Sunday, August 12, 2007

Bergman: In search of 'that secretive light'

When acclaimed filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman, died on July 30th, some remarkable obituaries were written in his memory.

I love reading well-written obits. And, by far, The Economist, in my humble opinion and within the limited range of my reading, generally does the best job in this field.

Here's how The Economist paid its homage to the great filmmaker:

Critics wondered whether there was a general message in his films. Mr Bergman sometimes denied he had one. Yet he usually found a saving moment in the misery: a selfless communication, in word or gesture, between two human beings. At the end of “Wild Strawberries” the hero, an aged professor, is belatedly reconciled with his family and his past. As the scene was filmed, Mr Bergman noted, the old actor's face “shone with secretive light as if reflected from another reality”. That secretive light, or hidden love, was just what the director had been searching for.

Film critic David Thomson beautifully analyzes Bergman's life and work in this piece in The Guardian (I love it when he brings up this little but significant fact: Wild Strawberries is a great film, struggling to reconcile inward failure and outward success--that itself is such a deeply thought remark):

The way Bergman’s work and Bergman’s pain were in equation struck me early on and almost by chance. In 1957, he made Wild Strawberries, in which a great man, a professor, is going to a kind of film festival to be honoured for his career. He is Isak Borg, played by Victor Sjostrom (the pioneering figure in the Swedish film industry and Bergman’s mentor). But as he travels toward his honorary degree, so Borg dreams and remembers and feels shocked by his private failures. We can see that he is a cold man attracted to the warmth of others - and I think Bergman saw himself the same way.

Wild Strawberries is a great film, struggling to reconcile inward failure and outward success. I realised that it was the same “story” as a film I had seen two years earlier - Citizen Kane, in which an old man dies and has his last thoughts filled by the same grim debate: was I wretched in all my glory? Maybe all great films say the same thing.

And here's an appraisal of the filmmaker by another admired filmmaker, Shyam Benegal:

As a filmmaker what I have appreciated deeply are his brilliant scripts. He was an exceptional storyteller, his films always had very strong, powerful narratives. When I heard of the news of his passing away, I picked up The Seventh Seal (in which a knight plays a game of chess with Death) to watch it all over again. It is terribly powerful, philosophical and so wonderfully shot with such strong imagery.

He had pretty strong views on films and filmmakers. Film for him was something magical—film as dream, film as music. "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul," he said. The act of making a film, to him, was like working out your dreams. He loved Andrei Tarkovsky for that reason. Bergman created dreamscapes on celluloid. It's not as though the characters were a dream, they were all very real and rooted but engaged in existential questioning. He was also appreciative of Luis Bunuel, Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. In his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, Bergman wrote that "a film is not a document, it is a dream". He looked up to Tarkovsky because he felt "he moves with naturalness in a room of dreams". Bergman thought that he himself could "creep inside" that room but only a few times. He was very critical of Antonioni. He felt Antonioni aspired to be in the same room of dreams but got "suffocated by his own tediousness".

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