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Remembering the Titans: Ingmar Bergman & Michelangelo Antonioni

Remembering the Titans: Ingmar Bergman & Michelangelo Antonioni

Modernists and innovators though they were, it’s unlikely that Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni would have dared to plan a narrative about two modernistic, innovative artists who enter the world at roughly the same time—in 1918 and 1912, respectively—and, after playing critical roles in the evolution of their chosen art and of 20th-century culture in general, leave the world on exactly the same day.

If there’s an occult meaning to be found in the grimly coincidental deaths of Bergman and Antonioni on July 30, 2007, the message must be that a heroic era in world cinema is in danger of fading from view. The sad thing isn’t that two men died at ripe old ages (Bergman was 89, Antonioni was 94) after long and prolific careers, but that their legacies, once considered vital equipment for savvy cineastes, are now largely relegated to textbooks, specialized TV outlets and slow-selling DVD releases. Perhaps the double whammy of their near-simultaneous passing will spark renewed interest in their accomplishments. Antonioni in particular was relentlessly forward-looking: “Cinema has to change,” he told me when I interviewed him in 1975, the year of The Passenger, one of his boldest achievements. “We need to be more violent to reality.”

The first Bergman film I saw was the 1961 psychodrama Through a Glass Darkly, which made a huge impression on me with its gloomy depiction of a crazy young woman and her emotionally repressed family. Like many adolescents, I felt I’d suffered lots of craziness and repression myself, and Bergman’s stark narrative, culminating in a hallucination of God as a repellent spider, clearly came from a moviemaker who felt my pain. Soon afterward I saw The Seventh Seal, his 1957 saga of a medieval knight playing chess with Death as he travels through a nightmarish world of ignorance, disease and suffering. In this movie the whole world was crazy; I was hooked for good.

As time went by, I learned that other people responded to Bergman’s movies in a wide variety of ways, and in a manner often antithetical to my own. I’ve remained fairly loyal to The Seventh Seal, but I’m impressed with the precocious savvy of documentary moviemaker Mark Rappaport, who once told me that The Seventh Seal convinced him instantly that Bergman was a total phony. Then again, the avant-garde maverick Peter Greenaway says The Seventh Seal convinced him cinema could be an art form. Bergman, like the God he stopped believing in, works in mysterious ways.

I discovered Bergman during the 1960s in revival theaters, and the demise of that circuit may account for his relatively low profile among people of the video era. Whatever the cause, my college students have usually seen little of his work and know even less about his personal experience, which shaped his films in remarkably direct ways.

Bergman’s was a very Swedish life, bearing out all the stereotypes you’ve heard about that chilly northern country, including its stringent Protestant mentality and its odd mixture of progressive and reactionary ideas. Bergman got megadoses of both from his mother, a strong-willed woman from a wealthy background, and his father, a Lutheran minister with connections to the royal family. Not surprisingly, domestic conflicts became a recurring Bergman theme, often viewed with a clinically detached or openly distrustful eye.

Artistic from the start, Bergman cherished a primitive slide projector he acquired when he was 10—his 1987 autobiography, The Magic Lantern, is named after it—and around the same time he set up a homemade puppet theater that lasted clear through high school. At 11 he saw his first play, which happened to be directed by Alf Sjöberg, who in 1944 made the movie Torment, the first Bergman script to reach the screen. By the beginning of the 1940s Bergman had traveled in Germany, served in the military, entered Stockholm University and dropped out to become a full-time theater director.

Bergman was so successful at directing and writing plays that he became Europe’s youngest theater manager at 26. In fact, it’s impossible to understand his film career without grasping how much he loved the stage. As head of the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm for many years, he often found ways to integrate theatrical conventions with his cinematic style. This is evident in his early films as well as mature works like the matrimonial saga Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and the thriller From the Life of the Marionettes (1980).

