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November 18, 2003

TT: Up there on a visit

Ingmar Bergman has fallen from fashion, but I well remember when he was the very model of a Foreign Filmmaker, the man whose movies embodied everything that wasn't Hollywood. Those, of course, were the days when Hollywood wasn't cool: if you wanted to impress your date, you took her to a Bergman. (A little later on, it was O.K. to take her to one of Woody Allen's ersatz-Bergman movies.) Now he belongs to the ages, and I know more than a few self-styled film buffs who've never seen any of his work.

I don't mean to sneer. Except for Smiles of a Summer Night, I hadn't seen any of Bergman's early films since my college days--not until last night, when I watched the Criterion Collection CD of Wild Strawberries in the company of a film-loving friend. We'd been planning to get together for weeks to watch it, and a hole opened up simultaneously in our schedules, so we sent out for Vietnamese food, planted ourselves on the couch, and let 'er rip.

Here are some fugitive observations gleaned from our evening:

  • Wild Strawberries is much lighter in tone than I recalled, and actually made me laugh out loud quite a bit. (It's rather like the middle-period novels of Henry James, which always turn out to be funnier than you expect.)

  • The surrealistic dream sequences--especially the examination scene--haven't aged well. To contemporary eyes they seem obvious, even quaint.

  • The pacing is slow--not painfully, but noticeably.

  • The lighting is superlatively good.

  • When I was young, Wild Strawberries struck me as exactly what old age must be like. (Had it been a novel, I would have scribbled neatly in the margin of the last page, "This is true.") Now that I'm middle-aged--and eight years older than Bergman was when he made it--I know better. It's far too benign, albeit gorgeously so. It reminds me of what an old music critic once said to me about Der Rosenkavalier: "It's by a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth."

    As soon as I got home, I looked Bergman up in David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film, where I found the following paragraph:

    Many people of my generation may have joined the National Film Theatre in London to see a retrospective survey of Bergman's early films after The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries had come to represent "artistic" cinema. The first critical articles that I struggled with--as reader and writer--were on Bergman. Inevitably he suffered from being so suddenly revealed to a volatile world. Looking back, it seems no coincidence that those two films are his most pretentious and calculating. Within a few years he was being mocked and parodied for his earnestness and symbolism. The young cineastes led to the art houses were rediscovering the virtues of the American films that had delighted them as children. The new French cinema endorsed that love of development and replaced Bergman's concentration with improvisation, humor, offhand tenderness, and a non-Northern feeling for the beauty of camera movements as opposed to the force of composition.

    I quote Thomson at length because I couldn't have said it better myself, though I wouldn't have put it quite that harshly. Wild Strawberries is a beautiful movie--one that knows how beautiful it is, and wants you to know, too. The older I get, the less readily I warm to that kind of art, be it film, painting, music, the novel, or what have you. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy revisiting Wild Strawberries after a quarter-century. I did, very much. But I don't know whether I'll ever feel the need to see it again, whereas I rarely let a year go by without watching The Rules of the Game. Which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about me, aesthetically speaking.

    Posted November 18, 2003 12:02 PM

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