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Armchair Cinephile

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Armchair Cinephile

John DeFore on DVD


Bergman's remedies for blockbuster-itis

It's summertime, folks, and we all know what that means: big, expensive, rollercoaster movies that don't demand a shred of mental involvement. Some summers, you can ride the coaster without throwing up - the thrills are thrilling and the lack of subtlety isn't an insult. Other years ... well ... all I'm saying is, many more movies like Van Helsing, and intelligent moviegoers are going to need a heavy-duty counterbalance.

Enter Ingmar Bergman, the filmmaker who proved just how introspective and spiritually substantive this most outgoing medium could be. In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson encapsulates the dilemma faced by Bergman as he first became an international figure. The early films had "the regrettable flavor of 'this is good for you,'" he says, and even those that were comedies, like Smiles of a Summer Night, just released by Criterion, "were philosophical disquisitions on the nature of love and identity."

Ironically, the inarguable artfulness of his films was both asset and liability. The Seventh Seal was one of the foreign films that fostered the English-speaking arthouse scene, and was immediately canonized - but those same newly formed cineastes quickly came to see its intellectualism as heavy-handed, and moved on to the French New Wave.

Bergman then made a critical leap, according to Thomson, becoming an artist whose "greatest achievement is in digesting such unrelenting seriousness until he sees no need to bludgeon us with it." He made Persona, "the beginning of a sequence of masterpieces in which the pessimism Bergman had always held to became unaffected, personal, and deeply moving." Much of that series of films was recently issued by MGM as The Ingmar Bergman Collection.

Here we have a group of "strenuous close-up investigations of actresses and artists playing actresses and artists": Persona, about a thespian who has lost the power of speech; Hour of the Wolf, in which painter Max von Sydow loses his grip on sanity and threatens to drag his wife Liv Ullmann down with him; Shame, in which a couple learns that isolation will not keep them uninvolved in a war raging around them; and The Passion of Anna, a complicated entanglement of romantic disaster.

Bergman went on to a long run of work for television, the high point of which is Scenes from a Marriage, a six-part series that chronicled a failed relationship. Criterion's new edition of this landmark film presents both the original series and the three-hour distillation that was shown theatrically in America, along with interviews with the cast and filmmaker. The disc arrives in time for Saraband, Bergman's self-proclaimed final film in which the characters from Scenes are brought together after 30 years.

Smiles of a Summer Night,
Scenes from a Marriage
(Criterion)

The Ingmar Bergman Collection
(MGM)

Kristin Lavransdatter,
Twist + Shout
(Home Vision)

Lancelot of the Lake,
A Man Escaped
(New Yorker Video)

House of Sand and Fog
(Dreamworks)
Armchair Cinephile

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 John
 DeFore

 on
DVD
In real life, Bergman regular and Scenes star Liv Ullmann has become a filmmaker herself. She has worked from the master's screenplays (Faithless), but also her own: 1995's Kristin Lavransdatter (Home Vision) is a 14th-century Norwegian epic in which a woman must decide whether to marry the man she loves or submit to her family's choice of husband. Ullmann shows that she is happy to remain in the "Bergman family" by using his old collaborator Sven Nykvist as cinematographer, so she certainly wasn't surprised to see the film held up to her mentor's benchmark; only on his Faithless has she found near-universal acclaim as a director.

Bille August has also had to struggle in Bergman's shadow, having filmed his acclaimed screenplay The Best Intentions. Home Vision proves he had a career before that 1992 film and his subsequent English-language efforts with Twist + Shout, a Danish coming-of-age tale that is packaged together with its prequel, Zappa.

Of course, Ingmar Bergman isn't the source of all things serious in the cinema. Refugees from summer schlock would do well to seek out Lancelot of the Lake and A Man Escaped (New Yorker Video), from Robert Bresson. In each, the French master takes a story ripe for summer blockbusters - the legend of Camelot, soon to come to a Bruckheimer film near you, a daring prison break from a Nazi jail - and makes it a tale of the spirit.

Some of us, desperate though Van Helsing makes us, find June through August an inauspicious moment for deep, black-and-white, subtitled films. For those there is the recent House of Sand and Fog (Dreamworks), a battle of wills in which wrenching drama and powerhouse acting is made palatable for mainstream America by the undisguised beauty of Jennifer Connelly. It may not have the principled austerity of Bergman's best, but it's a welcome respite from CGI werewolves and pretty-boy sword-slingers. •

John DeFore on DVD


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