Friday, July 3, 2015

Authorship as Art Cinema in Ingmar Bergman's Persona

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartes was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed—master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the Cathedral of Chartes. 

—Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman

In this commentary on his own film, The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman would have us believe that film stands on its own as a work of art, as if somehow any pretension of "art cinema" can be washed away by the simple analogy between a concrete and abstract work of art—that any ideas of authorship are irrelevant because, somehow, the artist is not solely responsible for his work.

In a way, Bergman is right, as the auteur theory has allowed some filmmakers the right to produce painfully self-absorbed work with little social purview, and others to never move outside a rut of established convention. Instead, most art cinema exists in between these extremities; the director is obviously important to the films he produces, but in order for the work to have social value, it must not be limited to individual reflection. Perhaps in art cinema, more than any other genre, the films strike a balance between social value of new modes of filmmaking and the significance of an auteur's canon.

That isn't to say there are no establishments within art cinema. The model is more abstract than—and in many ways runs counter to—the modes of classical production, but there remain certain tendencies in art cinema which indicate, while these films may not be necessarily formulaic, they also do not exist on such an abstract, independent plane.

In Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema, her attack on traditional narrative film, Laura Mulvey argues for the institution of a new kind of cinema. She states that the classic narrative is, by its very nature, degrading to women. The scopophilic instinct which intrinsically presents women as passive objects of the male gaze makes narrative cinema a male institution. Narrative cinema also portrays a façade of "avoidance of choice." Not only are the thematic and formal tendencies of narrative cinema made to look as if there is no other way for the story to be told, but the nature of narrative cinema also strives to avoid the obvious: the film is a film.

However, though art cinema acts as an establishment with key—almost calculated—inconsistencies, it still possesses a liberty unique from classic cinema. Classic cinema takes on a male point of view in its narrative. Art cinema does not take on a female perspective, nor do its directors (still mostly male) seem to address the issue. However, art cinema is, by definition, more open to these changes in point of view and realities portrayed on the screen. Mulvey recognizes that a more postmodern approach needs to be taken that would, as Jim Naremore writes, "fragment identity and identification, decentering the character, the reader, and the author" (Naremore).

Perhaps the "new cinema" for which Mulvey advocates can be found in the canon of Ingmar Bergman films. Not that his films exist as a solitary unit in which one must understand the artist in order to understand the thought represented, but art cinema represented in the works of Bergman, specifically his 1966 film Persona, represent this new narrative technique. His films do not operate contrary to the establishments of narrative cinema; rather, art cinema is a new cinema altogether parading a new reality. Bergman's work is important not simply in the conventional sense of auteur theory, but is much broader in scope. François Truffaut believed that a true film auteur "...brings something genuinely personal to his subject instead of merely producing a tasteful, accurate but lifeless rendering of the original material" (Buscombe).

In this sense, Bergman is truly an auteur. His films are a work of his own, as he wrote the majority of his filmography himself as well as being a perfectionist behind the camera. Bergman didn't settle for stale interpretations of previously written work; rather, his work contained highly personal struggles with universal appeal. Just as Fanny and Alexander is autobiographical in the psychological and spiritual abuse under a strict Lutheran household, much of his work deals with such personal struggles that grew out of these experiences with the silence of God (The Seventh Seal, Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light), suggesting authorship is apparent beneath the works.

Persona also holds highly personal elements, but the finished product stands on its own foundation. As Bergman stated, "Art is free, shameless, irresponsible," he would have us believe his films don't exist in relation to the artist (Ingmar Bergman: …) . However, Persona could not have come about without personal experience. Written in a hospital amidst dizzy spells that left him immobile, Persona clearly deals with issues of isolation and knowledge of self. Afraid that he would never be able to make films again, Persona also suggests that the artist needs art, and art needs life. These elements draw from each other, relative to the combination of Alma and Elisabeth's identities. Although Bergman believed that art was essentially in a postmodern state as early as 1965, comparing art to a "snakeskin full of ants"—long dead, yet filled with life—Persona was indeed created out of personal need, but stands as a whole, a critique of art as well as a piece of innovative art cinema (“Ormskinnet”). Like the Cathedral at Chartes, Persona is an artistic vision that bears its own weight.

