Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, RIP

I am tremendously sad to read of Ingmar Bergman's death.

For my money, Bergman was the greatest director in the history of cinema. I know he's unfashionable today. He didn't have the cool, postmodern irony that modern cinephiles seem to love. He didn't pioneer hipster violence like his contemporaries in the French New Wave. He didn't play with anything goes sexuality and gender identity like Fellini. His movies could be depressing. He made some pretty gloomy art. There is some good analysis of the disturbing nature of Bergman's decline in stature here.

Who cares. Bergman made films exploring the deepest questions humans have to face. Not only did he mine the emotional hell of his own life for amazing films about relationships like Scenes from a Marriage or the films he wrote but did not direct about his parents, he delved deep into the meaning of life. Bergman grew up as the son of a prominent Lutheran minister in Sweden. Like many Lutherans, Erik Bergman was cold to his son emotionally and this profoundly affected young Ingmar. Bergman soon gave up his father's religion and came to what I think is a deeply honest discovery: the only meaning of life is life.

I think this is key to understanding Bergman's films and is an important key to unlock why so many Americans aren't into him today. Bergman gave up on God. A lot of Americans especially are not so willing to do that. At his best, his work was not a depressing look at existence, but rather a glorious mirror his own understanding of humanity. The next to last scene in The Seventh Seal, which is my favorite film ever made, demonstrates this. The knight is desperate to understand the meaning of life before he dies. But his squire, played excellently by Gunnar Bjornstrand, tells him that his search his hopeless. However, he says, "But feel, to the very end, the triumph of being alive!" The professor in Wild Strawberries realizes this as well. He has been emotionally dead to the world but as he ages, he knows he has wronged others and has not truly lived.

Isn't Bergman really telling us to live. He struggled with the very issues he rejected of course. He couldn't live how he preached either. Take this speech from the knight in The Seventh Seal:

"Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one's senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can't I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way - despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can't be rid of?"

Ingmar Bergman couldn't kill the God inside him. But he dealt with it the best way he knew how, by turning his inner torture into beautiful art.

When my friend died last week, I turned to The Seventh Seal as a way to help myself mourn him and deal with the inevitably and sadness of death, while still being ecstatic at the fact of being alive. Scenes from a Marriage helped me get through a divorce. Tonight, I will watch Cries and Whispers, both because of the way it combines Bergman's themes of death and difficult personal relationships, but also because it is a perfect film to remember Bergman's greatness. The look, the actors, the story, the dialogue.

I will miss never again having the opportunity to watch a new Ingmar Bergman film.