Ingmar Bergman, who this week made known his retirement, was a genius of the art of film whose work brought moviegoers together in mysterious ways.
"Say, have you seen the new Bergman movie downtown? Me either. Let's get a pizza and watch TV."
The Nordic master of cinematic gloom, now 63, has himself now declared that "the Bergman epoch is over." He intends to retire to his beloved Isle of Faroe, whose rainswept landscape and stony beaches have been the site and psyche of many of his films. Faroe is an island in the Baltic that lies 30 miles from Stockholm and is approximately as far from Hollywood as the galaxy Andromeda.
Thus ends, apparently, the stream of motion pictures that began in 1948 with "Thirst," since which the fascination of intellectuals of somber bent has been neither staunched nor quenched. From "The Silence" of 1963 -- which deals with a crisis between an alcoholic drug addict lesbian and her nymphomaniac sister -- to the "The Serpent's Egg," a brutal study of impotence and Nazis made from exile in Germany three years ago, Bergman has run the gamut of human emotions from Y to Z -- and beyond.
Now we say farewell to all of that, or, that is, all of that we can remember; for it is a sad fact that many a loathsome clod failed to meet the master halfway.
Thus, Bergman, whose image resides in the American public eye as a somewhat stooped man in a droopy sweater with one arm around Liv Ullmann, never was a success on the talk-show circuit here. It was thought privately in Burbank that the body of his career lacked "legs"; true, he had been married four times, had a child by Ullmann and in 1976 left Sweden in a huff because he found himself in the 102-percent tax bracket.
But his surface resemblance to Calvin Trillin was deemed insufficient to sustain a late-night audience, and besides, all his best anecdotes were in Swedish.
Bergman's movies, however, were not to be denied. For one thing, they kept coming out: "Summer Interlude" ('51); "Waiting Women," ('52); "Summer With Monika" ('53); "Sawdust and Tinsel" ('54); "Smiles of a Summer Night" ('55); "The Seventh Seal" ('56); "Wild Strawberries" ('58); "The Magician" ('59); "The Virgin Spring" and "The Devil's Eye" ('60); "Winter Light" ('61); "Through a Glass Darkly" ('62); "The Silence" ('63); "Now About These Women" ('64); "Persona" ('65); "Hour of the Wolf" and "The Shame" ('68); "The Passion of Anna" ('69); "The Touch" ('71); "Cries and Whispers" ('72); Scenes From a Marriage" ('73); "The Magic Flute" ('75); "Face to Face" ('76); "The Serpent's Egg" ('77); "Autumn Sonata" ('78); "From the Life of the Marionettes" ('80); "Fanny and Alexander" ('81, as yet unreleased).
The Bergman images came in profusion, too: the chess game between black-robed, white-faced Death and the perpetually suffering Max von Sydow in "The Seventh Seal"; the ravishing of the silken beauty in "The Virgin Spring"; the naked, weeping heroine of "Winter Light"; the funeral carriage of the old man's dreams in "Wild Strawberries." They were enough to turn the sunniest California dispositions into Seattle. And they provoked a most ill-mannered parody called "The Dove," which starred a fowl with symbolic bowel habits and characters who spoke in singsong Swedish-English about despair and "jooomping in the H20ski."
Even so, it was not until 1973 that many patrons in the United States, habitually glued to their television screens, began to realize who Ingmar Bergman was, and the shape of his particular genius. The precipitation was the result of a dual happenstance: a. the appearance on TV of "Scenes From a Marriage," and b. the soaring popularity of a Broadway musical, "A Little Night Music," based on his "Smiles of a Summer Night."
"Scenes From a Marriage," originally made for Swedish television and then transformed into a long movie, was aired by public television, a 300-minute version spanning six Wednesdays. That series, with Ullmann and Erland Josephson as a wife and husband who have everything and are not happy with a capital not, made a lot of sense even to Americans. And for a Bergman movie, it hardly rained at all.
