Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman is dead. He was the name that practically defined "art movie" for the last half century. In fact, his style, or what people believed to be his style--foreboding, super-serious, ticking clock in the background--became so well known that he was parodied countless times. (In college I wrote a sketch that combined Bergman's style with a Japanese monster movie.)
But, as they say, if they're satirizing you, you must be a success. Bergman may have taken on difficult themes, and done things with no compromise, but he wanted his films to play to the widest possible audiences, and when all is said and done, not only was he artistically successful, his stuff was widely seen--it even made a profit. (Bergman himself claimed he didn't care much about money. In later years, he was arrested for tax evasion--that's what happens when you don't pay attention to your finances--and was so anguished and angered that he lived in Germany for the next 8 or 9 years.)
He started his film work in the 1940s, and gained worldwide fame with his mid-50s masterpieces (one after another) Smiles Of A Summer Night, The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. In some ways, he never really surpassed these. The latter two are both contemplations of death, but that also makes them about life. Smiles Of A Summer Night, being a comedy (yes, Bergman made comedies), is more about love--and sex--and demonstrates Bergman's insight into humanity as well as any other film he made.
In 1960, he directed (but didn't write) his first film to win an Oscar (there'd be two more), The Virgin Spring. After that he made three films in a row, often considered a trilogy, that are so austere, so serious, that they practically define "Bergmanesque": Through A Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. He has simplified his art and, to me anyway, his later films, as celebrated as they are, never topped these three.
These later works include Persona, Cries And Whispers, Scenes From A Marriage (originally a TV mini-series) and his grand summing up, Fanny And Alexander. He was an acknowledged master by the time he made these, perhaps his most famous and popular films, and though I like them, I find them a bit indulgent in places.
There's an unfair belief that his films are hard going. Okay, maybe some, but while his work is often spare (he didn't usually have big budgets, for one thing), and may seem a bit dry, once you explore beyond that cold Swedish exterior, there's a lot of life inside, a lot of emotion, even if it's not always expressed. His films were hardly intellectual exercises--if anything, he was an intuitive artist, driven by his strong feelings about sex, violence and death.
He had what could be called a stock company--Max Von Sydow (who's still working regularly--look for him in Rush Hour 3), Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstand and--a little later--Liv Ullman. I don't know if they were the best available, or he just liked working with them, but they always ably fill whatever part they're called on to play.
His influence is still felt to this day--and it's not always positive. I dread to think of all the awful art film imitations. Woody Allen has made a number of movies clearly inspired by Bergman, which he apparently thinks means people mooning around, talking about their feelings. (I prefer Woody's faux-Fellini.)
But forget the epigones, we still have his films, and that's what counts.