Land Of The Lost

Love potion #1: the special people of Bergman's 'The Magician'
Janus Films

What are we to do with Ingmar Bergman? Now 84 years old, he keeps embarrassing us every which way. Critics want to hand the World Heavyweight Filmmaker title to some cigarette-biting coolio like Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-Hsien--and then Bergman has to go and make another movie, reminding us that the champ's title probably still resides in Sweden after all. (His newest picture, Saraband, is currently screening in the New York Film Festival.) Bergman's notion of the artmaking process is pathetically 19th-century. His films are filled to brimming with the long-jawed mule's face of Max Von Sydow, expressing a Kierkegaardian toothache on the brink of abscess. His conception of woman involves a grotesquely anachronistic capital W. He goes on brazenly stealing the step-by-step hectoring dramaturgy of Ibsen and the green-faced painted harlots of Strindberg as if their forgotten male pathology were born yesterday. And--let's be frank!--most of our vivid memories of the experience that is "Ingmar Bergman" come from the late, unfunny, gentrified melodramas of his sincerest flatterer, Woody Allen.

We have long shunned him; we have drowned our sorrows in the pleasures of cheap and lusty popular art; we have abandoned his undergraduate-feeling metaphysics for the bustle and practicality of politics. We may be through with Bergman, but, as the Oak Street's anthology shows, he's not through with us. What emerges from the handful of big-ticket Bergman titles at the Oak this month is that the director, even more than Hitchcock, gave an individual cinematic voice to the 20th century. His concentration on the anguished response of individuals to "God's silence" is not--as it often seems in Allen pictures--a bruised bourgeois narcissism taking on a lofty philosophical label. On the contrary, it's a metaphor for a kind of collective political unconscious seeping through the films.

Though Bergman almost never makes overt political gestures (the terrifying image of the mute actress watching the Vietnamese monk set himself aflame in Persona is a rarity), his body of work speaks eloquently to a silence larger than that of his characters: It is a threnody to Hiroshima and Auschwitz, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda and Sudan. Where, after all, is God's silence more deafening than in the valleys of contemporary genocide? Where would Bergman's favorite recurring character, a sinister scientist type always named "Doctor Vergerus," feel more at home than in the checklisted, alphabetized slaughterhouses of the Khmer Rouge? What is a more apposite response to Bergman's era than his signature image--the characters in The Seventh Seal abandoning themselves in the end, under lowering autumn skies, to a dance of death?

Like his peers--Kafka in "The Cares of a Family Man," say, or Borges in his "Six Tales of Infamy"--Bergman ventured outside his usual modes--satanic Expressionist erotica and domestic psychodrama--to manifest a shapeless inner dread through pulp fiction. One revelation of the Oak Street series is that Bergman could express metaphysical riddles through slaphappy horror movies. His 1968 shocker Hour of the Wolf (screening October 27 and 28) is the most repellent film representation of the Artist in Pain. The ineffably noble Max Von Sydow, fresh from his triumph on the cross in George Stevens's Greatest Story Ever Told, is made to appear goatish, haughty, and unbearably self-absorbed as a Schiele-like painter living on a remote island with a "simple" cowlike peasant woman (Liv Ullmann) who curtseys with her eyes.

Lured by the island-owning aristocrat (the always sublime Erland Josephsson) to a dinner party filled with cawing decadent ghouls, Von Sydow makes his ladyfriend stand and watch as an old bawd displays his magnum opus: a pornographic canvas of his previous hookup. And when a flunky comes a-callin' for party #2, at which the love of Von Sydow's life is due to arrive, Von Sydow empties the contents of a small handgun into his doting farm girl. Liv lives, but before the night is done, a 221-year-old woman will remove a face stuck to her skull with store-bought glue; Josephsson, distracted by jealousy, will blithely walk onto the ceiling; and the miserable artist will learn what real misery is like--after the fashion of a recent film by Mel Gibson. A double-wide dumptruck of self-pity, masochistic reverie, sonorous angst monologue, and theatrical horror FX, Hour of the Wolf starts out as an Expressionist fable about society's parasitism of the artist, but ends in a Boschian realm of dreamlike individual expression that's only a few doors down from Dario Argento. (Bergman completists, or aficionados of self-inflicted punishment, may want to consult the DVD of Hour's companion piece, The Serpent's Egg--especially the disc's audio track, on which David Carradine memorably remarks, "Ingmar is not the kind of guy you'd see on a softball field.")

Playing on the other side of an intermission with Wolf (on October 28) is Bergman's 1958 The Magician--one of the most underappreciated films of that early, largely celebrated period of the director's career. Here, a ragtag troupe called the Magnetic Health Theatre lumbers from one Swedish city to another, offering love potions, ghostly visions, and the ability to conjure images of unspeakable horror in the mind's eye of the spectator--a gift that Bergman pointedly refuses to apportion to either artist or audience. Doctor Vergerus, sporting both law-enforcement and forensic-medicine caps, sees--or is made to see--horrific images of his death, and the police chief's cute, stout little wife says the most ghastly things about her better half under hypnagogic "duress." The question becomes not just whether the illusionists are fakes, but what the town's level of complicity is: At moments in The Magician, it feels, as in O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, as if these characters could manufacture richly embellished delusions all by themselves. Decked out in wryly comic horror touches (like Vergerus's discovery of an eyeball in an inkwell), The Magician is a multi-purpose allegory in the manner of Lars Von Trier's The Idiots--a metaphor you can stretch like taffy. Its Gothic ornaments may have hurt its reputation in the '60s, but its O. Henryish, fabulist shape makes it one of the most engrossing works of Bergman's winter period.

Until a few minutes ago, seemingly, Bergman didn't speak to us: He was too angsty, too middlebrow, too committed to an outdated style of wrought-up, applause-jerking acting. But the globe has turned, and the search of educated First World people for a meaning they didn't know was missing no longer seems vain and recherché--far from it. The life project of Ingmar Bergman now seems essential to our ability to organize and articulate a loss we only recently knew we were grieving.

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