Sunday Night Journal — June 5, 2011
Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, edited by Raphael Shargel. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
It wasn’t until I started to write this review that I looked at the publication data of the book. Why was it published by the University Press of Mississippi instead of some bigger and more well-known house? I don’t mean to disparage Mississippi at all, which is a sort of sister state to Alabama in being often disparaged by the rest of the country, and for the same reasons. But even a patriot does not expect the Deep South to be a center of interest in Bergman, and this is important material. Of course I’m hardly a scholar, so perhaps in the broad realm of Bergman studies this is not a major entry. But it certainly seems important to me: the interviews range in time from 1957, right after The Seventh Seal, to 2002; the interviewers are knowledgeable and sympathetic, some of them well-known critics like John Simon; and Bergman seems to have talked pretty freely to them. I can’t imagine that anyone very interested in Bergman would not find the book fascinating and illuminating. I’ll mention here in no particular order, some of the things that were most interesting to me.
Almost every commentary on Bergman makes note of his difficult relationship with his severe father, a Lutheran minister, whose rigid discipline took forms that might now be termed abusive. Bergman himself mentions this frequently, and it does appear that this relationship is important to the ways in which Bergman addressed the question of faith. From a believer’s point of view, it’s very unfortunate, indeed tragic, because he deals with the matter in such skillful, profound, and moving ways. We can see that his notion of God was deeply flawed, and that at times when he seems to be casting God aside he is really only getting rid of these flawed and inadequate pictures, and in doing so is approaching God as we understand him. Therefore it’s very significant that late in his life (in the mid-1990s) Bergman returned to the difficulties of his family life, aided by the discovery of a diary kept by his mother, and writing a novel, The Best Intentions, based on his parents’ marriage. The result was a deep understanding and sympathy that enabled him to say that
...after this, every form of reproach, blame, bitterness, or even vague feeling that they have messed up my life is gone forever from my mind.
Bergman was not an intellectual, as we would commonly use the term. He never finished his university education and was a working artist from his early adult life onward. This does not mean that he didn’t have a very active intellect, or that he didn’t continue to read and to learn, but he lived in the world of concrete expression, not of ideas. He worked by intuition, and speaks several times of his films as being a species of dream. It is therefore a mistake to approach his work as if everything in it were keyed to some abstract idea. Too much effort has been expended in trying to account for every image in his work, especially some of the more abstract ones, as if everything must be a symbol of something, and the whole work a philosophical puzzle to be solved. This was not Bergman’s way; the image is there primarily for its aesthetic and emotional impact and may have no abstract meaning at all. I admit I was pleased to have this confirmed, as I recall a conversation from my college days in which I argued a similar position with a graduate student, who laughed at me for treating the movie (I think it was Hour of the Wolf) “as if it were a light show.” I don’t mean, of course, that there are not profound meanings in Bergman’s films, but they are not declarative sentences.
In several interviews from the early ‘60s on, Bergman mentions that his films that dealt with religious themes had enabled him to put the whole question behind him once and for all, that he had settled into comfortable disbelief. In my opinion the work that followed is, all in all, somewhat less impressive—not in craft, but in substance. That is undoubtedly an effect of my own views and interests, particularly of my view that the question of God is the question. Still, it seems possible to me that a hundred years from now it will be those works from the ‘50s and ‘60s that are considered his most significant.
He is asked often about his views of other filmmakers, especially those of more or less his generation, those who helped give cinema its place in the art world as a serious medium. He loves Fellini, and doesn’t care much at all for Godard—in fact denounces him pretty thoroughly in the last (2002) interview (“I’ve always thought that he made films for the critics.”). He loves much of Truffaut’s work, and has mixed feelings about Antonioni, considering him an inadequate craftsman on the whole, but praising (to my pleasure) Blow-Up (“incomparably well assembled”) and La Notte.
Considering the widely held view of his work as High Art of a rather forbidding seriousness and complexity, he has a refreshing lack of pretension, indeed a playfulness about it. In that last interview, and at more than one point earlier, he speaks of himself as being first and foremost a craftsman:
I never considered myself anything more than as a craftsman, a hell of a skilled craftsman, if I may say so myself, but nothing more. I create things that are meant to be useful, films or theatrical productions....I have never created for the sake of eternity. I was only interested in producing the good work of a fine craftsman. Yes, I am proud to call myself a craftsman who makes chairs and tables that are useful to people.
Even if he's jiving a bit here—surely he intended a bit more, and knew that he had accomplished it—this is a healthy attitude.
I generally have little or no desire meet or get to know artists whose work I admire. There are some, such as Eliot, whose general intellectual stature is so much above mine that I find it difficult to imagine a conversation with them. There are others, such as Percy, with whom I would expect to be merely awkward. And there are a few, such as Waugh, who were reputed to be quite unpleasant people. But I can imagine enjoying Bergman’s company. This is based partly on seeing a few filmed interviews with him, where he seems very engaging, but the impression is confirmed by this book.
One last note: a happy surprise for me in this book was the 1960 essay-interview by James Baldwin. When I was a student in the late 1960s, Baldwin seemed almost a sort of affirmative action presence on the literary scene: his status as The Negro Author seemed more important than his work, and I never got around to actually reading him. But this piece is really engaging and perceptive, suffused with a sort of warm melancholy, as much a reflection on America and his struggles with it as on Bergman, and it makes me want to read more of him.