Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Through a lens darkly (1918-2007)

What a weird week. And the scary thing is that it’s not even over yet.

For your information, I have had a perfectly good topic for one of these weekly missives bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks now. I was only waiting to get through all the Galway Film Fleadh stuff before writing it. Then I noticed that the Internet Movie Database was alerting me to the imminent and long-awaited (by us Babylon 5 fans anyway) release of the Babylon 5: The Lost Tales – Voices in the Dark DVD. Surely that should rate a mention on this page, given my long history of singing the praises of this halcyon science fiction TV series. It’s not a full-fledged feature motion picture, as fans had hoped just a couple of years ago, but it’s still better than nothing. But then I had an email from my friend Dayle, alerting me to the fact that there were honest-to-gosh news reports that there is going to be a full-fledged feature motion picture of my other cult favorite, Dark Shadows! A source no less authoritative than Variety was reporting that Warner Bros. and Johnny Depp’s production company and another outfit are planning a Dark Shadows movie, with Depp starring in the iconic role of Barnabas Collins. Whew! Actually, Depp has long been quoted as being a self-confessed Dark Shadows fan and that it was his dream to someday play Barnabas. But I don’t think the series’ fan base ever seriously expected anything to come of it. Those who care are still nursing their wounds from the abortive WB series that never aired. Even with this latest news, the DS forums I saw had a strangely quiet, “yeah, we’ll believe when we see it” tone about the whole thing. Anyway, Depp could be a good choice for the role (once you get past the idea that no one but Jonathan Frid could possibly play the vampire)—as long as he plays him (no pun intended) dead serious without any winking or nudging. And, please, God forbid that he should base his performance on one of the Rolling Stones. Well, okay, Mick Jagger in his “Sympathy for the Devil” phase might actually work.

But, of course, I wound up not writing about any of that. (Okay, I did, but I didn’t mean to.) Because something else happened in the film world. It has made me nervous for some time that I have noticed that I have written no tributes to departed film people during this entire calendar year. Usually by August, I have written several. Maybe people have been slipping off without my noticing. Sure, some notable figures have passed away, but none about whom I had a whole column’s worth of things to say. Hmmm, I thought, maybe the movie universe is saving up its legendary film figure credits for a really big one. As illogical as that thought is, that seems to be exactly what happened. Monday we learned of the death of a giant, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

It is hard to emphasize what a titan in the world of cinema this man was. He was of a such a stature that it would, for example, be totally inappropriate and in bad taste to lead off a tribute to him by mentioning such popular entertainments as, say, Babylon 5 and Dark Shadows. Except that it’s not, really, By a strange coincidence, in those two American TV series one can actually discern subtle Bergmanesque influences. Both, after all, had supernatural themes, plumbed humankind’s darkest moods and emotions and featured shadows as a running theme. Whether Bergman would be pleased with someone drawing this connection, I cannot say. But somehow I don’t think he would mind.

When it comes to Bergman, there are basically two groups of filmgoers: those who worship him as a god and those who wonder what all the fuss is about. The reality is that, unless you are European or a New York film critic or just a serious film buff, you probably haven’t seen all that many Bergman films. But you certainly know the name, and there is a good reason why. Not only are his movies works of art in themselves, but they have had a pervasive influence throughout all of latter 20th century cinema and culture. His inspiration is easy enough to spot in movies of lots of subsequent filmmakers, including such American ones as Robert Altman and Woody Allen. Altman’s 3 Women nearly qualifies as a remake of Persona, and Allen’s Interiors was an homage to Bergman that nearly bordered on being a parody of his work. And how likely is it that English director Nicolas Roeg didn’t have Bergman’s early supernatural comedy The Devil’s Eye in mind when making his new film, Puffball? But even more than examples like this, the true measure of the Swede’s influence is in how his imagery has extended, imperceptibly to many, into mass popular culture. Perhaps his most enduring image is of Bergman regular Max von Sydow, as a returning crusader, playing a game of chess with Death himself. That particular vision has since found itself into countless movies and other bits of video, including everything from Monty Python sketches to a recent Irish margarine commercial. But, despite the humor mined, none of it is ridicule. It is sincere tribute and tacit acknowledgement of a consistent theme in Bergman’s work: coping and reconciling with loss of faith. Reportedly Bergman, who grew up in a strict home presided over by his devout Lutheran minister father, said he lost his faith at the age of eight. The director’s own childhood was evoked in what is easily one of his most enjoyable and accessible films, Fanny and Alexander.

