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Antonioni & Bergman

Bending Light & Baring the Soul

October 31, 2007  |  11:10am
Antonioni & Bergman

When two of the greatest filmmakers in history improbably died within 24 hours of each other on July 30, 2007, a sad, almost painful, realization dawned on cinephiles worldwide: There will be no more films from Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman.

But both men lived long and fruitful lives, so it’s hard not to enjoy the sudden interest in their work and the vigorous debates—unthinkable just a few months ago—among people now eager to compare the opposing styles of these two giant filmmakers, even as they’re tinged with melancholy.

Bergman was 89 and Antonioni was 94, and both men made movies until the end, though Antonioni needed ample assistance from his wife Enrica because of a stroke he suffered in 1985. Paste wrote about their last films—Bergman’s Saraband [Paste #17] and Antonioni’s Gaze of Michelangelo [#34]—as the vibrant works of art that they are. We didn’t know it at the time, but now each film is also a fitting end to a long, inspiring career.

Gaze of Michelangelo is a brief examination of a statue of Moses (sculpted by that other famous Michelangelo). Antonioni himself appears in the film. He walks into the cathedral, studies the stone figure, draws beautiful contrasts between skin and marble, light and dark, fleeting life and lasting legacies, and then walks out into the light of day while a chorus sings. Cut to black.

Wheelchair-bound since his stroke, the real-life Antonioni hadn’t walked anywhere in a long time, but he was a magician of cinema to the very last frame. He had an amazing run of films, one masterpiece after another, that redefined the way movies look at people, namely by paying as much attention to their surroundings as to what they’re saying. After honing his craft as a filmmaker in Italy, he arrived on the international scene in 1960 with a loose trilogy: L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, three films about privileged people so bored with their lives that they have little to do but wander the city and lament their failing relationships.

But Antonioni—counter to expectations—watched those people with extreme precision. His camera moved as if it were choreographed down to the millimeter because, while the characters in the films may have been bored, the man watching them was not. He was riveted. And he transferred his fascination to the audience, not telling them tales or teaching them lessons, but raising questions, big ones about existence­—why we move around the earth, why we interact with other people, and who we are.

In L’Avventura, Antonioni never explains how the woman who initially appears to be the star disappears a few minutes into the movie. Martin Scorcese, in his documentary about Italian cinema, notes that, in the same year, Hitchcock dispensed with his star early, too, but he was quite clear about where she went. (It involved a shower and a knife.) Antonioni, on the other hand, said nothing because, in his films, existence is an indistinct concept.

When the police come looking for Jack Nicholson’s white convertible in The Passenger, Jack asks, confused, “Officer, are you looking for the car or the person in it?” It’s the central question of Antonioni’s work: Are we separate from our shells?

When people discover Antonioni’s films, even before they understand what he’s doing—that he’s exploring his subjects not with plot or dialogue but with the movement of the camera, placing characters next to vast, imposing buildings, squeezing them into the corner of the frame—even before audiences are fully in tune with what he’s saying, they’re often mesmerized by how he’s saying it. Zabriskie Point, his first film shot in America, was called a disaster in 1970 by critics who must have expected the maverick to make something a little more commercial once he set foot in Hollywood. But that’s not our man.

Today, Zabriskie Point is simply stunning, a weird and provocative film that may have looked like a product of the hippie counterculture in 1970, but now looks like a comment on that very culture. Many a Hollywood film over the last four decades has used rock n’ roll and explosions, but give Mr. Antonioni access to Pink Floyd, a house in the desert, a pile of dynamite and a movie camera, and you’ll have what Slate writer Dennis Lim called “a feat of both geometry and anarchy, one of the most spectacular movie endings in history.”

Antonioni wasn’t a master of special effects; he was a master of bending light to suit his themes. And I don’t want to know how he did it. I don’t want to know how the woman in Blow-Up disappears from the sidewalk mid-stride. (“We ran the sequence a frame at a time and could not discover the method of her disappearance,” says Roger Ebert.) I don’t want to know how long it took to carve up the three dimensions of the living room in L’Eclisse or even how long it took to coordinate the sound of the oscillating fan with Monica Vitti’s hair. I don’t want to know how the camera does what it does at the end of The Passenger. (An admiring Nicholson reveals the secret in his DVD commentary, but his explanation raises as many questions as it answers.) But I do want to point out that, as the camera inches forward in the hotel room of the eponymous passenger, it pans slightly to the right, revealing the faint reflection of a man reaching into his pocket (for… for what, a gun?). Just before the camera leaves Jack’s story, Jack’s shell moves through the window into the courtyard, and turns around to look inward.

