It’s indicative that the work of Ingmar Bergman, once considered the definition of cinematic achievement, today is viewed by many with disdain. Even some critics once receptive to his work now ask what anyone ever saw in his films? This radical shift of opinion might seem mysterious at first, but questions of quality and the purpose of any art form are part of a predictable cycle of fashion. In a world that values sensation above all else, the slow, literate, pessimistic cinema of a Bergman seems completely out of touch.
Such shifts are the artistic equivalent of Vilfredo Pareto’s notorious “circulation of elites,” in which some of the values and faces change, but the division of society into a privileged elite and everyone else remains constant. High art Modernism gives way to low trash Post Modernism, but what remains unchanged is the ability of a minority to set the agenda for everyone else. So those critics who once praised a Bergman now distance themselves from work like his in an exaggerated proof that they remain qualified to be part of the elite and to shape opinion. Post Modernism, in other words, is merely anti-elitist elitism, laced with a heavy dose of opportunism.
So be it. Cries and Whispers is as beautiful as it ever was, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I watch it frequently. It is just too gorgeous to allow insecure, petty opinions to get in the way of my enjoyment or my sense of debt to Bergman. While contemporary filmmakers pride themselves on their “visual sense,” I would be hard put to think of one who has demonstrated a sophistication or vision anywhere close to the consistency of Cries and Whispers. For ironically, it is the film’s appearance, much more than its literary qualities, that continues to astound.
The color palette restricted to red, black and white and the spare settings are highly theatrical, but since when has an awareness of the other arts been “uncinematic?” Of course, even to ask that question is to acknowledge a set of values other than the immediate gratification offered by commercial cinema. It is that very awareness of alternatives to the popular that irritates Pop junkies. What is popular is good; any other values are suspect, probably pretentious, and calculated to exclude—the logic, in other words, of the self-pitying fascist bully.
This narrow attitude overlooks those aspects of “pure cinema” that owe a debt to other arts without acknowledging them. The most blatant of those debts is the continued subservience to the sacrosanct “Story.” Films that really are restricted to what only film can do—work like Stan Brakhage’s or Michael Snow’s—are the last thing Pop demagogues want. What their attitude boils down to is “Real film is only what mainstream movies have been doing since 1900. We don’t want it to grow up, and we won’t either.”
No wonder they hate a filmmaker like Bergman. He made films for adults.