Kim Novak was an interesting and underappreciated presence in films. Right from the start she was viewed in the shadow of the 1950s reigning sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. In fact that’s why Columbia Pictures signed her in the first place. It was to be their version of Miss Monroe and to replace their ageing sex goddess Rita Hayworth. Her real name was in fact Marilyn. Marilyn Pauline Novak so the Studio quickly changed it to Kim. She was young, vulnerable and would do for their films the same things that the famous MM did for men in hers. But what they hadn’t counted on, what they never count on, is the real differences in each individual human being. An individuality that can never be replicated or reproduced. How many times have we heard about somebody being the “next Bogart” or the next Cary Grant or Clark Gable only to be annoyed and disappointed by the comparison? Still the moguls and the publicists at the studios never seemed to learn and every year we were being introduced to some new incarnation of an old or reigning star. And absurdly enough it still goes on today long after the old studio system has passed into oblivion. Old habits die hard I guess.
Now almost from her first important appearance in the film noir Pushover (1954) Novak’s presence was distinctly different from that of Miss Monroe. She was more quiet, less prone to assert herself, yet she was potently and seductively there. After that came Picnic (1955) the cinematic adaptation of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play directed by Joshua Logan the man who had directed it on stage. The report was that Logan didn’t want her in the film. He wanted Janice Rule, the actress who had played the role on stage but Harry Cohan the boss of Columbia Pictures insisted on her. Going so far as to tell Logan that if Novak was off the picture so was he. Or that’s how legend tells it. Looking at the film today we can see how right he was. Much of the others in the cast seemed off in some way. William Holden looks a bit long in the tooth to be playing the hunky drifter whose masculinity upsets many of the townswomen. Rosalind Russell and Susan Strasberg over act their roles while Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Nick Adams, Betty Field and Felton come off okay. But the one who holds you to the screen every time she appears is Novak. Everything about her in the part of Madge, the town beauty whose latent sexual fires are stirred by the attractive drifter is right. From the sly glancing way she looks at everyone to the way she resists and objects to being called pretty or beautiful. In its quiet way it is an accurate (or seems to be) portrayal of both sexual repression and sexual awakening, one succeeding the other at just the right time. And either by accident or design Novak hits all the right notes in the part. The critics may have been lukewarm in their response to her performance in that film but the public recognized a star when they saw one. She followed this performance with another terrific one in Otto Preminger’s then controversial film The Man with the Golden Arm (1957). That same year she was cast with Frank Sinatra again in the tepid musical Pal Joey (1957) in which Rita Hayworth also appeared. It wasn’t much of a picture but the potency of Novak shined through again. Then in the following year came her greatest performance in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The power of both the film and Novak’s performance was not recognized or appreciated until many, many years later. But today it stands out as possibly the best film of Hitchcock’s distinguished career and a milestone for everyone else creatively involved with the film.
Another Novak performance that has gone unrecognized as far as I’m concerned is her portrayal of Mildred, the self centered maid/ waitress in the remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1964). Bette Davis had done so well playing the part thirty years earlier in the original that the critics couldn’t see past it and slammed Kim because her interpretation was different. But looking at the film today we can see how right on the money her performance is.
As celebrated movie star Kim Novak always seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease. She dealt with it as best she could but didn’t appear to embrace it. It always seemed to be an intrusion that had to be endured. So that when after many films (some good, other not so)in a variety of genres she quietly slipped out of public view, I wasn’t surprised. She had given what she had to give and now it was time to say goodbye.
Today, from all accounts, she his happily retired from the screen and living a fruitful life as a painter/ sculptor who raises horses and llamas with her husband in Oregon and California. Some Kim Novak DVD box sets are being issued so her performances can be appreciated and reassessed. I also think that if anyone deserves a film series dedicated to showing the best of their screen work, Miss Novak is that individual. She might be retired but her films still manifests the incandesce of her on-screen persona.
