“Bergman Island”

Paleo Retiree writes:

bergmanisland

This produced-for-Swedish-TV doc by Marie Nyreröd is basically an informal visit with a very aged Ingmar Bergman. The legendary film and theater director is living out his final years on the little island of Fårö. He’s 86 and alone — his fifth wife died 8 years previously.

Bergman drives Nyreröd around the flat, rural-to-wild, sparsely-populated island. He walks her through his ranch house, showing off trinkets and relics. Everything in the place — modernist but rustic, full of irregular textures and natural materials — is beautiful, modest, subdued and tasteful. He thumbs through snapshots and newspaper clippings; he shows Nyreröd some home-movie and backstage film footage, sharing recollections and ruminations along the way.

Nyreröd makes some efforts to include enough information about Bergman to supply an overview of his life — the childhood, the ambition, the women, the fame, the tax exile, the return. But she doesn’t spend much effort on introducing the man, or on selling you on his importance; she takes it for granted  that her intended audience has shown up with the proper reverential attitude, as well as with some familiarity with the outlines of the biography. The general attitude seems to be “We’re lucky to have any kind of audience with the great man, so we’re just going to go along with whatever he’s willing to give us.”

Despite the haphazard quality of the movie — it’s an edited-down segment from a three-part series that Nyreröd made about Bergman and his work — the Question Lady and I enjoyed sitting through it. What a visit to another era it is, to a time when artists took themselves really, really seriously and worshipful civilians eagerly ate the solemnity up. In today’s leveled-out, compulsively irreverent, web-ified world, is there anyone who can get away with this kind of self-serious carrying-on?

Bergman talks — slowly and reflectively, as though he’s Erland Josephson experiencing a particularly hard-to-process revelation —  about his fears, his weakness, his flaws. He clutches thick sweaters with gnarled, old-man fingers, and he helps himself to epic hesitations and ponderings. What’s being conveyed by his manner is that deep metaphysical and personal truths, painful to connect with and even more agonizing to divulge, are being attained. In fact, the content of his speeches is surprisingly banal, along the lines of having been a child who was afraid of the dark. But Bergman delivers these micro-monologues with enormous, if glacially-paced and feeble-voiced, relish. 90% of what he has to say concerns his shortcomings, his lies, his deceitfulness. He apparently didn’t have it in him to be much of a husband to his many wives, and was an even worse father to his nine kids. You can be certain that he doesn’t neglect to dwell on his present-day feelings of isolation. Hey, he’s Bergman. Would you want him not to overwhelm us with his suffering?

The facet of the film that struck me most was the juxtaposition of the young and middle-aged Bergman who we see in newsreel and home-movie footage with the old man we’re hanging out with in the present. This isn’t just because of the usual “Is this what it all comes to?” aspect, though that certainly has its unavoidable impact. It’s also because of a contrast and a continuity. The contrast: The Bergman we see from the ‘50s thru ‘70s — an era when the “foreign art movie” reigned supreme and when Bergman was universally regarded as one of the world’s great creators — is confident, funny, swaggering. He’s got vigor as well as a magic touch; he isn’t just going from one artistic triumph to another, he’s going from one world-class woman to another. (And what women they were. Among his lovers: Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.) He’s jaunty, sexy and full of himself. The Bergman we spend time with in the doc’s present tense is a querulous, lonely, ponderous old man, moving his bony hands anxiously, playing slyly on our sympathies, and pondering his failures in a voice that’s frequently whiney. The continuity: though his levels of vigor have certainly declined and though his personal style has certainly changed, Bergman was apparently always and everywhere a man of the theatre, taking his moments, leaping on his opportunities, and imposing his vision. Once a hambone, always a hambone, I guess.

All that said, Fårö — where Bergman made some of his more austere films and where he then had his house constructed — is ravishing in its bleak way; the house itself is a beauty; and it’s fun to be reminded of the man and his era. The doc made the Question Lady and me want to re-watch a few of his films and catch up with a few of the Bergmans we somehow missed first time around. The pretentions and ambitions of the era may look a little ludicrous in today’s light, but there’s no question that Bergman was a giant.

