When I was in college, I was already familiar with the major Bergman films – The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence – through various film society screenings. I spent a good part of one summer attending a retrospective of Bergman’s work at MoMA, which enabled me to fill in all the gaps in Bergman’s oeuvre. Seeing a complete retrospective, however, diminished rather than enhanced Bergman’s accomplishment for me. The early works highlighted his background in theater; they lacked a strong sense of visual style.
There is no doubt that in many ways Bergmann epitomized art cinema in the ’60s. As a college student during the Vietnam War era, I could relate to all the existential torments of his characters – it very much reflected my own psyche. Existentialism was very much in vogue. I read Sartre and Camus, and found Bergman to be grappling with similar issues. Even his questions about God seemed relevant to Harvey Cox and the “Death of God” movement prevalent at the time. Bergman was definitely a part of the zeitgeist. Despite this, I was often disturbed by the overly symbolic nature of his more mature work, which was parodied in the film De Düva: The Dove (1968). In fact, when it came right down to it, the only film of Bergman that I absolutely loved was Persona. His other work gradually seemed to pall in comparison.
As a graduate film student, I worked as the department projectionist, and had the misfortune of having to project The Seventh Seal eleven times. A knight playing chess with the figure of death during a terrible plague – this really seemed so utterly obvious and over the top, especially with each new viewing. All the weaknesses in his work became apparent. It caused me to lose interest in Bergman. While annotating the history of Film Culture as an assistant on a research project, I happened to read Manny Farber’s classic article, “White Elephant Art Versus Termite Art.” Farber never really mentions Bergman, but instead attacks the pretensions of European art cinema as represented by Tony Richardson, Truffaut, and Antonioni. About Antonioni, Manny Farber writes: “Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” That really sums up my feelings about most of Bergman’s work with the exception of Persona.
I saw Cries and Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage and later Fanny and Alexander, but my original passion for Bergman never returned, and his subsequent tax problems and self-imposed exile seemed a bit overly melodramatic from a distance. Ingmar Bergman, however, has come back to me through the work of filmmakers I greatly admire. Persona is an obvious influence on David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, and the work of Finnish filmmaker and installation artist, Eija Liisa Ahtila, whose psychodramas focus on the interior lives of women at the breaking point, could be read as a long homage to Bergman. For me, Bergman’s death yesterday is a lot like learning that an old college friend has passed away. There are really fond memories, and I will never forget the pleasures and excitement of watching his films throughout the 1960s. They were really important to me at the time. I regret that, for whatever reason, I somehow lost touch with his films. Maybe this event will prompt me to take another look.