Saturday, June 6, 2009


Jesse Kalin's The Films of Ingmar Bergman is an exceptional, exemplary work of film criticism. Well-written, thoughtful, scholarly and focused, it is also wonderfully free of the academic jargon that makes so much contemporary film writing so obtusely boring. Kalin is indeed an academic, a philosophy professor with a Mellon-endowed chair at Vassar, but he writes like something better and rarer today, an intellectual. This is a book that actually takes Bergman's films as its subjects and watches them closely and attempts to understand them, rather than grandiosely 'performing' a Lacanian 'intervention' by mechanically reading those films through a lens ground 50 years ago at the Sorbonne. If more academics wrote like Kalin, more people would read them. The discussion of Sawdust and Tinsel/The Naked Night (which Kalin, to confuse matters even further, translates as The Clown's Evening) encourages me to re-examine a film I had previously considered minor. The introduction, titled "Geography of the Soul," in which Kalin shows us the lens through which he does see Bergman, a paradigm consisting of the development of several themes abstracted from the films themselves (yes, this is circular, but in a good way), is a magisterially concise introduction to some of the major themes of Bergman's oeuvre. Likewise, Kalin's chapters on Shame and Cries and Whispers are examples of the best kind of film criticism, exemplary instead of proselytizing. His interpretation of Fanny and Alexander's deliberately 'unrealistic' rescue scene--that by provoking the viewer's disbelief it causes a crisis in the viewer and forces him to choose between the fictionality of the story (as represented by Alexander) and the literalness of 'reality' (as defined by the Bishop)--is extremely compelling. (In fact, it's good enough to steal and repeat as one's own--the highest compliment.) My only initial complaint is that the book isn't twice as long. I wish Kalin had included extended discussions of Persona and Hour of the Wolf (I consider the former one of the greatest films ever made and the latter one of the weirdest, a stunning and haunting work of art).

Two criticisms: A book about Bergman's films that only mentions in passing such major works as Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, should probably be titled Some Films of Ingmar Bergman. We must also ask ourselves how Kalin's selection of films might present a distorted picture of Bergman's oeuvre, as any selection inevitably does.

And one more thing: Bergman's two 'psychological' films of the 1970s, Face to Face and From The Life of the Marionettes, are currently unavailable on DVD. (Are you listening, Criterion Collection?)


gakyi said...

"Face to Face" is most certainly available on DVD. i rented it and watched it recently.

the only movie i know of that is not available on DVD is "The Touch" starring Elliot Gould. it was released on VHS, but not converted to DVD because Bergman hated the movie so much.

BRIAN OARD said...

Yes, "Face to Face" was released on DVD in August 2011, more than 2 years after I wrote this post.