Some critics claim that Bergman’s theater productions, not his films, were the true beneficiaries of whatever genius he possessed, but I strongly disagree. I’ve seen many of his stage productions, from Ibsen’s classic A Doll’s House to a stunning production of Hamlet that outpaced any Bergman movie for no-holds-barred experimentalism. While some were impressive, few matched his greatest movies for in-the-moment power or lingering reverberations in the mind and memory.

Bergman’s film career took off when he joined Svensk Filmindustri in 1943, taking advantage of his low-level “script slave” job to explore the company’s soundstages, technical departments and film archives. He was fired when his 1946 directorial debut, Crisis, died at the box office, but he managed to get rehired at a lower salary, becoming the studio’s golden boy when his 1955 comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, won international awards. He consolidated his reputation with The Seventh Seal, which won the Cannes Jury Prize, and the emotionally charged Wild Strawberries, which scored an Oscar nomination for its Best Original Screenplay.

Bergman won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961 with The Virgin Spring, a tale based on the same Scandinavian folktale that inspired Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left a dozen years later. By then Bergman was building his longtime stock company of actors, which eventually included Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson; and with The Virgin Spring he started his epochal collaboration with Sven Nykvist, one of the world’s all-time-greatest cinematographers.

Bergman’s reputation rose even higher when he released a series of three “chamber films” in the early 1960s, each more skeptical than the last on the question of God’s relevance to human affairs: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence.

In 1966, Bergman made the highly experimental drama Persona, about a psychiatric patient and a nurse whose personalities split and merge during a sojourn on a lonely Baltic Sea island. (My choice as his greatest film.)

At about the same time, Bergman built a house on Fårö, the island where Persona takes place and where enough of his films were shot to forever link it with his name.

Other movies followed, usually confirming the critical consensus that a flair for intimacy and strong empathy with female characters were among Bergman’s signature traits. The early 1970s produced such international hits as the death-obsessed Cries and Whispers and a lighthearted condensation of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Then disaster struck.

During a 1976 rehearsal at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, cops barged in and arrested Bergman for cheating on his income taxes. The case was later dropped, but the traumatized director landed in a mental hospital for a month. After his release, Bergman stormed out of Sweden in a rage, living in Germany for most of the next decade. Liv Ullmann, his frequent star and longtime romantic partner, once told me his reaction to the arrest and its aftermath was that of a wounded child who wants to climb under the bedclothes and pout until someone wipes away the emotional pain. A notorious film he made during his exile was The Serpent’s Egg (1977), a melodrama set in 1920s Berlin and drenched in paranoia, psychosis and death. I found it quite adventurous at the time, but the influential critic Pauline Kael called it a “crackpot tragedy” whose only message was that Bergman’s head hurt.

Bergman recovered his wits and his talents, but after completing Fanny and Alexander, the 1982 family epic that some consider his masterpiece, he announced his retirement from cinema. Fortunately for his fans, the announcement was disingenuous, since he kept right on making films (mostly for television), from After the Rehearsal in 1984 to Saraband, the sublime 2003 drama that capped his career. He also wrote scripts that were filmed by others close to him, including Sunday’s Children, directed by his son, Daniel; The Best Intentions, directed by Bille August; and Faithless, directed by Liv Ullmann in 2000.

It isn’t hard to figure out why Bergman became unfashionable before he died. His early pictures tap into tried-and-true narrative patterns and show little interest in formal experimentation, and critics find many of his later films to be stagy at worst, ostentatiously avant-garde at best. I can only respond that, to my eyes, Bergman’s best works are so sensitive in style and perceptive in story that most current pictures hardly compare. Psychologically explosive pictures like Persona and The Silence speak for themselves, and even his conservative early films hint at the daring maneuvers to come.

