I’ve been remiss about posting here. I can only blame the press of life and holidays, and hope anyone who follows my blog will forgive me. My modus operandi for this blog is pretty vague anyway: I write when I have something to say, or when I have an opportunity to help another author promote a book.
I have a lot to say about a lot of things now, which has actually proven a deterrent to putting fingers to keyboard. So I’ll do what I can to synthesize.
Working backwards: Here in Brooklyn—as in much of the northeastern seaboard—we had quite a snowstorm last night. It started yesterday. Winds swirling flakes, howling at the windows. Very dramatic and gothic. Should have provided the perfect backdrop for writing. Instead, I found myself distracted by it, wanting to chronicle its progress as if nothing like it had ever occurred in my life before. Really? I grew up in Buffalo. I know from snow.
When I eventually got annoyed with myself for being so non-productive when I have SO much to do, I gave up and decided to watch my DVD of the TV version of Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander. If you’ve seen it you know it begins with the most magical, wondrous Christmas celebration that goes on literally all night Christmas Eve in a small town outside of Stockholm, in the year 1907. Historical fiction. Yum.
But this is also Bergman’s autobiography. It is his paean to his own childhood, in an affluent extended family where a theater was literally a part of life. In the central character of Alexander/Ingmar we have the hyper-imaginative, ultra-sensitive boy of ten years (well, the actor looked about thirteen or fourteen, but that’s OK), whose life is about to be turned upside-down by fate. It’s an exquisite piece of filmmaking, full of Bergman-like touches with camera views and lighting. What I’ve always observed is that the scenes with the family take place in houses where there seem to be no walls, no barriers. Everything—in its late-Victorian opulence and excess—simply leads from one place to another. It’s hard to get any idea of the architecture, the floor-plan, of the building that houses four families in their own apartments. Magic and childhood make everything good seem possible, but also everything bad.
When Fanny & Alexander’s father dies and their beautiful young mother remarries an ascetic, authoritarian bishop, Bergman gives us a completely different visual vocabulary. The Bishop’s palace is all boundaries and angles. It is undoubtedly larger than the grandmother’s sumptuous apartment, but it feels like a tiny prison. Alexander’s overripe imagination pounds on the barriers he has never had to confront before, and the conflict is cruel and frightening.
Then there is the old Jew’s apartment, where he lives with his two mysterious and ambiguous nephews. The two children are abducted away from their terrible situation in the Bishop’s palace and stay there in hiding for a while. A very famous, homoerotic scene (g-rated) occurs between Alexander and the androgynous younger nephew, who is locked away because he is thought to be dangerous and violent. The scene explores the dark side of Alexander’s imagination in a chilling way.
I won’t spoil the story for those who have not seen it. The cinema version—drastically cut down to be movie length—is an unsatisfactory representation of the whole. The TV version is only available on DVD, as far as I know, but if you’re a Bergman fan, it’s well worth trying to get ahold of.
And that is really, I suppose, my point here: Bergman had a story that was so rich in detail, allegory, emotion, character, setting, etc., that it needed the six hours he originally gave it to be told. I don’t know how many pages the script runs to, but there are luxuriant patches of soliloquy by the main characters, who are allowed to develop in such glorious complexity that one feels as if one has read a long historical novel, and one’s world has been enlarged by the experience.
Like the novels of Tolstoy, or Dickens, or Thackeray, Bergman creates a visual and aural panorama the transports the viewer to another time and place, and makes the lives of the characters interweave with our own so that we feel we know them.
I don’t really know what the critical response was to Fanny & Alexander. I don’t care. It was the perfect way to spend an evening and into the small hours of the morning, during a blizzard, on the day after Christmas, 2010. The last time I watched the entire thing was on British television, at Christmas time, probably 25 years ago. It had lost none of its magic since then.
My point? A story needs the length, space, time, environment it needs to be told. Arbitrary word-counts or lengths can be inhibiting. Let yourself be free to create your worlds.
I hope your holidays have been full of the joys of family and friends, and that 2011 will bring you peace, prosperity, and good health.