Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bergman Interview

Here's the Ingmar Bergman interview from 1972 (American Cinematographer) I transcribed, as promised. Just below is a pic of Bergman and Liv Ullman, with whom he had an affair and fathered a child.

In 1990 (or '89, can't remember), I had a writing job in Mauritius (a small island somewhere between Africa and India) but my circuitous airline route took me through Copenhagen. On that leg of the journey, there were only two people in first-class - me and Liv Ullman. There was no mistaking her. And the crew of the Scandinavian Airlines flight were beside themselves with excitement to have such a huge international celebrity (and Scandinavian treasure) in their midst. So, a few hours (and several drinks) into the roughly 8 hour flight, I screwed up the courage to go over and say hello. I rose up and Ms. Ullman immediately looked at me from across the cabin with such panicked intensity that I almost sat back down. But I pushed through that impulse with drunken bravado and stumbled over to her - she watching me carefully the entire journey. It was just a few rows of seats, but it felt like 10 miles. When I finally neared her, she turned her gaze away, staring straight ahead, unblinking, at the back of the seat in front of her. I was probably uncomfortably close when I said "Ms. Ullman, it's my honor to introduce myself to you" and put out my hand. She didn't respond at all, continuing to stare straight ahead at the obviously more compelling seat back. "You are Liv Ullman, aren't you?", I continued falteringly. She abruptly swiveled her head toward me with the same panicked intensity (now even more intense) in her eyes and said, "You must be mistaken". She then turned her gaze just as abruptly back to the less threatening seat back. I was speechless for a beat or two as my inebriated brain tried to process her response. Finally, I managed to say, "Well, if you were Liv Ullman, I would simply tell you that I think you are an amazing actress and I can't thank you enough for your great work". She said nothing, the seat back still commanding her intense energy. I then turned and hobbled back to my seat, got stinking drunk and threw up for most of the last 2 hours of the trip.

That story is neither here nor there regarding the interview below, other than to detail my pathetic brush with Bergman's muse and illustrate an abject lesson in the self-debasing absurdity of fan worship - even if the object of adoration is a truly amazing artist. You don't have to literally embrace (and terrify) the person to appreciate their work. Granted, she didn't handle that situation in the most gracious manner possible, but why should she have to? She probably just wanted to relax on the flight and enjoy the back of the seat in front of her without some strange, drunken Negro stumbling over to touch the hem of her garment. Anyway, thought you might find that little ditty amusing.

Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman circa mid- 60's

Here's the interview:



Artistic creation has always, to me, manifested itself as hunger. I have acknowledged this need with a certain satisfaction but I have never, in all my life, asked myself why this hunger has arisen and craved appeasement. In recent years, as it diminishes and is transformed into something else, I have become anxious to find out the cause of my "artistic activity".

A very early childhood memory is my need to show off my achievements: skill in drawing, the art of tossing a ball against a wall, my first effort at swimming.

I remember I felt a very strong need to draw the attention of the grown-ups to these manifestations of my presence in the world, I felt I never got enough attention from my fellow men. So, when reality was no longer sufficient, I began to fantasize, entertain my playmates with tremendous stories about my secret adventures. They were embarrassing lies that hopelessly failed against the level-headed skepticism of the world. I finally withdrew and kept my dream world to myself. A young child wanting human contact and obsessed by his imagination and been hurt and transformed into a cunning and suspicious daydreamer.

But a daydreamer is not an artist outside his dreams.

The need to get people to listen, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a community was still there. It became stronger the more I became imprisoned in lonliness.

It is fairly obvious that the cinema became my means of expression. I made myself understood in a language that bypassed the words - which I lacked - and music - which I did not master - and painting, which left me indifferent. With cinema, I suddenly had the opportunity to communicate with the world around me in a language that is literally spoken from soul to soul in phrases that escape the control of the intellect in an almost voluptuous way.

With a child's repressed hunger, I threw myself into my medium and, for twenty years, I have indefatigably, and in a kind of frenzy, brought about dreams, mental experiences, fantasies, fits of lunacy, religious controversies and sheer lies. My hunger has been eternally new. Money, fame and success have been amazing but, at bottom, insignificant consequences of my rampagings. In saying this, I do not underestimate what I may perchance have achieved. I think it has had, and perhaps has, its importance. But security for me is that I can see the past in a new and less romantic light. Art as self-satisfaction can, of course, have its importance - especially for the artist.

