"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
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.