On Seeing Persona in Theatres

I’ve sort of backed myself into a decidedly frustrating corner this week. The way my viewing fell I’ve necessitated writing not one, not two, but three articles about movies everyone already knows are great. (Keeping this in for posterity’s sake, I chickened out of one.) I may have made that a challenge at some point, but this is just insane. Still I will do my best. I have IMDb open, Charles Mingus playing, and my memory ready.

Here we go.

So Ingmar Bergman is one of those directors spoken of almost unanimously in apotheosized terms. He’s highly regarded by those film critics most driven by artistic pretension, and highly thought of even by his peers. Quite simply he’s frequently considered one of the greatest directors to ever make films, and a select few of his movies are considered absolute masterpieces by the film community at large.

Take, for instance, this letter written by Stanley Kubrick to Bergman:

February 9, 1960

Dear Mr. Bergman,

You have most certainly received enough acclaim and success throughout the world to make this note quite unnecessary. But for whatever it’s worth, I should like to add my praise and gratitude as a fellow director for the unearthly and brilliant contribution you have made to the world by your films (I have never been in Sweden and have therefore never had the pleasure of seeing your theater work). Your vision of life has moved me deeply, much more deeply than I have ever been moved by any films. I believe you are the greatest film-maker at work today. Beyond that, allow me to say you are unsurpassed by anyone in the creation of mood and atmosphere, the subtlety of performance, the avoidance of the obvious, the truthfulness and completeness of characterization. To this one must also add everything else that goes into the making of a film. I believe you are blessed with wonderful actors. Max von Sydow and Ingrid Thulin live vividly in my memory, and there are many others in your acting company whose names escape me. I wish you and all of them the very best of luck, and I shall look forward with eagerness to each of your films.

Best Regards,

(Signed, ‘Stanley Kubrick’)

Stanley Kubrick

One of those aforementioned masterpieces is Persona, a film fairly frequently touted as his best film.

Persona is also a film that just happened to be playing in a nearby theatre recently, with more than a little fanfare.

So I went to see it. The theatre was decorative. It’s the same one I saw The Room in. Painted buildings complete with real balconies adorned the wall. A life-sized xenomorph (Aliens is still overrated!) was set up on one of the balconies. The front of the theatre was taken up with a podium and a handful of instruments. A couple of keyboards, and keyboard-type-synthesizer things, one cello, and a single snare drum. There was an involuted clutter of cords extending from the instruments and away out of sight. Others curled up behind the two stools set up past the instruments and connected to a couple of amps. Four figures weaved in and out of this arrangement, hurriedly fiddling with things and then leaving.

A quiet, bearded, and vaguely lassitude figure came out to introduce the guest speaker. He was so unabashedly incompetent at public speaking it was almost pleasant. He casually murmured his way through some rote notes of thanks and introduction, then opened the stage up to the woman who’d actually come to speak. Alexis Luko has, reportedly, literally written the book on sound design and music in Bergman films. A topic she spoke on with authority and enthusiasm. The many facts about Bergman’s life and relationship with music as an art form were interesting indeed. The way he compares his works to pieces of music reminded me of Stanley Kubrick doing the same thing with 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an interesting aperçu that accurately evokes the experience of watching a truly great film. Alexis Luko also touched on pieces of music Bergman returned to throughout his career (some of these were briefly demonstrated by two musicians using the instruments set up). Instruments he favoured. Even sound effects he would use routinely. It was an interesting and in depth look at such a highly specific aspect of the filmmaker. Her description of Persona as a horror film may not be the most original comment, but it was one I hadn’t read before, and it rung true. The comments about the shifting identities of the characters in the film were less novel, but still compelling. Persona just makes for a compelling topic of conversation, really.

Before the movie there was a clumsy intermission, the highlight of which was easily the assault of music played briefly on the laid out instruments.

Settling into the firm and strangely low theatre seats we waited for the film to start. The lights dimmed, then paused and waited an awkwardly long time part before dimming completely. The revolving Criterion logo spun in the centre of the screen. Logos gave way to Ingmar Bergman’s iconic opening barrage of staccato editing. Clips of old cartoons, slaughtered sheep, genitalia, spiders, stigmata, and film equipment. It’s a frequently cited and analyzed portion of the film, one that gives way to one of the film’s iconic images. A boy in a white room gets out of bed and puts his hand right on the camera. Our perspective shifts and we see him from behind, his hand touching a massive screen taken up by the blurry face of a woman. This image was practically monolithic when seen on the theatre screen. It towers over you in a delightfully overpowering way. The whole intro works like that, like it’s just a shade more then the brain can properly process and retain. Regardless of its myriad of symbolic meanings it also seems to serve as a preparatory measure for the rest of the film. It cracks the mind right open, leaving it especially receptive and ready for what is to come.

I’ve moved on to Kicking Against the Pricks, for those curious.

The film is sort of inherently and fascinatingly disparate in style and effect. It’s a slow, whispering, quiet movie in most regards. Yet it’s also nearly unbearably tense. Part of this is because Ingmar Bergman builds up to these grand moments of paroxysm. A deathly quiet room will be overtaken by the powerful sound of a TV. Chilly scenes will be suddenly ripped asunder by a cacophony of music or sound. This leaves the whole film feeling terribly frightening. The potential for violence, even if it’s only emotional violence, is always seething beneath the surface. Even a shot that at first seems almost commercially unimportant – watch someone break and clean a glass in real time – becomes a deliberate act of unsettling cruelty. This moment too, which starts so slowly, crescendos with another of Persona’s most iconic moments – the explosive disintegration of the film, a fourth wall break, and some of the opening clips used as a repetend. Ingmar Bergman’s film looked amazing on a big screen. The minimalist nature of the film combined with the dynamic compositions was breathtaking and powerful.

The fairly common description of Persona as a horror film is an incredibly apt one. The film is disturbing and tense. It inarguably plays with the language of vampire stories, and to great effect. In fact in just about every way Persona is more a horror movie than The Hour of the Wolf, nominally Bergman’s attempt at the genre. The Hour of the Wolf is tense, thematically rich, and offers several stunningly eidetic images, but Persona executes most of these things better. It’s far more frightening, far more thematically complex, and far more memorable. Which isn’t to disparage The Hour of the Wolf, which is seriously great, it’s just not Persona, a movie that, again, is frequently thought of as an absolute filmic masterpiece. They do make for a fascinating comparison however. Filmed within a year of one another they include several similar moments. Both feature long speeches illustrating highly visual moments purely sonically. Both open with similar establishing clusters of clips, although The Hour of the Wolf favours shots of the crew filming. Both feature deliberate ambiguity built into the thematics of the work.

Which is part of why Persona is so written about, and so long-lasting. The central questions of the film are rife for interpretation and debate. The questions of identity raised by the film are designed to be unexplained. Are Ulma and Elisabet the same person? As you can probably already see I have no plans to delve into a whole article on this debate. I haven’t seen the film many times, for one thing, for another I’m not sure another article on the topic is needed. That being said, based on my current understanding of the film, I’m inclined to believe the in-text-clues point clearly to Ulma and Elisabet as being two aspects of the same person. Feel free to prove me wrong.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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