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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman dies at 89

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

The great Swedish filmaker died yesterday at 89 years of age, a favourite director of mine and he will be sadly missed. The Telegraph have a particulary fine article about him in todays edition and is very much worth a read.

"David Gritten celebrates the high aspirations of the great Swedish filmmaker, who died yesterday

It would be stretching a point to claim Ingmar Bergman invented art-house cinema. Other directors before him had presented visions of cinema so austere and serious as to exclude entertainment values completely; but Bergman was the first to attract such wide audiences to his work.

Buñuel's experiments with Dalí qualified as high art, but were so experimental as to be museum pieces. Italian neo-realists such as De Sica and Rossellini tackled serious social themes, but always addressed themselves to audiences' emotions. Bergman seemed grandly indifferent to such considerations; the rigour, seriousness and intellectual questing of his films became their unique selling point.

He became a giant on the stage of world cinema with The Seventh Seal, re-released last week in Britain on its 50th anniversary to gushing reviews. It remains his best-known film, in part because of its most striking images: the hooded, black-clad, white-faced figure of Death playing chess on a beach with a Crusader knight, and a dance of death with six people led by Death wielding a scythe.

The Seventh Seal seemed almost deliberately forbidding. Shot in black-and-white, it is a stark morality play that presents a world riven with plague and corruption and suggests the absence of God. These very qualities attracted serious-minded audiences across the world; and, in the late 1950s, with the uneasy undercurrent of the Cold War and the impact of the Holocaust still gradually sinking in, there was plenty to be serious about.

Like modern jazz and the plays of Samuel Beckett, Bergman's work flourished among earnest people who saw in it a flat rebuff to a post-war world that strived to accentuate the positive in all things.

The veteran film critic David Thomson has noted that The Seventh Seal "made Bergman the central figure in the growth of art-house cinema", adding that in Britain many people first joined the National Film Theatre specifically because of a Bergman retrospective.
He made films fast and cheaply, though it was not apparent, thanks to his excellent repertory company of actors (Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson among them) and his gifted cinematographers.

Bergman was prolific in the wake of The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries, The Silence, The Virgin Spring and Persona all cemented his reputation. His taste for symbolism shaped the stories of these films, and kept his audiences happy - if "happy" is quite the word.

The other notable aspect of these earlier films is their approach to sexuality. The Silence and Persona in particular are sexually explicit (Persona verbally so), but the subject is never treated in a salacious manner. In Bergman's world, sex is merely one aspect of life - a stance that made his films seem hugely sophisticated in Britain and America.

So did his clinical analysis of relationships. In films such as A Passion and Cries and Whispers, Bergman proved himself a master at portraying bleak marriages and unhappy, dysfunctional families. (He himself was married five times.)

His camera work was so up close and personal, one could see the pores in his actors' skin - an intimacy of shooting style that corresponded to an almost psychiatric dissection of the characters' plights.

In the late '60s, as a newly permissive society caused family units and marriages to start fraying at the seams, his work seemed timely. And he is one of the few filmmakers to grapple with the subject of old age (Autumn Sonata, Sarabande) with such a lack of sentimentality.
Inevitably, his influence spread. It is impossible, for example, to imagine that a director such as Mike Nichols could have made two very different but equally dark films as The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge without having come under Bergman's spell. In Britain, John Boorman, Mike Figgis and Terry Gilliam have acknowledged the long shadow he cast.

Much has been made of the fact that Bergman's work has been widely parodied, especially The Seventh Seal. This is perhaps because his work is so defiantly serious that smiling at it seems a logical response.

(He described his own sense of humour as "morbid".) But it is easier to spoof it than to emulate it seriously - as Woody Allen found to his cost. His film Love and Death contained a fine Bergman parody, but Interiors, his portrayal of a very Bergmanesque family falling apart, was rightly judged a disaster. Still, Bergman remained the filmmaker Allen aspires to be.
Not that this adulation affected him one bit. Bergman remained resolutely in Europe, and ignored lucrative offers to shoot elsewhere. (The Danish director Lars von Trier appears to have taken him as his model in this regard.)

One can scour Bergman's 1987 autobiography The Magic Lantern for a long time without coming across the word "Hollywood". It was not that he took a conscious stand against commercial mainstream movies; he simply never addressed himself to them, perhaps feeling he was in a different business altogether.

And so he was. Effectively, Bergman opened up the possibilities of different ways of making films that resonate even now. Would the indie American film movement exist today without him? Certainly not in its present form. The Sundance Film Festival, that hotbed of films about anomie and dysfunction, would be a very different place.

He remains a role model for directors intent on making films for reasons beyond a fast buck - a shining example of what stubbornness and higher aspirations can achieve.

Northern highlights: a Bergman top five

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Bergman's first international success is a sophisticated comedy of manners that shatters his reputation for unmitigated Nordic gloom. Set during a country-house weekend at the turn of the last century, it traces the romantic and sexual imbroglios of eight people around a fortysomething lawyer torn between his virginal young wife and sultry mistress.This elegant farce inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music and Woody Allen's best Bergman homage, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

A knight returns from the Crusades to find that his country is abandoned by God - or that, perhaps, it has abandoned God. Not just a stark vision of spiritual crisis, the film contains indelible images, such as Max von Sydow playing chess with the Grim Reaper, or a chain of silhouetted revellers performing a defiant dance of death on the horizon. Half a century old, The Seventh Seal was re-released here last week, and remains required viewing, now more than ever.

The Silence (1963)

A boy, his mother and dying aunt arrive by train in an unidentified city in Eastern Europe. They don't speak the language, tanks roll through the streets, and their hotel is spookily deserted. Fabulously shot by Bergman's regular photographer Sven Nyqvist, this was conceived as the third in a loose trilogy about religious faith (following Through A Glass Darkly and Winter Light), but it's also surreal, darkly comic and surprisingly erotic.
Persona (1966)

Dreamy: Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona

Bergman nudged towards the avant-garde with this dreamy essay about the fine line between illusion and reality, epitomised by the power struggle between a traumatised actress and her nurse whose identities imperceptibly merge in the course of a summer. It is also a film about filmmaking, with such distancing devices as sudden fragments of old silent movies, a shot of the camera crew, and the movie catching fire in the projector and running out at the end.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

This magnificent three-hour epic is a dazzling summation of Bergman's lifelong themes. Set in the early 20th century, it begins with a small boy's magical memories of Christmas in the bosom of his exuberant family, then moves into chilly denial following his mother's marriage to a bishop, before a triumphant, life-affirming fusion of the two worlds. It is the director's masterpiece."

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