This week, we have Jeff Godsil on Orson Welles's Macbeth, Matthew of KBOO's Gremlin Time on Full River Red, Britta Gordon on Dark Divide, and we revisit Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal via the new Criterion Blu-Ray of the film.
In one of those coincidences that's so mark the history of cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ingmar Bergman died on the same day, July 30 2007. It was a harsh coincidence because apparently the two directors disliked each other. While the corpse was still warm, then-Chicago Reader reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum published an op-ed in the New York Times for August 4, about Bergman and his irrelevance to modern cinema studies. Titled “Scenes From an Overrated Career,” Mr Rosenbaum wrote in part that “Nearly all the obituaries I’ve read take for granted Mr. Bergman’s stature as one of the uncontestable major figures in cinema — for his serious themes …, for his expert direction of actors … and for the hard severity of his images.” He goes on to assert that “The hard fact is, Mr. Bergman isn’t being taught in film courses or debated by film buffs with the same intensity as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard,“ adding that “The same qualities that made Mr. Bergman’s films go down more easily … also make them feel less important today, because they have fewer secrets to impart. What we see is what we get, and what we hear, however well written or dramatic, are things we’re likely to have heard elsewhere.” Mr. Rosenbaum charges Bergman was a lack of innovation: “The stylistic departures I saw in Mr. Bergman’s ’50s and ’60s features were actually more functions of his skill and experience as a theater director than a desire or capacity to change the language of cinema in order to say something new.” He concludes that “Mr. Bergman simply used film … to translate shadow-plays staged in his mind — relatively private psychodramas about his own relationships with his cast members, and metaphysical speculations that at best condensed the thoughts of a few philosophers rather than expanded them. “
Film writers far and wide rained down on Mr. Rosenbaum’s house of bad vibes. Unfortunately, for the author, however, the editor at the Times put Mr. Rosenbaum through three or more drafts, and selected the title headline, all of which subtly distorted his point, which he is able later to make freely on his archive blog, in which he prints his original version which he says more accurately reflects his views at the time, in contrast to the heavily edited, published version.
On the other hand, it is not unusual to see people who liked Bergman to criticize some of his pretensions, self imitations, and unevenness through a 50-film career. Even Robin Wood, who wrote the first book in English about Bergman has a notable preference for the director’s domestic dramas and comedies over the overreaching ambitions of his late ‘50s and early ‘60s films such as the The Seventh Seal. He writes:
And this is from a guy who loves Bergman.
Despite what one thinks or feels about Bergman's middle period films, there is one key reason to acquire this brand new Blu-ray. Though it re-prints all the supplementary material from the 2009 Blu-ray, this time around Criterion has struck a new digital version which to discerning eyes is much superior. Bearing issue No. 11, this blu-ray set has an appealing cover by Neil Kellerhouse, a booklet with an essay by the always dependable Gary Giddins, a 2003 introduction to the film by the director, an informative audio commentary track by Peter Cowie, a 20-minute audio interview with Max von Sydow, a brief plug from Woody Allen on the director’s influence, and the original film trailer.
The director’s life and films are treated in two separate works, a short film narrated by Peter Cowie, and a truncated version of the documentary Bergman Island made by Marie Nyreröd. This was originally a three-hour work, with the first hour on the films, the second hour on his significant contributions to the theater, and the final hour about his life, marriages, family life, and various fears. If one wants to see the whole thing one has to go elsewhere. This is a two disc set with one with the Blu-ray and the extras, and the other disc bearing just the regular-ray edition.
One feels tugged into directions. There is great artistry in this film, but the criticisms laid against Bergman and this film specifically, do resonate with an experienced film thinker. Nevertheless, The Seventh Seal makes for a great starter film for those interested in exploring art cinema I just most penetrating.