Thursday, 2 April 2009

Bergman's Personna and When did you last see your Father

To-day took the plunge and saw two films which I knew would affect me greatly. The first is a new British made film, When did you last see you father, which I believe is intended to be taken both in the physical sense and as he really is or was. This is a true story based on the Memoir of Blake Morrison, an unknown writer and poet to me, who became Professor of Creative and Life writing at Goldsmith College, and of double interest because I was granted an interview at the college for teacher training in 1960 which arrived when I was serving the six month sentence as a civil prisoner. My mother sent the invitation to the prison governor who tried to persuade me accept the recognisance and take what appeared to be a great opportunity. I have always wondered what would have been the reaction of Goldsmiths if I had agreed to the recognisance and attended for interview. Would they have accepted in such circumstances?. It is of interest that the college, now part of London University emphasises on the first page of its internet site that, "Goldsmiths is all about the freedom to experiment and to be an individual. They may well have gambled on me as did Ruskin College a year later.

What is exciting about the authority of the book which led to the film, but also of concern because he appears to have already travelled the route I am about to take for in relation to his mother whose background he had to research, he wrote an autobiographical novel, Things My mother never taught me. However it is at this point the similarities end as he grew up with two professional parents (physicians) and progressed through a conventional academic education at Nottingham University and University College London. Not having read any of his work I cannot comment but if the film is any indication there is a qualitative truth which suggests a major English writer.

The film has three outstanding character actors, the amazing Jim Broadbent who manages to portray the father as a complex cranky overbearing creative but also a man with sensitivity and insight. A second star in my eyes is Sarah Lancashire who made her public name as Curly's wife in Coronation Street and who has since had a string of performances of subtly and depth. In this film she is not allowed to reveal the reality of the character's life until after the father has died and the son confronts her with the demand for the truth. Juliet Stevenson is another top notch actor who in the films plays the long suffering tolerant wife of "the father" who lays along side her deceased husband until the undertaker arrives and then bursts into tears with the reality that she will never lay alongside him again, despite the betrayals and having to nurse him during the days of a bowel cancer, something which the grand father is said to have also died from Colin Firth is continues to be great in roles which require characters to communicate smouldering emotions until they are allowed to erupt. I especially liked the honesty in which he finds the former girl who provided his first sexual experience and then cannot go back to the same point the had reached with his wife, played by Gina Mckee, whose performance in Our Friends in the North TV series I missed from the stage performance of last week and which reminds that as long as England are not playing their next match on Wednesday night I will be able to watch the fourth match in the one day series with Sri Lanka during the day on Wednesday, then attend an interesting Northern stage event in the evening and stay over for after show talk event for Our Friends in the North, and then go to see Don Mclean on Thursday evening at the Civic Hall, and then depending when the performance ends catch the after show talk for 118 People show event back at the Playhouse which is only a couple of hundred yards away.

When did you last see your father switches between how the child and the young man viewed his father and built up a justified sense of grievance about how he was treated and unappreciated and what he discovered as the betrayal of his mother, and the successful writer and poet forced to confront his mixture of feelings when he decides to join his mother and sister as they accompany his father on his end of days. The film suggests that it is only with the death of the parent that he is able to resolve his relationship and move forward, freed to be what he wishes. As children have discovered throughout time, he then wishes that he had achieved this resolution and understanding before although true to most situations the parents is unwilling for them to talk when the son gives the opportunity.

The parallel with my relationship with my mother is there as she was unable to take up the opportunities I gave her to talk about my father and our relationship, although I also realised that she feared what my reaction might be. Why I did not weep with regret when she died is that I had those three years of constant contact and whether it was because the illness had wiped her memory of what happened to her and to us, or she found peace with herself through my presence I will never know, but it is what happened over those last three years which I hope will make our story of value to others just as When did you see has been to me.

