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.

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