Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I'll Be Your Mirror: A Few Thoughts on Re-watching Ingmar Bergman's Persona

I watched Persona and
Hour of the Wolf not long ago for the first time in years, and they depressed me. I'm not the kind much given to avoiding anything supposedly depressing, because it usually turns out not to be so. Heavy emotionalism, despair, and anguish are all Bergman trademarks, but to me there always seemed something almost cleansing about them. I feel the same way with Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz or Cassavetes' A Woman Under the Influence, or De Sica's Umberto D. or The Bicycle Thief -- "downers" of such passion don't have the effect of making me feel glum. It's exhilarating to see life at its most painful or agonizing or intensely lived. So I tend to feel "depressing" only has value as a criticism when it reflects a certain moody shallowness on the part of the artist, and there's nothing shallow about Bergman; no one seizes meaningless and the supposed torment of living with greater enthusiasm or interest.

Still, there was a bit of an overload in seeing these two films back to back. One is intense enough; two is just asking for it. Maybe it's the close-ups, which are always extraordinary. All the  drama is there: in reaction, revelation, awareness, brilliantly captured by Sven Nykvist's camera and the music. Bergman uses music as effectively as Hitchcock; the sound just hammers the image into your brain.

There was, however, something new about seeing Persona again, because I think I got it in a way I didn't get it before. It has about three strands -- probably more, but three in particular -- and I've never been all that sure each has much to do with the other, and whether it's a truly organic work of art.

The problem lies in the famous opening, in which you see images of film and film images; you see arc lamps burning, film spooling out of a projector, and random shots and snippets of an erect penis, a crucified hand, an old cartoon, a child's hands, the beheading of a sheep, a silent movie. Then the film proper starts, with what look like shots of corpses in some airless morgue. We then see a strange adolescent boy who lays on his bed, tosses and turns, reads a book, and then looks directly into the camera. He rubs his hands on a wall, which is a blurry image of a face, that of the actress Bibi Andersson. He gradually rubs it into focus -- a famous shot I'm convinced Bergman nicked from a scene in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, where a blind woman rubs her hand on a movie screen as if trying to palpate the images.

Okay, we think: this is a film about film. It's about what images do to us, it's about reality and illusion, and in that regard it's very much of it's time. Like Nabokov and Borges and Barth in fiction, Bergman (along with Godard and Fellini) was breaking down the wall between artist and audience, deliberately showing his hand. (He does something similar in Hour of the Wolf; as the credits appear against a black background, we hear the sound of hammers and drills as a movie set is constructed.) I'm an artist, I'm here to deceive you, you are willingly taking part in that deception, he seems to say; as the movie proceeds, it's not immediately clear why he bothered. But I think there is an answer, or at least one that suggests itself.

With an idea clearly drawn from Strindberg's The Stronger -- which Andersson refers to in an interview on the DVD -- Persona involves the psychological relationship between a speaker and a listener. Elisabet (Liv Ullmann) is an actress who has suddenly turned completely aphasic; after years of giving herself to audiences, she has suddenly clammed up in the middle of a performance and hasn't spoken since. In hopes of bringing her from this self-imposed shell, she is left to the care of a young nurse, Alma (Anderssen) who will hopefully draw her out and get her to reconnect with the world.

Where Elisabet seems to have retreated into the comfort of silence, Alma is the type of person who lives to communicate. She doesn't hide her feelings about much. Seemingly disconnected from each other, they are also perfectly suited: Alma needs a receptor and in Elisabet she has found the perfect partner.

Elisabeth doesn't answer Alma's revelations, but she clearly responds to them; she's listening to every word (as are we). She is something like Alma's mirror; it's through her that the young nurse seems to realize things about herself. Elisabet's silence frees Alma to speak, particularly in a sexually explicit revelation about how she and a girlfriend participated in an orgy one summer at the beach.

The only communication she gets in return is indirect, coming in two scenes involving letters. Alma reads aloud to Elisabet a letter from the latter's husband, the mysterious Vogler -- but it's so personal she can't continue. She feels she is prying into her patient's life (and yet, she shows no restraint in revealing her own inner thoughts.) In another instance, Alma secretly reads a letter from Elisabet to Vogler about Alma, about her need to be heard. This act of communication seems almost to trigger something in their relationship -- it fractures, just as the film itself suddenly does midway through; an image freezes, the celluloid burns, and when the story resumes the two women are on a different level in their relationship.

What eventually takes place between the two is that one seems to almost absorb the other; Alma, rather than speaking solely for herself, begins gradually to speak for Elisabet; it's as if Elisabet, the receiver, is now the giver, now has given Alma part of her, and vice-versa -- both seem to have merged into each other. When Vogler arrives, Alma greets him as if he is her husband. Alma also voices Elisabet's thoughts, particularly in one amazing scene that is repeated back to back from the perspective of Elisabeth as the listener and Alma as the speaker.

This is, I think, where the seemingly two divergent aspects of the film merge as well-- that is, where a story of mutual psychological dependency begins to reflect the framing device of fragility of images, and the two sides of the thing come together. In Alma and Elisabet, I think, we are looking at the relationship between viewer and film -- one silent and receptive, the other revelatory, both of itself and of us. No less than Elisabet is a mirror of Alma, film is a mirror of its audience: it plays on your dreams and fears, it speaks for you and to you.

Alma's dependence on speech makes her dependent on Elisabet -- just as she was dependent on another woman in her sexual memory, with the girlfriend who urged her to take part in spontaneous group sex with two teenage boys. Now as then, she is the submissive partner to the demands of someone more forceful and dominant. Elisabet's silence commands a response from Alma -- a response that drains Alma, and which also gives her strength as the two personalities merge, each feeling the other, each -- in their brief time together -- becoming one: giver and receiver, speaker and listener, a single consciousness.

Elisabet's silence is, I think, a reflection of Bergman as an artist-- the artist who feels himself speechless, useless, who is a bit like that washed-up poet played by Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest, who sees the world splintering into utter chaos, and feels as a result like something of a fossil. There's a clue to this identification when Elisabet watches television, and sees that horrible footage (then quite contemporary) of a Buddhist monk protesting the war in Vietnam by incinerating himself, as well as another scene in which she looks at a picture of a terrified Jewish child being harassed by Nazi soldiers. On the one hand you have an action -- a protest that kills you -- on the other you have, in the face of the child, utter frightened silence.

In both cases, we are presented with the idea of the uselessness of words; both the monk and the child have reached a stage where words are useless, and words are useless to Eisabet (and us) in looking at them, and it's this very impotence of communication that Bergman seems in some almost unconscious way to be digging away at.

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