Leonard Quart

The Maestro and the Apocalypse

I have never been optimistic about the human condition, or believed that the flow of history moves progressively forward. And although I have a passion for art, cities, friendship, and a belief in love and marriage, I have always felt that the life we live is more than touched with despair and darkness. It bounds our everyday lives, and my favourite filmmakers echo that vision.

The director who was – and remains – most meaningful to me is the maestro of angst, Ingmar Bergman, whose work I have taught and wrote about since the early 70s.

Bergman believed that film, as an artistic medium, transcends conventional ideas of what a well-shaped narrative should look like, that it resonates with us formally on a much deeper level. He once wrote: ‘No form of art goes beyond ordinary consciousness as film does, straight to our emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.’

Watching his films, that’s how I always felt. Bergman may not have been a philosopher or a systematic thinker, but as an artist he offered me a different way of looking at the world and presented on-screen relationships that profoundly struck home. Bergman never disguised what he felt. His films were an expression of his guilt, dreams, desires and confusions, and they never took refuge in intellectual games or vaporous abstraction.

From social realist works like Monika, to airy, witty tragic-farces like Smiles of a Summer Night, to his a valedictory, three-hour epic, Fanny and Alexander, where he celebrated the power of the imagination, his films spoke viscerally to me. Not every film was a masterpiece, but they all carried great emotional impact. It became something of a cliché of Bergman criticism to speak of his penchant for posing ‘existential’ questions. Though it is true enough that his films are honest and ardent inquiries which explore the complex nature of artistic commitment, death, relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, and God’s existence itself.

Recently I have been wondering how he would have handled the on-going pandemic in film. Given the nature of his oeuvre, his emphasis would never have been institutional or political, but on how each one of us psychically and existentially dealt with living through this painful period. In one of his masterpieces, Shame, he focuses on a musician couple whose marriage is alternately happy and stormy — the voluptuous, maternal, practical Eva (Liv Ullmann) and the hapless, needy and selfish Jan (Max Von Sydow). The two have taken refuge from a civil war on an island where they grow and sell fruit.

When the civil war (whose sides are never clearly defined) reaches the island, these two apolitical people are trapped by events that bewilder, ravage and transform them. Bergman sees these people as ‘acting in panic’ and ‘out of one motive: self-interest.’ Bergman’s concern is what happens to people when they confront a violent crisis in which the sounds and sights of devastation and slaughter become omnipresent. For him it’s always the existential rather than the political that is central, and in the film, the characters’ humanity is gradually destroyed in their drive to survive.

In using the plight of these two apolitical figures, Bergman stunningly and realistically evokes what wars and political terror do to the human psyche. The world turns into a ‘state of nature’ out of Hobbes, where life is ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Eva who has always been the strongest of the couple sees her will destroyed and capacity to cope diminish, while Jan turns into a brute – committed to survival at all costs.

The war has destroyed their humanity, and according to Bergman, ‘we’ve disinherited ourselves’ and there is no hope. It’s a shattering film — and what it leaves us with are the ineluctable neo-expressionist images of the broken couple dazedly wandering about a violated landscape of stripped trees, dead people and animals. Ultimately, they sit mutely in a boat going nowhere as the sea turns into a graveyard filled with dead bodies that float past them.

The extreme situation Shame deals with may not sit parallel to the Covid-19 crisis, but we also face something dangerous outside ourselves that has radically altered our lives. I know since Covid-19 has struck, time has lost much of its meaning for me, as days blur into days and there is little to distinguish one from the other. Unless one is like Trump or his lemming-like minions, walking around masked is a necessity. But it does muffle speech and make me feel more solitary, and that I am living a half-life.  I still take pleasure in screening films, reading fiction and political essays, and writing, but something necessary for feeling alive has been lost these many months of quarantine, in my relative isolation. At times I feel overwhelmed by anguish about both my own life and the nation’s fate. Yes, I have other reasons for despondency — aging, infirmity, death anxiety — but what the pandemic has done is subvert a sense of community, even if at the best of times it is illusory and our lives are relatively atomized. 

We live now tied to our computers, television sets, phones and social media. There are no theatres or movie houses to attend, and I have hesitated going to museums. And though I see some friends, I feel their lives have altered and gotten more constrained as well — many quietly complain, and some take Valium to sleep. I feel that my humanity remains intact, but I haven’t been tested like Bergman’s characters by being confronted yet with a world in which utter chaos and violence rule. It’s been hard to live one’s last years’ listening to Trump’s lies and bluster, learning about the web of corruption, waiting for a vaccine to give us some freedom. Thankfully, there is now some hope.

When I watch a Bergman film again, I see how emotionally naked he was, and how he shatters all prescriptions and platitudes that I still hold about the self, relationships and existence itself, something few works of art are able to do. Also, while Bergman may have been dark, some of his films like Wild Strawberries offered a sliver of light, something I hold onto living in the quagmire that has become our collective fate.

Words by Leonard Quart.

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