Tuesday, July 31, 2007

THE SLIFR FORUM: BERGMAN, ANTONIONI and THOUGHTS ON A WEEK OF MILESTONES



"I hope I never get so old I get religious." -Ingmar Bergman

“I mean simply to say that I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

“I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

“Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” – Ingmar Bergman

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Apparently, two days in, it is a week for milestones, of varieties perhaps salutatory, and most certainly grim. Tonight Barry Bonds arrives in Los Angeles two home runs shy of breaking the Hammer’s home run record. (There are already “Boycott Barry” stencils painted all over every open, flat surface on the drive through Elysian Park up to Chavez Ravine.) Will Dodger fans boo if it happens here? Through pure coincidence, I have tickets for tonight and Thursday, and if it happens in front of me, I will sit on my hands and hope that 50,000 others do the same. Barry digs the “boo” almost as much as he digs the “yea!” The one thing he cannot abide is the indifference. A mighty shrug from the stands might not feel as cathartic to the fans, but it’d speak a whole lot louder than a collective “Barry sucks!”

Incredibly, baseball fans also have two more milestones to wait for this day—Alex Rodriguez, who likely will dethrone the large-domed soon-to-be home run king in a couple of years, looks for number 500 against Chicago tonight. And Mets pitcher Tom Glavine searches out win number 300 tonight in Milwaukee.

That’s the good news. On the other hand, the Reaper is having far too good of a week so far.

First, the man who extended late-night talk show TV into the single digits, Tom Snyder, died on Sunday. And influential San Francisco 49ers football coach Bill Walsh passed away on Monday.

And film fans logged on to their computers Monday morning and were greeted by especially sad news. First, one of those passings that truly mark the end of an era—Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, dead at 89. Then, word of the loss of French actor Michel Serrault, best known to American audiences for his brilliant and humane portrayal of the transvestite Albin in La Cage aux Folles (1978) and its superior sequel La Cage Aux Folles II (1980). (Serrault was 79 years old.)

It was enough to remind me of the old SCTV sketch (circa 1982) in which the anchor on a National Enquirer-inspired TV “news” show (presience, anyone?) grimly intoned, “Three of the four stars of The Wizard of Oz dead. Is Ray Bolger next?!”

Well, the reaping was not finished, as it turns out. Today comes word that Michelangelo Antonioni has died at the age of 94. I got a sincere e-mail from a friend this morning that was very much in that “Who’s next?” mode: “Somebody protect Godard and Alain Resnais!! Someone's taking out all of Criterion's (and my) favorite '60s directors!”

Or, as Keith Uhlich put it this morning, “Okay, seriously, what the fuck is going on?”

I wish I had something profound to say about the loss of these men. They and their films were cornerstones of my meager state-provided film school education back in the mid to late ‘70s. It was simply not permissible to be unfamiliar with films like L’ Avventura, The Seventh Seal, Red Desert, The Magician, La Notte, Persona, L’ Eclisse or Smiles of a Summer Night. Both directors have rich and varied histories that extend far before the dates of the earliest films of theirs which I have seen-- Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and L’ Avventura (1960)—which only means that I’ve got a lifetime of digging left to do. But courtesy of the sensibilities of my film professors, those of the local campus film societies, and the relative profligacy of Bergman’s output in comparison to Antonioni’s, I’m much more familiar with the religious and psychological alienation of the Swedish master than I am with the more detached, modernist existential puzzles of the Italian.


And I’d dare say the concerns of Bergman’s films seem far more in tune with my own concerns as an adult, and as an adult compelled by film art, than do Antonioni’s. I remain fascinated by Bergman’s grappling with his own sense of God, the pervasive influence of religion as a form and manifestation of psychological behavior, and the influence of a deity who may or may not be, shall we say, as interactive as even believers would prefer him to be. (That great nonbeliever Warren Zevon tagged it as “the vast indifference of heaven,” a phrase that I’m sure would have put a smile on Bergman’s face.) And I share the concerns of Edward Copeland, who worries that for this upcoming generation of film buffs Bergman may have lost some of his critical cachet, or worse, moved slightly toward irrelevance.


