here! I've had an odd relationship with Bergman's work. I admire the man a great deal and some of his imagery is just amazing. He also got terrific performances from the great actors in his films, but I haven't been totally enamored with his work yet. I think at times he can be maybe a bit too preachy for me? I don’t know what it is exactly, but maybe it’s just the “stage to screen” feel that his films have? A lot if directors who take this approach don’t personally appeal to me all that much but I realize that’s my problem and not the directors. In the end though, I just think I need to see more of his work so I can have a real opinion about his films. At the moment my knowledge of Bergman is limited to 4 or 5 films and a few of them are considered “lesser” Bergman like The Serpent’s Egg. My favorite Bergman film from the limited stuff I've seen has been The Hour of the Wolf.

I have plans to watch a triple feature of Persona, Cries and Whispers and Virgin Spring soon since these are all Bergman films I haven't seen yet and I've been meaning to forever. They always come up whenever I tell someone I need to see more Bergman. People who know me and the films I enjoy seem to think I will really like these films.

I will say that I don't understand the need for critics to tear down artists like Bergman and Antonioni in order to make some vague point. Rosenbaum's argument doesn’t seem too mean spirited but just plain odd, and any argument that is littered with ridiculous stuff like "Bergman isn't taught anymore" and "Bergman's films are hard to see on DVD" makes it impossible for me to take him very seriously.

And what is wrong with Camille Paglia? Call me crazy, but I've never understood the appeal of this woman as a "culture critic." That piece she wrote was so wrong in so many ways that I got a headache from reading it.

August 09, 2007 4:21 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Persona is most definitely successful for being a film. And I think I'm looking, not reading the dialogue. Theatricality isn't about dialogue, to my mind; or, at least, it's not absolutely a comment about dialogue-heavy screenplays. No, Persona is theatrical in the same way as I think I argue for in my essay, the same way I see The Life Aquatic.

And Zach, perhaps this semester will see me expand the genre I'm trying to constitute and I'll get to that Miami Vice essay. In short: it's all about roles assumed and inhabitted in relation to spatial negotiation. The key scene is the first meet with Jose Yero. Last time I watched it, though, I was struck by the sneak shot of the shrine in the corner: the scene is also about keeping faith, while keeping in character! Plus, Gong Li is delectable. How's that for a nibble, Zach?

August 09, 2007 4:25 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

Also, if any of you are kind enough to read the whole thing I'd love to hear your thoughts. As I wrote above, I linked to it on my blog as well and there's space there for thoughts, too. (Nothing like a little traffic whoring, right?)

August 09, 2007 5:17 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

To say it'd work better on stage is just to diss the film, but it doesn't mean anything. I'm pretty sure one could adapt it for theatre, because the "pitch" is perfect for the classic drama unity. More than just an idea, an artwork is the expression of this idea.
And Persona is a visual poem. It exists through the objectification of faces, merging of masks, framing, discontinuous montage, temporal ambiguity. It is a experience of a projection, not the attendance to good live performances.

I wouldn't contest that Bergman and theatre are as one. What is disparaging is to pretend that his films are mere theatre plays. Even if they are dialogue-driven and like drama, mainly structured around interpersonal family conflicts in a room, what he did with a basic material is more visual, more cinematic than most narrative filmmakers.

My personal favorites : Persona (which is also my all time favorite, who would have guessed?), Cries and Whispers, Hour of the Wolf, Scenes from a Marriage and From the Lives of the Marionnettes.

August 09, 2007 6:57 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Actually I'm wrong. It would be a mistake to take Persona to the stage... because the film medium doesn't make distinction between what is real and what is imagined. In theatre it is impossible to play on this ambiguity.

August 09, 2007 8:02 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Adaptations are always a tricky thing to talk about, because each instance of a -- story, I guess -- is necessarily bound to its medium, despite similarities across the various incarnations.

Harry, I think there probably is a way to convey real and imagined events on stage. I think of something like Buried Child where it's pretty hard to parcel out fact from fiction or past from present. I think that play can even plants visual foreimages.

But for me, the problem of saying that this would be better on stage is defining "this". It implies some core around which the rest is window dressing. And like you say the artwork is the expression.

To say that Persona could exist on the stage is to separate the core -- a woman? a breakdown? -- from the elements that are bound tightly to cinema -- the montage of the boy with his hands up, the flash of sideways lips masked in white, the bit of silent slapstick, the shot of film flipping through a camera. If these are optional, just window dressing for the story, then I wonder what other superfluous frames we could excise from this film to slim it down?

If they are merely conveying an idea which can be expressed any number of ways, then I may as well read the script or listen to someone read a detailed synopsis.

But I wonder if that person will be sure to mention that the shot of the profile in the prologue should make me think first of a hillside, before I get my bearings and sync up with the camera's perspective. I hope so, because that's what the film does in my head. What a stage play would do, I'm not sure.

