Thursday, July 25, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #3 - Persona (Bergman, 1966)

3.  Persona - Ingmar Bergman, 1966

                If Ingmar Bergman cares about anything, it’s humanness and identity, the basic essence of who a person is.  Few films explore the essence of who a person is more thoroughly than Persona, period.  (Admittedly, though, I am a bit behind in viewing the Bergman canon).  The story is simple: a famous actress (Liv Ullman) stops talking, a nurse (Bibi Andersson) is hired to care for her, and they live together in nearly complete seclusion.  As the two live together, the actress Elizabeth, doesn’t speak, and as a result, the nurse, Alma, begins to chatter incessantly.  She talks about everything, she talks and talks and talks until she has told Elizabeth every single embarrassing, honest, dark secret about herself.  Eventually, the characters begin to meld together, relayed in striking visual sequences where even their faces are melded.
Breaking the fourth wall.
                This all sounds so incredibly pretentious, and perhaps it is.  Even now, I’m getting a bit overwhelmed by ideas as I try to remember the film.  To add in another wrench, Bergman frequently pulls the viewer out of the “story” and reminds us that he, the identity who guides this universe, is making the film himself.  It’s a film that undoubtedly rewards repeat viewings, as the viewer can piece together who each of the characters are, as well as piece together who Bergman is showing us he is through his art.  It’s complex, and layered, and endlessly interesting, as the psychoses of Alma and Elizabeth are nuanced.  Not to mention all the Freudian craziness by which one can analyze and interpret the film.  It’s one of those films that can work as literature, with reevaluation and reinterpretation through lens after lens.

David's Response:

                Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is an overwhelming venture.  It is first and foremost about identity formation and malleability, but on a meta level, it is about the language and impact of narrative film itself.  First establishing the assumed reality of its characters’ merging psyches within the world of the film, Bergman then pulls back to reveal the man behind the curtain pulling the puppet strings (himself).  It begs the question of why he would do this in a film that is fundamentally about the influence of those close to us in shaping who we are and how we understand ourselves.  After all, the development of Alma and Elizabeth’s personalities shaping each another, both by discarding past behaviors and creating new commonality, is enthralling and insightful, not to mention a bit alienating and discomforting.  (Who really wants to admit that who they are is not their choice, but the result of countless human interactions?)  So, why not simply stop there?  Why remind us we are watching  film?  Why be so postmodern?

Visualizing the internal.
              I think Bergman does this to make his themes real, and relate them to the immediate experiences of the viewer.  In other words, his point is that what we see happening between Alma and Elizabeth is in some sense happening with every viewer who sits down to interact with the work of an auteur.  As viewers, we are influenced and shaped by what we consume, and in some way, everything we interact with can change us, for better or worse.  This is doubly true of the darkened chambers of a cinema, for such a setting monopolizes your senses and demands your full mental attention – something that cannot be said of an art gallery.  Just as Alma talks and talks and talks to a silent Elizabeth, Bergman acknowledges the fact that with every film, he is playing the role of the loquacious Alma to the viewer’s silent and introspective Elizabeth.  So, since Bergman recognizes he has a captive audience, he also recognizes his potential power to influence them and in some small way impart some of himself to them.  And while I think many would be best leaving their inner Bergman at the door (who wants to be that existentially lost?), the man has a point.  For attentive and responsive viewers, artful cinema is the path of least resistance for artists to interact with and influence the inner workings of their audiences.  And if this is true, though few recognize it alongside Bergman, filmmakers carry with their craft both an overwhelming opportunity and a terrible burden.

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