Friday, August 05, 2005

"Wild Strawberries" Posted by Picasa
Wild Strawberries and Bergman at 80

Though he was a young man when he started making films, Ingmar Bergman has always been the trademark filmmaker of mortality. The epic battle on the beach with the devil in "The '>Seventh Seal" is famous enough to be routinely parodied, and the intense beauty of "'>Cries and Whispers" is framed in pain and fatality. Even the child in "'>Through A Glass Darkly" seems to be glimpsing mortal lessons as the adults around him pose and flail on their train trip to the end of the line.

But oddly perhaps, his early film concerning an old man is among his most gentle. The Criterion Collection '>DVD of "Wild Strawberries" happens also to include an extended interview with Bergman when he had just passed the age of that film's protagonist. He was a sharp and physically graceful 80 (and this was in 1998. He's gone back to making films since---his latest release was 2003.) Both the movie and the interview turn out to be rather encouraging.

Ingmar Bergman's films were the closest thing to holy writ I can remember from my college days through the early 70s, when I was editing Janet Maslin's review of "Cries and Whispers" for the Boston Phoenix. Because I hadn't seen a "foreign film" until college, I was learning the cinematic vocabulary and syntax by osmosis mostly, and mostly by watching the French New Wave filmmakers, the Italian giants, and Bergman. Partly because the experience of watching Bergman had been conditioned by his reputation as being deep and depressing, I've seldom gone back to those films. But curiosity for what Bergman can tell me now, inspired me to take a look at this DVD of "Wild Strawberries."

"Wild Strawberries" is the story of an eminent 79 year old doctor, who lives alone with his housekeeper, on the day he is to receive a prestigious honorary degree in another city. It opens with a dream and contains several reveries---the kind of thing that became pretty standard on television dramas like "Thirty-something," but was disconcerting in 1957. Even with all these copycats, these scenes in this movie retain their power: they are economical, with not an extra image or a sound, and elegant.

The doctor wakes up from his unusual dream and suddenly decides instead of taking a plane as was planned, he will drive to the ceremony. Then his daughter-in-law appears; she's been staying with him, and asks to come along, since he'll be driving to the city where she lives. Why is she going back to her husband now? Why has she left?

They pick up three young hitchhikers---including the radiant young Bibi Anderssen, who reminds him of a lost love (who she also plays in his reverie). They get involved in a traffic accident, a bickering couple piles into the car, and suddenly we're in another prototype: the road movie.

The group covers a lot of ground in the past and present, and so does the movie, in a compact ninety minutes. But then, it was his 19th film. And he wasn't half done.) In one of his essays on Bergman, Truffaut comments that Bergman's women are "infinitely subtle," while his men "are mere conventions." This film is a rarity in focusing on a male character, played by Victor Sjostrom, a giant of Swedish theater and film who was all but forgotten by the time this movie was made, and he came out of retirement to act in it. Bergman said he did more than that---he took it over. The character was originally based (at least physically) on his father, but the film ceased being Bergman's, he said, and became Sjostrom's. If he meant through the subtle performance and the life he brought to the character, then it was all to the good.

This is an enjoyable film to watch, and there's extra enjoyment in watching it again with the commentary of film scholar Peter Cowie. His commentary has just the right mixture of preparation and spontaneity (as when he comments on how good a particular scene looks on DVD---the film is in glorious black and white.) When Cowie explains how precious the summers are in Sweden, just a few weeks of warmth and sunshine, it helps you feel the power of the imagery, in the professor's recollections of family summers by the sea.

Bergman directing Liv Ullman in "Saraband" 2003 Posted by Picasa
In a greenish patterned shirt with a black sweater vest, Bergman at 80 sat and talked easily with a friend and fellow filmmaker and writer, Jorn Donner, for a 90 minute interview made for Swedish television, and available here for the first time here on this DVD. He spoke about the relationship of his life to his work, elements of his autobiography (especially his exile from Sweden when he felt he was being persecuted by authorities on tax evasion charges that later proved groundless), and about his work habits, and his beliefs.

Harsh parental discipline and formality felt as coldness dominated Bergman's experience of his childhood, as he portrayed in several films. While his older brother survived it through aggressive assertion, he said, he survived it by adopting a persona pleasing to his parents, and by being a liar. "I lied freely and without restraint."

It's remarkably close to what Truffaut said about his own childhood survival technique. "I see life as very hard; I believe one should have a very simple, very crude and very strong moral system," Truffaut said in an interview. " One should say, 'yes, yes,' and do exactly as one pleases. This is why there can't be any direct violence in my films. Already in The 400 Blows, Antoine is a child who never rebels openly. His moral system is more subtle than that. Like me, Antoine is against violence because it signifies confrontation. Violence is replaced by escape, not escape from what is essential, but escape in order to achieve the essential. "

Bergman affirms his continuing relationship to his childhood, which is central to "Wild Strawberries." "The whole of my creativity is finally childish," he says, at age 80. "I can, in a second, go back to my childhood...Anything I've done that's of value [is] a dialogue with my childhood."

It was his fear of death, strongest in his teen years, that led him to write and film "The Seventh Seal," released just before "Wild Strawberries," and which he says exorcised that particular demon.

Bergman writes by hand, on the same kind of thick square yellow pads that were standard issue for screenwriters in Sweden when he started in 1942, but which in later years he had to have specially made. His only concession to change is that he's switched from a fountain pen to a ball-point.

He always begins with notes in workbooks. He fills many for each project. "Workbooks are fun!" By the time he starts writing the script itself, he knows exactly what he wants to do. "It goes quickly, but it's so boring. It goes quickly because it's so boring...The workbooks are the creative process. Scripts are the process of putting it in order." He adheres to a strict schedule: three hours a day, in 45 minute sessions with 15 minute breaks. This is as much ritual as routine, he agrees.

Bergman's tumultuous private life, which got translated into his domestic relationship films, is well known. But his last long marriage of 24 years ended with his wife's death, and he says he survived only by strictly scheduling his day, and finally by forcing himself to write. He has lived alone since, and though he enjoys talking on the telephone, he is comfortable in solitude.

He says he's not religious but is aware of "the possibilities of bigger patterns...I have a lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I also have the feeling that we're part of an infinitely large pattern, that we never analyze [or] understand. You can feel that sometimes."

But he is sternly practical about his work, which at the time of his interview was mostly as a theatre director (though he'd had a decade of writing many scripts and stories.) Fame doesn't help the next day's work, he says, when he goes to rehearsals with the same prayer: "Let this day go well. Let it be meaningful and let it be alive."

"Let the work be meaningful for those who do it and then also be alive, so that it will live its own life. That's the only thing I'm afraid of---that suddenly the ability to make something living and moving will be taken away from me. I'll no longer know how to do it."

He has that anxiety every time, "the anxiety that what I do won't live." There are many stone dead days, he says, it's the most terrible thing there is. "This is my recurring nightmare."

"I'm a craftsman, and I make a good product. I make a product to be used. I'll be terribly upset if nobody wants to use my product."

The documentary ends with Bergman walking down the beach of his island of Faro, where he lives and the only place he writes. With his walking stick carried more like a sword, his stride is quick and sure, fluid, elegant and full of authority, like Peter O'Toole playing Lawrence or the King of England.

The television movie he made at age 86 is called "Saraband." Some say it's one of his best.