In 1957, fifty years ago, I was just enrolling at Northwestern University and adjusting to an entirely new world. Just one generation removed from homesteaders and two removed from the Oregon Trail, I was thrown in with upper middle class and genuinely upper class people (who couldn’t get into the Ivies for one reason or another). I was in the School of Speech which included Theatre, so suddenly confronted an amazing assortment of scholarship people: brilliant, creative, and more than a little bit off the wall -- if they had to tell you so themselves.
I was directed to go to the art movie house to see a Bergman film called Wild Strawberries. I got there just a bit late and stood at the head of the aisle waiting for my eyes to focus: there was an old man, a big clock face with no hands, a creaking wagon that was hung-up and lost a wheel. I thought, “Oh, good, I got here while the advertisements still are on.” Of course, it was not that at all, but the famous and ominous dream sequence that starts a film of reminiscence both tender and terrifying.
It was one of the first movies with sub-titles I’d seen and all the actors sounded like Garrison Keillor’s sound effects man “speaking” Norwegian. I was not shocked by black and white -- we hadn’t been looking at color movies that long -- but the cinematography (a word I had not yet learned) amazed me with indelible visions. Bergman has said that in his childhood he had a hard time discriminating between things that had really happened and things that were stories -- I had had the same problem and here was some secret reality of mine brought to life on the screen. Over the years I’ve seen Wild Strawberries several times more and it never loses its impact, nor does the final scene of the lovely Edwardian family, picnicking on the other side of water, where they are so clearly seen and deeply loved -- but unreachable.
The Seventh Seal had the same effect on me, but the others didn’t hit so hard, except that every time Bob and I had an argument it seemed that somehow a Bergman film were running in the back of my head. I’m sure Bob had no such problem or if he did it was earlier wives’ voices he heard. Maybe his mother’s.
Just a year or so ago, I plucked a videotape out of the $5 barrel at Pamida: Persona. Such a bleak film, such a frightening subject (the escape of one’s identity from one’s self). There’s an intriguing clip of Terry Gross interviewing Liv Ullman now available on the NPR website. Terry asked how Liv, a cheerful young woman, knew how to play those grim, staring sequences of alienation. Liv said that she understood that it was about Ingmar himself, simply transposed over to female, so she just acting out what she knew about him. (They were lovers at the time, so she knew quite a bit.) Then Terry asked whether it was hard to be the Significant Other of someone who at the same time was directing her. Liv said, “Well, it was NOT like living with Bob Hope!” which was so absurd that Terry went off in gales of laughter and found it hard to think of the next question.
That was the other side of the Bergman equation: the riotous farce of Smiles of a Summer Night and the fart jokes of Fanny and Alexander. Bergman, for all his unforgiving theology and oppressive patriarchy, knew how to appreciate the flesh in good living and deep intimacy.
In fact, I think somehow our capricious and matter-of-fact treatment of sex without intimacy has badly hurt our own theology. Easy come, easy go -- God says cheerio! The body is a temple but is there a God in church? Ironically, it is the denial of simple tender physical warmth that leaves us often estranged from partners and self. We get trapped in watching ourselves to see whether our technique, our wardrobe, our decor, is proper and forget that both love of others and love of God are rooted in the marvels of perception which belong to us all to the extent that we are open to them. It cannot be commodified.
It seems impossible for Bergman to be dead since he lives on in so many people in so many ways and, surprisingly, often across cultures. In fact, he was so strangely rewarding that in 1957 I learned right there at the top of the aisle in the dark to seek the strange, the surprising, the totally new vision of the world in foreign films. The Fast Runner, created by an Inuit cast and crew from an Inuit myth, is as exciting to me as Wild Strawberries, though it is a totally different sort of northernness.
What’s even more interesting is the discovery that in every other person there is an inner reality as strange and informing as a Bergman or Inuit film. Our culture (esp. where I am) teaches us to hide our strangeness because many find it disturbing (or maybe racist) and it questions the status quo that makes politics and business go along happily. We’re taught that difference means hostility and loss of control rather than adventure and expansion of one’s world.
Bergman’s genius was giving us the ghastly image of a little girl “witch” being raised into a fire and then redeeming us with the image of Mary, Joseph and the Baby having a picnic in the sun. Maybe this is a way of being true to the northern rocky ecosystem that is so very hard on people and yet where the moment of pleasure, safety and warmth is exquisitely intense.
Would a Muslim who lived in Norway long enough become a Lutheran? I think the desert could make people into Muslims and has. Both places are very hard. Maybe we in the middle have it too easy.