Related

  • We streamed the doc on Hulu+.
  • The Gotland website, where you can learn more about Fårö.
  • A New York Times visit to Fårö. Fun passage: “When Bergman died, the details of his funeral were  kept under wraps. ‘People kept the secret from the press until the grave was dug the night before,’ said Mr. Soderlund, who provided the wood that was used to make Bergman’s coffin. ‘These were his instructions. He directed his own funeral’.”
  • Civilians who visit Fårö seem to love the place.
  • Bergman died in 2007 but the annual celebration of him and his work rolls on.
  • A few titles to start with for those who haven’t done their Bergman yet: “Summer With Monika,” “Smile of a Summer Night,” “Wild Strawberries,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” “Scenes from a Marriage,” “The Magic Flute,” “Fanny and Alexander.”

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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12 Responses to “Bergman Island”

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

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    Sums up a lot of Bergman, I think — I’ve always been intrigued by folks who see his work as being filled with intellectual and spiritual profundities. No doubt, the packaging and delivery communicate profoundness, but the content is often pretty trite. To me, he was a sensualist first and foremost. My faves of his are the ones dealing with sex, the seasons, and beautiful, unstable young women. “Smiles of a Summer Night” is bliss.

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    • His portraits of women might even be among the cinema’s greatest, IMHO. Having to wade thru all the suffering and the metaphysical baloney, though … And the pacing. I’m on Day Four of trying to get thru “Through a Glass Darkly.” It’s magnificent in many ways, and Harriet is a major art-cinema hottie, but I can manage about ten minutes of it before needing a break.

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      • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

        I watched his movie about women in the hospital to give birth (or get abortions) a while back. Can’t even remember the name. It’s a rarely discussed one. Lots of interesting insights into women, lots of good acting…but boy is it a slog. There’s something sadistic and unpleasantly opportunistic about the way he pedestalizes suffering. It doesn’t even feel like natural suffering; it flaunts its staginess.

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  2. Callowman says:

    ‘Sensualist’ seems like a pretty good summary. I haven’t seen this doc, but when I read his late 80s autobiography, Laterna Magica, my two main reactions were: 1) this guy doesn’t seem as deep as he’s cracked up to be, and 2) he seems to be having a lot of fun.

    Btw, Fårö was officially off-limits to non-Swedish citizens until the 90s. I’ve never been there.

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    • >>Btw, Fårö was officially off-limits to non-Swedish citizens until the 90s. I’ve never been there.

      Jeez, no kidding? Why’d they lift the ban?

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      • Callowman says:

        There used to be a big military base there. Until the end of the Cold War, Sweden usually maintained a large force for a such a small country, and they had a lot of civil defense measures in place. The idea was to be a more bitter pill than anybody would want to swallow.

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    • Yeah, one of the impressions that you get from the doc of Bergman in his prime is that he was having a major ball. People were funding his nutty movies, actresses were throwing themselves at him … What could have been nicer? Arty torment was a good business once upon a time. Worked for him anyway.

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  3. ironrailsironweights says:

    His tax exile was no surprise. Until not long ago Sweden’s top tax bracket was 101%.

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    • 101%? Really? How bizarre — what were they thinking? In addition Bergman seems like one of those artists who never paid very close attention to his finances, or to what his accountants were up to.

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  4. Bergman’s commercials for antibacterial soap. The 9th one was Bibi Andersson’s screen debut: http://www.openculture.com/2011/12/ingmar_bergmans_soap_commercials.html

    “Originally, I accepted the Bris commercials in order to save the lives of my self and my families. But that was really secondary. The primary reason I wanted to make the commercials was that I was given free rein with money and I could do exactly what I wanted with the product’s message. Anyhow, I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand.”

    Two implications from this quote:
    1. Art before Life.
    2. I *am* Culture.

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  5. Glengarry says:

    Well, in his defense, Bergman did in his hambone triteness try, but to be sure he never reached the insights or skills of someone like Paul W.S. Anderson.

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  6. Pingback: “Nymphomaniac” | Uncouth Reflections

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