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commentary: bergman on bergman » each film is my last
EACH FILM IS MY LAST
by Ingmar Bergman
From two speeches published by Svensk Filmindustri. Translated by P.E. Burke and Lennart Swahn. Edited by Erika Munk. Published in Tulane Drama Review (1966).
Artistic creation always manifested itself to me as hunger. I acknowledged it with a certain satisfaction, but during my conscious life I never asked myself what caused this craving. In the last few years the hunger has diminished and been transformed into something else; now I am anxious to find out what the reasons for it were. I have an early childhood memory of my desire to show off achievements: proficiency in drawing, playing ball, the first swimstrokes. I had a strong need to draw the grownups' attention to these signs of my presence in the external world. I never felt that people took enough interest in me. When reality was no longer sufficient, I started to invent things: I entertained my friends with tremendous stories of my secret exploits. They were embarrassing lies, which failed hopelessly when confronted with the level-headed scepticism of the world around me. Finally I withdrew, and kept my dream world to myself. A child looking for human contact, obsessed by his imagination, had been quickly transformed into a hurt, cunning, and suspicious daydreamer.
But a daydreamer is no artist except in his dreams.
The need to be heard, to correspond, to live in the warmth of a community, was still there. It grew stronger the lonelier I grew. It goes without saying that film became my means of expression. I made myself understood in a language going beyond words, which failed me; beyond music, which I did not master; beyond painting, which left me indifferent. I was suddenly able to correspond with the world around me in a language spoken literally from soul to soul, in phrases which escaped the control of the intellect in an almost voluptuous way. With the whole stunted hunger of a child I seized upon my medium and for twenty years, tirelessly and in a kind of frenzy, I supplied the world with dreams, intellectual excitement, fantasies, fits of lunacy. My success has been amazing, but at bottom it is an insignificant sequel.
I do not underestimate what I may have achieved. I think that it has been and perhaps still is of importance. But now I can see the past in a new and less romantic light; that is security enough for me. Today my situation is less complicated, less interesting, above all less glamorous than it was. To be completely frank, I experience art (not only film art) as insignificant in our time: art no longer has the power and the possibility to influence the development of our life.
Literature, painting, music, film, and theatre beget and bring forth themselves. New mutations, new combinations arise and are annihilated; the movement seems–seen from the outside–nervously vital. With magnificent zeal the artists 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 countries artists are punished, art is considered dangerous and worth stifling and directing. On the whole, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible; the movement is intense, almost feverish, like a snake's skin full of ants. The snake is long since dead, eaten, deprived of his poison, but the skin is full of meddlesome life.
If I have become one of these ants, I must ask myself if there is any reason to continue my work.
The answer is yes. Although I think that the stage is an old, beloved kept woman, who has seen better days. Although I and many other people find the Wild West more stimulating than Antonioni and Bergman. Although the new music gives us the sense of being suffocated by mathematically rarefied air. Although painting and sculpture, sterilized, decline in their own paralyzing freedom. Although literature has been transformed into a pile of words without any message or dangerous qualities....
I think that people today can dispense with theatre, because they exist in the middle of a drama whose different phases incessantly produce local tragedies. They do not need music, because every minute they are exposed to hurricanes of sound passing beyond endurance. They do not need poetry, because the idea of the universe has transformed them into functional animals, confined to interesting–but from a poetical point of view unusable–problems of metabolic disturbance. Man (as I experience myself and the world around me) has made himself free, terribly and dizzyingly free. Religion and art are kept alive as a conventional politeness toward the past, as a benign, democratic solicitude on beha1f of nervous citizens enjoying more and more leisure time....
If I consider all these troubles and still maintain that I want to continue to work in art, there is a simple reason. (I disregard the purely material one.) The reason is curiosity. A boundless, insatiable curiosity, that is always new and that pushes me onwards–a curiosity that never leaves me alone and that has completely replaced my craving for community. I feel like a prisoner who, after serving a long term, suddenly is confronted with turbulent life. I note, I observe, I keep my eyes open; everything is unreal, fantastic, frightening, or ridiculous. I catch a flying grain of dust, maybe it is a film–what importance does it have? None at all, but I find it interesting and consequently it is a film. I walk around with the grain of dust that I have caught with my own hands. I am happy or sad. I jostle the other ants, together we accomplish an enormous task. The snake's skin moves.
