Deciding what the hell to do with Ingmar Bergman tends to be one of the budding cinephile's first truly daunting rites of passage. Two common paths exist, neither of them especially productive. The first, taken a bit less frequently these days, amounts to blind idolatry, with Bergman as the One True Cinematic Genius willing to peer deep within mankind's scourged soul; its poster child remains Woody Allen, who even went so far as to spend much of the '80s wasting his energy on weak Bergman knockoffs (A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, September, Another Woman). Overreacting to such hero worship, an opposing faction dismisses the man altogether, declaring him a pretentious impostor whose meager gifts were fundamentally literary and/or theatrical rather than cinematic; for a prime example, look up the op-ed piece critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote for The New York Times right after Bergman's death in 2007.
Of course, like almost any other significant, prolific artist, Bergman produced both towering masterpieces and self-indulgent drivel. What makes things tricky is that, in his case, the two actually look a lot alike. "Cries and Whispers: The Psychological Cinema of Ingmar Bergman," running this weekend and next at LACMA, serves up a somewhat random assortment of hits and misses, mostly from later in the filmmaker's career. Consider the series a sampler platter for beginners or a refresher course for the prematurely jaded.
Its somewhat redundant subtitle (I can't wait for "The Mammary Cinema of Russ Meyer") is a tad misleading, as many of Bergman's most notable angst fests — Winter Light, Shame, Autumn Sonata, Scenes From a Marriage — aren't included, while his airy adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute gets a slot. But there's still plenty of alternately thrilling and tiresome emotional violence on view, along with an opportunity to work out just how and why the former shades so readily into the latter.
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First, though, let's put to bed the tired notion that Bergman was a playwright masquerading as a filmmaker. Granted, his characters are as apt to openly question God's existence as to inquire about the weather, but that doesn't mean his films aren't also acutely sensitive to the way that very same dilemma can be reflected in the interplay of light and shadow. If you haven't seen The Seventh Seal (screening Friday, September 17) in a bunch of years, you may only recall the iconic chess game Max von Sydow's weary knight plays with a shrouded, parody-inspiring figure of Death, though its true images of existential terror mostly involve wordless trudging through a grim, filthy landscape populated by the superstitious and ignorant. Likewise, Persona (opening the series on Friday, September 10), despite focusing almost exclusively on the anxious forms of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann as they slowly meld personalities, could only exist in this particular medium, as both its arresting projector-based opening freakout and bizarrely self-referential conclusion insist.
As for the explicit soul-searching, it's largely a matter of degree. I can handle much of the portentous alienation in The Silence (September 17), for example, even if its mind/body dichotomy (with each of two sisters representing one side) and its pointedly obscure war zone seem a little cutely postmodern. But the film from which LACMA's series takes its title, Cries and Whispers (September 10), showcases Bergman's dramatic tics at their most irritatingly mannered. The actors are sullen and morose to the point of near somnambulance; clocks faintly tick the rhythm of human mortality in the background of every scene; and cinematographer Sven Nykvist leans so hard on the color red that you're not sure if you're in a stately country mansion or an abattoir. When Bergman gets the balance between action and introspection just right, his films can be uniquely, discomfitingly harrowing. When he leans too hard on free-floating torment, however, the result is art as oppression.
Either way, we're talking about a lot of gloomy Scandinavians. What if Bergman had made a movie in English, starring not just his usual repertory company but also an American movie star best known for his shambling comic, uh, persona? I haven't seen 1971's The Touch (Thursday, September 16), and it's nearly impossible for me to imagine Elliott Gould engaging in the usual cruel manipulation with Bibi and Max, though the synopsis suggests as much. Few seem to consider this film top-tier Bergman, but it beckons all the same — not just for curiosity value but because often it's the wonky outliers that can help make sense of a fractured oeuvre. Wrestling with the canon is a lifelong process, really. Might as well get started, or back to it.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL CINEMA OF INGMAR BERGMAN | Friday and Saturday nights, Sept. 10-18 | LACMA | lacma.org