The critique of classic narrative cinema often revolves around the representation of women. Classic narrative cinema often simplifies representations in order to move the plot. Since women are often mere objects, their roles are just as simplistic. Diametric oppositions play a large role in narrative cinema, and women are viewed in opposition to the stereotypical positive and aesthetic masculine roles. Character complexity often muddles the plot of narrative cinema, so female roles have historically been distilled to "whore" and "virgin"—as if women can only be viewed in relation to their sexual nature. Sure, Ingmar Bergman has represented both virgin (The Virgin Spring) and whore (Sawdust and Tinsel), but the character representations are never merely at surface level.

Bergman consistently represents women in cinema not only as complex while operating away from the established structures of narrative cinema. It could be said that Bergman avoids these sexist binaries because he makes, just as Mulvey advocates, a new kind of film. His work operates outside of established formal boundaries and transcends historical gender representation because of it; not that it is of primary importance, nor even the intent of much of art cinema, but the new tendencies of art cinema allow these innovative narrations to occur.

Art cinema is, in a way, a postmodern practice. It calls for new interpretations of realism, which oppose the classic paradigm thus obliterating classical diametric oppositions. If classic narrative cinema followed the objective reality revolving around a central plot as a series of coherent events, art cinema sought to search for a new reality in a new form. These new forms are represented as subjectivity, which not only lean more towards psychological and social application than a singular objective view, but incorporate a mise-en-scène of voluntary formal incongruities.

Unlike classic narrative cinema, Persona makes no attempt to appear as if it has avoided choice in formal decisions. Although narrative cinema is driven by plot, Persona's plot is as murky as its subject matter. An actress, Elisabeth Volger (Liv Ullmann) has walked off stage and gone (voluntarily?) mute and is admitted to a psychiatric ward. Nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson) is given watch over her. The two travel to a secluded summer beach house, where Alma is to document Elisabeth's progress.

Simple enough, but Persona is clearly not about plot. The events teeter between fantasy and reality—with no grounding structure—as the viewer is isolated by both spatial and chronological discontinuities. Form becomes the medium in which art cinema exerts its differences from the classical paradigm. Mulvey would be in favor of the complexity—indeed, the inconsistency—of identity between Elisabeth and Alma. Their characteristics are never constant, and we question not only the extent of Alma's deterioration, but the purpose of her actions, as the film offers neither solutions nor closure to the situations it presents.

Alma and Elisabeth trade places. Alma becomes mentally weaker, questioning her sanity.  Elisabeth becomes stronger, metaphorically (and physically if one adopts the vampirism interpretation near the end of the film) draining Alma of her strength. But as the film unravels through what are essentially monologue sequences as Alma is the only character talking, the film is presented, for the most part, as a series of scenes in which Alma talks to Elisabeth. These scenes alternate between day and night with no indication of chronology. Formally, Bergman often displaces characters, both by having them appear in different places while apparently in the middle of the same story, as well as constantly breaking the 180-degree rule, viewing characters from different angles throughout rooms, and jarring audiences with spatial incongruity.

The multifaceted reality of Persona intentionally leaves these gaping holes. These unsettling plot differences, sometimes as apparent as actual objects appearing out of place (Elisabeth sits at a table with a picture of her son that she ripped up earlier in the film) hearken to David Bordwell’s theory of "calculated gaps in the syuzhet" (Bordwell).  To stray from the objectivity of the classic narrative, art cinema must take on formal objections to undo the linear establishment of cause-and-effect.

