Movies as points on a map

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Liv Ullmann in Persona
  • Liv Ullmann in Persona
Even well into the home video era, it used to be every cinephile's bane that many of the movies he or she longed to see were out of reach. Now we experience the opposite problem, in which we're never more than a few clicks away from nearly any film we can think to watch, no matter how obscure it might once have been. In this context, film history seems not only decentralized but overwhelming—which is why I sometimes enjoy being at the mercy of repertory film programmers in determining which older movies I see. Theatrical exhibition can make any movie seem more relevant (I think it comes from knowing that a roomful of people will congregate to see it), and the films that are revived the most often develop a totemic quality. They become recognizable points in the arena of film history, which is growing ever more challenging to navigate.

It's for this reason that I've watched Persona (1966) more times than any other Ingmar Bergman movie, even though it isn't one of my favorite films of his. In the past decade, I've had over a dozen opportunities to see it on a big screen—more often than not, I end up going. I always seem to find a friend who hasn't seen it before, and since it's under an hour and a half, I never have to set aside too much time for it (yesterday I took in a screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center between band practice, errands, and dinner). At this point, I value the movie more for what it represents than what it actually is. It presents cinema as being at the crossroads of numerous other arts: classical theater (through allusions to Greek tragedy), literature (through the novelistic monologues, which take us inside the minds of the two protagonists), photography (through Sven Nykvist's extraordinary studies of faces), symphonic music (Lars Johan Werle's score invokes such vanguard composers as Schoenberg and Webern). There are also allusions to history, psychology, and even the filmmaking apparatus itself.

To be honest, I find these extracinematic elements to be the least compelling parts of Persona. They strike me as Bergman striving to catch up with the then-recent formal breakthroughs of Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni, and the American avant-garde. Still, I enjoy revisiting the film as a reminder of how popular it was on first release. I find it inspiring that a movie so expressly concerned with cinema's relationship to other arts was such a big international hit (of course, the film's eroticism also played a big role in its success, but that doesn't account for why its popularity endures). I'm happy to have it as a point of reference in my understanding of the cinema of its time.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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