The same-day deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni earlier this year brought forth an ocean of responses composed of equal parts reminiscence, praise and despair. The reminiscences recalled the glory days when art films and art houses flourished, and arguments over what Bergman/Antonioni/Fellini/Godard could possibly mean with their new films were lively.
Praise flowed for two bodies of work that had demonstrated that the cinema could produce works of art as powerful and beautiful as anything found in painting, sculpture or music. Whatever an individual thought of the films’ content, Bergman/Antonioni movies were appreciated for their visual beauty. The despair was for the passing of not only two titans of world cinema, but also a way of making and receiving films that seems to many increasingly anachronistic in the 21st century.
Wanting to make my own contribution to this conversation, what follows are my memories of and praise for Bergman and Antonioni. What the reader will not find is despair since I believe that serious film culture is still with us and still thriving. The objects of cinephilic adoration have changed, but the passion remains.
My earliest memories of Bergman/Antonioni date to the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in high school. While other teenagers were playing sports, sunning themselves on beaches or hiking through woods, I cultivated summer pallor sitting at home reading Faulkner (I was then and still am a geek). Each afternoon I would take a break and tune into Cinema 13 on my local public television channel and watch a classic foreign film, almost all drawn from the Janus Film Collection.
The first Bergman I saw was The Seventh Seal (1957). For a young man puzzling over the meaning of god and other existential questions (I warned you that I was a geek), Bergman’s film was a revelation. Here was a movie that spoke to me in a way that no movie ever had up until that moment: the concerns of Antonius Block, troubled medieval knight, spoke directly to Brian Dauth, budding cinephile and emergent queerboi. I looked forward to more Bergman films and on subsequent afternoons fell under the spell of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and several others. More than anything else, these films told me that it was okay to be confused, troubled and not in possession of all the answers that I felt the world was demanding of me.
The icing on the cake came later that year when the station aired Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) as he intended it to be seen – six 50-minute episodes broadcast one per week. A dubbed version was shown at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday night followed by the Swedish-language version later in the evening (I am sure you can guess which one I opted for and watched with my parents. This was back in the mid-1970’s when, like many families, we had only one television set and the program viewed was most often a matter of negotiation. My mom and dad were very accommodating.).
Antonioni was another regular on Cinema 13. The first of his films I saw was L’Eclisse (1962). It was Friday afternoon. I do not know way I am so certain of this fact, but it was definitely a Friday. I also remember that I had never seen a movie broadcast the way L’Eclisse was: a ribbon of image appeared on my television set with a black border above and below – letterboxing before the fact. I have no idea how or why this happened, but Antonioni’s opening shot with a woman on one side of the screen and a whirring fan on the other struck me as one of the most amazing shots I had ever seen. I never wanted it to end.
When the woman finally left the apartment she was revealed to be in, she passed through a glass-enclosed lobby and entered a deserted street that was empty in a way I had not seen before: there was a crispness and electricity to the emptiness that fascinated and seduced me. What followed was one of the most memorable movies I have ever seen – the stock exchange free-for-all, the car being raised from the water, and the final non-meeting of the lovers. It was all so mysterious and compelling. If Bergman’s angst resonated with the inner turmoil of an adolescent queerboi, Antonioni captivated my eye and made me look at the world in new and challenging ways.
The effect that watching Antonioni’s movies had on me soon found expression in some pictures I took for a church event my father was running. Camera in hand, I prowled around the proceedings under the influence of Antonioni. Instead of capturing the ceremony up close, I stood back and interposed rows of vacant seats between the participants and me. The photos were sub par Antonioni and did not go over very well, but I had declared my allegiance to Michelangelo.
Even as I explored their back catalogues, both men provided me with new movies to feast on: Bergman produced Autumn Sonata (1978), From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) and Fanny and Alexander (1982) while Antonioni made Il Mistero di Oberwald (1981) and Identification of a Woman (1982). But major changes were imminent in both of their careers: upon completing Fanny and Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement from cinema (though he continued to write scripts and occasionally direct for television. He even delved into digital filmmaking in 2003 with Saraband).
Antonioni’s situation was bleaker: he suffered a stroke in 1985 that left him partially paralyzed and without the ability to speak. But with the assistance of his wife Enrica, he was able to make short films and also complete the feature-length Beyond the Clouds (1995) with Wim Wenders as co-director. Yet for me, a strong sense of creativity curtailed hangs over this part of Antonioni’s career.
From this heady beginning, I went on to watch and to love more movies and more directors. My affection for Bergman and Antonioni waxed and waned as is to be expected in any long-term relationship. If Bergman’s angst seemed to resonate less and less as I moved from queerboi to queer man, what I increasingly savored was the merging of his theatrical and cinematic sensibilities, a process that reached a sublime culmination in Fanny and Alexander. Antonioni was a steadier love. To this day, a chill goes up my spine as I watch Thomas stitch together a murder from his photographs in Blow-Up (1966) or hear the opening notes of Giovanni Fusco’s music for L’avventura (1960).
But above all else, I treasure Bergman and Antonioni for showing me that at their greatest movies can be incredible aesthetic experiences that resonate in the deepest reaches of a person’s being. So long as I remain open to this possibility and people continue to make films, despair will never be an option.