I stumbled upon some articles I had saved on my desktop at work two years ago dated July 30 2007, the day Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni died minutes away from each other. A month or so ago in that year I had completed a course in Film Appreciation from FTII in Pune, and where I was introduced amongst the many other creative artists of cinema – to these two personalities of European film. The fashionable alienation of Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert) and the existential questions of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, both films screened during the course, left an inalienable mark on my soul.
And as this decade nears an end, I find their themes still ever-present and ever-recurring. So as a commemoration to these two directors, whose films have subsequently in the past few years left me awed with their capacity as object d’art, I’m pasting two articles written by two people – Stephen Holden from the New York Times, whose writings on film are equally inspiring, and the other – Woody Allen, whose films I have slowly grown to love as well in these last couple of years.
A Chronicler of Alienated Europeans in a Flimsy New World
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Decades before it was given a name, Michelangelo Antonioni recognized the malady we now call attention deficit disorder. In his great 1960s films, “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Eclipse” and “Red Desert,” but especially in “L’Avventura,” his masterpiece, it wasn’t diagnosed as a chemical imbalance, but as a communicable social disease.
Spawned in a psychological petri dish in which idleness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the material rewards of life combined to create and spread a chronic, generalized, mild depression, it was an ailment peculiar to the upper middle class. What made audiences susceptible was the glamour that attached to it. As I watched the attractive aristocrats and climbers in his films mope through their empty lives, a part of me wanted to be just like those people: self-absorbed and miserable, perhaps, but also fashionable and sexy.
The ever-acute critic Pauline Kael recognized this contradiction in a famous essay, “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” which aroused the ire of Antonioni devotees like me. More than four decades later, that contradiction remains unresolved in popular culture. Such is the power of film and television imagery that glamour and sex, no matter how tawdry or morally bankrupt, command our attention and whet our fantasies.
Mr. Antonioni was the movies’ first diagnostician of what back then was called alienation, anomie, angst and decadence. If his films had their silly side (the image of Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, grappling fully clothed in a sand trap in “La Notte”), they were also prophetic. Their melancholy poetry transmuted an overriding mood of self-pity into something deeper and closer to tragedy.
Mr. Antonioni’s death on Monday, so close to Ingmar Bergman’s, should give us pause. Their deaths bring down the final curtain on the high-modernist era of filmmaking, when a handful of directors were artistic gods accorded the respect and latitude of great painters or authors. Among the European masters of the 1960s, only Jean-Luc Godard, that most modern of modernists, remains.
For all their differences of temperament, Mr. Bergman and Mr. Antonioni were staunch moralists. If Mr. Bergman, the Scandinavian, was stern and austere, Mr. Antonioni, the Italian, was a sensuous aesthete who, when it suited him, resorted to painting nature the way he wanted it to look on the screen.
If both had bleak apprehensions of the decline and fall of Western civilization in an increasingly secularized age, Mr. Antonioni’s vision was more urbane and cosmopolitan. The final bleak street-corner montage in “Eclipse” is downright apocalyptic. In that movie, the third part of the trilogy that included “L’Avventura” and “La Notte,” the world is consumed with stock-market fever. Greed trumps love. Sound familiar?
The meticulous compositions in Mr. Antonioni’s films depict a shiny but flimsy new world displacing an older and more solid one. Classic stone architecture constructed to last for centuries is contrasted with bright, new high-rise skyscrapers without character. Nuns in black habits rub shoulders with avaricious starlets and shallow socialites. The affluent new generation senses its own susceptibility to corruption. Sandro, the faithless male protagonist of “L’Avventura,” is a once-serious architect who is bitterly aware that he has sold out his talent.
“L’Avventura” and Federico Fellini’s more flamboyant film “La Dolce Vita,” to which it was continually compared, tugged the European art film toward fashion. Together they inaugurated a vogue among trendy Americans to punctuate their conversations with “Ciao” (often uttered in a petulant, pseudo-Italian accent) instead of “Goodbye.”