Ice Station Zebra (1968)
Ice Station Zebra is a movie I have watched a good number of times over the years really wanting to like it. My reasons for this were multiple. First off it boasts a creative team of considerable pedigree. Its director John Sturges had been responsible for a number of my favorite films. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and The Magnificent 7 (1960). The cast headed by the always reliable Rock Hudson, supported by Ernest Borgnine, Patrick McGoohan of the classic TV series The Prisoner (1967) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Jim Brown, football player turned movie actor (The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Tony Bill an actor (Come Blow Your Horn – 1963) whom I met briefly who later went on to become a successful producer (The Sting -1973) and director (Flyboys- 2006).It was adapted from a novel by Alistair MacLean whose previous novel Guns of Navarone (1964) had been made into an exciting film. It was Rock Hudson’s favorite film and a lot of friends whose opinion I respect love this movie. But most importantly I re-watch this film because it was a favorite of eccentric; some might say crazy, billionaire Howard Hughes. I’d read somewhere that he was always running it for his barber when he was getting a haircut. Telling him: “Watch this; you’ll learn something from it.” The poor man is supposed to have seen the film more than a dozen times and had no idea what he had learned in the process except that perhaps Hughes was a little batshit. Or maybe even more than a little. Anyway I saw the film when it first came out in 1968 on a big screen (which is the only way to see a film like this) in New York City and thought it intelligent but not at all thrilling. Then I started reading all these write-ups on it saying that it was underrated and underappreciated, so I looked at it again and again. Then after reading that thing about Hughes I went back and watched it one more time trying to glean what about it that he found so fascinating. I must confess, I’m totally baffled.
I find Hudson’s performance in the lead uninteresting and stolid, McGoohan, who I usually like, overemphatic to the point where he seems to be illustrating the part more than playing it, Borgnine cartoonish bordering on buffoonery, Tony Bill dull and Jim Brown stiff. Sturges direction flat and the screenplay by Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip-1964) uninspired. Nothing in the story surprises me or ignites my curiosity in any way. I also didn’t believe a word of it. Even the settings looked like sound stages and sets to me. On the whole the film just seems to go on and on long after my tolerance has been exhausted. And clocking in at 148 minutes it seems to be at least 20 minutes too long.
This is a film I can’t get into the rhythm of at all. Still I keep thinking that somehow I’m wrong and that the fault is in me and not all the talented who put the film together or Mr. Howard Hughes who loved it so much. It just goes to show you the power eccentricity can wield even years after its originator has shuffled off this mortal coil.
Some brief notes on: Frank Sinatra, Sandra Bullock and Deborah Kerr
Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998)
We of a certain age all grew up with Frank Sinatra. At least his music. He came after Bing Crosby and somehow somewhere in the late 1950s surpassed him as America’s most popular singer. By this time he had gone through several highs and lows that had not only deepened and matured him but left a residue of anger and bitterness as well. It was during this period that he recorded so many of his classic albums with Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. Now he had been in movies for nearly a decade already but it wasn’t until his famous “comeback” in From Here to Eternity (1953) that anyone ever paid much attention to Sinatra the actor. But even earlier Frank was beginning to show his chops as an actor in films like Meet Danny Wilson (1952). And after his Oscar winning performance as Best Supporting Actor he quickly moved into playing dramatic leading roles with such distinction that Elia Kazan, arguably the best director of actors in America, selected him for the lead in On the Waterfront (1954) when Marlon Brando at first refused to play the role. Later when Brando changed his mind and accepted, the film’s producer Sam Spiegel had to financially settle with Sinatra out of court. My point being that Elia Kazan in selecting Sinatra was indicating how high in his esteem Frank was as an actor. Right up there next to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift who were then thought of as America’s finest.
