Ingmar Bergman Loses at Chess

death-seventh seal

Ingmar Bergman, Swedish Film genius (no relation to Ingrid), died on Monday.

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire. The nearest movie theater was 10 miles away in Exeter – the Ioka. It showed things like Beach Blanket Bingo and Jerry Lewis movies in b&w. Foreign films and “art films” were little more than rumors. In high school, boys whispered with bright eyes and drooling lips that foreign movies had naked girls in them – lots and lots of naked girls. It was a powerful draw at 16. The closest we could get in the puritanical US, still reeling from the sexually suppressed and frightened 50’s, was Ursula Andress in a skimpy bikini (Dr No).

We made the most of it.

Then I graduated high school and got a scholarship as a day student at UNH for a year. At the time I wasn’t exactly a film buff. I liked movies and watched them on tv but I didn’t know anything about them. I thought they were fun but that was as far as it went.

The first week I was at the university and scoping out my new territory, I discovered, just off-campus and down a side street that wasn’t much more than an alley, a marquee. A movie house! And within walking distance of the campus (which isn’t really saying much – Durham is so small practically everything is in walking distance). Cool.

I remember being about to walk away when it dawned on me to actually read the marquee to see what was playing. To my surprise, it wasn’t Beach Party or the latest James Bond. It was Duck Soup, my favorite Marx Bros movie, and it was playing with The Maltese Falcon. Groucho and Bogart on a big screen with no commercial interruptions? That was something I’d never hoped to see. I’d never heard of movie houses that showed old films. I was supposed to be on my way home but as you can probably imagine, I dumped that plan and went inside.

From that point on, I was hooked. I went every time they changed the program, and sometimes I went to the same program several times. It wasn’t until January, I think, that they showed their first foreign film, Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. The title intrigued me – American films didn’t go in for obscure Biblical references or, indeed, have any panache about them whatever – though I didn’t recognize it (I quit going to church several years before and had never bothered to read the Bible), so I went on the chance there would be naked women in it.

There weren’t. What there was, was passion and intensity at a level I didn’t know movies were capable of. Everything about it was a revelation, from the performances to the camera work to the grainy film stock that gave it the look of a living nightmare. Most revolutionary of all, to me, was the script.

I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Through a Glass Darkly showcased Bergman’s favorite theme – that love is God, and that to be without love is to be stranded in a meaningless life – though that’s not what I got from it. What chiefly bowled me over was Bergman’s fascination with relationships and how they affected each other, particularly when they failed.

through-5c TAGD takes place in an isolated house on a fierce northern island cut off from everything. There are only four characters and they have no one but each other to rely on. Karin (Harriet Andersson) has just been released from a mental institution after a serious nervous breakdown and her father (Gunnar Bjornstrand) has brought her there to recover. Her husband (Max von Sydow) and younger brother come along for the ride, and the four of them try to deal with each other cooped up in this claustrophobic setting with no outside distractions.

A shallow as it might sound, what I responded to so forcefully was the similarity of the tensions, hypocrisy, and disconnections that were hallmarks of my own “family vacations” with the ones TAGD showed with such brutal clarity. The major difference – and a most significant one, to me – was that Bergman’s people were trying and failing, miserably, to connect with each other where my family worked rather desperately to deny that connections didn’t already exist. We were frozen in attitudes that declared the trappings of familial connections, the illusion of them, and fought like tigers the reality that we were virtual strangers who knew nothing whatever about each other as individuals. To admit that disconnection would be to admit our failure as a family, and for both my parents, that was an unacceptable option.

It was from Bergman’s TAGD that I learned, for the first time, that film could deal with truth directly rather than dealing with it through the guarded lens of fantasy as American films did – when they attempted it at all. It had never before occurred to me that movies could have such power, such meaning. There was nothing allegorical about TAGD as far as I was concerned. It was a faithful representation, on screen, of my life, and it changed forever how I thought of films, how I watched them, and what I expected from them.

As profound as that influence was, however, it was only the beginning. I devoured Bergman – Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, Hour of the Wolf – and then went on devouring: Fellini, Rosselini, Truffaut, Eisenstein, Lyndsey Anderson, Karel Reisz, etc etc, slowly working my way around to little known Americans like Clarence Brown and old-time master Preston Sturges. Eventually – through Buster Keaton and Eisenstein – I even explored silent films.

But it didn’t stop there. Bergman re-awakened my interest in theater, as well. I read Strindberg and Chekhov, re-read Ibsen and Shaw with a whole new eye, and started hanging around the edges of the UNH theater program, at that time run by one of the only two national figures the university could boast of, Jonathan Edwards (the other was novelist Donald Murray, who’d won the National Book Award for fiction).

bergman Certainly I wasn’t the only one Bergman affected in that way. There were a dozen others I knew of just during that year at UNH, some of whom became my friends primarily because of our shared interest in serious theater and film, an interest sparked in each case by the art of Ingmar Bergman. Most of us had come from homes like mine where truth was unwelcome and lies were the order of the day. We were hungry for honesty, starving for affection, and tired of illusion and ritual superficiality. Bergman didn’t just speak to that part of us, he showed us the way out.

(There’s a bio at the Boston Globe.)

One response to “Ingmar Bergman Loses at Chess

  1. MJ,
    Bravo….you hit the nail on the head.
    If you can find it read Bergman on Bergman…. as I walked the crowded lonely campus of the U of Mass it became my Bible…
    Keep The Faith

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