Damn, they were dropping like flies this week. First, word came from Sweden that director Ingmar Bergman had died at the age of 89 and then, less than 24 hours later, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni was dead at 94. Who’s left from the Old Guard, what with Robert Altman dying last November and Truffaut and Fellini long gone? I admit I’m less familiar with Antonioni’s work than Bergman’s although I saw “L’Avventura” in film school. The only movie of his that I remember well is his first English-language film, “Blow-Up,” which I saw when I was very young. The film made a big impression on me (and not just because it featured a topless Vanessa Redgrave—although that sure didn’t hurt). This was my first exposure to the swinging London scene of the 1960s which I thought was the coolest place on the planet. The sequence I remember most was when photographer David Hemmings straddled supermodel Verushka and barked commands at her as he snapped one photo after another. “This is for me babe, for me. Love me, baby, love me.”
Antonioni’s earliest collaborations were with director Roberto Rossellini though he soon veered away from Rossellini’s neorealism. I’m guessing Antonioni knew Rossellini’s wife, Ingrid Bergman, who was also on my mind this week. Although Ingrid wasn’t related to Ingmar Bergman, she starred in what I believe was the late Swedish director’s greatest film.
I know critics, film professors, and Woody Allen go nuts for Ingmar Bergman’s earlier movies such as “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries,” and I should give those films another chance since I last viewed them when I was 19 in my European Cinema class at Northwestern. At the time I thought Bergman’s imagery was too much to take. I came away from those films thinking that everyone in Sweden seemed intelligent but completely miserable and probably on a suicide watch. Didn’t we always hear that Sweden led the world in suicides? I just checked the latest figures from the World Health Organization’s website and discovered that Sweden has been bumped out of the top ten. It turns out the suicide rate in Sweden has been steadily decreasing since its heyday in the 1960s (um…wasn’t that also Ingmar Bergman’s heyday?) but don’t start throwing any happy parties for your blond-haired brethren just yet—suicide is still the most common cause of death in Sweden in the age range of 15 to 44 years. Yikes!
The first Ingmar Bergman movie that really blew me away was “Persona,” a fascinating study of two women whose personalities merge into one. A young nurse named Alma (the magnificent Bibi Andersson who starred in many of Bergman’s early films and had a brief relationship with the director) is caring for a famous actress named Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann in the first of many collaborations with Bergman) who suddenly stops speaking during one of her performances. An intensely close relationship develops between the two women with Alma telling Elisabeth every intimate detail of her life while Elisabeth seems to be listening intently. But is she? I found Alma’s gradual taking on of Elisabeth’s persona fascinating but terrifying. Was this why I was often attracted to but nervous around people with very strong personalities? Was I afraid that I’d lose myself? Was this really the story of two different aspects of one woman? The genius of Bergman was that he wasn’t afraid to leave a ton of ambiguity in his films, something that was unheard of in the American films of that era. I found his refusal to explain what was really going on in his films very refreshing. Watching a Bergman film was like looking at a Rorschach test—everyone saw something different depending on what was going on in their own life.
Several years later, Andersson and Ulmann were together again in another of my favorite Bergman films, “Scenes from a Marriage,” which was actually an edited down version of a Swedish TV series. Watching this agonizing and shockingly realistic exploration of the marriage of Marianne and Johan (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) as I was living through my own parents’ divorce, I’m surprised I didn’t swear off the institution for life. Bergman said that after the original TV series aired in Sweden, the divorce rate skyrocketed in that country as did the number of couples who sought marriage counseling. Ullmann continued to perfect the devastating stare she used to such great effect in “Persona.” Liv and Bergman had a child together (novelist Linn Ullmann) though they never married. Following the success of this film, Liv Ullmann was courted by Hollywood as Scandinavia’s Hottest Babe and made a series of American films (“Forty Carats,” “Lost Horizon”) that nearly destroyed her brilliant career.
Luckily, before more damage could be done, Ullmann hightailed it back to the depressing gloom of northern Europe and in 1978 filmed what I think is Bergman’s greatest masterpiece. If you’ve never seen “Autumn Sonata,” you need to put your computer in sleep mode and get to the video store before it closes. This is the most honest and nuanced portrayal of a difficult mother-daughter relationship that you will ever see and it is Ingrid Bergman’s first Swedish film since she left Stockholm for Hollywood in 1939. Bergman plays Charlotte Andergast, a world famous concert pianist, who, because of her wildly successful career, has spent little time with her daughter Eva (Ullmann). Always desperate for her mother’s attention, approval, and love, Eva has squelched all of her feelings of abandonment and is thrilled to welcome her mother for an extended visit between tours. Now married, Eva is also taking care of her mentally disabled sister Helena whom Charlotte had placed in an institution years earlier. Charlotte is shocked to find Helena at Eva’s home and pretty soon decades of repressed feelings come charging to the surface and the fragile peace between the two women is shattered irreparably. The trademark Ullmann stare goes into overdrive during this film, particularly during the devastating scene in which, after Eva plays a long piece on the piano for her mother, Charlotte plays it again, ostensibly to show her daughter how it should be played. I haven’t seen this film in years but thinking about all that delicious family angst, emotional repression, and cut-throat recriminations makes me want to make a late-night run to Blockbuster myself. This was Ingrid Bergman’s last theatrical film and it was a tour-de-force capper to a brilliant career. And how great to hear her acting in her native tongue.
Two summers ago I wrote about what ended up being Ingmar Bergman’s last film, “Saraband,” and marveled at the talent and beauty of Liv Ullmann, especially because she gave us the rare opportunity to see what an actress looks like when she ages naturally. This was a sequel of sorts to “Scenes from a Marriage” with Ullmann and Erland Josephson picking up their roles from thirty years earlier. Bergman admitted years after the first film came out that the brutal arguments between Johan and Marianne were based on his relationship with Liv Ullmann. I am all for artists incorporating their own demons and torment in their work, and Ingmar Bergman was clearly a master.
The third death from this past week that I feel compelled to comment on was TV talk show host Tom Snyder’s. I was addicted to Snyder’s late-night “Tomorrow” show throughout the 1970s. His guest list was amazing (everyone from John Lennon to Charles Manson) and his format light years away from anything you’d see today—90 minutes of concentrated, focused time. No sound bites, just real, no-holds-barred conversations. Though I never missed a broadcast, part of the appeal of Tom Snyder to me was that I often found him so irritating I would scream at the television. This was not a man with a small ego, and he was very much a part of every discussion, never taking a back seat to his guests the way Johnny Carson did. Today I admire this trait but back then it annoyed me to no end, especially with his cackling laugh (so perfectly imitated by Dan Ackroyd in those great “Saturday Night Live” bits) and the way he was constantly making inside jokes with his crew. In 1977, former NBC anchorperson Kelly Lange took over for Tom Snyder for a week when he went on vacation. I was so thrilled by the absence of Tom’s idiosyncrasies that I had the temerity to write Lange a fawning letter. This is the letter I received back. With all due respect to Ms. Lange, now an author of sexy mystery novels set in Hollywood, WHAT WAS I THINKING? Today I would give anything to watch the honesty, candor, and good humor that Tom Snyder displayed on a nightly basis. Forgive me, Tom.
And farewell to three amazing innovators.