Ingmar Bergman – The Woody Allen Angle
July 31, 2007 Leave a comment
Isaac (Woody Allen) : “Bergman? Bergman’s the only genius in cinema today, I think.”
Yale (Michael Murphy) : (To Mary) “He’s a big Bergman fan.”
Mary (Diane Keaton) : (To Isaac) “God, you’re so the opposite. You write that fabulous television show. It’s so funny and his view is so Scandinavian.”
– MANHATTAN (Dir. Woody Allen, 1979)
Nearly every tribute to the late great Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918-July 30, 2007) notes his huge influence on Woody Allen. Allen’s 1988 quote that Bergman was “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera” is being heavily circulated right now. Roger Ebert quoted the line in his fine In Memory article and said that Allen has “made some films in deliberate imitation of Bergman.” So lets take a look at some of those films and see just what elements whether they be thematic, technical, personal, or personnel that Woody Allen has “borrowed” from the movie master:
LOVE AND DEATH (1975): The first Allen film to overtly reference Bergman mainly in its use of the Grim Reaper, who oddly appears draped in white not the deathly black that Bengt Ekerot wore in THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957). Set in the Napoleanic era and despite being a satire of Russian literature (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and the films of Eisenstein) the Bergman steals are what makes the thing tick. The intense overlapping close-ups are taken from PERSONA (1966) and this strained but extremely funny Diane Keaton monologue reeks of Ingmar existentialism given a tongue-in-cheek approach:
“To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.”
ANNIE HALL (1977): Allen’s most popular film commercially and winner of the Academy Award for best picture has relatively few touches taken from the Swedish director – a few WILD STRAWBERRIES-like returns to childhood memories and some leftover PERSONA-like shots but it is amusing that the film that Alvy (Allen) refuses to miss the beginning of because of Annie’s (Diane Keaton) tardiness was Bergman’s FACE TO FACE (1976).
INTERIORS (1978): The Woodman’s first drama (also his first film as director that he does not appear as an actor in) owes a lot and I mean A LOT to Bergman. The term “Bergmanesque” was coined by Richard Schickel (TIME Magazine) for this film and Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote:
“It’s almost as if Mr. Allen had set out to make someone else’s movie, say a film in the manner of Mr. Bergman, without having any grasp of the material, or first-hand, gut feelings about the characters. They seem like other people’s characters, known only through other people’s art.”
The story is about three sisters (Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, Kristin Griffith) their suicidal mother (Geradine Page) their father (E.G. Marshall) who has a blustery new spouse (Maureen Stapleton) and all of their misery. Again the close-ups – like that shot above (also used as the poster picture) with the contemplative looks out the beach house window – definitively pay homage to the Bergman aesthetic : “For me, the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.”
MANHATTAN (1979): For the lines at the top of this post alone this film should be noted but also because Allen met Bergman during the shooting. According to John Baxter’s Woody Allen : A Biography (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998) Bergman reporatory member Liv Ullmann (and longtime companion – while she was not one of Bergman’s 5 wives she did produce one of his children) hooked up the meeting and Allen was surprised at how knowledgeable the Swedish director was of the Jewish comedian’s one-liners and film work. Shortly Before MANHATTAN opened to rapturous acclaim Allen screened Bergman’s THE SEVENTH SEAL and CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972) one afternoon and confided to friend Eric Lax “I see his films and I wonder what I’m doing.” He needn’t have worried – he was doing just fine.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY (1982) : Obviously Shakespeare inspired but Wikipedia says “The plot revolves around a weekend party bringing together six people, loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT (1955)“. The working title of the film was even “Summer Nights” but Allen has denied this connection repeatedly saying that SMILES was one of his least favorite Bergman films. Well A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY is one of my least favorite Allen films so let’s move on…
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986): Truly the one notable Bergman connection here is the appearance of Bergman reparatory company member Max von Sydow who plays Frederick – a reclusive pretentious artist who has this incredible speech after channel flipping one night:
“You see the whole culture. Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”
SEPTEMBER (1987): Allen’s first all and out drama since INTERIORS and again one which he does not appear (again I quote Wikipedia) is “a remake of AUTUMN SONATA” but then we get that  red-flag and know not to trust everything we read. It has been a while since I’ve seen it so I can’t really comment – I just remember extended sequences of Mia Farrow weeping among family and an ex and a potential lover in another beach house like INTERIORS in yet another off season.
ANOTHER WOMAN (1988): Longtime Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist (1922-2006) works on Allen’s third straight drama. It concerns Gena Rowlands as a professor working on a philosophy book who becomes obsessed with eavesdropping on the sessions of therapy patients which she can hear through a vent in her office. This allows for lots of opportunities for introspection about depression aided by Nykvist’s visual mastery in one of Allen’s most under-rated and worthwhile films. Nykvist would work as Director of Photography for three more Allen movies. While filming ANOTHER WOMAN Allen told an interviewer:
“Bergman likes to rehearse. But the reverse is better for me. It’s part of our temperaments. He’s a great artist and (laughs) I’m not.”
CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989): With its title, the eye of Nykvist, and through its exploration of a “Godless universe” we are almost completely submerged in Bergman at his bleak darkest territory here. Almost completely that is – because Allen’s failed film maker subplot is the exception (the Misdemeanors of the title) but thematically and aesthetically we are witnessing a work made from a Bergman blueprint. Wealthy Ophthalmologist Judah (Martin Landau) suffers from existential guilt of universal proportions after having his unstable mistress (Anjelica Huston) murdered by his Mafioso brother (Jerry Orbach). He visits his childhood home and mentally interjects himself into a memory of a family dinner – yep, WILD STRAWBERRIES again. The best combination of comedy and drama Allen has ever created – it’s my personal favorite of his films.
HUSBANDS AND WIVES (1992): Right off the bat this film owes a conceptual copyright to Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. It takes the mock documentary style and introduces us to 2 married couples on the brink of divorce. The first couple – Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) seem content at first but tensions are mounting especially when told that their friends – the second couple Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are having a supposedly amicable split-up. We follow each character through flirtations, infidelities, and temper tantrums that recall the canvass of SCENES but Allen has his own stylistic touches on display in the handheld shakiness and the odd edits. The night that Allen and Farrow (who were breaking up in real life) separate they reminisce about watching an old classic movie on TV late one night – what movie you ask? WILD STRAWBERRIES! Which also has more than a little to do with:
DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997): The fractured yet still sturdy structure here is definitely stolen from STRAWBERRIES – a noted academic setting out to receive an honorary award from his old university revisits major life situations and memories of lovers past. Also throw in the premise that Allen’s author character disguises his private life and lovers as the lives of the fictitious characters he writes. It has been said that that element comes from author Philip Roth – evidenced in the name Harry Block (made me think of writer’s block) but it also should be pointed out that the name of Max von Sydow’s character in THE SEVENTH SEAL was Antonius Block. It’s also been written that an artist manipulating real life for his art angle is in Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (1961) but I honestly can’t vouch for that.
Okay, that’s enough Bergman-Allen for now. I’ll conclude by saying that Allen’s next film after HARRY was CELEBRITY which again utilized Nykvist but Allen’s films to the current day (labeled by critic Richard Schickel as “the later funny ones”) have been fairly bereft of Bergman influence. They’ve also been guilty of an absence of quality but that’s another blog entry.
This post is of course dedicated to Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) R.I.P.