10 September 2012

"No! I'm not like you. I don't feel like you. I'm Sister Alma, I'm just here to help you. I'm not Elisabet Vogler. You are Elisabet Vogler." Thoughts After Watching Bergman's Persona

Solitude and the desperation of lost chances. The unforgiving nature of time. Tick.

I think a sign of real intelligence in human beings is the ability to listen to and ask questions of others. You'll note that the especially empty headed will ramble on obliviously saying nothing, hearing nothing, asking nothing. It's an apt metaphor for their lives that they try to fill with work and chores until they burst, because the alternative is to face reality. Then too, some people go to religious services and there imagine that by giving themselves to the infinitely unknowable they are answering all of life's mysteries.

I saw that the fat guy who is governor of New Jersey said at the republican convention that his party loves teachers but not the unions. Translation: we want you to continue educating our children for little renumeration but we don't want you to have any protection or security while doing that work and by the way, shut up!

So I was trying to be useful today on a Monday of a week I have off. Trying to do things. Be productive. Make full use of my time. But I was having trouble. The impulse was to fiddle about doing a little of this and a little of that, none of which was going to "accomplish" anything. No sustained tasks at all. I was contemplating this inability to be "get going" while sitting on out back deck. There beside me was our cat. Sprawled out in the sun, not a care in the world. I realized she had it right. The old fleabag is an adept mouse slayer and is skilled at keeping laps warm, especially those watching a movie. She is also quick to grab a bite to eat and to crawl into boxes and explore paper bags. But when there's nothing else that catches her fancy, she is more than content to just flop somewhere. This is not laziness, this is living. She makes no apologies for spending hours upon hours in complete lethargy, nor do we expect her to. Yet, when I allow myself some time to "do nothing" I feel the guilt of a thousand pilgrims glaring at me. Enough. Some days were meant to be lazed away and by god I mean to do it (which doesn't account for me busily typing right now).

"I don't know what to do with my tenderness." - Mr. Vogler, from Persona.

I watched Persona (1966) today as is obvious from the title of this post. Ingmar Bergman films have the effect of making me feel better about being alive. They are like deep meditations on the nature of existence and the lives we lead. They help us explore our perceptions and our quest for meaning. They don't so much force as allow us to examine the unique human capability of questioning. Our innate ability (too often repressed out of fear or religion) to ask: why?

God's silence is a theme in many a Bergman film but in Persona it is the silence of the actress, Elisabeth  (Liv Ullman). She is with a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson) at a rustic island retreat recuperating from a mental breakdown that has robbed her power of speech. Elisabeth and Alma, Alma and Elisabeth, become intertwined as they share the confines of a house and the vastness of the outdoors and more than that, as they share life. One talks and talks the other listens and listens. Symbiotic. Bergman even morphs their faces at one point. Symbiosis.

Elisabeth is that most compelling of film characters, the emotionally disturbed. It seems that people who have or are suffering some sort of emotional or mental crisis are not just interesting, but they are on to something. Isn't their psychosis evidence of a fundamental understanding of reality? Can't insanity or mental instability be a sign of someone who has reached a higher truth that renders it difficult if not impossible to dwell in the world as most others do? When reality is understood at such a basic and deep level, the trivialities of life and the tedium of so much of existence is rendered impossible to comprehend.

But in Persona we are talking of two people. The duality. Twins. As Alma talks and talks and Elisabeth listens, as Alma violates confidentially be reading a letter Elisabeth has written, as Alma threatens to throw boiling water on Elisabeth, who is the stable one? Who is in charge? Who is the nurse and who is the patient?

Questions always from Bergman. Challenges. As we see with the opening sequences of the film that reappear in and abridged form in the middle. At times quizzical at times disturbing at times maddening. Carbon, film breaking, sheep, a child, a heart and erect phallus, a woman's face. It means everything of course just as it means nothing, because it is so very much up to us to determine why. Because we have the capacity to do so.

Great films are to be watched again and again but a film like Persona demands it on another level. Because in repeat viewings we see so many different things, view the same through such different lenses depending upon where we are in our life and out thinking and our understanding. It is a film that especially lends itself to the power of wonder.

So much in the world to wonder at. So many ways to do it. So lucky to think of any of it at any time. Chance.

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