Monday, July 30, 2007

Elegy For Incomprehensibility: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

As a teenager imprisoned outside of Fort Worth, I spent many a lonely Saturday late-night watching local PBS station KERA. Out in the country raising some pigs, plowing, seeding melons, and spending summer days walking alone mile after mile after mile down farm to market roads, I was somehow drawn to public television. I think it was the Monty Python, mostly. Growing up on a North Texas farm I needed all the Monty Python's Flying Circus I could get.

Part of the KERA Saturday night lineup was the showing of really obscure movies, from some outfit called "Janus Films". I can still see that image of the "Janus Films Guy" (some unknown emperor on a coin or some such). My idea of avant-garde cinema was "Young Frankenstein", because it was in black & white. But for some reason, maybe the euphoria of having just seen a "Python" episode or, later, a really good "Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin", maybe just the loneliness of a pseudo-farm prison cell, I stuck around past the Janus Films Guy and watched some wacky movie that kinda changed my life.

As I recall, that first film was "Winter Light" by some guy named Ingmar Bergman. A few Saturdays later it was "Wild Strawberries". I didn't understand these movies, I just remembered being struck by two or three things:
  1. Max von Sydow. There was something beyond powerful and depressing about him, a look and presence just perfect for a depressed kid stuck in a desolate faux cowboy prairie;
  2. The Subject Matter. I didn't know Bergman from hamburger, but I did notice this guy seemed to be perfectly comfortable making movies in which absolutely nothing seemed to happen. It seemed quite the act of defiance to me, and I was all about defiance;
  3. The Look. Before watching these films I'd never even noticed the look of a movie. But these Bergman films were so stark, so ultra black & white, they looked just like a hot Texas prairie in Summer felt.
Of course nobody in my family or at school watched these things, which might have been a big part of their incomprehensible allure. Watching Bergman was like leaving Texas, and that was a very good thing. I began to search out other things that would help me leave Texas. I missed pretty much all the drug stuff, so I turned instead from Bergman to Woody Allen.

I noticed Woody mentioned Bergman alot, especially in the written pieces. Woody took the depressing elements of Bergman, simplified them to a point I could understand a little, and made them funny. Depressing could equal humor. There was funny hidden down there in the bleakness. And without the bleakness there didn't seem to be any funny.

Now it all started to make sense in my defiant, isolated teenage mind. I liked "Python", Woody Allen and the incomprehensible Bergman because: 1. they all seemed as far from Texas as possible; 2. the showed me that the humor is in the rotting guts of the "normal" world; 3. examining these guts for kernels of humor might not only keep me sane, but could also make for a nice little hobby.

This morning I read that Ingmar Bergman has died. I ended up watching a ton of his other movies over the years, but admit none had the impact/importance to me of that first viewing of "Winter Light". But what an impact. So, thank you Mr. Bergman. Thank you for helping explain how to mentally survive a vicious, cruel world, even back when I didn't understand your films at all. Especially when I didn't understand them.

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