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Seeing Bergman

Not a great Bergman film, then, Cries and Whispers is too diffuse for that. But it is an impressive and disturbing film, a brief season in an eerie, brooding imagination. And of course Bergman’s tact and discretion, when he is not being gothic, are exemplary. To get a sense of his qualities, and of the qualities of this film, one has only to think of what Visconti would have done with the furniture in this movie, or what De Sica, on his showing in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, would have done with the park and the trees and the soundtrack.

John Simon thinks Bergman is the greatest director the world has known. This is his “most carefully considered opinion,” he earnestly assures us, as if he were not in the habit of considering his opinions much. He thinks that Persona is the most difficult film ever made (a fine thing), and that it is to film what Ulysses is to the novel (although he doesn’t specify what that is). I suppose these views could be defended, although they seem entirely fatuous to me, but Simon’s book, in any case, does nothing to back them up. It is merely a quick flip through four Bergman movies (The Clown’s Evening, Smiles of a Summer Night, Winter Light, Persona), during which Simon flatly summarizes the plots in question (“Desperately in need of some aspirin, he follows Märta into the schoolhouse…”), excavates a few symbolic implications, hands out bouquets to the actors, and ties up each package with a few well-chosen inanities.

When you have read that Bergman’s “answer films are weaker than his question films” or that one of his themes is “the inadequacy of the human sensorium”; when you have heard how splendidly Eva Dahlbeck, in Smiles of a Summer Night, “enacts the small but piercing epiphanies Bergman has dropped into the screenplay no more conspicuously than a hintingly quizzical inflection in an even-keeled conversation”; or learned that the film is “instinct with playful sagacity and bittersweet grace, and is truly ecumenical in its concerns”; when you have heard that in Winter Light “there is something awful about that staccato of stichomythic exchange that ends with the thrice repeated ‘God’s silence’ “; or been told that “Persona is a shattering statement of despair, but one that, by its very existence and excellence, proves that despair can be sublimated, overcome,” you don’t exactly feel like dashing out to catch the nearest Bergman movie. You might feel like swearing you’ll never read any more film criticism as long as you live, but then you would have to swear off Pauline Kael, and no oath should demand that.

Charles Samuels’s Encountering Directors is largely a waste of time, and rests on a shaky principle. All artists have personal visions, Samuels argues by implication. All movies are collaborative efforts. Therefore before we can judge movies as art, we need to know who did what, so that we can separate personal vision from the luck of locations or the producer’s heavy hand or the cameraman’s mania for soft focus. This converts criticism into an intricate prize-giving, and must be wrong. All we have to do is see the movie. If it works, it works, and all the rest is gossip.

Samuels is very anxious about his image, keen that people should know he speaks French and Italian; desperate that Fellini should recognize that he is a professor and not a journalist; and bursting with opinions that he wants the world to hear (Norman Mailer, he tells Fellini, would like to be thought an intellectual, but he isn’t one). He keeps telling directors what their movies are about, which annoys some and plays into the hands of others, allowing them merely to agree with him and not answer any questions. Still, his pestering people produces some pleasant gossip. The interviews with Bergman and Truffaut actually yield one or two perceptions about those directors’ movies, and the interviews with Fellini, Antonioni, and Bresson are predictable but harmless charades.

Fellini plays Fellini, of course (“When I show the atmosphere of show business, I speak of myself, because my life is a show. I am a man wholly devoted to spectacles”), and Antonioni plays a kind of weary, insomniac hippie. Bresson plays a cross between Trotsky and La Rochefoucauld, tossing off epigrams in the best phony French manner, quoting himself (“Cinema is the art of showing nothing”), quoting Montaigne, quoting Valéry (“One works to surprise oneself”), approving of Godard (“He taught films how to use disorder”), and finally crumbling into banality under the strain, reminding us that we always hurt the one we love and that Goethe once said that marriage had something awkward about it.

The other six interviews are so bland as to be pointless. Olmi plays it straight, Renoir is nice but vague, Carol Reed shy, René Clair acts like the grand old man of cinema, and Hitchcock echoes everything Samuels says, while De Sica practically grovels in apologies for his commercial career.

We learn from this book that money is important for moviemakers, that a lot of what we like in movies gets there by accident, or because the director had a dream or a fetish, or because an assistant to the producer happened to know something about muskets. We learn that Renoir and Hitchcock like to make commercial films. We learn that directors can’t always say why they wanted certain shots, although they knew they wanted them. And we learn, above all, on page after page, that interviews are useless, since we already knew all this—if we didn’t we are in really bad shape.

Directors hate talking about the meaning of their films, and will dance the most fantastic anti-intellectual capers to get out of such conversations. To be sure, this gives us the high comedy of Bergman and Antonioni pretending that they don’t think, that they are men who just follow their instincts, and we do get to see Fellini, in his resentment, giving Samuels a bad time: “Look, everything that seeks to clear up an obscure process is totally academic. You only invent categories. I do things, and then I forget them.” But there is a sadness in seeing Hitchcock driven to compare himself to Klee, and when Renoir says making movies is like playing a flute for a cobra, the cobra being the public, one begins to wonder if there isn’t another, larger, meaner, critic cobra, eager for fluting when the film is over. There is every reason why Samuels should have his opinions about movies, if he wants to write about them. There is no reason why a director should have any opinions about his movies at all, and Samuels doesn’t seem to have any understanding of this.

