Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ingmar Bergman, Ranked

(This is the second entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Stanley Kubrick.)

When Ingmar Bergman died in 2007 (on the same day as Michelangelo Antonioni) and buzz about the supposed "end of cinema" proliferated on the web and elsewhere, none of it registered much for me. It came at too early a stage in my cinephilia, and at that point I had only seen The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and maybe Winter Light. During this time I was drawn mostly to films with robust visual flair (Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Peter Greenaway, etc.), so I found Bergman's work interesting but mostly unremarkable, my admiration largely detached as if I was forcing myself to adhere to critical consensus. At a certain point a year or two later, after seeing Persona, his work suddenly clicked for me, and it inspired a marathon of Bergmania that left me stunned film after film. I came to the conclusion that Bergman was incomparably consistent and prolific, producing work year after year that shared very similar preoccupations (narrative, thematic, stylistic, and otherwise) without becoming redundant or stale. It seems odd to have paradoxically discovered cinema at a time when all sources told me it was dead, but that was the feeling I had, and the opinion I still hold today is that Bergman's contributions to humanity were no less significant than his contributions to the world of film.

I love and respect him for: his nakedness in dealing with the dark, private, often embarrassing aspects of human nature that so many artists skip over, his relentless bowing to the complexity and enormity of life on Earth, even when dipping into particularly narcissistic territory, his unmatched fascination with the human face, which is of course capable of being the most expressive cinematic element if treated as such, his almost guileless faith in symbols and allegories to express something inexpressible, his vision of cinema as the domain of dreams and spiritual therapy, his fondness for natural landscapes (both as physical facts of life and as manifestations of inner states), his understanding of the psychic dimensions of light and color, his utter lack of qualms about mingling different art forms (theater, music, painting) with cinema, his refusal to water down his sensibility in order to make genre films, understanding that a consistent worldview provides a genre in and of itself, his dogged professionalism and reputation as a leader in spite of his outspoken insecurities and demons, his ability to make every sound and silence count...the list, it goes without saying, could go on.

In putting together these rankings, I felt confident in the opinion I hold on exactly 14 of his films, many of which I revisited in the last few months, which explains the unusual tally. (For the films that do not grace this list, there will be a time when I either discover them or revisit them and feel comfortable canonizing them, at which point they will be added to this post.) Every film on the list below is capable of being reduced to hyperbole; they reflect minor gradations of greatness - that is, my 14th pick is only a couple notches "less great" than my #1 pick. In my humble opinion, almost all of them are "masterpieces," a word I rarely pull out from the cobwebs for fear that it might be an empty buzzword reflecting short-lived thrill, but I dare to say that's not the case here. Bergman has been an enduring part of both my cinematic education and my development as a human being, and I can do nothing but be true to my immensely fruitful relationship to his body of work.

1. Fanny and Alexander (1982): Christmas is, to me, the most wonderful time of the year for many reasons: for the way it brings together family, for the joy, for the winter season, for the food, for the color palette, for, well, everything. But there is also an air of mystery surrounding Christmas, particularly for a child trying to grapple with its strange folklore. No film in the history of cinema has managed to synthesize all of these qualities quite as organically and effortlessly as Fanny and Alexander, the first half of which presents the most sensually rapturous vision of the holiday ever presented in any medium. The merrymaking, however, gradually gives way to darkness and instability following a death in the family, forcing the young protagonists of the title into the ascetic mansion of their mother's new disciplinarian husband and sending the Bergman surrogate Alexander (Bertil Guve) into a prolonged confrontation with the cruel machinations of the world beyond his cozy, ornately designed home as well as the void beyond life. This is Bergman's most lush, emotionally varied film, a dreamlike coming-of-age tale that reveals great expanses of doom and despair beneath warm, familiar surfaces.

2. The Silence (1963): Rarely, perhaps never, has there been a more succinct expression of the fundamental, irrevocable disconnect between people than the final statement that graces The Silence: "words in a foreign language." It's simple, vague, and awkwardly incomplete but in the context of this primal, hallucinatory masterpiece, it's boundlessly expressive. Hostility, loneliness, pain, and indifference are all minor gradations of an enveloping bleakness here, but the film still feels exceptionally propulsive and moody despite the heaviness of its themes and the seeming redundancy of its expression. An abstract poem carved out of a surreal scenario, The Silence is the wise grandfather to Kubrick's The Shining and probably the scariest film Bergman ever made.

