Friday, July 31, 2009

Old Stuff: Two Obits from Two Years Ago

Two years ago, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni passed away within twenty-four hours of one another. What follows are two Obit entries I wrote for my other blog a few days thereafter. They are what they are:

The Most Happy Auteur

Ingmar Bergman, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 89, was already one of the most celebrated film artists on earth by the age of forty; and not without good cause. Over the preceding fifteen years (and more than one decade thereafter) he had, through the force of his will and his talent alone, accomplished a feat that was almost miraculous: He brought to bear upon narrative cinema the most directly personal vision it had ever witnessed. Think about it. Personal expression in film arguably goes all the way back to the Brothers Lumiere, and directors always, to greater or lesser degrees, used their work to cast perspective on matters of far more immediate concern to them than the audience or their putative collaborators. But when people speak (rightfully) of intensely private dimensions in the work of, say, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, it has to be remembered that whatever core of inward reflection these directors sought could not have been achieved without the protective armor of commercially-viable genres. Inside the contours of a Western or a Suspense number they were, very often, poets; outside them, they were considered unemployable.

After a half-decade of slugging it out in the trenches of Sweden's film industry, Bergman had truck with genres only rarely, and when he did they never adhered to anyone's conventions. His was a process, almost from the start, of striking personal thematic chords again and again and again. With very few exceptions he wrote every film he directed, and not one could have been conceivable as the product of any other. His works were his, or they were no one's.

He was, in this sense, on the fast track of history. In 1948, just two years after Bergman commenced his directorial career, the novelist Alexandre Astruc thundered across the pages of L'Ecrain Francais with a piece that in its time was seen less an essay than a call to arms. In this article, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde", he advanced the idea of 'Le camera-stylo', and argued that film artists could only realize the full potentialities of the medium by means of direct, singular authorship, an authorship at once similar to that of a novelist or a painter but wholly dissimilar in that its methods were exclusively those of cinema. It was idealism run rampant, but that only made its allure, for some, all the more alluring.

It's a proposition with which one can, of course, dispute endlessly, but in the realm of narrative filmmaking Ingmar Bergman consummated Astruc's ideal more completely than any director of his day. So it falls, then, as naturally as night falls upon day, that in the full flower of his creativity he would often find himself dismissed by the high tide of auteurist movie reviewers, usually American, whose critical mandate was virtually fueled by such outlandishly romantic proclamations as Astruc's. The reason for this had little to do with his movies and everything to do with the attitudes of a certain breed of reviewer: Auteurist criticism, as it came to be, was essentially a sport, one where each critic mined a body of work for the oft-hidden authorial hand of its director and then wrote their way (often poorly) to Olympus. It's an engaging preoccupation, always good for passing the time, but Bergman made it too easy.

No one, after all, had to look very far or for very long to find the evidence of his hand. It was manifest from first frame to last. What else was there to say? When Jonas Mekas (more gadfly than auteurist was he) once stated somewhat foolishly that there was more cinema in Hawks's Air Force than in the entirety of Ingmar Bergman's ouvre, it was not without a particle or two of real frustration. It was as if, by so closely incarnating the auteur model, Bergman was somehow playing dirty pool. If he'd been laboring in the charnel house of a severely regimented film industry such as Hollywood's, cranking out genre assignments and sneaking whatever he could of himself into the most rote, impersonal material, then he'd be presenting critics with a challenge, something they could work with. But the way he was doing it, the way he always did it, there was nothing for them to write about. It was no fair; no fun.

In a 1972 interview with John Simon . . . published in Ingmar Bergman Directs; a book, by contrast, almost tumescent with admiration for its subject ("To be the most important man in the most important art must be a terrible responsibility. Does it bother you?") . . . he spoke of what inspired his works. "It starts with a sort of tension or a specific scene, some lines, a picture or something, a piece of music. It just starts as a very, very small scene. And from this little scene comes a trembling. I look at it and try to pull it out. And sometimes it remains just this little thing.. But sometimes it's more; I can't stop and suddenly I have a lot of material." If we warrant that this is so . . . and the thousand evasions movie directors employed in interviews could often be an art unto itself; one worthy of fuller exploration at another time . . . then what is remarkable about Ingmar Bergman is not that he would draw inspiration from seemingly odd and random elements, but that his engagement with his own sensibility, his supreme confidence in it, up to and including an acceptance of its unknowable corridors, was such that he could then use those random elements to construct, as he did, a wholly coherent, utterly compelling body of cinema.

By using his imagination to plumb the deepest recesses of himself, he in turn gave us something we could then use to see ourselves, thereby succeeding where so many navel-gazers (and film critics) fail.

The Director of the Moment

It's an appropriate image, don't you think?

Not that he was any more at home in the treacherous expanse of Death Valley than Erich von Stroheim had been forty-five years earlier. Nor would I say that he emerged from that red-gold desert with a film anyone would call a triumph in the art of the motion picture (it was, in fact, the worst of his films; though not without its moments). No, I merely make this observation to point out that Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away last week at the age of 94, could find more in empty spaces and relative silences than any filmmaker in history. "I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible." he once said, "I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."

It was Antonioni's limning of that social context, his greater or lesser understanding of it, that enabled these realizations, gave them breath. Unlike Federico Fellini, the director he was so often and so foolishly pitted against by movie reviewers in the early 1960s, Antonioni had little interest in cramming his frames to their edges with human bric-a-brac (beauties, grotesques, endless, endless talkers) and a filming style unhinged yet, at its core, severely disciplined. He instead stripped the universe his narratives dwelled in of everything they (and, by extension, we) didn't need, making all he left in that much more stark and forbidding. With its awful history and abundant life-force, Italy is a country whose arts were never easily dispassionate, and no medium practiced there was ever more manic than its cinema (it's the one crucial, unbreakable link between that country's commercial filmmaking and its so-called Art cinema), yet Antonioni's work, at first glance, seemed oddly cold-blooded in comparison with . . . just about everyone's. But that was only their surface. His films were, in fact, intensely dramatic at their best, though totally bereft of the thousand manipulations of melodrama; and they could be excruciating in the utter persistence with which the background, as he put it, of his characters made itself known to us.

Michelangelo Antonioni was, if nothing else, a director of moments. This is not to say that he excelled at individual sequences at the expense of the whole, or even that he had an abiding gift for dramatic, carefully constructed epiphanies. His unique gift, his genius (to use a word pressed into backbreaking service this week) lay in depicting with immense precision the most agonizing hours of inner torment, documenting on film that which cannot be documented so directly: The moment when an artist begins to know the limits of art; the moment when a marriage can no longer go on; the moment when a man's inanition of will finally reduces every personal illusion to dust; the moment when a revolutionary impulse dies; the moment when loss becomes irretrievable. It was something no other filmmaker, then or now, was capable of. It was literally like photographing heartbreak.

In New York magazine earlier this week, Bilge Ebiri squeezed out the reflexive teardrop; lamenting the passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, placing these doubly sad events in contrast to the foul success of someone like Brett Ratner, then reading into it all the usual, sinister implications. Doesn't bode well for us, does it? Well, who knows. I won't go the Cassandra route (not this time) and foretell a dour and detestable future for those of us who are hopelessly obsessed with cinema. Frankly, I'm of the opinion (sometimes) that we cinephiles only rarely deserve to have artists like Antonioni . . . or Bergman . . . or whatever giant falls next (Godard? Rivette? Kenneth Anger??) walk among us and bring forth their works.

Let's just be thankful we have them for as long as they're around.

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