Geniuses: Some Notes

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SEPTEMBER 10, 2007

Geniuses: Some Notes

Michelangelo Antonioni

Ingmar Bergman

They might have smiled. Averse as they were to plot mechanics in
their work, they might have been amused at the blatant coincidence
of their deaths on the same day. Or they might have been amused at
those who believe it was planned by a cosmic trickster. In any
case, July 30, 2007 is now a signal date in film history.
Michelangelo Antonioni was ninety-four, Ingmar Bergman was
eighty-nine.Their work now moves into a different light. Almost all the art that
is valuable to us is encased in history: it comes to us from the
past, recent or remote. These two men, however, were contemporaries
of ours: I even knew one of them a bit. Still, in a doubtlessly
romantic view, any prosy connections between them and the present
were jarring. In 1976, Bergman had severe publicized troubles with
the Swedish government about taxes. In 1984, newspapers carried a
photo of Antonioni standing guard with other directors at the
coffin of an esteemed political figure. It was a faint shock to see
the creators of the art that is part of my secrets involved in
these daily doings.

But now their art moves into history. In Godard's Breathless the
matter is well put. A novelist is asked his ambition. He says: "To
become immortal and then to die." Exactly so here, twice.

The proximate deaths of Antonioni and Bergman prompt something that
was rare during their lives: comparison with each other. One way to
do this job is to compare their views of the theater and the
relation of those views to their films.

No obituary of Bergman that I have seen has mentioned his film of
The Magic Flute. Such a film would quite obviously have been
impossible for Antonioni. Not only is The Magic Flute the best film
ever made of an opera--modest distinction though that is--but it
marries beautifully the main currents of Bergman's life. His
theater career was even more prolific than his film work. (There
are several books solely about his theater productions.) Bergman, in
the Mozart piece, seemed to want to dramatize his twofold being.
The opera is handled with innumerable theatrical and cinematic
delicacies, and we are also taken backstage from time to time into
the lives of the people who are making the marvel. Bergman seems to
be fusing his several masteries before our eyes.

Here the use of those masteries is explicit, but it is present in
all his work. The second time I saw Fanny and Alexander I was
especially wonderstruck by the way he handled his actors'
movement--not camera movement, at which he was a wizard, but the
choreographing of actors as if they were on stage. His excellence
with actors has a history. For many years he worked with a group of
actors at various theaters during the season, then used some of them
in films made during the summer. He and they knew one another in
coded but clear ways. In the very first sequence of Scenes From a
Marriage, see how Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann move together
into the screenplay like experienced dance partners into a pas de
deux.

Antonioni, after some theater work during his university days, had
small interest in the field. He did some theater directing,
including the Italian premiere of Osborne's Look Back in Anger, but
when I asked him once if he was interested in more theater work, he
shook his head. "No," he said. "Always the same shot."

This complete immersion in cinema led him to achievements that were
possible only in cinema. Think of Jeanne Moreau's long walk through
the streets of Milan in La Notte, in which virtually nothing
extraordinary happens but which, sheerly through selection and
silence and concentration, becomes a kind of melancholy poem about
inner loneliness in the modern world. Think of the long last
sequence of Eclipse, which is only a series of street scenes in Rome
with none of the actors, scenes that might have been places of
rendezvous for the two lovers we have come to know but are now
peopled only by passers-by. Subtly, we face the eventual passing of
the lovers' affair, along with the shaky nature of truths about
which we are hotly convinced at many moments in our lives. Neither
of these two sequences, or plentiful others in Antonioni's work,
would have been likely in Bergman.

Another means of comparison is in their differing views of time,
views that are related to the theater. Excepting the Bergman films
that were originally made for television and later condensed for
the large screen, works thus born in different concepts of time,
most of his pictures are tight, less than ninety minutes. Never is
there any sense of imposed pace: only the theater's ethic that
every moment must be utilized in character or dramatic development.

Antonioni, with no such imperative, wanted to employ time, real
elapsed time, as a character, as a power that film gave him. The
scene in L'Avventura in which two lovers kiss near the railway,
really kiss for the first time, could conventionally have been
condensed to half its length. Antonioni wanted us to breathe
through the experience, to take something like the number of
breaths that the lovers are taking in that scene (as they are in
fact altering their lives), to feel its impact almost physically.

What fundamentally links Antonioni and Bergman, despite their
differences, is a common theme: the question of God. Do we live in
a godless universe? If this is so, how do we go about living? How
do we make our choices? A generalization about these two artists is
possible. For Bergman, the son of a clergyman who in a sense
harassed him all his life, the question pressed constantly. For
Antonioni, the question was answered early on, thoroughly, finally.
Most of his films are about the result of this vacancy--the
murkiness of compass points.

