Tributaries of Surprise

By Nigel Morris

munich-steven-spielberg.jpgMunich, 2005

The late Ingmar Bergman and other auteurs are more active in Steven Spielberg’s cinematic imagination than one might think

Few filmgoers would acknowledge similarities between Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters and Ingmar Bergman’s brooding art films. What could be further from the Swedish master’s obsession with death and longing than the southern Californian suburban consciousness underlying Spielberg’s parables of light, hope and adventure? How can one compare the self-lacerating honesty of an artist who admitted to former Nazi sympathies with the superficiality and incurable sentimentality of a Jewish Hollywood showman? What possible connection is there between a director who eschewed America’s fixation on box-office success and made several dozen films with minuscule financing, and one who has worked at the limits of budget inflation and garnered almost inconceivable revenues?

These questions say more about critical prejudices, marketing and audience expectations than about the works themselves. It’s not only in Spielberg’s darker films on serious subjects since Schindler’s List (1993) that a streak of misanthropy reoccurs. High culture / low culture demarcations between European art cinema and popular entertainment assumes that the more downbeat and less directly comprehensible a film is (notwithstanding Bergman’s penchant for comedy) the greater its profundity. Conversely, anything with mass popularity is deemed simplistic, appealing to the lowest common denominator and often – to cite a frequent charge against Spielberg – manipulative.

Yet the world’s most bankable director has incorporated homages and allusions to Bergman into several productions. Spielberg characteristically plunders cinematic history, even when ostensibly operating within conventional, in many ways old-fashioned, generic constraints. Generally overlooked have been references to Godard, Bresson, Resnais and Bertolucci, as well as more obvious Hitchcock, Ford, Disney, Fleming, Welles, Lean and Kubrick citations. These are less postmodern bricolage than a sustained meditation on the pleasures and functions of cinema. They enrich or problematise themes that Spielberg plays off against each other. His encyclopaedic knowledge of film is a significant element in his success, simultaneously and differentially appealing to casual filmgoers and cineastes, parents and children and, indeed, different aspects of the same spectator, often within a single screening.

jaws-steven-spielberg.jpgJaws, 1975

Lloyd Michaels, in ‘The Imaginary Signifier in Bergman’s Persona’ (Film Criticism 2, 1978) discussed the film using what was then cutting-edge psychoanalytic ‘apparatus theory,’ concerning the relationship between spectator, projector and screen. Michaels noted how the credits cede to ‘a white screen of projected light – the absence of all images – which then becomes the hospital wall of the narrative’s first scene’ (74). Critics recognise self-reflexivity in Bergman’s anti-narrative films, and similarly when Hitchcock and Ford cross the threshold from entertainment into art, thanks to auteur theory. Yet narrative and spectacular pleasure, together with realist expectations and prejudices about populist cinema, distract from this facet of Spielberg’s work.

His theatrical debut, Duel (1971), in which a gigantic tanker menaces a car driver, features a moment in a gas station when suddenly the image, like the supposedly burning celluloid of Bergman’s Persona, blurs and runs. A forecourt attendant entering the shot and washing the car windscreen prevents both protagonist and spectator from identifying the murderous trucker, immediately and retrospectively motivating the effect yet reinforcing that this film inaugurates an ongoing Spielbergian theme, that of clarity of vision. Repeatedly events are viewed through screens. Only a moment before, the hapless driver was cleaning his glasses. Portentously, he is named only as Mann, undoubtedly endearing this existentialist tale to those critics, sensitised to heavily signposted symbolism, who championed Spielberg before commercial success eclipsed acknowledgement of his artistic accomplishments.

saving-private-ryan-steven-spielberg.jpgSaving Private Ryan, 1998

Minority Report (2002) opens with a sequence including shots, derived from Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), which contrast foreground and background, light and dark on the two sides of the screen to emphasise a man’s estrangement from his family. Bergman’s protagonist, approaching death, re-evaluates his life in the light of current nightmares and daydreams. My reading, in accordance with other stories by Philip K. Dick, author of the story on which Spielberg’s science-fiction thriller is based, is that Minority Report’s hero does something similar, but from within a solipsistic state of suspended animation. He embraces another figure also possibly comatose, compositionally replicating Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson’s merging in Persona.

An ambiguous father figure, himself a filmmaker of sorts, is called Lamar Burgess. His name, alluding to the author of the similarly themed A Clockwork Orange (1962; filmed 1971), partially coincides with Ingmar Bergman, for whom the actor playing him, Max Von Sydow, starred frequently. Further corroboration is an appearance by Peter Stormare, another Bergman regular. The idyllic ending of the film, which is shot throughout in a style recalling cold northern light, occurs on a remote island among lakes and pine forests. It is then perhaps unsurprising that in 2002 Bergman himself praised Spielberg for having ‘something to say,’ being ‘passionate’, and possessing ‘an idealistic attitude to the filmmaking process.’

Nigel Morris is the author of The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (London: Wallflower Press, 2007) and organised the ‘Spielberg at Sixty International Conference’ at the University of Lincoln last November. He is Principal Lecturer in Media Theory / Teacher Fellow and Programme Leader BA (Joint Hons) Film and Television, in the Department of Media Production, University of Lincoln.