Two things come to mind: von Trier and Leth's Five Obstructions where a film is "translated" into another film. And Susan Sontag's essay "On Style".

August 09, 2007 8:20 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

It's taken me a while to warm to Bergman. I first saw Wild Strawberries and the Seventh Seal but I think their reputations as masterpieces were an obstacle to appreciating them. Then I saw Smiles of a Summer Night at the PFA and liked it, though I can only vaguely remember why now. I tried Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander and increasingly felt like I was closer to hitting his wavelength. But my favorite so far has got to be Scenes From a Marriage; I attempted to watch the episodes one per night, as originally broadcast in 1973. That lasted two days: by episode 2 I was hooked on the construction of an almost Cassavetes-esque aesthetic for this chamber drama.

A few months ago I looked at the Virgin Spring for the first time and couldn't get much past the problematic sadism others have described. It's no accident that this film, not something by Dreyer or Bresson or Mizoguchi, is the one that gets remade as a low-budget exploitation horror film. Each of these directors have been known to twist the knife into their characters, but somehow in a way that insists the audience not take any pleasure in it. With Bergman, it's somehow not so clear. Incidentally, if we're measuring phenomena by their google hit quotient, a search on Bergman + sadism yielded 59,200 hits for me, while those other three director names only get 500 and something each when linked with the term.

The other night I watched Sawdust and Tinsel for the first time, and there was the sadism again, screaming out of practically every camera angle. But I did find the film's engagement with the theatrical arena to be its most interesting facet. Like All About Eve or Limelight this is a film about the theatre that also works as the director's self-examination of his own place in the artistic world.

I have Saraband out from the library. Hopefully I'll find time to watch it before its due date...

August 10, 2007 1:40 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The film burns out in the middle and appears to rewind. A ceasure with a backward/mirrored second half is inherent to the condition of a film reel, while it is just a gimmick on stage. I'm not saying we can't find tricks to make believe on stage, but the suspension of disbelief is not the same for each mode of representation. This reality shift incertainty is more pertinently served on film.
Even the theatre tricks are literal, factual, thus intellectual constructions for the spectator. They can pretend "ambiguity", they can pretend they are on the moon, or underwater, but the audience doesn't engage with this vertigo on the same level. On film some tricks are purely experiential, and they impose themselves to us beyond our own awareness.
Persona is a manifesto about the cinema representation (the best in my mind), the duality of impersonating, the act of watching, it's spelled out right there in the prologue. It questions the very essence of what is going on a screen.
Fred Camper, or someone else on a_film_by said this prolog could be planted, as you say, on the back wall (So much for a more appropriate medium if we have to steal from the film!). But this is clearly misunderstanding the meaning of this prolog (which isn't just a slide show), and this is surprising from Camper who champions experimental /formalist cinema...
There is this doubled countershot, where we see the same monologue twice, from both perspectives. Parts of the scenes filmed from a unique point of view (without countershot to see the character the camera stands for). The choices of point of views and the trciky montage that make believe two people are in the same room while they might not be, or at different times. The merging of the two faces, and the flash montage of (subliminal) superimposed faces is pretty essential to the film's core significance. The rest is just a contemplation of duration. "Sculpting in time" like Tarkovsky said.

P.S. Please stop the dissemination of this Google madness! It's a mindless word counter, not a topical research.

August 10, 2007 2:38 AM  
Anonymous Phillip Kelly said...

It's funny to me to hear people refer to Bergman as heavy-handed, to me that's like saying Shakespeare is heavy handed. Bergman's personal quest for truths that we deal with on a daily basis came through as raw, unhindered emotions. He doesn't hide his characters behind water streaked walls and abstract landscapes like Antonioni; does that make it any less cinematic? Antonioni let his camera sit on dilapidated structures, Bergman dilapidated faces. Does that honestly make one more heavy-handed than the other? Does that make one more relevant than the other? I think not. It's unfortunate that they died in such a short time span from each other, only because now they are being compared, and they shouldn't be. Their works stand on their own.

But how I wonder when dealing with these emotions, when questioning a life without faith (Winter Light), passion (Passion of Anna), peace (Shame), Love (Cries and Whispers) does one think he's being sadomasochistic. I see it as less sadomasochism and more along the lines of someone telling you not to be this way, as you can see from the very stomach churning emotions he leaves you with, to have to put someone through the things his characters go through in reality would be many times worse.

August 10, 2007 5:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Harry Tuttle: Rosenbaum/Bergman, part 2.
-- Jim Emerson and Zach in the post+comments.

August 10, 2007 7:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Anonymous, thanks for the search engine idea. I really should google up and figure out how to do that...

