I can't think of anything more appropriate to write about today than the near-simultaneous passing of two cinema giants: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, who oddly died on the very same day. If the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper was dubbed "the day the music died," then July 30, 2007 has to be the day that movies died. I'm sure that the web and newspapers around the world will be filled with obituaries and tributes, but I can't help feeling a little angry; where were all you people when these guys were alive?
I consider myself lucky that, as a reviewer, I was able to write about new movies from both of these masters -- all released on 400 screens or less -- notably Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds (released in 1999), his segment in Eros (2005) and Bergman's Saraband (2005), but I couldn't help noticing that my enthusiasm for these projects was a bit lonely. I wrote just a few weeks ago about how the movie industry as a general rule tends to focus on the young at the expense of the old. Over the years I've seen eight Antonioni films and fifteen Bergman films. That's not many in the grand scheme of things, but I wonder just how many have seen any at all?
There's a general feeling that anyone can make movies or review them; that all it takes is the ability to sit through a movie and form an opinion, but I maintain that you can't really know the form unless you study its history. How can anyone comprehend the concept of onscreen space without having seen Antonioni's L'Avventura? What about conveying an intense emotional state without any dialogue, as Bergman did in Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Silence (1963) and many other films? Either directly or indirectly, Bergman and Antonioni taught most modern filmmakers everything they know. The student must eventually break away from and surpass the teacher, I suppose, but no matter how many upstarts win Oscars or break box office records, Bergman and Antonioni achieved a level of grace that few will ever approach.
Bergman, who was 89, probably has a reputation for being severe and angst-ridden, but that fails to take into account his warm, fleshy beauties and terrors. He knew how to cook up a good creep-fest as well as anyone; Hour of the Wolf is currently on the IMDB's list of the top 50 horror films, and Wild Strawberries (1957) -- my favorite -- has one of the most chilling nightmare sequences ever filmed. His masterpiece Persona (1966) is filled with moments during which reality gives way to dream logic and the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Yet in that same movie, the two beautiful leads Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann have just as many touching moments, and one memorably erotic one when Andersson tells a story of an early sexual encounter.
Bergman's most popular movie with both fans and critics is currently The Seventh Seal (1956), which invented all the silly art house movie clichés that are still parodied to this day (the first season of "Extras" contains one good example). But at the other end of his career, Bergman made Fanny and Alexander (1983), which works well as a fairly mainstream family drama. It contains one of the loveliest Christmas sequences ever filmed, and perhaps the most effective screen villain ever filmed, the strict bishop (Jan Malmsjo), who marries the heroine and becomes the evil stepfather to the title characters.
On the other hand, Antonioni, who was 94, is probably best known as a 1960s-era hipster who cashed in with his hit Blow Up (1966). Like Easy Rider a few years later, it tapped into a new kind of youthful ennui and independence with its narcissistic photographer character (David Hemmings), hints of free sex and a hot soundtrack (Herbie Hancock with an on-stage performance by the Yardbirds). But Antonioni mastered his own brand of emotional disconnect with the much better L'Avventura, a film about a woman (the icy, beautiful Monica Vitta) and a man who search in vain for the man's lost girlfriend and never find her. Antonioni understood that it didn't really matter if the woman ever turned up; what mattered was the characters, their search and their ever waning interest in it.
Years later, Antonioni made another masterpiece, The Passenger (1975), with an American star, Jack Nicholson. Oddly, it was released the same year as Nicholson's Oscar-winning hit One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next, which is far more audience friendly, but not nearly as good. In The Passenger, Nicholson plays a reporter who takes over the identity of a dead Englishman and hits the road with a bored young woman (Maria Schneider, from Last Tango in Paris). Their wanderings through empty spaces embody loneliness and the fragility of identity. The film concludes with one of the most astonishing and baffling single shots in movie history.Yes, all these movies are available to rent or buy on DVD, and they'll be with us (hopefully) for centuries to come. But I can't help but mourn the patience and poetry that these men brought to their art. They gave critics and audiences credit for having and using brains. Nowadays, with more and more movies not even screening for the press, it seems that that kind of trust has dwindled away to nearly nothing.