“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on BiffBamPop where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. In the case of cinematic entertainment, it can sometimes be hard to remember that for each film that has people talking decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely clear the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that last; the ones that people talk about all those years later – those are the works that form the Ten Percent. It’s not a question of genre – musicals are in here, along with slapstick comedy, animation, screaming horror and more.
Rather than discuss a particular film with this installment, I want to go bigger and talk about a filmmaker who had a gigantic impact on me and (hopefully) on you, for my goal with this column is to get you to put an Ingmar Bergman picture on your “must watch” list.
Ernst Ingmar Bergman (1918 – 2007) was a Swedish director, writer, and producer whose impact on film is indisputable. Beginning in the early 1950s, he formed a creative company of actors (including Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Max von Sydow) who would appear over and over in his dozens of films, many of which dealt with dark themes such as betrayal, death, and insanity.
Bergman has a special place in my heart, for he was the subject of my one of my first courses that treated film as something worthy and serious of respect. I was sure that film could be those things, but hadn’t figured out how to go about learning it. (Keep in mind this is in the prehistoric days of top-loading VCRs.) So I entered the lecture auditorium and the professor, without saying a word, turned out the lights. He played about three minutes from the beginning of Bergman’s swan song, Fanny & Alexander. I’d never seen anything quite like it and wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. This was a new sensation for me – at that age, I was pretty sure what to make of everything and wasn’t too shy about telling you all my opinions, which I was convinced were right and true. (Yeah, I was pretty much an insufferable brat, but most of us are at twenty.) The clip ended, the lights came up and the professor told us, “If you didn’t like that little bit of film, there’s still time to get into Macroeconomics.”
That’s the exact quote. I know, because I have it written down on the first page of the notebook I used for that class; the one I can still put my hand on inside of twenty seconds over a quarter-century later. I wouldn’t have left that class for a gold monkey and, in one way or another, I’ve been involved with film ever since.
Bergman’s films aren’t about camera movement; rather, it’s about composition. Everything in that frame is deliberate so it’s a great place for a beginning film student to start studying. (He shares this with Hitchcock, who found creativity in the storyboarding of scenes and considered the actual shooting to be fairly dull.) Bergman’s influences are clearly shown throughout his work, including the Nordic culture (lots of depictions of both short winter days and l-o-n-g summer days), a disapproving strain of Lutheranism (you’ll see lots of people yearning for a connection to a mostly-silent God), and an existentialist bent (characters have to forge their own sense of meaning in a senseless world).
So far, so bleak.
Only Bergman isn’t. For to Bergman, while art can’t quite be trusted (it’s just an illusion, after all), it makes things bearable enough that his isolated characters can, just for a moment, see the light. Life isn’t just a winter slog. There’s brightness, and flowers, and carnivals, and love. Always love. It may not last, it may not be real, and it may turn in your hand and bite you, but there’s love.
Bergman made over sixty films for theatrical release, so there’s a rich feast to dive into. He also worked in multiple genres, so you can use that for a starting point if you like. Long after color film stock was widely available, Bergman shot in black-and-white – he liked the broodiness of black-and-white and also thought the medium forced his audience to focus on the actors rather than being distracted by color. (That being said, he did remarkable work in color – Cries & Whispers and the aforementioned Fanny & Alexander being but two examples.)
If you want to start gently, I suggest Wild Strawberries (1957), which is as optimistic and warm as Bergman gets. How to live with regrets while still cherishing the good parts of one’s life is at the center of this film, as is the importance of hope.
If you want to dive in deep, start with Cries & Whispers (1972), one of Bergman’s color films. This film is claustrophobic in a way – these characters are seemingly trapped – and undeniably gorgeous. Red has seldom looked so – well, so red. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, won an Oscar for his striking work on this film.
If you’re ready to be stunned, start with Persona (1966), which is a post-modern study of the relationship between viewer and director. Or maybe it’s not. Persona is a deeply-layered film that plays with what’s real and who’s real and when’s real until the viewer is breathless with trying to keep up with it all. That’s when you realize that Bergman’s been pulling your strings all along, but the ride is so beautiful and so strange (just look at those opening minutes) that you not only don’t mind, you get back in line for another turn.
Don’t miss Bergman’s semi-autobiographical Fanny & Alexander (1982), a lush exploration of childhood (not necessarily the happiest of times), told from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. Bergman only used the “child perspective” here and in The Silence (discussed in the next paragraph) and he certainly seems to believe that children see more than we think and should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, all too often, children are dismissed and forced to endure neglect, stupidity, and outright cruelty.
Ready for more? Try Bergman’s “faith trilogy” of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963), but don’t say I didn’t warn you. These three films, which really are more about the loss of faith, are bleak with a capital “B.” And yet, the final word of the third film is a made-up word (“hopjek”) which just might foretell a happier future.
Last, while he later nearly dismissed the film, don’t skip The Seventh Seal (1957). Best known for the scenes of Max von Sydow playing chess with Death (a scene parodied in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey), Seventh Seal practically provides a checklist of Bergman’s themes.
Bergman’s films are well worth the time it takes to watch them (and – for the love of all that’s holy – read the subtitles. Dubbing in live-action films is a sign of the Apocalypse, and for Bergman, that wasn’t necessarily metaphorical). For his relentless probing of the human heart, his continual search for the spark of hope that somehow continues to smolder under the ashes of despair, and the sheer beauty of life he captures, Ingmar Bergman is truly part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.