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My across-the-street neighbor, S___ came home yesterday, and everyone along the block knows:  she has come home to die.  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer last December, and although she was responding to treatment, a week ago, her condition deteriorated, and, since then, her house stood empty.  Her husband’s cars were nowhere to be seen, except, probably, at Christiana Hospital.  Then, yesterday, a van pulled up to her house, and a triangular sign warning visitors about in-use oxygen appeared on her front door.

Weeks, I understand.  A few months at most:  her platelet count is down to 40,000; 100,000 is the minimum necessary to continue chemo.  The other day, her grown daughter swept out the living room, preparing to convert it into a bedroom; S___’s mother was also there.  They are the start of it, the parade of friends and family paying their respects, as if their presence can make her more comfortable.

Death, in Cries and Whispers, is both frightening and horrific.  Agnes, suffering from an unspecified cancer, has long fits where she can’t breathe.  Her torso contorts as she gasps.  She clutches her skin from the pain.  Her sisters, emotionally distant and self-absorbed, are unable to cope and refuse to comfort her.  The visuals themselves are uncomfortable:  the scenes are drenched in a hyper-sanguinated red, a color which, to Bergman, represents “the interior of the soul.”  The walls: red.  The window treatments: red.  The carpet: red.  The screen fades to red.  When death comes, Bergman seems to say, everyone’s soul is laid bareIsn’t that what you’ve come to see?

The drapes covering the living room window where S___  sleeps were once red, but, after years of constant battle with the sun, are now vermillion.  Paper cut-outs of numbers and letters are taped to the glass, reminders that S___ once ran a daycare out of her house.  Those, too, have faded; no one can remember what color they once were.

“I’m at peace,” S___ said.  “A lot of children have been in and out of my house.  I’ve touched a lot of lives.”  She still had hair when she said this.  When I last saw her, her head was wrapped in a bandana, and she was bloated.  She didn’t seem to be in pain, but this was what I saw on the outside.

Cries and Whispers ends on a note of grace:  Agnes, in her diary, describes walking with her sisters and coming upon a swing, the three of them together again, and happy, for a moment.  So I end with this moment with S___:  a summer night, when she had just finished a ride with her ladies’ motorcycle club.  The smell of exhaust dangled in the humidity.  S___ sat on her stoop with her then-neighbor and motorcycle buddy, and when the two of them saw Matthew and me returning home, they called us over.  They had an iced pitcher of margaritas at the ready.  And despite the insects swarming around our exposed skin, despite the obnoxious cruisers zooming down the street at unsafe speeds, we were, for a moment, happy.


The Magic Flute starts with a montage of faces, audience members waiting for the curtain to rise.  The close-ups encompass all ages, races, and genders, and I expected to hear “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” instead of Mozart’s overture.  Bergman returns the camera to one cherubic, red-headed poppet, but the others whip by like the faces of people waiting on platform as the subway pulls away.  Bergman doesn’t shoot the faces directly, but from a slight side-view, as if the camera were in the aisles.

My senior year of high school, I volunteered as an usher for the Denver Center Theatre Company.  My duties, once every three weeks, usually a weekend matinee, were to guide ticketholders to their correct seat.  I memorized the layout of the two theaters:  the Stage, a traditional semi-circle, and the Space, with 360° seating arrangement.

In the tiny usher dressing room, we were to put on red polyester vests over our white shirts (the rest of the uniform:  black pants, black shoes).  The vests were stored in a wooden box, and the other ushers – housewives, doyennes, other high school students; retirees — and I fought over the few vests sized for human beings.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not a fan of live theater.  I volunteered to fulfill the community service requirement for National Honor Society.  Volunteers also received a season’s subscription, but I never attended a single show.  Instead, I gave the tickets to my parents, who watched some and passed the others onto their friends.  I saw only glimpses and fragments of the shows, standing by entrance, waiting to lead latecomers into the back row ‘you-should-have-been-on-time’ seats.

Books and films, at least, have the appearance of permanence, but live theater is an inherently fungible art.  Its qualities fluctuate, dependent on the so many people:  playwright, stagehands, actors, director.  I wonder, sometimes, if I derive can pleasure reading the script than seeing the script performed:  a perverse form of auteur theory.  The printed page will always the same text, the film will replay in the exact way it did before.

I’m not, however, entirely immune to live performances.  I recently saw a performance of Madama Butterfly (the most frequently performed opera  in the United States) in Wilmington and, despite being seated behind a support column that obstructed half my view, I held my breath during the climactic note of “Un Bel Di Vedremo.”  But,, if anything, this emphasizes the ephemeral quality of theater:  you can only experience a chord progression, a particular phrasing once.  The next day, the timbre shifts, the tone changes ever-so-slightly.  There is no final product; each performance is a revision.  After its 1904 debut, Puccini reworked Madama Butterfly four more times.

After Fanny & Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement from film; he would henceforth concentrate on the theater.

I wonder how Bergman would have staged Madama Butterfly.  A stage saturated in crimson — costumes, backdrops, lights.  Instead of a steamer, a Norwegian icebreaker.  Pinkerton as God:  Lover, Savior, Disappointer.  The auteur who abandons His creations and is too cowardly to revisit them.

