Astoria was home to filmmaking in America during the pre- Hollywood era when hundreds of silent films were produced during the turn of the century. It’s fitting then, that Ming Wong’s homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona occupied nearly every square inch of the American Museum of the Moving Image’s lobby, which sits on the former site of the Astoria Studio. Ambitiously conceived as a roving, tri- part performance, Wong’s Persona Performa variably shifted between the literal, the parody and the transformative in its thematic exploration of experimental cinema.
The first half hour was a hand holding introduction to Bergman’s world through projected installations showing scenes of a Swedish beach where the film was shot, cascading body parts that were revealed in syncopated succession, and a film reel projecting bifurcated faces. One of the museum’s theaters played a climactic scene from the film during which the emotional and psychological relationship between the mute actress Elisabeth Vogler and her caretaker, Sister Alma (played by Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson), reach heightened levels of intimacy. In the film, Alma whispers into Elisabeth’s ear (both women facing the camera):
You know what I thought after seeing your movie that night?
When I came home and looked in the mirror, I thought, but we look alike.
Don't misunderstand me. You're more beautiful.
But somehow... I think I could change myself into you if I tried.
I mean, inside.
You could be me, just like that.
But your soul would be too big. It would stick out everywhere.
During the middle interlude, a processional of 24 ethnically diverse men and women paraded before the audience in black and white diaphanous gowns and blonde wigs styled to resemble Vogler. The whirring of a film projector was the soundtrack to a simple but elegantly choreographed movement piece, which had each performer ritualistically merge with a partner then dosey- doe onto the next person until only two were remaining. Repetition, looping and reversals in the choreography were playful references to the displaced chronology and lulling sensibility of Bergman’s Persona.
Excerpt from Persona Performa
For the grand finale of Wong’s vision, the audience was ushered into a theater space for a cinéma vérite experience with two tracking cameras documenting the stage performers and projecting footage onto a screen. Different pairs acted out the aforementioned scene between Elisabeth and Alma, first in Swedish, then in other languages before the pairings switched and linguistic dissonance took over. Wong’s references to multiculturalism became heavy- handed as the languages fought for coherence and the camera lens zoomed in on Asian, Black, Hispanic and White faces. The repetitive gestures that were so successful earlier fell apart into a banal exercise of how many ways a single scene could be deconstructed.
Bergman’s Persona is full of obscure moments that slip between fantasy and reality absent of any sense of chronology. Its indecipherability lends itself to alternate interpretations and in Wong’s version, duality becomes plurality. This works best when the 24 performers are successive parts of a singular gesture but falls apart when they splinter into talking heads. Wong does well to make the camera omnipresent in all three parts of Persona Performa. During a moment when it’s referred to as the “magic lantern” (also the title of Bergman’s autobiography), we realize the camera is a transformative apparatus for the director himself.