Bergman and Antonioni, Remembered

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It is an odd remorse. The passing of giants well past their prime stirs sadness, but should also, by all accounts, be a time for celebration and thanksgiving. For, their life’s work, the art left behind, is immortal.

The venerated Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman died Monday at the age of 89. And on the very same day, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni died at the age of 94. Their long lives were nothing if not productive, and influential.

Bergman came to fame in America in 1957 when, in one year, he made two seminal masterpieces: “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries”. In 1961, “The Virgin Spring” won him the first of three Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film; the next year saw “Through A Glass Darkly” win; 1984 saw “Fanny and Alexander” win. But he is not solely known for his Oscar wins. In the 1970s, Woody Allen made a point of lobbying for extended runs of many Bergman films in New York City, such as “Scenes From a Marriage.” Allen never made a secret his admiration and made it explicit in a scene in “Manhattan” when he defends Bergman as “the only true genius left in film.”

During those years Bergman was winning Oscars, Antonioni made an unofficial trilogy of films he would become identified with before all other work: 1960’s “L’avventura,” 1961’s “La notte” and 1962’s “L’eclisse”. All featured his then-lover Monica Vitti and all spent their time looking at the modern world through a lens of willful marginalization. His cinema has been described as one of “alienation” but that label is reductive, and too much a pejorative.

I found Bergman before Antonioni and it was probably a good thing. During a low period in my lean young years I happened upon “Wild Strawberries” in the Berkeley Public Library. I watched it twice before returning it the next day, looking for my next encounter with the director. I immediately re-joined Netflix. I tried to see whatever I could that Bergman made. His cinema was fierce, intellectual, and humane. I scratched my head some but I was never bored.

A few months later I got “L’avventura” from Netflix and fell asleep watching it; I dismissed it. But it kept nagging me, and I kept watching it over time. After seeing “The Passenger” I felt like I finally “understood” Antonioni and finally finished watching his “Ennui Trilogy.” Like a lot of Bergman, there are stretches of silence and there is a distinct “art film” quality to his work. But underneath the superficially boring aspects there is a distinct heart, and a will to live in the world, that is unmistakable.

Luckily, being giants, the majority of their films are available through Netflix, or in the basement of Moffitt, but a few exceptions stand out in Antonioni’s oeuvre. 1970’s “Zabriskie Point” remains unavailable on DVD, a year after the programmer at Brooklyn’s BAM/Rose Cinema told me Universal Pictures would be releasing it “soon.” Its anger is palpable but, thanks to a mid-movie orgy, the love for youth, and for stolen joy, is undeniable. 1972’s “Chunk Kuo/Cina,” a 217-minute documentary about Antonioni’s six-week stay in Mao’s China, remains the most rare: there are bootleg videos and DVDs but they look terrible and cost too much. I saw it in Brooklyn, and it played here in Berkeley at the Pacific Film Archive, on a huge screen with a sold out crowd. For the doubtful, this may be the best testament to Antonioni’s filmmaking genius of gentle generosity in the face of terrors.

I will miss them, sure, as they touched my soul with their gifts of art. But we cannot fight death. What we can do is watch their movies, preferably on a big screen, with friends.

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