I feel that this estimation is correct. At the time Sinatra was among America’s finest dramatic actors in the movies. One only has to revisit films like Suddenly (1954), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), The Joker is Wild (1957), Some Came Running (1958) and of course The Manchurian Candidate (1962) which he also produced. But his skill was not just relegated to dramas he was as good at comedy in films like The Tender Trap (1955) and one of my favorites Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959). Then came the “Rat Pack” when he seemed to be mostly playing host to his friends rather than acting a role that he started giving lazy uninteresting performances. Apparently, for some reason he became bored and decided not to try anymore. (Note: Marlon Brando seemed to have fallen victim of the same malaise as well.) But at his best very few could match him. Today he is legendary as a singer/ interpreter of songs but he was also an actor of rare power and range. I would say unequivocally the best singer turned actor in the history of motion pictures.
She won the Academy Award as Best Actress in 2009 for The Blind Side but I still contend that she is an underrated dramatic actress whose skills have still not been fully appreciated. I have felt this way since films like Murder by Numbers (2002. It wasn’t much of a picture but she was terrific in it. Also Crash (2004), Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993) and the Truman Capote film that nobody saw Infamous (2006). She plays in that one Harper Lee and does a very good job at it. Truthfully I liked this film a lot better than the more celebrated and critically acclaimed Capote that came out earlier the same year. And I sometimes wonder if the release dates on the films had been reversed would both the critical and box office response been the same.
Sandra Bullock came to the public awareness as the spunky young woman who drives the bus in the hit film Speed (1994). Everyone was won over by her energy, quick wittedness and sense of humor in that role and she quickly became type cast as that kind of character. But via other roles that she played I could tell that behind the winning smile and tough girl vulnerability there was an intelligent, sophisticated woman who had been through some of the rough patches of life and was drawing on some of that in her acting. And no, I’m not referring to the tabloid stories about her recent breakup and divorce. This was before all that. There had always been a edginess to her performances that was dramatically surprising and sometimes bracing too. Even in things like the popular Miss Congeniality (2000) it can be spotted. But my favorite role and performance by her thus far is in the film 28 Days (2000). Again nobody saw it. At least nobody I knew and I can’t think of seeing any review that praised or even acknowledged it. Portraying alcoholism is a very difficult task. Nick Cage[O1] nailed it in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and so did Ms. Bullock in 28 Days. Nailed it better than just about anyone in recent memory.
We have a tendency to mentally type cast actors in our minds and not support their efforts to change or expand their range. Hopefully this won’t happen with Ms. Bullock and she will get the opportunity to show us how much more she is capable of. I say this knowing that dramatic stories in movies are a rarity these days. Cable TV seems to be the outlet for these types of stories. But wherever Sandra Bullock has the chops let’s let her show them.
Deborah Kerr (1921- 2007)
Deborah Kerr was one of the great ladies of cinema. An actress of superior skills who also had poise, understated good looks and a quiet presence that complimented every male co star she appeared with. She was one of those women who didn’t have to compete with the male in order to be his equal. And co starred with just about every big male star of her time. Clark Gable (The Hucksters -1947), Robert Taylor ( Quo Vadis- 1951), Stewart Granger (King Solomon’s Mines-1950), Burt Lancaster ( From Here to Eternity – 1953), Robert Mitchum ( Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison – 1957), Cary Grant ( An Affair to Remember – 1957),Gregory Peck (Beloved Infidel – 1959), Frank Sinatra ( Marriage on the Rocks- 1965),Gary Cooper ( The Naked Edge – 1961), Kirk Douglas ( The Arrangement – 1969), David Niven (Separate Tables -1958), Van Johnson (End of the Affair – 1955), James Mason ( Julius Caesar – 1953)and with Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956.She became famous for two iconic roles. The troubled wife in From Here to Eternity (particularly for the beach scene) and as the school teacher Anna Leonowens in the musical The King and I although she didn’t sing. Marni Nixon dubbed the musical numbers. She was also an actress of nearly all genres as well, appearing in Costume epics (Quo Vadis),Mysteries ( The Naked Edge), Classics ( Julius Caesar), Historicals ( Young Bess- 1952), Horror ( The Innocents – 1961), War stories (The Journey), Melodramas (The Arrangement), Musicals ( King and I),Comedies ( The Grass is Greener- 1960) a near western ( The Sundowners – 1960), Adventure ( King Solomon’s Mines), Biographical ( Beloved Infidel ), and multiple play adaptations as well. In fact the only genre she seems to have missed completely was science fiction.
