The lasting influences of two movie giants

Commentary

August 03, 2007|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Crtic

With the near-simultaneous deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni this week, the doors have closed on the great art house of the mind that these filmmakers helped open in the 1950s.

But both these men had an influence that transcended their initial impact and keeps reverberating through contemporary culture. And their most important example to other filmmakers is one of craftsmanship, industry and (in Bergman's case) showmanship, as well as their articulation of individualistic world views.

"L'Avventura is a study of the human condition at the highest social and economic levels," wrote Pauline Kael in answer to the question "What is the best film of 1961?" How wonderful to think of a time when a critic could apply that description to a director like Antonioni and raise the stakes of international cultural discussion.

To Kael, Antonioni's lasting contribution was this "study of adjusted, compromising man - afflicted by short memory, thin remorse, easy betrayal." And the Antonioni of L'Avventura presented one possibility "for serious, cultivated, personal expression in the film medium."

The other potential direction, Kael said, was "works which suggest black comedy," including Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal: two films by Bergman.

Even people who never saw The Seventh Seal would recognize its key images: In 1991, the black-clad Grim Reaper playing Battleship (instead of chess) became the parody centerpiece of Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. In an odd way, its presence in that very funny movie confirmed Bergman's power to tap into what Kael called "the nightmares of life, death and religion that one had as a child."

And Antonioni's cinematic language, with cosmopolites moving through spaces that are elegant and arid and stylized, became the visual lexicon of alienation: You can even see it in certain frames of director Alan Taylor's pilot for the new AMC cable series Mad Men.

Bergman's example of working with a core group, moving swiftly from one movie or play to another to prevent creative atrophy, would become an ideal for other filmmakers, most famously Woody Allen. And Bergman had greater range than Antonioni. He would pioneer his own close-up form of psychological drama in movies like Persona. He would produce one of the greatest opera movies, The Magic Flute. He would explore long-form TV in Scenes from a Marriage, a tortured marital saga whose global impact helped pave the way for heirs as different as The Sopranos.

But Antonioni, unexpectedly, was the one who hit the pop-culture jackpot with Blow-Up, about a photographer in Swingin' England who comes to believe that he's recorded evidence of a murder. It was, as critic Stanley Kauff- mann wrote, "the first film from abroad by a major foreign director to have immediate national distribution." The centerpiece, a thrilling exploration of delayed perception, inspired two movies that I think are even better: Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Brian De Palma's Blow-Out. Wisely, rather than compete with Antonioni, they based their movies on audio technicians.

Bergman's and Antonioni's deaths should provoke renewed attention to their masterworks. But I hope it also inspires movie lovers to pick up the movies they made when they were still becoming "Bergman" and "Antonioni." It was Bergman's splendid Monika that compelled Janus Films to distribute his films in the U.S.

And my favorite Antonioni film may be his little-known debut picture, Story of a Love Affair, available on DVD. It's about that moment in a relationship when the burden of its past destroys its future. The movie's story is melodramatic - in fact, with its private eye, adultery and murky secrets, it's something out of the sexy, hardboiled pages of James M. Cain. Yet the romantic lyricism that Antonioni achieves as soon as his doomed lovers meet (or rather, meet again) could be compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald's. He seems to have found his visual vocabulary without stuttering - in the melancholy gray Milanese streets, in the placement of his performers so that the couple walk askew, as if the slightest stumble could divide them. The love scenes between Lucia Bose and Massimo Girotti have an urgency that Antonioni was to leave behind. His later movies expressed the cosmic disillusionment of rootless modern man, imprisoned in his own consciousness, but this movie stings with the sorrow of a young man learning to distrust his grand passions.

Antonioni compared movie directors to painters "who were ordered to paint frescoes to specific measurements." Coming from an auteur as exacting and idiosyncratic as Antonioni, that statement often sounded disingenuous to me. But in Story of a Love Affair, you can sense a director applying his talent and sensibility to familiar material and making it take hold in a viewer's heart and eye.

"I make my pictures for use!" Bergman once proclaimed. "They are made to put me in contact with other human beings, to whom I give them and say, `Please use them. Take what you want, and throw the rest away. I will come back and make other new and beautiful things.'"

Rather than be stymied by their towering examples, today's filmmakers should emulate the theatrical Swede and the austere Italian, at work behind the camera or on the soundstage or at the editing table, striving for contact with humanity by making new and beautiful things.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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