Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The novel as autopsy: Alexander Ahndoril's The Director dissects Ingmar Bergman circa 1961

Ingmar Bergman with cinematographer Sven Nykvist

Speaking of Ingmar Bergman... Swedish author Alexander Ahndoril’s The Director (Portobello Books, $15.95) concerns Bergman and the apparently tumultuous creation of his 1962 film Winter Light. The Director is a novel, though it is a meticulously researched one that reads very much like an impressionistic biography, leaving the frontiers of what constitutes fact and fiction ambiguous for all but those few in the know and still alive to testify. It was written and published in Sweden while Bergman, who died in 2007, was still alive and was initially given the legendary filmmaker’s approval before he changed his mind and publicly condemned it. Regardless, the Swedes made it a bestseller.

Joyce Carol Oates, who last year published a decidedly unflattering collection of novellas about episodes in the lives of Poe, Twain, Henry James and Hemingway, wrote that Ahndoril’s book “arrests our attention like an autopsy performed on a living man.” It’s a very astute observation, even if I’m not sure many readers, especially non-Bergmaniacs, are likely to feel all that arrested by this poetic and image-laden yet deeply ponderous tale of an artist still grappling with his crippling need for a stubborn father’s approval. The Director is indeed morbid, narrow, a little cruel, and as sequestered from the larger, messier world as a pathologist’s quarters. I love that the English translation was performed by someone named Sarah Death.

A scene from Winter Light

Bergman was often very articulate about the enigmatic images that would obsess him until they finally yielded a complete idea for a film. In keeping with this, The Director begins with a vision, caught within a glass jar, that carries inside of it the germ of Winter Light: “A man of his own age walks toward him, quivers and al at once is twenty paces closer. He seems to be dressed as a priest.” Bergman’s father was a priest, and this film—a major turning point in Bergman’s work, largely putting to rest the filmmaker’s interest in dealing directly with religious faith—was conceived as a hypothesis as to how Bergman would have felt by this point in his life—he was in his early 40s—had he followed his father into the clergy. His father never considered the cinema a suitable career for Ingmar and much of the novel finds its protagonist childishly preoccupied with earning his father’s praise, even while the old man falls ill and is hospitalized.

Alexander Ahndoril

The most impressive bits of writing here find Ahndoril, in a concise, very Bergmanesque style, allowing fantasy, dream and memory to slip into objective reality, with ghosts from the past entering and strange discoveries being made, such as a missive from Bergman’s troubled mind that’s somehow been inscribed onto the sole of an artificial foot. The more captivating fully-fledged scenes in The Director however concern the film’s production, even if Ahndoril emphasizes the tension between Bergman and certain actors and crewmembers who considered the project too dreary. When interviewed, Bergman’s collaborators have resoundingly testified to the general cheerfulness on Bergman’s sets, though such generalizations no doubt fail to supply the whole picture, and in any case liberties must be granted when a writer’s intentions are made explicit. The larger question here is to what purpose all of this slippage between fact and fiction has been crafted.

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