Friday, August 12, 2016
Director/writer: Ingmar Bergman
Photography: Gunnar Fischer
Music: Erik Nordgren
Editor: Lennart Wallen
Cast: Max von Sydow, Bengt Ekerot, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Nils Poppe, Bibi Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom
In spite of The Seventh Seal being so ripe for parody—and only more so as the years pass—I have never tired of sitting down for another look at it. From the powerful opening sound and images to the final resolution, director and writer Ingmar Bergman's robust and portentous contemplation of death is actually much more lively, varied, and interesting than the heavy-handed metaphors for which it is famous, e.g., especially, the game of chess between a knight returned to Sweden from Crusades-related activity versus Death personified, a kind of Uncle Fester figure in pasty make-up and form-concealing black drapery. Even the game of chess itself is more interesting than you would expect.
But the only notes I made when I looked at it again recently are as follows: "Fear of death." An old friend of mine died last month. Not anyone so close now, but a good friend in the past. More recently he and I seemed part of a broader phenomenon of reconnections made via social media. Many describe a similar arc. Several years ago, after tracing the webs of mutual friends and friending (that exciting gerund) this new way on Facebook, we had a few conversations on the phone and felt good about being in touch again. Not long after that, we started getting on one another's nerves again. So it goes. We weren't on the best terms when word got to me that he was gone.
It's a coincidence that I had scheduled myself to write about The Seventh Seal, but I thought it might be some kind of tonic for the blues of losing a friend in these circumstances. I've lost both my parents, a few friends my age or not that much older (all to cancer, as it happens), and of course several pets. Each death seems to have its own way of being painful. In this case, my friend was my age, but the difference from the others is that this was a more or less natural end—a bit early perhaps, in his early 60s, but that's well into the age when things start to happen.
It turned out there wasn't much in the way of comfort in The Seventh Seal. It's a dour affair by most measures (but don't miss Bibi Andersson and Nils Poppe as itinerant entertainers). I did appreciate how openly everyone in it can think and speak of death. Bergman cleverly makes it more believable by choosing for a setting the Black Death plague years in Sweden in the 14th century. Even so, there are scenes built around the preoccupation that strain belief, such as one notable lowlife who announces he is sick with plague and rolls around dramatically saying he doesn't want to die. It just doesn't seem like the way it would go down.
But such fraught and heavily freighted bits are frequent in The Seventh Seal and by contrast many are surprisingly convincing, once past the philosophical front-loading and mechanistic allegories that seem to be driving the film as a whole (again: "Fear of death"). Perhaps the most powerful scene occurs when a team of God-baiting self-flagellants shows up and showers down contempt on nonbelievers. It's a riveting spectacle.
My old friend and I were like Ingmar Bergman in at least one respect—in our fumbling ways, we pursued the creative life. In that life, death is basically the ultimate "pencils down" moment. The work is otherwise famously obstructed by our own self-defeating ways: not having the energy to do it, not making time to do it, not feeling like doing it, not feeling good enough to do it, and/or just not doing it. I think that's what makes me the most sad about this death. He had more talent than I suspect the world will ever know—as a DJ, and as a theater maven at multiple levels, from handling light and sound for stage productions to performing and producing radio theater.
But, I know, let's be realistic. One of us is not like the others—Ingmar Bergman was not only brilliant, he was also remarkably good at buckling down and doing the work, and the result is an amazingly high proportion of very good to excellent movies to be found across his catalog of 40-some movies, a fact that should not be overlooked because it is so widely understood. They are all over Bergman at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where The Seventh Seal is presently #72 on the big list, and already the fourth picture on the list by him, after Persona at #21, Fanny and Alexander at #53, and Wild Strawberries at #60. I concur with the general judgment on each and every one, and would add that my favorite by him, which I like even more than any of them, is his television miniseries Scenes From a Marriage.
My friend had a taste for movies and the gray areas of the Internet, and he would periodically send me packages of 15 or 20 DVDs, each with three of four titles or a TV series season. "Look to the skies!" is how he would announce a package was on its way. I haven't yet reached the end of them, though I'm sad now that I certainly will. He had an interesting and oddball taste that fascinated me—he was beholden to no critical canon I know of. Back when we hung out in Minneapolis in the early '80s, he turned me on to lots of stuff that has stuck in many different ways—Lou Reed, David Cronenberg, the Angry Samoans by way of TV's Night Flight, Liquid Sky, Quest for Fire. He continued to follow his own path in recent years, and I saw many things I likely wouldn't have otherwise: Stay, Pontypool, Limitless, Mary and Max, Black Mirror, Mister Lonely, In the Loop, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Man Facing Southeast, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman true-science TV shows, and The Cremaster Cycle—only that last one I might not be grateful for seeing.
It's true he didn't have much use for Bergman or the various film canons—he preferred the parodies, I'm sure—so it's probably not fair of me to yoke him into a review of The Seventh Seal this way. But I have little to say about the movie that's new—it's only one of the most discussed films in history. So I will conclude with a thought I think he would appreciate, and that also suits the mood of the picture: Look to the skies!