In his interview with Truffaut, Samuels refers to Truffaut’s remark that one should not distinguish between art movies and commercial movies but merely between good ones and bad ones. This seems such obvious common sense that it comes as a surprise to find Samuels disposed to argue, wanting to hang on to a sacred, separate notion of movie art, safe from money and public. But then John Simon, Samuels’s pal and mentor, is categoric: Bergman is an artist, Hitchcock is a technician: “I find it’s a terrible notion in modern film criticism that these people were artists, when they were really technicians. We must distinguish between an artist and a technician.” But this kind of crude distinction won’t do, simply betrays our pleasure in too many movies. We don’t have to think that Psycho is to film what The Brothers Karamazov is to fiction in order to see that Hitchcock’s place in the cinema is as large as Bergman’s, and not just in a technical or a historical sense. We have to redefine our conception of art in the movies, or perhaps throw the word out altogether.

In practice, there are no problems unless you’re a snob, or want desperately to claim for the movies more than they can offer. We don’t have to agree about a canon, we merely have to judge movies in their own terms, and every now and again judge the terms themselves. It is Pauline Kael’s distinction that she has been doing just this, without flagging, indeed with increasing verve, for a long time now. She feels the movies are capable of producing the greatest art, but she never pretends they have produced it when they haven’t. She is ready to applaud frivolous movies if they work and are decent, and is ready to pan ponderous, serious movies if they appear fraudulent.

To take examples from Deeper Into Movies, she likes the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (“I know that on one level it’s not worth doing, but it sure has been done brilliantly”), has her doubts about Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle (“When intentions like Chabrol’s are perfectly achieved, is it enough?”), and slaughters Polonsky’s pretentious Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (“On to the simple story of an Indian…who kills another Indian…. Polonsky has grafted enough schematic Marxism and Freudianism and New Left guerrilla Existentialism and just plain new-style American self-hatred so that every damned line of dialogue in the picture becomes ‘meaningful’ “).

I happen to agree with all three of those judgments, but the principle applies when I don’t. I think Miss Kael just didn’t see Fellini’s Satyricon because she was so worried about the regressive morality she attributed to it, but the kind of judgment she is making is important. It is her bad luck on this occasion that her point is wrong, that it is simply not true that “the idea that sticks out in every direction from Fellini Satyricon is that man without a belief in God is a lecherous beast.”

At other times I think she overrates films when they represent instances of what she wants the movies to be: films like M*A*S*H, Cabaret, and Fiddler on the Roof, where the American industry seems to be coming through with bright, solid, snappy, uncondescending fare for all folks of good will. And there is something very strange in her liking The Godfather so much and finding A Clockwork Orange so sinister. “Organized crime is not a rejection of Americanism,” she writes. “It’s what we fear Americanism to be. It’s our nightmare of the American system.” It may be Miss Kael’s nightmare, but it’s a cherished dream for a lot of people. I thought The Godfather was marvelous, but very frightening, and Miss Kael is surely hiding from its horror, the genuine huge allure of organized crime as the Corleones run it, the warm human image of the protecting family, shutting out or bumping off all those who wish us ill.

But the main pleasure in reading Miss Kael, in the New Yorker or here, in Deeper Into Movies, which collects three winters of New Yorker reviews, running from September, 1969, to March, 1972, is the pleasure of agreeing so often, of being cheered by the firmness with which Miss Kael celebrates what seem to you good movies and wipes out what seem to you bad ones. I remember coming back from taking a cousin to see 1776 and reaching for the New Yorker with a kind of desperation, half afraid that Miss Kael would have liked the film’s even temper, or something. No. She stamped on it with a strength and dignity that did me good, and assuaged my incoherent indignation.

Above all, Miss Kael is consistently funny: “When you see Anthony Quinn holding up a bottle of wine in the ads for The Secret of Santa Vittoria, you may think you’ve already seen the movie, and, of course, you have….” “Who in his right mind would cast the three leads [of Marooned] with Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna, and David Janssen, when anybody can see they’re all the same man?” Of Joe Cocker, in Groupies: “He looks like the Three Stooges impersonating Beethoven having a fit.”

But it is not just a question of quick, hard lines. It is a question too of a clear but complex moral position which deals in precision and humor, which works in a language that affords us a kind of minor vengeance for all we have suffered from bad movies, gives us a slender but real consolation for having pretended to ourselves that so many rotten movies were better than they were. Our affronted self-respect speaks in Miss Kael: “The music [in The Reivers] is like a fungus that cheeps and chirrups”. Of Robert Bolt, writer of Ryan’s Daughter: “He’s trying for a wild, lyrical spirit, and he just doesn’t have the temperament for it; the script trudges on with carefully calculated excesses.” [Nicol Williamson] “goes from being gracelessly virile to being repulsively masochistic, and, whichever it is, he’s too much…. Williamson is always ‘brilliant’ and ‘dazzling.’ He is brilliant, he is dazzling—yet he’s awful.”

For a more extended example of Miss Kael as avenger, I can’t do better than quote the end of her review of Visconti’s The Damned:

The characters are dressed and made up for the thirties, but they talk in a language that belongs to no period or country and sounds like translated subtitles. After the Baroness writhes around in bed, she persuades Bogarde to kill yet another member of her family. “Complicity,” he announces, in his usual anguish. Visconti punctuates rapes and murders with dialogue like “I beg you, Konstantin,” and “Keep calm, Konstantin, the coup d’état has failed.” Martin, the creepy psychopath with two sets of eyebrows (his own and the painted thin ones), complains to his mother of “your will to subjugate me at all costs.” It’s really a story about a good boy who loves his wicked mother, and how she emasculates him and makes him decadent—the basic mother-son romance of homoerotic literature, dressed up in Nazi drag.

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