Again and again, Antonioni hid his plot in shadows but pulled the questions into the light. Again and again, his camera detached from the action and let his characters drift off on their own, sometimes never to return, and in the process he reminded us that we’re all passengers.

Split Personality

In Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband, he revisited two characters he’d created 30 years earlier with Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson in Scenes from a Marriage, but what could’ve been a sentimental rewrite of a dark, painful portrait of divorce—from the softer perspective of an old man looking back—is anything but. Saraband’s characters are older but not necessarily wiser. They remain flawed, and Bergman did not flinch in his portrayal of them. Even in his 80s, he was baring his teeth and kicking at the walls.

Bergman was far more prolific than Antonioni, making some 60 features in his life, many of which have undeserved reputations as dry art films. People who’ve only seen the still photo of the black-robed Death in the Seventh Seal may not realize that the knight’s encounter with the grim reaper is as witty as it is philosophical. It’s not Death’s idea to play chess; it’s the would-be victim’s, trying his best to hang onto life, even in the time of The Plague.

Like Antonioni, Bergman had his obsessions. He returned often to themes of marital discord, the silence of God and the life of the theater. And as with any great artist, these aren’t just abstractions but facets of himself. The son of a Lutheran minister, he spent many of his final years writing and directing for the stage, and some believe he may have been a stronger dramatist than filmmaker.

The puree of elements that make up Bergman’s biography are blended beautifully in Fanny & Alexander, a period piece about a 10-year-old boy who watches his family like a fly on the wall. He’s a sponge who begins questioning the presence of God as he endures the death of a loved one, feels the force of organized religion and discovers the irresistible allure of storytelling, especially through theater, imagination and projected images.

Bergman, by the way, didn’t seem to have any answers to the questions he raised in this film or those raised in many of his others. But he kept asking them, and he had a knack for bringing his stories to an appropriately dramatic conclusion without cauterizing all of his characters’ wounds. He was a smooth, precise director, but one who—unlike Antonioni—worked within the conventions of film grammar rather than pressing at the medium’s edges. Well, most of the time.

My favorite Bergman film, Persona, not only acknowledges this medium but rips it wide open. Ullmann and Bibi Andersson—two actresses who worked with Bergman many times—play a stage actress and a nurse, respectively. The actress has had a breakdown and been rendered mute in the middle of a performance, and she’s recuperating at a seaside cottage. This simple plot is the skeleton for a very complex examination of identity and psychology. The two women seem to merge at certain points—perhaps they’re two sides of the same woman—and their histories bleed into the present through a variety of cinematic techniques, from the first shot of a projector lighting up and being threaded with film, and the moment in the middle, when the film seems to burn and run in reverse, to the famous, dazzling montage that seems to unearth the unconscious.

Persona doesn’t reveal its meaning easily, and it’s open to a number of interpretations. But it’s noteworthy that the actress in the film works on the stage. Bergman was forever balancing the world of the theater with the world of film; he was an artist with a split personality.

If we want evidence of Antonioni and Bergman’s impact, we need only look at the filmmakers who’ve been inspired by their work. Movies that represent an individual as multiple characters on the screen—like Mulholland Dr., Chuck & Buck and 3 Women—all owe a little something to Bergman’s Persona. But he also had a deeper effect on the American art house. He was loved in his own Sweden and also in France—where the Cahiers crowd was, as usual, ahead of the curve—but even here he helped solidify film as a legitimate art form and not just entertainment. Some days it seems that half the dramas playing in American art houses are Bergman knock-offs. These filmmakers would do well to stop imitating the details and adopt his work ethic and sense of personal vision instead.

Antonioni, though he made fewer films, is even more widely imitated, and by a broader range of filmmakers. Even some of today’s most original directors like, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a Century), Hong Sang-soo (Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors) and Claire Denis (Vendredi Soir) seem to have taken Antonioni’s baton. And in this country, Sofia Coppola, who’s still finding her voice, owes a great deal to Antonioni’s films for Lost in Translation—she even mentioned him in her Oscar acceptance speech. It’s probably no coincidence that a few decades earlier, her father seemed to catch a spark from Blow-Up when he made one of his greatest films, The Conversation.

It’s even hard to see the explosions at the end of Fight Club or V for Vendetta without also thinking of Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. But, alas, philosophically, they’re a league away from Antonioni and Bergman.

This summer we lost two of the greats, no doubt about it, but they’ve left us with their films and their ideas, and they proved that simply wondering about our place in the world can be sexy, jolting, depressing, invigorating and mysterious.

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