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Criterion Collection: Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema

by on November 18, 2020
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Last week, I  completed a major cinematic hurdle that I brought on myself. I bought it, I vowed to go through it in a reasonable amount of time and then I didn’t. There’s nothing like a pandemic to motivate me to get on with it.

I completed watching the Criterion box set of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Thirty Blu-Rays of 39 films and a slew of extras. I bought it over a year and a half ago. I wanted to watch it at my leisure, apparently. I would try to reward myself with watching a Bergman film on the weekends once I was finished reviewing new films and new releases on home video (or binge watching someone’s work if they died that week) for my show Film Soceyology. Sometimes, life, work and family got in between Ingmar and myself. “Are you watching a Bergman film?” was asked in the Socey household more than once.

I was less than halfway through the collection before COVID hit. Like maintaining a regiment of any kind, I made a point to step up my game before the wave of award screeners arrived at the house. These are first world problems, I know. The film critic’s struggle is real.

Nobody does cinematic inner turmoil like Ingmar Bergman. He said that the face is the most cinematic image. You get plenty of faces in his films. In close-ups, either saying or reacting and it hits physically and emotionally. The man knew how to work a camera, how to push boundaries with the look or the story and got the most out of his actors.

Contrary to pop culture beliefs, not all of Bergman’s film involved playing chess with death or staring out of windows looking at a desolate landscape, muttering in Swedish. His impact with his cinema goes beyond the art-house crowd.

Fans of musical theatre who love A Little Night Music should be required to view his film Smiles on a Summer Night, the original source material. Fans of horror films like the original Last House on the Left should see The Virgin Spring, the Willie Dixon to Tobe Hooper’s Led Zeppelin. Fans of the long-form cinematic dread of Midsommer and Heredity should check out Hour of the Wolf, Shame and The Passion of Anna.

If you’ve ever questioned faith or religion and am not a fan of the films of Kirk Cameron should see his trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. Fans of the plays of Anton Chekov should see his chamber dramas like Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata. They’re like Chekov plays except that more things more things happen. Fans of The Good Place should check out The Devil’s Eye (as reviewed on The Film Yap here).

There will always be a connection between the film of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, but don’t hold that against anybody. A dream sequence in the film Bananas (two crucifixion teams fighting over a New York City parking place), the presence of Death (Seventh Seal) and an image tribute to Persona in Love and Death. Allen’s 1978 film Interiors was his version of the chamber dramas like Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata. Longtime Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist even worked with Allen on Another Woman (another Bergman tribute), his segment on New York Stories (Oedipus Wrecks) and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

There was even a Bergman homage in Muppets Most Wanted involving, yup, The Swedish Chef. The night The Socey Trio saw the film, we were the only three laughing with that moment.

Bergman also had a deep bench of regular actors, most notably Man Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Gunnil Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson. Plus he had not one but two monumental cinematographers who worked on the majority of his films. Gunnar Fischer (Wild Strawberries, Seventh Seal) and Sven Nykvist (The Virgin Spring, Persona plus Academy Awards for Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander).

No, I am not ranking the films in any order. We live in online-list oriented society and there are too many lists. What I will say is what makes his collection such a treasure was to catch up on Bergman films I had never seen, especially his early films plus the chance to revisit some of his great titles. I remember seeing The Seventh Seal, Persona and Wild Strawberries for the first time in college and not quite “getting” those films. The great thing about art is that it doesn’t change (COUGHS George Lucas) but the audience changes. Being 50 and a father and a husband, I have gotten a lot more out of all those titles. Wild Strawberries is one of the best films about looking back. Fans of The Big Chill (a film that should be viewed every five years) should watch it. The Seventh Seal is about the question of faith. Persona is about personal identity. Bergman would never tell you any of this. Hell, if you watch these films and you get something else out of it, cool. It’s art.

Not all of his films were home runs. One of his rare films in English The Serpent’s Egg, is his version of Cabaret five years after Cabaret. His early 40s film where he directed and didn’t write had the 40s style of film acting which hasn’t always aged well. At the very least watching these for curiosity sake and the moment from the early films where Bergman pulls off a little camera trick. A preview of things to come later in his career.

Two of the biggest moments for me was to finally experience the full, made for Swedish television versions of Scenes From a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. Marriage might be my favorite Bergman film. An acting version of a Wimbledon tennis final or heavyweight boxing match between Liv Ullmann and Erland Jospehson as a long-time couple whose marriage is falling apart.  This trio reunited in 2003 for a rare Bergman “sequel” with Saraband, also an excellent cinematic gut-punch. Apparently there will be a remake of Scenes From a Marriage with Jason Isaac and Michelle Williams. Good luck.

Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s final theatrical film (sort of), follows a well-to-do theatrical family in 19th century Sweden. Seen through the eyes of two children. a mixture of family drama, on and off-stage theatrics and a little bit of magic sprinkled about, it’s all of the themes of Bergman’s films rolled into one large beautiful package.

Anyone who has binged-watched anything in the last year especially during COVID cannot complain about the running times for Scenes from a Marriage (281 minutes TV, 161 film) and Fanny Alexander (312 TV, 188 film). Bergman directed a lot of stage plays (I’m hoping someone filmed some or any) and worked in television after Fanny and Alexander. Saraband did get a limited art-house release, but like Marriage was made for television first. I’m sorry but there’s not Bergman voice-over ever saying “Previously on Fanny and Alexander…”

I’ve enjoyed my cinematic time in Scandinavia and Germany. I still have a pile of films that I have purchased (#physicalcopies) that I need to go though plus award screeners. I’m curious when I will feel the need to watch a chess match, a crumbling marriage or a pastor/parishoner really stuck for an answer again. I’m happy to know that the films of Ingmar Bergman (like the spirit of Christmas) is in my heart, my head and my soul. In the past, in the present and in the future.

A great cinematic feat (not a weight or a chore or a burden) has been lifted from my shoulders and I am all the better for it. Now if I can just get the Criterion box sets of Fellini and Kurosawa…

Matthew Socey is the host of Film Soceyology for WFYI 90.1 FM in Indianapolis. Go to wfyi.org for shows.

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