Sunday, January 19, 2014

Brink of Life II (Ingmar Bergman, 2014)

Just kidding. This post concerns Bergman's 1958 film Brink of Life, obscured by the canonical films surrounding it (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, both 1957 and The Virgin Spring from 1960) but adored in one of my all-time favorite pieces of film writing, John Waters' 1983 "Guilty Pleasures," first published in Film Comment and then in his Crackpot collection. "Guilty Pleasures" was an early acknowledgement of the thin line between art and exploitation and finds Waters pumping Bresson and Duras as de facto punks alongside appreciations of such still-unsung rage and/or boredom-inducers as Night Games (Mai Zetterling, 1966), A Cold Wind in August (Alexander Singer, 1961), and Mademoiselle (Tony Richardson, 1966). By including Brink of Life amongst such maudit company, Waters means to praise not the Bergman of existential hand-wringing but rather the Bergman of puke scenes and ridiculously gratuitous boob closeups.
These were precisely the selling points that exhibitors wanted to hype in order to attract restless, postwar audiences, e.g., filmgoers educated via the GI Bill and/or troops who saw European (and often art) cinema overseas. And so "Guilty Pleasures" reminds us of a filmscape that leveled the distinctions between Brink of Life and a sexploitation classic like Russ Meyer's 1959 The Immoral Mr. Teas across theaters free to show saucier fare in the wake of the Paramount and Miracle decisions.

But this Bergman, the de facto sexploitation film director, does not survive in legend. Today, he's either the ultimate middlebrow director or, less likely, perched at the highest point of cinematic art. As early as 1959, Hollis Alpert laid out the latter viewpoint in a Saturday Evening Review piece: "It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow, depending on whether the word 'Bergman' suggests Ingmar or Ingrid." But rather quickly, Bergman lost prestige with some influential critics (especially, Jonathan Rosenbaum) for a variety of reasons laid out by David Bordwell here so that now Ingrid Bergman undoubtedly inspires more reverence (at least when she's paired up with an auteurist-approved master). Both legacies make it difficult to view Brink of Life though Mr. Teas' naughty x-ray vision.

For sure, it contains most of the hallmarks of Bergman's cinema, chiefly, a suffocating milieu. Over the opening credits, we can hear city life outside the doors of a maternity ward, the film's sole location.
A nurse opens the doors and wheels us into the story world.
And at the very end of the film, the doors close on us, no end credits.
Nothing else exists, leaving Bergman open to the common charge of apolitical self-absorption.

Except, of course, the world outside very much exists in his cinema. It's constantly referenced in the extended harangues of his characters. In Brink of Life, it suffocates three women in various stages of pregnancy. But what value one can juice from this inside-outside tension depends largely on which Bergman dominates the viewing experience.

Critics who see Bergman as the quintessential director of middlebrow pseudo-profundity would seize on this tension to conclude that his characters reference the outside world only insofar as it relates to themselves. Rarely do they acknowledge that anyone else might be suffering or that anything besides suffering might ever happen. And so the audience must submit to the endless rants with plenty of mute witnesses as our surrogates. Here, a nurse rides out some Ingrid Thulin dialogue:
But those who find Bergman "a much nervier and riskier filmmaker than the oracular figure of legend" experience more nuance in his filmography. This Bergman is fully cognizant that he's limited his view to a little corner of the world. At times he even strives to let some of the hot air out of his stifling locales. This rare glimpse of the outside world in Brink of Life gives the film a momentary blast of fresh air (even though the window is pretty tightly shut):
Windows provide brief opportunities for the characters to recognize their feverish self-regard. Perhaps they even allow Bergman to roll his eyes at his characters such as in this shot from The Silence (1963), a much nervier and riskier film:
                                                            It is stuffy in here.

But what about Bergman the sexploitation maestro or Bergman the obnoxious button pusher? Could we not read his films back through the prism of rock 'n' roll if not punk rock? Instead of linking him to Strindberg backward and Woody Allen forward, why not use Chuck Berry and Pink Flamingos as reference points? In this register, the unnatural rants take on the petulance of Elvis demanding his due from the world in "Mystery Train." The reduced palette starts to give off the intensity of the circumscribed look and sound of punk. And if we submit to it all, the characters will take us down with them into the apocalypse just like classic punk rockers. In short, might we not guffaw at the audacity of Bergman's films rather than cower before their genius?

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