The Pitfalls of "Good Taste"
(Critics' forums on Ingmar Bergman)

Critical "non-consensus"

Even after reading Susan Sontag’s critically comprehensive essay on Persona, it is difficult to erase initial fears of “touching” this utterly difficult Bergman classic. For one, Sontag strongly emphasizes how a “skillful attempt to arrange a single, plausible anecdote of the film must leave out or contradict some of its key sections, images and procedures.” From this alone, we get a strong impression that Sontag regards Persona as a misunderstood but valuable artistic venture. Sontag seems to implicitly call for a reevaluation of ‘lacking’ interpretations of the film—that perhaps it is possible to revise ‘expert’ analyses made by previous Persona essayists?

It is difficult to rally with these thoughts without touching on the rigors of Sontag’s essay, or any Persona essay for that matter. Much more difficult is to come up with a pleasing, all-encompassing take on their works, especially when such a strange art film like Persona is under scrutiny. With that in mind, this page is a humble attempt not at completely grasping Bergman’s artistic moves in Persona, but a coming to terms with its imperviousness (and consequently how this difficulty is traversed or stomached by critics, whichever one is applicable).

The same kind of dilemma is posed in Orson Welles’ F for Fake where art forgers capture in complete detail the aesthetic techniques of renowned masters of art. Funnily, to the point of confusing art critics who cannot tell an authentic Modigliani from a fake, and so on. The misgiving is a major one, because then we ask if expertise is even that credible and ultimately significant—considering that an ordinary individual has his or her own opinion of an artwork, and that he is “entitled” to it. But art criticism would cease to be such if a single umbrella were to dictate definite (and not arbitrary) standards. Take for example Peeping Tom, which was met with much critical dismay over its “perversity” but glorified as a reflexive film in later years. In a way, the broad range of critical opinion encompasses how different viewers respond to a film.

Insights from F for Fake and the reappraisal of Peeping Tom are seminal, to the extent that they can be carried over to the appraisal of cinema. In its early years, cinema at large had its own set of critics who questioned the artfulness of any filmmaking endeavor. It took a lot of innovations to prove how cinema deserves to be ranked as an art form. It took heaps of effort for film to finally land the academic domain.

Academic film criticism therefore reinforces the rightful claim of cinema to be understood on a level more profound than immediate, personal liking. But yes, this kind of criticism has its own problems. Authority impresses itself upon an academic critic’s work, such that response to art is posited as rightfully this and that. In a way, even Bergman’s stance as a canon filmmaker has its way of imposing acceptance than careful reconsideration. This is why bold efforts to attack Bergman are rather interesting, although harsh and not completely acceptable. Opinion is good, so long as it does not blindly conform.

Some of the more known American critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert and David Bordwell had an interesting exchange of (opposing) ideas on Bergman’s relevance as a film artist. Bordwell documented both Rosenbaum’s Bergman sabotage and Ebert’s consequent “defense” of Bergman on his cinema website. The to-and-fro disagreements reinforce the same-old Bergman questions: Are his films cinematic or just theatrical? Is he truly philosophical or just an overglorified egoist (such as how another Swedish film director Bo Widerberg characterizes Bergman as a filmmaker)?

Ultimately Bordwell questioned Rosenbaum for unfittingly using popular criticism as a venue for forwarding his ‘uneventful’ (literally for Bordwell, seeing as Rosenbaum released his article shortly after Bergman’s death) debunking of Bergman’s relevance today. Rosenbaum himself used Bordwell’s book to refurbish his points after Ebert’s rather researched counter-critique. But Bordwell even used this as a point against Rosenbaum because “it takes a book to make such a case” and not succinct “popular journalism.”

What does this have to do with Persona specifically? That what ultimately makes it controversial yet significant is its demand of rigorous perusal. It does not demand the viewer to like it the way one finds enjoyment in entertainment films. Rather, it makes for an interesting discourse on the potential of cinema to infuse art forms (in Bergman’s case theater with film) and ultimately to arouse the interest, anger and/or a reappraisal of art.

Reflexivity in Persona

In his essay “Bergman’s Persona and the Artistic Dilemma of the Modern Narrative” Christopher Jones makes use of Bergman’s acceptance speech where he described art as “lacking importance.” Here we have a resolute artist in conflict with his own profession, questioning the practical purpose of his own art. Perhaps the series of war images in Persona is a response to that? But in spite of being plagued by this question, Bergman did not thematize this film as socio-political. Sontag even mentioned how some consider Persona wholly “subjective”.

According to Jones, this particular Bergman dilemma is personified by Elisabeth the artist (actress). Her silence becomes an impermeability to her persona both as human and artist. She is a pacifist but deep inside a scrutinizing listener. This is revealed in her bold, rather deceptive move to write about Alma’s personal ordeals in a letter. I will go out on a limb here by saying that Bergman might have been exploring the opposite of what he actually was as an artist. He was definitely not the ‘silent’ type. He was readily an open book. But was he also trying to say that his own art had been a betrayal of personal confidence, seeing that many of his films were referenced to people in his life? (In a way Elisabeth’s so-called disturbances seem to be resonated in the dual person of actress Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive.)

Alma seems to characterize Bergman’s artistic dilemma in a more overt way. She is the therapist, but she turns into the patient, even the aggressor. Bergman’s constant self-reference in many of his films had always been one of his most notable tendencies. His autobiography The Magic Lantern is very much in the spirit of public self-revelation. Even his colleague Vilgot Sjöman (who had clear admiration for Bergman) went on to say that Bergman had a tendency to use his film as an “outlet for eccentricity”. When Alma finds Elisabeth’s letter, she bursts in frustration, seemingly over the duality of her person—unbecoming of what she is by profession, of what she should be by virtue of ethics and responsibility. Is Bergman dramatizing accusations against his own art? Or is he questioning his own openness to the world? Is too much introspection an offense against his own art?


Is that Ingmar Bergman as Alma?

In a way, Bergman’s dilemma is also the dilemma of the contemporary viewer. Should anything alien to our artistic and cinematic upbringing be immediately dismissed? According to Sontag, “one impulse is to take Bergman's masterpiece [Persona] for granted”, but should we?

Maybe not hastily.

In Persona, Bergman temporarily replaces “theatricality in the conventional sense” (Johnson) with a care for cinematic subtlety and introspection that is not so achievable in theatre.

By Student 063940

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