She was nominated for the Academy Award six times but never received a competitive award. She was given an honorary award in 1994 for the excellence of her career overall.
I met Ms. Kerr in 1954 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands when she was filming The Proud and the Profane and remember her to be everything she seemed to be on screen. Gentle, thoughtful, considerate and very refined. I had met the entire cast of the film and interviewed most of the principals for the radio station I interned at. I was fifteen at the time and totally in awe of them all. I remember Ms. Kerr as being very approachable and easy to interview. But my most memorable encounter with her occurred a week later when I was going home from school. This was around two in the afternoon and they were filming at the central market place one block away from my school. A crowd had gathered to see what they were doing. So I joined the crowd behind the ropes to look at things too. I watched them do two takes and then break for another setup. As she was heading to her trailer dressing room Ms. Kerr looked over and saw me near the front. She quickly walked over, called my name and bid me to step under the rope and join her. I did and she invited me into her dressing room where we talked about the scene that had just been shot and how movies in general were made. When she was called for the next scene she invited me to sit on her chair so I could more closely see what was going on. I can’t tell you how special that made me feel. And to this day I still look back on it as one of the nicest days of my life. Years later I went to see her on Broadway in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Seascape. After the show I sent a note back stage sort of reminding her of that day in St. Thomas and thanking her for her kindness. I gave it to the guy at the stage door exit for delivery. I never heard from her but I hope she got it.
All this is to say that, from my point of view, Deborah Kerr was not just a great actress on stage and on screen. She was also a very lovely person as well.
Ingmar Bergman – Part Three
Besides being aman of Theatre and Film Bergman was also a man of letters. In fact one could even argue that most of his films though cinematic in nature were also literary at their foundations. And of course he was a playwright too. His adaptations of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, The Ghost Sonata, A Dream Play along with his version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House called Nora reflects his literary skills as much as they echo the original authors. Then there were the short plays, the monologues and other works like In the Presence of a Clown (1997), The Last Scream and After the Rehearsal (1984) that were his own original creations. Many like his one act play Painting on Wood became the foundation for some of his celebrated films. That one evolved into The Seventh Seal (1957)
The literary Bergman is on display via the publications of the scripts from many of his best known films because they are viewed as valuable literary works as well as the outlines/floor plans for all those critically acclaimed films. I have read just about everyone that’s been translated into English and can attest to their value as worthwhile literary works. I particularly like the group collected under the title Four Stories by Ingmar Bergman published by Anchor Press/ Doubleday in 1976. It contains the scripts for The Touch, Cries and Whispers, The Hour of the Wolf and The Passion of Anna. What’s interesting about this collection is that the various film scripts are not written in the standard format that we have become accustomed to. They are written in various forms and styles because as he said once “A screenplay can never express what the film wants to convey.” So instead he writes his scenarios sometimes as a novella, as short stories as diary entries and in the case of Cries and Whisper (1972) as a long letter to the cast and crew which begins this way:
“My Dear Friends, We are going to make a film together. It will look different from our other works and this scrip will also look different. We shall try to strain the medium’s resources in a rather complicated way. More than usual therefore I must tell you what it is I’m after; then we can get together and talk over how we are to give shape to our problems, cinematographically and artistically.”
He then proceeds for 60 pages to not only tell the story and describe the characters but he also explains where the ideas and the images came from and sometimes the inspiration for them
. “The scene just described has haunted me for over a year. I didn’t know the names of the four women and why they were dressed in white dresses that flowed to their feet, or why they moved about in a gray morning light in a room with red walls.”
The script of Hour of the Wolf (1968) is in the form of a play comprised of a Prologue and Two Acts. The Passion of Anna (1969) is told in the first person… “My name is Anna, I am forty eight. I remember it was a sultry October day.” etc.
