Coraline (2009)

I adore Neil Gaiman’s work, so when my daughter asked if we could go see Coraline today, I jumped at the chance! Besides it being a very engaging film, I’m glad I saw it because I think it has helped me have understanding of Ingmar Bergman’s use of a spider as God.

We get trapped in the web of our desire and it takes a lot of courage to choose reality/sanity over illusion/insanity. For Bergman, organized religion and the gods that are created to represent organized religion represented a sort of voluntary delusion. Not sure if that’s where Gaiman was going with Coraline, but I think there is a direct correlation – the desire that makes a child want to have a better, improved family is not all that different than the desire that a Christian has for a better, improved world.  Just get everyone to believe the way you do and see the way you do – if you have buttons for eyes, then you have to take out their eyes and replace them with buttons…

Excellent, excellent movie.  I immediately went out and bought Gaiman’s novella.

Persona (1966)

Persona has to be one of the best movies I have ever seen! It was like watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. for the first time and there are a lot of similarities which makes me wonder if Lynch, perhaps, was partially inspired by this Bergman film? I don’t remember reading anything about it when I was on my Lynch kick, but will look it up, later.

The commentary is given by Marc Gervais, a University Professor and Jesuit Priest. I love the fact that a Bergman expert is a Jesuit Priest.

Persona is a deconstruction film in that it points to the unreality of film, but likewise shows the unreality of “reality”.  All of reality is perhaps some sort of thing we can’t come to grips with. Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson are the main stars.  Anderson had been in several Bergman movies prior to this one, but Ullmann was relatively new to the movie scene and her role was entirely silent. (Bibi had been Bergman’s lover but Ullman was taking her place, so a lot of the film is potentially about Bergman’s confusion of the two.)

Everything is “in an ting”: Nothing.

What I got from the film was the idea that everything we see “out there” exists within us as well.  All our interpretations are just that – personal interpretations, not reality.  Bergman had been hospitalized with a sort of nervous breakdown and wrote this film in his hospital bed. He says he had the experience of existing to not-existing. When he experienced non-existence, nothing could get to him. You have to wonder: is that a form of mystical experience? Does he mean all the stuff out there that could potentially get to him couldn’t get to him? Or the realization of nothingness could no longer get to him?  Either way, it’s probably the same thing.

My other thought was his use of the vampire image because the vampire image is the essence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). There have been clinical articles claiming Bergman was NPD and that may true, although he seems far too self-aware to actually be NPD.  It’s a lack of self-awareness that defines NPDs. If you know you are NPD, then unless you are exploiting your NPDism because someone has slapped that label on you, you likely aren’t NPD.

I think a lot of us who are somewhat older, especially in Bergman’s period, have grown up with mothers who were at least borderline NPD simply based on cultural expectation. With the introduction of the industrial age at the turn of 1900s, the role of women shifted dramatically from being one of co-parenter to being the primary parent. This parent was supposed to be the “angel in the kitchen”. She was no longer able to be an individual, she existed entirely for her family – the angel of the family.  There have been very few studies on motherhood, but the few that exist show this trend: women had to exterminate their individual identities for the sake of the greater good, and this had trickle down effects because once men left the household to work in industry, they no longer had much effect at home. Women were far more influential than men at home, but this influence very often came in the form of a sort of coldness because the role of woman had been reduced to something that completely degraded the intellectual capacity of the female.

Bergman seems to understand this in Ullman’s character, but you wonder if he understands it in the character of his own mother which he viewed as extremely cold? He seems to blame his parents more than he understands them, although perhaps he came to a sort of understanding in Wild Strawberries.

Anyway, fascinating film and one I think I probably need to own.  (This is the first of the Bergman films I’ve seen so far that I feel so heavily compelled to own.)

The Silence of God Trilogy (1961-1963)

I recently watched all of Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God Trilogy. Bergman was raised by a Lutheran minister in a very harsh, cold religious atmosphere. My religious upbringing was much more warm and less imposing so I can’t really relate to what it was he had to let go. The God he had been taught to wait for was like a spider. Something hideous and cold. But he eventually came to the conclusion God is Love. He tried to get this across in Through a Glass Darkly, the first of the trilogy, but it didn’t really come across as he had hoped.

Through a Glass Darkly is “conquered certainty/God defined”.  Winter Light is the second in the trilogy – “certainty unmasked/God exposed.” It’s about a minister who is asked to tell a man why he should believe in God, but the minister finally professes his own disbelief. He comes to realizes his life has been a lie. It’s a harsh reality. Supposedly, this was Bergman’s favorite film of all the films he has made.

