Monday, July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman: In Memory

“I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain. I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint; it doesn’t matter; I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs, and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter!”
- Ingmar Bergman

I was still somewhat drowsy when I saw the news. I hadn't been up five minutes and I was shocked to learn of Ingmar Bergman's death. Yet that shock subsided and I was quickly filled with sadness as the realization came over me that cinema has lost one of its great artists. At first I couldn't understand why this news affected me so, especially since I have only seen one of Bergman's films: The Seventh Seal. But then I remembered where I was in my life when I first saw it. The memories and feelings came rushing back, and suddenly my own life at this instant came into perspective.

Seeing that film was so important to my blossoming as a future lover of and writer on cinema. It was in High School English class. I was just consciously discovering my love of movies and had been spending much of my free time in the library paging through Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide. I remember having heard of the movie when my teacher introduced it before screening it, but I still knew relatively little about it. But I was intrigued mostly because that teacher made such an impression on me. It's somewhat ironic that I first learned about the craft of film criticism in conversations with this teacher; he challenged me to think differently about movies and to be more receptive to their sensibilities and details. Classes were only about 40 minutes, so it took about a week's worth of class to get through the movie. But I remember being so struck by its stark images, its absurd contrasts. The opening images, especially, seized me. Seeing a Knight returning from the crusades to meet Death and play chess with him was profoundly strange, yet inevitably provocative. The image seemed to tease me; I couldn't make sense of it. It defied any and all logic, yet I was enamored by it. None of it seemed to make sense. But then again, all of it made sense in a way I couldn't make sense of.

I couldn't consciously understand why I was so affected, but I remember allowing myself to feel and think about the images and the feelings for myself. My teacher was always good at fostering this simple philosophy by which I live my life; allowing myself to really swim in my thoughts and feelings in my own way, even if it doesn't seem to make sense. This was harder than it might seem in High School, especially when most of the students left the class each day making fun of the movie, probably for being "old and absurd". That week of class was one of the most memorable I ever had (along with the week I watched Schindler's List in my junior year history class). I learned a lot about myself, art, emotion, and abstraction. I have since not seen a single Bergman film, much to my disappointment. I have learned about Bergman's unique place in the history of cinema in the books and articles I've read, and I have seen his work inspire many of my favorite directors. One such filmmaker is Woody Allen, whose movies taught me everything I can know about Bergman without seeing his films.

I have put off seeing Bergman's work in the past (I've had Fanny and Alexander and Scenes From a Marriage inexplicably looming around 20 or 25 on my queue for several years now). But it's amazing how death can cause one to consciously reflect on unconscious thought and emotions. I suppose it's a bit of irony that the death of this artist of the cinema, who so frequently explored death in his work, will now inspire me to remember one of my cherished memories of "birth" into cinephilia, film criticism, and a rich love of cinema in general. The Seventh Seal compelled me to explore not just my own thoughts and emotions but also the challenging works of filmmakers I may have never have heard of had I not had watched The Seventh Seal at that time and place in my life.

But this is likely just one story among many, for I'm sure that all movie lovers, critics, and scholars have their own personal stories of how Bergman's work has inspired them in some way. And that is why his legacy as one of cinema's most prolific and important artists will continue to grow along with the art form of inifinite possibilities that is cinema; a medium that can only be considered as such because of his contributions to it.


Austintation said...

Quite a thoughtful article and very interesting for how engaging just one film of his could be. You've got some great times ahead of you: watching the 5 hour version of 'Fanny and Alexander' and soaking up all the fantasies, 'Persona' (what else is there to say?), the Faith Trilogy...

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks for the comment, austintation. I really look forward to diving into Bergman's work among others. As I commented on another post, this Fall I will be embarking on a project to see the films of all those directors whose work I have seen very little of: this includes Bergman, Renoir, Tati, Malick, Godard, Fellini, Bunuel, Dyer, Ozu. I will be devoting much of my DVD watching to their films, while trying to keep up with the late year theatrical releases.