by Mark English
It is impossible to put an exact date on it, but around 1990 I changed my mind about movies – or at least new movies. I was increasingly indifferent to them. Even many films of a type I would normally have appreciated had become positively painful to watch.
An appreciation of the arts is a very personal and tenuous thing. It can be seen almost as faith-based. A character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels used to visit the National Gallery in London and these visits were for him uplifting, like a religious experience. But for some reason he lost the faith, as it were, and the magic no longer worked. In this case, it was not the Gallery which had changed, but the man.
In the case of my about-face on cinema, however, the man stayed pretty much the same, I think. It was the films which had changed – and the world which they represented. I am not talking about the external world here so much as the ideas behind the films. The ideas and stories being offered were simply no longer interesting to me.
During my childhood years, we lived near one of those grand old Art Deco cinemas. It was family owned and its best days (the 1940s?) were long gone. It struggled to survive. Cutting costs to the bone, the management would show one classic mainstream movie (Lawrence of Arabia, say, or Born Free) for many months on end, sometimes for more than a year.
In terms of genre and content, as a child I favored science fiction in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells; as an adult, I gravitated to character-based narratives centered around families, friendships and ordinary life. In some ways my cinematic preferences were affected by my parents’ views and attitudes.
My father had grown up in the early days of film. Apart from Chaplin, whom he admired, he showed little interest in the cinema. He was a voracious reader, however, and a big fan of George Bernard Shaw. He approved of the 1938 film Pygmalion (for which Shaw himself wrote the screenplay). He enjoyed the musical My Fair Lady which was also based on Shaw’s play. But a combination of social conservatism and a predilection for solitary reading predisposed him to see the cinema as something of a passing fad for which he had little use.
My mother was much younger than my father and had more modern and progressive views. As a teenager she was influenced by Bertrand Russell’s popular essays. From her early years she had been an avid movie-goer and she talked to me about the actors and movies she had loved. Many of these movies were shown on television when I was a child.
Lately I have been watching or rewatching old English, European, American and some Japanese films. One of the things which I find interesting is trying to see patterns in my preferences. There are various personal factors at play, of course. One gravitates towards writers and directors (as one does towards personal acquaintances) with whom one shares temperamental or cultural affinities. There is also an ideological dimension. But I shy away from films which attempt to be in any way manipulative in this regard.
Any kind of “ism” or ideology is suspect as far as I am concerned. If ideology is taken to refer to a personal framework of values and moral priorities, however, the concept is unexceptionable and applies to us all.
Though each of these individual value frameworks is unique, it is the fact that they overlap with the value frameworks of others which makes them relevant and viable, which gives them traction in the social world.
Cinema, in its own small way, demonstrated the importance of a shared vision. The classic cinema experience – the crowd of silent strangers nestled together in the warmth and the darkness – works best when values are shared at a deep level.
That’s all over now, for me at any rate. But at least these old films still exist and are readily accessible to individuals interested to know how it was back then so that they might have a better sense of our cultural trajectory and – looking to the future – a clearer view of cultural and moral possibilities.
I conclude with a few notes (which I may expand on in the future) on the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman. She interests me because her career illustrates both the connections between European cinema and Hollywood and some of the differences and divisions.
In the 1940s, Bergman took the English-speaking world by storm, but this was not her only public manifestation. She was renowned in her own country before she went to Hollywood and – surprisingly – she almost became a German film star (her mother was German) just before World War 2.
In 1938 Bergman went to Germany, having signed a three-film contract. She was pregnant at the time and only made one film there – a very light but strangely touching drama, Die vier Gesellen – before returning to Sweden to give birth. An offer from David Selznick took her to Hollywood soon after.
Die vier Gesellen was designed specifically as a vehicle to launch her German career. The film is very stylish, and veteran director Carl Froelich does a wonderful job bringing out the complexities and vulnerabilities of the main characters. Bergman is particularly good. She plays an ambitious young commercial artist who is in love with her former art teacher but is determined to prove herself in the tough, male-dominated commercial world of late-1930s Berlin.
Intermezzo (1939) was Bergman’s first American film. It was a remake of a film she had made three years before in Sweden which was co-written and directed by Gustaf Molander. The Hollywood version – directed by Gregory Ratoff who had replaced William Wyler who walked out after a dispute with producer David Selznick – is flawed by schmaltz, gratuitous moralizing and a dumbed-down script. Some scenes are positively ludicrous. By contrast, the original Swedish film – though melodramatic at times and made in a style reminiscent of the silent era – is intelligent, well-crafted and full of subtle and realistic touches.
After World War 2, Bergman continued to work in America but also worked in Europe. Notably, she appeared in films made by Roberto Rossellini, whom she married. Journey to Italy is set in and around Naples. Though Bergman, her co-star George Sanders and most of the other actors spoke their lines in English, the film was first released – dubbed into Italian – as Viaggio in Italia in 1954. The restored English-language version is generally recognized as a masterpiece. It has almost the feel of a documentary but is profoundly personal and (I would say) truthful. It is basically a study of a marriage in crisis but manages to incorporate a good deal of understated humor.
Late in life, Bergman returned to Sweden to make Höstsonaten with Ingmar Bergman. Höstsonaten (co-written by the director) incorporates thematic parallels and echoes of earlier films in which Ingrid Bergman appeared, notably Intermezzo.