Ingmar Bergman dies in the morning. Michelangelo Antonioni dies at night.
On the same day. In the middle of summer. Now, to most people, these are names from the distant past. Their real heyday in the cinema was at least forty years ago. These were old men (Bergman was 89, Antonioni, 94). More than one commentator has termed their mid-twentieth century, fearing-the-atom-bomb, discuss-our-alienation-over-black-coffee-later modernism as “quaint.” We live in a period where some of those in power have termed the central tenets of the Geneva Conventions “quaint.” Can the term “elitist” be far behind? The other recurring word in these initial pieces is “difficult.” Not easy.
But there are always going to be certain circles, reportedly wide in the late fifties to the late sixties, and restricted to a few hundred devoted cinephiles now, who will take on the purported challenge of Persona and L’Avventura, these artists’ most representative work, as a badge of honor. Then there are some people who will be instinctively drawn to these films, and other films made by Bergman and Antonioni, and approach them time and again as we would approach an old lover or a friend. For these people, and I include myself among them, losing the two greatest living film directors in one day is an annihilating experience. There are sure to be writers and other devotees of their work who will deal with their grief by immediately bemoaning the current state of cinema. This is tiresome, but inevitable, and it’s better than forgetting them and what we could take from them. In the coming weeks, I would hope that their work is re-shown and re-watched and re-evaluated, in tandem and separately.
I saw most of Bergman’s films in college, wearing headphones in Bobst Library at NYU, not the ideal setting for first encountering the super-charged sexuality of Summer with Monika or The Rite. After college, the Anthology Film Archives did a complete retrospective of Antonioni’s work, in thoroughly wretched prints. Still, these seemingly unideal conditions enhanced the sense of trauma and, yes, difficulty, in their work. I did think of them together, long before they were united in death on July 30. And let’s face it: their concentration on existential dread makes them perfect for anxious college-aged viewers. After a while, life and work and a few laughs turn us all into Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) in Woody Allen’s Manhattan: “I mean, the silence, God’s silence…OK, OK…I mean, I loved it at Radcliffe, but alright, you outgrow it!” Surely Allen means us to reject the self-loathing, brittle Wilke, who churns out novelizations of popular movies instead of trying to create serious art. But her comments nail the Bergman/Antonioni pretensions and the mindset that would most appreciate them. She also sees Bergman’s “fashionable pessimism” as “adolescent.” This hits even closer to the bone. Wilke has a point. Several points, actually. She is also evil. Her pop mindset rules today, and we have to do everything we can to topple it. Paying attention to the virtues of Bergman and Antonioni is definitely a step in the right direction.
Bergman made far more films than Antonioni. Most of his early work up to Summer with Monika is dull and muddled, though he does show his talent in individual sequences. Monika was his breakthrough, a love story starring his then-girlfriend, the mouth-wateringly sexy, thick-lipped brunette Harriet Andersson. Her Monika does not want to grow up, get a job and live a day-to-day existence: towards the end, she stares straight into the camera, defiantly, in the first really indelible Bergman close-up. Bergman created his own camera language, just as Antonioni did, and it was based on Dreyer’s technique from The Passion of Joan of Arc: staring patiently at eyes, noses and especially mouths in close-up, looking for secrets. It should be remembered that Bergman was also a key man of the theater, always directing plays in-between movies, often with the same actors, and his actresses generally went from the set to the stage to his bed and back again. This hermetically sealed world could seem antiseptic in his worst films of the fifties, but starting with Through a Glass Darkly and running clear through the rest of his movies, his often carnal intimacy with his actresses paid off with blistering insights into performance and attempted connection between players on stage and off.
