Monday, July 30, 2007

Bergman: Some Minor Quibblings

(Photo clipped from the new york times. Looks like time off from gloom for everybody.)

Don't want to write a eulogy instead just a few stray thoughts of dissenting nature. I think it is not just a willingness to tackle "big" and serious questions that make Bergman's films so effective and leave such a powerful impression. It is rather his technical competence and even more important the extraordinary cast of actors that he surrounds himself with that save his films from ridicule and laughter which comes from too much seriousness. Even a marginally less competent director will not be able to pull things off like Bergman does. Even then I don't think there is a any director in film history who is more often parodied, although never without respect.

Another thing that came to my mind was how relevant the questions of soul, existence of God, spiritual isolation, freedom and responsibility are to us living in the early twenty first century? I mean the general human populace, stripped of all individuality and self-identity, mindless herd of consumerist sheep populating the shopping malls and movie multiplexes? It takes me to another weak point I find in Bergman -- his utterly ahistorical and decontextualised portrait of human reality. Some people would say it is his strength, he doesn't clutter what he wants to say with extraneous details. That he is interested only in the essential. If that is so his diagnosis of the human condition can only be called incomplete. Is the problem of faithlessness really that universal and timeless as Bergman claims it is? I think modern literature tackles this question is much more well rounded manner. In fact I have still been thinking of David Cronenberg's Crash, which I saw on Saturday, a film as attuned to the 21st century human life as one can be (a cinema of the body as opposed a cinema of the soul), and even there I found Cronenberg's hesitant approach to tackle his subject in a more direct and political manner a little disappointing.

Lastly, much as we would like it otherwise, we can't escape the fact that we live in the age of irony. You can't say something and also hope that people think you mean it. That is asking too much. Again Bergman pulls it off because of his extraordinary craft. Not the stuff of lesser filmmakers. (Even in fiction I often see critics bewailing the lack of story, characters and believable psychology in modern literature and longing for the comforts and the securities of the victorian fiction. Needlessly to say I find these very irritating too.) In movies I don't see any example more eloquent than Lars von Trier's reworking of Dreyer's Ordet into his own Breaking the Waves. The austerity, sincerity and seriousness of Dreyer give way to mockery, contrivance and irony in von Trier. This is truly the Ordet we deserve at this time in the history. Asking otherwise is akin to trying to reverse the historical clock. We don't have any Bergman and Dreyer now because we can't have. We'll have to do with von Triers.


anurag said...

Actually, I like Bergman because of the very reason that your minor quibble (and you do have a irony in title too, it is not really quite minor, you are against basic premise of his films) is about. Given that he 'pulls' it up because of cameramen and some actors, Bergman, in my opinion, gave a way to cinema to go from outer to inner, and he is too earnest in it because considers human soul and human contact as sacred, he cant help but be serious. Actually, I sometimes feel that this irony (of our times) is a cowardice on the part of filmmakers, especially after seeing Dreyer. Its not the reflection of the times we live in, but its emptiness on the part of an artist, and it is not to say that an artist should give us answers (Bergman was always searching), but be brave to show whatever he feels like, not save his/her ass by put a tinge of irony and saying, this is the world we live in. Also, I like Bergman for his decontextualised fables too, like I love Kafka's Metamorphosis and any other stories. And it is right that Bergman was working in realms which look stupid and untouchable now (nobody can do it, so they parody him), but it is more that his craft that made them work. And who said that Bergman's film are totally devoid of irony, Winter Light is full of it, but it is not the irony to save ones ass. And I am not saying this now, because he is dead, I would say it anytime.

Alok said...

I don't completely agree with your claim that all modern (or post-modern) ironists use irony just to save their ass. Even though most of them are not intellectually ambitious and lack the breadth of cultural references or depth of ideas, I think they ultimately acknowledge the crumbling of basic concepts and conceptual structures that gave those classical films meaning. You can't use words like "soul" or "God" without the scary quotes anymore. These are words. Their claims to represent some "essential being" are not as obvious as it initially looked. You can't take it for granted. There is no common solid ground of concepts and ideas that we all stand on together. What I find most interesting about the ironists is that they recognize this fact.

