The Great Dialogist

It could be said that a trope of the modern art-house filmmaker is to merely hint at profundity. Indeed, intellectualism in cinema is often marked by a vague impressionism, where less is more. In other words, the less dialogue or discourse a writer/director provides, the more a piece says. Showing someone languidly puttering around a room, ho-humming as they go, can be a good stand-in for the profundity of an existential dilemma; despite the fact one hasn’t been lucidly articulated. Perhaps this is fair. After all, cinema was first and foremost a visual medium. And in a way, this gives the indie filmmaker great economy as well. A character can be set up with little more than a few glimpses of visual recognition; a two dimensional artifice seemingly representing  a voluminous three dimensions.

The pedagogy of contemporary art (outside of film) seems to echo this ethos as well. Abstract paintings with splashes of colour and block lines replaced the lush exposition of the renaissance portrait long ago. The more esoteric the work, the more profound it is taken to be. The less it’s explicitly saying, the more it’s implicitly ‘saying,’ and the more it lacks a conversation, the more it’s ‘starting a conversation.’ This ironic paradox of substance comes with a bonus feature as well: its own inherent self-defence mechanism from the unsophisticated critiques of laymen- those who don’t appreciate the squiggles (or repurposed gubbins) of contemporary art surely don’t ‘get it.’

Interestingly, in all these cases, it’s the audience who does most of the work; supplying the art with the depth that the piece obtusely lacks. Like a spatial exercise of rotating a cube in one’s mind, it is left to the audience to provide the volume that is only hinted at. In other words, it’s the audience who engenders the piece with profundity, based on their own experiences, desires, references, and perhaps most importantly- the resonating cues from other art works. After all, the recognition of profundity must have an underlying well from which to draw its presuppositions.

While Western meditations on life and meaning can find seminal intellectual fortitude in the bedrock of Plato, perhaps one of the greatest sources of metaphysical plumbing in cinematic language is that of Ingmar Bergman. His oeuvre spans decades and shifted with varying styles and forms, yet questions of the human experience -its meaning, futility, and ultimacy- were replete throughout. And nowhere is this conveyed more specifically than through his dialogue. Above all of his other cinematic talents, Bergman was perhaps first and foremost a consummate dialogist. He shot beautiful images, inspired incredible performances, and carried out impressive inquires into cinematic form, but the conveyance of ideas through speech was always the real star of his films.

Unlike modern art-house directors who can take great pains to avoid exposition, or even mainstream directors who take pains to sensationalize with their plots, Bergman sought to constantly render his characters bare, even suspending plot when needed, so he could verbally plumb the innermost depths of their thoughts & behavioural proclivities with a self-reflective ease that transcended the screen. His 1973 film, Scenes From A Marriage highlighted both of these qualities. The full Swedish mini-series runs six 50-minute episodes, and yet, it depicts little else than a couple talking. Actors Ullman and Josephson flood the otherwise minimal sets with a tempest of words, their relationship played out over decades via conversations that expose their mutual love, hate, resentments, fears, insecurities, and perspective accrued with life experience. Cinematically, Bergman almost never strays from the couple, often foregoing wide or establishing shots to focus solely on each word uttered between the two, as if it was all that mattered to theirs, and the human experience.

