05 August 2007

On Bergman and Antonioni

And so a chapter closes, or so we’re told. The obituaries that followed the news of two masters’ deaths were, as these things must be, standard-issue profiles drawn up well in advance. It took a few days for the much more interesting pieces to emerge, the ones that yoked together the deaths of the once-chic Italian and the always-dour Swede to make a Statement about the Death of the Art Cinema. The Sunday Arts sections led with these. The titles were suggestive enough: ‘Ode to the ‘art’ film’ (Richard Schickel in the Los Angeles Times); ‘Closing Credits’ (Ty Burr in the Boston Globe); ‘Before Them, Films Were Just Movies’ (A. O. Scott in the New York Times).

Most of these pieces were baby boomer reflections on spent youth long since passed and presented almost explicitly as such. Some outlets printed deflations, of course. New City syndicates across the country ran J. Hoberman’s essay that ridiculed Bergman’s “high-middlebrow symbolism, evident metaphysical anguish and absence of challenging formal innovation [that] made his movies safe for college English departments.” And the New York Times Op-Ed page found space for Rosenbaum to post a harsh screed in which he concluded “while Mr. Bergman’s films may have lost much of their pertinence, they will always remain landmarks in the history of taste.”

Poor taste though it may be for Rosenbaum to consign Bergman to the category of ‘landmarks in the history of taste’ before the man’s ashes have had a moment to cool, the gushing think pieces essentially say the same thing. The appreciations of Bergman trot out the same hoary catchphrases and watchwords, ‘existential dread’ foremost among them. Few print any new observations or even suggest new ways of watching these films. The most deeply-felt moments in these articles are those in which the authors historicize the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, gliding over the works and focusing on the supposed death of serious cinema or film culture or halcyon days of critical consensus. It is, of course, the height of provincialism to treat foreign artists who made films within a specific cultural and personal context as important chiefly for their contributions to American moviegoing habits.

Schickel is the most up-front about this, even when he pretends he isn’t:
The deaths on the same day of two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, naturally prompt gloomy end-of-an-era reflections […] But, in truth, what I've been mourning these past few days is not so much the passing of these difficult, masterful old men but of the cinematic era they dominated -- which sputtered out, its passing largely unremarked, well over 30 years ago.
Schickel’s piece is not, one supposes, a ‘gloomy end-of-an-era reflection’ because he knows that happened over three decades ago. But his own account makes one suspicious:
I'm talking about the international cinema culture that arose in the postwar 1940s and dominated not just the screens of the world but the sensibilities of a newly impassioned audience at least until the early '70s. I'm talking about Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray, the entire French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Melville) and, lest we forget, the cheeky Czechs of the Prague Spring.
Much as Schickel would like to historicize art cinema, his own honor roll seems historically misleading. Ozu was scarcely seen outside neighborhood theaters on the West Coast until the very end of the ‘golden age of art house cinema,’ and even then he never attracted the kind of hip audience that flocked to Kurosawa and Fellini. Melville’s masterpiece, Army of Shadows, wasn’t distributed in the U.S. until last year. Le Samourai did play the circuit back then—in an English-dubbed print retitled The Godson to capitalize on a certain popular hit of the period.

And what about Rossellini? Here’s Arthur Mayer, who distributed the first neorealist films in the U.S.:
“Open City” was generally advertised with a misquotation from Life adjusted to read: “Sexier than Hollywood ever dared to be,” together with a still of two young ladies deeply engrossed in a rapt embrace, and another of a man being flogged, designed to tap the sadist trade. The most publicized scene in “Paisan” showed a young lady disrobing herself with an attentive male visitor reclining by her side on what was obviously not a nuptial couch.
When Open City opened at Chicago’s Imperial Theater, it was an adult-only show advertised as a “savage orgy of lust!” What about the films he made with Ingrid Bergman? They were obviously ignored in their time or forgotten by the time Hollis Alpert wrote this in an infamous 1959 Saturday Evening Review piece:
I hesitate to say that Bergman’s films are for the connoisseur, for that implies that their appeal is snobbish and even esoteric. It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow, depending on whether the word Bergman suggests Ingmar or Ingrid.

