Certain film directors you choose and some simply choose you. Years ago, I chose Luis Bunuel, for example, and set out to see all of his films, most of which I loved and all of which I responded to. Bergman was a different case. I'd watch his films and try to create a little distance between me and what I was watching, because the films could be -- as everyone keeps noting -- so overbearing and gloomy and at times hopeless. Stark, and yet somehow extremely sympathetic and deeply human. I think maybe I didn't want to be a Bergman fan; there are so many of them. No matter; I had no choice. His films burned into my head regardless of my resistance, which I guess is what makes a director great; they're the ones you just can't say no to. It was hard to disentangle myself from those people on the screen, all of whom were yearning to communicate, and often finding communication impossible, like the two women in Persona.
Is it possible to shake a great film like Sawdust and Tinsel from your head, with it's incredible scenes of erotic humiliation? How about those mad grinning faces staring at Max von Sydow in Hour of the Wolf?
I responded to them emotionally because his technique was so jarring. Here's the thing about great film directors, the one message they all deliver: it's okay to break rules, whatever they are. They do it their way, a way you're probably not supposed to shoot a scene, and they do it with absolute confidence. Chutzpah, Woody Allen called it, recalling the way characters in The Passion of Anna would suddenly resort to their actor selves and discuss intent and motivation. (Personally, I didn't think it worked at all, but I had to admire the director's sheer ballsiness.) More successful examples: Bibi Andersson's endless erotic revelation in Persona, or Harriet Anderson's eight-minute monologue in Winter Light, where she's staring directly into the camera, looking right at you, reading the painfully personal, searing contents of a letter. Or Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow in that great early opening scene in Shame, a conversation in one continuous over-the-shoulder take that goes from joy to sadness, where a couple starts on a high note and ends in despair -- the kind of shot that took enormous rehearsal and the intense involvement of the actors. These are scenes that are just plain impossible to forget -- and there are other films of him, like Cries and Whispers and Through a Glass Darkly where I remember not so much the scenes as the overall powerful effect.
The obits tend to point to the overtly Bergmanesque scenes of the chess game with death in The Seventh Seal, or the dream sequence in Wild Strawberries, when the old man wakes up in an empty town, sees a clock with no hands, sees himself in a coffin. Personally, I've never much liked that scene; it was too literal-minded, cheap, paint-by-numbers surrealism. But both of those films are incredible experiences, taken as a whole. I think of Wild Strawberries as one of the world's great road movies, one where the journey is as emotional and intense and personal as it is literal, where going forward also means going back.
Bergman reminds you what cinema is for, the way Shakespeare reminds you what literature is for: neither ever had a better practitioner.
It would be nice to say that I now have a mad passion to see all of Bergman again, but I always have a passion to see his films. I find myself thinking about him a lot, not only the films I've missed, but the ones I've always loved and have to keep seeing. He's a director who has a permanent place in my head, one who is always with me, whose words and images have carved out a lasting place. It's no mistake that his death is generating countless homages all over the world, in newspapers and on the webb. His films address a terrible loneliness and fear about life. He chooses everyone.