The death of a great artist is easier to take, for obvious reasons, when that artist’s body of work is more or less complete. Robert Altman, for instance, died after making a pretty good musical and before he could start work on a new, off-the-wall project. But Ingmar Bergman more or less retired back in 1982, upon the release of Fanny and Alexander, his lengthy but highly entertaining account of two very eventful childhoods. It’s not that I’m less sorry to see him go, exactly, but that the body of work left behind feels intact — like a journey that’s reached an at-least-somewhat-satisfactory destination — rather than simply incomplete.
I’m pretty sure that the first Bergman film I saw was From the Life of the Marionettes, and I doubt whether I was yet at the point where I was making a conscious effort to seek out his work. I had HBO on my bedroom TV and was making a point of seeing as many intriguing-sounding R-rated movies as possible, since I was barred from viewing them in theaters and was therefore very curious what all the fuss was about. From the Life of the Marionettes may as well have been a transmission from an alien planet for all the sense it made to me — I noted the film’s seriousness, though, along with the expert composition of its images and it certainly impressed on me that this marriage stuff can be heavy business. The images that have burned themselves into my brain come from a dream sequence where husband and wife are seen naked, against a blank background — I remember being surprised, even a little startled, by how hairy those people were.*
The first Bergman movie I sought out was Fanny and Alexander, which was readily available on VHS videotape in both dubbed and subtitled versions around the time I was plowing through the Woody Allen oeuvre. A good Bergman starter, it serves as easily as an introduction to the man’s themes as it does a career-capping summary, depending on when you encounter it. It’s lively enough to hold a teenager’s attention, with a cruel-stepfather story thread, the hint of the supernatural, and a bit of sex. It didn’t seem to me that it had a whole lot in common with From the Life of the Marionettes, although when I returned to it in recent years I noted its abundant concern with the dynamics of marriage.
From there, I was hooked. It wasn’t nearly as easy in those days to view movies essentially on demand, so I ended up digging through Bergman’s body of work way out of chronological order by running from video store to video store over the course of many years and with huge gaps in my knowledge. (The Criterion Collection surely did Bergman’s reputation a huge favor in the late 1980s and early 1990s by keeping much of his work available in decent laserdisc versions.) I found The Seventh Seal as notably awesome a death-fantasy as its reputation suggested (and was subsequently tickled to see the opening credits of Monty Python and the Holy Grail pay it fairly specific homage). As a youngster, Wild Strawberries eluded me but I caught up with it in college. I found a copy of the epic Scenes from a Marriage at the local library and dutifully slogged through it (but have yet to revisit it as an adult). And I eventually picked up a dodgy copy of Persona from a shopping-mall Waldenbooks. It was apparently sourced from one of those 16mm prints with maddening white-on-white subtitles and, aside from the super-cool opening montage, I had no idea what the hell to make of it. It wasn’t until a film-classroom screening some time later, complete with a professor reading out the words that were rendered illegible by the poor titling, that the film’s full impact hit me and sent me, reeling, out into the sunlight. (I still remember eating dinner alone afterward!)
I get the sense that Bergman is remembered today as a great filmmaker, but perhaps too serious. The popular complaint about films being “arty” or “pretentious” could be applied to Bergman’s work, in spades — when you spend your time grappling with your fear of death, or the silence of God, there will always be hecklers shouting at you to come off the high horse. The claim is often made that he’s humorless, and while I don’t think that’s entirely the case, it’s probably a valid criticism of some of his films (especially the stuff, including Marionettes and the almost-unwatchable The Serpent’s Egg, that he made during a self-imposed exile in West Germany following tax troubles at home). There’s a pessimism to much of Bergman’s work that was easily repurposed as cynicism by Wes Craven, who claimed the Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring was an inspiration for Last House on the Left. (Fanny and Alexander‘s abundant good humor was no doubt a factor in securing Bergman a second foreign-film Oscar.) But to be self-serious is the trademark of a certain type of artist who’s gone too quickly out of fashion — and to be pessimistic doesn’t have to mean you’re unhappy. The New York Times obituary quotes him on one of his great subjects: “When I was young, I was extremely scared of dying. But now I think it a very, very wise arrangement. It’s like a light that is extinguished. Not very much to make a fuss about.” Leaving aside the fact that he has continued to work over these last 25 years of his life, it’s perhaps suggestive of the old man’s ultimate, hard-won contentment that Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s most playful and hopeful film, was the one he specified as his valedictory.
I’d like to believe that, anyway. If Ingmar Bergman can make his peace with death, then there’s hope for the rest of us.
* It wasn’t just the morose sense of existential despair that helped Bergman define the popular conception of the European arthouse movie. He was also pushing the envelope with regard to sexuality and nudity. Sometimes, it got him into trouble: The Silence was reportedly cut by about 35 seconds for screenings in New York, and a quick insert shot of a penis was missing from Persona‘s opening montage until a few years ago, when a new DVD from MGM restored the image.