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Films: 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.

By Stanley Kauffman