After I posted my red and green essay the other night, I watched a documentary on the Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist, Light Keeps Me Company (Ljuset håller mig sällskap), which isn’t very good at all, which doesn’t show what it tries to show, but was full of all sorts of red and green mise en scene, both in the documentary itself and the films within the film. The films that Nykvist shot and lit with Bergman, with Woody Allen, with Polanski. Red and green seemed to follow Nykvist around.
Here are some stills from Light Keeps Me Company, (directed by Nykvist’s son, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist), which opens with a story (Nykvist’s favorite, Siddhartha) about the green of the world. Green is both textual and visual here. Onscreen and offscreen. Incidental and intended. It’s almost like surround sound.
Later in the documentary, red starts to appear—in Light Keeps Me Company, in Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata. In these instances, Nykvist makes the red—chooses it—himself. Surrounds others. But sometimes, red simply pops up on its own and surrounds him: in the film crew, at award ceremonies, at his home, on a farm, in the movies he lit. The last still is from a speech and language test that Nykvist took, which ultimately diagnosed him with a rare form of dementia, aphasia.
I wonder what Nykvist’s relationship was to color when he wasn’t looking through a camera. Did he see it? Need it? Did it matter to him? As a person, as a man, Nykvist seemed recessional. So starved of light and color. It might be that after he got divorced and lost his older son to suicide, much of the color in his life faded, or was drained out of him. That any light or color he had left (in the film, Nykvist comes across as pale in every sense of the word), or had ever had, was put into film. But, the documentary tells us, like Bergman (with whom Nykvist can be seen holding hands while strolling through a garden on set), long before his marriage ended, and his son committed suicide, Nykvist had made the decision to separate not just family and work, but life and film, dedicating all his time to movies. At one point, Bergman tells the camera that his “feelings for light were the same” as Nykvist’s. In this case, light is another word for life, or more specifically, a man’s historically problematic and dangerous relationship to everything and everyone outside his work.
It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of stark contrast between life and work. Life pallor and cinematic (artistic) vibrance. Why were the films so bright and saturated and his life so wan? So washed out. Was the film color because of a muted life, or was a muted life desirable—tolerable, bearable—because of all the film color? Where does one store or hoard light? Everyone in the film—actors, directors, friends—kept saying how light and airy and warm—easy-going—Nykvist was, but I didn’t see the signs. I saw someone who seemed mostly detached, sad, reserved; even closed. In the film, whenever there is color around him, especially green and red, Nykvist is the palest thing in the room. In the picture. A wallflower, almost.