Filed under: Derek Nikitas
Some weeks ago I stopped by the major American video rental store to pick up a copy of Pan’s Labyrinth, which I’d heard much buzz about but hadn’t yet seen. While I was waiting in line, another customer ahead of me was also in the process of renting the movie. As per the policy of this store, the customer was informed ahead of time that Pan’s Labyrinth is in Spanish, whereupon he groaned and decided to rent something else. Incensed, and next in line, I cut off the clerk before she delivered the same spiel to me. I said, “Don’t bother, I know how to read,” attempting to speak loud enough for the previous customer to hear me and feel ashamed. I know—I shouldn’t have been so much of an ass because a) that philistine customer would probably not have been ashamed anyhow, b) the clerk has to take that kind of crap all day, and c) I’d be on higher moral ground only if I had said, “don’t bother, I know Spanish.”
Still, I was morally outraged by the fact that clerks are forced to “warn” customers about subtitled films at all, and I was angry that those warnings actually served to drive some people away from foreign films. I began to think about how different my aesthetic sensibility would’ve been if I had chosen to take that typical American path, watching only Hollywood films, shying away from anything with words (dear God, not words!) at the bottom of the screen. I would’ve never seen the great French New Wave movies by Truffaut and Godard (Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player, My Life to Live, A Band Apart) that taught me so much about the noir genre. I would’ve never seen the original Norwegian version of Insomnia, so dramatically superior to Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood versions (in the commentary for Nolan’s version, the screenwriter actually admits that she “adapted” Insomnia for American audiences mainly by making all the subtext and nuance overt and obvious; that is, making the movie shallow). I would’ve never seen Umberto D or the Bicycle Thief or Amelie or the Idiots or—this could go on forever.
I would’ve let this go, would’ve kept it to myself as I normally do, if not for the news I received yesterday, the stark and sudden reminder that even the greatest storytellers are mortal, that we must all, eventually, lose our chess game with Death. Ingmar Bergman, my idol, my hero, my greatest aesthetic influence, has gone to dust. Not to God, mind you, because in Bergman’s world there is no God, or God is silent, or God is malevolent, a giant venomous spider living just on the other side of your bedroom wall. Yes, he was 89 years old, and yes, he hasn’t officially made a theatrical movie since Fanny and Alexander in the early 1980 (though he has had a hand in other projects), long before I ever watched any of his films. But those facts served to convince me, somehow, that he would always be around, in the shadows, immortal on his private island off the coast of Sweden—that he had somehow contributed so much cinematic musing on metaphysics, God, atheism, and Death that he had actually, somehow, beaten Death itself. In my endless struggles with these questions, in my bleakest moments, I have always taken heart that Ingmar Bergman, the greatest brooder of the 20th Century, was still around, still brooding.
I should’ve known, I should’ve been prepared, because the first thing Bergman ever taught me is that Death always wins. Of course I knew this before I watched The Seventh Seal, an ancient ten-pound VHS tape on a television in the basement of my college library when I was a Sophomore, but somehow, watching the grainy footage of a medieval knight and his literal battle with the figure of Death, as I struggled to make out the whitewashed words at the bottom of the screen, I was transported into a realm of pure thought, pure meditation, pure humanity. It’s the sort of thing one is supposed to feel in church, but it is the thing I have always felt most acutely with Ingmar Bergman as he cast off the specter of God and found the means, no matter how tenuous, to face the absolute nothingness that is death head on, without fear, without the crutch of faith. Bergman had been preparing for yesterday’s departure all his life, and he has been generous enough to help the rest of us doubters prepare in ways that religion never could. His oeuvre has been my Bible—though, admittedly, it has not been good news (neither is the Bible, particularly). Of course, I don’t want to mischaracterize Bergman; his films were in fact haunted by God and the Bible and Christianity, none more so than The Seventh Seal and Winter Light. It’s just that he met God with the skepticism that usually accompanies genius.
Yes, I know this is a blog about crime fiction, and Bergman was not technically interested in that kind of stuff. Most viewers, especially those with stunted contemporary attention spans and an unwillingness to read, will find his films interminably slow and talky. But I have seen the uncanny similarities between the concerns of noir and the concerns of Bergman’s films—they are both existentialist to the core, a fact that Jean Luc Godard noted when he cited Bergman’s influence on his noir films. Hell, Bergman’s medieval revenge drama The Virgin Spring was so loaded with palpable horror that Wes Craven remade it as Last House on the Left., and my own forthcoming novel also bears a resemblance to that story. Bergman’s film Persona explores the doppelganger trope that is so pervasive in noir films, like Vertigo or Mulholland Drive (the latter so obviously informed by Persona that I’m waiting for somebody to write a paper about it). The existentialist Lutheran parson in Winter Light could easily be recast as one of the many bleak private eyes that have bloodied the pages of pulp books for decades. The Hour of the Wolf is a subtle horror film, as is Through a Glass Darkly, and The Silence is overtly Kafkaesque in the way that so many spy stories are.
Bergman’s movies have had such a profound influence on my aesthetic that I wouldn’t dare begin to unravel the genetic strains that have knotted themselves into my novel Pyres. Like so many of his movies, especially Persona, my characters are women in search of their own identities in a harsh environment. Their metaphysical selves are lifted from Bergman’s world, their worries and aspirations are his. My novel drips with Swedish melancholy, and, every now and then, the magic of myth and spiritual vision breaks through to the surface, just as it tends to do with Bergman. My own pale attempts will never achieve what Bergman achieved, but even a small spark of his power was enough light to keep me pushing forward through the darkness.
He is gone now, and in keeping with his beliefs, I will not speculate about the whereabouts of his spirit or his soul. They are probably nowhere, except where they remain in his work, in his films. So, yes, Bergman’s movies are in Swedish with English subtitles, but I thank the void, thank the silent vengeful God, that I watched them and will continue to watch them. Death takes the body, but it cannot take the art.
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