The point that should be apparent from the above is this: rather than a time of national awakening to the possibility of film as art, the art house age represented by Bergman and Antonioni saw a new insistence on the division between art for us and dross for them. It was the age of Masscult and Midcult, to take a phrase from Dwight Macdonald, who, after much hand-wringing, decided that art could not, by definition, be available to the masses.

That’s what these pieces overlook. They also assume that Bergman and Antonioni instigated auteurism. (Note that the Los Angeles Times also printed a side bar about those new ‘auteurs’: Cameron Crowe and M. Night Shyamalan.) It’s a related assumption, insofar as it elevates the sheen of the era over its historical details. Such terminological clumsiness obscures the schism that made film culture so vibrant in the period discussed—the fact that, for a vocal minority, the real auteurs were Hawks and Minnelli and Bresson. The Antonioni fans of the day would never have denigrated their god as an ‘auteur’: that was the word that Pauline Kael had ridiculed after Sarris suggested that Cukor had a more abstract style than Bergman. That we can today regard both Antonioni and, say, Sirk as great directors is progress from the past, but a position inconceivable without the battles that characterized that very past. Antonioni and Bergman represented one particular kind of cinema art and that was part of the point—an art genre that could be placed alongside, but more often presumed superior to, Manny Farber’s brand of termite art.

The truth is that films and film directors were taken very seriously before the art house era. Intellectuals of an earlier period surely did not need the Ingmar example to recognize that Griffith, Stroheim, Eisenstein, and Murnau were ‘personal’ or ‘distinctive’ artists even if they toiled in the tawdry movie industry. ‘Difficult’ films were indeed made before The Seventh Seal, though it would be irresponsible to suggest that Limite, Vampyr, Borderline, Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Ménilmontant, The Wind, Enthusiasm, At Land, or Moonrise ever earned a comparable audience. (It should be noted, though, that for New Yorkers of a certain age, The Blood of a Poet and Lot in Sodom were the Seventh Seal of their generation.)

But Bergman and (to a lesser extent) Antonioni still constitute a significant strain in film and cultural history—the film of ‘personal expression’ that does not arise from the kind of national genre traditions or avant-garde responses to the same that could, with some thought, characterize all of the above examples. Bergman, his admirers insisted, always had something to do with Ibsen. True enough, but where is Bergman’s The Doll’s House? As Sarris, a lapsed Bergmaniac, noted in his original review of Persona:
Bergman had no politics to speak of—or to film of—simply because Sweden itself lacked significant political tensions .… Bergman’s metaphysical concerns might not have been as asocial if race riots exploded now and then in Stockholm. Bergman’s American admirers on the art-house circuit were nonetheless ripe for Bergman not only because his concerns were more relevant to the angst of sheer affluence, but because he seemed immune to the corruptions of mass taste. His small crew in Sweden was an eloquent rebuke to the massive apparatus of Hollywood films.

Consider the social commentary in that film: Liv Ullman sees a monk burning himself to death on her television screen. She reacts, as she does to everything else in the movie, with silence. Some pundits have postulated that her silence springs from a sense of alienation from the modern world that can drive a Buddhist to suicide over the Vietnam War. But Bergman doesn’t say much about Vietnam or the Vietnamese here, only about the hysteria inculcated in its observers from afar. It’s the world as a metaphor for interior cacophony.

Bergman’s films are distinctive and unlike those of any one else. They are insular, but not in the same way as, say, Sukorov’s The Second Circle. They come from a comfortable—but not necessarily less valid—position within the Swedish film industry. Though he made dozens of films, Bergman is not just the Swedish Curtiz. He was not striving for continued relevance in a big industry where you were only as good as your last picture. His films reflect a certain degree of privilege, free from the protean striving that even crops up in a great, if glossy, MGM picture like Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.

