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There have been few film directors who have enjoyed the longevity, kudos, critical acclaim and influence of Ingmar Bergman. There are perhaps even fewer who have created such a singular artistic vision, one that clearly merits the approbation of 'auteur'.
In this small, but closely argued and deeply thought-out book Irving Singer attempts to describe Bergman's development as a film-maker linked by recurrent themes and motifs of a profoundly psychological and philosophical nature, and often with significant autobiographical concerns.
Singer regards Bergman as a genius of the cinema. His singular vision, although it has often been ripe for parody, has given us some of the most memorable and enigmatic icons of our age. It is hard to imagine any Hollywood film focusing on a medieval knight playing chess with Death on a windswept coast, but somehow it now seems to us to be emblematic of an age of anxiety. Bergman became an authentic European voice in a medium he saw as being devalued if not debased by Hollywood values. He was able to convince that the artifice of film held the possibilities of productive introspection as well as pure entertainment; if indeed he ever felt that entertainment could be pure.
There is a sense in which the body of Bergman's work is seen by Singer as a conversation between friends -- and indeed his well-known quote of making his films with "eighteen or so close friends" is included in the text. No one project can be seen in isolation from the rest. There is a reflective and reflexive element, heightened by his use of the same actors again and again, and even giving the characters the same names. Singer speaks of his own sudden need, having seen one Bergman film, to see all the others as well. Here is a film director whose artistic progression and investigation of themes and concerns is regarded like the unfolding of a great novelist -- like tracking Tolstoy from War and Peace to Anna Karenina, or Dostoevsky from The Double to The Brothers Karamazov. Even when he made a version of The Magic Flute, it was Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute.
Singer juxtaposes Bergman's career with prominent Hollywood figures, all auteurs of a certain kind. He compares and contrasts Bergman's approach and concerns, as well as commercial motives, with Hitchcock, Welles and Sturges. Each in their way had strong similarities and equally distinct differences, but it is Bergman's authentic vision that can make the disparate components whole.
It has been suggested, not altogether obliquely by Bergman himself, that many of his films orbit around a conversation with God. Just how God responds is not so clear, but Bergman clearly thinks it is a conversation worth having. There may not, in Bergman's eyes, be any life after death, but the question of holiness in life itself may be different. Is this what it is all about for Bergman? The glancing encounter with grace that can never be quite regained, and was so fleeting that you may not have been sure that it happened at all. Liv Ullmann, who knew him better than most, thought that he believed that holiness could set you free. But he wasn't quite sure what holiness was.
Irving Singer has produced a warm and intelligent book. It is full of insights and personal reflections that enrich readers familiar with Bergman, his films and his studies, and stimulate those new to Bergman to discover more. It is a welcome contribution to the literature and emphasizes again the way in which great art illuminates all our lives.
© 2008 Mark Welch
Mark Welch, British Columbia, 2008.
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