Today, the situation is less complicated, less interesting - above all, less glamorous.

To be quite frank, I experience art - not only the film art - as being meaningless. By that, I mean that art no longer has the power and possibility to influence the development of our lives.

Literature, painting, music, film and theater beget and bring forth themselves. New mutations, new combinations arise and are destroyed. The movement seems - from the outside - nervously vital, the artists' magnificent zeal to project to themselves - and to a more and more distracted public - pictures of a world that no longer cares what they like or think. In a few places artists are punished. Art is considered dangerous and worth stifling and directing. On the whole, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible. And, as I said, the movement is intense, almost feverish. It seems to me like a snakeskin full of ants. The snake itself has long been dead, eaten, deprived of its poison. But the skin moves, filled with meddlesome life.

If I now find that I happen to be one of these ants, I must ask myself whether there is any reason to continue the activity. The answer is in the affirmative. Although I think that the theater stage is a beloved old courtesan who has seen better days. Although the new music gives us the suffocating feeling of mathematical air rarification. Although painting and sculpture are sterile and languish in their own paralyzing freedom. Although literature has been transformed into a cairn of words without message or danger.

There are poets who never write poems because they form their lives as poems, actors who never appear on stage but play their lives as marvelous dramas. There are painters who never paint because they close their eyes and create the most beautiful paintings on the inside of their eyelids. There are filmmakers who live their films and would neer misuse their talents to materialize them in reality.

In the same way, I think people today can dispense with the theater because they exist in the middle of a drama, the different phases of which incessantly produce local tragedies. They do not need music because every minute their hearing is bombarded with veritable sound hurricans that have rached and passed the level of endurance. They do not need poetry because the new idea of the universe has transformed them into functional animals bound to interesting but, from a poetical point of view, unusuable problems of metabolic disturbance.

Man (as I experience myself and world around me) has made himself free, terribly and dizzingly free. Religion and art are kept alive for the sake of sentimentality, as a conventional politeness towards the past, a benevolent solicitude of leisure's increasingly nervous citizens. I am still talking about my own subjective vision. I hope, and am perfectly sure, that others have a more balanced and objective conception.

If I take all this tediousness into consideration and, in spite of everything, assert that I wish to continue to make art, it is for a very simple reason (I disregard the purely materal one).

The reason is curiosity. A boundless, insatiable, perpetual regeneration, an unbearable curiosity that drives me on, that never lets me rest, that completely replaces that past hunger for community.

I feel like a long-term prisoner suddenly confronted with the crashing, shrieking, snorting of life. I am seized by an ungovernable curiosity. I note, I observe, I keep my eyes open. Everything is unreal, fantastic, frightening or ridiculous. I catch a flying grain of dust - perhaps it is a film. What significance does it have? None at all. But I find it interesting, and consequently, it is a film. I wander round with my grain of dust and, in mirth or melancholy, I am preoccupied. I jostle among the other ants, together we accomplish a colossal task. The snakeskin moves.

This and only this is my truth. I do not ask that it shall be valid for anyone else, and as a consolation for eternity it is, of course, rather meager. As a basis for artistic activity in the coming years it is completely sufficient,...at least, for me.

To be an artist for one's own satisfaction is not always so agreeable. But it has one great advantage: the artist coexists with every living creature that lives only for its own sake. Altogether, it makes a pretty large brotherhood of existing egoistically on the hot, dirty earth under a cold, empty sky.

But in life today, the position of the artist has become more and more precarious; the artist has become a curious figure, a kind of performer or athlete who chases from job to job. His isolation, his now, almost holy individualism, his artistic subjectivity, can all too easily cause ulcers and neurosis. Exclusiveness becomes a curse that he euglogizes. The unusual is both his pain and his satisfaction.

