Create Date: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona
What is A Create Date? Once a week, you:
- Ask yourself: “what feels like the most fun I could have?”
- Schedule the time and place, as you would any other appointment.
- When the time comes, allow yourself to do it.
It can feel trivial but it’s a deep creative practice. Expect resistance but go do it anyway.
Creativist Club Members: You can keep track of your Create Dates with the Monthly Create Date Log, downloadable from The Library
For my create date this week, I went to see a 40-year-old film: Persona. The BFI is doing an Ingmar Bergman retrospective and I’d never seen this radical classic that has thrilled and challenged cinema buffs for decades.
I am no cinema buff but one of my creative intentions for the first quarter of this year is to complete a film script adaptation of one of my novels, that I’ve been working on for a while.
I wanted to watch a master at work, at what everyone, including Bergman himself, agrees was the height of his powers.
So this wasn’t, perhaps, as playful as a create-date should strictly be… but I’m really glad I went. Forty years on, this beautiful and challenging film still feels fresh, like it’s still striving to reinvent its own medium.
Its unforgettable, haunting imagery, its harsh whites and deep shadows, have been flashing across my mind all week.
I think it’s a film that everyone who works to make art, everyone who strives to tell the truth in their work, should see.
Silence Has No Meaning Beyond What We Project Upon It
The plot of this film couldn’t be simpler. The well-known actress, Elizabet Vogler, suddenly stopped speaking one night in the middle of a performance of Electra and has been silent since. The film open as a nurse, Alma, is charged with her care in a remote beach house.
Alma is nervous about her inexperience, but takes the job and is soon beguiled by Mrs Vogler and by Mrs Vogler’s silence.
Silent is an anagram of listen. Elizabet’s wordlessness makes Alma feel truly heard for the first time in her life and she’s drawn into expressing herself like never before, sharing a close secret of a sexual encounter with two unknown boys on a beach.
She soon learns, though, that she has not been truly heard, not in her terms, and even though Elizabet’s silence had promised her nothing, she feels hurt. Betrayed.
As the carer’s (nurse) passions seethe and ferment, the artist (actress) becomes ever more disinterested and emotionally remote. Nurse Alma abandons her professional pride and sets down a shard of glass where she knows her patient will step on it, barefoot.
Action, interaction and inaction now rise in an interplay of words and silence, waking and dreaming, that feels extraordinarily momentous, and mesmerizing.
Crossing And Melding
Then, surface reality fractures. The film appears to get stuck in the gate and burst into flames.
Before the plot-line got going, we were treated to a seven-minute prologue of imagery, starting with the carbon rods of an old-style film projector, incorporating corpses, clowns, crucifixions, the flash of an erect penis… Now that is echoed and run through again, as a projector lamp flares into life with this montage from early cinema: jerking skeletons and coffins, a hand being nailed to cross, a sequence that ends by closing in on an eye, bringing us into the veins of the eyeball.
We are crossing over from conscious to subconscious.
A dreamscape emerges as the two women are revealed to be two sides of one person. Alma now recites a litany of what happened during Elizabet’s darkest time: her attempted abortion, her unwillingness to accept motherhood when the baby survived, her treacherous ambition.
She repeats it twice, first as she looks at Elisabet, then with Elizabet looking at her.
Then their two faces meld into one, in an eerie close-up which meshes half of Alma’s face with half of Elisabet’s.
After I left the cinema, I learned that the prologue and middle sequence of this film is famous, the subject of a thousand theses and essays.
I learned that Bergman chose the title Persona “as this was both the Greek word for ‘mask’ and the term coined by Carl Jung for the outer self that opposed the inner ‘alma’.”
I learned that Elisabet’s surname (married name) was chosen just as carefully. Albert Emanuel Vogler was an artist and one of those artists who sapped the creative energy of those around him.
Some of these details point to what made seeing this movie such a great create date for me. Later in life Bergman said: “In Persona… I had gone as far as I could go… I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.”
This is true. I can guess at those wordless secrets with words but it’s the imagery that encapsulates them best and demonstrates the power of cinema (which to a novelist can sometimes seem second-best).
Though he speaks in mysterious ways, Bergman’s conception of art and life and how they interconnect is so lucid.
Art and Life
At the end, we see a boy with his hand skimming across a glass screen, trying to touch that which is not only wordless, but untouchable. Removed but endlessly drawing us, ever on.
Watching this film is a visceral experience that stirs the subconscious and reminds us how rarely we live.
Alma was most alive in her flagrant sexual act and then in her crazed passion for Elizabet. In connection.
For Elizabet, it’s the opposite. The objective disinterest of the artist, which can feel so cold, so disconnected to human passion, is where she lives most truly. In observation.
Bergman seems to me to be saying: however much we try to create our world or assert our personhood, we must act our lives out within a mental broadcast that constructs us, not as person, but as persona. Only in rare moments of interbeing can we go beyond that, wake up, and live.
And then, we are shown the film runing out, on camera, the light dying from the lamp. The movie is over.
I left the cinema unsure of whether I’d learned anything that will help me be a better scriptwriter but knowing, for sure, that I’d experienced something strangely, mesmerisingly, mysteriously real.
A slice of highly stylized art that felt more like a slice of life than any day-to-day event or more realistic drama.
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