Death, Sex, God and Ingmar Bergman

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on July 31, 2007

The title of the course intrigued me: “Death, Sex and Violence.” It was taught by a self-proclaimed men’s liberationist named Wayne Johnson, one of those rare breed of teachers who actually made learning an interesting experience.

It was the beginning of my sophomore year (September 1970) at Temple University, the state-funded school in Philadelphia where many working-class guys went to avoid dying in the Vietnam War. Since I had no other reason to be there except to escape military conscription, I opted for a lot of alternative courses I wouldn’t have taken had I been serious about “higher education.” Wayne Johnson’s was one of them.

There were no tests. Johnson had only one requirement: that we keep a journal of our thoughts. He bombarded us with provocative work. There was no prescribed way of responding. No party line. He didn’t care about how well we wrote or how much we put down every day.

The syllabus was multi-media, which was rare in those days. Johnson exposed us to everything from the gut-wrenching antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun to haunting and profound art films by an unknown (to me, that is) Swedish filmmaker named Ingmar Bergman.

I was immediately hooked on Bergman’s films. They asked profound questions that Hollywood never dared to explore, even at its most liberal. Questions about sex, death and the nature of God, which is why they fit so well into the course.

Bergman’s examination of his loss of faith in God (via his famous trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence) seemed to chronicle my own life’s arc: I had gone from being an altar boy in a family that expected me to become a priest to an atheist who wanted nothing to do with the Catholic church or religion of any sort. Bergman concluded in his trilogy that the universe was run either by an indifferent or a malevolent deity. In either case, humanity didn’t owe this being any recognition or worship. I was comfortable with that conclusion.

I kept my journal faithfully. I sometimes scribbled notes as I watched the black and white films on the old school projector that sometimes sputtered and shook as it shot out the stark images onto the screen in the darkened classroom. The discussions afterwards were the best I ever had in an academic setting. We sat on the floor in a circle and argued about the nature of human existence. We were an iconoclastic bunch, many of us involved in various social justice movements.

I was active in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), one of the more country’s most radical antiwar groups. I hadn’t quite come out yet. That would happen just a few months later. Other folks in the class were regularly leafletting the campus for women’s rights or against expansion of the university into the surrounding working-class black neighborhood. It was a good time to be on an activist campus.

Bergman is dead now. He was 89. I saw the headline on Google News yesterday morning (July 30). For a short while I found myself transported back to Wayne Johnson’s class and to that period of my life when, much like today, the country was run by madmen who considered the lives of young people expendable.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a radical, southern Italian, working-class, atheist queer performer and writer with a website:

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