The difficulty of the film is made no easier by the subject matter. In one scene, Elisabeth appears to whisper that Alma had better go to bed before she falls asleep. Alma responds, as if confused by saying, "I better go to bed before I fall asleep." This scene is followed with Elisabeth entering Alma's bedroom, Alma seeing her, and Elisabeth exiting. The next morning, Alma asks Elisabeth if she came into her room or talked to her last night, to which Elisabeth quizzically shakes her head, no. The audience has no reason to believe that Elisabeth is lying, yet the film offers no objective truth. No camera transitions, lighting differences, or visual effects indicate whether these discontinuities are subjects of fantasy by either character, hallucinations by Alma, or actual events. And that is the point. We are not allowed easy answer to these situations; instead, Bergman adopts these tendencies of art cinema to broaden our reality. It is no coincidence that there is so much talk of psychology in Persona; this film is intended to operate on a psychological level. The formal discontinuities free the viewer of linear thinking, establish the differences between objective reality of classic narrative and open up new possibilities for the narrative of art cinema.

For the same reason, there is also no closure to the film. Alma boards a bus in one of the final shots without any closure and, though there is a brief shot of Elisabeth on stage, it parallels the shot at the beginning of the film, making the audience wonder at what point in time the shot takes place. The same could be said of the scene in the clinic at the end the film. Alma asks Elisabeth to just repeat for her a single word to which Elisabeth finally whispers, "nothing." The circumstances are identical to the clinic at the beginning of the film and the viewer is left wondering if the event actually took place, when it took place, if either character is stronger than the other, and to where was Alma headed on that bus? These questions are not answered, nor are they meant to be answered. Bergman's thematic and formal discontinuities give us a film of characters, not resolutions.

In addition to incongruent mise-en-scène, art cinema stresses the trivial aspects of everyday life as equally important to cause-and-effect tendencies of classic narrative. What begins with Alma happening to drop her glass on the patio—an entirely innocent and happenstance event—becomes a way in which Alma's psychological deterioration is measured. Again, it is by chance that Elisabeth fails to seal her letter, which Alma takes to the post box. Alma's increasing hatred for Elisabeth, and eventual mental decline is not due to a clear cause-and-effect relationship as in classic narrative, but to the chance occurrence of Elisabeth failing to seal an envelope. These techniques, while in contrast to objective reality, can at the same time point the finger back at themselves.

Film is also, by nature, a social event meant to be experienced within a group of people. Art cinema is postmodern in the sense that the work is a collage of edits which offers up difficult questions posed by the director who nonetheless rarely offers bias nor answers to them. The culmination of image and sound therefore are left open to interpretation and discussion to an audience as varied as each individual in the theater.

But above all else, Persona  is exactly that: a film. And Persona knows it is a film. While classic narrative cinema uses film to tell a story, it avoids thematic and formal choice insomuch as it tries to not look like a film. Bergman makes clear from the opening shot that Persona is nothing but a film and reminds us of this throughout. The film begins with shots of a projector and film reels, followed by a series of rapidly edited shots throughout the opening credits ranging from a silent comedy to an erect penis projected onto a screen. This onslaught of imagery reminds the viewer of the power of imagery, and how Persona is a moving image.

The film opens with an unidentified boy looking up and touching a screen undulating between the blurred faces of Elisabeth and Alma. The boy is placed in an isolated, white room with the camera facing him in bed. As the camera reverses shot, we see the boy floating in front of the screen, which takes up the entire shot. This shot recalls the voyeuristic nature of cinema, as the boy (one of only two male characters in the film, and not central to the "narrative") caresses the screen, just as the viewer relates to the motion picture. The film ends in much the same way, as the boy is still looking at the screen, still separated from the narrative, until the final shot represents a film being pulled from the reel and the screen goes white.

