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Ingmar Sends His Regrets : THE MAGIC LANTERN An Autobiography by Ingmar Bergman; translated from Swedish by Joan Tate (Viking: $19.95; 290 pp., illustrated)

September 18, 1988|Charles Champlin

"Sometimes," Ingmar Bergman says, "I probably do mourn the fact that I no longer make films. . . . Most of all I miss working with (cinematographer) Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdued, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light."

It is an enchanting litany to the film maker's vision. Then again, one would not expect the man who made "Wild Strawberries," "The Seventh Seal" and "Cries and Whispers" to do an autobiography quite like any other arising in the world of film. It may, in fact, probably be unique in its confessional, self-deprecating and even self-lacerating honesty. He is candid but tactful, telling tales on no one but himself.

"The Magic Lantern" consistently violates the sacred first principle of autobiography by eschewing the glories and triumphs in favor of the failures, embarrassments, shortcomings, cruelties and humiliations of the author's life.

He offers virtually no evidence that the voice you are hearing belongs to one of the world's most honored film makers. It can be argued that he takes it for granted that we know. But he also speaks of a "benevolent approval" that the reader forgets in 10 minutes, the director himself in 10 days. He does not rate honors highly. When he cites specific films he has made, it is often to complain of their inadequacies.

"The Seventh Seal," for example, he calls "an uneven film," although he adds that it "lies close to my heart because it was made under difficult circumstances in a surge of vitality and delight." Of "Face to Face": "My intentions required an inspiration which failed me." On the undoubted flops, he is quite unsparing: "In 'The Serpent's Egg,' I created a Berlin which no one recognized, not even I."

Elsewhere, he says, "I have always appreciated the honest brutality of the international film world. One need never doubt one's worth in the market. Mine was zero." This was not the beginning Bergman, but the Oscar-winning Bergman trying to put "Cries and Whispers" together and having to invest his life savings and make partners of his performers (in lieu of paying them salaries) for want of a willing distributor. (The film, as he does hint ironically, became one of his substantial successes.)

"I was booed at the premiere of 'Miss Julie,' a remarkably stimulating experience," he writes. That too was in late career in Munich, where he was living and working in voluntary exile from Sweden. "People were fed up with this insufferable Scandinavian who thought so much of himself."

In many ways, Bergman's films predict his autobiography. They and it are remarkably visual, a succession of scenes remembered in great detail, or imagined in detail. In a fantasy a few years after her death he creates a conversation with his mother, noting the Band-Aid she was wearing on her finger at the moment she died. It is very affecting.

Also like the films, "The Magic Lantern"is intensely introspective. It alternates between present and past, following only a loose, linking chronology between the hypersensitive and rather unruly boy growing up in Lutheran parsonages and the autumnal adult no longer confident in his physical or his creative powers.

When two or three actors begged off his production of "Hamlet" back in Stockholm after Munich, he saw a hard truth: It was not "any longer so important to keep in with Bergman. He'd stopped making films." The reader winces at the probable truth of the observation and hears the undertone of bitterness.

Bergman, who began as a writer for the theater and for other film makers and who wrote the scripts of virtually all his own films, is an exceptionally adroit and eloquent autobiographer. The translation by Joan Tate is excellent, but Bergman's own English is fluent and idiomatic and it is a fair guess that he ran an eye over the text himself.

While "The Magic Lantern" is hardly a how-to book on the making of films--indeed, it is a far cry from any of the "And then I wrote . . ." reminiscences--it is finally an illuminating mosaic on the evolution of the artist as a young Scandinavian man.

The clues are sometimes offhand. Brought to her bedroom to see his just-dead mother, Bergman writes, "The room was suddenly filled with bright early spring light, the little alarm clock ticking away busily on the bedside table. . . . I thought her eyelids twitched. I thought she was asleep and just about to wake, my habitual illusory game with reality."

Childhood, which Bergman celebrated so movingly in his final film, "Fanny and Alexander," was perhaps even more crucial for him than for most people. Sent to live with his grandmother after his mother died and before his father remarried, Bergman says the time "gratified my constant and importunate need for silence, regularity and order."

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