Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Bergman: The Most Theatrical Hack to Ever Change the Face of Cinema

While I've managed to get most of my writing jobs done on time, illness has prevented me from fulfilling my blogging duties, which undeniably involve diving into such sticky conversations as whether or not Ingmar Bergman is a great film artist. I also still need to contribute to the Antonioni discussion. Since Bergman isn't among the 30 directors about whom I'm most knowledgable, I wouldn't have nominated myself to defend him so verbosely against a piece published in the newspaper of record. But I haven't found any other articles that say what I want for me. So here I go…

The question of whether Ingmar Bergman was in fact a great film artist is one that should undeniably be discussed in the wake of his death. But the discussion thus far has been disappointing, starting with Jonatham Rosenbaum's piece for the New York Times, "Scenes From an Overrated Career," an uncharacteristically presumptuous argument which is almost as smug as its headline. Many of the responses that I read (perhaps I missed the best ones) were equally out of touch with where the real discussion of Bergman's worth lies. While the debate should certainly be going on, it should exist with honesty and actual analyses from both sides.

The premise of Rosenbaum's article is that although Bergman seduced audiences in the 1950s, '60s and '70s with his talent to entertain and ably direct Sweden's supply of hot blonde actresses, he didn't do anything interesting to change the face of cinema. In fact, perhaps his talents were (cue sinister music)…purely related to the theater!

"The stylistic departures I saw in Mr. Bergman’s ’50s and ’60s features — the silent-movie pastiche in “Sawdust and Tinsel,” the punitive use of magic against a doctor-villain in “The Magician,” the aggressive avant-garde prologue of “Persona” — were actually more functions of his skill and experience as a theater director than a desire or capacity to change the language of cinema in order to say something new. If the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Mr. Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.

Anyone who's been to film school immediately recognizes the quiet dagger that is the condescending classification of a film or filmmaker as theatrical. (I recently used this infallible critique when I called "The Producers" a giant-budgeted documentary of the stage musical.) It's the equivalent of me setting myself above Rosenbaum by calling his piece "smug" in the first paragraph of my counter-argument. WIthout any elaboration or explanations, he establishes that Bergman didn't do anything new. He was just stuck in the past, practically setting his camera up in the auditorium and shooting the actors a stage. It's as primitive as "L'arroseur arrosé." In fact, Bergman had a different world view and set of goals from the French New Wavers, but that doesn't make his work any harder or easier to discount.

Rosenbaum is willing to declare Bergman a genius of the theater without ever seeing one of his productions, so long as it equates to a cinematic dis. Even when he did something challenging and experimental, like "Persona" (which apparently only experiments with form during its prologue), he only did so in a theatrical manner. Unfortunately, Rosenbaum doesn't really elaborate on how making the film look as if it were burning up in the projector—a move that still leaves post-modernists in awe of the consummate modernist—was purely a theatrical move. Maybe Bergman wanted to set a theater on fire, but didn't have the budget to do so night after night and had to compromise.

Bergman liked the theater, and liked that much of the environment had to be created in the audience's imagination. But he also appreciated the atmospheric capabilities of film. Once, he and cinematographer Sven Nykvist famously spent three days in a small church to study the light throughout the day, only to determine that they'd have to rebuild it in the studio to recreate it.

While Roger Ebert makes a solid effort to defend Bergman, he overlooks Rosenbaum's unsupported claims.

"I think Rosenbaum gives away the game when he says, Bergman’s “movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.” He means form itself is more important (and entertaining, I guess) than narrative, emotional content and performance. Not everyone would agree."

That's true, not everyone would agree, but that's an entirely different debate. Most, Ebert included, would agree that a sense of cinematic form and its differences with the theater are essential to making a cohesive work. Ebert's mistake is to nearly give Rosenbaum's premise a free pass. Bergman's best cinema isn't theatrical in the least. His expressions are personal and cinematic.

While Bergman is one of many film directors who frequently worked in theater (Robert Altman was another), that doesn't mean he was unaware of the differences between the two mediums. In fact, his love of the human face and all the mysteries it contains made film much more his medium—he could put the emphasis where he wanted. To over-simplify, theater is a medium of words, bodies and voices, while cinema is a medium of faces (among many other things). Bergman's 1984 short, "Karin's Face," devoted itself to old family photos (specifically his mother's), emphasizing telling looks and bodily gestures and searching for their significance. Rosenbaum passively mentions such a key component to Bergman's work at the end of his essay, saying, "It doesn’t diminish his masterful use of extended close-ups or his distinctively theatrical, seemingly homemade cinema to suggest that movies can offer something more complex and challenging." But Bergman's genius was in his ability to find something complex and challenging in something so simple as a face.

In "Persona," Bergman leaves the camera on Bibi Andersson's face as she explicitly recounts an unforgettable sexual encounter. A more conventional, classically or theatrically edited piece would have contained a conventional shot sequence, including reaction shots, but Bergman unflinchingly refuses to cut away from his actress's face. This single, fixed gaze was bold and revolutionary, breaking with conventional structure and denying the audience the space that theater by its nature provides and that film usually provides for comfort's sake. The influence of such bold direction can still be seen today—some examples, off the top of my head, include "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "Birth" and "Brick."

The face obsession is just one example. Bergman explored his "bitter and pinched emotions" (along with other ones like joy, hope and happiness) in many ways that always struck me as quintessentially cinematic. The haunting, psychological assault of "Persona" owes itself to editing and composition. The comparably more classical "Wild Strawberries" uses odd, dreamy timing to accentuate its study of the worth of a human life. The sweaty atmosphere of the hotel in "The Silence," whose influence can be seen in works by Kubrick and the Coens, relies entirely on cinematic atmosphere for its success. To call these works theatrical and no longer relevant is like calling Benjamin Franklin a hack for inventing the furnace stove when we already had plenty of ways to cook.

Bergman's fascinations and innovations were different from than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson, whom the article claims are totally more important than Bergman because their films are in more retrospectives than his. Some might justifiably place more value in Dreyer and Bresson's work, because their artistic interests led to more extreme experiments in form. But Bergman's hangups and motifs resulted in several stunning, distinctively Bergmanesque moments. Also, nothing against Dreyer and Bresson, but during my film school career, I probably watched, on assignment, three times as many Bergman films than films by those two directors combined. (I only mention it because Rosenbaum wants to use it as a measure of worth.) And I was enrolled much more recently than Rosenbaum. (In the interest of full disclosure, several students said that one of my professors, William Siska, looked like Bergman-lover Woody Allen, so maybe that has something to do with it.)

If Rosenbaum genuinely believes in the decades-old critique that Bergman was purely a theatrical entertainer who contributed little artistically to the world of cinema, he needs to start by explaining how some of the most memorable images in film history (the hill dance in "The Seventh Seal," for example) are merely theatrical. If he finds that he can't do so, he needs to frame his argument against Bergman in another way, in order to generate some real thought on the subject and allow the director's admirers a chance to defend his legacy.

1 comment:

Cold Bacon said...

" should exist with honesty and actual analyses from both sides."

This is too much to ask!!?