Monday, December 17, 2012

The Favorites - Persona (#95)


Again, scheduling conflicts send my Favorites post to a Monday. When the series resumes in January, I will probably return to Wednesday. Meanwhile stay tuned this week. I am going to be very busy with Lost in the Movies. To put it mildly...

The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Persona (1966/Sweden/dir. Ingmar Bergman) appeared at #95 on my original list.

What it is • Elisabeth (Liv Ullmann) is mute, by choice apparently. An actress horrified by the world around her (represented by the image of a burning monk in Vietnam) and oddly fascinated by a photo of her young son, her silence seems an alluring mystery. And it's a mystery that we sense Alma (Bibi Andersson), like us, wants to solve. Alma is normal, chatty (she more than compensates for Elisabeth's lack of conversation), and the actress' nurse, watching over her during a recuperative rest at an isolated seashore. She tells Elisabeth all about her life and, as the quiet but intense Elisabeth - taller, enigmatic, more self-possessed than Alma - slowly starts to take over the nurse's fragile mind we don't get closer to any simple answers. Somehow, though, we do feel we're getting closer to the experience, what philosophers might call the "phenomenon," of Elisabeth's withdrawal from the world. The prolific, intensely personal Ingmar Bergman made many celebrated movies, but Persona is often acclaimed as his masterpiece - the most intense, the most personal, at once an icon of 60s art-house chic and a supremely individual expression. At no point moreso than when the babbling Alma, suffering what seems to be a mental breakdown, lets loose a stream of self-doubt and incoherent anxiety. We suddenly sense - with the shock of an epiphany - that Bergman himself is letting down his guard and telling us what it's like inside his own head.

Why I like it •
Persona was one of the first foreign films I ever saw. When I was a teenager I found a rarity-rental place nearby; between that and the local library began renting movies like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and The Seventh Seal (that was my first Bergman, I think), films I'd been reading about in movie books for years. These movie books included avant-garde art films beside Hollywood entertainments and I didn't really see a contradiction between the two. I approached Persona less as a story being told than as a dream being experienced, and I loved it. I bring this up because often there's a perceived difficulty in bridging the gap between popcorn movies and more "difficult," "artistic" films. The gap is usually more in people's minds than the works themselves; art films are an extension of what exists in mainstream movies - as Pauline Kael put it in her famed essay on the virtues of trash, "the subversive gesture carried further, the moments of excitement sustained longer." Experimental works should be primarily visceral, acting on the viewer's imagination like a vivid dream. I value Persona for its tactile qualities, the way you notice the knots in a wooden column or the way another person smokes a cigarette, removing the tobacco from their tongue, and for the way it connects this heightened sensibility to a raw uneasiness, opening a window out of thin air through which peers the madness which shadows our daily life. I cherish the film for helping to introduce me to this side of cinema. Even when its effect on me is not as strong as that first viewing, I retain it as a high water mark of the adventures possible along the celluloid path.

How you can see it • Persona is available on DVD from Netflix. A clip from the film is featured at 4:25 in "That Total Film", Chapter 16 in my video series. I also offered a full-length review of Persona as part of my "Big Ones" series a year ago.

What do you think? • Is Persona a good introduction to either "art" or "experimental" cinema, and what do those terms mean? How does Bergman's previous work play into Persona? Does the film represent a turning point in his career? How relevant is the fact that Bergman was changing lovers at the time - from Andersson to Ullmann? Does it make sense to focus on the film essentially a personal expression, or is this losing perspective on its thematic and aesthetic elements? Why do you think Elisabeth is silent?

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Previous week: Dogville (2003)

Next year: Death by Hanging (1968)

3 comments :

Mike said...

Like you this was one of the first foreign films I watched (my second Bergman, behind The Seventh Seal which I didn't like at all, but whatever) and I liked it but was very confused by it. It's not really an exciting movie but it is unsettling. I can't even begin to fathom what was going on in Mr. Bergman's head when he thought up this movie. Since I first saw it back in July I haven't had the burning desire to re-watch it. It's not what I would consider a powerful movie, but it has its moments. (That one monologue about the boy on the beach...) I'd rather re-watch Mulholland Drive which is more of an experience as opposed to this which requires more patience.

By the way I'm pretty sure it’s available to watch on YouTube (I subscribe to this dude who has all of Berman's filmography on his channel although I've never actually seen any of them, so I can't vouch for subtitles or if it’s even still there!)

Joel Bocko said...

All of Bergman? Wow. I got to watch much of his filmography years back right after he died, when Kim's Video was still operating in NYC and had an extensive collection of VHS tapes and other-region discs which was then (and in many cases, is still) the only way to see Bergman's oeuvre.

Actually, I think Persona is fascinating to view in the overall trajectory of Bergman's career (it contains several references to earlier films of his, including some obscure ones) which I wrote about in my longer essay on the film (linked above).

Ingmar will reappear a few more times on the list for sure...

Mike said...

Sorry for the very late response, but here it is

http://www.youtube.com/user/StarratEnterprise/videos

If it’s not all of his films its most of his more well known ones. I'll start working my way through his entire filmography soon...