As for Antonioni, L’Avventura remains for me a mournful, rich and exquisitely moody canvas of sun-baked despair, but in general I’m afraid I value the Italian director’s movies more for the influence they have had on directors I revere (Robert Altman, Brian De Palma) and respect (Gus Van Sant, Peter Weir) than for the films themselves. Blow-up, a movie I have no great love for, summarizes for me the groove Antonioni eventually found himself in for which I could not find a positive response. The movie seems to me the director’s equivalent of a Cecil B. DeMille biblical epic—let’s frug and fret with the denizens of swinging 1960s-era London, secretly digging all the happenings that we’ll constantly insist, through our visual grammar and sound design, are symptoms of the sick soul of society. That said, in tribute to the director, I pledged this morning, via my Netflix queue, to revisit all three of the great ‘60s films, and one I have managed to miss, even through its recent theatrical re-release, for 32 years, The Passenger.

Whatever one’s personal response to the work of these great directors, there’s no denying the sense that this week a heavy vault door has been closed on yet another era of great filmmaking, and on the world in which these directors were regularly talked about, and attendance to their films a virtual requirement for anyone who really cared about film as an art form. Are there directors working today who can so galvanize a demographic of film lovers or inspire critics to write impassioned prose about their works? Maybe. Maybe not. These directors create worlds in which to contemplate the real world, worlds of searching, of agony, of bitter disappointment and even beatific happiness through families, both natural and extended. However they rank on whatever list is being compiled this week, or next year, or 20 years from now, we can say that they are as essential to what we enjoy today in cinema, or film, or the movies, as the celluloid the images are printed on. I’d like to open up the SLIFR Forum for anyone who has thoughts on Bergman, Antonioni, or any of the other milestones that have or might possibly occur as this week progresses. Tell us what the films made by these men meant to you, or tell us if they meant nothing at all and whether that concerns you.

And in an attempt to end on an up note, thanks to Matt and Keith at The House Next Door for finding what I’ve been after for several years now: a brilliant Bergman parody featuring Madeline Kahn and George Coe entitled De Duva (The Dove).

UPDATE August 2 8:20 a.m.: Jim Emerson has posted a collection of tributes to Ingmar Bergman from some notable voices in filmmaking and film criticism, and a fascinating letter to Roger Ebert in 1999 regarding Antonioni written by the man who played the corpse in Blow-up. Also, Dan Callahan at The House Next Door on losing two cornerstones of modern cinema, Bergman and Antonioni, in as many days.

15 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

Hey Dennis: I hope you find time, and space on your rental queue, for the earlier Antonioni films. I also liked his last feature, Beyond the Clouds.

cinebeats said...

Oddly enough I posted something about Bergman and Antonioni on my own blog earlier which is almost in exact opposition to what you wrote Dennis, but I found you had to wrote very interesting.

I think our experiences as individuals shape us and in turn shape our reactions to art and art as film. Antonioni speaks to me much more than Bergman ever has but I totally respect his work.

cinebeats said...

Please ignore my terrible typos above! I really wish blogger let you edit comments.

I did want to add that I don't think you have to worry about Bergman ever going out of fashion or being forgotten. Great art is truly timeless and I've seen a lot more praise for Bergman and his films in the last day than I have for Antonioni.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Dennis,

I felt much closer to the films of Bergman than Antonioni but I still remember the feeling of awe watching L'AVVENTURA and slowly realizing that nothing was going to be resolved, that the story was going to end much the way any episode of one's life ends, with a word or two of no consequence and then moving on to the next thing. I admired Antonioni for not feeling constricted by tight story lines and his influence on directors like Altman is certainly to his credit.

As for your other comments I am thrilled to find out you will sit on your hands. I wasn't sure where you stood on Bonds and feel immeasurably better knowing you feel he is as much of a fraud as I do. Go A-Rod! Oh and one other milestone - GAGNE - SOX - FEEL THE POWER!

Sox / Dodgers come October. Can you feel it?

Jonathan.

Chris Stangl said...

Both Bergman and Antonioni contributed more to their art than the world deserved. And in turn, they deserve their rest. They've left such deep troves of riches - though little of their work is comforting or pleasurable - why does it feel like something is lost?

