Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Great Transition: Week 2

Amidst snow, high winds, and dropping temperatures, it was delightful to see such a large audience for this week’s installment of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s film class/lecture series. Rosenbaum was not in attendance, instead enlisting the aid of Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Colombia professor and co-author of Rosenbaum’s book on Abbas Kiarostami. The film this week – Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Rosenbaum mentioned in his last lecture his desire to show a “puzzle” film, and that his first choice, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad was unavailable (a fully restored print will be opening sometime in the near future for a full run at the Music Box Theatre). So, instead of being stunned once again by Resnais’ masterpiece, we are left with Bergman’s pretentious, lugubrious foray into dull psycho-analysis and pseudo-avant-garde visual tropes.

Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who has stopped speaking (in mid-performance no less!). Alma (Bibi Andersson) is the nurse assigned to care for her, and perhaps coax Elisabeth out of her self imposed vow of silence. Several sequences show Elisabeth in her room, viewing news reel footage of a self immolating monk in protest of the Vietnam war, a clichéd (and border line offensive) short hand: she’s withdrawing from the horrors of the world around – get it? In the meantime, Bergman begins filming the actresses in extreme close up, organizing profiles of their faces into compositions baring more than a passing resemblance to Janus, the guardian god of portals, patron of beginnings and endings. In the end, it is suggested that Alma might be crazy and that Elisabeth doesn’t exist at all. It is also hinted that they may in fact be the same person, or might be switching personalities. Sound intriguing? It’s not, unfortunately.

I was surprised to see that Rosenbaum had programmed a Bergman film (twice, in fact – he screened Bergman’s The Magician last year). In what became a fairly large scandal, at least amongst hardcore cinephiles, Rosenbaum published an op-ed piece in the New York Times shortly after Bergman’s death last summer entitled “Notes From an Overrated Career”. The uproar, whether one agreed with the content of the article or not, surely stemmed from the unfortunate, and somewhat distasteful, timing. You can check out the original piece if you visit the Chicago Reader blog. For my purposes, a couple of segments should give you the gist of Rosenbaum’s arguments:

What Mr. Bergman had that those two masters lacked was the power to entertain — which often meant a reluctance to challenge conventional film-going habits, as Dreyer did when constructing his peculiar form of movie space and Bresson did when constructing his peculiar form of movie acting.


The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily than theirs — his fluid storytelling and deftness in handling actresses, comparable to the skills of a Hollywood professional like George Cukor — also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, by sheer coincidence I happened to come across Andrew Sarris’ original review of the film in a Village Voice compilation. He suggests some pertinent criticisms as well:

Bergman has turned out twent-seven feature films without even beginning to suggest an instinctive affinity to the medium. His stylistic flourishes have always been strained, derivative, archly symbolic, or obtusely obscure. Some reviewers have indicated that more than one viewing is necessary to understand Persona fully. I doubt it.

I take Bergman’s lack of an affinity to the medium to stem from his theatrical background, which, it should be noted, he returned to more frequently towards the late period of his career. Also, his two most famous late films, Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny & Alexander, were originally made for television, a medium that favors story and acting over visual acumen.

Widely considered to among the greatest filmmakers of all time, it would seem useful to categorize what it is that Bergman is actually doing in his films. Bresson and Dreyer reinvented cinematic form in their pursuit of the ineffable; Godard is a romantic schizophrenic drunk on the endless possibilities of the medium he is obsessed with; Resnais was (and still is, to a lesser degree) a time traveler concerned with our ability to discern the past through film; Antonioni created new visual metaphors while chronicling the spiritual torpor of an increasingly industrialized urban society; Tarkovsky mixed his apocalyptic spiritual inquiry with a special relationship to the hard physicality of our world. So, what to make of Bergman? He seems to me a placid director, almost comical in his ability to simply place a camera in front of an actors face and just let it roll. He seems to have no interest in form, editing patterns, staging of a cinematic kind (that is, the body moving purposefully in tandem with the camera in space) as opposed to a theatrical kind (the same formulation as above, but minus the camera). It might be too easy to simply suggest that he was a man of the theatre, but it would seem to be the case.

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