The Dance of Death from The Seventh Seal, 1957.
Bengt Ekerot (Death), playing chess with the Knight (Max von Sydow), right, Still from The Seventh Seal, 1957.
David Hemmings and Veruschka, Still from Blow-up, 1966.
Michelangelo Antonioni, still from Zabriskie Point, 1970.
Bibi Anderson (left) and Liv Ullman, Still from Persona.
Michelangelo Antonioni, still from L'Avventura, 1960, Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.
Michelangelo Antonioni, still from The Passenger, 1975, center, Jack Nicholson.
Michelangelo Antonioni, still from The Passenger, 1975, center, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider.
Gunnar Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin, Still from Winter Light.
By STEVE SHAPIRO
Word of Ingmar Bergman's death in Sweden, on July 30th, had barely begun to register when the announcement was issued from Rome that Michelangelo Antonioni, too, had died, the same day. Bergman was 89; Antonioni, amazingly, was 94: their deaths were not unexpected, but the shock — of both, on the same day, given who they were — was real in a way that I imagined was no longer possible to believe in. The outpouring of encomiums (as well as the expected hit jobs from critics who had to show their independence) was, in a sense, a relief; the movies might be dead, but the death of two of film’s modern masters was an occasion for celebration. Like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both died on Independence Day in 1826, the two directors were opposites; unlike the two founding fathers who were once comrades-in-arms before falling out over constitutional philosophies, Antonioni and Bergman were opposites in the best of ways. One was the darkness, the other was the light; one was theatrical, the other exemplified the sense of a moving picture (or camera); one dealt with man's alienation from God, the other man's alienation from man, and woman. In their lengthy careers, the two filmmakers came to define post-war cinema, not only for European directors but also for younger Americans eager to tap into something deeper, something both conscious and subconscious which raised questions that many Americans tend to look away from, or joke away. It was not their deaths being celebrated, exactly, but the careers they made, indelibly.
The end of cinema is an evergreen subject, perfect for long car-trips and late-night parties; Bergman and Antonioni, though, swept through the forest of arguments like thunder and lightning — they were forces of nature. And now that they are quiet it is impossible to imagine their careers ever coming together as they did: Death playing a chess match? A movie in which the lead actress disappears in the middle of the story and not only does the director never solve the mystery he appears to veer off into another (and another) movie? Modernism in the arts has yet to be fully absorbed and the movies that came out of Europe especially between the Twenties and the Sixties, from Murnau, Pabst, and Lang to Godard, Bresson, and Jean-Pierre Melville, continue to demand reinterpretation. Compared to the juvenalia excesses of Surrealism, films such as Persona, Blowup, Cries and Whispers, L'Aventurra, and Winter Light are (motion) picture puzzles that become more mysterious with each viewing, like the Mona Lisa, rather than Duchamp's mustachioed parody L.H.O.O.Q. Surrealist philosophy, like much else within Modernism, was a closed box; for filmmakers who relied on their personal experiences and their own perspectives (one can never envisage either Antonioni or Bergman joining any group, except the already alienated), posing the questions mattered more than settling for pat answers. Anyone who has seen Scenes from a Marriage or The Passenger knows neither director wanted the role of priest (Hollywood's preferred version of the director).