It is possible that I have made a general rule from my own idiosyncrasies. But it is also possible that the conflict of responsibility has been intensified, and moral problems made so difficult, because of dependence on popular support and also due to unreasonable economic burdens.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Quote of the Month (from Ingmar Bergman)

I actually don't do quotes of the month. But I am transcribing an old Ingmar Bergman interview from 1972 (which I am going to share with you all in successive parts very soon) and I was struck by this one particular quote that is funny and deceptively complicated (and contradictory) and sums up so much of Bergman's work and world view.

To put it in context, he talks about how he once made films out of a hunger, but then became compelled to make films simply out of extreme curiosity. However, he asserts that art - all art- has become meaningless. Yet, he still feels justified in being an artist because doing it for its own sake is perfectly acceptable to him. Then, he says:

"To be an artist for one's own satisfaction is not always so agreeable. But it has one great advantage: the artist coexists with every living creature that lives only for its own sake. Altogether, it makes a pretty large brotherhood of existing egoistically on the hot, dirty earth under a cold, empty sky."

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Collectively Speaking "...One For All"

The following is reprinted from FA Magazine's January 09 "Collectively Speaking" column:


"Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno" is a Latin phrase that means "One for all, all for one" in English. In its inverted state, it is known as being the motto of Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers as well as the Three Stooges. Also, it is apparently the traditional motto of Switzerland. Who knew?

It is also the core concept behind Filmmakers Alliance - actually, collectivism, in general. All this is obvious to anyone who has ever been a meaningful part of Filmmakers Alliance. But what continually confounds me is how difficult it is for many other independent filmmakers to see how powerful this concept is to them in their own filmmaking lives.

Well, in truth, most indie filmmakers seem to have no problem grasping half of the concept. "All For One....Me!" seems to be the defining modification they've made to the concept, essentially transforming it into a complete energetic contradiction. Now, it's not that this self-absorbed approach to filmmaking is without benefit. Films do need a sort of authorship (although I do not fully embrace the "auteur theory"), a guiding aesthetic vision. And sometimes these more self-absorbed types have a determination, drive and focus that defies limitation.

On the downside, such self-servitude can also defy imagination - limiting creative vision and obscuring awareness of that which doesn't immediately seem to serve them. As I've said ad nauseum, filmmaking is a collaborative experience. It is a community endeavor - a community of artisans and/or creative professionals brought together in service of a common creative purpose. Everybody brings something to the table that adds to the development and realization of the film...and thus, the potential success of the film. And that communal energy is even more present in the exhibition of the film. What is an audience if not a community brought together for a singular, shared experience. But the concept of communalism is still, nonetheless, difficult for many independent filmmakers to grasp. To them, they are making the film and everyone else is simply "helping". They write in a vacuum, edit in a vacuum and, at times, aggressively discourage creative contributions from anyone else. And of course, when they are not working on their own films, they spend precious little time being in service to any other filmmaker. In the end, people are only useful to them when they need them - in producing the film (cast and crew) and showing it (audiences).


I know this all sounds very negative, but I'm simply trying to shed some light on a challenging truth that is absent from much discourse in the wake of Ted Hope's amazing state of the union address on independent film (reprinted in this issue), and the subsequent discussions/arguments about the "death" of Independent film. Of course, it is difficult to explore any discussions about independent film when there is no longer any consensus agreement on what "independent" film actually means. But by any commonly-embraced definition, I strongly believe that independent film cannot, and will not, ever die. As long as there is a single film that displays fresh creative energy and/or was made without regard for ANY institutional agenda, Independent Film is alive. And those kinds of films will simply never cease to exist.

But sadly, those films are, and have always been, an anomaly. There is not a culture that supports that kind of filmmaking. They are made despite the prevailing filmmaking paradigms, not because of them. So, on another level, I couldn't agree more with Ted Hope's assertion that "Indie Film" has never truly existed. The term "Independent Film" was once a perfectly benign catch-all phrase to describe films made outside of the commercial mainstream until it was cleverly co-opted and bastardized by that commercial mainstream. Ironically, it is now that very same commercial mainstream announcing Independent Film's death because they can't figure out a way to make money from it consistently.

