Monday, March 19, 2012

Film Noir, Ingmar Bergman and The Danish Doctor of Dread

ABOVE: Max von Sydow in WINTER LIGHT

There's a great piece over at the New York Times Opinionator blog by Gordon Marino called "The Danish Doctor of Dread" about the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the concept of anxiety. Kierkegaard was the philosopher most interested in angst--it's not for nothing that he's widely seen as the OG of existentialism--but Marino points out that far from being hopeless about the lonely state of humanity, Kierkegaard saw angst as the beginning of understanding.

The philosopher's central insight was that at the root of our anxiety about death was our simultaneous attraction to and repulsion from self-annihilation. Kierkegaard pointed out that when we stare over a cliff, we become dizzy not just with the fear of falling but with the bizarre desire to jump.

I haven't read THE CONCEPT OF ANXIETY in its entirety--my familairity with Kierkegaard is restricted to FEAR AND TREMBLING and to a few chapters here and there of EITHER/OR and THE SICKNESS UNTO DEATH--but Marino's essay has reached me at a good time since these ideas have been on my mind lately.

About a week ago I watched Ingmar Bergman's WINTER LIGHT for the first time in a while. It's the middle film of Bergman's Silence Of God Trilogy (between THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and THE SILENCE). It's a masterpiece, though like so many of Bergman's films you have to see it a few times for its mysteries to unfold. (This has something to do with the director's lack of cliche and convention. While his films are incredibly studied and carefully composed they also seem organic in the sense that you do not know from moment to moment what will happen. At his best, Bergman was the least predictable filmmaker imaginable.) Like so many of his films, WINTER LIGHT has a frozen surface and a boiling center. At the heart of the story is a priest (Gunnar Bjornstrand) who has lost his faith. Confronted by a suicidal parishioner, the priest can muster only the most perfunctory words of encouragement. When the man kills himself, the priest must decide whether or not to go on or surrender to the final despair.

WINTER LIGHT is the kind of film that Kierkegaard might well have made (it's worth noting that the philosopher employed elements of fiction in his writing. Released in the winter of 1963, it is a film made very much under the threat of nuclear annihilation--the suicidal man lives in dread of the bomb--but it is really about existential angst. What meaning is there to be found in the face of certain death? As a hunchbacked parishioner points out to the priest in the film's penultimate scene, even Jesus felt abandoned by God in his moment of agony, crying out "My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?"

Of course, my reading of this essay on Kierkegaard and re-watching WINTER LIGHT both have occurred while I'm continuing to study and write about film noir. Anxiety is the key element, as I see it, in the make up of noir. You see this in pivotal films like SCARLET STREET, IN A LONELY PLACE, ANGEL FACE, and perhaps most especially in the greatest of all noirs, DETOUR.

Of course, the Kierkegaard piece couldn't help but bring to mind VERTIGO. I think it was Robin Wood who first pointed out that Hitchcock's masterpiece almost works like a demonstration of Kierkegaard's central insight about the attraction/anxiety of death. Here's the big K in THE CONCEPT OF ANXIETY, "Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eyes as in the abyss." Jimmy Stewart looks down into the abyss at the beginning of VERTIGO and he can't unsee it. Falling in love with Kim Novak is just a way to dive off into self-annihilation.

To bring this all back to the Marino essay, the author points out that these days we "medicalize" anxiety, attempting to deaden it with pills, a practice that ends up robbing us of anxiety's insights. He recommends that we try Kierkegaard instead. I would add WINTER LIGHT and VERTIGO to that list. And DETOUR, definitely DETOUR.

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