When I think of my own favorite Bergman film moments, I think first of the light. His films—both in black and white and in color—make tremendous use of light. This is due in large part to the mastery of his frequent cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Next, I think of the women. So many great female actors first became to known to us outside Sweden because of Bergman films. No healthy male viewer of Bergman films of the 1960s and 1970s failed to fall in love with the gorgeous Liv Ullman. No less impressive, if not as radiant, were such faces as Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson and Ingrid Thulin. One of the great pleasures of the late 1970s was seeing Ullman teamed with the other famous Bergman (Ingrid), who was no relation to the director. It was the two Bergmans’ only collaboration, and Ingrid’s penultimate film appearance. Still beautiful and glowing, Ingrid would be dead four years later. One other thing I recall fondly when remembering Bergman is the humor. That may sound strange, since so much of his work is dominated by dark imagery and heavy themes and brooding emotion. But his work could also be funny and delightful. I think in particular of his romantic comedy Smiles of a Summer Night, which was later adapted for the Broadway musical A Little Night Music, and the early segments of Fanny and Alexander.

If there is one particular Bergman film that sticks in my mind, years after I’ve seen it—apart from the obvious, frequently discussed ones—it is the one that made my list of Six Great War Movies. It was released in 1968 and called Shame. In it, von Sydow and Ullman play married concert violinists (in other words, they are artists and intellectuals) who live on what is normally an idyllic island. But things change when their lives are turned upside down by a war. We never learn exactly who is fighting the war or why. We only see how it affects this couple who heretofore have been living in a bubble. The title refers to the guilt that can accrue when one stays neutral while people are dying all around you. It is not so much an anti-war movie as an anti-aloofness movie. Like all Bergman movies, it is thought-provoking and haunting—but in a topical way that most of his movies aren’t.

Clearly, there are better informed Bergman aficionados than myself, and much ink will have been spilled on his behalf during these days. I would only add that, if you are serious about the man who has just left us, perhaps the best thing you can do (if you haven’t seen it already) is seek out the Gunnar Bergdahl documentary The Voice of Bergman.

As if it wasn’t a big enough event to lose one of the most revered of all filmmakers worldwide, there were two other passings this week that, in any other week, each probably would have rated a column on their own.

L’Avventura (1912-2007)

In the film world, it would take something on the order of the death of an Ingmar Bergman to overshadow the passing of a master filmmaker like the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. But that’s what happened. His early films get pegged with deadly words like minimalist and post-neorealist, and they deal with tricky issues that faced Italy in the aftermath of World War II. His Italian work culminated in its view of modern life filled with emptiness and alienation with the trilogy of L’Avventura (which was booed at Cannes), La Notte and L’Eclisse—in the process making an international star of Monica Vitti. Most of us know the man for his work outside of Italy during the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. His seminal sort-of suspense thriller Blow-Up (with David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave) caught nicely the spirit of the London’s Swingin’ Sixties and later provided American director Brian De Palma someone other than Hitchcock to rip off (1981’s Blow Out, starring John Travolta). He turned his knack for social criticism to America in 1970’s Zabriskie Point, which expounded what for many was the anti-authoritarian hippie sensibility of the time. Pauline Kael wrote, “The movie seems unconsciously snobbish—as if Antonioni thought America should be destroyed because of its vulgarity.” In the 1975 film The Passenger, he cast Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in a tale of a reporter in Africa who assumes the identity of a dead Englishman. In a memoriam of Antonioni on his web page, Roger Ebert (for once) made an interesting point: “Speculating on an afterlife, he contrasted himself to Bergman. The London Telegraph quoted him that ‘the Swede was solely concerned with the question of God,’ while he was just the opposite.”

Albin/Zaza (1928-2007)

On Monday evening I scanned the various TV newscasts to see if any of them led with Bergman’s death. The BBC and RTÉ didn’t, nor did the Spanish one. I still had hope for the French, but it turned out that the Swede was upstaged by the passing of the beloved French actor Michel Serrault. Such stories are a joy to watch on French newscasts because there is such an outpouring of love for such figures at such times—and it was certainly true in this case. Serrault had a long career in French films (more than 130 of them), including such ones as Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud, Artemisia, The Libertine and Joyeux Noël. But worldwide, he will be remembered for one particular role. He won hearts everywhere for playing the temperamental drag queen wife of Ugo Tognazzi in Edouard Molinaro’s 1978 madcap farce La Cage aux Folles. The movie and Serrault’s performance (which he originated on stage) were so popular that he reprised the role in two film sequels. The character was later played by Nathan Lane (opposite Robin Williams) in the 1996 (mostly unnecessary) American remake, The Birdcage.

-S.L., 2 August 2007

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