Ingmar Bergman died yesterday at the age of 89. I have seen quite a few of his films but none of them often enough or recent enough to comment on them in any detail. (Though I did jot a few notes here on 1973′s Scenes from a Marriage and 2003′s Saraband a couple years ago.) However, Bergman did represent an interesting point in the history of the relationship between film and faith — by encouraging filmmakers to engage in theological and spiritual matters more deeply than they had ever done before, and by encouraging people of faith to engage with film more deeply than they had ever done before — so I need to note his passing here.
Many tributes and obituaries are already out there, and they have all expressed the essential points much better than I ever could. Victor Morton at the Rightwing Film Geek blog is especially eloquent and passionate on the topic. What follows are some excerpts from the other tributes that have caught my eye.
Stephen Holden, The New York Times:
An existential dread runs through the entire Bergman oeuvre. Among the major directors who spearheaded the international art film movement after 1950, he was the one most closely in touch with the intellectual currents of the day. Freud and Sartre were riding high, and Time magazine wondered in a cover story if God were dead. Attendance at Mr. Bergman’s films was a lot like going to church. Though many of those films are steeped in church imagery, God is usually absent from the sanctuary.
As a college student and avid art-film goer in the early 1960s, I was overwhelmed by Mr. Bergman’s films, with their heavy-duty metaphysical speculation and intellectual seriousness. In those days, you would no more argue with Mr. Bergman’s stature than you would question the greatness of the modern Western literary canon; like Mann, Joyce, Kafka, Faulkner, et al., Mr. Bergman was an intellectual god whose work could reward a lifetime of analytical study.
Today the religion of high art that dominated the 1950s and ’60s seems increasingly quaint and provincial. The longstanding belief that humans are born with singular psyches and souls is being superseded by an emerging new ideal: the human as technologically perfectible machine. The culture of the soul — of Freud and Marx and, yes, Bergman — has been overtaken by the culture of the body. Biotechnology leads the shaky way into the future, and pseudo-immortality, through cloning, is in sight. Who needs a soul if the self is technologically mutable? For that matter, who needs art?
Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere:
I wonder how many under-35s have even seen a Bergman film. The Bergman art- house aesthetic of the ’50s and ’60s is about as far from the Tarantino film-geek attitude as you can get. Film Snob Dictionary authors Martin Kamp and Law- rence Levi wrote a couple of years ago that “watching a Bergman film is so PBS tote-bag, so Mom-and-Dad-on-a-date-in-college, so baguettes-and-Chardonnay.”
John Podhoretz, New York Post:
The darkness of Bergman’s vision of the world and his uncompromisingly bleak expression of that vision resonated with those who viewed art not as a form of the most sublime entertainment – entertainment that transcends the merely pleasurable to offer a transformative experience – but rather as the secular version of a stern sermon.
Art, in this view, wasn’t supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities. . . .
As for the society of people who needed Ingmar Bergman to stand as the greatest example of what the cinema should do, they too had had their day by 1982. For the basic truth is that the critics who described Bergman as the greatest of film artists were people embarrassed by the movies.
They didn’t admire the medium. They were offended by its unseriousness, by its capacity to entertain without offering anything elevating at the same time. They believed the movies were a low and disreputable art form and that its only salvation lay in offering moral and aesthetic instruction to its audiences about the worthlessness of existence.
Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail:
Bergman, who died yesterday at his home in Sweden at the age of 89, was a litmus test for cinematic seriousness, and, perhaps, in the long run many people, including critics, have preferred not to face the demands of his work. He has been parodied and dismissed as puritanical, misanthropic and, as Joe Queenan said in a 4,000-word for The Guardian last March, “resolutely non-life affirming.”
All this, of course, is reductive and exaggerated. In Fanny and Alexander (1982), Bergman proved he wasn’t above a good fart joke. And even in a world where God is apparently AWOL and hell is other people, Bergman’s films hold their own form of exhilaration. As Aristotle recognized, other people’s tragedies, in fictional form, help to place our own pity and fear into proper balance. . . .
Though it may sound facetious to say the themes of despair and Godlessness can go out of fashion, there is some truth to it. It has been 41 years since Time magazine created a furor by asking, “Is God dead?” on its cover. The vogue for the quest for spiritual authenticity has been displaced by postmodern questioning of authenticity and “the meaning of life” is more a question of linguistics than destiny. That doesn’t make Bergman any less significant than, say, Goethe or Shakespeare, but perhaps a similar kind of historical figure.
Glenn Kenny, Premiere.com:
One sometimes heard the complaint that Bergman’s films are peopled with characters who can’t see past the bridge of their own noses, and that they’re reflections of Bergman’s own self-absorption. That we rarely if ever hear anyone bemoaning the lack of “social engagement” in, say, Samuel Beckett’s work is, among other things, indicative of how cinema is still regarded as a stepchild of the fine arts in some respects. . . .
Well, what can one do? The self, and one’s negotiation/war with it, is one of Bergman’s great themes. As in Beckett, some of Bergman’s most powerful scenes are of one person in a room, or two people in a room. And the same thing over and over again. . . .
“Today, we are aswarm with Antonioni imitators, but no one seems to want to be the new Bergman,” Michael Atkinson notes. That’s partly because nobody can be the new Bergman. And not just for the obsious reason.
Unlike a lot of younger filmmakers today, Bergman was a highly, richly cultured individual. He knew the Bible backward and forward, Shakespeare too; fine art, music, and so on. All of his knowledge did more than inform his workâ€”his work is suffused with it, it gains much of its texture and heft from it. Of course, Antonioni is similarly cultured, but his depth in this area doesn’t play so much upon the surface of his work; it motivates the form, rather than thickens it. Today’s young filmmakers aren’t, for the most part, as polyglot. For a lot of them, all the culture they’ve got is film. And Antonioni’s got a signature style that’s accessible to them, and seems imitable: shoot some architecture and negative space, have characters disaffectedly utter banalities, and you think you’ve got it. To emulate Bergman, you’ve got to know what he knew, and knowing that…go on to be yourself.
How ironic, in light of this last excerpt, that Michelangelo Antonioni himself also passed away yesterday, at the age of 94.