Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Ghost of Strawberries Past

The Onion AV Club has a new review of Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film Wild StrawberriesReading the review and the comments it inspired made me think again about what I think of Bergman as a filmmaker.

I can't remember now which was the first Bergman film I ever saw, because it was over 40 years ago, but it was probably The Seventh Seal.  It was my introduction to art film, except maybe for a late-night broadcast of Rashomon dubbed in English on the local NBC affiliate (I'm still trying to figure how that happened), and so I was impressed by the contrast with Hollywood movies, but I still saw that it was ponderous and self-consciously arty.  I liked its literariness, being a bookworm, but it didn't excite me all that much. Some years later, after I'd seen it a couple more times, I happened on Stanley Kauffmann's remark that it was Bergman's pretentious film, and I was relieved to learn I wasn't the only person who thought so.

I saw Wild Strawberries not very long afterward, and disliked it intensely: as far as I was concerned, it was nothing but a Bergmanesque A Christmas Carol, and annoying from start to finish.  I don't think I've watched it again.  I did see every Bergman film that showed on campus after that (this was in the days before home video), so I saw quite a bit of his early work, and each new one as it was released.  Perversely I liked The Devil's Eye the best of his early work, and Scenes from a Marriage best of all, followed by The Magic Flute.  But Face to Face and The Serpent's Egg and Autumn Sonata were awful, and I gradually tuned him out.  (Despite this, I still intend to see films of his that I haven't gotten around to, like Fanny and Alexander.  The Criterion DVD set is on my table, waiting...)

I suspect that Bergman's reputation comes partly from the fact that he is so many people's introduction to art film, and he opens up new horizons for people who grew up on Hollywood product (as I did).  At the same time, though, one of the connotations of 'art film' in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up, was sex, specifically a bluntness and matter-of-factness about sex that was impossible for American films in the days of the Hollywood code.  That interested me too, but I'd spent my high school years exploring taboo-breaking books, which exceeded anything European art films offered in their explicitness, so I never had such a sense that these films were groundbreaking except perhaps as films.  For that matter, I noticed fairly soon that the themes of a lot of European art film had mostly been done to death in European and American art literature, and the films didn't have anything to add that I could see.  Of course I mostly came to these Fifties and Sixties films late, a decade or more after their original release, but more recent European films indicated to me that they had hardened into schtick by the 1970s.

By the time I was in my late 20s, Bergman's Protestant (Calvinist?) guilt/angst made me impatient.  I had no religious upbringing to speak of, and as an atheist I never felt the need to shake my fist at Heaven as he did.  I've never been one of those atheists who feel that they lost or lack something because they don't believe.  I respect and admire Bergman's craft -- his direction and his actors, and Sven Nykvist's cinematography -- but I think he's overrated by many people.