This and only this is my truth. I do not request that it be valid for someone e1se, and as a consolation for eternity it is of course rather meager. As a basis for artistic activity during some future years it is completely sufficient at least for me. To devote oneself to artistic creation for one's own satisfaction is not always agreeable. But it has one great advantage: the artist lives exactly like every other living creature that only exists for its own sake. This makes a rather numerous brotherhood....
Experience should be gained before one reaches forty, a wise man said. After forty it is permissible to comment. The reverse might apply in my case–no one was more certain of his theories and none more willing to elucidate them than I was. No one knew better or could visualize more. Now that I am somewhat older I have become rather more cautious. The experience I have gained and which I am now sorting out is of such a kind that I am unwilling to express myself on the art of the filmmaker.... The only real contribution the artist can make is his work. Thus I find it rather unseemly to get involved in discussion, even with explanations or excuses.
The fact that the artist remained unknown was a good thing in its time. His relative anonymity was a guarantee against irrelevant outside influences, material considerations, and the prostitution of his talents. He brought forth his work in spirit and truth as he saw it and left the judgment to the Lord. Thus he lived and died without being more or less important than any other artisan. In such a world flourished natural assurance and invulnerable humility, two qualities which are the finest hallmarks of art.
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 which he eulogizes. The unusual is both his pain and his satisfaction....
Often it begins with something very hazy and indefinite–a chance remark or a quick change of phrase, a dim but pleasant event which is not specifically related to the actual situation. It has happened in my theatrical work that I have visualized performers in fresh make-up but in yet-unplayed roles. All in all, split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, forming a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I wind up this thread carefully a complete film will emerge, brought out with pulse-beats and rhythms which are characteristic of just this film. Through these rhythms the picture sequences take on patterns according to the way they were born and mastered by the motive.
The feeling of failure occurs mostly before the writing begins. The dreams turn into cobwebs, the visions fade and become grey and insignificant, the pulse-beat is silent, everything shrinks into tired fancies without strength and reality. But I have decided to make a certain film and the hard work must begin: to transfer rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones, and scents into a readable or at least understandable script.
This is difficult but not impossible.
The vital thing is the dialogue, but dialogue is a sensitive matter which can offer resistance. The written dialogue of the theatre is like a score which is almost incomprehensible to the ordinary person; interpretation demands a technical knack and a certain amount of imagination and feeling. One can write dialogue, but how it should be handled, the rhythms and the tempo, the speed at which it is to be taken, and what is to take place between the lines–all that must be left out, because a script containing so much detail would be unreadable.
I can squeeze directions and locations, characterizations and atmosphere into my film scripts in understandable terms, but then I come to essentials, by which I mean montage, rhythm and the relation of one picture to the other–the vital "third dimension" without which the film is merely dead, a factory product. Here I cannot use "keys" or show an adequate indication of the tempos of the complexes involved; it is impossible to give a comprehensible idea of what puts life into a work of art. I have often sought a kind of notation which would give me a chance of recording the shade and tones of the ideas and the inner structure of the picture. If I could express myself thus clearly, I could work with the absolute certainty that whenever I liked I could prove the relationship between the rhythm and the continuity of the part and the whole.... Let us state once and for all that the film script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film.
Film is not the same thing as literature. As often as not the character and substance of the two art forms are in conflict. What it really depends on is hard to define, but it probably has to do with the self-responsive process. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act and in connection with the intellect, and little by little it plays on the imagination or feelings. It is completely different with the motion picture. When we see a film in a cinema we are conscious that an illusion has been prepared for us and we relax and accept it with our will and intellect. We prepare the way into our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings without touching the mind.