Another book someone interested in the literary Bergman might want to peruse is The Fifth Act published by The New Press in 1996. Then there are the novels: Best Intentions, and Sunday’s Children
both published in the by Arcade Publishing in 1994.Then came Private Confessions in 1997.His best known books are his autobiography The Magic Lantern (1989) Penguin Books and Images (My Life in Films) published by Arcade in 1994. This is a book in which Bergman looks back at selected films from his long career dividing them into categories with titles like Dreams Dreamers, First Movies, Farces Frolics etc. and comments individually on each addressing how it came about, the reception the film received and what he thinks about it now. In effect it is his summing up of his career and provides some wonderful insights into his creative process. I am so pleased with the book that I wish that every director with a substantial body of work would follow his example and provide us with assessments of their careers and the films they consider to be important examples of their creative output. And comment on them in the detail that Bergman does in his book Images…For example I would’ve really liked it if Sidney Lumet in his senior years had provided us with such a document. His book Making Movies (1996) is wonderful but it didn’t go into his works in any real critical detail because that wasn’t its purpose. A book like that from a man like Lumet would’ve provided a resource not just to critics and academics but to film students who are hungry for guidance and inspiration. As I see it the literary Bergman has shown us the way we just need to walk in his footsteps and make the trip into our own journey of creative discovery.
By misadventure, which is another way of saying idleness and sloth, I wound up seeing Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film Braveheart twice in the same week. I had seen it in the theatre when it was first released and thought it alright but not too much more despite its Academy Award as Best Picture. Upon recent viewings I think that it’s somewhat more than that. It is a stirring epic made with skill, commitment and passion. The last word being the most important. We see a lot of films that are skillfully made. Dazzlingly so sometimes. But the passion invested in the work isn’t always apparent. Sometimes we find it in the acting of some roles but rarely in the direction. But here its director’s passion can be felt in every frame. Mel Gibson who also produced and starred carries the picture through the force of his total immersion in the project. And although there are many excellent performances throughout it is his that gives the film its drive, its electricity, its passion.
There is a blue collar ethic to the entire enterprise. This is something that he brings to virtually all the films that he has been in. Including Zefferelli’s Hamlet (1990) in which he gave a quite worthwhile performance that surprised many who had previously thought him just another popular actor out of Australia. With Braveheart and the character of William Wallace this interpretation fits like a glove. The situation and its aftermath are direct and blunt to the point of sometime seeming almost obtuse. There is no subtlety or subtext here. What you see is what it is all about. But it works. Works like a hard punch in the guts.
Prior to this film Gibson had only directed one film The Man without a Face (1993). In it he had done a respectable job. But it in no way prepared us for the size, scope, and sheer scale of Braveheart. And since then he has directed two other films. The controversial and financially successful Passion of the Christ (2004) and the tepidly received Apocalypto (2006). To me both films had their merits although I found Passion of the Christ repetitive and Apocalypto slow going. Both though lacked the energy of Braveheart and its pounding sense of inevitability. In other words “its internal passion”.
Now in spite of its efforts to avoid comparison the film (changing Wallace wife’s name from Marian to Murron is one instance) nevertheless Braveheart echoes Michael Curtiz’ Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with its many scenes of male camaraderie, the sense of living out in the wild, and even a suggestion of the Little John character in the rock throwing scene at the beginning. It is also very much a man’s picture. Catherine McCormick’s character is there only to set the plot in motion and Sophie Marceau‘s seems shoehorned into the plot just for the sake of itself. There was some controversy about the depiction of the relationship between Longshanks and his son. Some accusations of homophobia. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was similar to the relationship between Anthony Quinn and his son (played by Earl Holliman) in Last Train from Gunhill (1959). In both cases the father and son dynamic is about the same and Holliman’s character is anything but homosexual.
Mel Gibson who was always a better actor than he was given credit for also looks extremely muscular and handsome in the role. Probably the handsomest he’s looked in a movie in quite a while. So he brings a movie star glamour to the picture as well. But his best and greatest contribution is the passion he gave to the film. He also provided it with a sense of humor that is rough hewn and sometimes blatant but it serves to undercut the solemnity of the situation and the graphic nature of some of the violence.