Yet, even when Bergman wasn’t behind the camera, his signature dialogue was a tell-tale sign of his authorship. The Best Intentions, directed by Billie August, was merely written by Bergman (after his pronounced retirement), and yet it sounds and feels much like a ‘Bergman film.’ Regardless of the fact the film is semi-biographical of Bergman’s parents, there is a distinctive difference between the dialogue in it and -for example- August’s earlier Palm D’Or-winning work, Pelle The Conqueror. Indeed, not only is the dialogue in The Best Intentions superior in psychological depth and quality of prose, but its dialectical style is immediately reminiscent of previous Bergman works. A scene where the protagonist Henrik Bergman argues with Nordensen, for instance, recalls one of the pinnacle scenes from Fanny and Alexander, where uncles Carl and Gustav Ekdahl hold court with the tyrannical Bishop. Both are protracted dialogue scenes depicting sit-down conversations between men who, while attempting to keep  up the pretense of cordial sophistication, fire away at each other in cat-and-mouse game of power politics. And in both cases, Bergman allows the subtext to bubble to the surface, becoming an explicit part of the dialogue. In Fanny and Alexander, Bergman uses this to comedic affect by having the more passionate of the two uncles (Gustav) snap the pretext of cordiality, unveiling his genuine thoughts of the Bishop whilst exposing what hidden tools of blackmail he has in store; as he puts it- in order to ‘place the cards on the table.’ This acknowledgement of the scene’s underlying subtext through the verbal exposition of one of its characters is another one of the distinctive ways which Bergman frequently communicates with the audience head-on. Indeed, it his way of ‘laying the cards’ on the proverbial table.

It may be no wonder then why someone like Woody Allen has been such a longstanding proponent of Bergman. Like Bergman, Allen is a dialogist who often allows his characters to admit their faults or desires while psychoanalytically self-explaining where they came from, as if they’ve had the benefit of years of therapy (in Allen’s characters’ case, they often have). While Bergman’s characters usually haven’t had the luxury of psychoanalysis, his own understanding of psychology and analysis often peters into the self-aware thoughts of his characters. Indeed, characters often posit an explanation as to the subconscious or hidden root of their own traits or habits. For instance, Bibi Anderson’s rambunctious character in Wild Strawberries at one point quips: ‘I’m a virgin, so I smoke a pipe.’ While the line might provoke snickers for its humorous mix of literalness and innuendo, the exposition of subconscious reasoning does not preclude or diminish the audience’s latitude for further critical inquiry into the character. In other words, Bergman’s penchant to be upfront with reasoning doesn’t impede a further discussion by the audience. Rather, it might enrich the conversation, by not only bringing the entire audience into the fold, including those who might not have otherwise ‘got it,’ but by ushering them to question the real-world validity (and projection) of psychosexual behaviour, allowing a further starting point from which to begin a critical inquiry.

However, most often these expository insights are more existential in nature, thus provoking more profound considerations on life and experience. The majority of Wild Strawberries exists as a dialectic between ‘Isaac,’ his daughter-in-law, and the other incidental characters he picks up on route to accepting an honorary degree. At one point or another, nearly every character on the trip exposits how they feel about themselves, the others, and of life itself. Thus, the film acts as an illustrative reflection on the experiential stages of life, from youth, to middle age, to one’s twilight years. Of course, this is within the context of a fairly middle-class Swedish experience, but The Seventh Seal however, would take on more universal questions of metaphysics. It’s dialectic famously takes place both literally and figuratively, as a knight of the Crusade and Death himself discuss God and the meaning of life over a protracted game of chess. In this way, Death’s character provides a symbolic device with which the knight’s internal existential questions can be externally verbalized. With 1966’s Persona, Bergman would then cleverly remove the ostensible need for a character in crisis to have a (vocally) responsive counterpoint all together. In it, a dialectic of experiential meaning still exists between two people, yet in this case, only one speaks. Bibi Anderson’s character uses the muted Liv Ullman as a sounding board for a range of reflective musings on life, without Ullman’s character ever muttering more than a single word. That the two may actually be one-in-the-same person only further demonstrates Bergman’s desire to find new and creative cinematic solutions to communicate the weight of existence through open, transparent, and expository dialogue.

While Bergman’s dialectical influence is thus clearly present in the works of Allen, August, and even with somewhat younger directors like Linklater, Baumbach, and Von Trier –Nymphomaniac essentially being a narrative projection of Von Trier’s internal dialectic, with nymphomania standing in for his own manic compulsion to provoke people- the more disparate ‘less is more’ approach to dialogue has become ubiquitous in the modern art-house world. Perhaps one reason is because there is no shortage of dialogue in what’s seen as the bastion of anti-intellectualism: Hollywood. Indeed, Hollywood is chalk-full of people talking, usually as a device to drive its plot points or create/diffuse conflict between its characters. In this way, the sparseness of art-house cinema in plot and dialogue helps to position it in opposition to Hollywood, by negating its latent sensationalism with more realistic depictions of the banalities and mundanities of life’s quieter moments. And as Hollywood is seen as industrial entertainment, the diametrical opposition of ‘less is more’ in art cinema is seen as more profound.