Of course, as Kael so gleefully noted, a bad director’s films would be just as distinctive and his oeuvre as perversely whole as those of a good director. So distinctiveness alone cannot be the sole criterion for excellence. In Bergman’s case, though, the distinctive stamp reaches autobiographical heights, as in Fanny and Alexander with its Lutheran minister who finds brittle glee in the anguish of others, setting his playthings up and watching them suffer. That’s the Bergman formula through and through. And yet the intensity of Bergman’s films—their air of confession and private disgrace, of a stillborn catharsis—preempts the charge that his work is slight. If great artists profit from an awareness of their limitations, then Bergman belongs in the first rank. Like Warhol’s films, Bergman’s work operates with the assumption that a small, carefully delimited slice of the world can be harrowing beyond means and therefore truthful beyond measure.

Antonioni’s scope is much more ambitious. His films often amount to desperate tests, the characters wandering through endless social and moral matrices and finding each wanting and not nearly as distinct as had been hoped. He also plays with the limits of the medium, but in a different way than Bergman does, reducing plot to incident and character to a set of gestures and glances. There is, for example, the entrancing moment in L’eclisse wherein Delon and Vitti bend behind the pillars of the stock exchange to glimpse one another in the crowd. Dramatically, there is nothing here, but that’s the point: Antonioni has shifted the very stuff of cinema.

Authorship is never an easy matter when speaking of films, though these two filmmakers foregrounded personal themes and styles as the clearest proof of it. It is, to me at least, a less interesting kind of authorship than Evgenii Bauer updating classic literature for the cinematic idiom or Sternberg using genre conventions and studio resources to realize personal fetishes or, for that matter, Navajo Indians recording their lives at the instigation of anthropologists Adair and Worth. In the latter set of films, one really has a sense of the artist negotiating with the medium. These are first films in a more profound sense than is usually meant, for they are films unburdened with the history of the medium. The very rules of cinema are being discovered between the frames. Next to that, personal anguish artfully expressed looks cheap. And it goes without saying that selling one’s cinema as delicate episodes of personal expression (which, one should admit, Fellini did much more often than even Bergman) invites an equally subjective response. And where subjectivity is concerned, Bergman is easily too histrionic for those raised on Dreyer.

For a generation of filmgoers, though, these personal visions exemplified all that was noble and notable in cinema. (Personal visions of the Bergman-Antonioni variety, not the Brakhage-Mekas one.) The introverted values inherent in their work should not be denied but nor should they be dismissed on that account. The danger, though, in waxing nostalgic about a time when American moviegoers were ready for serious, difficult works is that such an account implies, without much evidence, that they’re indifferent to these things now. Schickel cites expensive Hollywood clunkers of the moment and complains that a contemporary filmmaker like Leconte can’t compete. But that kind of equation ignores the fact that Wild Strawberries bloomed, in its own way, alongside Ben-Hur and that Red Desert opened in the shadow of The Sound of Music. “We would rather be teased than troubled,” writes Scott, “and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness…. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good.” That sentiment is easy enough so long as Scott doesn’t bother to hail any living filmmakers as supreme artists. Have the last twenty years really been dominated by mindless blockbusters or did it just seem that way because most print critics have been looking for art in all the old places while ignoring new waves in Hong Kong and Taiwan?

Assuming that the youth of America will be bored by the high seriousness and slow pacing of art house pictures, as Burr does in his piece, is a less sophisticated version of the fears that were inaugurated by Sontag’s death of cinema piece over a decade ago. Blaming MTV and Spielberg and home video and a host of other demons only goes so far in explaining why the art house aesthetic died. A better explanation may be that taste-makers conceived art cinema so narrowly that the departure of two of its luminaries seemed tantamount to the death of the medium itself.

UPDATE: Via e-mail, it appears that the pieces discussed above are the cream of a very uneven crop.

1 comment:

Jason said...

A really outstanding post, Kyle. That last sentence in particular really gets to the heart of what's troubling about these various "death of arthouse culture" sentiments.