Art makes different demands. A painter like de Chirico presents a unique point-of-view much as a photographer such as Cindy Sherman does hers; similarly, while we can say both Bergman and Antonioni were visionaries, their visions were far different from, say, Buñuel (think of the juxtapositions throughout L'Age D'or), Cocteau, and even in his own-universe way, the late Stan Brakhage: entering into any of these artists' private realms is to take on their personalities. Some creative artists — Sid Vicious, James Ellroy, Sean Penn, Jackson Pollock — thrive on their thrusting themselves away from us; for them it makes no sense to parade their emotions and their private selves, when their work is about keeping their essential mystery at bay. Such artists (Brando was the exemplar: our greatest actor yet he constantly libeled his own profession) are shadow artists: they are there and not there. Bergman, coming out of a wholly non-creative family (his strict pastor father drilled religion into him, infamously locking him in darkened cupboards as punishment), used the full force of his person to make his arguments; after watching the two-hour-plus Face to Face many years ago, a friend joked that the exhausting drama should have been either an hour shorter, or ten hours longer: Bergman was an all-or-nothing filmmaker. That movie, like Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries, and Autumn Sonata, indeed, like so many others, is both about some kind of breakdown but also about memory and the past. Coming to terms — that is Bergman's hallmark as a director. When in the midst of the many tributes an occasional but-he-didn't-make-movies-that-moved protest was lodged, I think most of his admirers thought otherwise. Bergman, with the incomparable Sven Nykvist as his defining cinematographer, made more than his share of movie moments, but his interest was in the story, in the emotion, in the drama first; it was that that carried his pictures' sense of the bizarre and the beautiful. Consider the many intense scenes from the superb Fanny & Alexander, especially of the demotic stepfather (a bishop!), and you have a combination Munch-Klimt-Goya composition of dread and fears. His world was so far removed from his audience's lives; yet he reached down inside himself and found us there, too.
Antonioni brought a new cool to the movies; his pictures, connected to an earlier generation of post-war Italian filmmakers like Rossellini by their Italian-ness, reverberated outward in ways that younger audiences in London or New York could identify with — an exposed feeling borne on the wings of Sartre and Camus, on the Cold War's tipping the balance of unease into something that needed new forms to explain what was no longer routine maturing blues. The lashing out by James Dean's character toward his father in Rebel Without a Cause, De Kooning's haunted Women paintings, Ginsberg's Howl, the Americanization of psychoanalysis, the rushing feeling of the Sixties after the gradual build-up of energy throughout the Fifties: films such as L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse, and Red Desert reflected back the inchoate emotions that were changing the arts. Antonioni's movies, peopled with beautiful actresses like Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau (beautiful in a new European fashion but turned upside-down), pushed the limits of what we expected the movies to look and act like, much the way that French authors Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras turned inside-out the expectations of the novel. From his early career (his first film was released in 1950), it was evident that the kind of anomie that attracted Antonioni was European, post-war, culturally aware, philosophical, but not obscure in the styles later formulated by Tarkovsky or Werner Herzog or Kiarostami (much less that of David Lynch). The generally overlooked 1957 drama Il Grido (The Cry) is filled with Antonioniesque cues: the inability to connect with words; the power of solitude (yet equally solitude's remorseless numbingness); the camera's silent gliding across the screen, though when it lingers there is still a sense of motion from the momentum of the drama: the emptiness hangs on the screen like a kind of after-burn. The ending, not unexpectedly, is of a death (a spurned lover falls from a high water tower). In his next films. Antonioni refined his sensibility and his style, so that the story disappeared up the camera's lens.
The two directors would appear to be opposites, like Picasso and Matisse, or Brando and Cary Grant. For the times in which they worked strongest, from the mid-Fifties though the mid-Sixties, their subjects — the question of God and death; the mystery of men and love — are opposite on the face of it, but only if one denies their intertwining qualities. Duality can be a dangerous thing. The great candor in Bergman's films does not negate their technical sides: just think of Persona, which has about everything a movie can imagine, from startling performances to an enigmatic story-line to the appearance of the very celluloid catching fire and burning up. Watch the movie and notice for all the cinematic tricks it is the power of the story, at heart another of Bergman's studies of human puzzlement. Who are we? Why do we suffer? What presence does the past play on the future? If Bergman's movies embody the great philosophers' queries, Antonioni's pictures pose the question not of how do we live but how do we love? The vein of fatalism that can be drawn from a list of Neo-Realist Italian directors concerned with man, Eros, and God onward to the Marxist intent of Pasolini can be applied to Antonioni, but to view him as as without hope would be too narrow. His films are always searching, for something, even if it is never explained (as in The Passenger). In their own ways, both directors searched for what they felt was missing from life, from their lives, and from ours.
They followed E.B. White's command to be obscure clearly.