Tonight was the harvest moon — what the Vietnamese celebrate as Tết Trung Tu.  When I was young, the signs of Tết Trung Tu were unmistakable:  the invasion of mooncake containers at Asian supermarkets, gold foil banners hung across doorways, increased visits to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple.  When my family had our post-temple bowl of phở, out past the lot crammed with awkward Vietnamese parking jobs, the lion dancers (mostly students from a nearby tae kwon do academy) did their thing, undulating, thrusting, flicking the switch to make the lion’s Tammy Faye Baker-like eyes blink.

My sister told me about celebrating Tết Trung Tu back in Vietnam:  she and my brother made their own paper lanterns.  There were none of these pre-made ones, she said.  After dark, they paraded with the other children, lanterns tied to the end of a stick, a little piece of captured fire.

Last year, Matthew and I bought our lanterns (not home-made, alas) from two eager young girls fundraising for some Asian community center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown — I’m not sure which, since I’m a bad Asian.  The lanterns were mounted to chopsticks, and each had a tealight taped to its interior.  They were cheap, of course, but as they dangled off the edge of our porch, they insisted on their own beauty.

By 7:30, the moon’s glow had spread behind the houses across the street, a soft phosphorescence, like a jellyfish’s.  We sat on the brick stoop.  I made tea.  Matthew reviewed notes for tomorrow’s class.  Neighbors returned home and parallel parked.  We waved to them, and Matthew called to them by name, but if they saw our lanterns, they said nothing; maybe from where they were, the lanterns’ colorful aureoles couldn’t compete with the devouring streetlamp in front of our house.

As we sat, we shared a mooncake.  Buying them was almost a Pavlovian response:  Oh, look, September.  Mooncake time.  We bought two boxes:  one was a tin with the picture of what looked like a fancy hotel lobby; the other was a box lined with cloth, each mooncake in its own tin adorned with a kitschy portrait of a Chinese courtesan.  We skipped the green tea flavor, the mixed nuts, the pumpkin paste, and the red bean in favor of pure lotus paste.  (No salted egg yolks, however; Matthew finds them gross.)

And then we saw the moon.  We may have missed its low-to-the-horizon ruddiness, but when it appeared, full and bright, it seemed to have sprung from nothingness.  We blew out the lanterns and carried in our teacups.  I went upstairs to watch Autumn Sonata.

It’s said that Tết Trung Tu is a celebration for children.  Parents who have been too busy harvesting crops to play with their children use the festivities as proof of their affection.  Maybe Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman could have used some mooncake time:  tea; glowing lights; a warm, silent evening; a stray gray cat, strutting along the porch, demanding nothing more than a little attention.

I waited to watch The Seventh Seal again until I had recovered from my cold.  I wanted to concentrate on Bergman without having a sinus headache pulping my gray matter.  Also, no watching films about the bubonic plague while your head feels like a fishbowl full of mucus or films about Death while you feel His cold, clammy hand pressing on your chest, creating phlegm the color of algae.

As well, Matthew didn’t feel like Bergman tonight, so, together, we watched Hot Fuzz first. The gunplay and charming English countryside distracted him as I surreptitiously opened my new Blu-Ray of The Seventh Seal.

“Look at those lovely serpentine stone walls.  Is that crinkling cellophane I hear?”

“No.”  Cough, cough.  “Isn’t Simon Pegg adorable?”  (I actually didn’t say that last part but thought it through most of the film.)

In any case, I’m not one to bite the Blu-Ray that feeds me.  Both the Blu-Ray player and the new 40″ flat screen on which to watch Blu-Rays were surprises that Matthew had bought for the house while I was away in Wyoming.  And while we’re still too cheap to buy cable television, we get plenty of use out of the vivid contrasts of the screen.  And when I say “we,” I mean mostly me.

But I didn’t hook up the Blu-Ray player to the television until yesterday, because we don’t yet have a receiver and speaker system for the surround sound.  A ridiculously-heavy expense for something down the line, I suppose.  But we both were eager to see the Blu-Ray in action, so last night, I inserted the HDMI cables and popped in Howards End.  We were duly impressed.  And Matthew, once again, got to see beautiful English country estates in high-definition, the way God intended.

Tonight, though, instead of idyllic meadows, I got the rocky Swedish coastline and Max von Sydow at his broodingiest and most faith-wracked.  And though I, like many, have lumped Bergman in with the directors who specialize in large servings of portentousness, with a side order of despair (if I’m ever trapped in Sweden, I’ll be at least able to call out, “Doom, doom, doom!” like the monk during the flagellation scene), I forget how Bergman uses humor to punctuate the more dire sequences.

I worry that my non-Christian upbringing has left me cold to movies and books with strong Christian themes, symbolism or imagery. I had to abandon Marilynne Robinson’s Home a few chapters in because I couldn’t connect to it.  Boy, this cuts me out of the loop for most of Western literature and art, doesn’t it?  Still, when it comes to grand existential and spiritual questions, I’m afraid I have to lean with Jöns, the squire, in this case:  “I’ll stay quiet, but under protest.”