Orson Welles vs. Ingmar Bergman
March 6th, 2009 Lawrence French Posted in Books, F For Fake, Welles on Welles |
While looking through the lavish and quite fabulous new Taschen book, THE INGMAR BERGMAN ARCHIVES, edited by Paul Duncan, I was astonished to see how much of Bergman’s career outside of his movies I was totally unaware of.
I daresay that most people in America probably know as little about Bergman’s work on the Swedish stage as I did. However, like Orson Welles, Bergman’s theatrical productions encompassed Shakespeare to Shaw.
It also took in Ibsen, Lorca, Brecht and Strindberg, and included several lauded productions of works by America’s two greatest playwrights, Eugene O’ Neill and Tennessee Williams.
In fact, Bergman’s debut as a stage director in Sweden was in 1938 with a production of Sutton Vane’s Outward Bound, which was revived that same year on Broadway, in a production directed by Otto Preminger and starring Mercury alumni Vincent Price. Of course, at the time Welles was at the height of his own theatrical career, before heading to Hollywood.
In the 40’s Bergman, like Welles, went on to stage productions of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice (I’ve included more information about this wonderful book, that I highly recommend, at the end of this article).
However, Orson Welles was not exactly a great admirer of the Swedish director, at least according to his published remarks. Here are two of Welles’s statements about Mr. Bergman:
I don’t condemn that very northern, very Protestant world of artists like Bergman; it’s just not where I live. The Sweden I like to visit is a lot of fun. But Bergman’s Sweden always reminds me of something Henry James said about Ibsen’s Norway—that it was full of “the odor of spiritual paraffin.” How I sympathize with that! I share neither Bergman’s interests nor his obsessions. He’s far more foreign to me than the Japanese.
—Orson Welles to Kenneth Tynan, 1967
You could write all the ideas of all the movies, mine included, on the head of a pin. It’s not a form in which ideas are very fecund. It’s a form that may grip you or take you into a world or involve you emotionally—but ideas are not the subject of films. I have this terrible sense that film is dead, that it’s a piece of film in a machine that will be run off and shown to people. That is why, I think, my films are theatrical, and strongly stated, because I can’t believe that anybody won’t fall asleep unless they are. There’s an awful lot of Bergman and Antonioni that I’d rather be dead than sit through.
For myself, unless a film is hallucinatory, unless it becomes that kind of an experience, it doesn’t come alive. I know that directors find serious and sensitive audiences for films where people sit around peeling potatoes in the peasant houses—but I can’t read that kind of novel either. Somebody has to be knocking at the door—I figure that is the way Shakespeare thought, so I can’t be in bad company!
—Orson Welles to Barbara Leaming, 1983
Now, given those kind of hostile remarks, it’s no surprise that towards the end of his life, Bergman was not very complimentary about Welles’s work as a director. Here are Bergman’s comments about Welles when he spoke to a Swedish newspaper in 2002:
INGMAR BERGMAN: For me (Orson Welles) is just a hoax. It’s empty. It’s not interesting. It’s dead. Citizen Kane, which I have a copy of, is the critics’ darling, always at the top of every poll taken, but I think it’s a total bore. Above all, the performances are worthless. The amount of respect that movie has is absolutely unbelievable!
JAN AGHED: What about The Magnificent Ambersons?
INGMAR BERGMAN: Also terribly boring. And I’ve never liked Welles as an actor, because he’s not really an actor. In Hollywood you have two categories: you talk about actors and personalities. Welles was an enormous personality, but when he plays Othello, everything goes down the drain, you see, that’s when he croaks. In my eyes he’s an infinitely overrated filmmaker.
—Jan Aghed, När Bergman går på bio, from the Swedish daily newspaper, Sydsvenska Dagbladet, May 12, 2002.
My own guess is both directors were probably over reacting. Bergman admits he owned a print of Citizen Kane, and Welles certainly must have found plenty to admire in Bergman’s work, even if he wouldn’t admit it in interviews. Which brings up an interesting point where the two men must have agreed: The Cathedral at Chartres. Here is an excerpt from Bergman’s introduction to his published screenplays:
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed—master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, and burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.
Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, and his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny the existence of each other. We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.
Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil—or perhaps a saint—out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.
—Ingmar Bergman, from his introduction to Four Screenplays, Simon and Schuster, 1960
Now, here is Welles’s meditation on Chartres, taken from F FOR FAKE. What I find fascinating, after reading Bergman’s comments about Chartres, is that Welles follows his episode on Chartres, with the “fake” Oja Kodar-Picasso encounter, which includes a Swedish trombone player, that I had completely forgotten about!
ORSON WELLES: Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres.
A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe, which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.
Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.
Church bells peal…
Now at last we come to Oja…
…Oja had a friend with her, a boy named Olaf, from somewhere in the Viking counties. In his homeland up there in the frozen north, Olaf has been infected rather imperfectly with the taste with the classic jazz of New Orleans. And his researches in this area took place under Picasso’s window, where morning and night, he practiced the trombone.
THE INGMAR BERGMAN ARCHIVES
An in-depth exploration of Bergman’s complete works
On November 24, 2008 The Ingmar Bergman Archives editors Paul Duncan and Bengt Wanselius won the August Prize 2008 for the Best Non-Fiction Book published in Sweden. This is the most prestigious literary prize in Sweden, voted for by booksellers and librarians throughout the country.
The complete works of Ingmar Bergman: an homage to one of the most esteemed film and theater artists of all time, began in cooperation with Bergman himself and made with full access to his archives
Since 1957, when he released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman has been one of the leading figures in international cinema. In a career that spanned 60 years, he wrote, produced, and directed 50 films that defined how we see ourselves and how we interact with the people we love, in films like Persona, Scenes from a Marriage, and Fanny and Alexander.
Before his death in 2007, Bergman gave TASCHEN and the Swedish publishing house Max Ström complete access to his archives at The Bergman Foundation, and permission to reprint his writings and interviews, many of which have never been seen outside of Sweden. Picture researcher Bengt Wanselius, who was Bergman’s photographer for 20 years, scoured photo archives all over Sweden, discovered previously unseen images from Bergman’s films, and selected unpublished images from the personal archives of many photographers. Text editor Paul Duncan gathered a team of Bergman experts as contributing editors—Peter Cowie and Bengt Forslund (for film/TV), and Ulla Åberg & Birgitta Steene (for theater)—who have researched and written a narrative that, for the first time, will combine all of Bergman’s working life in film and theater. Such is the depth of Bergman’s writings that most of the story is told in his own words. This book also features a new introduction by Bergman’s close friend, actor and collaborator Erland Josephson, as well as a DVD full of rare and previously unseen material, and an original film strip from Fanny and Alexander.
The publishers have been given complete access to the files and archives of the Swedish Film Institute, Svensk Filmindustri, Sveriges Television, and the Royal Dramatic Theater, as well as many other institutions, publishers, and newspapers, making this not only the most complete book ever published on Ingmar Bergman, but also about an individual director.