I gained a much deeper understanding of Bergman’s art from seeing three of his stage productions at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM): Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata, Schiller’s Maria Stuart and Ibsen’s Ghosts. Bergman pinned his actors together on stage, trapping them, stripping them, and they used their whole bodies to escape the vise of his control and the darkness of the texts; the effect was extraordinarily erotic. Bergman ended his film career with a close-up of a grieving Liv Ullmann in Saraband. I think it’s worth mentioning that he ended his equally important theater career with the image of Osvald (a spectacular Jonas Malmsjö) in Ghosts, stripped naked, dying of syphilis, reaching for his mother and the sun, the womb and death. This endpoint came as a relief after seeing so many Bergman characters assaulting each other verbally; most of his people are sadistic virtuosos pledged to detailed recriminations of their family, friends and lovers. Bergman is the true heir of Strindberg, but also of Dostoyevsky: his characters are always confessing. He has them tell us everything in heightened monologues rather than show us their behavior, but this creates its own tension when you’ve immersed yourself in his world.
If being unforgiving is adolescent, then Bergman was adolescent until the end. But his images of bliss linger as much as his vicious dialogue (and the nastiness was always mitigated by the lilting music of the Swedish language). Here’s Harriet Andersson, resplendently naked, walking away from the camera in Summer with Monika. Andersson again, on a swing with her sisters in Cries & Whispers, experiencing a moment of stolen happiness. Most touchingly, Victor Sjöström’s aged professor, seeing his parents wave at him from a distance in Wild Strawberries. To be sure, the uncomfortable images stay with us, too. The German Expressionist dream sequence in Sawdust and Tinsel, a bursting, stylized view of marital humiliation. There’s the image of Death in The Seventh Seal, funny and easily parodied, yes, but uncanny and scary, too. How about the old woman who takes off her face and plunks her eyeball into a wine glass in Hour of the Wolf? And we can hardly forget every hilariously mortified role played by the long-suffering Ingrid Thulin, starting with her skin-crawlingly disgusting speech to the camera in Winter Light, moving to her masturbatory lesbian in The Silence, on to her repressed, vagina-cutting sister in Cries & Whispers, and ending with After the Rehearsal, where she does a sort of “Thulin’s Greatest Hits” as a self-loathing, aging actress who can’t stop acting. Best of all, there’s Bibi Andersson’s whole performance in Persona, a complex portrait of a limited, sensual woman gradually subsumed by a vampirish actress (Liv Ullmann). Summer with Monika notwithstanding, Bergman is the least romantic of directors. He has no hope about anything, and he consistently dramatizes what he sees as our inevitable devouring of each other. There’s a lot to reject in his work. But we cannot ignore the essential, dream-like truth of his lifelong enquiry into acting, sex and anger, leading always to solitude and wounds that will never heal.
Leaving the Scandinavian hothouse of Ingmar Bergman, we can come to the limitless open air of Italian Michelangelo Antonioni with relief. This was no man of the theater, and he had no interest in acting at all (sometimes to the detriment of his films). An aspiring filmmaker today would only court disaster by using any of Bergman’s film techniques. But if we could really see and absorb the way that Antonioni looked at life with his camera, and follow his example, our films would be so much the better for it (we can feel his use of slow, lifelike rhythms in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Wong Kar-wai and many of our finest directors of today). Antonioni was not particularly interested in looking at people, as Bergman was, and he didn’t care much about specific personality. What he did was seemingly simple. Antonioni chose a milieu, a space. He would put a person in the space, Monica Vitti, or Jeanne Moreau, or even a man. He would have this person walk though the space and react to the environment. This method reached its climax in L’Eclisse, which is a whole film where we see Vitti look, we see what she is looking at, and we see her reaction. If you yield to Antonioni’s way of looking at things, your whole sense of time, duration and observation will become deeper, more sensitive and more receptive.
