Monday, July 30, 2007

The dying of a serious, somber light

Summary: Ingmar Bergman died Monday at the age of 89. It's not often that one can write words such as the following, but they certainly apply now: A genius has passed from the scene, having set a standard in both intention and achievement that movies seldom have matched.

I discovered Ingmar Bergman by accident when a theater near where I grew up in New Jersey converted from general to art-house fare. Proximity and a quirk of fate led me to movies I might otherwise have missed, and also began what became a life-long preoccupation.

In a very real sense, Bergman was the first director who convinced me that movies could be serious and go about it in ways that I'd never seen before. Movies could deal with the ways in which fear of death can induce moral paralysis or they could show how relationships can become breeding grounds for frustration, guilt and smoldering rage. And if all that weren't enough, Bergman had both distinctive style and versatility: He could hone in on near-suffocating intimacy or float toward Olympian detachment.

I wouldn't swear to it, but it's possible that the first Bergman movie I saw was 1960's "The Virgin Spring." This shocking story, set during the 14th century, told of a brutal rape, and it gave Bergman an opportunity to probe the depths of human degradation and fury.

I don't know if I could have articulated it at the time, but I'm sure it was clear to me that Bergman was more than a filmmaker. He was an artist, a man of stern vision and disquieting intelligence. He was also something else: fearless. Bergman never was one to embrace happy endings or facile consolations. Even a generously entertaining movie such as 1986's "Fanny and Alexander" contained its share of quiet torment.

In its Bergman obituary, The New York Times quoted the great French director Bertrand Tavernier, who's also a film enthusiast and scholar. Tavernier said Bergman was "the first to bring metaphysics -- religion, death, existentialism -- to the screen. But the best of Bergman is the way he speaks of women, of the relationship between men and women."

No doubt. "Scenes From a Marriage" (1974), which starred Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, stands as one of the most intricate and carefully observed portraits of a long-standing relationship in the history of cinema -- or any other medium for that matter.

Like many great directors, Bergman had actors with whom he seemed to have a special rapport: Max Von Sydow, Ullmann, Josephson and Bibi Andersson among them. The scene in which Von Sydow (as a knight) plays chess with the devil (from 1957's "The Seventh Seal") has become an emblem of somber, allegorical cinema in which the deepest questions are mercilessly probed.

Bergman made comedies such as 1955's "Smiles of a Summer Night," and his work wasn't without humor, but for me, Bergman's genius had to do with his ability to be both theatrical and philosophical at the same time. As a man of the theater as well as the camera, he understood the power of the stage and he wasn't afraid to use the screen as a new kind of stage. He could whisper in your ear or tower over you.

As for the rest: Bergman was Swedish. His father was a Lutheran preacher. His mother was emotionally unstable. He had multiple marriages. He made 10 films with Ullmann and had a child with her. He directed well into his 80s.

Bergman was a bona fide master. That means he will be written about, discussed and considered as long as there are movies and people who take them seriously.

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