Saturday, July 30, 2011

Smiles of a Summer Night

On the fourth anniversary of the death of Ingmar Bergman

In the fall of 1967, I had just turned 18 and was a freshman at the University of Minnesota. This was a land-grant school with 45,000 students. I had lived virtually all of my childhood in villages smaller than 2000 people. I was nearly in a state of shock.  Literally.

It wasn’t merely the size. I was choirboy from a devout Lutheran parsonage. The only organization I joined that made complete sense to me was the university’s chorus. I knew nothing about popular culture--our family didn’t have television until I was a high school sophomore, we were not allowed to go to movies, and rock and roll music had never been played in the house.

The local campus movie house was showing the films that they thought all good folks should see. They were the works of the heavy hitters--François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman. One night, a group from my dorm decided to attend a showing of Sjunde inseglet, Det (The Seventh Seal). I wasn’t so certain I should start going to movies until someone reassured me that Bergman was also a Lutheran preacher’s kid. So off I went.

Of course, I enjoyed myself immensely. As our group left the cinema, there was a lot of pretentious chatter about the deep significance of some scene or other. When asked for my reaction, I said that the movie looked to me like a stylized version of the flannel-board lessons they teach third-grade children in Sunday School. “I saw this movie as a very clever, very insider preacher’s kid joke. And I thought the joke extremely funny. I’ll bet Bergman wondered about his father’s reaction often as he wrote, shot, and edited it. I see this movie as the statement of someone who dearly wants to piss off his old man yet still wants to be taken seriously by him.  After all, the Seventh Seal is from the Book of Revelation--not exactly a lightweight topic in a book his father believed was God's word.”

My first movie as a University student. Now my first movie review. It wasn’t like any of the other “reviews” either. I had not used the vocabulary of a movie buff and I certainly did not know where educated opinion stood on Sjunde inseglet. But my review was at least as plausible as any of the others. Treating a film about death as high comedy designed to poke fun at an institution as staid as the Church of Sweden had gained me an odd respect.

Whatever the flaws of my childhood, they were not going to be enough to keep me out of the intellectual discussions of the day. This sprawling mega-university suddenly did not look so scary.

I would go on to see most of Bergman’s film. I loved his big-budget later stuff much more than the early art-house pieces. But it was all worth seeing for me. Bergman may have been born in Uppsala Sweden while I came from Upsala Minnesota, but our shared experiences with the Lutheran clergy trumped everything else. Every insight I could borrow from Bergman was one more thing I would not have to figure out for myself.

Over the years, I became a (very minor) expert in my circle of friends on Ingmar Bergman films. On a cold 1989 February day in Helsinki, I would discover how small was this “accomplishment.” I was in Finland to promote a book and was scheduled to be interviewed for a television news show.

I got to the appointed place on time but the video crew was still setting up. A bright young man was assigned to take me for coffee until things were ready. After informing me that his big desire was to make movies, he asked me if I knew anything about Nordic cinema. Finally, thought I, a chance to demonstrate my very obscure knowledge of Bergman.

When I said I was fan of Bergman, my Finnish handler scowled and said, “I find Ingmar Bergman’s films frivolous.” I looked him incredulously and asked, “You found Persona and Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop) frivolous!?” As he explained his position that a serious film should be about more than the private psychological problems of the upper classes, I found myself nodding in agreement. And when Aki Kaurismäki’s Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (The Match Factory Girl) came out in 1990, I became quite convinced that by those standards, Bergman was indeed frivolous.

And why would I not believe this? After all, wasn’t I the guy who thought his treatment of death in The Seventh Seal was amusing? And Bergman was about to become a whole lot MORE “frivolous.” And I LOVED it. My favorite film in all of Nordic cinema is Goda viljan, Den (The Best Intentions.) Bergman did not direct it (that job was given to the brilliant Bille August) but he wrote it. It is a beautifully shot description of the ridiculously mismatched marriage of his parents. It would be difficult to imagine a more absurdly personal movie topic, yet it was a compelling tale of class conflict, the death of traditional theology in the face of onrushing science and industrialism, union organizing in a factory town, and careerism in a country with royalty. Not bad for a director of “frivolous” film.

Ingmar Berman died 30 Jul 2007 at 89. That date happened to also be the 150th birthday of another Nordic genius named Thorstein Veblen. I obviously admire him as well. I decided to drive out to the Veblen house where I could just walk around and be sad. I arrived in time for just the sort of spectacular “golden hour” light that those who make movies live for and thought about the nature of Nordic geniuses. The people of the North may not have a lot of them, but those they have are damn interesting.

I also wondered how anyone who enjoyed Bergman’s “frivolous” movies and read Thorstein Veblen for fun was ever supposed to fit into 21st century America. The short answer is, we are not designed to fit in.  My people came to USA because it was a giant construction project and we are really good at building complicated things.  Now we as a nation not only do not build anything big and complex anymore--we don't even take care of what we have already built.  Politically we are even more estranged.  For example, my grandfathers were quite dissimilar people. One was a stout Republican Kansas farmer, a pillar of his community who played in a string quartet and served as a deacon of the Lutheran Church. The other was a hard-drinking, hard working social democratic union-organizing foundry worker in Chicago. Yet they had two things in common--both were Swedes and both were bitterly opposed to USA involvement in World Wars I AND II.  My people would not have invaded Iraq or Afghanistan.

In the film, The Good Shepherd there is an incredibly descriptive exchange between Joseph Palmi as played by Joe Pesci and Edward Wilson as played by Matt Damon at the 2:05:48 mark. (Palmi is a fictional composite of Santo Trafficante Jr. & Sam Giancana while Wilson is loosely based on the life of James Jesus Angleton so we can assume this conversation is an invention of the writer Eric Roth.)

Palmi: Let me ask you something. We Italians, we've got our families and we got the church. The Irish, they have their homeland. The Jews, their tradition. Even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr Wilson? What do you have?

Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

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