Tuesday, March 20, 2012
an introduction to ingmar bergman
the former 786 and i have been talking movies longer than this blog has been around. and we still do. our tastes differ but there's enough overlap for us to share things with one another. occasionally in his netflix-empowered cinematic journey, he'll ask me for an introduction to a particularly difficult movie, something that would give an appropriate context for him to better appreciate the movie. you know, like we'd get at byu.
tonight, he experienced the seventh seal for the first time.
since i don't have time to post anything else tonight, i'll share it here:
(looking at it now, i honestly had no idea i wrote this much. i genuinely thought i'd be copy/pasting a brief paragraph)
first off, the seventh seal is, in my opinion, behind only "2001" as the greatest movie of all time. (i follow that with kurosawa's "seven samurai", and, at the moment, i forget how i usually round out my objective top five...)
the 1950s were when film had enough of a history that it could finally begin to be studied as an art form and not just a form of popular entertainment. it was also when film makers began reaching outside of the normal boundaries and trying new possibilities: france's "400 blows", japan's "rashomon", and sweden's "the seventh seal" all proclaimed that a revitalization (if not a rebirth) of art film was happening around the world.
throughout his career, bergman dealt with three major issues (or, perhaps he might refer to them as "demons"): death (see also "wild strawberries" from the same year), God (most notably his "silence" trilogy of the 1960s) and sex ("cries and whispers" and "scenes from a marriage" from the 1970s). here, he confronts death and the terrifying unknown of what comes after as literally as possible: not only is death personified directly (as opposed to the figurative personification by anton chigurh in "no country for old men"), but he is also engaged in a battle with the protagonist knight from the very beginning.
the image of the knight playing chess (played by max von sydow, only 27 at the time yet looking almost as old then as he did at the oscars last month) is arguably the most iconic image in any international film. even people who have no idea of its swedish origin recognize the concept. and yet its meaning shows so much of bergman's apprehensions with life: death comes so quickly and without any escape that the notion to be able to have any hope of another chance is wonderful. but the knight isn't in a frenzied fear over dying; rather, he, like bergman, has been told about God his whole life (ingmar's father was a notoriously strict lutheran minister, a theme which occurs almost as often as subtitles do in his films) and yet wanted some answers for himself. again and again, the knight asks, wanting to know what is out there and, if there is anything, why won't it speak. the director's own opinion of the church is shown clearly when the knight has a conversation with who he thinks is the local priest, but who turns out to be his strategic and mortal enemy, death.
the knight and squire meet other religious devotees who, despite claiming to have embraced religion, seem just as confused or lost as they: the mourning parade of the flagellants, wailing and lashing each other and themselves in hopes of drawing to God yet no result is ever seen. further, the protagonists meet a woman who is accused of having relations with the devil. knowing that the devil would know something about God, the knight asks the woman and is once again left without an answer when he determines that she, too, is a fraud.
that's not to say that this is an entirely bleak and somber movie. like its medieval setting, the story is a classical structure, with lighthearted comedy interlaced throughout. there is squire john (played with refreshing sarcasm by another bergman regular, gunnar bjornstrand) who's jaded and laid back attitude offsets the seriousness of his knight's continual questioning. further, there is hope in humanity, portrayed by the acrobat family. the husband is a good man, but a bit of a dreamer, and so it is he who sees the blessed virgin and Child, not bergman's on-screen persona the knight. many of the adventures with the acrobat family are light, even farcical, including the other classical theatrical plot, marital infidelity and the shenanigans that surround it. squire john's assistance in the showdown between the two parties provides a scene that i often end up laughing out loud with.
this was bergman's 14th film, and he was just getting started, releasing his final film ("saraband") almost fifty years later. he made plenty of weaker films, himself conceding that he probably only made seven or eight good films over his career. he considered "winter light" to be his best, while i obviously love "fanny and alexander." yet if you only see one, this is the one you have to see. its required viewing not simply for anyone interested in bergman, but for anyone interested in film period. "the seventh seal" showed that movies could reach beyond comedy, romance, and adventure, and could be stages where the biggest questions of life could be asked and pondered. while bergman struggled with these questions his whole life (his trilogy of themes are all addressed in "fanny and alexander", which was planned to be his final film), the end of "the seventh seal" is not hopeless. rather, it sums up his personal feelings perhaps better than he himself realized: yea, Lord, i believe; help Thou mine unbelief.
roger ebert has a list of great movies that he said he wished he could see again for the first time. this would be near the top of my list. i'm excited for you.
fun fact: the silhouette of the line of dancers on the hill at the end are not the actual actors. the production had wrapped for the day, but bergman and his cinematographer saw that the light was perfect for the shot and so dressed up any remaining crew members in the actors' costumes and filmed them for one of the most iconic shots of the movie.