"I see what I see, and I know what I know, but nobody believes me."
I was going to write a little piece about Death playing a game of chess with Ingmar Bergman, but then it occurred to me that similar pieces are probably appearing on blogs all across the Net right about now, so instead I'd just allude to it in the first sentence of a brief obit. And since I acknowledged the death of Robert Altman in one of my first posts, I couldn't let Bergman's passing - announced today - go unmentioned.
A piece I just read about Bergman asked the question: how many people under 35 have actually seen any Bergman films? When "World Cinema" as a genre, and ultimately a marketing hook, first came to prominence in Western culture in the 1950s, Bergman was quickly established as one of the modern Masters. Alongside the likes of Fellini, Ray and Kurosawa, he came to define what International cinema could be for the Western filmgoer. His work is so distinctive that many people without any firsthand exerience of it could undoubtedly offer a cogent summary or parody, if only as a reference to "The Seventh Seal" (1957), his most famous film. That would be due to the trickle-down effect of his work, Woody Allen's homages and parodies and the visual appeal and impact of the image of Death playing a game which has turned up in television comedy and Bill & Ted. But Bergman's work in general possesses a very European chilliness, an intellectual rigour and seriousness of purpose which has become unfashionable in recent years. So the films are perhaps not viewed as often as they should be.
I'm pretty cine-literate. I have a decent grounding in International cinema, I studied film, I've seen more films than anybody else I know. But I've only seen six of Bergman's films. Which, at this moment, and considering the size of his body of work, doesn't seem enough for me to speak with any authority about him. But each of those six films is superb, and it is obvious that Bergman was an auteur in the truest sense, imbuing each of his films with his personal concerns and obsessions, writing and shooting them in his unique style and voice, fashioning a formidable ouevre for himself as he did so.
Of the six, the two I liked most are "Scenes From a Marriage" (1973) and "Wild Strawberries" (1957). But in all of them I loved Bergman's respect for the medium, the sense that he saw its power and possibility as an artform. He could have written novels or plays - which is how he started out - but he chose Cinema, because he knew that it was perhaps the greatest of our artforms. He made films as personal as any novel or play, and yet none of his films are inaccessible or over-intellectual, as their reputation may suggest. What surprised me most the first time I saw a Bergman film was just how cinematic it was. Something about his reputation or something I had read had given me the impression that his work would be stagey or static somehow. But his films are generally quite beautiful and always full of a joy in the medium itself, which is the key quality which defeats the accusations of "depressing" generally levelled at his work. I also found the films much funnier than I expected. Thats not to say that any of them is remotely comedic, just that they are filled with humanity, and there is a dark strain of humour in Bergman's voice, I think. In the BBC's obituary piece tonight, the one clip they really showed was when Death chooses to begin with a black chesspiece in "The Seventh Seal" and the Knight comments upon this. Death's response seems darkly funny: "Appropriate, don't you think?" And there is a cold eroticism in every Bergman film I've seen, as suggested by his appreciation for beautiful women. Richard Corliss offers a proper appreciation of why Bergman mattered here.
So, will his death alter his reputation and lead more young people to his films? "The Seventh Seal" is playing in London at the moment, and while before today I had thought that I wouldn't mind seeing it on a big screen, I was in no rush. Now it seems much more urgent, somehow. That chess match is waiting for all of us, in the end...