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Biography 24.1 (2001) 72-84

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"Carefully I Touched The Faces Of My Parents": Bergman's Autobiographical Image

Linda Haverty Rugg


Despite the promise implicit in my title, which alludes to the films and texts of Ingmar Bergman, it is not entirely clear in what sense we may speak of cinematic autobiography. The process of writing an autobiography calls for a single author who produces a narrative account of his or her own life. As famously defined by Philippe Lejeune (1982), a "true" autobiography must have an author who bears the same name as the protagonist who is identical with the narrator of the account. While there has been much criticism of the apparently absolutist nature of Lejeune's paradigm, his basic contention, that the reader of an autobiography expects to find the type of identification he describes, seems to me pragmatically sound. And there are a number of important ways in which cinematic life-narratives disrupt traditional expectations of autobiography. First of all, film is graphic but not graphia, not writing. The use of the photographic, cinematic medium brings a host of new considerations to bear on life representations. Elizabeth Bruss, in her groundbreaking essay on film as autobiography, dwells on one of them: assuming that we are to identify the person directing the film with the subject of the autobiography, how can we understand that the person in front of the camera is identical with the person behind it? In textual autobiography, the pronoun "I" performs the magic of collapsing two bodies, that of a remembered child and that of the remembering adult, into one person. Cinematic autobiography necessarily creates a physical distinction between the narrating and experiencing selves. In the photographic medium, the body becomes the center of our attention, and the divorce between the directing and acting selves, though not visible on the screen, undermines the foundation of autobiographical discourse. [End Page 72]

Further, the collaborative nature of cinema, with its cast of actors, cameramen, technicians, set designers, make-up artists, caterers, corporate or national sponsors, and so on, must inevitably disrupt the concept of the solitary autobiographer, confronted with the blank page, memories, and a subjective and singular vision of his or her own life. Not surprisingly, all of these objections to film as a vehicle for self-representation have been raised in a different context, in the debate over auteur cinema. Auteurism was first proposed as a requisite feature of cinematic art by the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s. There it was maintained that only the clearly recognizable fingerprint of a cinematic author (in most cases, the vision of a director) could elevate the popular movie to the status of art film. This theoretical move claimed the cinematic medium for the realm of high art, making it possible for the concept of artist as Romantic genius to migrate into new technological media. Concomitantly, the idea of a cinematic autobiographer became possible. Thus we saw the emergence of a cadre of directors--Godard, Truffaut, Fellini, and Bergman, for instance--who took their places as auteurs and proceeded in a number of their films to offer visions of childhood and adolescence, in some cases clearly marked (albeit through extra-textual indicators) as autobiographical visions.

Autobiographical, perhaps--but can this be autobiography? Opponents of the auteur concept have regarded its inherent elitism with suspicion. This suspicion was fueled in part by questions about the propriety of subsuming the work of dozens (or hundreds) of individuals under the artistic imprimatur of one man (almost always a man), and obscuring the corporate or national underpinnings of cinematic production. It seems clear that if we are to regard cinematic autobiography as a possibility, we must come to terms with these objections as well.

One constructive response, articulated already by Elizabeth Bruss and developed further by Susanna Egan, might be to imagine a new type of selfhood, a collaborative subjectivity (intersubjectivity) that would expand the genre of autobiography to include cinematic self-representation. It will be my contention in this essay that Ingmar Bergman...


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