This isn't the only blatant formal reminder that Persona is a film, and in many cases, form is used as a metaphor of the relationship between Alma and Elisabeth. What could be more distracting to narrative cinema than having the film literally break just as the tension is mounting? This is the technique Bergman employs. As soon as the first signs of physical and emotional violence surface between the two, Bergman interjects with projector noise, and cuts off half of the screen as if the film has broken. This is followed by an animation that looks as if the film has been burnt, and after seconds of white screen and backwards dialogue, the film repeats the violent, rapid edits from the opening sequence and a close-up of an eye; not only reminding the viewer that Persona is a film, but rather bluntly, turns the eye back onto the audience.

If form follows function, it is clear Bergman isn't intending Persona to be a direct narrative. It simply doesn't follow the rules. Instead, the film takes on a rigid form for a different purpose altogether. Formal techniques are made to be noticed—the choices are deliberate and Bergman wants the audience to understand this. Form parallels the struggle between the characters and helps pose the questions Bergman is asking. These are not questions of narrative but of character psyche.

By not utilizing the traditional narrative style, Bergman is able to create characters that exist outside of its constraints. Women are, therefore, not subject to gender roles but a thorough character exploration encompassing both polarities of the pre-established gender spectrum. That isn't to say Persona is not about gender—it clearly is—however, Bergman both establishes an uncanny understanding of women and destroys narrative conventions, allowing the audience to associate with the main characters, in a way contrarian to Mulvey's arguments.

Conventional narrative cinema has defined women in opposition to appealing and decidedly masculine qualities. The male role (which has consistently been the dominant role throughout the history of cinema) is not only to be admired, but becomes a surrogate through which the viewer vicariously lives. Characteristics such as strength and dominance are acceptable and encouraged in the active male role while the female role, by default, becomes the passive and powerless object to be looked at rather than looked through.

Women, too, have positive qualities (traditionally nurture, motherhood and faithfulness) but these attributes are loaded as each buys into the precept of subordination. Each quality comes through sacrifice of individual will, as if women can only exist in relation to others, lacking individual agency. Bergman recognizes these binaries, but refuses to operate within the simplistic (and as Mulvey argues, sexist) formula. Male roles are notably absent in Persona, and Bergman slides both female characters up and down the pre-established diametrics.

Indeed, women hold the full capacity for both physical and emotional strength and weakness, violence and helplessness, sacrifice and dominance and are neither admired nor despised because of it. Rather, Bergman deals with these distinctions as a result of human nature, irrelevant to gender. The film begins at the extreme ends of the established female poles. Alma, a nurse is given the traditionally female role of nurturer and caretaker. Elisabeth is given the traditionally female role of physical weakness and mental instability, as she is admitted to a hospital. As Bergman weaves us through the narrative, he shows us different characteristics for each woman. Each takes on roles that would be considered "masculine" in traditional narrative cinema, but Bergman isn't pleased with such simple associations.

Alma and Elisabeth slowly become competitors—not for the attention of men—but feeding off of each other for individual strength. In this sense, gender is transparent. Elisabeth begins the film in a visibly weakened state. She lays helpless, lethargic and apathetic in a secluded hospital room. Though she remains mute, there is identifiable progress after the two move to the beach house. Elisabeth walks around the beach, keeps up with Alma, and appears happier and more active. At one point, Alma notes that she will inform the hospital of Elisabeth's progress, as she is now enjoying novels. However, Elisabeth seems to be drawing her strength from Alma. Elisabeth becomes a subtle, yet omniscient symbol of mental strength, despite her diagnosed state of unrest. She appears as if her state is a chosen one; a role acted out as if she were on stage once more.

Her mental strength becomes so dominating that Alma physically threatens her on multiple occasions. At the end of the film, one is left to assume that if Elisabeth has not returned to full strength, she is at least in a stalemate with Alma, who visibly weakens in emotional and mental health. Though Bergman introduces Elisabeth in a traditionally female role, her following attributes differ greatly from the stereotype. Her helplessness turns into strength, and Elisabeth is seen more as an individual than an object. Neither is Elisabeth selfless, rather she seems to gain her power through the lessening of another.

