William S. Pechter

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1247

[Ansiktet or The Magician] is the film in which Bergman has been able to expose all of his most dominant themes, and the multiplicity of their presence gives the film its complex, yet curiously uncomplicated texture, its finished, definitive character. In Ansiktet, the dialectical clangor of faith and reason, which rings through such a film as The Seventh Seal and echos resonantly throughout his other work, combines harmoniously with Bergman's preoccupation with the artist and his audience. Vogler, the mesmerist, looks both like a charlatan and a Christ, and this resemblance seems to be at the heart of what Bergman is saying: that the most salient cause of the artist's inevitable failing of his audience is the latter's impossible demand that the artist be also savior, magician and messiah, ingenious imposter and immutable face. It is not a role which the artist desires, but one to which he nevertheless seems inescapably to aspire; and though Vogler may suffer some awful, mute agony at his stigmata, he seems ineluctably to adopt the postures—vainly attempting to be healer instead of entertainer, dumbly mothering the dying actor—of the redeemer. He is doomed to fail in this imposture, and fail, furthermore, as artist in the attempt, in attempting to transcend the natural limits of art. (p. 94)

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It is not until Vogler is stripped of his disguises, lost to his defenses and wholly abased in his person, that he is able to achieve the successes proper to his art. But first he must confront his audience without pride or pretension and reveal to it his naked face…. (p. 95)

Bergman's flair for verbal wit, his gift for epigram and paradox, seems, here as, occasionally, elsewhere, a bit too brilliant, too facile and merely clever for his own good; too often one feels it to be the substitute for some deeper confrontation. And one comes, finally, even to suspect the strategy of representing the artist as nomadic clown and entertainer as essentially too easy and tractable a simplification and evasion…. (p. 97)

A recurrent cliché in Bergman's films is that of an intellectual discussion aborted to the precedence of some natural fact, as in the Squire's rejoinders in The Seventh Seal, the students' theological debate in Wild Strawberries, and Tubal's interruptions of the dying actor in Ansiktet. All ideas are dissolved in some homme moyen sensuel "reality," and one cannot but suspect that, although Bergman is willing to use ideas and abstractions, he finally distrusts and even fears them. He can imagine terror, but seems finally unprepared to cope with it; all his final reconciliations amount to a flight from ideas into a suffusion of feeling. And thus, the familiar pieties of Bergman's climactic affirmations: "I'm tired of people, which doesn't prevent my loving them"; "Hell together is better than hell alone."

But the particular genius of the truly charismatic artist—and Bergman certainly is this—is not only to give the right answers but to ask the right questions, and the remarkable thing about Bergman is his ability to sound the temper of his age, to embody and express the spiritual unrest and distress of what he has called "the current dilemma."… With Bergman, an existential position, characteristically a gesture of despair, negation, and disaffiliation, and traditionally an opening blow in philosophical inquiry, has become a quasi-religious affirmation, and a final resting place; so what is properly a beginning has become an end. The final kind of relentless excoriation which informs a film like The Naked Night, Bergman's most pitiless film and also one of his most jejune stylistically, has not been significantly redirected by the time of Ansiktet, but has been modified to a simulacrum of faith. (pp. 97-8)

[The conclusion of Ansiktet, wrenched bodily from The Three-penny Opera,] is a perfect act of artistic strategy; as art it is mere sham. What the unmitigated irony of Brecht's invention forces one to see is the absurdity, wishfulness, and self-deception behind all our happy endings, and by actually manufacturing such a delusion he succeeds in demonstrating its perfect impossibility. But, in Ansiktet, the final note is somehow conclusive and triumphant; the irony dissipates itself into mere audacity, and the terrible, irreconcilable spirit of the work has been successfully exorcised….

[Much of Bergman's work seems] especially adduced to put over a point; a fact which may account for the extraordinarily chameleon-like quality of his films, his dazzling stylistic eclecticism. It is not an eclecticism which finally achieves a state of synthesis, as, for example, the synthetic eclecticism of a Shaw or Stravinsky; large portions of Bergman's films seem now to be an exercise in Carl Dreyer, now Dali, Cocteau, Renoir, Germanic expressionism, all fraught with now another studied derivation, and it is only in aggregate, by virtue of the characteristic uses to which such borrowings are directed, that they are recognizably the work of Ingmar Bergman. (p. 99)

It is particularly in the darker side of the world of his films that Bergman seems most willfully to be working against the natural bent of his temperament;… a comic temperament. That is why a film such as The Seventh Seal fails stylistically, cold, forced, and derivative, a tremendous effort of the will as opposed to the imagination; that is why Ansiktet seems, finally, despite its audacity, assurance, and marvelous accomplishment, no more than brilliant sleight of hand, a magic lantern show. Its deepest insight is on the level of irony; but irony unredeemed by passionate conviction and commitment is mere indulgence, and moral frivolity. Bergman has likened himself to a conjurer, with his camera the wonderful apparatus of conjuration and deceit; and perhaps, in his ability to mesmerize us with mere shadows, he is closer to Vogler than we have cared to imagine….

It is only in the brightly lit world, the glitter and glare of his comedies, that Bergman seems to be temperamentally at home, as the dark side of his films seems alien to him; it is only in his comedies that his style loses the ponderous, deliberate quality of his dark films and takes on a quality of lightness and grace. (p. 100)

Ansiktet presents Bergman in an act of exposition, riding on top of his material, and in absolute control of it. This perfect assurance shows itself in the magnificent confidence that is required to bring off the impudent joke of the film's rain to sunshine ending; implied in such trumpery is the sense that you almost have to be great to get away with it, to feel your work so secure as to withstand such facetiousness. It also explains why the work finally rings hollow, while a film like Wild Strawberries, even, in its less resonant way, Smiles of a Summer Night, reverberates with the kind of infinite suggestiveness of a work servant to vision….

Yet, admitting his limitations, one can nonetheless find Bergman's presence in the contemporary cinema a salutary one. He has been not a director of conscience but of intelligence, and he has opened the eyes of his audience to the fact that the film is a medium respondent to the uses of an artist of high intelligence; that it is susceptible to ideas and to the dialectical conflict incumbent upon them. And he has offered the proof, if we ever really needed it, that intelligence, even great intelligence, is, in itself, not enough. (p. 101)

William S. Pechter, "The Light Is Dark Enough," in The Tulane Drama Review (copyright, © 1960, The Tulane Drama Review), Vol. 5, No. 2, December, 1960, pp. 94-101.

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