But maybe those commercial mainstream folk did us a favor by trampling all over the term "independent film". Because, as Hope says, filmmaking on any level has never been truly "independent". It is NOT independent of cinematic grammar. It is NOT independent of cinematic history. It is NOT independent of creative collaboration. It is NOT independent of technical/practical support and innovation. It is NOT independent of audience reaction. It is NOT independent of word-of-mouth and other marketing support. Even by commercial mainstream's bastardized definition, Independent Film was NOT EVER independent of the foolhardy dreams of fame and success (and mainstream validation). No, "Independent Film" is a sexy phantom. This is why Hope prefers to eschew the term completely and use the term Truly Free Film.

Whatever term you use, the concept people like Ted Hope are striving to maintain and the thing for which they dream of creating a supportive infrastructure, is nothing more, or less, than Singular Creative Expression - or, in a word, originality. And that is a word that is far, far more difficult to achieve than it is to bandy about in everyday conversation. That is because, as Hope says, originality demands a freedom of thought that bares great risk and responsibility. It also demands a slightly counter-intuitive process. Meaning, to experience true freedom, originality and independence, we have to acknowledge and, in key ways, embrace their contradictions - connectivity, familiarity and dependence.

It is our responsibility as filmmakers to understand those things to which we've connected ourselves so that we can know which things/ideas we need to let go and which we need to hold onto for dear life. It is our responsibility as filmmakers to know what exists around us and what has come before it so that we can know our place in it all and in what direction we must evolve creatively (and otherwise). It is our responsibility as filmmakers to recognize and appreciate how much we depend on the larger community to sustain us on nearly all levels so that we can clearly see the affect on the whole of each individual contribution - especially our own.

Of course, this last point is the one I am repeatedly striking home with this column. And it is one Mr. Hope also strikes repeatedly in his address. Our independence demands our absolute dependence on each other - literally lending a hand (or strong back), challenging each other creatively, sharing information and resources, providing connections, introducing tech innovations to each other, banding together to protect the power and possibilities of the internet, watching and even buying (shocking!) each others' films and much more I've certainly overlooked or have yet to imagine. There is no one to do it for us. And you are short-sheeting yourself if you want to just grab what you can and contribute nothing. We are living in a time when new technologies have made the possibilities limitless for filmmakers wanting to do truly independent, truly free, truly original work. To realize that potential, you must take on its risks and responsibilities. Which means asking yourself the key question: "How am I contributing to the future I want to create?". Hopefully, the answer will always lead you to the second half of FA's rallying cry "....One For All!"


Monday, December 22, 2008

Tarkovsky's Top Ten Films

I just watched "The Sacrifice" again on DVD - and then the cool DVD docu-extra that shows him at work and discusses his views on cinema. Great, inspiring stuff. For those of you who are Tarkovsky devotees like myself, you might be interested in his "top ten" list - films he said most influenced/inspired him. All are available on DVD (just click on the link).

Diary of a Country Priest by Robert Bresson
Mouchette by Robert Bresson,
Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman
Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman
Persona by Ingmar Bergman
Nazarin by Luis Buñuel
City Lights by Charlie Chaplin
Ugetsu by Kenji Mizoguchi
Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa
Woman in the Dunes by Hiroshi Teshigahara

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Filmmaking and Disappointment

We recently suffered a tough, disappointing week at Filmmakers Alliance - and, consequently, for me personally - as that organization and I are joined at the hip. Some crucial funding we were expecting had been indefinitely delayed due to the economic crunch. And a bunch of very strong Filmmakers Alliance films - including a feature I produced - that had made it into the final rounds of consideration, were ultimately rejected from the Sundance Film Festival (along with about 8,000 other films).

Now, on a very practical and emotional level, I was kinda devastated about the funding disappointment, but I don't feel too much about the festival rejection. I've been around long enough to know that no one festival - including Sundance - holds the key to filmmaking success and means absolutely nothing in terms of artistic development and productivity. However, the filmmakers I work with don't necessarily share this perspective and it is their disappointment that touches me - and to which I want this blog to speak.

Disappointment is a chronic reality in all creative endeavors, but I would argue that it is particularly endemic to filmmaking since there are just so many opportunities to be disappointed - considering the amount of people and elements involved in the filmmaking process, including raising money, casting actors, securing crew and locations, getting into festivals, distributing the film, etc., etc. It's hard not to want the best in all aspects of the process and feel extreme disappointment when we have to settle for less.

