The pleasures of sitting on the toilet
Ingmar Bergman was sitting on the toilet when he found out about it. His film Smiles of a Summer Night was the smash hit of the Cannes Film Festival. He read about it in the paper. Why wasn’t he there? Because he didn’t know his film was. Nobody told him, and no one was broadcasting its fate minute by minute over the Internet.
Once he found out about his good fortune, he didn’t start planning Smiles 2. He didn’t try to figure out the reason for his success, or copy it. He didn’t read the trades to see what people were saying about him that day, or week, or year. He understood, I think, that the success of Smiles, which was far from his first film, was not predictable or reproducible, any more than any other phenomenon is reproducible. Rather than try to hit the lottery, with its million-to-one odds, again, he simply continued on with whatever thoughts and drives were inside him.
Ingmar Bergman lived much of his life in seclusion. After making Persona in 1965, he decided his filming location, the lonely Swedish island of Fårö, would also be his home. He lived there until his death in 2007, enjoying the kind of life I once speculated about in a blog post. He was alone most of the time. He took walks and looked at the ocean and oftentimes just sat and stared out the window every day, content to simply be. He didn’t like it when the telephone rang. He rarely had company. (There was an airstrip and you had to take a small plane in.) One wonders what he did when he got a jonsing for Surströmming, or just pizza.
He said he could often remain silent for days. He found the quiet to be refreshing, recharging, invigorating. He loved being alone with his thoughts, to see where they would take him. After a while he said they would take possession of him, that they would lead him, not vice-versa.
In another interview, he commented that he felt blessed that his creative well never ran dry. I think there’s a connection between these two observations.
Woody Allen, who has tried to imitate him both in film and to some extent in lifestyle, met him (though he admits their relationship was slight) and commented that Bergman was a man of small words. He wasn’t filled with thoughts and philosophies and proclamations, and seemed to have little interest in those who were. He reminds me of someone else I wrote about recently.
Silence recharges our batteries. I’m not saying Bergman never went to a party, and couldn’t, when he needed to, chat up important people with the best of them. Folks like him don’t get to be famous by accident. But he also knew the difference between the outer world and the inner world.
When I get stuck I often just stare at things. Back when I worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency, my boss would become annoyed because I’d not be at my desk pounding away at the keyboard, producing idea after idea after idea after idea. He did not understand that the ideas I did produce—and frankly while I was there I won 90% of the new business accounts—I thought of in the car. Or staring out a window. Or on the toilet. My boss claimed to be a creative guy too, but he wasn’t, and never showed his own creative work to anyone even though he claimed he’d won all sorts of awards. Where were they? “Too many to show,” he’s claim. “They’re home. I couldn’t fit them all in here.” Yet when we looked up the various advertising awards online, his name was not found among any of them. Once, when pitching for the Baskin Robbins account, he was so desperate he actually rolled up his sleeves and did some creative himself—a first. Then he presented it—another first. It was terrible, embarrassingly so. No surprise. The man didn’t understand a thing about creativity. For one thing, to critique yourself honestly, you have to spend time alone with your thoughts.
We don’t spend much time alone anymore. Modern interconnectedness has caused us to eyeball each other rather than look into ourselves, which is always harder. It’s like we’re a bunch of kids eager to get ahead in class but who copy off of each other’s paper rather than study. Maybe that explains why the trends of today—hip-hop, abstract art, street dancing, CGI and 3D movies, video games—are really at this point very old. I will hear the argument that they’re evolving and in some ways they are, driven by both style and technology, but they are basically the same conceptually. It’s interesting that in either 1938 or ’39, Duke Ellington lamented that swing music had not advanced significantly in two or three years—two or three years!—and he feared it may have come to an artistic dead end. Yet if you listen to swing in 1935 vs. 1939, it had in fact developed far more than hip hop or motion pictures arguably have in more than a decade. Today fear of such a stasis wouldn’t even enter into our thoughts. Why change things? No one else is. (As I write this, Nicholas Cage is opening in another of his seemingly endless comic book 3D action movies.)
In my opinion Bergman was in the best possible place when word of his success reached him: far away from it, both physically and mentally, thinking about another project, something completely different that would even exceed Smiles of a Summer Night to become one of the most talked-about, imitated and iconic films in the history of the world.
Not too bad for a guy who didn’t have Twitter.