Ingmar Bergman belongs in the pantheon of great movie directors. When your humble scribe realized there was a Bergman retrospective playing over the course of a month at Houston theaters (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and The Rice Media Center) my mind did a double take recalling every Bergman film I’d ever seen.
There’s a part of my movie going personality that was literally formed by Ingmar Bergman movies. The Seventh Seal was not the first foreign film I’d ever seen as a teenager, yet it made an impact that has never left my consciousness.
Watching The Seventh Seal (1957) last week the difference of watching the film as a youth and now experiencing same as an adult made me realize how this particular movie ranks among the best films ever made.
A knight (Max von Sydow) returns from the Crusades accompanied by his squire. Along the way he meets Death whom he challenges to a game of chess in order to prolong the expiration of his mortal coil.
On a side note, how has von Sydow never won an Oscar? He’s been nommed twice for films that totally ignore his greatest performances. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Pelle erobreren are cool movies but pale in comparison to von Sydow’s work in films as diverse as Three Days of the Condor or The Exorcist. Sydow is pushing ninety years of age and still appearing in everything from Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Game of Thrones.
Max is so fucking cool that he appears in a supporting role as the gas station attendant in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Max appears for less than a few minutes pumping gas but his grand stature is immediately apparent in the greater scheme of things. The Wild Strawberries has the first instance of Bergman depicting psychic events. Early on a dream sequence has a striking image of a clock without arms. Later in the film when the protag finds himself viewing a pocket watch without arms you realize he’s reliving his dream.
The Bergman retro can only take in so many films over the period of a month, with the films unwinding starting this weekends.
The first weekend spotlights Bergman’s first film Crisis (Kris) from 1946. Watching the first film of an established film maestro establishes themes that dominate his successive career. A young girl raised by a foster mother faces life changing decisions when her biological mother wants to reunite. The melodrama flows like bursting dam.
Bergman made over seventy films including television movies for Swedish TV.
The existential consequences of watching every single Berman film would mean that you would be face to face with religious deconstruction as seen in the trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). Bergman also made a wonderful version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1975), as well as a couple of English language films including the decadent The Serpent’s Egg (1977) starring David Carradine and Liv Ullman.
While some of these particular titles are not part of the museum retrospective they along with his entire cinematic output (approximately forty films) are available on a Criterion Blu-ray release of all of Bergman’s major films (which streets in late November).
Criterion always puts out quality releases chock full of extras and the Bergman collection is no exception. A quick scan of the internet has the Blu-ray package available on pre-order from Criterion, Amazon, and with perhaps not oddly, the least expensive priced set from Target.
The RMC’s line-up includes five Bergman titles over the September 7 – 9 weekend including Hour of the Wolf and Shame, a couple of mid-60s movies that portray Bergman in full existential mode. Shame has been heralded for its experimental techniques mixed with its portrayal of war on local civilians no doubt influenced by the then escalating Vietnam War.
Among the films scheduled for the museum retro is Persona (1966), most notable for exploring the “other” personality of a two similar characters. A film released in 1992 titled Single White Female took the premise and rode it on an exploration horse of a different color.
Persona personally resonates like a psychological thriller with the beginning mind-blowing introduction featuring a montage that includes a carbon arc projector, silent film comedy, a nail being hammered into an open palm, perhaps the first subliminal hard dick in non-porn film history as well as the dead coming to life in a morgue. The rest of the film deals in gradients of dark and shade as two women merge into one personality.
The first time I saw Persona was two decades after its original release at the Rice Media Center, one of the go-to theatrical art house venues in the Houston 1980s. One of their projectors was not working so in order to show the film there was a five-minute break between each reel as the single projector was re-thread with the successive film reel.
What a revelation. Every person who loves cinema should be forced to watch a film in such a manner – reel by reel. In the modern age of DCP (digital cinema package) such a luxury will not happen often.
The first movie that won an Ingmar Bergman film the Oscar® as Best Foreign Film was The Virgin Spring (1960), a 13th century tale of murder and revenge. The forces of Odin and God are in conflict in this black and white film that is anything but black and white in its thematic morality. (While Bergman was personally nommed a half-dozen times as writer or director for an Academy Award he actually only won the honorary Irving Thalberg Memorial Award in 1971.)
The Virgin Spring was remade in a chainsaw version as the debut film of Wes Craven in 1971 – The Last House on the Left.
The full schedule for the Ingmar Berman retro can be clicked here: The Rice Media Center schedule.