The Unblinking 'I'

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The idea of greatness often stops us. Beethoven? Van Gogh? Babe Ruth? Jackie "the Great One" Gleason? All have earned the g-word without so much as a whimper of protest. We know the arcing home run, the painting of a starry night, the spine-tingling crescendos fill us with inexpressible joy. But why were they great?

And what does it mean when we declare that Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish filmmaker who passed away early yesterday at 89, was the greatest artist in the history of film?

What did the son of a Lutheran minister, with five wives, four divorces, three Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and at least one out-of-wedlock child, do to deserve this? The answer can be found in the films themselves. And in this era of zip-speed gratification, we can order them on Netflix or buy those glorious Criterion DVD collections. We can see for ourselves how -- in "Wild Strawberries," "Persona" or "Fanny and Alexander" -- Bergman reminded us with singular, breathtaking luminosity what it is to be human.

Of course, "what it means to be human" may sound like a cliche. But Bergman established film as the medium to explore it. His quest spanned almost 60 years -- from 1944 (his first screenplay, "Torment") to 2003's "Saraband," which he directed in his 80s. Moviemakers before him -- Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith and others -- had created works of lasting universality. But Bergman was the first to take the psychological bricks and mortar of everyday life and turn them into cathedrals of meaning.

He became internationally known when his 1955 "Smiles of a Summer Night," a comedy, won a special award for best poetic humor at the Cannes festival. But the movie that would establish him as a great film artist -- certainly in critical circles -- was 1957's "The Seventh Seal." A drama about a medieval knight who rages at an indifferent God in the face of plague, it became an allegory for modern man. One scene in particular, in which the knight plays a game of chess with Death himself, a spectral figure in a monklike robe, became one of cinema's iconic moments.

From then on, Bergman's movies flowed in a torrent as he pursued the themes that would further magnify him as an artist of serious import. And with other filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and, in later years, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, he established something new. It was a cinema that reflected -- rather than provided escape from -- life.

Certainly Bergman's films from the 1950s and early 1960s, including "Wild Strawberries," "Through a Glass Darkly" and "The Silence," delved into endless angst, mortality, existentialism and a sense of God's absence. But his work took an acutely personal course, starting with "Persona," a 1966 movie about two women who become inextricably linked, and 1974's "Scenes From a Marriage," a television series-turned-movie (starring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann) that examined a failed relationship with such stark honesty it felt like modern life on the screen. The extended arguments between husband and wife are simply brutal. Bergman also acknowledged the drama was semi-autobiographical, mirroring of his real-life relationship with Ullmann (with whom he had a daughter, Linn).

In later years, Bergman seemed to become as remote as Faro Island in the Baltic Sea, his home (off and on) since the early 1960s. And the world seemed to pass him by. Many of those who'd heard of him dismissed Bergman as the ultimate gloom-and-doom artist, an early art-house chronicler of angst and depression. It was an easy archetype to ridicule or even respectfully satirize. (What does it say about the modern world that most people seem to remember parodies of Bergman's films better than the works themselves?)

Woody Allen, who revered him, straddled the fence between veneration ("Interiors") and satire ("Love and Death"). In a 1988 speech commemorating him, Allen called Bergman "probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera." And he used Bergman's favorite cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, for "Crimes and Misdemeanors."

Another film, 1968's "De Duva: The Dove," had fun with Bergman's themes, as characters acted out a mishmash compendium of scenes from Bergman's films and spoke a mangled Swedish-accented English. (Example: Madeline Kahn shoves a cigar into her mouth and, asking for a light, says, "Phalliken symbol?") And in 1991's "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," the eponymous goofballs played Twister and Battleship with a Death figure -- a bald guy in a black cape, mocking "The Seventh Seal."

But Bergman's films were as much about sex, love, joy and laughter as his gloomier themes. No one examined his own life with greater self-effacing honesty.

Such honesty may seem a bit out of place now. Today's most ubiquitous artists are bloggers. But how many blogs, really, go beyond self-absorption?

Bergman's art was more than just personal. He offered his perspective as a glistening prism for all of us. And for this fan, Bergman understood his audience's intensely personal secrets -- yesterday's row with the spouse, tormented thoughts about death, foolish dreams of grandeur, jealousy over that well-to-do family next door, the emotional devastation of our childhoods, and so on.

And where we thought of them as silly, private matters, he elevated them with a perspective that made us feel honored to be human. By showing that childhood, family memories and the regrets, ecstasies and sorrows of his own life were important to him, he made us feel our lives were equally significant. And rather than exclude us from his own torments, he drew us in.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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