The Man Who Asked Hard Questions
I GOT the news in Oviedo, a lovely little town in the north of Spain where I am shooting a movie, that Bergman had died. A phone message from a mutual friend was relayed to me on the set. Bergman once told me he didn’t want to die on a sunny day, and not having been there, I can only hope he got the flat weather all directors thrive on.
I’ve said it before to people who have a romanticized view of the artist and hold creation sacred: In the end, your art doesn’t save you. No matter what sublime works you fabricate (and Bergman gave us a menu of amazing movie masterpieces) they don’t shield you from the fateful knocking at the door that interrupted the knight and his friends at the end of “The Seventh Seal.” And so, on a summer’s day in July, Bergman, the great cinematic poet of mortality, couldn’t prolong his own inevitable checkmate, and the finest filmmaker of my lifetime was gone.
I have joked about art being the intellectual’s Catholicism, that is, a wishful belief in an afterlife. Better than to live on in the hearts and minds of the public is to live on in one’s apartment, is how I put it. And certainly Bergman’s movies will live on and will be viewed at museums and on TV and sold on DVDs, but knowing him, this was meager compensation, and I am sure he would have been only too glad to barter each one of his films for an additional year of life. This would have given him roughly 60 more birthdays to go on making movies; a remarkable creative output. And there’s no doubt in my mind that’s how he would have used the extra time, doing the one thing he loved above all else, turning out films.
Bergman enjoyed the process. He cared little about the responses to his films. It pleased him when he was appreciated, but as he told me once, “If they don’t like a movie I made, it bothers me — for about 30 seconds.” He wasn’t interested in box office results, even though producers and distributors called him with the opening weekend figures, which went in one ear and out the other. He said, “By mid-week their wildly optimistic prognosticating would come down to nothing.” He enjoyed critical acclaim but didn’t for a second need it, and while he wanted the audience to enjoy his work, he didn’t always make his films easy on them.
Still, those that took some figuring out were well worth the effort. For example, when you grasp that both women in “The Silence” are really only two warring aspects of one woman, the otherwise enigmatic film opens up spellbindingly. Or if you are up on your Danish philosophy before you see “The Seventh Seal” or “The Magician,” it certainly helps, but so amazing were his gifts as a storyteller that he could hold an audience riveted and enthralled with difficult material. I’ve heard people walk out after certain films of his saying, “I didn’t get exactly what I just saw but I was gripped on the edge of my seat every frame.”
Bergman’s allegiance was to theatricality, and he was also a great stage director, but his movie work wasn’t just informed by theater; it drew on painting, music, literature and philosophy. His work probed the deepest concerns of humanity, often rendering these celluloid poems profound. Mortality, love, art, the silence of God, the difficulty of human relationships, the agony of religious doubt, failed marriage, the inability for people to communicate with one another.
And yet the man was a warm, amusing, joking character, insecure about his immense gifts, beguiled by the ladies. To meet him was not to suddenly enter the creative temple of a formidable, intimidating, dark and brooding genius who intoned complex insights with a Swedish accent about man’s dreadful fate in a bleak universe. It was more like this: “Woody, I have this silly dream where I show up on the set to make a film and I can’t figure out where to put the camera; the point is, I know I am pretty good at it and I have been doing it for years. You ever have those nervous dreams?” or “You think it will be interesting to make a movie where the camera never moves an inch and the actors just enter and exit frame? Or would people just laugh at me?”
What does one say on the phone to a genius? I didn’t think it was a good idea, but in his hands I guess it would have turned out to be something special. After all, the vocabulary he invented to probe the psychological depths of actors also would have sounded preposterous to those who learn filmmaking in the orthodox manner. In film school (I was thrown out of New York University quite rapidly when I was a film major there in the 1950s) the emphasis was always on movement. These are moving pictures, students were taught, and the camera should move. And the teachers were right. But Bergman would put the camera on Liv Ullmann’s face or Bibi Andersson’s face and leave it there and it wouldn’t budge and time passed and more time and an odd and wonderful thing unique to his brilliance would happen. One would get sucked into the character and one was not bored but thrilled.
Bergman, for all his quirks and philosophic and religious obsessions, was a born spinner of tales who couldn’t help being entertaining even when all on his mind was dramatizing the ideas of Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. I used to have long phone conversations with him. He would arrange them from the island he lived on. I never accepted his invitations to visit because the plane travel bothered me, and I didn’t relish flying on a small aircraft to some speck near Russia for what I envisioned as a lunch of yogurt. We always discussed movies, and of course I let him do most of the talking because I felt privileged hearing his thoughts and ideas. He screened movies for himself every day and never tired of watching them. All kinds, silents and talkies. To go to sleep he’d watch a tape of the kind of movie that didn’t make him think and would relax his anxiety, sometimes a James Bond film.
Like all great film stylists, such as Fellini, Antonioni and Buñuel, for example, Bergman has had his critics. But allowing for occasional lapses all these artists’ movies have resonated deeply with millions all over the world. Indeed, the people who know film best, the ones who make them — directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors — hold Berman’s work in perhaps the greatest awe.
Because I sang his praises so enthusiastically over the decades, when he died many newspapers and magazines called me for comments or interviews. As if I had anything of real value to add to the grim news besides once again simply extolling his greatness. How had he influenced me, they asked? He couldn’t have influenced me, I said, he was a genius and I am not a genius and genius cannot be learned or its magic passed on.
When Bergman emerged in the New York art houses as a great filmmaker, I was a young comedy writer and nightclub comic. Can one’s work be influenced by Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman? But I did manage to absorb one thing from him, a thing not dependent on genius or even talent but something that can actually be learned and developed. I am talking about what is often very loosely called a work ethic but is really plain discipline.
I learned from his example to try to turn out the best work I’m capable of at that given moment, never giving in to the foolish world of hits and flops or succumbing to playing the glitzy role of the film director, but making a movie and moving on to the next one. Bergman made about 60 films in his lifetime, I have made 38. At least if I can’t rise to his quality maybe I can approach his quantity.
The New York Times
12th August, 2007