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Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman

Filmmakers Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman passed away last Monday. That the two men died on the same day is odd, but their passing is a chance to reflect on how cinema has changed. When film initially began, it was essentially a new feature to the scandalous world of vaudeville. When films were expanded to features and obtained story lines, mostly ripped from literary sources, they started to be regarded as an acceptable form of popular entertainment. From there major filmmakers arose, people who dedicated their lives to the form in the way a writer dedicates them self to written language or a musician dedicates them self to music. And out of that environment came the filmmakers who were true masters of their form. Antonioni and Bergman were among the first of these film masters and they were some of the first filmmakers who can be truly considered artists. Their influence, especially Bergman’s, can be seen in contemporary American filmmakers such as David Fincher, Martin Scorcesse, Steven Spielberg, George A. Romero, Francis Ford Coppola, Wes Craven, the Wachowski Brothers, and Stanley Kubrick.

The New York Times has published a very nice article by A. O. Scott about the influence of these two men. Among the things Scott has to say, I think he makes an important point that filmmakers are still struggling to define themselves as artists:

Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman, for their parts, were the supreme modernists of world cinema. Mr. Antonioni helped to push Italian film beyond realism, infusing landscapes with psychological rather than social meaning and turning eroticism from a romantic into a metaphysical pursuit. Mr. Bergman, heir to a Nordic strain of modernism represented by Strindberg and Ibsen, developed a film language dense with psychological symbolism and submerged emotion. The two of them upheld, as filmmakers, T. S. Eliot’s observation that “poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal,” though they have little else in common (apart from exquisite black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of Aldo Scavarda and Gunnar Fischer), are both hard to watch. Not because the content or the imagery is upsetting, but because they never allow the viewer to relax into a conditioned expectation of what will happen next or an easy recognition of what it means.

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Given all that, it may be hard for someone who wasn’t there — who never knew a film culture in which “La Notte” didn’t already exist — to quite appreciate the heroic status conferred on Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman 40 years ago. 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. All that’s left are the films.

I don’t know that I agree with Scott’s final statement, but I do think that the death of these two men allows audience members and current filmmakers the chance to reflect on film, where it has come from, and where it is going. For better or worse, the future of film will be tied to the Internet and to commerce, among other things, and while the net has the effect of democratizing the medium, the globalization, consolidation of major media outlets, and the current trend of wide releases by major studios, has the opposite effect. This will make it difficult for a filmmaker to create personal work in the current studio system, but it may allow for an alternate outlet for cinema.

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