Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman’s Face Always Surprised Me

By Lars Trodson

Ingmar Bergman's face always surprised me. It was lean, angular, handsome. When I think of a Swedish face, I guess I think of my grandfather, who was Swedish, and who had a kind, avuncular face; a pixie face, in a way. As is the face of my father, who was born in this country, but both his parents had nothing but Swedish blood in them. So these were my models. Not the stern look of Mr. Bergman. And so, even though I had seen Bergman’s face countless times over the years, it caught me off guard every time.

So now, you know, there will be no more new pictures of Bergman. Not of his face. Not from his mind.

The first Bergman film I saw was in the theater, “From the Life of the Marionettes”, and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I thought it was talky and circular (I think it was filmed in both black and white and color), and not necessarily incisive. That was 1980, and it was some time before I saw a Bergman film again. And also I should say I don’t come at this essay as a Bergman scholar -- I think I’ve seen five or six Bergman films. I don’t know if it would matter any way, if I had seen more by now. I still feel a loss, and it is a loss far beyond my actual connection to, or knowledge of, the artist’s work.

It has something to do with the connection we feel to these people. For some reason, and I think this is particularly true of film people, we just feel better knowing they are around, whether they are working or not.

I remember years ago seeing a picture of Robert Mitchum -- probably my favorite movie actor of all -- in Vanity Fair magazine. If I recall correctly, and maybe I don’t, he was standing on a pier in a raincoat smoking a cigarette. Mitchum worked pretty much until the end, but when I saw the picture I was glad to see him. He was the guy in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” or “Out of the Past” or “Farewell, My Lovely.” When you are able to still see a guy like that, still with us, it makes you think that your memories are not so far away, after all.

So with Bergman still alive, those movies he made long ago didn’t seem so impossibly distant. Here is the guy who made them, living on his island off the coast of Sweden, and the memories of the movies he has made, and the people he knew, and the things he wrote about, were not shadows or relics or anthropological, but real, living things. By having him here I suppose it made it seem as though time was passing less quickly -- that it was possible to hold onto those things we need and that are important for a little longer.

There are a couple of things I remember. When I saw “The Magician” -- which I think was at the Avon Theatre on Thayer Street in Providence -- we had snuck in some booze and so we had some White Russians or something to drink while we watched the film. I loved the sound of the Swedish language -- and I remember that a few lines sounded so much like English that it was startling to hear. The way Bergman and Gunnar Fischer constructed the film it looked like it was a found thing, a piece of history dug up out of the earth, deep and mysterious, completely natural, wholly organic -- like you had stumbled across these people in the woods.

And in “The Seventh Seal” there is the image of Death on the horizon at the end of the chain of circus performers. This is one of the truly iconic images on film, and in my mind I see that the image has been altered.

Holding the hand of death is now Bergman himself, no longer haunted, dancing away.