The retrospective season at the Star and Shadow of four of Ingmar Bergman's films, the Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through a glass darkly and Persona was a chance to view and to appraise a director who is regarded as one of the foremost film makers of the twentieth century; an opportunity to understand what he offers today's audience in the age of the iphone.
Bergman's reputation is huge. But he has also been mercilessly parodied as a gloomy scandinavian whose films for the most part trail dark despair about the human condition.
Bergman's views of human nature and the incapacity of humans to communicate have been criticised for their emotional and spiritual bleakness.
After seeing the films my feeling is that these negative reactions to Bergman are understandable. However they are unbalanced and less than fair to Bergman as an artist film maker and thinker. Of course much his work will not be what some cinema goers are looking for. Bergman's films are not about entertainment value although they can certainly be entertaining. The films are personal. They represent Bergman's own understanding of world.
And one key quality stands out in relation to Bergman's work. He is not selling anything: a belief system or a justification. Although Bergman made films before 1951, in 1951 his financial situation forced him to work for a year making cinema advertisements. And this year seems to have been critical in developing his film making technique and also in shaping a personal resolve that his films would not sell anything. Like the man in the Leonard Cohen song, he would not be a dealer in solutions, and this had a defining effect on both the form and content of his films, and the way Bergman shot and composed his scenarios, in particular his use of the Close Up of which more later.
Refusing to be a wheeler dealer in cinematic snake oil remedies was a fundamental moral imperative for Bergman. He could only work from the position in which he was truthful to himself. To thine own self be true. Bergman's being truthful is an overwhelming and fundamental impression gained from viewing his work. They come across like a casting of the shadows of his own inner dialogues, onto the complex exterior form of his films.
In these dialogues questions arise that are part of the weave of daily life; the nature of our relations with and communication with others, the reality of our aloneness, issues of our identity and place in the fold of life. These questions emerge in the films through the interplay of script character and image. Bergman not only refuses to answer the questions, he states unequivocally, that for us, there are no answers: Karin in Through A Glass Darkly says she has seen God and that he was a large hairy spider; when the Knight in the Seventh Seal asks about the existence of God, the after life and all that, Death replies that he has no secrets to reveal. Something the knight already knows.
Now you might say this is bleak stuff. But my impression from the audiences is that they were overwhelmingly appreciative of Bergman's moral stance. The AP people understood that Bergman was an artist prepared to say that: life, communication is hard – that we have to understand that there are often no answers – that in some respects life comprises problems not challenges. These may be unfashionable notions but some audiences find a moment of black and white honesty, more positive than the rose tinted philosophical twaddle, wrapped in High Definition cosmic reassurance, peddled by directors such as Terrence Mallick.
If there is honesty about our condition, at least we've got our feet on the ground. The elements: the sea the sky the earth, are always present in Bergman's cinematography almost as reminders. The knight as he progresses across the plague ridden Medieval Sweden, is framed by earth sea and sky. For Bergman these elements surround us externally, as do our memories and dreams internally. They are not answers but resources for individuals to understand.
As in a Trial at Law when an attorney finally asks a key question and the witness responds with an actual answer, there is a palpable shock in the Court room; so likewise there is shock in the cinema seat as Bergman without flinching asks questions; and his films, as crucibles sweat out the responses.
Returning to the earlier point I want to look at the particular use that Bergman makes of the close up. In film, it is the face, above all that characterises the close up. As social beings we are face readers, we read faces not just of others, but we see faces in flaking paint, clouds and patterns in the sand. The face is a sign that we interpret. A face always suggests a possibility. Bergman's facial close ups define the experience of viewing his films and are a key element in the relationship between the films and the audience.
The characterising feature of Bergman's close ups is that they are uncompromising: they are shots of long duration, they are mute and within them there is little or no movement. They present as a pure quality, an unindividuated affect, a passivity. Bergman's close up's: Death's face, the Wallpaper in Glass Darkly, Liv Ullman in Wild Strawberries and Persona all have an impersonal quality, as if they do not belong to the actors but could be masks taken on by anyone. The way they are shot and edited into his films gives them a quality that can absorb the viewer. In their immobility their muteness and duration the close ups draw the audience into the shot giving the audience the space to contribute something of themselves into the fabric of the film, a sort cinematic short circuit of the near and far. Absorbed by the close up, which is pure possibility, the audience become the interpretants of the film, actively engaged in its unravelliing.
As the technical means of communication proliferate and multiply in our society, perhaps there is also an increasing awareness of how difficult it is to communicate. The thin wavering dieing signals that we get from our friends, the notices of unavailability and the ansaphone messages never returned, are like the signs from God at the waning of the Middle Ages. A warning that we need to start and think differently. Perhaps that's a message Bergman still gives out to the iphone generation of movie goers.