In one of the final scenes, Elisabeth takes Alma by the wrist, bends down and puts her mouth to it. Metaphorically, Elisabeth is sucking the physical and mental life from Alma and is gaining at her expense. Elisabeth is portrayed as a character outside of traditional female roles, neither selfless nor cruel, and portrays the strength of an individual rarely seen in cinema.

Alma is no less an interesting female figure. Again, Bergman places her in a traditional female role as nurse and caretaker. She is placed in a position of authority over Elisabeth yet the authority is questioned as Alma's own mental strength declines. Alma possesses both ends of the spectrum, as she is both nurturing and violent. As soon as Alma catches on to the possibility that Elisabeth might be using her, she puts aside her nurturing characteristics, as if they are independent from character and nature. Alma drops a glass while sunbathing yet deliberately leaves one shard on the ground while Elisabeth is walking barefoot. Bergman captures the internal struggle of human nature, despite gender, as Alma possesses both selfish and selfless attributes.

It becomes quite evident that the struggle for power between the two increases when Alma questions Elisabeth's intentions. At this point, Elisabeth is the strongest in the relationship yet, when Alma demands that she speak, the conventionally uncharacteristic female struggle for power is put in motion. Alma threatens Elisabeth with a pot of boiling water (in another formally jolting scene which crosses the 180-degree line, appearing as if the two are in a new location altogether) to which Elisabeth declares, "No, don't." For one moment, the power has shifted in the relationship between Alma and Elisabeth, as the physical threat of violence is employed for personal gain. In the scene in which Elisabeth appears to suck the blood from Alma, Alma is in such a state of physical weakness that she begins slapping Elisabeth repeatedly. Violence is far from a traditional female attribute, but Bergman is uninterested in convention. Alma and Elisabeth are both human and both move along the stereotypical binary opposition of gender. Both are helpless and violent. Both are weak and strong. Both are selfish and selfless. Bergman creates two females who exist in contrast to classic narrative cinema, thus both are essentially more real despite the film’s self-reflexivity.

Gender is therefore defined not in contrast to a pre-established masculine role, but the formal tendencies of art cinema allow these alternate realities to exist on film. Sex becomes an equally important element to art now that classical narration has been removed. Just as Bergman suggested, many of these elements operate on psychological levels because of the relationship between art and life. Many may not be intended by the author; in fact some formal techniques came about by accident. As if a blatant critique on classical narrative, Persona contains elements of voyeurism that point to the voyeuristic nature of cinema.

Not only does Bergman turn the camera on the audience, both by using screens within the movie, and one shot in which Elisabeth pops up in front of the camera with a camera of her own, as if taking a picture of the audience, he presents the voyeurism within the film as uncomfortable through thematic and formal techniques. The most sexually graphic scene in Persona is relayed solely through dialogue. By denying the visual element to the events, the viewer is even more uncomfortable. He is not placed at a distance, watching as if others are unaware of his presence; instead he is in a dark room hearing Alma confess sins in a way which can evoke no visual pleasure. The predominant shot of evoking voyeurism employs formal techniques to again make the viewer aware of the voyeurism.

Again, in the scene in which Alma breaks her drinking glass and determines it to be a way for her to induce physical pain in retaliation for her weakening mental state, Bergman places the camera at a distance. The shot, framed by a tree, suggests the voyeuristic nature of cinema as Alma is also in a bathing suit. The formal technique employed is the long-shot, and Bergman holds it for an extended take of almost ninety seconds. Through such an elapse, the viewer becomes aware of his watching, and grows increasingly uncomfortable.

