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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Ingmar Bergman And The Self-Aware Blockbuster

Wang Sum Luk explores a strange commonality between an art film from the 1970s and two contemporary blockbusters.

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those articles about how superhero blockbusters are awful compared to classic movies. No, I’m here to explore the weird commonality between Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Flute and modern blockbusters—a process which will involve some spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections, so consider yourself warned. Linking these different approaches to film will be a strange journey, but at its end lies an intriguing idea: that reality and fiction may be one and the same.

Let’s start with a simple question: when we watch movies, who do we see? You see the characters in the story, but also the actors portraying them—for example, when Spider-Man’s on screen in No Way Home, you’re simultaneously immersed in the movie’s portrayal of a fictional character, but also aware that there’s a real person playing that role. It’s what philosopher Richard Wollheim calls “twofoldness”—when we perceive a work of fiction, he argues, we’re also aware of how that fiction is delivered to us in reality. Whether that’s recognizing that actors are portraying characters, or knowing that novels are made up of written words, fiction is always tied to how we perceive it in the real world.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a useful tool for filmmakers. Consider how movies might match a role to a star with a similar real-life persona, such as Robert Downey Jr. being cast as Iron Man because his real struggles with addiction resembled the character’s persona of a troubled playboy. But this is, again, a rather obvious application of this phenomenon. For a more interesting one, let’s look at Ingmar Bergman’s 1975 film version of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.

Bergman’s adaptation is a deliberately stylized, theatrical one. The movie is set and filmed in a replica of a Baroque opera house, with the camera showing set changes and audience reactions. This fourth-wall-breaking extends to how the actors are presented, as we see them waiting in the wings, with their behaviour humorously paralleling the characters they play. The actors playing villains are shown smoking under a “No Smoking” sign; the chaste love interests play chess during the intermission; their serious mentor studies his script.

In typical examples of how actors are cast, casting directors rely on existing preconceptions about actors. Bergman, however, creates fictitious personalities for his stars. These scenes turn what are ostensibly glimpses of real actors into yet another layer of fiction, with the story’s theatrical framing reminding us how everything on screen (even these behind-the-scenes vignettes) is all quite literally staged. But this isn’t just a one-off joke—it also serves as a comment on celebrity culture. Consider how our knowledge of celebrities range from real statements to carefully crafted, meticulously Photoshopped stories. In Hollywood, behind-the-scenes reality is as much a well-crafted tale as what’s on screen, a phenomenon that Bergman lightheartedly parodies here.

For a contemporary example of how reality and fiction collide, just look at the two recent Spider-Man and Matrix movies. No Way Home relies on a web (pun intended) of other movies and shows, with many of its big emotional payoffs, such as Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man saving MJ, being rooted in moments from other films. Perhaps more so than even the rest of the MCU, the movie draws from the communities fans have built, seeking to deliver on fan theories, desires for resolutions to previous movie storylines, and in-jokes and memes.

Similarly, The Matrix Resurrections literally has characters debating what people want from a Matrix sequel, whether audiences value originality or just want nostalgia and bullet-time stunts. It’s a movie which questions whether the themes it tries to explore have any significance, or if those ideas will just be commercialized reductively. While it might seem like the cynical twin to No Way Home’s approach to fan-service, the fact that the movie exists at all suggests that the director Lana Wachowski believes that there’s still room in the world for a challenging, strange blockbuster. While the film’s currently divided reception might question this, it’s a thesis that I’d like to believe in.

If Bergman creates his own fictitious version of reality in The Magic Flute, these two recent blockbusters turn real audiences into the subjects of films. Whether it’s No Way Home’s engagement with fan desires, or The Matrix Resurrections’ exploration of how viewers and studios approach movies, going to see films suddenly becomes like looking in the mirror. We end up watching ourselves watching movies, exploring our own impact on Hollywood. Far be it for me to challenge Wollheim’s philosophy, but maybe twofoldness isn’t quite the word to use in the age of self-aware blockbusters—because, just like Bergman’s fictionalization of his actors, offscreen reality and onscreen fiction are starting to look like the same thing.

Artwork by Wang Sum Luk. Image Credit: pikisuperstar via www.freepik.com

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