Bergman's candid look at his films

February 27, 1994|By George Grella

Title: "Images: My Life in Film"

Author: Ingmar Bergman; translated from the Swedish by Marianne Ruuth

Publisher: Arcade

Length, price: 448 pages, $27.95 Although he has officially retired from filmmaking, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman remains a forceful and eloquent figure in international cinema, and his books and films, for better or worse, continue to impress and influence a new generation of artists and audiences.

He occupies a special place in the world of film, a height of intellectual and artistic eminence, where he resides as a genuine cultural icon. He ascended to that position, of course, through a long and prolific career spanning about 40 years and 50 movies. Many are regarded as masterpieces, an achievement that few artists in any medium could claim.

His remarkable early works, which surfaced in this country in the 1950s, the heyday of foreign films, drew a devoted following in college towns and art houses -- who can forget the impact of "The Seventh Seal"? -- and the attention of the more rarefied critics.

When he discovered in himself some rather rudimentary questions about religious faith, he paraded the pageant of his troubled soul across the screens of larger theaters, his admirers multiplied, and a new Bergman flick became an occasion for rejoicing in the slick magazines. Like a few other directors -- Orson Welles and Robert Altman, for example -- he attracted insecure and pretentious American actors, who would work for him so they could bask in the reflected glory and spilled-over intellectualism of a Real Artist of the Cinema; hence, Elliott Gould and David Carradine, if you can imagine that, starred in some ill-fated Bergman ventures.

In "The Magic Lantern," his first excursion into autobiography, Ingmar Bergman followed the more or less orthodox path of recollection, dwelling mostly on matters of fact and spending more time on his theatrical than his cinematic work, and often on subjects more interesting to Swedish than American readers.

His latest book, as its subtitle tells us, deals with a much more widely known aspect of his career. It should appeal to that much larger audience of scholars and critics, viewers and reviewers, fans and admirers.

Those interested in a chronological discussion of the director's "life in film" or even a sense of the development of his talent should look to the many critical studies of his career. In "Images," Mr. Bergman chooses an impressionistic approach to his subject, grouping his films by connections and under rubrics of his own devising, and jumping back and forth through time and space.

He begins, for example, with a section devoted to several of his most famous works, including "Hour of the Wolf," "Cries and Whispers" and "The Silence," which actually belong to the middle and later stages of his career. He discusses some earlier titles quite late in the book, unabashedly confesses to making some movies simply for the money, but offers no explanation for barely mentioning or even omitting some others.

In its methods, content and tone, however, the book, like it or not, quite wonderfully resembles an Ingmar Bergman movie -- alternating light and dark in mood as well as appearance, elliptical in method, elusive and highly personal in meaning. Although he often recounts the particular circumstances, difficulties and technical problems involved in making many of -- his movies, he is really more interested in their emotional and RTC spiritual context.

Whatever their nominal origin in a story or a script, his works

usually germinate in the darkness of his own troubled spirit, growing out of his own peculiar obsessions, memories and dreams, odd flickers of ideas from the journals he shares with us, or moments from the childhood that continue to haunt him.

Despite his early success and the generally free hand he was allowed as a favored director, Mr. Bergman recognizes the collaborative nature of film. He expresses gratitude toward the many people who helped him, from the producer who tolerated his ineptitude and began to instruct him in his craft to his legendary cameraman, Sven Nykvist.

He constantly praises the remarkable actors who embody his characters, among them some celebrated international stars -- Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullman, Lena Olin. He offhandedly recounts random details about his many marriages, though he never names any of his children, and assumes his readers know of his habit of forming liaisons with his beautiful and talented leading ladies.

Accompanied by an admirable filmography and illustrated with stills from his films and photographs of the director at work, the book's real value derives from the director's perspective on his own works.

He candidly discusses the films, including soap commercials, that he made strictly for money -- "I have always found it difficult to feel resentment when industry comes rushing toward culture, check in hand" -- which may affront certain film aesthetes.

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