Also, in a creative endeavor so tied to our dreams and visions, it is impossible for them to only exist for us creatively. They exist in all aspects of our thinking/feeling and feed our expectations. And, of course, expectation is the main prerequisite for disappointment.

So how do we deal with disappointment since it is clearly inescapable? Is there a way to minimize it? Or is it possible to experience it fully and use it beneficially? Well, I think there are two necessary ways to guide your reaction to disappointment if you want to benefit from it.

The first way to guide your reaction is to think clearly about the root of any disappointment. And, clearly, at the deepest root of disappointment is ego. I've talked extensively about ego and its involvement in the creative process so I hope you realize by now I'm not just referring to diva-like egos. I'm talking about normal, healthy ego - that necessary part of our DNA that drives survival instincts. That instinct to survive has evolved with modern life and now also drives us in the work we do and the things we create. Because on a deep level, we still tie anything that is profoundly important to us to that survival gene. It's natural, then, that any perceived threat to what is most important to us, will create upset. But survival instincts, in any form, are very self-centered instincts and thus the negative connotations around ego. When we are disappointed, we experience a self-centered upset that the world did not bend to our expectation of it. You've probably heard the saying "Men plan, God laughs" - which is just a way of saying our plans and expectations, even when related to survival, are very self-serving and not always in sync with the life's bigger picture.


Nonetheless, in some circumstances, disappointment touches the survival instinct much more directly than in other circumstances. For me, these recent disappointments emerge from a number of different core concerns and expectations. On a basic level, anxiety about how to manage/support FA begins to take hold. FA is my passion and lifeblood, hence, a true survival concern emerges. And filmmakers may feel the same thing when expectations for their films don't pan out. There's the sense that the film will go unseen and unappreciated, threatening the filmmakers ability to earn a livelihood from this work. But, of course, in other circumstances, disappointment touches us much closer to our diva-like ego, where everything related to us, no matter how inconsequential, feels as essential as survival. Basically, we believe the world revolves around our every emotion. We call that "Filmmaker Boy/Girl Syndrome". A common "disease" afflicting filmmakers where they embrace the delusion that they and their film are (or should be) at the center of everyone's universe.

I suspect a film's success or failure touches both ends of the ego spectrum - from basic survival to complete self-absorption/desperate need for attention. However, in productively processing disappointment, it doesn't really matter from what perspective we are experiencing it. From any perspective, there at two key things to keep in mind when guiding your reaction to disappointment. 1. It is ego-based. 2. Ego is a tool, not a state of being (unless you choose to make it so). It exists in us to drive us to do the things we need to do to survive. Therefore, disappointment, as a product of ego, can be a tool rather than a state of being. And a tool is used to accomplish things and create opportunities. So, in this little equation of mine, disappointment = opportunity. If we allow our egos and disappointments to be a state of being, we will be devastated. But if we see them as the tools that they are, they can provide energy, ambition and motivation....and, hence, opportunity.

The second important guide to managing disappointment in a positive way is to fully understand what our survival ego is trying to sustain. It is not our festival or financial success. Nor is it our industry prestige, nor any other tangential product of our creativity. It is creativity, itself. The survival ego is there to sustain our very lives. But, as modern, creative types who no longer must fear being torn apart by wild animals ("Grizzly Man" aside) the life our survival instinct now fights to sustain are those things which are core to our being. And that, my fellow filmmakers, is our CREATIVE PROCESS. Specifically, the making of films. Armed with this perspective, know that your disappointment is not about not getting something - funding, a location, a cast member, into a festival, accolades, whatever. It is about the threat to your creative process. And that is a threat you can address. It is a threat you can successfully squelch by being and staying creative.

So, allow yourself to feel disappointment. But don't live in it. Use it. Remember that it is there to protect your creative process. So you must continue creating. Know that is not a state of being, but a tool to motivate you and fill you with creative ambition. Keep striving to make your films more skillfully, more artfully, deeper, richer, funnier, whatever. This is what your disappointment can allow you to do. This is why disappointment is an opportunity. And,...if you choose to let it be so,...a gift.