Bergman’s Influence on Woody Allen

Ingmar Bergman has influenced a significant variety of filmmakers, from Chan-wook Park to Andrei Tarkovsky. But probably the most amazing influence he had was on Woody Allen. Allen, commonly known as a director of comedy films, has frequently admired Bergman’s works. This might come as a surprise, probably due to the common image of Allen as a comedian. Nevertheless, Isaac, the protagonist of Manhattan, counting the things that make life worth living for him, mentions “Swedish movies, naturally” by which he most probably means Bergman’s movies.

Ingmar Bergman’s international fame lies in his dark portrayals of exploration in human nature, in spite of the fact that he also has made different sort of films, including a horror film (Hour of the Wolf) and even a bedroom comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night.

Bergman was a workaholic just like Allen. A significant number of films, screenplays, plays and articles have his name as their creator on them. He entered cinema at a time when Scandinavian cinema had lost its significance after the emergence of sound; Hollywood had seduced most of the great Nordic directors of the silent era to go to the States and Scandinavia was struggling for getting back the once glorious status it had in this realm. Bergman’s exploration of existential issues such as loneliness and faith reflects in his films mostly in the form of his obsession with characters’ faces.

The supposed abnormality of this relationship probably rises from the fact that many people tend to pin Allen, a known American figure in comedy, automatically to Hollywood, where most of the American comic films come from. Although Allen has made a number of comic films, his works are not limited to this genre. His aspiration was to write and direct quality drama works. “…he has no desire to play Hamlet: He wants to write Hamlet” as Lax (2009, p. xi), his biographer, puts it. In his intensive filmography, Allen has many serious drama works, as well as some drama works which are deep explorations in human nature accompanied with some witty punch lines, making the word “comedy” not the best choice for labeling them.

Allen’s departure from being limited to comedy probably started in Annie Hall and became more visible in his next work, Interiors. In his later works Allen used all these possibilities, but even films like Match Point and Casandra that can be labeled as thrillers mostly deal with the issues such as human nature and relationships. Moreover, it’s a naïve mistake to consider Allen a “Hollywood director”. Being a celebrity is not equivalent to be a part of so called Hollywood system. It seems more correct to call him an independent figure who almost miraculously has managed to make 40 movies in about half a decade, some of which were widely successful both critically and financially. In an environment that even makes Scorsese struggle for his total autonomy in the process of filmmaking, Allen has avoided high budgets; he does not need them, he does not want them. Even if he needs them for a special project, it will not be easy for him to convince wealthy investors, although most of his films in recent ten years have been considerably profitable.  He probably would never make a 3D film. His style is to put characters in front of the camera and make them do and say things to carry on the story.

Allen entered the film industry at the same period as did many other new faces. His leading ability was his significant humor. He stepped into this business with what he was skillful at and that which would guarantee his stay in the brutal environment to some extent. Although Allen has not been the most interested person in critical and financial success of his films, he would not sacrifice everything to make the stories that he thought were not appealing for the audience. Therefore Allen is not the ideal clinical auteur. Moreover, although he appreciates the high quality of cinematic expression in Bergman’s style, he does not care about such issues enough to be obsessed with them. He simply works with great names such as Willis, Khondji, Nykvist etc. in order to guarantee an acceptable level of mastery in visual aspects of his works. Among these names, Nykvist is the most significant one, because of his long working relationship with Ingmar Bergman. This does not mean Allen never cared about these aspects; it means he cared enough to wisely work with people who he knew he could use to make the film the way he wanted.

The fact that Allen entrusted such technical and even aesthetical aspects of filmmaking (besides editing of course) to people who were good at them, changed his normal style. Allen started using long master shots while working with Gordon Willis, though these master shots should not be interpreted as those in other artistic films. He had insisted before that one of the reasons for his frequent use of long master shots was the easiness of doing this. Although such master shots are generally an element of more artistic films such as films from slow cinema, Allen’s specific use of them was unique in the sense that long maser shots in mise-en-scène such as New York apartments caused the characters to be off camera at some points, which initiated in Annie Hall. This becomes more significant if we consider that many of Allen’s films were comedies and a punch line from a character off camera is not a usual form of creating humoristic situations in American comedy tradition.

As of style, as mentioned earlier, Allen’s admiration of Bergman caused some changes in his films, but he paid tribute to Bergman in different ways, including short parodies to Bergman’s works and famous themes in his films and also applying a number of situations Bergman had created in his films. One of the most famous examples of such references is parodying the portrayal of Death in Seventh Seal (Love and Death, 1975).

Interiors, Allen’s first entirely serious drama and his first film in which he did not act in, can be considered a significant effort to do something Bergman would do. The big house and relationships between three sisters, their troubled mother and their father who wants to marry another woman all seems like an overt effort to apply Bergman’s methods, as Richard Schickel of Time thrashed the movie, accusing Allen of not “…having any grasp of the material, or first-hand, gut feelings about the characters” of a film he supposedly tried to make in a “Bergmanesque manner”.

The epitome of Allen’s homage to Bergman is the scene in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) which shows one of the main characters revisiting a childhood family dinner in his imagination/fantasy. Revisiting one’s own childhood had been used in Annie Hall before as well, but in Crimes and Misdemeanors Allen uses it in a way that is familiar to any individual who has watched Wild Strawberries before. There is a significant distinction between the way Isak and Judah (characters in Wild Strawberries and Crimes and Misdemeanors) are confronted with these instances of childhood reanimation. In Allen’s account, Judah engages in a conversation with these figures from the past and they even recognize the elderly Judah, while Isak seems to be a mere observer of the big family breakfast. Rugg (2005) finds the roots of this distinction in different religious and cultural settings of the two films, namely Lutheran and Jewish traditions. This example shows how Allen used a Bergman model, but did not apply it in an entirely similar way, rendering it in a different cultural setting to produce new meaning.

Another obvious allusion of Allen to Wild Strawberries can be seen in Deconstructing Harry (1997). In this comedy, Harry Block (Woody Allen) is a claimed writer who has lots of problems in his relationships with different people. He, just as Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries, goes to a car trip to his home university to be honored and reevaluates his life and relationships on the way in different ways. What happens in daydreams and nightmares for Isak, Harry faces in a surreal manner. Yet again, here Allen is not limited to the model he borrowed from Bergman. People Harry meets are his fictional characters, his own creations, but they are reflective of his troubled past and present, since he has mindlessly depicted his own acquaintances in his stories. His troubled character is reflected in an almost chaotic structure of the story and irritating jump cuts. This is achieved in a very different way than Bergman’s subtle way of reminding memories from the past. Whatever reassures Isak in Bergman’s film and provides closure for him is not enough for Allen’s Harry. What Harry needs above all is a celebration in his honor by his own creations in order to not only come to his mind, but also remove the writer’s block he has been experiencing which is also a metaphor for the dead-end in his relationships and the meaning of life for him.

As already mentioned, Allen might not be considered the first ideal filmmaker influenced by Bergman, but exploration of the mentioned relationships between these two figures and some of their films clearly shows how deeply Allen was influenced by the great Swedish auteur.

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