3. The Seventh Seal (1957): Iconic as it is, The Seventh Seal has never drowned under the weight of the many parodies and imitations it's spawned, or its own status as the quintessentially ponderous, death-obsessed European art film. Sure, the film is transfixed by the question of our mortality, but it's also ecstatic in its search for the bright spots of life: a snack of fresh strawberries on a warm Scandinavian summer evening, a vaudevillian showcase in the middle of a town reeling from fear of the Black Plague, and a recurring hallucination of the Virgin Mary in a sunny field all come to mind. In fact, the most lasting impression given off by the film is a sense of calm and tranquility; its contemplation of vast philosophical perplexities feels confident rather than anxious, its visions of the unknowable strikingly relaxed. I can imagine watching this film on the day I die and still finding a charm and level-headedness in it that can defeat the fear of our inevitable fate.

4. Persona (1966): To single out Persona as a particularly bold film in Bergman's filmography is to do an injustice to the rest of his work; for a director who consistently placed humiliated individuals (physically, spiritually, sexually, emotionally, and otherwise) at the center of his films, there's not a movie in the crop that's not audacious in one way or another. Persona, like all his films, is an honest outgrowth of Bergman at the time he made it. In it, the concerns are the perplexity of the concept of the self, what it means to be an "individual" in a world where the collective human race seems to have failed, and how the act of filmmaking may or may not be able to elucidate these mysteries. Bergman's treatment of these themes is enormously complex and adventurous; centering the film on a traumatized mute (Liv Ullmann) and her sensual caretaker (Bibi Andersson, in her best performance) who slowly, irrevocably blend into two halves of the same consciousness, the film reveals images of startling subtext and aesthetic mastery that have influenced dozens and dozens of art films since that have aimed to explore selfness, consciousness, subjectivity, etc.

5. The Passion of Anna (1969): Certain films resist words. Their images and rhythms are too primal to be sorted out through verbal or written language, but as critics, we try anyway. One of those films that might never be done full justice to in writing is The Passion of Anna, a vivid, mysterious, and utterly alive film where cinematic inspiration runs wild. One of Bergman's most aesthetically adventurous films, its color, compositional, sonic, and editing patterns evolve in a mercurial, almost stream-of-consciousness manner that is unique among his output, all ostensibly riffing on the musings of internalized and externalized violence, self-denial, fear of truth, and the cinematic medium that permeated the previous two films of his trilogy of small groups of people on lonely islands (Hour of the Wolf, Shame). Earthy, desolate browns give way to reds, greens, and blues so brilliant that it's as if they were painted on, the precisely choreographed camera of faces that is so familiar to Bergman will crumble to allow for spontaneous, jittery explosions of movement or the plaintive, Tarkovsky-esque time-image, and minute-long contemplations of a single face will be followed by destabilizing six-frame cuts and furious montages and superimpositions. It feels terribly inadequate to write about a work of art that speaks so eloquently on the level of the non-verbal.

6. Winter Light (1963): The stark, pared-down style that defined Bergman's Faith Trilogy reached its apex in Winter Light, a film whose relentless chilliness matches its core character drama of a Lutheran pastor named Tomas (Gunner Björnstrand, in one of his only roles to be drained of any trace of wit or sarcasm) struggling from a crisis of faith. Bergman and Nykvist were exquisitely restrained here, removing any and all flourishes from their visual language; a great deal of the film's look is defined by mid-to-long shots in unglamorous light, and key moments (such as, most memorably, the suicide of Björnstrand's friend and fellow sufferer (Max von Sydow) by icy rapids) are seen only from a detached perspective that renders the action insignificant. Form and content are interlocked beautifully, as Tomas' crisis is so paralyzing that he has lost the ability to detect the sensual, physical pleasures of life, leading to one of the most vicious verbal assaults in all of Bergman's cinema. In terms of raw spiritual anxiety, Winter Light's only match is Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest.

7. Cries and Whispers (1972): Confrontational is the first word that comes to my mind when thinking about Cries and Whispers. This is a film that forces the viewer to look straight into the slow process of suffering that leads to death, and often times the burden is so heavy that the actresses stare longingly into the lens as if wishing for at least the audience's tenuous barrier from the misery. Harriet Andersson, previously known for her lighter, more bawdy and seductive roles in Bergman's oeuvre, stuns as the clammy, pale victim of some violent form of cancer that her cold, apathetic sisters (Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin) must bear witness to. Against all odds, Bergman finds glimmers of beauty in this dark, cavernous abyss of a film, and its rather sudden, unassumingly peaceful ending is among my favorites in Bergman's cinema, suggesting that the moment of death is actually a return to a previous impression of happiness.