As the ’60s wore on, Mr. Antonioni increasingly succumbed to the taint of fashion. His most successful film, “Blowup,” set in swinging London among photographers and models, was clever but shallow. Yet the protagonist’s search for an elusive photographic truth was prescient.
Mr. Antonioni’s vogue ended abruptly in 1970 with the critical and commercial failure of “Zabriskie Point.” At the time, that movie, his first feature made in the United States, was widely misunderstood by fans longing to identify with its young lovers, who dabble in revolutionary politics. When no revolution occurred at the end, the audience that had lined up to see it (I saw its first two New York screenings) left frustrated. In hindsight, its climactic fantasy of a house repeatedly exploding (to the strains of Pink Floyd) predicted the imminent failure of that so-called revolution. The notion that it was just a fantasy was a message nobody wanted to hear.
But Mr. Antonioni’s fashionableness shouldn’t distract us from his accomplishment. He was a visionary whose portrayal of the failure of Eros in a hypereroticized climate addressed the modern world and its discontents in a new, intensely poetic cinematic language. Here was depicted for the first time on screen a world in which attention deficit disorder, and the uneasy sense of impermanence that goes with it, were already epidemic.
The startling conceptual coup of “L’Avventura” was the story’s unexplained disappearance of a young woman, Anna, from a desolate, rocky island where she and a yachting party have landed. Even before the group, which includes Sandro, leaves the island without finding Anna, Sandro puts the moves on her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). She resists his advances, but succumbs once they have returned to the mainland.
As the police search for Anna, the members of the party become distracted. Even for Claudia, the movie’s conscience and Mr. Antonioni’s alter ego, the urgency of finding Anna recedes in the heat of her new relationship. The cycle of betrayal culminates with the final scene: Claudia and Sandro are staying in a hotel, and she awakens to find him gone.
Venturing downstairs, she finds him sprawled on a couch with a prostitute, an exhibitionist with whom they had crossed paths earlier, as the prostitute created a paparazzi frenzy in a village they were passing through. This character may be the movies’ very first “celebutante.” Today she is everywhere.
The Man Who Asked Hard Questions
By WOODY ALLEN
I GOT the news in Oviedo, a lovely little town in the north of Spain where I am shooting a movie, that Bergman had died. A phone message from a mutual friend was relayed to me on the set. Bergman once told me he didn’t want to die on a sunny day, and not having been there, I can only hope he got the flat weather all directors thrive on.
I’ve said it before to people who have a romanticized view of the artist and hold creation sacred: In the end, your art doesn’t save you. No matter what sublime works you fabricate (and Bergman gave us a menu of amazing movie masterpieces) they don’t shield you from the fateful knocking at the door that interrupted the knight and his friends at the end of “The Seventh Seal.” And so, on a summer’s day in July, Bergman, the great cinematic poet of mortality, couldn’t prolong his own inevitable checkmate, and the finest filmmaker of my lifetime was gone.
I have joked about art being the intellectual’s Catholicism, that is, a wishful belief in an afterlife. Better than to live on in the hearts and minds of the public is to live on in one’s apartment, is how I put it. And certainly Bergman’s movies will live on and will be viewed at museums and on TV and sold on DVDs, but knowing him, this was meager compensation, and I am sure he would have been only too glad to barter each one of his films for an additional year of life. This would have given him roughly 60 more birthdays to go on making movies; a remarkable creative output. And there’s no doubt in my mind that’s how he would have used the extra time, doing the one thing he loved above all else, turning out films.
Bergman enjoyed the process. He cared little about the responses to his films. It pleased him when he was appreciated, but as he told me once, “If they don’t like a movie I made, it bothers me — for about 30 seconds.” He wasn’t interested in box office results, even though producers and distributors called him with the opening weekend figures, which went in one ear and out the other. He said, “By mid-week their wildly optimistic prognosticating would come down to nothing.” He enjoyed critical acclaim but didn’t for a second need it, and while he wanted the audience to enjoy his work, he didn’t always make his films easy on them.
