Earlier in the week, Charlie Bertsch posted a Facebook update about a movie he’d seen that inspired, as of this writing, more than 80 replies, and led to an essay by Charlie (“Consider The Lobster”) that extended his original thoughts. (I don’t think it matters what the movie was, and in fact Charlie didn’t tell us at first. It was The Lobster, if anyone cares.) It isn’t exactly true that his update and essay inspired this post, because I was going to watch and write about Winter Light already, but the two viewing experiences fit together nicely. Here is his original update (hopefully, he won’t mind my quoting it):
Charlie Bertsch just spent two hours watching a film that felt at least twice that long. It made him miserable, much of the time. He considered leaving before it was over on several occasions. And he could not bear the ending. Yet he would definitely consider it a worthwhile experience. Certainly, he won't soon forget the film or the discomfort that it caused him.
My first response was that life was too short for such “worthwhile” experiences. But the subsequent discussion, and the essay, makes me realize there was more going on than mere discomfort.
In his essay, Charlie introduces two major points. “For me,” he wrote, “becoming a true cinephile was inextricably bound up with learning to distinguish between the experience of watching films for the first time and the experience of processing them afterwards, whether in exchanges with friends or during second, third or fourth viewings.” I certainly appreciate the importance of post-viewing processing, but I am perhaps too much a child of Pauline “I Only Watch ‘Em Once” Kael to think extra viewings are mandatory. Still, I watch plenty of movies more than once (Winter Light included), and I often find my differing reactions useful. If, as I believe, Kael is partly arguing that our personal experiences while watching a movie (see Shoeshine) enter into our evaluations, then surely watching a movie in 2016 that I last saw in 1973 will be instructive, because I am not the same person.
Charlie takes it a bit further: “I need to be able to distance myself from them once the films are over if I want to produce an analysis that doesn’t merely expand upon that initial rooting interest.” If nothing else, this explains a lot of Charlie’s writing on film (and art in general). I want to believe it, and when I would function as, say, a teacher, I would break down a movie the same way I was trained to break down a poem. Having said that, I am often a victim of my initial rooting interest, so when I saw The Road Warrior when it came out, my response was largely to pick my jaw up off of the floor, and when I saw Fury Road, one reason I loved it was because my jaw ended up in that same place. There is a tension between my rooting and my later analysis, and I am not always as diligent as Charlie about making sure to distance myself at some point.
And so, Winter Light, the second film in Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Winter Light was Bergman’s favorite of his films, which is believable. I saw the first film in the trilogy, Through a Glass Darkly, when I was a teenager, and was much taken with the “schizophrenic” main character. Truth be told, I romanticized her illness, the way misunderstood teenagers will do. I then saw the trilogy in the early-70s when I was a film major (and, truth be told, still a teenager, being 19 at the time). I still loved Through a Glass Darkly, but I thought Winter Light was boring and The Silence ... well, perhaps it gave me discomfort. I remember writing about it for a class, and summarizing that it was “Sick. Sick, sick, sick.” (I really have to see that one again.) Well, I finally returned to Winter Light more than 40 years later, and I think I understand why I was negative about it when I was 19, and why I liked it now that I’m 62.
But first, I need to reiterate that the movie hasn’t changed over those 40+ years, I have changed, and to the extent that my opinion of the film has also changed, I am a poster child for the importance of personal experiences being reflected in the art we take in.
Winter Light is right up my alley, as it would have been in 1973. A pastor is faced with an existential crisis, finding he has lost his faith. According to the IMDB, Bergman’s then wife said, “Yes, Ingmar, it’s a masterpiece. But it’s a dreary masterpiece.” She is correct, but I am no longer convinced, as I probably was in 1973, that dreary=bad. These kinds of crises are dreary as often as not.
I could have been that pastor. By 1973, I, too, had lost my faith, but I wasn’t troubled by this the way a pastor might have been. My great hero at that point (and still) was Dr. Rieux from Camus’ novel The Plague. Rieux confronts the silence of God, and while he may never have been a believer, God’s absence is still oddly present. The plague that attacks the small town in the novel requires a response, and Rieux does his job as a doctor, trying to fight the plague because that’s what you do. While Rieux (the narrator of the novel) refuses to call himself a hero, he acts heroically. He is a role model, in my mind. When I was 19, I had no time for an unbelieving pastor who spent all his time whining about his miseries. It was existentialism without heroism, and that might be closer to true existentialism, but I was 19 and I wanted heroes to look up to. Thus, I dismissed the pastor, and dismissed the film.
Now, though, I see the silliness of my notions of existential heroism. (I still believe in them, I just know they are silly.) I’ve also lived long enough to know I am more like that pastor than I am like Dr. Rieux. So as I watched Winter Light in 2016, I was much more sympathetic to his struggles. And with that sympathy, I became involved in the film in a way I hadn’t before. If in 1973 I thought the 81-minute film must have been more than two hours long, in 2016 I saw and admired the compact nature of those 81 minutes.
I still prefer Through a Glass Darkly ... I can’t lose all of my rooting interest. But Winter Light is a good movie in its own right. “God” help me, I think I’m going to have to watch The Silence again. #470 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.
(It seems that I am incapable of talking about Bergman without including this SCTV clip)