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September 26, 2005

Green Cine points to Back From The Cold, an article in The Guardian in which a host of filmmakers explain what Ingmar Bergman means to them. It's a lovely piece, with responses that range from moving (Liv Ullmann) to funny (Alexander Payne) and which leave one wanting, naturally enough, to go watch a Bergman film.

Because I would wish ((ha!) to be considered in the company of these filmmakers, I thought I'd answer the question myself (and invite anyone else to do so, either here or at their own blogs - I'd certainly be interested in reading more thoughts).

My earliest exposure to Bergman was through Roger Ebert; in particular his review of Cries And Whispers. I read it many times, always somewhat unsettled by the visceral horror he evoked in his description (I had the same response to his review of The Exorcist). This would have been around the time I was nine or ten. Bergman's name would again surface in my cinematic awareness when Bill And Ted's Bogus Journey came out and I learned about The Seventh Seal, but I didn't actually see any of his films until I was in 10th grade (this was a good thing; I was probably just beginning to reach a point where I could appreciate them). I discovered that the local library had a fairly decent collection of foreign films on VHS, and while I was disappointed that there was nothing on the shelves from Godard (with whom I firmly believed I needed to be obsessed), I did grab a handful of titles from other 'canonical' directors - Fellini, mainly, and also Bergman. The Virgin Spring was the first one I watched - as it turned out, that was my mom's favorite film of his, and she in turn recommended some more of his work (she told me that her interest in him ended when I was a baby - the first time she ever left me with a sitter was when she went to see Fanny & Alexander; she spent the entire three hours of the film worried about my well-being and anxious for it to hurry up and end).

I watched The Seventh Seal next. Then Hour Of The Wolf. Then a few year went by. I returned to him with Wild Strawberries and then, at long last, sometime in 2002, I watched the Criterion edition of Cries And Whispers. The experience of watching that film seemed tantamount to self mutilation. It literally hurt. Suddenly, incisively, he was my favorite filmmaker. I've now seen just about everything he's done from Smiles Of A Summer Night onward.

Incisive: that's the word I always use to describe Bergman's films. Because they cut you. You can feel it: the deep dull pressure of the cut that gradually turns hot and then cold again as the blood rushes to fill the laceration. His films deal with pain, deal in pain, and, cyclically, the pain they provoke is its own catharsis; this the essence of the human struggle, distilled by the artistic struggle; the only way to transcend misery is to embrace it; and the only way to embrace it, in Bergman's case, is to make a film about it. This phenomenon naturally has a divine correlation - indeed, religion is intrinsic to Bergman's understanding of humanity. In Winter Light, for example, the Priest discovers that the only way he can believe in God is to continue doubting in him.

To me, Bergman represents cinematic purity, although not in in an ascetic sense. He gets his fingers dirty; he gets them bloody. His simple, unconvoluted style is betrayed by these intentions, and yet it facilities them. After all, his most volatile moments are often those long, unbroken, unmoving sequences where his actresses gaze directly into the lens and speak. Their eyes and words are like razors, slowly slashing both themselves and that fourth wall - and when they can't do the job well enough, Bergman himself is not above reaching in and tearing the film itself from the projector to let, if only for a few moments, the clean white light shine through.

Suffice to say, I find in Bergman's work a prevailing obsession with the same topics I find myself returning to again and again (in a manner that is decidedly different and yet which still, I think, shows signs of his influence). I could go on about his use of light and shadows, his way with actors - and oh, how could I forget his perspectives on human sexuality? There's a book waiting to be written! However, for fear of more pretentious metaphors on my part, I'll bring this little impression to an end.

Posted by David Lowery at September 26, 2005 2:03 PM


it makes me smile....bergman is one of my reasons for becoming a filmmaker....i checked out "back from the cold"...very nice...

Posted by: Frank Mosley at September 27, 2005 12:59 AM

Really enjoyed these personal reminiscences through film, David.
(More, please, whenever you get the chance...)

Posted by: girish at September 27, 2005 11:33 AM

thanks for the link..and probably my favorite post of yours.

Posted by: brad at September 27, 2005 7:19 PM