8. Wild Strawberries (1957): I think of Wild Strawberries in roughly the same vein as The Seventh Seal - that is, a very balanced film that deals with existential questions in a charming, lighthearted manner (by Bergman's standards) without losing sight of impenetrable darkness. Master silent film director Victor Sjöström is brilliantly cast as the chilly, anti-social medical professor reflecting on a life of empty rationality and faded social connections, who, on a trip to receive an honorary degree, suddenly recalls memories of fleeting joy. Some aspects of the film feel outdated and hokey (the flashback dissolves, the infrequent Bunuelian surrealism), but the earnestness is never less than deeply felt, and its lesson - that it's vital to remain tethered to constants in life like family and sensual pleasures - is never didactic.

9. Scenes from a Marriage (1973): Alongside Richard Linklater's double whammy of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, this is one of the finest, most comprehensive portrayals of a heterosexual romantic relationship in moving image history. Depicting ten years in the lives of a turbulent married couple, Bergman's first television series is uncompromising in its desire to reveal the totality of this relationship, from its blissful, erotic highs to its violent, harrowing lows. Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson were never better, and not just because Bergman and Nykvist emphasize their faces to such claustrophobic extent. These two performers live these roles, flickering nuances of emotion that are rarely witnessed on screen simply because so few directors allow the time Bergman takes to let scenes develop; by the end of the series, one imagines Ullmann and Josephson being unable to ever look at each other the same way. That it occupies the ninth slot of this list because of my own aesthetic biases (unshowy, fly-on-the-wall 16mm, justified as it is, generally just doesn't appeal to me as much as exacting precision) is deceiving; Scenes from a Marriage does exactly what great art should do: reveal our souls and force us to re-evaluate our ways of living.

10. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955): Many critics like to call Smiles of a Summer Night theatrical because it has snappy, verbose dialogue and revolves partly around the world of theater, but damn if it doesn't feature some of Bergman's most elaborately choreographed and poignant mise-en-scène. Though I can't hide my intense admiration for the cinematography of Sven Nykvist, I've always found the films Bergman made with Gunnar Fischer (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, Summer with Monika, and The Magician, among others) to possess particularly ethereal lighting and a playful, dense compositional sense. In this case, the pair use mirrors and decorative set elements to comment on the six central characters and their relationships to one another. As a fleet-footed comedy of manners that delivers barbed chuckles rather than outright hilarity, there's no surprise that it's also characteristically cynical, clinically picking apart the pettiness and masks of its ensemble to reveal tortured cores beneath. The narrative and stylistic precision here is astounding; shot for shot, cut for cut, Smiles of a Summer Night is rich with clever subtext.

11. Hour of the Wolf (1968): Hour of the Wolf plays as a complete emptying of the seemingly bottomless insecurities of Ingmar Bergman. The film throws its ideas and inspirations at the viewer, often times undigested, resulting in a mad funhouse of nightmarish imagery that is easily Bergman's most off-the-wall production. It starts out straightforward enough - again, Max von Sydow is on a windy island working out his artistic and social ailments, but instead of aiming for restraint in the presentation of these demons, Bergman lets things fizzle out into chaotic paranoia. Sometimes the images are kitschy (as in the sight of a man walking on the ceiling or eyeballs being placed into a wine glass), but other times the film stumbles upon the most singularly expressive shots and sequences in Bergman's work. Ultimately it's a dark, oppressive piece of filmmaking, a horrific journey into the headspace of a mentally tortured man.

12. Sawdust and Tinsel (1953): Bergman was married to journalist Gun Grut when he made Sawdust and Tinsel, but he was also in the midst of an passionate affair with Harriet Andersson, so, naturally, themes of loyalty and betrayal pervade the film. Andersson is at the film's center as the voluptuous temptress of traveling circus ringmaster Albert Johansson (Åke Grönberg), who's a rather unflattering director surrogate. Albert is having moral qualms about leaving his wife for life on the road (for Bergman, also known as a demanding production schedule) while also struggling with the temptations and erotic games played by Andersson. Despite the film's surface gloss (more multilayered mirror compositions and ostentatious set dressing) and solid three-act structure, it's not hard to miss the nakedly personal nature of what's onscreen. There's also a rough sentimentality to the film, a fascinating feeling of Bergman trying to account for his character's failings and give them a peaceful ending at any cost.

13. Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Generally I've pointed to Harriet Andersson's climactic psychological breakdown as the bomb that sinks an otherwise carefully developed movie, a histrionic fit that feels out of tune with the rest of the film's understatement, but upon revisiting, Andersson's frightening speech feels like the belated expression of all the unspoken tension quietly developing among the cast of characters throughout Through a Glass Darkly. In this light, her abysmal fear - of companionship, of the physical world, of God - is additionally spine-tingling. As a study of the fragile bonds of family - which are revealed to be just as tenuous a concept as sanity - this is a scorching, persuasively nihilistic film with riveting characters and typically on-point performances from Max von Sydow and Gunner Bjornstrand as well as Bergman one-timer Lars Passgård, a fledgling actor at the time who brought an acute sense of naïveté to a role that dealt subtly with mental sickness and incest.

