Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, giants of the cinema of the last century who both died this week, shared little but their greatness.
Bergman, with whom the words “serious” and “metaphysical” are linked like Laurel & Hardy, came to international prominence at about the time that a group of French critics – soon to be directors – were creating what became known as the “nouvelle vague.” It centered on the auteur theory – essentially that the director is the author of the film, much as the poet is the author of the poem. (The holes in that theory ought to be obvious, and not only to screenwriters.)
The theory was devised while Bergman and Antonioni were establishing themselves, though it didn’t include them. Still, Bergman and Antonioni surely fit the basic idea of auteurism. They both made movies that were personal sometimes to the point of privacy. But Bergman, was a master of existentialism and Antonioni of cinematic nihilism.
But the French preferred to point to directors who made movies with the whiff of popcorn about them. And if there was any scent at all to a movie like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, it was of burning incense. For Antonioni, in his masterpiece, L’Avventura, elusive ambiguity dominates.
Clarity, in the Hollywood sense, is impossible and unwanted.
Bergman made a certain kind of movie that was never designed for Saturday matinees. (Well, only maybe in his financier’s dreams.) Antonioni, similarly, once he found his style, worked for a world of one. He wanted audiences, of course, but if they didn’t come, he would stop before he would change.
I once had the privilege of watching a Bergman movie in the company of that supreme auteur, Alfred Hitchcock. The movie was Autumn Sonata with Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann. Hitch wanted to see it because of (Ingrid) Bergman. It was in 1978, before DVDS, or even tapes were readily available. Hitch had a screening room in his bungalow at Universal.
Autumn Sonata which features long, brilliantly acted set pieces that might have been in a stage play, wasn’t to Hitch’s taste. After a few reels, he got to his feet (no easy thing in itself), saying, “Keep running.” He stood in the door, back-lit, and announced, “I’m going to the movies.”
Certainly, there’s room in the world for both Hitch and Ingmar Bergman. Hitch’s better movies hold up beautifully. And, I think, so do Bergman’s.
The Seventh Seal gives us one of the cinema’s enduring, iconic, images – the picture of a medieval knight playing chess with the devil, during the time of the Plague. Enlarged to poster size, it was on many college walls in the 1960s.
That indelible image was what sociologists call a class marker. In the unsubtle way of the young in pursuit of honor and sex, it was displayed as a lure for lovers. Mostly the boys put up the picture, and the girls decided if the gesture was sincere.
The Seventh Seal and especially Persona and Scenes From a Marriage, have stayed new, despite the decades. Both still set forth their metaphysical speculations and their characters still seem alive and growing as we watch them.
Among Bergman’s later work, Fanny and Alexander and Saraband, both made for television, are human and moving. In the coming days, I’ll be watching some of his others – Wild Strawberries is next. I think, for me, the challenge will be to see the pictures anew and not in the tricked up glow of memory.
As I was thinking about Bergman, news of Antonioni’s death popped up on my screen. If Bergman was revered and admired by a lot of young people who weren’t quite sure what they were watching but knew it was important, then Antonioni was a flashpoint for furious art house argument.
The feuding reached an early peak with L’Avventura (1960), which was mocked at the Cannes Film Festival in a debacle that has been compared to the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, which had caused a near riot in 1913. People like something new, but only after it has become old and they have gotten used to it. It can have a hard time when it’s actually new.
Antonioni made five pictures before L’Avventura – an experienced hand before he made what is now seen as a pillar of European modernism. It was indeed new, and, it has seemed to me for some years now, to have been a reaction to Italian neo-realism.
All art cannibalizes something. The Nouvelle Vague itself was a rejection of “the tradition of quality” which had dominated French cinema. Italian neo-realism was about fifteen years old (The Bicycle Thief and Open City are examples) when L’Avventura arrived and blew it away in an act of cinematic nihilism that echoes to this moment.
L’Avventura didn’t proceed by the accepted rules of narrative. People did things without knowing quite why they were doing them. The story is simple enough though there’s no plot in the traditional sense.
A group of the well-to-do cruising on a yacht, moor at a rocky island and go ashore. One of them, a moody young woman, disappears. The others search for her. She’s never found. She disappears from the story as she disappeared from the island. Two of the others, her lover and her best friend (Monica Vitti) launch a desultory love affair. The rest of it is the meandering play of the rich.
The scenes on the island are only a small part of the movie, but the alchemy is so thorough, that it’s the part of the picture that everyone remembers. The search on the difficult rocks seems to take on the quality of Sisyphus, but without the jokes. The task seems essential and yet hopeless. People debated the meaning of it with the sort of fury that usually only religion can provoke.
This was a movie that the critics made and then, surprisingly, the public embraced. Even today, it can get under one’s skin is a way that seems unlikely, but is undeniable.
Antonioni made more films, of course, several with Vitti. La Notte, L’Eclisse and The Red Desert all grew out of L’Avventura but none had the same impact. He left Italy and made movies in England and America. He worked in color and with big (for the time) budgets. Blow Up holds up well considering that it is set in London’s swinging sixties – a time and place long gone stale.
Blow Up was a commercial hit and inspired reams of critical analysis. Antonioni’s movies were called a cinema of alienation. That overused word became associated with him like a name tag.
L’Avventura has been an object of satire. Just as Woody Allen, a great Bergman admirer, made fun of The Seventh Seal, Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca (they were funny and popular, in television’s infancy) went after L’Avventura and all of Italian cinema. They were famous for their movie parodies. I remember Imogene Coca with large sunglasses mooching around like Monica Vitti. It was funny at the time.
Bergman grew out of a literary tradition – the 19th century novel and theatre. He is a continuation of the Scandinavian theatre of Ibsen and Strindberg. Bergman used the camera to illuminate what could not be seen, most certainly the soul.
L’Avventura had little precedent in cinema or drama. People had trouble getting a grip on it. In the 47 years since its first showing, though we’ve grown used to experiments in form and content, it still has the power to sweep us away. Bergman, a more traditional artist, is easier to admire. As he grew older his movies grew more humane and focused on the intricacies of the heart as much as the soul. Antonioni stayed chilly and went his own way.
The world seems a more impoverished place with both of them gone.