When Ingmar Bergman died on July 30, tributes immediately blossomed in communications outlets all over the world. But not everyone was prepared to canonize the Swedish filmmaker and theater director. In a New York Times Op-Ed on August 4, titled "Scenes from an Overrated Career," critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, a contributer to the East Bay Express' film listings, accused Bergman of staging "private psychodramas" and "metaphysical speculations" at the expense of engaging the modern world, and of harboring contempt for the media of film and video compared to the live theater tradition, "his real roots." A few days later, critic Roger Ebert fired back in defense of Bergman, and then blamed his fellow Chicago film reviewer for believing that "form itself is more important ... than narrative, emotional content and performance."
Pacific Film Archive Senior Curator Susan Oxtoby is reluctant to wade into this critical hair-pulling match, but it's obvious where she stands on Bergman's legacy. "I see many important reasons to show Bergman," said Oxtoby. "He was a very influential filmmaker for me. The first foreign film I saw was The Silence — I was impressed by its minimal dialogue and beautiful compositions. There's a richness in Bergman, of cinematic form and profound themes. His strengths are form, content, and use of narrative structure. It's a body of work that's very important. You can understand the auteurist tradition through Bergman."
Oxtoby and the PFA are fêting the most famous resident of the island of Fårö with a nine-film mini-respective beginning Thursday, December 6, with a 7:30 p.m. screening of the exquisite Wild Strawberries, Bergman's 1957 meditation on mortality, memory, and lost love. Ingmar Bergman: Light and Shadow runs through December 20 and includes several of Bergman's most beloved films: The Seventh Seal, Persona, Fanny and Alexander, and his 2003 swan song, Saraband, shot on digital video. Aside from that video projection, all the films are being shown in clean, clear 35mm prints from Janus Films, Sony Classics, MGM, and New Yorker Films.
Even though all the films in the series are available on DVD, Oxtoby urges Bergman aficionados as well as neophytes to experience them on the big screen, where the director's grand themes can play out most extravagantly. "Undivided, full attention is the key," she maintained. "We take in works differently in a theater. There are no distractions, and the audience response plays a major part. We're expecting audiences of people who have seen Bergman's films many times, plus students seeing them for the first time." Why play around with a cartoon Beowulf when you can witness Death himself playing chess with a knight by the sea in the year of the plague? BAMPFA.berkeley.edu
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