There are many reasons why we ought to avoid filming existing literature, but the most important is that the irrational dimension, which is the heart of a literary work, is often untranslatable and that in its turn kills the special dimension of the film. If despite this we wish to translate something literary into filmic terms, we are obliged to make an infinite number of complicated transformations which most often give limited or non-existent results in relation to the efforts expended. I know what I am talking about because I have been subjected to so-called literary judgment. This is about as intelligent as letting a music critic judge an exhibition of paintings or a football reporter criticize a new play. The only reason for everyone believing himself capable of pronouncing a valid judgment on motion pictures is the inability of the film to assert itself as an art form, its need
of a definite artistic vocabulary, its extreme youth in relation to the other arts, its obvious ties with economic realities, its direct appeal to the feelings. All this causes film to be regarded with disdain. Its directness of expression makes it suspect in certain eyes, and as a result any and everyone thinks he's competent to say anything he likes, in whatever way he likes, about film art.
I myself have never had ambitions to be an author. I do not wish to write novels, short stories, essays, biographies, or treatises on special subjects. I certainly do not want to write pieces for the theatre. Filmmaking is what interests me. I want to make films about conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms, and characters within me which in one way or another interest me. The motion picture and its complicated process of birth are my methods of saying what I want to my fellow men. I find it humiliating for work to be judged as a book when it is a film. Consequently the writing of the script is a difficult period, but useful, as it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas. While this is taking place I am caught in a difficult conflict between my need to find a way of filming a complicated situation and my desire for complete simplicity. As I do not intend my work to be solely for my own edification or for the few but for the public in general, the demands of the public are imperative. Sometimes I try a venturous alternative which shows that the public can appreciate the most advanced and complicated developments....
I stand in the half-light of the film studio with its noise and crowds, dirt and wretched atmosphere, and I seriously wonder why I am engaged in this most difficult form of artistic creation. The rules are many and burdensome. I must have three minutes of usable film in the can every day. I must keep to the shooting schedule, which is so tight that it excludes almost everything but essentials. I am surrounded by technical equipment which with fiendish cunning tries to sabotage my best intentions. Constantly I am on edge, I am compelled to live the collective life of the studio. Amidst all this must take place a sensitive process which demands quietness, concentration, and confidence.
I mean working with actors and actresses. There are many directors who forget that our work in films begins with the human face. We certainly can become completely absorbed in the aesthetics of montage, we can bring together objects and still life into a wonderful rhythm, we can make nature studies of astounding beauty, but the approach to the human face is without doubt the distinguishing quality of the film. From this we might conclude that the film star is our most expensive instrument and the camera only registers the reactions of this instrument. But in many cases the position and movement of the camera is considered more important than the player, and the picture becomes an end in itself–this can never do anything but destroy illusions and be artistically devastating. In order to give the greatest possible strength to the actor's expression, the camera movement must be simple, free, and completely synchronized with the action. The camera must be a completely objective observer and may only on rare occasions participate in the action. We should realize that the best means of expression the actor has at his command is his look. The close-up, if objectively composed, perfectly directed and played, is the most forcible means at the disposal of the film director, while at the same time being the most certain proof of his competence or incompetence. The lack or abundance of close-ups shows in an uncompromising way the nature of the director and the extent of his interest in people.
Simplicity, concentration, full knowledge, technical perfection must be the pillars supporting each scene and sequence. However, they in themselves are not enough. The one most important thing is still lacking: the intimate spark of life, which appears or fails to appear according to its will, crucial and indomitable.
For instance, I know that everything for a scene must be prepared down to the last detail, each branch of the collective organization must know exactly what it is to do. The entire mechanism must be free from fault as a matter of course. These preliminaries may or may not take a long time, but they should not be dragged out and tire those participating. Rehearsals for the "take" must be carried out with technical precision and with everyone knowing exactly what he is to do. Then comes the take. From experience I know that the first take is often the happiest, as it is the most natural. This is because the actors are trying to create something; their creative urge comes from natural identification. The camera registers this inner act of creation, which is hardly perceptible to the untrained eye or ear. I believe it is this which keeps me in films. The development and retention of a sudden burst of life gives me ample reward for the thousands of hours of grey gloom, trial and tribulation....
