By Jonathan Rosenbaum, a film critic for The Chicago Reader, is the author, most recently, of “Discovering Orson Welles” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 04/08/07):
THE first Ingmar Bergman movie I ever saw was “The Magician,” at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in the spring of 1960, when I was 17. The only way I could watch the film this week after the Swedish director’s death was on a remaindered DVD I bought in Paris. Like many of his films, “The Magician” hasn’t been widely available here for ages.
Nearly all the obituaries I’ve read take for granted Mr. Bergman’s stature as one of the uncontestable major figures in cinema — for his serious themes (the loss of religious faith and the waning of relationships), for his expert direction of actors (many of whom, like Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, he introduced and made famous) and for the hard severity of his images. If you Google “Ingmar Bergman” and “great,” you get almost six million hits.
Sometimes, though, the best indication of an artist’s continuing vitality is simply what of his work remains visible and is still talked about. The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard. His works are seen less often in retrospectives and on DVD than those of Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson — two master filmmakers widely scorned as boring and pretentious during Mr. Bergman’s heyday.
What Mr. Bergman had that those two masters lacked was the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits, as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.
The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere.
So where did the outsized reputation of Mr. Bergman come from? At least part of his initial appeal in the ’50s seems tied to the sexiness of his actresses and the more relaxed attitudes about nudity in Sweden; discovering the handsome look of a Bergman film also clearly meant encountering the beauty of Maj-Britt Nilsson and Harriet Andersson. And for younger cinephiles like myself, watching Mr. Bergman’s films at the same time I was first encountering directors like Mr. Godard and Alain Resnais, it was tempting to regard him as a kindred spirit, the vanguard of a Swedish New Wave.
It was a seductive error, but an error nevertheless. 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.
Curiously, theater is what claimed most of Mr. Bergman’s genius, but cinema is what claimed most of his reputation. He was drawn again and again to the 19th-century theater of Chekhov, Strindberg and Ibsen — these were his real roots — and based on the testimony of friends who saw some of his stage productions when they traveled to Brooklyn, there’s good reason to believe a comprehensive account of his prodigious theater work, his métier, is long overdue.
We remember the late Michelangelo Antonioni for his mysteriously vacant pockets of time, Andrei Tarkovsky for his elaborately choreographed long takes and Orson Welles for his canted angles and staccato editing. And we remember all three for their deep, multifaceted investments in the modern world — the same world Mr. Bergman seemed perpetually in retreat from.
Mr. Bergman simply used film (and later, video) to translate shadow-plays staged in his mind — relatively private psychodramas about his own relationships with his cast members, and metaphysical speculations that at best condensed the thoughts of a few philosophers rather than expanded them. Riddled with wounds inflicted by Mr. Bergman’s strict Lutheran upbringing and diverse spiritual doubts, these films are at times too self-absorbed to say much about the larger world, limiting the relevance that his champions often claim for them.
Above all, his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film. One of the most striking aspects of the use of digital video in “Saraband,” his last feature, is his seeming contempt for the medium apart from its usefulness as a simple recording device.
Yet what Mr. Bergman was interested in recording was pretty much the same tormented and tortured neurotic resentments, the same spite and even the same cruelty that can be traced back to his work of a half-century ago. Like John Ford, one of Mr. Bergman’s favorite directors — whose taste for silhouettes moving across horizons he shared — he would endlessly reshuffle his reliable troupe of players, his favorite sores and obsessions, like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope.
It’s strange to realize that his bitter and pinched emotions, once they were combined with excellent cinematography and superb acting, could become chic — and revered as emblems of higher purposes in cinema. But these emotions remain ugly ones, no matter how stylishly they might be served up.
Even stranger to me was the way he always resonated with New York audiences. The antiseptic, upscale look of Mr. Bergman’s interiors and his mainly blond, blue-eyed cast members became a brand to be adopted and emulated. (His artfully presented traumas became so respectable they could help to sell espresso in the lobby of the Fifth Avenue Cinema.) Mr. Bergman, famously, not only helped fuel the art-house aspirations of Woody Allen but Mr. Allen’s class aspirations as well — the dual yearnings ultimately becoming so intertwined that they seemed identical.
Despite all the compulsive superlatives offered up this week, Mr. Bergman’s star has faded, maybe because we’ve all grown up a little, as filmgoers and as socially aware adults. 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. And while Mr. Bergman’s films may have lost much of their pertinence, they will always remain landmarks in the history of taste.