Earlier I watched and partly experienced Personna, what some regarded as one of the most important of the Bergman films. I had viewed part before on DVD when is then crashed and have waited for the replacement which arrived as my mother died. The significance of the film for me is that the opening sequence of harsh black and white images focuses on what become evident is the bark of trees but this transforms into what become a face and the dead faces and limbs of an old man and old women. Just over a week ago I sat with the body of my mother and later in the evening I watch a film about the days before a death, and a wife stayed the night by her husband until the undertaker arrived. In the opening sequence there is also the image of a crucified hand. It was the experience of this part of the film which decided me to go and see When did you last see your father.

Personna had and perhaps still has its controversial aspects. In the opening sequence the image of an erect penis was censored in 1966 but was reinstated for the DVD collection and later there is a vivid account when the nurse meets another young woman, visiting an island, and they lay naked together when they are observed by two young boys, who the other girl seduces but is joined by the nurse, who describes then as terribly young, and continues to tell of a day in which she goes to bed with her lover, a married man, and becomes pregnant which she then has aborted. But is this a real event and is it an event which she or Mrs Vogler experienced?

However both these aspects can be considered diversions from a film about the difficulties of communication especially when people have a physical intimacy and it also about the egocentric nature of being an artist. Mrs Vogler has the same name as the Magician As with When did you see your father, and my own main work, it also about a search for truth and the hold which the drive can have over some more than others. I also feel it is about the fragility of our being against the solidness of nature with lots of images of rocks, trees and seascape

The central character, Mrs Vogler, an important actress suddenly stops, takes to her bed and becomes immobile and without speech. This is the first film of Liv Ulman, chosen I understand because she is similar looking to Bibi Anderson who plays the nurse. There is no medical reason for condition of Mrs Vogler and the doctor suggests it is an hysterical reaction and later accuses the woman of acting out the role until she has not need of it. The nurse is appointed to exclusively care for her and this is why in all therapeutic and analytical relationships it is essential for the helper to have a control, and a mentor to prevent the symbiotic relationship which is the core of the film. The nurse having looked into the eyes of the woman fears for her own being. While Mrs Vogler continues not to talk we learn something of the pain she endures from her reaction to a newscast in which someone sets fire to themselves.

The two go together to a summer residence in a countryside setting by the sea, part much of Bergman's work. Mrs Vogler comes out of her apathy but not her silence, so the nurse compensates by an endless stream of talk and self revelation. Or is it revelation about Mrs Vogler. Has she become her voice? At one point the nurse appears to meet Mr Vogler and has a physical relationship with him.

I cannot help but return to my own recent experience of silent communication with my mother and also talking for both of us and to the time now over four years ago when I was in the same situation with the aunt who provided mothering in childhood. She died according to her worst nightmare and I was helpless to prevent and save although with the help of others I was able to bring her to a state of readiness in which she was also prepared to depart, but I continued to feel regret and anxiety about what was to happen to her sister and to me, something which I did not feel with my mother.

Back to the film the nurse has become Mrs Vogler and speaks of her feelings about becoming regnant and her feelings and inability to communicate with her son who she had previously tried to abort. The film ends after violent clashes between the two woman with the nurse catching a bus. In his film notes attached to the DVD Philip Strickland raises whether the whole film is based on the inability of a boy who appears in the opening image to communicate with a woman who appears to be part of a screen. The boy has a book and is that a phantasm of the boy from a story in the book? Strickland speculates about the overall structure of the film which Bergman has admitted was the most difficult he had to write, He also asks the question that the first part of the film is the Personna, the mask and the second half the soul, the alma, given that the nurse is called Alma with the Mask and the Alma according to Jung, the completion of a being, but if so there is no sense of completion in this film. I previously wrote and then deleted that I thought this was a film about the nature of being and life and was interested to read in the notes that the spider which also appears in the opening montage also appeared in Through a Glass Darkly to represent God although it can just as well be interpreted a the initiator of a web to entrap and imprison. The concluding note is a quote from Bergman about his endless never satisfied questing which fails to leave him in peace. I confess I like my experience of art to have a simpler structure, with levels that I can engage emotionally as well as intellectually. I therefore cannot rate this a great film, among many of his others, or other films in general. But in the way that I believe we and events are all connected with meanings and values which can be unravelled. It is interesting that When did you last see your father was released this of all weeks and Personna arrived just as my mother faced her end of days.

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