Near the end of the film, a disabled man who has suffered physically all of his life and wonders why it is everyone focuses on Jesus’ suffering since it was a relatively short suffering. Surely, the true suffering was created by the betrayal of his friends. That’s the suffering we endure when we discover we’ve been betrayed by our ideas of God. It’s harsh.  It’s cold. It’s grey.

The third film is The Silence about two sisters who represent different aspects of one person. Supposedly, Bergman wanted this film to be “a rendering of Hell on earth – my hell.” It was a hugely controversial movie when it was released because it contained homosexuality, masturbation, and other controversial sex scenes. One of the women is dying. She’s a translator – she translates books from one language to another so that others can understand them. At the same time, she and her sister speak the same language but do not understand one another.

This is the crux of existential angst. The dying sister represents our need to live up to certain ideals while the younger sister represents fleshly desire. The two cannot be reconciled in current Western society because our value of abstraction based on reason is completely incompatible with individualism and individual desire. The younger sister desperately wants to break away from the older, dying sister. She says things like “I wish she was dead” to a man she’s had casual sex with but who doesn’t understand her because they don’t speak the same language.

Dreyfus said that it is this lack of compatibility that has created the lack of meaning we experience today.  Our reliance on abstract values has created in us a reluctance to accept our darker sides. We want a perfect world where there is no crime, ugliness, baseness (Karamazov’s in Dostoevsky terms), but until we fully accept the darker aspects of our nature, we cannot transcend them.

Like the woman in Through a Glass Darkly who decides she can’t live in two worlds, we’ll opt for the world of illusion.  Or like the minister in Winter Light, we’ll opt for disconnectedness rather than love.

Lately, I’ve sort of redefined the problem to myself in terms of prescriptive and descriptive knowledge. We have a habit of understanding what is prescriptive as descriptive. We desperately want the world to be how we want it to be so are incapable of accepting the world as it is. We create gods, systems, and institutions upon this desire and then become slaves to them. We lose our freedom and innate ability to trust. Bergman uses children and outcasts to represent our original innocence – the boy in The Silence remains able to enjoy himself despite the loneliness and starkness of his surroundings.

I didn’t grow up with a cold religion, but I totally understand the disconnect that Bergman points to.  It’s such a difficult thing to reconcile. Atheists who turn to science, technology, etc. for salvation from the world as it is are no better than theists who turn to God for salvation. It’s the same thing – the same disconnect.

Through a Glass Darkly (1961)

Through a Glass Darkly is yet another Ingmar Bergman film I have watched repeatedly. I’m not sure the story is quite as cohesive as Wild Strawberries or Seventh Seal, but it’s still an absolutely fascinating film. I’m not sure I’ve completely made sense of it, but I made an attempt.  This is the first of Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God trilogy so maybe it will make more sense after I’ve completed the entire trilogy.

Supposedly, Kieslowski’s Colors Trilogy was inspired by Bergman’s Silence of God Trilogy.   Bergman said of the trilogy,  “These three films deal with reduction. Through a Glass Darkly — conquered certainty [certainty achieved, God defined]. Winter Light — penetrated certainty [certainty unmasked, God exposed]. The Silence — God’s silence -the negative imprint [negative impressions]. Therefore, they constitute a trilogy.”

And…

Through a Glass Darkly was a desperate attempt to present a simple philosophy: God is love and love is God. A person surrounded by love is also surrounded by God. That is what I, with the assistance of Vilgot Sjöman, named ‘conquered certainty.’ The terrible thing about the film is that it offers a horrendously revealing portrait of the creator and the condition he was in at the start of the film, both as a man and as an artist. A book would have been much less revealing in this case, since words can be more nebulous than pictures.

Perhaps Bergman identified with David (the writer in the film) who uses those closest to him as material for his art.  He maintains an objective distance from those he loves and this creates a painful isolation because artists are not easily forgiven by those who have been objectified through their art.  Also, Bergman was the son of a pastor who had been an advisor to the Queen so this trilogy was an attempt to work through his disillusionment with the emotionally cold Lutheran Church.

Only four characters are used which Bergman calls a sort of musical Chamber play.  Karin is the main character.  She has just been released from an asylum.  Karin’s younger brother, Minus. He desperately wants a relationship with his father. Karin’s & Minus’s father, David, the emotionally distanced writer.  He is almost completely objective about Karin’s breakdown because he knows he can use it as subject matter for a future book. Karin’s husband, Martin is a physician and clearly loves Karin although he doesn’t really allow her a voice. He’s somewhat smothering. The film revolves around Karin’s descent into madness the affect on David, Minus and Martin.