It seems impossible now, but it was a fact for many years that whenever his films turned up at an uptown art house or a university theater, the queues of gaunt students also frequently contained uninformed personages seeking tickets for "Casablanca" or "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
Told Ingmar, not Ingrid, the interlopers skulked away into the gray rain, muttering about "the wrong Bergman."
In this way, thousands missed "Persona," his psychodrama in which Ullmann and Bibi Andersson portray two women so much alike in looks and character that in the end their personalities are merged and they exchange roles. As the years went by, however, fewer and fewer people missed Bergman's films by accident.
Sadly, Philistines continued to be repelled. Just when a cognoscente had persuaded a doubting friend that in fact Ingmar Bergman was fully capable of a pixieish humor, "Cries and Whispers" came out, and the sad refrain again was heard:
"Is this the new one about a dying spinster and her two uptight sisters and the walls keep turning to blood? Well, I'm not going."
Chief among those who rallied to Bergman's side was the New York philosopher-clarinetist Woody Allen.
Allen, to whom both S.J. Perelman and Leo Tolstoy had previously spoken in the night, made no secret of his belief that Ingmar Bergman was the greatest filmmaker of modern times. So Allen made a film titled "Interiors," casting Diane Keaton as an embittered poet confessing to her analyst, and generally tracing the chilly outlines of Bergmanian thought. Allen's fans still loved him; they simply assumed that the heating system in his apartment building had broken down.
Woody Allen went on to become various things, but Bergman remained Bergman. What origin had his bleak, morbid, depressing, rainswept, tortured, unhappy movies?
As a child, he read Strindberg, and then managed to get his hands on a toy projector. He bought random scraps of film and edited them together into stories for his own amusement. A sequence in his 1948 film "The Devil's Wanton" is a reconstruction of one of those scraps: A man goes into a haunted room and is chased by the devil, who jumps out of a chest, and by a murderer, who breaks into the room. "Then a policeman chases the murderer, and they all chase each other round and round," Bergman said in his autobiography.
Asked the question directly, he once explained: "My basic view of things is -- not to have any basic view of things." This was as good an explanation as any, and typically candid. Accused of portraying today's women as "cold and frigid and neurotic," as in Esther, one of two troubled sisters in "The Silence," Bergman had a straightforward answer. In his first draft, he said, she had been a man.
His northern sensibility, of course, is clearly the product of a sensibility formed in the north -- a point missed by some of his critics. He has exclaimed upon his enjoyment of May and June in Sweden, but stated that the long days of sunlight in July and August are "a dreadful torment" to him:
"Sunlight gives me claustrophobia. My nightmares are always saturated in sunshine. I hate the south, where I'm exposed to incessant sunlight. It's like a threat . . . terrifying."
But the warmer climes found much to admire in Bergman. For one thing, he produced, as well as directed and wrote, his movies, and so, like the boy with the ball and bat, could always get a game when he wanted to. He drew around him a talented band -- Ullmann, Andersson, Josephson, von Sydow and the cinematographer Sven Nykvist among them. Their careers are well known, and they will go on without him.
One thing for sure, he was and is a national treasure in Sweden. His vision may attract a rather specific type of tourist to the kingdom, if indeed any at all, but that is not something an artist concerns himself with.
It looked in 1976 as if Sweden were trying to kill the golden goose, or at least reveal by bureaucratic act the origins of the angst it was exporting. Bergman was publicly arrested and interrogated for three hours about his income tax returns, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. Bibi Andersson also was hauled into custody and kept for 24 hours. It seems that in Sweden self-employed persons are taxed at a higher rate than other workers, and that artists are self-employed. Astrid Lindgrin, author of the Pippi Longstocking tales, was so outraged to find herself in the 102-percent tax bracket that she rewrote a folk tale about it.
Bergman was in exile for five years, during which time he managed to win every single tax charge against him, and now he can return. The desolate Isle of Faroe will have its Bergman back, and the world has his "Cries and Whispers" to remember him by.
All is forgiven. Well, almost all.