I must admit, the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni have stifled me. Strange in a way considering they both lived incredibly productive and long lives, and yet, on some level, I feel as though I lost two of my grandfathers, and if not grandfathers, then favorite uncles who were very different but gave me so much. The Prince of Passion and The Prince of Cool...
I've read a lot about these two over the last couple days, a lot of recollections, synopses, surveys, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc...And, well, they've been interesting, and have said mostly nothing that I can relate to on any personal level. They use words like "trailblazer, " "personal," and "art film," but mostly, I don't know, it's all heartfelt and most of it could probably be said about any of the masters of that era. I don't want to be unduly harsh as I'm still trying to get my head around their deaths, but I can only say that for those who don't like either/or, one or the both, it took me a long, long time to fall in love with both, only in the last couple of years, but when I did I knew it was forever.
I didn't "get" Bergman until about seven years ago. I had tried to watch some of his films like Persona and could never be patient enough to sit through it...Like a lot of people who have and continue to shit on Bergman's work, I found it pretentious, boring even torturous. The only reason I kept trying is because some filmmakers I liked sang his praises. I was ready to all but write him off when back in the winter of 2000 Sherman Torgan decided to show "Fanny and Alexander" over two nights at the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles. Fanny and Alexander, what was that? I had never even heard of it? "What the Hell?" I figured I'd give Bergman one more try and if I couldn't stand it I'd walk out and never look back at the guy again, write him off as another critical fraud.
And then I was sitting in that run down, half empty theatre with a couple of friends, the lights went dark, I heard those first notes of Schumann's mournful violin, and the film faded in on young Alexander Ekdahl as he moved through his empty house, calling for his family who were not there, and, perhaps, never really would be.
Was this a dream? Was it reality? As I continued to experience the film unfolding, instead of this question of reality vs. dreams being answered, it was only amplified and reinforced up until the last sliver of the movie, where Alexander's grandmother reads from the introduction of Strindberg's "Dream Play," for the last time calling into question all we have seen and felt, and yet making the work even more heartfelt in the questioning, for isn't this the eternal question of life?
"Merrily, merrily, merrily - Life is but a dream..."
Has there ever been a better ending to a film that wasn't "clever?"
That was it. It was over for me. I looked at my friends and I don't know...I was awe struck, even if to them it was just another film: Mostly okay, long, some of the characters, especially the reverand, too much...But me, I was so enraptured and related so fully to Alexander's imagination that I returned the next night to sit through the 3 plus hours again just to make sure I hadn't fooled myself. I was, of course, even more enthralled. After that night I crawled back over Bergman's work as best I could, slowly trying to see every one of his films I could get my hands on, and even more slowly trying to understand all that I missed. This was before DVD so a lot of the films were very poor pan and scans I was watching on a twelve inch TV, but when I turned out the lights the mystery and the magic endured the circumstances of my poverty.
Somewhere along the way I became convinced that films were art and that I wanted to be a part of it. (I'm still trying to figure out if this was the right decisions or if I really did arrive too late for the party.)
So what was the the essence of life distilled into Bergman's films? All of this has been well gone over by the critics over the years: blood, sugar, sex, magic (as the Red Hot Chili Peppars once so aptly put it,) not to mention loyalty, betrayal, adultery, death, love, intimacy and everything else a human being can experience. All of it there. All of it sculpted out and so specific in the small world he created. All of it waiting to be discovered again and again.
Memory: While their father is dying Fanny and Alexander are in the kitchen with one of the old maids. She is writing a letter to her friend in China, reciting it out loud while the other maid is not listening, caught up in her own world. Finally, the old maid finishes writing the letter, slips it into it's envelope and hands it to Fanny. Fanny proceeds to lick the ends of the envelope and hands it back to the maid who seals it. I swear I've had this same moment with my own grandmother. Just that small nothing moment so carefully observed, so real, so true...Only someone who knows can create a detail like that.
Then, in 2005 The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had a Begman festival. Every Friday and Saturday night for a month they showed Bergman's films from the Late 1950's to 1960's...To see films like Shame, Persona, The Magician on that beautiful screen in all their glory...The one that really did me in was The Virgin Spring. The Virgin Spring. God, The Virgin Spring. A film Bergman later renounced for it's ending, he believed it was false, the smallest redemption offering too much light. But to me a masterpiece of acting, writing...humanity. I wept at the end. Speechless. No other film, let alone work of art has ever done to me what that dark little film did to me. Smiles of a Summer Night? I laughed as hard at this film as I did at Caddy Shack it was so funny and true. Shame? One of the best war films I've ever seen? Persona...I have never, ever seen anything like it in my life, and yet, we all feel we've lived those moment, been the one who refuses to speak as well as the one who cannot stop speaking...
And, like a gift, these films came to me at a particularly poignant time of my life, a time where I was wounded and open, suffering a destruction of my own making in the sense that I felt I was living my own Bergman tragedy, all be it without the subtitles, but with just as beautiful and passionate a woman as any found in his films. Those films were terrible and comforting, I don't know how both at the same time, but that is magic.
I could dive into the culture war, modernism vs. post...But it all seems silly to me. One either believes art can be redemptive to the spirit or one doesn't. Call me a modernist, a sentimentalist, call me any ist you want, but I believe there is a spirit and the greatest art of any era simultaneously proves it and continues to redeem it, if you're open to such an experience.
Bergman was a magician. It's the only word. A magician of humanity.
I'll try to write more about Antonioni in the next couple days...But for now I'll leave it with this:
Ingmar Bergman, thank you, thank you, thank you...Forever.