It seems that Karin and Minus have an incestual relationship and it has been suggeted that there may have been a sexual relationship between Karin and her father, too, although I didn’t see that as clearly within that relationship as I did the relationship between Karin and Minus.

The title, "Through a Glass Darkly", comes from 1 Corinthians 13:12:  “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  This is the King James interpretation but new versions usually refer to a mirror rather than glass. The Swedish Bible of 1917 also referred to a mirror rather than transparent glass. The mirrors of the ancients were polished metal so images were seen darkly and imperfectly.  Apparently, Bergman’s title is read literally as “mirror” so a distorted reflection is likely what he had in mind.

So what does this mean, exactly? That  the reflection of God is much darker than the actuality of God? That our own self-reflection is much darker than the reality of our being? Maybe both? Does Karin see God, or a reflection of her own insanity? Karin waits with great anticipation her meeting with God, but all that comes through the door is a stony faced spider that tries to penetrate her. She looked into God’s eyes and they were cool and calm. When she wouldn’t allow God to penetrate her, God crawled up her chest and face and back onto the wall.  So what does that mean?? Some people think the spider represents an incestual relationship between Karin and her father. Could be.  But, Bergman said the spider represented “a question of the total dissolution of all notions of an otherworldly salvation.”

Karin has been waiting for the appearance of God with great anticipation.  What is it she expects to get from this encounter if not some sort of salvation? Karin represents the play between two worlds: the world of reality and the world of illusion. From an existential perspective, the religious desire for another world is delusional. We live in this world and to place the focus of life on some future, more perfect existence, is to negate life. It’s a sort of insanity.

Karin decides she can’t possibly live in two worlds so chooses the world of insanity over the world of reality.  Nothing can save her from her descent. There is no hope for her at all. At the end of the film, she puts on sunglasses, perhaps symboliing the rejection of light? Karin has made the descent into nihilism – she’s rejected the reality of this world in favor of the illusion.

I have a theory on the spider that may or may not make sense. I’ll just put it out there.

I’ve written repeatedly about Nietzsche’s warning that we have been a slave to our idea of an abstract God for thousands of years and now that we finally realize it, we should not allow ourselves to become slaves to reason.   Perhaps the stony faced, cool and calm spider represents God as reason? Karin refuses to be penetrated by reason and so she descends into insanity.  It’s a negative transcendence rather than a mystical, spiritual one. The mystical transcendence of reason is not about letting go of our reason or rejecting reason or getting rid of it.  It’s simply about keeping it in perspective and not allowing ourselves to be slaves to it.  If we do, we become like David and one day find ourselves attempting to drive our car off a cliff because that’s the rational response to an absurd world.

I’d love to know how Bergman came up with the idea of using a spider as God. In Jonathon Edwards Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, there is reference to a spider – we are hanging over the fires of Hell by the thin strand of a spider’s web and God can cut the web at any moment. I always imagined it was a spider that would cut the strand.   But the God Karin sees isn’t angry so I guess that doesn’t really fit.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskonikov says he doesn’t believe in a future life and Svridigailov replies, “And what if there are only spiders there, or something of that sort… We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast. Vast!  But why must it be vast?  Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bathhouse in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner and that’s all eternity is?  I sometimes imagine it like that.” That doesn’t really fit, either.  In Norse mythology, the spider sometimes refers to Loki, a trickster God.  Ananse in African folklore is also a spider-god and a trickster god.  Athena was associated with the spider because she turned the mortal weaver, Arachne into a spider for having the hubris to think herself better than the gods. But that doesn’t really fit, either.

And what does Bergman mean that Through A Glass Darkly is conquered certainty (or God defined)? Especially if conquered certainty (God defined) is God is love? For those of us who have struggled with the existential question, God defined as love is somewhat trite, especially the way it is described by David at the end of the film. Apparently, Bergman himself was sorry about this epilogue. When David first offered this definition, I thought it was going to be countered as trite, but this was exactly what Minus wanted to hear. What was most important was that his father finally talked with him.

So here is another thought about the spider God who is cold, distant, and wants to penetrate people but is unable to do so if he is refused. God is often referred to as the father and this father figure has become an extremely distant, cold, abstract God. People suffer horribly and this God does nothing. We long to know the father, but he’s not there. So when David finally talks with Minus, especially about God being love and love being God, it’s as though God is made known.  God is defined. Conquered certainty.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

After a bit of a lapse, I’m still plugging away at Bergman and Kurosawa films.  Not sure how I ended up watching both directors at once, but it’s been fun!  They are roughly from around the same time period and both have heavy existential themes in their films.  I’ve started with the earliest works (at least those available on Netflix, Blockbuster and the Library) and am watching them in chronological order.  (At least trying to watch them in chronological order.)

