Bergman's Twilight Room of the Soul

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. A little twitch in our optic nerve, a shock effect: twenty-four illuminated frames in a second, darkness in between, the optic nerve incapable of registering darkness. At the editing table, when I run the trip of film through, frame by frame, I still feel that dizzy sense of magic of my childhood: in the darkness of the wardrobe, I slowly wind one frame after another, see almost imperceptible changes, wind faster -- a movement.
-- Ingmar Bergman, Laterna Magica (1987); The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography as translated by Joan Tate (1988)

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Swedish director Ingmar Bergman died Monday, as did Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, and their obituaries were as much eulogies for the revered directors as laments for the state of cinema today. I'll pile on, with the old-farty, secretly satisfied grumpiness that is the critic's default emotional setting, and say that films today seem to have less ambitious goals than they did in years past. I'm not sure why exactly. Is it postmodern erosion of the notion of universal questions? Or are we at the next step in the progression from religious art, to philosophical art to our art of a splintered world?

Whatever the case, at their best, films now are small gems, a peek through a keyhole. At their worst, they are dragged down by partisanship, sequel-itis, and fracture -- our contemporary obsessions with conspiracy and sound-bites provide more modest revelations than those wrought by the earlier cinematic motivations of religious awe or philosophical doubt.

Perhaps Antonioni and Bergman would find it ironic that their deaths would link them, considering their famous distaste for each other. But they had more in common than they would have liked to admit -- they were unabashed peddlers of the philosophical, ponderers of the meaning of existence and threadbare faith, although in two opposing modes. Antonioni's films were centered on tableaux -- he was an architect of alienation, and his long takes of landscapes speak of the vast distances between his characters. His aestheticized ennui has inspired countless filmmakers, particularly Asian ones -- Jia Zhangke, Wong Kar-Wai, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien owe much of their melancholy to the maestro, as his adherents call him.

Bergman, however, was perhaps more obsessed with fusion than dissolution. His films visit and revisit the terror of merger -- and the obstinate isolation of the self -- with a restless rhythm. In a movement counter to that of Antonioni, he zoomed in so intently on his actors' faces that they become immense, alien landscapes. With its fierce acting and high drama, his work seems like silent film... with speech. Where Antonioni ran cool, Bergman was overheated -- so much so that in one of his finest works, Persona, the film itself seems to burst into flames.

Bergman is not so en vogue now, although you wouldn't be able to tell from all the encomia in the air. His characters are too hair-rendingly emotional about the big imponderables. Antonioni's work focused on these, too, but took a tone more in keeping with our contemporary esteem for ironic detachment.

Because watching Bergman is such a personal affair, it seems appropriate that he would dominate this very piece, as  I write it. Being slighted would result in a Dies Irae from Bergman, and perhaps a locked door from Antonioni. I'll take the latter, not only out of fear, but because Bergman led to Antonioni for me as a film-lover -- the Swede was my first real introduction to more abstract film.

I already had a passing acquaintance with one of his characters, like many other filmgoers of a certain age. We know Death well. Ghoulishly garbed and white-faced, he looks like a mime who has come to beat you down in the back alley of your dreams. He also plays chess and has stinky feet -- and we learned all this from Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.

I didn't figure out that the figure of Death was a cinematic quotation from The Seventh Seal until I watched much of Bergman's oeuvre in college. For someone who grew up on the offerings of the Milan (Illinois) Showcase Theater, surrounded by cornfields and cows and silos, Bergman was a shock. Ticking clocks! Holy non-linearity! All that shrieking!

Persona was a particular pill. I didn't get it, but instead of being intrigued, I was irritated. I preferred the rich, humanistic dream symbolism of Wild Strawberries, the relatively straightforward narratives of Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. I reacted to Persona's visual freak-outs, the violent rupture of idyll, and the obstinate blurring of storyline with fierce eye-rolling and a crack about some of the scenes' resemblance to a Calvin Klein ad.

In homage to Bergman's preoccupation with mortality and time (tick tick tick!), I decided to revisit Persona this week. And while I still don't get it, I appreciate it much more. A warped pas de deux between young nurse Alma and her charge, the willfully mute actress Elisabet, the film confounds narrative and elides dream and reality, past and present. It's a perverse blurring, but also a purposeful one, for Bergman seems to tear at the limitations of representation itself.

He brackets the film with shots of a carbon-arc lamp, used in film projectors of the time, a portion of leader, and a slew of images -- a cartoon, corpses, an erect penis, a hand writhing as a spike is hammered through it. This is a conjured film, the meta-frame seems to say, not a piece of reality captured in the objective eye of the camera.

Alma fills the vacuum of silence with increasingly personal revelations, until she faces a psychic betrayal -- and here Bergman out-Brechts Brecht by shattering the image of Alma's face like a mirror, and then creates the effect of burning through the film entirely. The film itself has melted from the heat of its own images, from its attempt to depict the unknowable -- the face behind the mask, the interior of a person that remains hidden no matter how vampiric the merger.

Persona is a strange Möbius strip. It seems Bergman attempted to depict not only the psychological fusion of two women, but the act of seeing, or subjectivity, itself. The film features titanic close-ups of his actresses' faces. At one point, Bergman melds them together to make an awful, asymmetrical image, and forces it on his own Elisabet -- us, the silent observers.

As Persona suggests, watching a lot of Bergman films is a bit like snacking on glass, and his style (the delirious Mozartian shenanigans of Smiles of Summer Night and his adaptation of that composer's The Magic Flute aside) is thumpingly humorless and prone to parody, as Bill and Ted could attest. But as dated as it may seem, his work is unforgettable for its immense ambition and its mystery, the sense of audacious irresolution that so irked me before about Persona, and compels me now. Bergman offered little reassurance when he questioned the meaning of existence, and depicted the silence or malevolence of god -- save for glimpses of human love and comfort.

Like any other great filmmaker, Bergman drew on contradictions. He exploited our eyes' inability to perceive darkness in between frames to show emotional darkness, ran a slurry of stills and faces together to create the grand illusion of movement and merger. But Bergman's films are paradoxical in yet another way. His work is almost toxically solipsistic -- not surprising, considering one of the filmmaker's first memories was of being locked in a dark closet for hours by his stern minister father. His films drag us, too, into the night of his mind, the darkened vault of the theater, and confronts us with the unknowable reasons of why we suffer -- a subjective mining of a universal condition.

"I hope I never get so old I get religious," Bergman once said. It was a caustic wish, but he was never one for answers, including those offered by faith. Perhaps the best way to think of his last real-life scenes is to remember the fateful chess match between Death and the doubt-wracked knight in The Seventh Seal. The knight knows he will lose -- Death is a cheater who has never been defeated. But all that's left to do is play the game, step by step, to buy the rest of us more time.

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