Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The end of innocence


A whole attitude to cinema died this week, along with two men: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.
There was about both an uninhibited earnestness, expressed in terms both naïve and beautiful, that belongs nowhere in modern cinema, a seriousness that was itself taken so seriously in its day that it could hardly fail to look ludicrous to later generations, even if cynicism were not the official religion of our times.
Bergman's commitment to poetry and symbolism would be laughed off the screen, even the art house screen, were his ideas and techniques ever duplicated today. Some geezer playing chess with the personification of Death – imagine any modern director trying to get away with anything so precious as that!
His depth and gloom, his commitment to a higher culture, his retention of religion as a framework for understanding existential problems, they all seem suspicious, perhaps even a little decadent, to modern sensibilities.
Today, enigma is in and metaphor is out; we want meaning to be subjective, conclusions unreached, the act of unravelling left up to us. Bergman himself realised this, and after the great success of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal switched from poetic allegory to intense psychological drama. He created a legion of fascinating, telling moments in which little is done or said, but whole worlds are there to be observed.
Look at the scene in Autumn Sonata where a lifetime of frustration, rivalry and miscommunication between mother Ingrid Bergman and daughter Liv Ullman is conveyed through the two of them sitting at the piano and playing a Chopin prelude together.
His single most perfect work surely remains Wild Strawberries, the best mingling of his obsessive ruminations on death and meaninglessness and what have you with pictorial subtlety, poignancy and moving performances, especially the central one from Victor Sjostrom as the elderly professor confronting the frustrations, missed opportunities, losses and mistakes of his life as he travels to his old university to accept an honour for his work.
Few films are as thoughtful and yet non-confrontational. It creates a totally unique world and then draws you in; it is one of the very few films from which you seem actually to draw experience. Best, it is free entirely of the Hardyesque pessimism and wilting before fate of which Bergman's work is often accused, and often with good cause. Wild Strawberries seems to understand, as Larkin says, that “Death is no different whined at than withstood.”
It is Antonioni’s films that feel the more modern, however, and certainly more in tune with the current mood, even though - or perhaps because - they are generally flashier, showier, keener to alienate than connect. The anxieties of his characters and scenarios seem to have no religious framework; he's definitely more Sartre than Kierkegaard.
These are also films concerned with modernity itself, and with the modern individual trapped in inauthenticity and disengagement, peopled with smart urban types rather than earnest intellectuals and artists. When the girl goes missing in L’Avventura the event drives her companions even further inward emotionally, so that by the end they are scarcely even still aware of the enigma, and the mystery of her disappearance is accordingly never explained.
This sense of humans as butterflies trapped in the glass case of modern life became Antonioni’s trademark, and most of his best sequences are variations on this point. (Think of the superb, wordless opening to L’Eclisse, with Monica Vitti pacing up and down in a room in which a man is seated, neither communicating with the other and no sound beside Vitti’s heels clicking rhythmically on the polished floor.)
His films helped make an icon of Vitti; they were cool as well as merely worthy. Now, hardly anybody watches them: they seem trapped in the nineteen-sixties. But the likes of L’Avventura and L’Eclisse still hold their grip pretty well, they are puzzles without meaning but – and this is Antonioni’s greatest talent – they always seem to have a meaning that is nonetheless being withheld, so they lack entirely the obfuscating dryness of, say, Last Year at Marienbad. They have a certain hypnotic power.
But Blow Up, for all its surface brilliance, gave notice of a director rather too keen to be fashionable, and Zabriskie Point, still spoken of in hushed whispers by Hollywood accountants, gave the game away completely. Neither Antonioni nor Bergman made films that I personally would take to a desert island, though I admire them both, and Antonioni in particular seems to me one of the more useful barometers of sixties preoccupations and sensibilities. It's just that the sixties was such a moribund age culturally that I can rarely be bothered to revisit it. No question, though, that anyone considering mounting such an expedition should recruit these two as their guides. And those who like to consider film in the light of philosophy will never exhaust either oeuvre; if that is indeed your perversion I immodestly direct you towards my own essay on Blow Up, “An Existential Horror Film”, in Necronomicon Book 4, edited by Andy Black.
There is nothing phoney about Bergman, and even Antonioni's excesses seem paradoxically sincere in their superficiality. Certainly their seriousness and passion contrast sharply with almost every film-maker at work today. They worked hard to build a body of work that would speak for them, in a single voice, when the time came for it to survive them, as now it has. They deserve longevity.