I recently watched Bergman’s Seventh Seal – again!  (I wrote a post on it in August of last year.) I seriously never get tired of that movie!!  The next film up is Virgin Spring which takes us into the 1960s.  It’s another great movie that I watched several times before sending it back to Netflix. (Apparently, Bergman borrowed from Kurosawa’s use of silence for "Virgin Spring".)

Virgin Spring is set in 14th Century Sweden.   I think that’s probably roughly the same time "Seventh Seal" is set because Bergman said he got the idea of a man playing chess with death from a Medieval Church painting from the 1480s.  It’s based on a medieval Swedish Ballad called “Töres dotter i Wänge“.  Virgin Spring is every bit as dark as "Seventh Seal" and then some!

SPOILER WARNING!!!

Karin is the main character.  She is the “light” child.  She has a half-sister named Ingeri who is the “dark” child and worships the Norse God, Odin.  Karin is somewhat spoiled – definitely catered to by her parents while Ingeri is Karin’s father’s child from a servant so is treated as a servant.  Ingeri suffers the indifference of her father and curses Karin.  The curse becomes a reality that greatly tests the Christian faith of the father when Karin is brutally raped (a scene which is extremely difficult to watch, even by today’s standards), and is killed.  There is an innocent young boy who watches, unable to do anything about what his brothers are doing to Karin.  Furious, the father kills the boy.  He has destroyed innocence just as his innocent daughter was destroyed.

As in the Seventh Seal, God is, of course, indifferent to human suffering and right and wrong. The father has to relinquish the power he thought he had through his belief in a God that favored the good and punished the bad.  He must accept God’s indifference just as Ingeri has to accept his indifference.  “You saw it, God. You saw it. The innocent child’s death and my revenge. You allowed it. I don’t understand you. Yet now I beg your forgiveness.”

The part that got me was when the herdsman try to sell Karin’s clothing to her mother.  She immediately recognizes them and without any emotion whatsoever says, “I must ask my husband what a fitting price would be for such a valuable garment.”  That gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Could you imagine?  What must that mother have been feeling? You can’t help but sympathize with the brutality of the father, but even the mother tries to save the little boy from that brutality.

It’s a gruesome movie and I’m not 100% sure I understand why the spring flows from the spot where Karin is killed other than that it’s part of the legend.  Ingeri, who is more like an animal than a human being, clearly feels guilt for what she has done because she cleanses herself in the spring.  And I think, like Seventh Seal and Bergman’s other films, there remains a sense of hope and faith in the face of human helplessness and rage.  It’s not just violence for violence sake.

Wild Strawberries (1957)

My kids make fun of me because I have watched Wild Strawberries so many times. I LOVE this movie!!

I guess I relate to it in a lot of ways. It’s the story of an aging professor who comes to realize just how cold he’s been over the years. His wife leaves him and he has a distant relationship with his son. I don’t relate to those things – at least not yet. I may be deluding myself but I think I have a very close relationship to both my husband and kids.

But – go outside of my little family and my relations to my extended family are “cold”. We are amiable, but we are not emotionally close and will likely never be close as long as we maintain an idea of how the relationship “should be”. The relationship the professor has with his mother maintains a deep respect on both sides, but there is an icy formality that cannot be breached because of the inherent “shoulds”.

The professor, Isaak Borg, recognizes the cold, empty life he has been living and is ultimately redeemed through the forgiveness and love of his immediate family and through his extended family which he encounters through memory (not physical reality).

The end of the film, where he meets the memory of his mother and father happily waving at him from the shore, makes me cry every single time I watch this movie – which has been five or more times at least by now!!

Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)

Smiles of a Summer Night is a very different film from the Bergman films I’ve seen so far. Supposedly, it is what cemented Bergman’s success. He was already considered a genius in Sweden, but this film gave him international acclaim and it is this acclaim that allowed him to make The Seventh Seal.

I didn’t like it as much as Wild Strawberries or Seventh Seal. But I’ve been re-watching Bergman films, beginning with his earliest films and this was the first film I felt compelled to watch twice (which has been true of all later Bergman films I’ve seen, too.)

The idea that the lower classes are more “present” works for me. They don’t need to hide behind the masks that the upper classes are required to hide behind. There is a sort of innocence that exists in their willingness to live life that doesn’t exist within those who are trying to maintain an image of being “good” or “worldly” or “religiously pure”.

Fun film!