If you compare with literature, it is the corresponding scepticism about the claims of language and classical narrative to capture reality that gave way to experimentation and turning away from realist to a more self-conscious and ironic style.

It is Godard who is the real 21st century filmmaker not Bergman. (It's not that we have too many descendants of Godard either but still.) Bergman's Persona incidentally is a very Godardian film.

Alok said...

(I have add I love Bergman more than Godard!)

Anonymous said...

I beg to disagree. Bergman's stories are decontextualised exactly because barring the details it'll hold good even now.

>>"Is the problem of faithlessness really that universal and timeless as Bergman claims it is?"

First of all, film is a young medium of art. We're talking about films made 50 years ago or lesser than that. It's quite naive to suggest that the problem of faithlessness was of greater dimensions to the collective consciousness of people who lived back then, than it's to the collective consciousness of today. That is to say, Bergman's portrayal of human reality and the problem of faithlessness is as irrelevant to the then audience as it is to us. (Well, I am someone who thinks that there's always an essential "sameness" across ages!)

The way I see it, your set of points should primarily be attributed to Bergman's way of art; and, secondly, to the "ageing" of the film medium -- that is, parodying of Bergman should be attributed to the ageing of the medium and the various expressions in it (be it irony, absurdism or what have you), rather than to the age we live in, in the larger sense.

Of course, I don't deny that some "essential things" have changed across different ages (or suggest that the historical clock circles in a perceivable way!). But, I'd put forth the same points even if were discussing Dostoevsky here, except that the "degrees" would vary.

Anonymous said...

>>"parodying of Bergman should be attributed to the ageing of the medium and the various expressions in it"
Obviously, I don't use "ageing of the medium" to mean maturing, growth or betterment of the medium in any sense. We're talking about Bergman on one side and ironists (specifically, his parodists) on the other!

Alok said...

Film being a young medium of artistic expression isn't that relevant here. I was thinking about why does Bergman not go into the *causes* of faithlessness, failure of communication and spiritual angst and anxiety. Has it always been like this with human beings or is it a distinctively modern phenomenon? Is it the same in all kinds of human societies, primitive or modern?

I don't think Bergman even wanted to go there. It is clear that he explicitly opted for the chamber drama aesthetic and didn't worry about all these sociological details.

The problems of Faithlessless and communication failure are not irrelevant to us, in fact as we are progressing in material terms these problems have only got worse. What is missing in Bergman is precisely this historical continuity and a concern with the institutions, the economic, the technological etc that exist *now*...

Anonymous said...

>>"how relevant the questions of soul, existence of God, spiritual isolation, freedom and responsibility are to us living in the early twenty first century?"
Oh, sorry. My bad, I didn't realise that you were indeed referring to his time period as the context. I got confused with your point that, in our times, "we'll have to do with von Triers." That explains the major confusion in my response (about Film being a very young medium after all and all that). (And, I wasn't saying the problems of Faithlessless is irrelevant, but that it is "[only] as irrelevant to the then audience as it is to us.")

I do agree with you that he explicitly opted for the chamber drama approach.
Nevertheless, I somehow feel, this refrain from going into the socio-political details and his interest being only in the "essential" adds much to his artistic expression.

Alok said...

I agree. In fact I love his films very much. There is definitely a lot to be said even without all these details. You don't want to clutter the poetry and raw unmediated emotion with all those sociological theories about modernity and alienation.

There are other artists doing exactly that sort of thing (one of them just died today) and we can go there if are in the mood of some social and political criticism.

rash said...

hi alok,
your comparison with Dreyer makes me want to see Ordet even more now. For me, Dogville was Von Trier's highest scalding and satirical work, its attacks ranging from religion to Americanisms to film itself.
p.s: been reading your blog for sometime now; love it...

Alok said...

Ordet is a masterpiece. It will be really good to see it back to back with Breaking the Waves.