Bergman confronts the basic question intensely in a trilogy. Here
are the titles, with his comments: "Through a Glass
Darkly--certainty achieved. The Communicants--certainty unmasked.
The Silence--God's silence--the negative impression." The
centerpiece, known in America as Winter Light, is a drama about a
clergyman whose faith is shaken but who is, so to speak, trapped in
his religious office and continues in it doggedly, yet almost
gratefully. Bergman once said of the film, "Everything became
stations [of the cross] on the road for the priest."

Antonioni never deals extensively with religion in his films.
(Elsewhere, in interviews and articles, he was explicit.) But his
view of it underlies very much of his work, his sense that religion
is a function of the past, now outworn. Look, for instance, at the
stock-exchange scene in Eclipse. The building was originally an
imperial basilica that had been converted into a Catholic church
and then converted again into the Borsa. William Arrowsmith says:
"Everything ... about the stock exchange in Antonioni's film tells
us that the director is conscious of its religious nature." Its
religious devolution, one might say.

Thus the past clings, or tries to cling, to us. But what of the
present, asks Antonioni, even the future? Look at the last scene of
L'Avventura. Sandro is a middle-aged man, successful,
self-despising, who persuades a young woman, Claudia, to become his
lover. She hesitates because his previous lover was a friend of
hers who disappeared, possibly a suicide, only three days earlier.
At last Claudia, not untroubled, consents. A day or so later she
and Sandro stop in a luxe hotel. She is sleepy; he goes downstairs.
In the early morning she goes to look for him and discovers him
with a tart. Sobbing, she runs outside to a terrace, stands there
against the railing. (In one shot a ruined church is in the
background.) Surely she is not only shaken by his action but is
very possibly linking it with her own action in becoming his lover
so soon after her friend was gone. Sandro comes out behind her
slowly and sits on a bench, his back toward her. She turns,
approaches him. She sees that he is weeping, surely facing the void
in himself. After a moment she puts a hand gently on the back of
his head, and the film ends.

Her gesture is for me a terrifying moment. Claudia is not forgiving
him: she doesn't have or want that power. She is acknowledging that
Sandro, like her, is something of a victim--stranded in a hollow
universe, left with only inutile shards of order. They are, in a
profound sense, alone.

In 1979 Roland Barthes sent an open letter to Antonioni apropos of a
retrospective of the director's work in Bologna. In my view the
letter can be read as also addressed to Bergman. Barthes called
Antonioni "not only in the realm of cinema--one of the artists of
our time." He cited "the specters of modern subjectivity" that
plague artists these days: "ideological lassitude, bad social
conscience, the attraction to and distaste left by facile art, the
trepidation of responsibility, and the incessant scruple that tears
the artist apart, between solitude and gregariousness." He closed:

It is therefore necessary that you take full advantage of this
peaceful, harmonious moment in which an entire assemblage comes to
recognize, admire, and love your work. Because tomorrow the hard
work begins again.

As it did, addressed by both Antonioni and Bergman, not only with
their gifts but with their generally unremarked courage. What
legacies they leave. Countless beneficiaries are yet to come.

Personal notes. I had an appointment to meet Bergman in Stockholm in
the summer of 1964, but when I arrived, a colleague of his
presented me with the director's apologies and the excuse that he
had gone to his island to write a screenplay. I saw some other
interesting film people in Stockholm; still I was, of course,
disappointed. Two years later the film appeared for which--at least
I told myself--Bergman had abandoned me. It was Persona, a sublime
masterwork, so I forgave him.

I met and dined with Antonioni several times, in Rome and Venice and
New York. From a cluster of Antonioni vignettes, here are two.

In 1966 I interviewed him for an hour and a half on PBS. Two years
earlier in Rome he had promised to appear on television with me
when he was next in New York--I was busy on the PBS station in
those days--and when he arrived for the American premiere of
Blowup, he kept his word. At the time he understood English but
wasn't confident about speaking it; so a translator was there for
his replies to my questions. After the taping he and I went back to
the dressing room where we had been made up before the show. He
picked up a towel, wiped his face, and was dismayed by the big
red-brown smear. "Good heavens," he said. I laughed at the
perfectly enunciated phrase in English coming from someone who had
just needed ninety minutes of translation. He laughed, too, a
little.

I saw him last in New York in 1992. He had come for the opening of a
retrospective of his work despite the fact that in 1985 he had
suffered a stroke that paralyzed his whole right side and left him
speechless. (Yet he had continued, with assistants, to work.) When
I arrived at the theater, I saw him in the lobby, with two or three
people but not really listening to them. They went, and I walked up
to him. His face warmed. He put out his left hand, and I grasped it
in both of my hands. He made some sounds in his throat. After a
moment, which was both long and short, I left.

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