This hurts so badly because no one has appeared to take Bergman or Antonioni's place. No - that's wrong. No filmmakers measurable by the same yardstick have appeared in the generations since. This is like watching sabre tooth tigers or dragons die, Parthenon pillars crumble. There is nothing comparable, no one worthy where they once stood.

Nobody said...

I was surprised by the final results of the Top 100 posted at Cinema Fusion, because I have found the online film community to be quite conversant with European cinema, yet the Top 100 included only one Fellini, one Truffaut, and no Godard, Melville, Antonioni, or Bergman.

Yet there were two Tarantino, two Cameron, three Scorsese, four Coppola, and four Spielberg!

I originally assumed this was just a consequence of the vast filmographies of the European directors of which, while everyone has their own favorites of each, everyone has a different favorite.

But looking at some of the other entries--The Princess Bride?!--I'm inclined to think the list owes more to nostalgia than than anything else.

Of course everyone had different criteria for their lists, and admittedly I prefer lists of personal favorites to self-conscious lists of what people think they should like, but I guess it just goes to show that in the end, Godard may be great but nobody really loves Godard or would pop one in for fun.

Then, to bring the list to bear on your question, Dennis: Perhaps the list suggests that the American directors of the 70s were better at weaving together the highbrow and lowbrow considerations of film, which as Kael says is the special ability of cinema, than the slightly more academic approaches of Bergman and Antonioni whose films are semiprofound but lack a lowbrow element?

Jeff McMahon said...

Your comparison of Blow-Up with a DeMille costume epic is an excellent comparison, although certainly Antonioni's film is never as pandersome as most of DeMille's, no?

cinephile said...

A couple of summers ago, a fellow film scholar friend of mine was telling me about his recent viewing patterns: he'd been watching a bunch of herzog for an essay he was writing, and then started delving into 60s and 70s Bergman. I teased him that he must have "the most depressing netflix queue in the universe", and that he should really add a preston sturges comedy or two to the mix.

And yet, when I read of Bergman's death on Monday, I was saddened to a degree I didn't expect. I came to Bergman, as I suspect many people born after the wave of Bergman-mania in the fifties and sixties did, through the homages of Woody Allen, a director I had great affection for when I first became intensely interested in cinema in my teens. If, as Dennis notes, Antonioni became as important for his influence on other filmmakers as for the work itself, that's what Bergman was to me-- a name, a style, an undeniable influence on both filmmakers and the discourse communities surrounding cinema that I found myself drawn to (even if, as the SCTV parody you linked to suggests, that influence was negative and/or parodic-- a marker of cultural capital as much as true affection). And as I found myself drawn more to truffaut and godard, I started to see Bergman as kind of stuffy and literary, cinema for people who didn't want to admit to liking cinema (I always imagined the stuffy film academic in annie hall, pontificating in the movie line about how he saw the "new fellini, and it is *NOT* one of his best"). Bergman's own withdrawl from directing in the eighties meant that there was no opportunity for me to have any immediate, contemporary interaction with his work (and yet this doesn't keep me from loving truffaut, who died when I was eleven, or from digging antonioni's work a great deal).

And yet, thinking about the bergmans I've seen, and those I've always meant to (like fanny and alexander, or night of the wolf); pondering that smiles of the summer night inspired one of my favorite musicals, A Little Night Music; feeling overwhelmed by the sense of achievement and philosophical weight his work achieves; and reading lovely tributes like this one, really makes me think I need to make my own netflix queue a bit more like my film scholar friend's this week. Perhaps I feel like a character from one of his films, as a moment of cinephiliac loss creates a need for penance, and greater understanding of the tremendous corpus still there for me to explore. Or maybe I'm just haunted by the only clip from fanny and alexander that I've ever seen, the moment of the children running through the christmas party, a clip of such joy and light and color (at least out of context) that it causes me to wonder if I've been reading bergman wrong all these years.

Anyway, thank you dennis, for another fine tribute.

cinebeats said...

Here I go jumping into the chat head first without a lifejacket...

Nobody wrote:

but I guess it just goes to show that in the end, Godard may be great but nobody really loves Godard or would pop one in for fun.

I happen to love Godard and I'm sure I'm not alone in my love for his films.

