Took a stab at cleaning my office this morning and found this; on the left a poster for a magnificent retrospective of Bergman’s Swedish films, all screened on 35mm. at the Pacific Cinémathèque in Vancouver in 91-92, which I attended religiously, and which greatly informed my knowledge of Bergman’s career; on the left, a box set of some of those films. A more complete box set, mirroring the retrospective from a quarter century ago, is out now from Criterion. Sometimes things take a while to circulate.
The find made me reflect on how film scholarship and cinephilia have changed since then. As a tween film buff my main point of reference for Bergman was the Curtis F. Brown book on her career for the ‘Illustrated History of the Movies’ series I’d begun to painstakingly accumulate in relentless trawls through Montreal’s English-language second-hand bookshops. Now one looks at these books and it’s clear even the writers had often not seen all of the films they wrote about. But we didn’t know that then, and each volume was very handy in giving a chronology and a kind of arc to the Hollywood career of each of its subjects.
By reading, one more or less knew what Bergman had done and what she was celebrated for. But seeing the films was another story. I remember magical screenings of Casablanca at the Seville repertory cinema in the late 70s & early 80s; the whole audience with the film every step of the way; I saw it several times there — it seemed to be on rotation; and each time was the same; the hushed tones; what seemed like a whispered intensity; the glow that seemed to exude from Bergman; the intensity of Bogart’s mingled feelings for Bergman contrasted with his cool irreverence for authority and the law; the jokes, Dooley Wilson’s songs. It was an incantatory experience.
I also caught Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946) at a retrospective of Hitchcock films at Concordia University’s Conservatoire d’art cinématographique. I vividly remember the tiny Place Bonaventure Cinema, the smallest of the two — I saw Star Wars in the other — where I saw Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and retain powerful images of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman’s faces in that film. I was also enraptured by her Golda Meir on television in A Woman Called Golda (1982). I have a memory of seeing the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) that I don’t wholly trust: I have a powerful memory of the newspaper ads for the movie but can’t remember the cinema; and it makes me wonder whether I did see it in a cinema: I would have been twelve. But I did go to movies on my own then. Still, it’s possible I caught it on its first television broadcast. Her ‘African babies’ monologue certainly made an impression and has always, for better and worse, stayed with me.
All of this to say that it was very difficult to see films. One had to grab the rare opportunities that offered themselves. One saw only some things, mostly only once, and randomly, as they appeared. The restrospective of the Swedish work in Vancouver, was the first chance I got to see so many of her films together, in a certain kind of order, where you could chart chronology, progression, compare the contributions of various directors (Gustaf Molander made a huge impression). It was also my first exposure to Bergman’s early work in Sweden. It would take me many more years to see her extraordinary work with Rossellini in Italy; and her wonderful performance in Elena et les Hommes for Renoir; I did manage to see Saratoga Trunk (1945), The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945), Indiscreet (1958), The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), Cactus Flower (1968) on tv when I still lived at home. But it was haphazard; whatever randomly came one’s way, by accident: lovely to see, but very difficult to study.
Now it’s all changed. The films can be obtained: even personal ones like Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words (2015), a wonderful documentary composed of images she filmed herself, and where her love for her children is evident in every composition, in every frame, is available to see currently on BBC iplayer. Anyone can make a project of studying an actor or a director and through purchase (the Criterion set of Bergman’s work in Sweden is superb) or torrenting, be able to see all or almost all of their work that still exists, and in chronological order. The surprise is that so few do.