THE BLOG
07/30/2007 06:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Life Saver: Ingmar Bergman, 1918-2007

"I wanted to hold the moment fast and thought, 'Come what may, this is happiness. I cannot wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel profoundly grateful to my life, which gives me so much.' " -- From Agnes' journal in Cries and Whispers (written and directed by Ingmar Bergman)

I live kind of a pathetic little life in Jersey City, N.J. There's the tiny apartment I just moved into, with the home office, two disused CD players, a stack of unpaid bills, an empty refrigerator and more dirty clothes than I can sometimes afford to wash. Traffic noise persists virtually around the clock. None of the bodegas in the neighborhood sell beer, and none of the liquor stores sell food. The last tenant took the air conditioners he pledged to leave behind. I'm too cheap to replace them.

Across Montgomery Street is a church that I spy every day and from which a cloudburst of hymns sneaks through its three-story façade each weekend. It's a Spanish-language church; I can't make out a word of it. But there's something very familiar about its weekday quietude -- the boxy crosses and weathered wooden doors, the tiny vestibule tucked between the bases of twin spires, the faded blue and yellow windows against the sand-colored walls, an old, humble monolith that would apologize for its own symmetry if it could. In my lapses of workaday self-pity, I stare out the window and think, "It's like a scene from a Bergman film."

Well, of course it is. Everything is like a scene from a Bergman film.

Even this morning, awaking to news of the Swedish director's death at age 89, I wondered which of his characters' demises relates the most. Was it that of the knight in The Seventh Seal, with his sincere, doomed end-run around the imminence of Death? Was it that of Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries, the smug academic compelled to redeem his inhumanity during a valedictory tour to Lund? Perhaps it was Jan, the sensitive aesthete of Shame who is driven to violence and subsequently lost at sea, or perhaps Fanny and Alexander's actor/producer Oscar Ekdahl, whose sudden death prematurely plunges his children into a nebula of imagination and dogma.

I lean toward the latter, with his longtime cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who died in 2006) masking the shot from the afterlife: Bergman's fans peering through the door at his deathbed, the bereft critical community pacing by every few seconds, shrieking in despair. This sad day may be even sadder for its ultimate revelation that an artist who cornered the market on gravity -- a Lutheran minister's son who sprinkled rape, mutilation, disease, mental illness and incest into his oeuvre like Michael Bay invokes product placements -- could be remembered so glowingly for his signature brand of existential horror. The talky crises of Persona, Scenes From a Marriage or Autumn Sonata are your crises. The sexual frustrations fueling Monika and sent up in Smiles of a Summer Night are your frustrations. You don't choose sides in a war; nevertheless, just like in Shame and The Silence, you are implicated.

Which is the beauty of the whole enterprise, of course. For decades, American culture mythologized the self-aware Seriousness of Ingmar Bergman's cinema; even a lighter effort like A Lesson in Love (1960) earned New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's gentle rejoinder, "(A)s in all of his pictures, Mr. Bergman has used a cast that seems to act with inspired understanding -- which means, of course, sympathy with him." Crowther liked the film overall, but he missed the more essential point made eight years later by George Coe and Anthony Lover, the filmmakers who parodied Bergman in the classic De Düva (which rode its target's Oscar creds to a Best Short Film nomination in 1969): They knew that if Bergman, for all his bleak, monochromatic cynicism, wasn't offering catharsis, he was at least offering a relationship. The absurdity of impromptu badminton games with Death and moody flashbacks was a response to, not a dismissal of, Bergman's provocations.

Not long afterward, another seemingly unlikely Bergman fan hit the zeitgeist, standing by the filmmaker for 40 years to come. "In addition to all else -- and perhaps most important -- Bergman is a great entertainer," Woody Allen wrote in his 1988 New York Times review of the director's memoir, The Magic Lantern. "A storyteller who never loses sight of the fact that no matter what ideas he's chosen to communicate, films are for exciting an audience."

Indeed, as interpreted by Bergman and Nykvist, anguish was exciting. The barely-there austerity of churches in Winter Light and Fanny and Alexander (not unlike the one outside my window) positively shone with desolation. The deep reds of Cries and Whispers hinted equally at restoration and ruin. Vast forests and gray oceans stood by helplessly as puny mortals manipulated identities (Persona) and brutalized the innocent (The Virgin Spring). And those are just the visual cues; never mind the metaphors of finding God in an arachnid (Through a Glass Darkly) or a dead man pulling his living self into a casket in Wild Strawberries.

It took me a few years in my early 20s to understand the scope of his artistry. Once I did, I finally realized that the key to really enjoying Bergman is to acknowledge your culpability in the devastation onscreen. Not to feel guilty, necessarily, but to accept that his emotional heritage is everyone's, as are his and his characters' physical futures. We all love, we all suffer and we all perish. "Truth is, a lot of that stuff -- the tragedy, the dysfunction -- is painful for a reason: It is familiar," a friend wrote to me this morning after learning Bergman had died. "Not that my life includes relationships or lived experiences depicted in Bergman's films, but it could one day and maybe it does already and I have ignored it, and that is a constant fear, a fear I try to avoid or not accept."

Tell me about it. Such is the miracle of Bergman that for all the self-referentiality and staginess, a viewer can claim -- for that moment alluded to in Agnes' diary, anyway -- ownership of a perfect moment. We cannot wish for anything better. And we feel profoundly grateful to our lives, which give us so much, even if it's a pathetic existence in Jersey City across from an old church whose congregation I don't understand. The truth is more important, an open secret that preserves Ingmar Bergman's art and haunted him until the day he died: You are never alone.