Perhaps the list suggests that the American directors of the 70s were better at weaving together the highbrow and lowbrow considerations of film, which as Kael says is the special ability of cinema, than the slightly more academic approaches of Bergman and Antonioni whose films are semiprofound but lack a lowbrow element?

No personal offense meant, but I think the only thing that list shows is that most of the contributors were white American guys under 30 who've probably never seen an Anonioni or Bergman film.

The online community is much more vast and rich than that in my humble opinion.

Jonathan Lapper said...

cinebeats,

I share your belief. I think the list was voted on by too many people who have seen too few films. There are many films on the list I like but would never consider to be great films. For instance, I think Die Hard is a fun little movie but one of the greatest of all time? Not a chance. On this list it is ranked ahead of Notorious, 400 Blows, Rules of the Game, Aguirre, Touch of Evil, The Maltese Falcon and on and on. I mean, seriously come on. What person who appreciates and understands film can honestly sit down and watch any one of those films mentioned above and think that any of them are outdone by Die Hard?

I'm not trying to be a snob here, I'm really not. I just know that when I was younger I thought a lot of films were great that I don't think so now. I remember cutting my teeth for film analysis by arguing for the visceral action film over the meditative drama. Both obviously have their places and both can produce great movies no doubt. But when I watch Wild Strawberries now I get a lot more out of it than when I watched it on video at the age of fifteen. When I watch Die Hard now I likewise get a lot less out of it than when I watched it at 21.

Also, the sheer volume of foreign films and classic films from before 1940 missing from this list also suggest that perhaps too many people participated who had not yet seen enough. Nothing against that, mind you, it still produces an interesting list and interesting debate but perhaps many people's individual submissions will change over time. I know that mine do with each passing day.

Jonathan

Jonathan Lapper said...

One last comment.

I probably didn't make it clear enough that I personally believe any lists like this are worthwhile in that they get people discussing great film and while I may not agree with everything on the list I think it's great in it's own way that so many different films made the list that have never made the AFI or Sight and Sound poll lists. Most may not hold up over time (or maybe they will) but a few that have been included will force people to look at them with new eyes for the first time and maybe in time a new, more expanded pantheon will emerge.

And cinebeats, I love the white go-go boots you're wearing in your early seventies photo on your site. Kick butt!

Peet Gelderblom said...

This news sure came as a shock after my "Happy Birthday, Ingmar" cartoon from last week.

I'm on vacation at the moment, but managed to upload a follow-up. Given that comedy is tragedy plus time, I realize that this last post may be difficult to swallow for some. But the "joke" here is aimed at death itself, not Bergman.

The old post is here:
http://tinyurl.com/38ccpa

The new one:
http://tinyurl.com/2ey4nq

Remember: The death of an old man is not a tragedy. Certainly not an old man with a legacy like Bergman's.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Jeff: I suppose it depends on who or what you feel is being pandered to. :)

Cinebeats, Jonathan: Yeah, I'd have to agree with you folks regarding the rather narrow sample of bloggers who were invited or jumped aboard. I had hoped some of The Usual Suspects wouldn't bubble to the surface, but alas redemption, Shawshank or otherwise, wasn't in the cards for the eventual top 100 picks. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I really do agree with you that the think the list pointed up most glaringly in the unfamiliarity a lot of folks have with international film history. And again, when something like this shakes out, it makes me value the voice of someone like Cinebeats, who has a love for film, period, regardless of genre or gender, as well as an admirable breadth of experience with it. I hope you both, and others, will check in under the new post and give us more of your thoughts.

And I must concur: those go-go boots are keen!

Peet: A perfect sequel. I think Bergman himself would find it funny. Having wonderful time? I hope so!

cinebears said...

I wish I still had some cool white go-go boots. I can remember feeling like I was Wonder Woman wearing those things! I was lucky to have such groovy and styling parents.

NateDredge said...

Hadn’t really seen any Bergman, except for The Seventh Seal in a college Western Civ course. In honor of his death I rented The Virgin Spring and was quite taken with it. I mean a movie set in 13th Century Sweden honestly sounds like it should be boring as hell, but I was completely engrossed. I’ll have to see more of his work in the near future.