Many imagine that the commercial film industry lacks morality or that its morals are so definitely based on immorality that an artistically ethical standpoint cannot be maintained. Our work is assigned to businessmen, who at times regard it with apprehension because it is concerned with something as unreliable as art. If many regard our activity as dubious, I must emphasize that its morality is as good as any and so absolute that it is almost embarrassing. However, I have found that I am like the Englishman in the tropics, who shaves and dresses for dinner every day. He does not do this to please the wild animals but for his own sake. If he gives up his discipline then the jungle has beaten him. I know that I shall have lost to the jungle if I take a weak moral standpoint. I have therefore come to a belief based on three commandments. Briefly I shall give their wording and their meaning. These have become the basis of my activity in the film world. The first may sound indecent but really is highly moral:
THOU SHALT BE ENTERTAINING AT ALL TIMES
The public who sees my films and thus provides my bread and butter has the right to expect entertainment, a thrill, a joy, a spirited experience. I am responsible for providing that experience. That is the only justification for my activity.
However, this does not mean that I must prostitute my talents, at least not in any and every way, because then I would break the second commandment:
THOU SHALT OBEY THY ARTISTIC CONSCIENCE AT ALL TIMES
This is a very tricky commandment because it obviously forbids me to steal, lie, prostitute my talents, kill, or falsify. However, I will say that I am allowed to falsify if it is artistically justified, I may also lie if it is a beautiful lie, I could also kill my friends or myself or anyone else if it would help my art, it may also be permissible to prostitute my talents if it will further my cause, and I should indeed steal if there were no other way out. If one obeyed artistic conscience to the full in every respect then one would be doing a balancing act on a tightrope, and could become so dizzy that at any moment one could break one's neck. Then all the prudent and moral bystanders would say, "Look, there lies the thief, the murderer, the lecher, the liar. Serves him right"–never thinking that all means are allowed except those which lead to a fiasco, and that the most dangerous ways are the only ones which are passable, and that compulsion and dizziness are two necessary parts of our activity; that the joy of creation, which is a thing of beauty and joy forever, is bound up with the necessary fear of creation....
In order to strengthen my will so that I do not slip off the narrow path into the ditch, I have a third juicy commandment:
THOU SHALT MAKE EACH FILM AS IF IT WERE THY LAST
Some may imagine that this commandment is an amusing paradox or a pointless aphorism or perhaps simply a beautiful phrase about the complete vanity of everything. However, that is not the case.
It is reality.
In Sweden, film production was halted for all of 1951. During my enforced inactivity I learned that because of commercial complications and through no fault of my own I could be out on the street before I knew it. I do not complain about it, neither am I afraid or bitter; I have only drawn a logical and highly moral conclusion from the situation: each film is my last.
For me there is only one loyalty: to the film on which I am working. What comes (or fails to come) after is insignificant and causes neither anxiety nor longing. This gives me assurance and artistic confidence. The material assurance is apparently limited but I find artistic integrity infinitely more important, and therefore I follow the principle that each film is my last. This gives me strength in another way. I have seen all too many film workers burdened down with anxiety, yet carrying out to the full their necessary duties. Worn out, bored to death and without pleasure they have fulfilled their work. They have suffered humiliation and affronts from producers, critics, and the public without flinching, without giving up, without leaving the profession. With a tired shrug of the shoulders they have made their artistic contributions until they went down or were thrown out.
I do not know when the day might come that I shall be received indifferently by the public, perhaps be disgusted with myself. Tiredness and emptiness will descend upon me like a dirty grey sack and fear will stifle everything. Emptiness will stare me in the face. When this happens I shall put down my tools and leave the scene, of my own free will, without bitterness and without brooding whether or not the work has been useful and truthful from the viewpoint of eternity. Wise and far-sighted men in the Middle Ages used to spend nights in their coffins in order never to forget the tremendous importance of every moment and the transient nature of life itself. Without taking such drastic and uncomfortable measures I harden myself to the seeming futility and the fickle cruelty of film-making with the earnest conviction that each film is my last.
© 1966 by Tulane Drama Review