Still, those that took some figuring out were well worth the effort. For example, when you grasp that both women in “The Silence” are really only two warring aspects of one woman, the otherwise enigmatic film opens up spellbindingly. Or if you are up on your Danish philosophy before you see “The Seventh Seal” or “The Magician,” it certainly helps, but so amazing were his gifts as a storyteller that he could hold an audience riveted and enthralled with difficult material. I’ve heard people walk out after certain films of his saying, “I didn’t get exactly what I just saw but I was gripped on the edge of my seat every frame.”
Bergman’s allegiance was to theatricality, and he was also a great stage director, but his movie work wasn’t just informed by theater; it drew on painting, music, literature and philosophy. His work probed the deepest concerns of humanity, often rendering these celluloid poems profound. Mortality, love, art, the silence of God, the difficulty of human relationships, the agony of religious doubt, failed marriage, the inability for people to communicate with one another.
And yet the man was a warm, amusing, joking character, insecure about his immense gifts, beguiled by the ladies. To meet him was not to suddenly enter the creative temple of a formidable, intimidating, dark and brooding genius who intoned complex insights with a Swedish accent about man’s dreadful fate in a bleak universe. It was more like this: “Woody, I have this silly dream where I show up on the set to make a film and I can’t figure out where to put the camera; the point is, I know I am pretty good at it and I have been doing it for years. You ever have those nervous dreams?” or “You think it will be interesting to make a movie where the camera never moves an inch and the actors just enter and exit frame? Or would people just laugh at me?”
What does one say on the phone to a genius? I didn’t think it was a good idea, but in his hands I guess it would have turned out to be something special. After all, the vocabulary he invented to probe the psychological depths of actors also would have sounded preposterous to those who learn filmmaking in the orthodox manner. In film school (I was thrown out of New York University quite rapidly when I was a film major there in the 1950s) the emphasis was always on movement. These are moving pictures, students were taught, and the camera should move. And the teachers were right. But Bergman would put the camera on Liv Ullmann’s face or Bibi Andersson’s face and leave it there and it wouldn’t budge and time passed and more time and an odd and wonderful thing unique to his brilliance would happen. One would get sucked into the character and one was not bored but thrilled.
Bergman, for all his quirks and philosophic and religious obsessions, was a born spinner of tales who couldn’t help being entertaining even when all on his mind was dramatizing the ideas of Nietzsche or Kierkegaard. I used to have long phone conversations with him. He would arrange them from the island he lived on. I never accepted his invitations to visit because the plane travel bothered me, and I didn’t relish flying on a small aircraft to some speck near Russia for what I envisioned as a lunch of yogurt. We always discussed movies, and of course I let him do most of the talking because I felt privileged hearing his thoughts and ideas. He screened movies for himself every day and never tired of watching them. All kinds, silents and talkies. To go to sleep he’d watch a tape of the kind of movie that didn’t make him think and would relax his anxiety, sometimes a James Bond film.
Like all great film stylists, such as Fellini, Antonioni and Buñuel, for example, Bergman has had his critics. But allowing for occasional lapses all these artists’ movies have resonated deeply with millions all over the world. Indeed, the people who know film best, the ones who make them — directors, writers, actors, cinematographers, editors — hold Bergman’s work in perhaps the greatest awe.
Because I sang his praises so enthusiastically over the decades, when he died many newspapers and magazines called me for comments or interviews. As if I had anything of real value to add to the grim news besides once again simply extolling his greatness. How had he influenced me, they asked? He couldn’t have influenced me, I said, he was a genius and I am not a genius and genius cannot be learned or its magic passed on.
When Bergman emerged in the New York art houses as a great filmmaker, I was a young comedy writer and nightclub comic. Can one’s work be influenced by Groucho Marx and Ingmar Bergman? But I did manage to absorb one thing from him, a thing not dependent on genius or even talent but something that can actually be learned and developed. I am talking about what is often very loosely called a work ethic but is really plain discipline.
I learned from his example to try to turn out the best work I’m capable of at that given moment, never giving in to the foolish world of hits and flops or succumbing to playing the glitzy role of the film director, but making a movie and moving on to the next one. Bergman made about 60 films in his lifetime, I have made 38. At least if I can’t rise to his quality maybe I can approach his quantity.