August 10, 2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

Harry, my intention in bringing forth "google evidence" was to be playful and to kind of send up others' uses of the tool in their arguments. But now that you mention it, those intentions certainly don't come across, I bet that Rosenbaum, Ebert and others are attempting to "be playful" when they bring it up too, but it just comes across as an incredibly weak argument. On your advice, I'll never compare google results in a discussion like this again. Sorry.

August 10, 2007 12:28 PM  
Blogger Gareth said...

Brian - whatever your own intentions, I'm not sure I agree with you that JR was attempting to be playful. It seems to me that he was trying to use this as a means to provide evidence of a broad consensus with which he begs to differ (on the assumption that his example actually carries weight).

As I pointed out above, performing the same action with other names doesn't in any way produce a correlation between critical consensus as to greatness and a particular director. We do agree on one point: it's an incredibly weak argument from JR, though trivial compared to other assertions in the article.

August 10, 2007 12:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jen: "Bergman & Antonioni- a series of questions".

August 10, 2007 1:18 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hey, thanks for the link, G! I'm home from work and just felt compelled to write . . . By the way, I would love to see your response to some of those queries. :)

August 10, 2007 2:08 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

August 10, 2007 2:09 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

[EDIT]Nothing against you Brian. I keep seeing it everywhere. Since Rosenbaum brought it up, everyone tries to find different numbers to prove their own point, as if it was the new "reality check". This is misrepresenting the internet and what it can be used for. If that's what the press thinks of the web we're doomed. I'm afraid this "method" becomes a popular urban myth if we encourage it.

re: Persona.
The main protagonist is an actress who gets sick of the stage and ends up (cured?) on a film set. How more obvious could this be? This is Bergman's own reflexion on what separates cinema from theatre. I'm not saying he gave up on theatre, but he distances his cinema work from theatre.
We could see the analogy to several dual relations in cinema : the inner struggle of an actress to get in and out of character, or a (mute) spectator to project identification on a fictional character, or even a director watching an actor impersonating what's in his mind...
It is a personal film, but an insightful study on what he understood of the medium at this point of his film career.

August 10, 2007 2:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Jen, you're most welcome!
I have a slightly crazy weekend ahead of me, and can't promise I'll be able to take a crack at those questions, but I hope some others here might be able to...

August 10, 2007 7:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David Bordwell: "Bergman, Antonioni, and the stubborn stylists."

August 11, 2007 6:32 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

I was reading Scorsese's article on Antonioni, and it was curious to read the paragraph were he talk about his reactions about La Dolce Vita and L'Avventura, which were very similar in some aspects to the main argument in Rosenbaum's article.

August 12, 2007 11:45 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

Here's the link to Scorsese's remembrance.

August 12, 2007 3:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice piece. Thanks for linking, Rob. I was just about to ask Filipe where it might be found.

August 12, 2007 6:15 PM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Also a piece by Woody Allen on Bergman in NY times as well

August 12, 2007 6:30 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Ha. Allen talks about the man and his attitude towards life; Scorsese talks about the man's attitude towards life as revealed by the films' style. You can tell where each man's skill lies, I think, and that they each fit their respective subject matter.

August 12, 2007 7:18 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

There is a postscript to Bordwell's post, added this sunday, to include considerations brought up by Scorsese's and Allen's NYT columns.
Btw, they are directors, we don't expect their take on Bergman and Antonioni to be as objective and analytical as one of a critic.

August 13, 2007 6:45 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Girish, I am very late to the party, but I thank you for starting this discussion in your precise, intelligent and polite manner. It has made for great reading. But oh dear, I AM that Times reader mentioned by Brad Luen. You know, the one who has seen a fair bit of Bergman but only Blowup from Antonioni. Embarrassing, but at least correctable. It is what comes from letting mood govern your DVD viewing.

I tend to be somewhat philosophical about these Pantheon Marathon discussions, since I do believe a director's reputation is tied inextricably to how his vision fits, or doesn't fit, with the mood of the times. In that sense, a fellow director such as Scorsese or Allen can be a useful sidelight on critical opinion. Directors--insofar as they can free themselves from professional jealousy--often give me a new view of the nuts-and-bolts effects of other filmmakers. I've also observed that directors tend to have great loyalty to the films that first inspired them, perhaps because loyalty to a vision is part of what makes an auteur. I'd have been crushed to hear that Allen was now second-guessing Bergman, but obviously he finds the Swede as relevant ever.

August 13, 2007 12:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, folks.
And here's the Siren's post on l'affaire Rosenbaum/Bergman.

August 14, 2007 2:32 PM  
Anonymous peter said...

My favourite Bergman is Scenes from a Marriage. It is one of the most honest examinations of a marital relationship that I have seen.

September 01, 2007 3:27 AM  
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