I said earlier that Bergman’s influence on popular directors has faded, but I’m happy to add that exceptions certainly exist—and not just Woody Allen, although his description of Bergman as a “magical filmmaker” sums up the gut feeling of his many admirers. Closer to Bergman’s home, Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) has acknowledged him as the most inspirational figure in Scandinavian film history. Citing the profoundly inward-looking nature of Bergman’s films, Paul Schrader (Affliction) calls them “a legacy greater than [that of] any other director.” Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) has lauded his “elegance, timing, lighting and… incredible close-ups,” and Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter) has called his movies “beautiful, complex and smart.” Among the younger generation, Todd Field (Little Children) calls him “our tunnel man, building the aqueducts of our cinematic collective unconscious. Supplying water to a people who heretofore didn’t know they were thirsty…” Enough said.

Michelangelo Antonioni didn’t have a personal stock of actors, but he did have Monica Vitti, whose beautiful features made her one of cinema’s most instantly recognizable icons in the early 1960s. That’s when Antonioni made her a central figure in three astonishing and unprecedented films: L’Avventura, a tale of doomed romance set against the disappearance of a young woman during a visit to a rock-bound Mediterranean island; La Notte, which uses an all-night society soirée to explore dark corners of modern love and temptation; and Eclipse, which takes the trilogy’s themes to their logical conclusions, culminating in a seven-minute sequence that crystallizes Antonioni’s vision without a word being spoken or a significant character seen. If his career had produced only this indelible scene, he’d still rank with the supreme poets of Italian film. He was also one of his era’s most intelligent screen artists and had no false modesty about it. During the moviemaking process he liked to work intuitively, but as he planned future projects he brought all of his mental resources into play. “I watch, I look, I think, I read,” he once told me. “I am conscious of everything.”

Critics hailed Antonioni as a master of the “empty frame” ever since L’Avventura introduced his new cinematic idiom, capable of expressing modern anomie, alienation and angst with a subtlety never encountered before. Look closely though, and you’ll see that his “empty” frames aren’t empty at all. They don’t include major characters and story elements, but what they do include—objects, buildings, landscape details and so on—have extraordinary resonance.

There’s no better example than the last scene of Eclipse. The story’s protagonist is a restless Roman woman (Vitti) who becomes romantically involved with a stockbroker (Alain Delon) despite misgivings about falling in love. After making love in his office, they agree to rendezvous again that evening. Neither of them keeps the appointment, but Antonioni’s camera does, peering into locations where the lovers have traveled—or might have traveled during the story, which we gradually realize has ended, even though the movie still goes on. The characters are absent, but the city that contains them is more present than ever. The final image is a streetlight glowing in close-up—an emblem of the piercing, compelling beauty that emerges when pellucid day fades into lonely, mysterious night. Making a brave leap beyond psychology and individuality, Antonioni takes us to the realm of the eclipse, letting go of narrative so we can peer into the world’s larger, more enduring soul.

Looking at Antonioni’s early films, you might have expected him to steer a different artistic course. Raised in a middle-class household, he discovered Marxism as a student in Bologna and then moved to Rome, where he became a critic for Cinema magazine and an aspiring director. The films he made in the 1940s and 1950s were strongly influenced by Italian Neorealism; a pristine example is his 1948 documentary N.U., which turns the labors of Roman street cleaners into a veritable tone poem. His features of this period include the 1950 romance Cronaca di un amore, about a suspicious husband and his possibly errant wife; the 1953 drama La Signora senza camelie, about the adventures of a young movie actress; and the extraordinary Il Grido, about a spurned lover roaming through the Po valley in search of solace and sympathy he never finds. This modest masterpiece set the stage for the early 1960s trilogy that transformed Antonioni’s career for good—and enlarged the boundaries of Italian cinema, extending Neorealist techniques into brave new psychological and moral territory.

