Friday, 4 September 2009

Shame

A key example of Bergman's unparalleled ability to create a kind of cinema of alienation through the rigid and meticulous focus on characters interacting; albeit, not simply through the unblinking point-and-shoot interchanges of dialog, but contained within the seemingly inescapable boundaries of a situation that they've been confined to. In this respect, the confines are further illustrated by the practical presentation of the film itself, with those tightly composed images of faces, acting and then reacting to the events as they unfold, and the always brilliant interplay between light and shadow, which, as ever in Bergman's work, manages to maintain some vague semblance to the natural light that one might expect to find illuminating the area of your nearest windowsill, and yet still managing to offer an obvious visual representation of a kind of conflict that is necessary in a film so preoccupied with the clashing of personalities and ideas.

The most obvious and natural conflict at the pure beating heart of the drama is in the particular reliance on a certain kind of character-type: i.e. an individual with a singular point of view that is at odds with the world around them. In much of Bergman's work, this inability to see eye to eye with other human beings - even on such an intimate or entirely personal level - leads his characters to seek solace and escape; burying their heads in the metaphorical and creating a kind of block that allows them to break from the true psychological horrors that plague them. Alongside these particular concerns we find a number of parallel themes that would be further refined and developed in the series of films that Bergman produced during the same period of creative activity as the film in question, with projects like Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) and The Rite (Riten, 1969) continuing the idea of characters existing in a world in which the boundaries between the symbolic and the real, performance and actuality, have become blurred by the perspective of the filmmaker.

In keeping with such deconstructive ideas, this film, Shame (Skammen, 1968), offers the central depiction of war as a literal nightmare that explores (or exploits?) the psychological disintegration of its two central characters. It is in this presentation that the progression of the conflict and the breakdown in society becomes the perfect mirror to the breakdown of the couple's relationship; with each escalating scene of violence or atrocity creating the perfect visual, meta-textual reference-point to a jealous glance or a derisive put down, which wounds the fragile ego as fatally as a bullet to the head. It's a novel approach, with these two characters at war with one another and at war with themselves, further represented by a landscape of cold uncertainty, violence and turmoil. With this in mind, Shame is probably not the easiest of Bergman's films to appreciate on an immediate level, though it remains, nonetheless, one of his most fascinating; especially when we compare it to the similar elements presented in the subsequent Bergman-directed psychodrama, A Passion (En Passion, 1969).


A Passion directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1969:


Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

As with that particular film, Shame offers a story about characters in retreat; in retreat from themselves and from the world around them. In Shame, the idea is given a further charge of dramatic weight by an approaching civil war set to eventually destroy the walls of cowardice and self-preservation that these particular characters have put up to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world beyond. However, as the walls begin to crumble, these characters begin to show certain elements of their true personalities that have remained hidden or disguised during the idyllic years spent safely hidden away amongst the island community; as the escalating horror of the world itself becomes secondary to the crippling emotional suffocation and psychological collapse of these characters as they strive to escape, both literally, as in from the horrors of war, and metaphorically, as in their own emotionally suffocating relationship.

There are, as one might expect, a number of other, more complex themes developed alongside this central concern, with the usual issues of jealousy, adultery, guilt, impotence, a lack of communication and the inability or unwillingness to see the world for what it truly is all featuring as motivating factors at various points throughout; allowing the audience to appreciate, or at least better recognise the sense of dehumanisation - as the machines of war destroy everything, including the human spirit - and the particular way in which these characters cling to a hope for a return to civilisation, when the actual chance of any kind of palpable reconciliation is plainly impossible. Of course, we can criticise this obvious reading as naive or simply skimming the surface of what is quite clearly a complex and exhaustive piece of work, it still, nonetheless, becomes immediately clear even from this initial single splinter of the film's true meaning; which could, in all honesty, be as simple as what is defined by the experience of viewing the film and the odd, accumulative aspect as each scene builds in intensity, until the rage and frenzy exhausts itself, leaving only a tattered, tired scream.


Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

As one might expect from Bergman (and especially the Bergman of this period), Shame is an outstanding piece of work, both as an experience in the cinematic sense - as in to immerse yourself in the spectacle of the thing - and on a purely technical level too. The production design, editing and cinematography are suitably harsh and gritty, creating a very believable situation, though one that is again filled with a very deliberate form of cinematic abstraction that is formed by the use of the high-contrast black and white. Even so, these elements of artistic/cinematic expression never overwhelm the grain of realism that is filtered through our obvious experiences with TV war-reportage or the conflict in Vietnam, which is used as a kind of shorthand to many of the more confrontational or harrowing scenes featured herein. In presenting these sequences, Bergman is able to sidestep any potentially fatal moments of melodrama or shock-tactics, giving us the torture and insanity of war, without turning it into some kind of after-school polemic.

The film is also notable for what seems like an increased budget - or at least, increased by the standards of many of the filmmaker's more iconic pictures, which generally involve small groups of characters drifting in and out of a tightly-structured chamber-piece framework - with Shame instead offering the audience unforgettable images of aeroplanes spitting machine-gun fire and shells across the tiny island community, a procession of military vehicles stretching back through the village as far as the eye can see, thousands of extras, explosions and costumes, and all to establish this cold and nightmarish world that seems to exist beyond the clearly-defined boundaries of context and time. The fact that Bergman chose to leave the setting of this film a mystery is one of its most interesting aspects of the film and the one that makes it more fascinating to re-evaluate from a contemporary perspective; as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, or the continual reports of North Korea flexing its Nuclear weight, remind us that potential future conflicts are still lingering on the horizon.


Shame directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1968:

Although the threat of civil war and some of the more heart wrenching depictions of abuse and degradation might suggest the era of the Second World War, the cars and costumes and central political or personal ideologies are all very much a post-war, 1960s affectation. No information about the war is given, other than the fact that it has split the country in half, and that both sides seem to be employing a regime of violence and threat to manipulate the locals into assisting their own particular cause. The fact that the actual war is seemingly secondary to the war that erupts between the two central characters is, again, a sign that Bergman is using this metaphor to externalise a largely internal story; with the inner-battle between two characters being projected out, against the landscape, and resulting in further elements of interpretation that sets the scene for that previously mentioned Bergman film masterpiece, A Passion.

At the end of A Passion we have a vague and enigmatic scene that not only contextualises the whole of that particular film - and the fate of its two central characters - but also the whole of the film in question. Quite what Bergman was suggesting by this break between the two is ultimately unknown, though naturally one always can speculate as to why things happen, and for what reason. Perhaps this final notion is something that is only truly felt when we watch the two films together, and can then begin to see Bergman's perhaps cruel mocking (or understanding, perhaps?) of his principal characters, and the subtle line in which one painful nightmare bleeds into the next.