Sunday, April 29, 2012

Extreme Close-Ups of August Strindberg’s Face and then Maybe the Face of Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Final Two Episodes of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage

Episode 5 of Scenes from a Marriage is entitled “The Illiterates,” but it could just as easily be called “How not to sign your divorce papers.” First off, there should be no alcohol involved.  Second, you probably shouldn’t have sex just before signing.  And then, you certainly shouldn’t drink even more, to the point of drunkenness.

Episode 5 consists entirely of Marianne and Johann (Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson) together in Johann’s office, putting off signing their divorce papers.  Once again, these people still clearly love each other, but it becomes increasingly evident that they also hate each other.  I see no reason why these two emotions have to be mutually exclusive.  As Marianne and Johann trade hysterical recriminations, I am reminded of the plays of Bergman’s countryman, August Strindberg, so many of which involve a man and a woman emotionally and psychologically destroying each other; typically it’s the woman who has the upper hand; to say that Strindberg had “issues” with women is likely a polite understatement.  Now, if Strindberg was an out and out misogynist, then I have no desire to apologize for him, but I feel like his male characters are rarely outstanding personalities themselves.  No, often the main thrust of a Strindberg play is that everyone, male and female, is really pretty awful, at least sometimes.  Everybody can and will undermine and seriously fuck up everybody else.

If Strindberg has a counterpart in Scenes from a Marriage, it is certainly Johann, because as the miniseries progresses, it becomes evident that Johann’s drama is not just marital, but is also one of personal failure and disappointment.  Throughout the series, Johann’s pronouncements on himself and on the rest of humanity become increasingly dire and pessimistic.  Marianne, by contrast, becomes increasingly self-assured and confident.  It reminds me of the way Annie Hall unfolds, with Alvy (Woody Allen, a well-known Bergman enthusiast) mired in the self-defeating pessimism that he’s spent years cultivating, while Annie (Diane Keaton) grows and flourishes as a person.  By the end of the film, Alvy needs her in a way that she really doesn’t need him.  In Scenes from a Marriage, this question of who needs whom isn’t as one-sided as it is in Annie Hall.  Although I would say that Johann is clearly the weaker of the two, Marianne is not without her vulnerabilities. Her new-found self-assurance is fragile, and it often seems like she wants—or perhaps even needs—Johann to prop it up for her, even though, at least superficially, she built this self-assurance out of her emancipation from him.

People, people, people.  This is probably one of the best “relationship movies” I’ve ever seen.  Bergman approaches the titular marriage with a firm understanding of the human condition.  When two people set out two negotiate a relationship, they generally don’t really know what they want.  Or, perhaps more precisely, they want any number of things, some of which undermine each other, some of which are blatantly contradictory, and some of which are probably just self-destructive.  Being human is (not always, but sometimes) a terrible burden.  How awful, to have so much, to have our hopes for happiness, riding on the fulfillment of poorly articulated and poorly understood desires.  No wonder most people fuck it up to varying degrees.

Now, personally, I think it is important to engage in what I call “cautious pessimism.” This outlook necessitates being prepared for the worst while hoping for—and actively pursuing—the best.  Full-blown pessimism, pessimism which is honest with itself and clear-eyed in its view of the world, would likely just lead to giving up.  Pure optimism, by contrast, is almost always going to lead to disappointment, and you’re not going to be prepared for it when it comes.  But cautious pessimism, this middle way, allows us to pursue the good while not being caught off-guard by the bad.  Cautious pessimism is perhaps an ideal survival method, at least from an emotional perspective.

So, spoiler alert, but here’s how Scenes from a Marriage ends (this is the Guanyin/Kannon/Avolikotesvara portion of the title of this post).  We find Marianne and Johann, seven years after their initial break, now each married to a new spouse, sneaking off to the countryside for a weekend tryst.  And both of them are emotionally vulnerable, especially Johann, who lacks the equipment for dealing with disappointments and reversals that Marianne seems to have been cultivating.  Neither of their new marriages is particularly happy.  Marianne is vulnerable too, because she feels the melancholy weight of what could have been, had they made different decisions years ago.  How sad, to find, years down the line, when it can no longer be rectified, that you’ve made a series of colossal mistakes.  And so they come together in this cottage in the countryside and night falls and they hold each other and console each other and their love for each other is made abundantly clear, and they both radiate compassion.  And we see what fundamentally decent human beings they are.  And for all the misery to which they’ve been subjected throughout the six episodes of Scenes from a Marriage, this scene of the two of them together is one of pure warmth and even love.  Love persists despite all the squandered opportunities, all the shit they’ve been through, all the shit they’ve put themselves through.  And this is why we mustn’t give into pure pessimism, which is so easily translated into despair, because love and warmth and compassion are still possible, in spite of everything.

How unexpectedly uplifting!  Ingmar Bergman is important for me not just as an artist, but for the role he played in my own discovery of cinema.  It was Bergman who first showed me (as an adolescent, and let’s not harp on that, because who wants to remember their adolescence?) that films could be works of art and that cinema was therefore an art form.  Not all cinema, mind you—the quasi-filmic abortions of, say, Adam Sandler, are only films in the technical sense, just like James Patterson is “technically” a novelist (well not even that; at least Adam Sandler actually makes his movies; I’ve never read a James Patterson novel, of course, but judging by the rate at which they’re pumped out, and by the fact that there’s pretty much always a co-author on them, I highly doubt that he’s actually writing them anymore.  So James Patterson is such a shitty writer that he doesn’t actually write.  Shit.)

But let’s not think about people like them.  I hold them both in contempt and would be happy to just drive them from my mind.  I’ll conclude this post by reiterating my great respect for Ingmar Bergman, as well as by declaring the high esteem in which I hold Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.  There, respectable people for a respectable conclusion.

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