“Sing, O Muse!”, or, Creating an Establishing Shot from Your Seat Out There in the Dark

The method whereby the artist obliges the audience to build the separate parts into a whole, and to think on, further than has been stated, is the only one that puts the audience on a par with the artist in their perception of the film.

Andrei Tarkovsky

Persona opening.jpg

Out of the darkness emerge one, then the other element of an arc lamp, and the music grows louder, sounding like the concert hall at its unfriendliest, or a machine starting up.  And this machine does; the arc lamp catches fire, then we see and hear film moving through the projector, followed by five minutes of dark images: silent film spooks, a tarantula, a lamb being butchered, a hand nailed to a cross…

The opening sequence of Bergman’s Persona is one of film’s great puzzles.  But the arc lamp throws enough light on it for my satisfaction.  (I’ve begun more than one script with the image of a match being struck.  It’s a cliché, I know, but I don’t believe it’s an irredeemable one.)  This is the invocation of the muse.

But that’s not how films are made.  Or rather, that’s not how directors make films.

Bergman has described in vivid clinical detail how he wrote Persona in Sophiahemmet Hospital, suffering from double pneumonia, penicillin poisoning, and vertigo (that lovely, evocative term for one of the world’s least pleasant sensations.)  If Bergman had a muse, she emerged out of corridors graced by Bibi Andersson’s hospital white and haunted by crucified tarantulas reeking of offal.  By the time he put together that opening sequence, he’d long since written the script, shot the film, and moved in with Liv Ullmann.

There’s no quicker way to alienate some members of the audience than by leaving out an establishing shot.  Where are we?, they want to know.  Skip that information and they figure you’re just messing with their heads.  And the opening of Persona is about as far from an establishing shot as you can get.  Rather, Bergman is generously sharing his vertigo with you.  Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve suffered for my art.  Now it’s your turn.

Vertigo?  I suffered a bout of labyrinthitis once.  Six months of dizziness.  Not the happiest time of my life.  Not knowing where I am?  My recurrent anxiety dream (now that eighteen years – minus six months – of dedicated exercise has made the prospect of being naked at school almost appealing) is not being able to find my car in a huge parking garage.

But, as playwright John Patrick Shanley once wrote, “Theater is a safe place to do the unsafe things that need to be done.”

Or, as Frank Loesser wrote, “Let’s Get Lost.”

So we can find our way out.

My mind wanders at the movies.  I’m glad it does.  The movies are a good place for that.  The exit signs are clearly marked. 

You might say that makes me an inattentive viewer.  Yes and no.  What it is, is me taking the parts of the film that fire the arc lamp behind my eyes, then starting the projector in my brain.  I tend to miss a few plot details when I do this.  That’s fine.  If a film is worth seeing, it’s worth dreaming with.  If it’s worth dreaming with, it’s worth re-plotting.

So that vertiginous opening sequence of Persona is your muse, o viewer, giving you permission and vision to dream the film to new life, bringing your own unconscious, your own desires, your own spirit to the task.  That is the film’s demand, and its reward.

Roll camera.