Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bergman and Antonioni

Dan, this entry is for no one else but you. I think we've had our fair share of discussions about these two in the past, but also more or less skirted questions of their greatness while acknowledging their impact and influence; my guess is this had more to do with the relative assurance of their places in the pantheon of great directors. Perhaps now, however, our feelings about these two deserve to be explicitly stated for the record. I don't particularly feel the need to be overly reverential, but, as Geoff just wrote to me, What a weird fucking day!

BTW, can you believe the month started with the passing of Edward Yang and ended with Bergman and Antonioni passing on the same day?

Shall I begin?

I feel more comfortable talking about Bergman since I have known him the longest and returned to him at various points in my aesthetic upbringing. Is it cliche to say that I was introduced to European art cinema through the Seventh Seal? I rented the thing from the library and if I'm not mistaken, it was in a shiny silver box with the famous last scene on the cover. I think I rented it because I had heard some mention of the "playing chess with death" scene and that sort of overt allegory was attractive to me at the age of 16 or whatever I was.

My reaction: I loved it. To this day I don't see what people's complaints are about the thing being either too morose (it's textured and frequently comic), too pretentious (it's a frickin' allegory!) or too maudlin (Von Sydow is counterpointed by Bjornstrand; Jof's naivite by his wife's virtue). It's far from his best or most poignant but it's almost the perfect litmus test to see if someone is gonna be open to foreign films. On the one hand, it follows pretty conventional narrative structure (despite its unusual subject matter), the acting is of course great and varied, and there's lots of memorable images. Kurosawa--the other best entree into foreign film--does much the same. On the other hand, it's dark. Different characters represent conflicting ideologies about life and death. And beneath it all, Bergman is, I think, beginning to experiment with a kind of visual/dramatic flattening technique that reminds me a lot of Dreyer--but only in retrospect.

What I mean is Seventh Seal has this very obvious Strindbergian quality--slightly over the top characterization, extreme emotional states, dark subject matter--but the key internal drama usually plays best in relief i.e. when the context is otherwise flat or unattenuated. I'm thinking of the visuals in Seventh Seal and how many of the memorable scenes are set against plain or flat backgrounds. Block and the Squire give a number of passionate soliloquies, I think, delivered in almost two-dimensional space. Like Dreyer's Joan. I can't say for sure, but looking ahead to his other films, I don't think this visual reduction is the old playwright's trick of merely giving the stage to the actor to inflate his presence: I believe Bergman is working in, visually, negative space which is to culminate in Persona. He is beginning to experiment with the counterpoint between the direst of human emotions--despair, grief, remorse--and the suggestiveness of an unresponsive, inanimate, inhuman world.

By contrast, see how lush and vividly backgrounded (word?) the rustic, comic scenes with Jof and his wife or Plog, the blacksmith play out. Bergman handles these scenes deftly, but conventionally. I think it is because as an artist he is just coming to grips with his themes and perhaps having to overcome his own aptitude for filmed drama. Compare this with the barely discernible distinction between comedy and tragedy in Fanny and Alexander. At his peak, then--Scenes of a Marriage, Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander--Bergman no longer needs to rely on mere visual flattening. He has resolved this problem as a dramatist and director by somehow elevating the mundane details of daily life without any detriment to the pathos and anguish of his protagonists. Am I making any sense?

I think of the elaborate and ornate interiors of those movies and it reminds me of a poem from Rilke:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking, because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house, stays there, inside the dishes and in the glasses, so that his children have to go far out into the world toward that same church, which he forgot.

Bergman moves, I think, from the need to show his figures' desperate isolation against the relief of a bleak, cold world in most of his black and white films to showing virtually the same existential plight, but in a world of domestic engagement. Is it any surprise that Nykvist is his prime accomplice in this? Nykvist, who could make a snowdrift sparkle or, conversely, make naked flesh seem dull as alabaster, allowed Bergman, I think, to move away finally from the depiction of negative space to the suggestion of this same space through his story, his actors and his camera. That's it, I think. I'm kind of free-styling it here but I think that's Berman's highest achievement for me. I mean, is there anything more devastating in film than Ullmann and Josephson's repeated embraces in Marriage? They are that way, not because of any heightened attenuation but because they seem to occur right in the middle of busily lived, tragically common lives. The rarest of achievements.

The rarest of genius.


Geoffrey said...

Well said, Dave. And I agree, completely.

I think that Bergman peaked with the movies you mentioned in terms of his characterization. The emptiness, or negative space as you called it, that he explored throughout his career was, I think, most fully realized in the relationships among the characters of those 3 films.

Interestingly, he achieves it in the first of those 3, Cries and Whispers partly through doing the opposite of what he did in The Seventh Seal - he set the drama against his most lush backgrounds ever (I've heard that he once said this was the only one of his films that had to be seen in color; don't know if it's true but I like it). Talk about counterpoint.

But he truly peaks with Scenes from a Marriage b/c it's as if he realized that he, as you said, doesn't need to rely on visual support (ok, that's not exactly what you said, but kind of). Or, rather, that he's finally gotten (why can't I think of a better word then "gotten"?) to the core of the issue - this theme of deep human suffering juxtaposed with an unresponsive world at it's most fundamental level - person to person. And what better way to explore that then husband to wife, the roles that should, theoretically, bring 2 people closer then any other. The family unit is our most basic foundation for how we structure the world around us. If 2 people can't find any answers in that situation, are we not doomed as a race?

A high point for me too, that I think deserves mentioning, is his so-called "chamber trilogy." In some ways these 3 rival the later 3. If this idea of the "negative space" reaches it purest and most relevant representation in the relationship of Marianne and Johan, or another way of saying it (and this is where I free-style) is that it is explored in its most vertical sense, then I think Bergman achieves his greatest point of horizontal exploration of this theme in Winter Light. I mean, talk about a movie where every gesture, every angle of every frame, and even every lonely particle of dust in every weak beam of sunlight bears silent witness to, and echoes back, the painful cry of "why"? Winter Light also takes this idea of an unresponsive world to the next level - an unresponsive God/Universe.

Good stuff, Dave. I wish you had told me about this blog sooner. I also hope you guys don't mind me chiming in.

J. Knecht said...

Who in the hell is Dan?

And why do you hate Bill? Didn't the pen name, Billmar Bergbill, tip you off to anything?