July 25-31, 2007

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Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) and Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

By Richard von Busack

The sarcastic response is to say that it was news of the grosses for I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry that killed two great film directors on the same day, July 30, 2007.

Beating the film scene of today with the reputation of these two classic directors misses the point. They had to compete in their day with mass entertainments that were every bit as soul-killing as what we're up against today.

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman worked into old age in a restless business that insists that only youth has any wisdom. Perhaps the fiercer of the two was Antonioni, as seen in 1995's Beyond the Clouds, a multipart film often rising to his customary profundity. Mute and crippled from a stroke, and working with the help of Wim Wenders and John Malkovich, Antonioni made a film that shamed the provincial and narrow standards of the time.

Antonioni was filming up to age 92, doing a short for the trilogy Eros; fluffy work, but not without a gleam to it.

The Passenger (1975), rereleased two years ago, is Antonioni's most accessible film. This anti-spy story proves how bereft of feeling the Bourne pictures are when they attempt to dwell on the subject of the existential panic of a man without any roots.

Sometimes intransigent, sometimes using the kind of symbolism that looks (and can be) pretentious, Antonioni left his mark on world cinema. He noted, with amazed disgust and fascination, the sleekness of Europe, the shine of its scar tissue and the emptiness of its dewy-eyed faith in the power of material goods.

See his fingerprints on cinema wherever you look: the despoliation in Red Desert sinks into the ground water of Koyaanisqatsi and other cinematic montages of our poisoned Earth.

Imitation of Antonioni ran especially high in the 1980s. See Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, or Adrian Lyne's Nine 1/2 Weeks. More recently, you can catch Antonioni's reflection in the deathly sheen of the Matrix movies.

Metroactive's past coverage of Antonioni's work
An Antonioni retrospective
An obit for Sven Nykvist, Bergman's longtime cinematographer

Ingmar Bergman's death comes as more of a surprise; in 2003's Saraband, he proved himself still in command of his end of cinema: the study of the war between men and women. This last film served as a mirror for Bergman's own solitude and silence, since he had withdrawn to seclusion on a Baltic island to end his days.

Bergman had the kind of forceful talent and energy that finds outlets in 60 films and five marriages. His films could be austere, morbid, antic and horrific. His frequent wrestling with the idea of mortality attracted Woody Allen away from the world of sketch comedy; Allen's public apprenticeship to Bergman has never really ended. *

And if critic Richard Corliss' definition of Bergman as "the Shakespeare of our cinema" seems a little thick, just think over how well Bergman handled pure comedy, in the gentle, startlingly compassionate Smiles of a Summer Night; it's just as ably as he handled as the pure tragedy of in The Seventh Seal.

Those are the masterpieces, desert-island films: and then there's the rest of the trove: memory pieces like Fanny and Alexander, studies of war like Shame and The Serpent's Egg, microscopic analysis of the craft of acting like Persona and so many other much-copied, never-equaled explorations of man's crooked heart.

Metroactive's past coverage of Bergman's work
The Bergman-scripted Faithless
The Passenger
Beyond the Clouds

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