As I see it, this is not a great film but one that is beautifully photographed, intelligently written, and handsomely executed by all the creative entities involved. Gibson has been going through some bad times recently. One hopes that he can put them behind him soon and find a project that can get him as passionately engaged as Braveheart did. We need more films with that kind of ambition yielding that kind of result.
A Brief Note on Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson’s great fear at the end of his life was that he would be more remembered as the man who brought AIDS out of the closet, so far as the larger public was concerned, than for his career as a top movie and TV star. Unfortunately he was right. When he is remembered it is mostly for the former rather than the latter. And of course his revelation about contracting AIDS did and still has some positive effects on both the public’s awareness of the disease and the financial support that has gone into trying to find a cure for it… But it shouldn’t be forgotten that for almost two decades (the 1950s and 60s) Rock Hudson was one of Hollywood’s most proficient and reliable leading men. For me it began with the western The Lawless Breed (1953), Raoul Walsh’s bio of the outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Then of course there was George Stevens’ Giant (1956) the film that moved Hudson into the upper echelons of major screen stardom. Before that there was Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and one of my favorite trash movies of all time Written on the Wind (1956) also directed by Douglas Sirk. In all of those films and others Hudson provided a rock solid center for the plot and all the other characters to revolve around. He might not have been a great actor but he was never a weak or poor one and was always a reassuring presence in all his films including the comedies with Doris Day like Pillow Talk (1959) and the others that followed…Take Giant for example. It is always being talked about because of James Dean’s eccentric performance. And the performance is unique as well as eye catching. But to me it seems to belong to another picture. The true anchors of the film are Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. I think that they both carry the story so well that without them the film would be almost negligible in spite of Stevens’ direction or Dean’s performance. That’s how good they are and how necessary their performances and personas were to the film.
Beyond that Hudson provided some other strong performances in films like; Something of Value (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1957),A Gathering of Eagles (1963), Seconds (1966), Billionaire Howard Hughes’ favorite film Ice Station Zebra (1968) and my personal favorite The Tarnished Angels (1958) in which Hudson gives his most subdued and subtle performance.
The term “leading man” doesn’t carry much weight these days. But in the days of the Studio System it referred to an actor who was able to sustain the viewer’s interest for the duration of the running time of a picture. Many tried but few would succeed over an extended amount of time. The ones who did became “over- the- title” stars, the others became supporting players and character actors. Rock Hudson, born Roy Harold Scherer Jr. who then became Roy Fitzgerald before acquiring his screen name from agent Henry Wilson, was one of the ones who rose to the top. He remained a leading man right to the end of his career and provided American movies with one of its best all-purpose leads for men to identify with and woman to sigh about. His contributions shouldn’t be forgotten or undervalued. From genre to genre, westerns to comedies, musicals to melodramas, war pictures to mysteries along with science fiction and social problem dramas he was a leading man for all seasons.
Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007-) Part Two
For close to 40 years Bergman was a dominant figure in Swedish Theatre and in cinema. He was among the select few filmmakers who could consistently use the medium as a creative outlet for personal expression. And throughout the latter part of his career (from the 1960s on) he was among the few directors in the world with total artistic control and freedom over his films.
Now for most of his life Bergman balanced three full time careers. He was a playwright, a theatre director and administrator and an internationally renowned filmmaker. That reputation began in 1954 when his film The Naked Night won a festival award in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Then in 1956 he won a major prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Smiles of a Summer Night. Wild Strawberries (1958) won a prize in Berlin and The Virgin Spring (1960) won the Academy Award as best Foreign Film. Fanny and Alexander (1981) what he called officially his last film was given the Academy Award as well. He retired from movies in 1984 and from directing in the theatre in 2003.
