Ingmar Bergman-the director who "punished his audiences"

Knight plays chess with Death,
a famous scene from a Bergman film.

Famed 'art house' director, Ingmar Bergman died recently. He was the kind of director that made the culturati go week in the knees -the crowd that stared at a canvas painted in single color in deep admiration was the crowd that went ga-ga over his films. He is the hero of that peculiar creature of our times -the wannabe, the pseudo, the pretend-intellectual who finds the incomprehensible to be profound, the obscure to be enlightening and the disgusting to be ennobling.

Philipe Martinet-

I think the first one I saw was Persona. I was shocked. You never come out unscathed from a Bergman film. It shakes you, it tosses and turns you, tears your certainties apart, stronger, better than any psychoanalysis. I was so thrilled that I went immediately to see the following one. And then all the others followed, compulsively----
(From an article in the Hindustan Times print editon, Delhi, 4th August, 2007 by Philippe Martinet who" is presently the Counsellor for Cooperation and Culture with the Embassy of France in New Delhi". Cannot find the article online.)

Rick Moody (a novelist)-
I like the darkness of his films and the spectacular performances of hatred and resentment. There is a TV version of Scenes from a Marriage in which Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson are beating each other up and screaming at each other for what seemed like six hours [the 1974 cinematic release was 167 minutes long; the Swedish TV version on DVD has a running time of 299 minutes]. I couldn't look away for a second. I found it absolutely riveting, but I have that constitution.

In this limited but powerful elite circle(powerful because it is extremely influential in setting cultural trends), you just have to admire the Bergmans, the Fellinis, the Rauschenbergs, the Tracy Emins to be part of this charming crowd.

I was once a misty eyed boy when Bergman's Fanny and Alexander(1982, Oscar for best foreign film) was screened on TV. I remember the excitement with which I looked forward to the film, having heard much about Bergman's greatness. Those were the days when I was an innocent lad, still not disabused, unsullied by cynicism -I believed what I was told, in what was written in the newspapers, in journals and said by pundits on the television. Hard to believe it now! And so I was convinced of the most ennobling experience I was about to have in watching one of the most acclaimed films.

I have only a dim memory of the film now. I can't recall a single scene. But I do recall that it was a complete disappointment, but not just that , it was much more. It's as if you realize that the Gods you worship are not Gods at all, they are not even your average mortals but a fraud - con men and impostors posing as 'greats'. I was to have that disappointing experience again and again -in movies, in art, in literature. The gods often turned out to be pygmies, not in body but in soul. Later I watched another of Bergman's films- don't remember the name -but I do believe that it was even worse.

John Podhoretz seems to be similarly inclined-

Bergman had been the key figure in a painstaking effort, by him and by critics worldwide, to elevate the cinema into an art form equivalent to novels, poetry or classical music.

These were not the kinds of critics who wanted people to believe that westerns or gangster movies or musicals could be great art on the order of Tolstoy and Dickens. These critics wanted the movies instead to mimic the forbidding demands and even more forbidding themes of high modern art - from the difficult poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound to the assaultive aesthetic of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp.

Bergman was their man. In a relentless series of films - one or two a year - made between 1950 and 1982, he punished his audiences with a view of life so dark and foreboding that he made his fellow existentialist artist, Samuel Beckett, seem as upbeat as Oprah.

The darkness of Bergman's vision of the world and his uncompromisingly bleak expression of that vision resonated with those who viewed art not as a form of the most sublime entertainment - entertainment that transcends the merely pleasurable to offer a transformative experience - but rather as the secular version of a stern sermon.

Art, in this view, wasn't supposed to be easy to take or pleasurable to take in. It was supposed to punish you, assault you, scrub you clean of impurities.


He stopped making motion pictures in 1982, though he wrote and directed several small films for television. And the truth is, he quit just in time. His day had passed. After decades of declaring modern life worthless and offering only suicide as a way out of the nightmarish tangle of human existence, Bergman had nothing more to say.

Worse still, the earnestness of his vision was beginning to wear pretty heavily. It is impossible these days to watch his most famous film, "The Seventh Seal," without laughing - because its famous scene of Death playing chess has been so frequently and devastatingly parodied over the years that it has become one of the great images of cinematic pretentiousness.

As for the society of people who needed Ingmar Bergman to stand as the greatest example of what the cinema should do, they too had had their day by 1982. For the basic truth is that the critics who described Bergman as the greatest of film artists were people embarrassed by the movies.

They didn't admire the medium. They were offended by its unseriousness, by its capacity to entertain without offering anything elevating at the same time. They believed the movies were a low and disreputable art form and that its only salvation lay in offering moral and aesthetic instruction to its audiences about the worthlessness of existence.

Such views held sway over the opinions of an educated elite in this country and in Europe for a long time. But you can only tell people to sit down and eat their spinach for so long.

Johnathan Pearce isn't impressed either-

I think the problem are the words "art house". It conveys the idea that the benighted viewer is not just watching a film, but is having some wonderfully clever experience which is likely to be lost on the plebs. There is a lot of anti-bourgeois posturing in such films. Worse, they are self-indulgent. I find most of them unwatchable. I'd rather watch Bruce Willis in Die Hard any day of the week than this stuff. And the point that the FT writer - I forgot his name - seemed to overlook is that films that lack plots, strongly defined characters, a sense of life and drama, do not achieve the lofty goal of somehow making us "think about the big lessons of life". (He probably regards films with a beginning, middle and an end as "popcorn movies.") Arguably, you are more likely to learn a bit about humanity if you watch The Simpsons or The Incredibles rather than some dreary French art flick.

Stephen Pollard is not just unimpressed, he is dripping with disdain-

I don’t want to be the little boy who has something to ask about the Emperor’s fancy suit, but have you ever seen a Bergman film? I mean actually paid good money to sit in a darkened room or to rent a DVD, sat down, watched it, got up from your seat, turned to your companion and said: “Wow, wasn’t that wonderful?”, thought about it afterwards, recommended it to your friends, rung up your parents, made sure that they go out for a special treat to see it? In fact, do you know anyone who has ever seen a Bergman film?

Well, have you? Until you’d read the tributes today, could you even name a Bergman film (other than Fanny and Alexander, which is the one everyone has heard of but no one has ever been known to have seen)? Thought not.

Bergman is one of a large category of “important artists” whose defining quality is an almost total absence of public acclamation or popularity. Every art form has its equivalent – think James Joyce or Sir Harrison Birtwistle – but cinema is exceptional in its preponderance of such “important artists”. The latest is Lars von Trier, a maker of terminally dull films that are, nonetheless, lauded by cineastes (they have their own word, signifying that they’re a cut above bog-standard moviegoers).
But much as I think Bergman is overrated, I hold only one thing against him: ruining Woody Allen. Somewhat bizarrely, Allen has long revered Bergman and made a series of films – September, Another Woman and Shadows and Fog – modelled on Bergman’s style. And although he has made some decent films since, Allen’s decline started with the Bergman hommage films. And for that the Swedish director can never be forgiven.

Watch a Bergman film(if you can!) and then watch this parody of his films- De Duva(The Dove). It was made in 1968 and was nominated for the Oscars. It is about 15 minutes long. It would be like having a sundae after a burnt toast.

(All emphasis mine)