Antonioni’s films were no less daring after the trilogy, starting in 1964 with The Red Desert, his first color film—and an audacious color film it is, with the director literally painting trees to create precisely the right hues. It’s clear from The Red Desert that Antonioni’s commitment to Neorealism was waning by this time; along with Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti and other Neorealist giants, Antonioni was finding the movement’s insistence on unadorned reality to be a needless constraint on cinematic expression. More to the point, he wanted to indulge his growing fondness for things artificial, constructed and manufactured; to modern eyes, he remarked, a building is at least as beautiful as a tree. He expressed this emphatically in The Red Desert, which reaffirmed his faith in the trilogy’s existential poetics by applying them to a new set of psychosocial problems.

Unlike many other European art-film directors, Antonioni made a spectacularly successful transition to English-language film. The year was 1966 and the vehicle was Blow-Up, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who takes a photo in a London park, begins to think the picture inadvertently caught the aftermath of a murder and looks for clues to the crime by enlarging the image to greater and greater size, eventually losing faith in his own ability to distinguish reality from illusion. Blow-Up is at once a suspenseful murder mystery, a spot-on portrait of swinging London in the psychedelic 1960s, a character study of a materialistic career man and the enigmatic woman who tantalizes him (played by Vanessa Redgrave, in a star-making performance) and a journey of discovery by a former Neorealist now wondering whether there is such a thing as “reality” at all. It was also a box-office hit, attracting art-film connoisseurs and hip young moviegoers who liked its consciousness-expanding theme. (They also liked a concert scene featuring The Yardbirds, one of the era’s most popular rock groups—necessary to the movie’s atmosphere, and also a factor in its sensational ticket sales.)

Antonioni came to the United States in 1970 to make his first Hollywood film, Zabriskie Point, the politically-charged story of a university student (Daria Halprin) and a violent activist (Mark Frechette) who form a relationship with literally explosive results. One of the most pessimistic and apocalyptic films ever to emerge from an American studio, Zabriskie Point was damned by most reviewers and pretty much disowned by MGM, which had financed it. Five years later, in 1975, Antonioni recouped his critical losses (if not his box-office cred) with Professione: Reporter, a European production released as The Passenger in English-language markets. Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a journalist who’s questioning the values of his bourgeois life while traveling in Saharan Africa for a documentary film project. Finding that an acquaintance named David Robertson has just died in an adjacent hotel room, he impulsively decides to assume the man’s identity and take on the dead man’s activities, soon learning that Robertson was a gunrunner involved in revolutionary violence. The film ingeniously explores the nature of identity, the intertwined fabrics of geographical space and psychological desire, and the ultimate purpose of life itself, building toward one of the most bravura shots in cinema history—a gradual yet kinetic take in which the camera moves from Locke in a hotel room to the courtyard outside and then back to the claustrophobic space in which Locke has now emulated Robertson in death as he did in life. General audiences weren’t much interested in this, or the rest of the film, but perceptive critics deemed it an instant classic. The judgment has held up well.

After some comparatively minor works in the early 1980s, Antonioni suffered a devastating stroke in 1985 that severely impaired his ability to speak. His only substantial picture after this was the multiple-story film Beyond the Clouds, co-directed by Wim Wenders, a longtime Antonioni admirer. On learning of Antonioni’s death, Wenders responded with a poem that read in part, “Awareness and clarity/perception and rigor/were your strengths… Modernity for you/was not a fleeting trend/but to fully seize/contemporary life/ while anticipating/its possible futures.”

That captures some of Antonioni’s attributes, but I think Martin Scorsese went much deeper in a remembrance published by The New York Times. Antonioni’s films, he wrote, “posed mysteries—or rather the mystery—of who we are, what we are, to each other, to ourselves, to time. You could say that Antonioni was looking directly at the mysteries of the soul.” In very different ways, Bergman did the same.

If the two moviemakers had a trait in common, it was an unregenerate humanism that motivated and enriched virtually all their works, including those that seem most world-weary and disheartened at first sight. Bergman and Antonioni believed in the potential of the human spirit—regardless of how often and disastrously that potential is betrayed in our fallen world—as deeply as they believed in the infinite possibilities of cinema. They will be sorely missed. MM

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