Antonioni was perhaps the most articulate of great film directors: he explains himself seductively in The Architecture of Vision, a book of his interviews and writings. “If I can look and wonder, I don’t need God,” he claimed. There is a sensuality to his films that is always being repudiated in the dialogue; Antonioni is constantly trying to show us that modern Eros is sick, yet he himself seems to derive furtive pleasure from looking at actresses like Vitti and Moreau. He realizes this impulse in himself, so he grafts it onto his male characters and critiques his own voyeurism, condemning his fellow directors and the audience for prurience when we look at a beautiful woman or man on screen. At the same time, he takes us deeper into the interior life and moods of his women and some of his men. Antonioni realizes that movies deal with surfaces, and that no amount of literary explanation can make up for that (Bergman never quite learned this lesson). So he made films about the frustration of not knowing what is going on inside a person, and, more daringly, about not even knowing what to make of buildings, trees, the sky, the desert. In so much of his early work, his characters long to go to Africa. When Jack Nicholson starts out in that country in Antonioni’s crowning achievement, The Passenger, he finds nothing but desolation, and wishes to escape his identity.
Antonioni’s early films are too little seen. They have too much talk, and they are hurt by the poor Italian post-dubbing, but they are all masterpieces. Most deserving of recovery is The Lady Without Camellias, a disturbing, compassionate film about a working class girl (Lucia Bosé) who becomes a movie sex symbol. This is not an abstract movie, like his later work: the command of psychological realism is complete and rigorous. Every person the camera sees in Camellias has equal weight; Antonioni’s camera will go wherever it wants to go. It will drift off to observe a crying girl in a corner, or a strange-looking older woman, and it will stay staring at an empty space long after people leave the frame. Self-pity sometimes creeps into his work, and his view of the upper classes is always overdone, caricatured. He can’t be bothered about story, construction, dialogue or performance. Yet Antonioni is one of the major film directors. If I prefer him to Bergman, who I also love, it is because of several images that can never be forgotten once they are seen:
The garbage collector sleeping on the edge of a tall building in his short N.U. Lucia Bosé’s reaction in The Lady Without Camellias when she hears a man say, “With a face like that, if only she could act!” The clusters of conversation and the shifting figures at the beach in Le Amiche. The way Alida Valli’s hands shake and hesitate as she reaches out to touch the corpse of her dead husband (Steve Cochran) in Il Grido, as if she wants to comfort him and knows that now she’ll never be able to. The remorseless views of rocky, unforgiving landscape in L’Avventura, as Vitti cries, “Anna!” The empty hotel rooms she runs through towards the end, and the hand she places on the back of her straying lover’s neck. Moreau’s long, upsetting walk through the city in La Notte, and the climactic sexual endgame in the sand with her husband (Marcello Mastroianni). The couples making love in the dunes in Zabriskie Point. The little boy who cries and cries, unnoticed, in Antonioni’s documentary on China, Chung Kuo. The look of rueful insecurity on Fanny Ardant’s face in Beyond the Clouds. And the last ineffable Antonioni image, in his short film for the omnibus Eros. A warring couple sits in a café. The woman raises her glass and holds it up to the light. She could put the glass back down. She could smash it. She could place it on the floor. But no. She puts the glass on the floor on its side and rolls it away from her. What does this image mean? I have no idea. It’s intangible, a tribute to the shifting, illegible surfaces of film. It is just right.
I’ve saved the best Antonioni images, or at least the most telling for us now, for last. Who can forget the ending of L’Eclisse, where the so-called “main characters,” Vitti and Alain Delon, vanish from their own film, leaving us with empty spaces where they could have been, and a series of disconnected views of urban sites and sounds. It could be a horror film, or something by Warhol. Aside from its worry about “the bomb,” it could be a snap shot of us today, bombarded by advertising, disposable pop culture, and isolating technology. And so as I walked around today, I couldn’t help but feel that I was living out the end of L’Eclisse, going on, in some creepy, zombie fashion, without the main characters. Without artists. Without Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. And I want them back. I want their films, all of them, on the largest screens available. And I want as many people as possible to see their films, so that they too can be touched and prodded and upset and elated at their images, before we also join them and Antonioni’s Anna in the void off-screen.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.