Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fade-outs: Bergman, Antonioni, and Mühe

Beautiful, mysterious women: Monica Vitti (L'Avventura) and Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann (Persona)

The film world got hit with a one-two punch yesterday: the deaths of the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Even people who I didn't expect to be upset about it, are. My dad--who's got an eclectic knowledge of film but is by no means your typical art-house snob--got torn up, passionately announcing "Bergman died," at dinner last night. Evidently, seeing The Seventh Seal in a film club during high school made a lifelong impression on him. I also discussed it with a co-worker today, who'd recently made a list of his ten favorite movies and put The Seventh Seal on it without any further deliberation.

I don't belong to the classic art-house generation, so I probably don't feel these deaths as much as some. I haven't even seen any Antonioni, though recently, things in my life seem to be nudging me toward his films. L'Avventura is Blue's dad's favorite movie in Calamity Physics, and I just read a scene in a play where the characters discuss Red Desert. As for Bergman, I've seen Persona and The Magic Flute (links are to my reviews). Persona left me intrigued, frequently impressed but often annoyed--and the parts that I disliked, the "meta" moments where the film seems to melt or you see the cameramen, are what brought the movie its greatest acclaim. As for The Magic Flute, for all I know it is the best film of an opera ever made, and it looked lovely and I enjoyed it...but it's not typical Bergman. Oh, but I am wholeheartedly grateful to him for making the source for Sondheim's delightful A Little Night Music, Smiles of a Summer Night--which I really ought to see!

I believe that these men's deaths should be an occasion to celebrate and remember their work...but at the same time, I can't quite understand the impulse to grieve. They both lived long, full lives, were acclaimed as cinematic masters for at least 45 years, got to make the movies they wanted to make (even if Antonioni became hobbled by a stroke in 1985)--Bergman even became a successful theater director. We should be glad for the work they have left us, not saddened that their souls have departed this earth after 89 or 94 years. Grieve for Robert Altman, if you like, who had a much harder time securing financing for his movies or Hollywood acceptance. Grieve for Orson Welles!

I said something like this to my Seventh Seal-loving co-worker (not nearly as stridently), and he replied that he isn't necessarily grieving Bergman the man, but the kinds of films that Bergman represented. Though I feel lucky to live in a time when DVDs of all kinds of movies are available online, and foreign directors and films seem to be gaining recognition (and they're now from all over the world, not just Western Europe), my friend sees it differently. He told me, "The Washington Post obituary said it best: Bergman was making The Seventh Seal when mainstream Hollywood was obsessed with Smell-O-Vision. And now I think we're back to where we were before Bergman came along...I mean, Transformers..."

I understand what he means. And sometimes I wonder if I'm not willfully deluding myself...but I refuse to believe that all of the world's best films were made decades ago, and that cinema these days does not have a place for beautiful, smart, philosophical, or otherwise "art-house" films. Maybe they require some digging to find, maybe there are fewer people with whom I can discuss today's Bergman or Antonioni, or even yesterday's. (I was very annoyed when someone I met in France didn't know who Truffaut was...but that's another story.) But I have to believe that they're out there.

And if I am going to grieve, it'll be for someone like Ulrich Mühe, the German actor who died last week at the age of 54. I've only seen Mühe in one movie, but that was the wonderful The Lives of Others, and he was amazing in it as Wiesler, the cold Stasi agent who finds his humanity again. Now that he'd gained international recognition, I was wondering what other movies he'd make (and whether they'd be released in the US), and what other roles he'd take on. What an awful time to go--just when all his hard work as an actor was getting noticed and rewarded. Damn it. As if it wasn't hard enough already to watch The Lives of Others without crying...

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