Antonioni vs. Bergman from beyond the grave
Reviewed by Spencer Parsons, Fri., Aug. 3, 2007
Red DesertImage, $24.91
Scenes From a MarriageCriterion, $49.95
Early BergmanCriterion, $69.95
Is it the crazy pills making me detect homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriske Point in that grotesquely attenuated ship-destruction sequence at the climax of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End? Gore Verbinski, if you're out there, please answer, because I've got a night of Pink Floyd karaoke and a case of High Life riding on the answer.
But seriously, I hate Antonioni films. I know I'm not supposed to say that on the occasion of the man's death, but news of his passing hit with an intensely complicated pang, because as much as I despise his work, I can't dismiss it ... mimes or no mimes. And it's not because I've been told he's Great and a Master. Obituaries haven't swayed me, no film professor ever made me watch an Antonioni movie I hadn't seen already, and nothing is safer to praise or denounce than a classic, so there's no cred in pre-empting the Shark Week DVDs I was supposed to cover.
It's because I can remember scenes and sequences and images by Antonioni better, more precisely, and viscerally than I can recall anything from numerous films I supposedly enjoy. I mean, I like me some Pirates, and I bet I'll see them again before I revisit Red Desert, but if I can recall anything from those films (the explosion of the HMS Zabriske notwithstanding) in two or three years at least half as well as I can feel the torments of L'Eclisse right now, more than a decade after I saw it, then all is forgiven for The Mexican.
The roar of the stock-exchange trading floor in L'Eclisse rates as one of the few truly apocalyptic, get-out-of-the-theatre-level effects I've experienced in cinema, and the exquisitely timed hard cut to this awful soundscape convinces me equally of Antonioni's refined musical sense and his innate sadism. I may personally prefer Richard Linklater's elegant theft of a sequence revisiting empty spaces where the film's lovers have met for the ending of Before Sunrise -- not least since that movie's absences refer to something like actual people. But Antonioni got there first, and his version arrives more naturally as a formal completion of the film's exquisite compositions, even if the self-satisfied idea it serves wouldn't be out of place in a B-plus term paper on Camus.
I want to dismiss the aesthetic as little more than high-end fashion photography with postures of anomie at the service of clothes and architecture. I want to say that those ad guys who ripped off L'Avventura's visuals to shill perfume for Calvin Klein in the late Eighties actually got it right, and it's the adoring critics who are wrong. But those ads were simply laughable. They don't make me angry. They don't make me want to murder Monica Vitti. So I figure the real deal must be pretty special.
"You know, Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement." I wonder if that bit of formalist trash talk from Ingmar Bergman would have made the rounds if he hadn't himself died the day before Antonioni did. As you might have guessed, I agree with Bergman, and I'll make no bones about preferring the Swede's films to the Italian's. But the real importance of these filmmakers and of marking their passing isn't ranking in an auteurist pissing match; it's about what their films do to people and about the influence they have had.
When I laugh and gasp and shudder and try to hide under my chair during the interview that opens Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage, I'm struck by how much I need this kind of experience from a film. Especially following his death, it is tempting to become depressed and wield the standard it sets as a kind of cudgel against contemporary filmmakers: Who right now is even trying to make an audience feel this way? Well, when he was at the top of his game, there might have been a lot of filmmakers trying, but Bergman was one of the few actually pulling it off.
And the world has changed. Can there be "another" Bergman or a "new" Antonioni in a moment when cinema (never mind art cinema) doesn't exert the same kind of cultural importance it did when they broke through? Of course giants still walk the earth (Apichatpong Weerasethakul is fucking huge), but we don't have to like them. Antonioni forces me to define what I want and need from cinema against his work in a way that many a faux-teur never will. So let us not be cowed by the tributes. These men made the kind of films that die the moment people won't argue passionately over them. So, even though I prefer Bergman, maybe I should pass on the Pirates and rent Red Desert this weekend. (Sorry, Gore.)