Biography Adds to Bergman Buzz

Swedish director's 50-year career - from his films to live stage - is subject of new book

INGMAR BERGMAN: FILM AND STAGE By Robert Emmet Long Harry N. Abrams 208 pp., $45.

INGMAR BERGMAN has been creating internationally acclaimed works since the mid-1940s, but his reputation has never been more prominent than it is today. His latest film as a screenwriter, ``Sunday's Children,'' is currently playing in American theaters. His new memoir, ``Images: My Life in Film,'' has just been published in English translation.

In addition, his most recent stage productions - a drama called ``Goldberg Variations'' by Georg Tabori and ``The Winter's Tale'' by Shakespeare - were received with great interest in his native Sweden earlier this year. These will join his version of Yukio Mishima's play ``Madame de Sade'' in a Bergman festival at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Academy of Music in 1995, marking his 50th anniversary as a director.

With all this activity swirling around Bergman's name, it's the perfect time for someone to publish a major book summing up his long career. The company of Harry N. Abrams has done just that, with a handsome new volume called ``Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage.''

The author is Robert Emmet Long, an arts specialist who has written or edited 28 books. Among them is ``The Films of Merchant Ivory,'' about the team that gave us ``Howards End'' and ``The Remains of the Day,'' among other movies.

Long told me recently that Bergman's admiration for the Merchant Ivory book was a key factor in his willingness to authorize a similar project on his own life and career - a circumstance that might please the Merchant Ivory team almost as much as it pleases Long himself.

``Ingmar Bergman'' begins by sketching out the major events of Bergman's early life, which was marked by the development of his vivid imagination, as well as physical ailments and troubled relationships with his parents.

Although brief, Long's account is useful since it chronicles key events in a more orderly and straightforward manner than one finds in ``The Magic Lantern,'' the autobiography Bergman published in 1988. Long's book then launches into a film-by-film account of Bergman's cinema career, beginning with his screenplay for the drama ``Torment'' in 1944.

This leads to descriptions and evaluations of additional early works - all rarely seen today, but some quite fascinating since they foreshadow Bergman's mature sensibility. These are followed by analyses of such breakthrough movies as ``Summer with Monika'' and ``The Naked Night,'' both dating from 1953, and art-theater hits ranging from ``Smiles of a Summer Night'' and ``The Seventh Seal'' to ``Wild Strawberries'' and ``The Magician,'' all made in the middle to late 1950s.

Long's chronology proceeds through the 1983 family epic ``Fanny and Alexander,'' which proved to be Bergman's swan song as a movie director. Then come more pages on what must be the busiest ``retirement'' in directorial history - including Bergman's astonishing stage production of ``Hamlet,'' and yes, his screenplay for the currently acclaimed ``Sunday's Children,'' directed by Daniel Bergman, his youngest son.

Embellished with 200 illustrations, the book is an experience no Bergman fan will want to miss. For me, a cover-to-cover reading was like a time-machine trip into memories of films I discovered more than 30 years ago, as well as a welcome refresher on more recent works - including stage projects that can't be readily revisited on video, such as the trio of dramas (Ibsen, Strindberg, O'Neill) that Bergman sent to New York three years ago.

Especially commendable is the balance Long strikes between description, commentary, and criticism. His admiration for Bergman is unmistakable, and he recognizes his obligation to provide information on works regardless of his own assessments of them. Still, he doesn't hesitate to voice his dissatisfaction with films that don't fulfill their ambitions. More than five descriptive pages on ``The Serpent's Egg,'' for example, lead to a no-nonsense bottom line: ``The film is an embarrassment and was a commercial disaster.'' Two thumbs down!

This said, it must be added that the book has problems of its own, generated by its desire to be a perusable coffee-table entertainment and a valuable film-scholarly study at the same time.

Simply put, the volume raises more questions than it's prepared to answer, or even discuss. Some of these are broad and sweeping - for instance, how did Bergman manage to grow into a self-motivated artistic giant from such a troubled childhood? And what accounts for the amazing, even self-contradictory diversity of his multifaceted career?

Other questions not resolved by Long are smaller, but still significant. A few examples: Why did a studio hire Bergman to direct ``Night is My Future'' despite his then-dismal record at the box office? Why was ``The Naked Night'' treated so savagely by contemporary critics? What was going on in Bergman's mind when he drastically altered narrative form in films like ``The Devil's Wanton'' and ``The Silence'' and ``Persona''?

Long's authorial choices are also puzzling at times. If the Bergman staging of ``King Lear'' was critically hailed as a ``rebirth of Swedish theater,'' why doesn't Long give it a fraction of the space devoted to later theatrical projects? And how could he completely overlook the superb full-length version of ``Scenes From a Marriage''?

Back on the plus side, some of Long's critical assessments are surprisingly acute. He is more tempered in his praise for ``Fanny and Alexander'' than many overexcited reviewers were in 1983, and he finds more merit in the rigorous ``Winter Light'' than almost any critic did when the movie was new.

Here too, however, there are shortcomings, as when he underrates ``Autumn Sonata'' badly - slighting the musical subtext that gives this drama much of its power - and fails to convey the complexity that makes ``The Magician'' so compelling.

And by the way, ``The Serpent's Egg'' is a lot more interesting than Long's dismissal makes it sound. ``Ingmar Bergman: Film and Stage'' is valuable for its summary of a rich career. But don't take its opinions too literally, or some of Bergman's lesser-known achievements could elude you.

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