Final thoughts on Bergman and Antonioni

Death_lAll the commentary on Ingmar Bergman‘s death has been appropriately mournful — except at the New York Post op-ed page, where they couldn’t wait to dance on his grave. They ran a spectacularly philistine editorial that must be read to be believed. At first, I thought the writer was just using Bergman’s corpse as a convenient foil to score political points against modernism in art — a cultural battle that the right lost 75 years ago, even if the Post won’t acknowledge it. (If only the editorialist had waited a day, he could have hurled similar imprecations at Michelangelo Antonioni‘s corpse as well.) But really, it’s just a cry of resentment over movies and art that have the gall to try to make audiences think instead of spoonfeeding them sensation. Whatever else Bergman was, he was first an entertainer and storyteller, one who hung his philosophical ponderings on sturdy frames of narrative and character, but the editorialist insists that watching such heavy movies (like The Seventh Seal, pictured) is a masochistic form of punishment. Maybe to him; to others, cinematic punishment may mean enduring Eli Roth’s torture-porn or Michael Bay’s synapse-frying audiovisual assaults — but hey, at least those movies aren’t pretentious or artsy.

The editorialist says Bergman was the mascot of unnamed movie critics (that is, straw men invented by the writer) who thought only lofty European existentialist dramas could be art, not lowly Hollywood genre films. This assertion is, of course, totally false. The auteurists who championed Bergman and Antonioni also championed the westerns of John Ford, the action movies of Howard Hawks, the musicals of Vincente Minnelli, and other mass-appeal Hollywood fare. One of those early Bergman advocates, the still-active critic Andrew Sarris, weighs in from his post at the New York Observer with an essay recognizing Bergman’s strengths and limitations. It was inevitable that the Swedish director’s biggest fan, Woody Allen, would also have something to say. Talking to Time, he claims that, for all their artistry, Bergman and Antonioni were both "regular guy[s]" in person. Anyone who’s seen the pantomime tennis match at the end of Blow-Up would relish the mental image of Antonioni and Allen playing ping-pong.

addCredit(“The Seventh Seal: Everett Collection”)

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about either director this week comes courtesy of Roger Ebert, who digs up this account of the actor who played the putative murder victim in Blow-Up, who told the critic that Antonioni’s trademark lack of narrative closure may not have been entirely intentional; the actor claimed that the Blow-Up shoot ran out of money, forcing the director to piece together what footage he had. If that’s true, Antonioni still managed to make something out of not much. Accidental or not, the film’s refusal to answer the questions it posed offered plenty of food for thought, which was typical of Antonioni’s and Bergman’s films. That’s what made them popular with imaginative moviegoers — rather than those who demand that art should be propaganda that tells passive viewers what to think and feel.


Comments (12 total) Add your comment
  • Honeybee

    People like the critic in question often form their opinion of masters like Bergman when they are young – and the champions of art are often in the throws of a youthful self-righteousness that comes from discovering people like Bergman and Antonioni. Later, that self-righteousness calms and more often even the most intellectual of film buffs embrace the best of commercial Hollywood. But the anti-intellectuals throw up a wall, cling to their low culture and reject any notion that anything else has value. It’s sad and unworthy of any writer. You can love Star Wars and West Side Story and The Seventh Seal and 8 1/2 and The Bicycle Thief and Interiors. And you’re not required to love any of them. There’s room for all kinds. But rejecting art because you think the people who like it are “smarty pants” – that’s just stupid.

  • Nathan

    Antonioni’s L’Avventura has to be one of the most beautifully shot films of all time, it was this along with Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Godard’s Band of Outsiders that got me interested in European cinema to begin with. He and Bergman may be gone, but their work will live on forever.

  • Jack Fear

    A word about your editorialist: John Podhoretz is the son of neoconservative mouthpiece Norman Podhoretz, and–surprise!–ended up in the family business, writing for the National Review, just like fellow right-wing hack/scion Jonah Goldberg. J-Pod (as his chums at the NR’s horrifically self-congratulatory blog “The Corner” call him) is known to be a big Star Trek fan. Not that there’s nothing wrong with Star Trek, of course.

  • Liz

    As a film student I take the matter of studying cinema seriously. I write about it, read constantly about it (sometimes I read about it even more than I get to watch films!), and discuss it with others. I am so grateful for the medium, because over the years it has helped me understand myself, and others, better. Isn’t that one worthy function of art? And you know what? I’m working my way through Bergman films, Antonioni films, but I also can’t wait to see ‘Rush Hour 3.’ That said, I’m leaving now…going to see ‘Wild Strawberries’ — just because I love it.

  • RayT

    I’ve invented a new word for John Podhoretz: miscinethropic. His claim that there was a concentrated effort to “elevate the cinema into an art form equivalent to novels, poetry or classical music” is pretty interesting because all those forms of art have their high-brow and low-brow counterparts. I could most definitely sense an extremely right-wing, fundamentalist subtext in Podhoretz’s article: it seems to me that something he saw in one of Bergman’s films made him feel just a little existential or contemplative which he obviously didn’t enjoy. And to not enjoy that feeling from a film is to cleary hate cinema.

  • Ron Mwangaguhunga

    Thank you for writing this. I was going to blog on it but decided to wait and get some distance or my anger at his facile understanding of film would have led me to say something I might later regret.

  • Broadway Baby

    Nothing to add really just that I think Gary Susman should post eight or nine times a day. He’s never a waste of my time.

  • Nico

    This reminds me of how, when Kurt Vonnegut died, Fox News ran a story that not only mocked him as a person, but his work as well. This type of overreaching spite and disrespect is amazing, considering the fact that the conservatives constantly accuse liberials of disrespect and spite for the family, church, and home while the conservatives sit back and insult whomever they choose.

  • Allan

    I’ll bet that nobody who learned about life and art from Bergman and Antonioni complained about the last episode of The Sopranos.

  • Delon

    Last year the great Altman and this year(on the same day, no less)Bergman and Antonioni are all gone. This officially marks the end of the art of cinema. The experience of watching a movie directed by one of these guys is akin to the experience of reading a book by one of the literary giants. Sublime. Favorite Bergman movie: Persona. Favorite Antonioni movie: The Passenger(with Jack Nicholson). And please do check out Altman’s beautiful swan song A Prairie Home Companion.

  • Stephanie Travitsky

    Thanks Gary. Wow I can’t believe that I am saying this but intelligent journalism is becoming an extinct art form! Writers like Gary Susman are very, very rare!
    To be fair, I thought that Bergman was dead, I told my mom and she thought the same thing. Still he and Antonioni were two of the “superhero’s” of modern cinema. I bet that whenever there is a core class for flim students, these two leaders are always mentioned first. After seeing some of the previews of drivel that has been given the thumbs up for films (“I know who killed me”), I think that it is pretty clear that todays film makers need to go back to square one.

  • cruzilla

    I read the Post article and….wow. That guy was just cruel. I saw Wild Strawberries at a museum last year and thought it was bittersweet yet not without hope.

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