The most striking scene of formal innovation occurs toward the end of the film, in which Alma confronts Elisabeth about her marriage and her son. The film is presented in two takes: the first, a close up of Elisabeth's face while Alma lectures her about her weaknesses as a wife and mother; the second, reversed and repeated, this time as a close-up of Alma's face as she fervently lectures. Immediately, it is the formal technique which draws the most attention as the audience is again asked to remember the film is a film.  Voyeurism, too, is brought into practice as we watch and hear the same dialogue twice at different perspectives.

Metaphorically, the scene describes how each character comes to a realization that they are feeding on each other. Each recognizes her traits are similar, and her weaknesses are shared. The scene ends with Elisabeth appearing to suck the blood from Alma's wrist, as we are again reminded that the two draw from each other. Interestingly, this scene stands as a testament to film standing as a piece of art without pretense of authorship, as its formal arrangement offers judgment of complex realities in a way classical narrative cinema could not, though it wasn't originally intended to do so. Liv Ullmann explains that the scene "...was supposed to be cut up, using the best from each. But when he saw it as a whole, he didn't know what to pick. So he used them both." Of course, Bergman made the formal decision to place both scenes in the film, however the free conventions of art cinema allowed Bergman to recognize the importance both takes captured and was able to formally place them together in a way that, regardless of authorship, the film is all the stronger for.

Voyeurism is thus employed not only in gender experimentation, but as a metaphor for film as art. Bergman's formal techniques make the viewer not only recognize that Persona is a film, but recognize that he tends to project himself onto the screen in order to find, as art cinema intends, new realities about the world. The audience projects itself onto the screen, just as Alma and Elisabeth project their personas onto each other. Elisabeth, an artist, feeds on the life of Alma as the audience feeds on the film. The film is also the product of the author's feeding from life. These new identities within art cinema are exactly the complexities that Mulvey insisted were missing from classical narrative cinema. Persona stands as a work which allows these complexities between characters, viewers, and artists and, just as Mulvey suspected, the gender roles change drastically.

Art cinema intentionally sets out to present new realities in film. Classical narrative is too narrow in scope, and does not suffice for the realities art cinema needs to address. In a sense, the conventions of classical narrative cinema are obsolete. Classical narrative was quickly becoming "film history," and new interpretation and judgment was needed to understand the modern world. These new interpretations were presented in innovative formal arrangements which followed the philosophy that multifaceted realities did not follow linear storytelling. The meaning is, instead, given through intense personal introspection. Within art cinema, authorship becomes another formal technique to present these realities.

Persona is a difficult film. However, its difficulty is its strength as personal expression and objective realities can only exist through these complexities. Authorship is a formal tendency, perhaps, most important to art cinema. It presents alternate realities because it includes personal expression of the author. The personal nature of film simultaneously presents broad realities and expressive motifs. Classical narrative cinema cannot provide these broad definitions of reality due to its narrow-minded, linear structure.

Bergman is able to work on many levels because of art cinema's formal tendencies. Persona is therefore equally important as a work of personal expression and a "free, shameless, and irresponsible" piece of art. The film offers no easy answers, which is exactly why complex issues such as psychology and gender can exist within the work. Authorship is monumentally important as a formal technique in art cinema. Bergman shows how these techniques can address issues in film previously repressed within the classic narrative paradigm. As in the anecdote of the building of Chartes Cathedral, it is not for the author's sake that we ponder these ambiguities, but for the film's.


Works Cited

Bergman, Ingmar. Four Screenplays Of Ingmar Bergman. London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1960.

Bergman, Ingmar. “Ormskinnet” <> 1965.

Bergman, Ingmar and Roger W. Oliver. Ingmar Bergman: An Artist's Journey on Stage, on Screen, in Print. New York: Arcade Pub, 1995.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Buscombe, Edward. “Ideas of Authorship.” Screen 14.3 (1973): 75-85.

Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.

Naremore, James. "Authorship and the Cultural Politics of Film Criticism." Film Quarterly 44.1 (1990): 14-23.

Ullmann, Liv, and Robert E. Long. Liv Ullmann: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.

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