Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

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 The longstanding belief that humans are born with singular psyches and souls is being superseded by an emerging new ideal: the human as technologically perfectible machine.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,

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 work—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.

Maxim magazine developing Virginity Rocks

Oh, what hath The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) wrought.

Last year I noted that an adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s forthcoming novel The Abstinence Teacher is in the works. Now Variety reports that Screen Gems and Maxim are developing a film called Virginity Rocks, which will be written by Melissa Carter:

Story revolves around a gorgeous transfer student who clings to her virginity and gets all the promiscuous girls in school to abstain from sex; in response, the popular guys ask the school stud to try to bed the poster girl and ending her “virginity rocks” campaign.

Pic will be released as “Maxim’s Virginity Rocks,” and it’s the third that has been set up with a division of the mag designed for randy lads.

If past experience is anything to go by, this could very well end up being yet another Screen Gems flick that gets released without being shown to critics first. Their most recent film was the widely-panned Lindsay Lohan vehicle I Know Who Killed Me.

Two more movies not screened for critics?

I forgot to mention last week that Who’s Your Caddy? was not screened for critics prior to its release. I probably overlooked the film because it hasn’t been released at all in Canada.

Meanwhile, it is beginning to look like Underdog, which opens this Friday, is also giving critics the cold shoulder. The only local screening that I know of is on Thursday night — and as we all know, night-before-release-date screenings “don’t count”. I also know of at least one major American city where at least some critics are being told that there won’t be any screenings of this film.

Incidentally, I have been curious lately as to how some Christians might react to this film’s “One Nation… Under Dog” tagline, which might strike some as a tad sacrilegious. (See also the “John 6:27″ tagline in some of the Live Free or Die Hard posters, where “John” stood for John McClane and “6:27″ stood for the release date. If there were a third example of this sort of thing, we would have a “trend” and someone could write an article about it.) FWIW, I know of at least one Christian firm that is actually promoting this film to the church-based press — presumably because it’s a “family movie”, and not because of any perceived religious content.

AUG 1 UPDATE: I have just been informed that Thursday night’s preview screening of Underdog is a “no press” screening.

Canadian box-office stats — July 29

Here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — CDN $25,310,000 — N.AM $241,771,000 — 10.5%
Sunshine — CDN $143,805 — N.AM $1,628,000 — 8.8%
Transformers — CDN $24,990,000 — N.AM $284,558,000 — 8.8%
Hairspray — CDN $5,170,000 — N.AM $59,307,000 — 8.7%

Live Free or Die Hard — CDN $10,860,000 — N.AM $125,128,000 — 8.7%
I Know Who Killed Me — CDN $272,888 — N.AM $3,400,000 — 8.0%
The Simpsons Movie — CDN $5,640,000 — N.AM $71,850,000 — 7.8%
I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry — CDN $5,190,000 — N.AM $71,610,000 — 7.2%
Ratatouille — CDN $12,240,000 — N.AM $179,683,000 — 6.8%
No Reservations — CDN $633,698 — N.AM $11,755,000 — 5.4%

A couple of discrepancies: Sunshine was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #13 in North America as a whole), while Who’s Your Caddy? was #10 on the North American chart.

WALL-E — a second Adam looking for his Eve?

Here’s a little more info about Pixar’s next film WALL-E, courtesy of and its coverage of this year’s Comic-Con:

In the future, humans have completely trashed the planet with rampant commercialism. They then leave the planet on space liners while robots are left behind to clean up the planet. Unfortunately, 700 years go by and they never return. Eventually one robot, WALL•E, develops a personality. As he roams the planet, he eventually finds a way to get off the planet. He then finds the last remaining space liner containing the ‘lost tribe’ of humans. However, years in space with all their needs covered by robots have made them literal couch potatoes. They are huge, helpless blobs. Along the way WALL•E also meets and falls in love with another robot named Eve. WALL•E attempts to woo her, but his efforts just might be what ends up restoring the human race to its former glory.

Evan & Chuck & Larry & Carol & Ted & Alice …

Evan Almighty fell off the weekly top ten lists this week — indeed, if the estimates hold, it is now down at #17 — and pundits continue to ponder just why this movie failed to find an audience.

Mark Joseph at speculated a few weeks ago that the film’s supposed target audience smelled something phony:

In its aftermath, once again the chatter from Hollywood is how, despite another earnest and sincere attempt to make a movie for “those people,” the elusive faith-based audience that came out to see the Passion of The Christ has once again failed to turn out en masse for a movie thought to be tailor-made for them. The problem with such an analysis is that it’s not unlike making a movie featuring blackface and wondering why the African-American audience isn’t interested.

There is something to this, I think. I also wonder if non-Christians were put off by all the reports regarding how the studio went out of its way to curry favour with the Christian market — just as some Christians may have been put off by the filmmakers’ assurances that this would be a movie for “everybody”. To one demographic, the film sounded preachy; to the other, it didn’t sound preachy enough. Plus, of course, the movie wasn’t all that funny.

At any rate, the film has been doing so badly in North America that its box-office prospects elsewhere have also taken a hit; two weeks ago, its Japanese distribution was cancelled outright.

Meanwhile, it turns out that director Tom Shadyac is also one of several producers on I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, the crass but preachy Adam Sandler comedy about two straight men who pose as a married gay couple for financial reasons. Chuck & Larry reportedly cost less than half of what it cost to make Evan Almighty, but it is currently on track to earn a fair bit more.

Shadyac presumably had little to do with the creative decisions on Chuck & Larry, but given that he made a big, big deal about his religious beliefs while promoting Evan, it is interesting to see that the only openly religious figures in Chuck & Larry are the bigoted homophobes who stage protests outside courthouses and gay clubs. You might think someone who is so open about his own spirituality would be a little more careful about lending his name to material that could oh-so-easily lend itself to a thoroughly negative portrayal of religious faith, but apparently not.

Add this to the list of things I wish my fellow journalists and I had known when we met Shadyac on the Evan Almighty junket.

AUG 12 UPDATE: Just for the record, Chuck & Larry passed Evan Almighty at the domestic box office three days ago.