As a filmmaker Bergman often incorporated theatrical and TV devices such as monologues, soliloquies and interviews as well as direct address along with such literary conventions like diary and journal entries as a means of revealing the inner workings or psyche of his characters. Throughout his career he gave great roles to women ad was romantically involved with several of them as well. Of the men he worked with two stand out. Max Von Sydow with whom he made 13 films. And Erland Josephson, reputedly his best friend, he made fourteen. All his actors worked with him in the theatre during the regular season and then with him in the summer on a film. Many including Bibi Anderson (13 films), Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin (10 films each) went to successful international film careers due to their appearances in his films.
His best films the ones that constantly and sometimes ruthlessly investigate the “psychology of man” have resulted in Bergman becoming one of the most written filmmakers ever. Books, studies, doctoral theses and many other psychological interpretations have been published debating his so called theme of “man searching for God in a merciless world”. For many years moving into decades Bergman was among the most discussed and imitated filmmaker in the world. But the viewing of Bergman’s mature work requires some acceptance of certain key elements that is common to his work. They include: philosophically complex scripts, restrained and highly selective use of music and ambient sounds, generally slow and thoughtful pacing, raw intense performances, along with moments that are both unexpected and shocking (Cries and Whispers (1971), The Silence (1962) and Persona (1965). These films are not for the faint of heart or anyone who is easily offended by frank sexual language or images. In many communities in the US and other places several of Bergman’s films have either been condemned or repudiated from the pulpits of the local churches. So the approach to a Bergman is paradoxical. He is often difficult to comprehend for the uninitiated yet if past conceptions of what cinema is or how it should utilized in telling a story are relaxed he is extremely accessible. So the idea that “Bergman is for intellectuals” only is true only if one rigidly wants to hold on to old ideas of what cinema is or isn’t. But if those strictures are loosened or better yet, abandoned Bergman’s films are a breath of fresh air for their simplicity and straight forwardness.
I remember when I saw my first Bergman. It was in 1959 when I first arrived in the US. I was in New York city and was excited about experiencing all the cultural wonders the city had to offer especially the ones relation to cinema and theatre. The first play I saw was A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and the second was The Three Penny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. My guide was the New York Times which had praised both works. Raisin was exhilarating for a young man from the Caribbean who was hoping to make a career in theatre. The Three Penny Opera was troublesome. I had trouble understanding the action because I had never seen a play done like that before. And also because I was expecting the Ballad of Mack the Knife to be sung in the style of Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin both of whom had hit recordings of the song. Still once I got over that the experience was fine. One of the first films I went to see, this time guided by a rave in Time Magazine was Bergman’s The Magician (1958). This one completely baffled me. I had no idea what I was watching and neither did the friend who accompanied me. We left the theatre wondering what the enthusiasm was all about. And although we dismissed it as non starter as far as we were concerned I couldn’t help but feel that the fault wasn’t so much in the film but in me. After all I was only 19 and hadn’t had all that much experience in viewing films that strayed from the Hollywood Studio formats. I needed to cinematically broaden my horizons and start looking at films coming from other countries. So I looked for what else was around and started with the films of DeSica and Rossellini coming out of the neorealistic movement. They were easy for me to comprehend. These led to me looking at the films of Fellini and Bunuel. After that Bergman was a snap. Today he is among my all time favorite filmmakers. I treasure his films the way I treasure certain books in my collection. The Melville’s, Hawthorns, Kafka’s etc. I return to them for inspiration, intellectual gratification and for entertainment too. Because they are. Bergman was a populist and that’s why he ran Sweden’s most successful theatre for all those years because he knew how to provide entertainment for a large number of people on a continuing basis. This ability he brought to his films as well, so that even the very dramatic ones have their share of humor within the context of all that soul searching.
If I sound like I’m advocating for Bergman, which I am, I hope I’m not doing it too strenuously for two reasons. One: Because I don’t believe or encourage pushing one’s cinematic preferences on other people. I know I hate when friends do it to me. And two: Bergman does not need me to champion his work in any quarter. There are enough people out there who do it with more eloquence and influence than I could ever manage.
So view my musings here as just suggestions of a direction you might want to look into when seeking offbeat film entertainment.