Arlene Croce

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073

While Bergman is the darling of the sophisticates, he is nonetheless a cinematic artist of unusual accomplishment, whose works demand a proportionately serious consideration….

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The peculiar dualism of Swedish art—what might be called the "noon wine" syndrome—attains in Bergman's films its fullest significance as subjective visual rhetoric. You see in them a characteristic imagery which, with its cold radiance and crystalline gloom, seems continually to convey a perilous balance between the light-dark extremities of human emotion….

He has in fact created a theater of the film, in which landscape itself seems possessed of the power of dramatic suggestion, in which a surgically precise selectivity rules out all ungovernable elements in the course of a film's action. Bergman no longer takes his cameras into the street; the street is horribly empty, the wild fields deserted, the woods ominously still. They are prescient stages for dramas that deal, not in incidentals, but in ultimates. In that sense, all his most personal films are allegories, deeply Swedish in inspiration. (p. 647)

Bergman, although a great tease, is not the oracular prophet some critics have made him out to be. Most of his films are flawed by irresolution as to form and evasiveness as to central meaning. No other filmmaker, with the possible exception of John Ford, is so erratic. But unlike Ford, Bergman is neither an innocent nor a poet (though he often uses poetic devices); nor is he so encumbered by commercial contrivance, and his lapses are therefore the more disturbing…. But his erraticism is a clue to the nature of his creative gifts…. [It is in] the trilogy formed by "The Seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries" and "The Magician" [originally entitled "The Face"] that he has begun to put together all the pieces of his great puzzle.

Of the three films, "The Magician" most successfully consolidates Bergman's multiple identities as social critic, moral philosopher, dramatist and fellow-sufferer. Were one to see only this film, without reference to former expositions of similar situations, it would be possible to recognize the extent of Bergman's present intentions and capacities. A concentrated analysis of the limits of perception, it constitutes a corrective to past experiments and a rebuke to ardent exegetes and equally ardent detractors…. The artist's hell, in "The Magician," is not only other people, and the various appetites, illusions and dogmas which he must feed, but also his own human vulnerability. To know truth is to know truth to be unknowable. It is this kind of knowledge—which no one will believe—that Bergman's magician suffers from.

Bergman's arrival at the conclusion that truth is unknowable may not, generally speaking, be news; but it is news to Bergman and news to film…. It means that the near-chronic inability to resolve a dramatic situation in terms of its sequential logic, which marred "The Seventh Seal," may now be put aside. It is in the final reel, characteristically, that "The Seventh Seal" breaks down. Bergman fails to bring the knight's quandary to a recognizable climax….

Deliberately—and dangerously—cast in the form of a metaphor, ["The Magician"] yet manages to transform its inevitable self-consciousness as film into an active expression of the drama's total meaning. It is a film play—a play of shadows, a drama in which the spirit of deception is seen to dominate human affairs: in it the dead wake, the righteous are humbled, seducers are seduced, strong men are made weak. Yet is that what "really" happens? (p. 648)

Bergman employs the more lurid movie conventions, in this case, those of the period thriller. There is the lurching post chaise, the dangling corpse, the thunder crackling in air heavy with diabolical curses. Melodrama thus acquires a new dimension as a heightened metaphor of the way we see. In a magnificent trompe d'oeil, Bergman has produced that rare thing, a film whose form blends perfectly with its theme. (pp. 648-49)

There are hopeful signs, also, that Bergman's new grasp of the possibilities of film form may have ended his attempts to make a film poem, at least of the "Wild Strawberries" type….

["Wild Strawberries"] ends with a premonition of life derived from the living past, just as it had begun with a memento mori mocking an academic conferral of immortality. Unfortunately, the clarity of these meanings, which gives the film its comparatively distinct outline and finely graded rhythm, is reinforced through a scheme of banal symbolizing. All the perennial figments of the "avant-garde" cinema are elegantly produced—the hearse, the watch without hands, the dream corridor, the enigmatic interrogator, the living corpses, etc. The formal gesture the film makes is mere manner without sympathy or individuality. Poetry is reduced to a facility in mysterioso….

Bergman's reputation in this country is based largely on the brand of faceless philosophical passion he has developed in these late films. In them, his thought has progressed from "Believing in a God who does not exist is like loving someone in the dark who never answers" to "Step by step we proceed into the dark—the movement itself is the only truth." Persistence without certitude, then, is the quintessence of Bergmanism. The difficulty that arises in the quasi-cabalistic atmosphere of the espresso-lounge seminars is in distinguishing Bergmanism from Bergmania.

Bergmania, like Salingeritis, is the scandalous homage paid to a popular artist by idle masters of theses in their pursuit of the age's most viable emblem. This elementary discovery of an artist's terms, the means by which he identifies and condenses life, is then allowed to take on the prepossessing nature of an absolute, the "right" answer and the key to the "rightness" of a whole body of work.

A kind of gay agnosticism is Bergman's preference and one secret of his allure. The other is his eclectic vitality of expression, which preserves him from the mandarin isolation of Bresson (with its attendant commercial neglect) and the chic specializing (with its attendant commercial exploitation) of purveyors like Clouzot or Dassin. No one has more influence over the present generation of young intellectuals who, in every culture, are turning first to film. For them, and for their wide and hopeful audience, Bergman has attained the eminence of a directeur du conscience. In the emerging Age of Cinema, he is the first film-maker to have done so. (p. 649)

Arlene Croce, "The Bergman Legend," in Commonweal (copyright © 1960 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.,; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXI, No. 24, March 11, 1960, pp. 647-49.

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