14. Summer with Monika (1953): Made just prior to Sawdust and Tinsel, Summer with Monika is one of Bergman's many important transitional pieces, a film that doesn't loudly proclaim its maker's identity but still possesses hints of things to come. In fact, it focuses on certain motifs that rarely showed up in Bergman's oeuvre after they were dealt with here: an almost fatalistic use of nature as rhythmic punctuation, teenage rebellion, a neorealist focus on issues of the working class. Nevertheless, it all feels earnest and surprisingly mature; Bergman maintains a calculated distance even as the film veers towards potentially salacious territory (content that caused the movie to be marketed in America as an erotic exploitation flick). It's a film that is concerned very much with the bigger picture of the lives of its two young lovers - the sense of encroaching social responsibility spoiling spontaneous pleasure - but it also has a tremendous sense of tactility evident in its many evocative shots of the Swedish archipelago, Harriet Andersson's wind-whipped hair, and the drab streets of the couple's seaside town.

15. Saraband (2003): Now to the most recent film on this list, and Bergman's final farewell to cinema: 2003's stark, deeply gloomy Saraband. The film was Bergman's only digital venture (apparently proudly so, as he insisted that it be publicly screened in HD), and the uncanny intimacy of video is a discomfiting shift after a career spent ascending to the height of 35mm excellence. This is not to suggest that I wished creative stagnation upon Bergman, or that I wasn't willing to accept his experimentation, but part of me would have loved to have seen him integrate the format earlier and refine it. Here, the sudden shift seems to have brought about other oddities as well, perhaps resulting from a change of workflow: tonal friction (as in the film's misguided attempts at comedy), clumsy camera moves, and distinctly synthetic-looking production design. The scenario, in which a geriatric Johan and Marianne from Scenes from a Marriage reunite after decades and witness, somewhat passively, as Johan's son (Börje Ahlstedt) and granddaughter (newcomer Julia Dufvenius, who has a perfectly Bergmanesque face and resembles a more melancholic Bibi Andersson) traverse through emotional turmoil, is a bit dull and predictable as well, though it does offer some passages of startling emotional directness that seem to speak very candidly to Bergman's own expiring position in life.

To be continued...

Further Reading:

-Loren Rosson's list over at The Busybody


Loren Rosson III said...

Bergman's impact on you is clearly massive, Carson, and this is a great list, for all our differences in ranking. The only one I feel guilty about is Passion of Anna which I need to give another shot. I was in a foul mood when watching it, annoyed by the derivative feel after all the other Faro Island pieces, and completely turned off by the interrupting interviews with the actors. That blinded me, no doubt, to its beauty.

Loren Rosson III said...

This is my favorite part of your commentary, regarding Seventh Seal:

"I can imagine watching this film on the day I die and still finding a charm and level-headedness in it that can defeat the fear of our inevitable fate."

Ditto for me.

Jon said...

Carson this was a very nice read. Enjoyed your reflections on everything Bergman. Bergman is my favorite director, hands down. I also went through an odd transition going from a detached perspective on his work to be being completely in love with it. My transition film was The Virgin Spring. Once I saw that one, for some reason things started clicking. Then I saw The Silence and Persona and have never looked back.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks, Loren. You didn't expect to see The Seventh Seal this high, did you?

Also, just writing and talking about these films makes me want to watch them all again, which gives an idea of how much I love his work.

Carson Lund said...

Jon, when pressed for a quick answer, he's my favorite director as well. I haven't seen The Virgin Spring in a long time - hence its absence from this list - but I'll have to revisit it, especially since it's so high on Loren's list.

Also, for any and all commenters, feel free to post your own brief top 5's or 10's in the comment section.

Loren Rosson III said...

You didn't expect to see The Seventh Seal this high, did you?

No, I certainly didn't, and I'm not sure why. But I see I nailed your 1, 2, and 4 positions exactly otherwise. And delighted that we agree on The Silence being the best of the faith-trilogy.

I still say Persona is bold even for Bergman -- and it's certainly a dramatic turning point for certain styles and themes -- and while a gem, doesn't impress me as much the less-praised follow-ups, Shame and Hour of the Wolf.

just writing and talking about these films makes me want to watch them all again

I felt the same way, in fact I plan to watch some over the next few weeks, Passion of Anna being one. You should probably revisit Shame. And as I mentioned before, the next time you watch Fanny and Alexander, be sure it's the full version originally shot for TV; there's just no reason to settle for anything less.