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Bergman, ever the provoker

August 01, 2007|Todd Field | Special to The Times

"He's dead. That's it then." These are the words I hear on Monday morning when I answer the telephone. They arrive with a sickening, dull thud and are spoken by my friend Leon Vitali. We spend the next hour mourning our way through this news by exchanging snippets of dreams we cannot forget -- dreams belonging to Ingmar Bergman, the first filmmaker to ever seriously approach the archetypes once reserved for novelists and playwrights like his fellow countrymen August Strindberg and Hjalmar Söderberg, and Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. But Bergman belonged to all of us. He was our tunnel man building the aqueducts of our cinematic collective unconscious. Supplying water to a people who heretofore didn't know they were thirsty.

Of course it is impossible to write anything about Ingmar Bergman without breaking into anecdote or hyperbole. There is a reason his name is an adjective for the psychology of abstraction, depression and the long shadow cast by postmodern life. Like a patient reclining on a by-the-hour Jungian couch, his work demands analysis. Try watching "Nattvardsgästerna" (Winter Light), "Tystnaden" (The Silence), "Jungfrukällan" (The Virgin Spring) or "Fanny och Alexander" (Fanny and Alexander) with the subtitles off and see what happens. There is something present underneath the pretense of language that allows you to engage the narrative in a way similar to how you experience instrumental music -- completely unburdened of the literalism of "reality."

It is hard to believe now, but there was a time when Ingmar Bergman, the poster boy of the European "art house," became unfashionable. He found himself accused of being earnest -- of residing in an austere, pseudo-serious pose. Many of his biggest supporters jumped ship and ran straight to Jean-Luc Godard's New Wave, with the excitement of a hand-held, jump-cut image and cartoon story line. I think this must have really made Ingmar angry. He once famously remarked, "Godard is a . . . bore."

Bergman was of the theater first and foremost and stayed with it until the end. He compared theater to a faithful wife -- over his lifetime he would have five wives -- and film to the costly, exacting mistress. But it seems of the two, he was in awe of the mistress. "No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul."

In 2002, my wife, Serena Rathbun, and I were invited as Bergman's guests for his production of the Ibsen play "Gjengangere" (Ghosts) at the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre. Neither of us speaks Swedish nor was familiar with the play, which centers on five characters staged around a lazy Susan set consisting of a dining room table and chairs, two high-backed armchairs and a sofa. And yet, as we walked out of the theater, we were both utterly destroyed and spent the rest of the evening puzzling over what we had just experienced.

Days later, when we returned home, Serena and I read the translation and were shocked. That night back in Stockholm, not only had we understood the "plot," the vocations of the various characters and their relationships to one another, but we'd also been fully aware of the fundamental theme of the play -- what Emma Goldman called "the paralyzing effect of Duty." And all of this was conveyed not through the language of the play but through the human beings moving in the three-dimensional head space of Bergman's direction for two-plus hours.

This was one of the most profound revelations of our lives -- as if Timothy Leary had slipped acid into our aquavit and suddenly we understood the absurdity of door locks for the first time.

As I sit here now, on my desk is a stack of plays. They were made a gift to me by Ingmar Bergman. And although they are written in a language I will never read, I keep them near -- if only to remember that night.

"He's dead. That's it then."

That's right, he is. But tonight I'm going to see the first film Bergman wrote and directed -- "Kris" (Crisis). This is a comfort, as I imagine there will be many hours spent after the last reel has spooled trying to figure out what a 28-year-old man, whom I will never meet, has to say.

Todd Field is a writer, director and actor whose Oscar- nominated films include "In the Bedroom" and "Little Children."

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