What’s interesting about this desire to subvert expository dialogue, is that it can ironically push the experiential storytelling away from the realism of the every day, insofar as in reality, there seems to be nothing more frightening to the average person than silence. Indeed, humans are an exceptionally social animal, and in a digital age, the omnipresence of communication has only become exponentially increased. People (in the West) start connecting to others as soon as they wake, be it via emails, texts, phone calls, social networking, or of course, talking amongst other people. This continues for the rest of the day until they pause for sleep, only to repeat the pattern over again. Thus any momentary lack of communication is anathema to people, for nothing can be more uncomfortable to them than being left to their own devices, and the lonely void of silence which may arouse existential questioning. In this sense, it seems almost unrealistic, or perhaps even intellectually disingenuous, to be depicting so many moments of pause amid the noise of life, as such moments actually occur so infrequently, and don’t reflect the bulk of a contemporary experience. While Bergman’s dialogue is not necessarily realistic per se -the aforementioned exposition of subtext is inherently stylistic, for instance- at least the frequency with which his characters express themselves, and the urgency with which they seek verbal connectivity with others, is much closer to reality.

But the other reason modern laconic filmmakers can perhaps get away with saying so little (and coming off profound) is in part because artists like Bergman have already helped mediate existential and experiential dilemmas in the cinematic collective consciousness. Hence, modern directors need only hint at recognizable cues to affiliate with their contexts. For example, in one of the more famous modern indie films -Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation– Scarlett Johansson’s character’s existential dilemma is set up with little more than non-verbal shots of her looking unenthusiastic while going through the motions of staying in Japan; shopping, listening to friends, sitting around the hotel, walking in the park and observing things without really engaging, etc. In other words, a mere visage of malaise. Moreover, we know her marriage is troubled with just a few glimpses of Johansson looking longingly at Giovanni Ribisi’s character, who in turn is looking elsewhere.

While Coppola is certainly adept at conveying a feeling and atmosphere in these moments, the audience’s near-immediate acceptance and recognition of their deeper existential problems -before Coppola does insert a scene of verbal exposition with Johansson and Murray on a bed- still owes to the well-trodden groundwork of marriage depictions such as in Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Indeed, some of Johansson’s looks are not unlike Ullman’s, yet Ullman’s were usually followed with a corresponding articulation of meaning, cementing the relationship of the verbal and non verbal. Whether or not an audience member may have seen this cinematic progenitor of marital bliss, the iconic mining of such a topic filters down, permeating through other media, leaving an impressionistic shell of itself which can still be recognized. As with Plato’s theory of the Forms, all that’s needed for Coppola then, or the modern filmmaker, is the impression of the impression to be universally understood by the audience.

Perhaps this is why Bergman’s work remains so intellectually satisfying. As opposed to the recognition of the audience doing important conversational work for the artist, Bergman has already done the heavy lifting. His expository dialogue has helped shape the cinematic Form of the existential dilemma. And as opposed to more modern art-house works which aspire to profundity through the sheer verisimilitude of experiential feelings, Bergman’s work is the great analyzer of feelings. A wealth of thorough consideration and genuine examination is front and centre, allowing the viewer to not simply re-feel something on repeated viewings, but to re-contemplate what it means to feel. Without this foundational work of a cinematic communicator like Bergman, the modern audience’s complacency with ambiguity might easily give way to questions of meaning, which contemporary artists may have difficulty answering, especially if no profundity was ever really there. With Bergman however, the profundity is always there in the dialogue. Indeed, starting a ‘conversation’ is not simply an ideal consequence in the aftermath of a Bergman screening, but a requisite embedded in the viewing process itself.

By Erik Anderson

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