A tribute to legendary filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni

by Eric Melin on July 31, 2007

in Blogs

This morning as I look at the headlines on Google, I see that Kevin Federline and Britney Spears’ divorce is finally final and I realize that the culture of stupidity is at an all-time high. You will have to dig deeper to find a mention of the careers of these two men. They changed cinema at a time when the whole world was actually paying attention to something other than dumb young dirty pretty things.

Two international film legends have died on the same day. Swedish director Ingmar Bergman passed away yesterday morning at his home on Fårö at the age of 89 and Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni died later that night at the age of 94.

What follows are two tributes, the first is called “Ingmar Bergman Face to Face” from the Ingmar Bergman Foundation:

The history of the cinema has seen directors whose works have been more “original” or “groundbreaking” (such as Eisenstein, Ozu or Godard). And there are plenty of directors who have made as many, if not more films (Griffith, Hitchcock or Chabrol). Yet the question remains: is there anyone who so epitomises the concept of the auteur – a filmmaker with full control over his medium, whose work has a clear and inimitable signature – as Ingmar Bergman?

One of the reasons one immediately recognises a Bergman film is that he is one of those rare filmmakers who has created his own cinematic world. (This is also the reason that we have a section on this website under the heading Universe.) Through recurring environments, themes, characters, stylistic devices, actors and film crews, Bergman has created his own kind of film, almost a genre in itself. If Alfred Hitchcock is the epitome of the psychological thriller (despite the fact that he also made films in other genres), Bergman has become the hallmark for the existential/philosophical relationship drama (although he, too, has made other kinds of films).

Without underestimating the impact of Ingmar Bergman’s own work, his standing has also been influenced by a number of external factors. He wrote his first screenplay at the end of the Second World War, and started to make his own films during the post war years. In terms of film history, this was a time of radical change (with prevailing styles such as Italian neo-realism and film noir in the USA) which has occasionally, somewhat lightly perhaps, been referred to as a watershed between “classic” and “modern” films. In Bergman’s case, however, no such division can wholly be said to exist. His films often (yet not always) use the narrative techniques of “classic” cinema with the addition of “modern” stylistic devices.

If Bergman’s debut came during a period of major change in cinema history, his international breakthrough came just prior to the start of another such period. It is hardly a coincidence that it was in France in the mid 1950s that Bergman received his first genuine recognition outside Sweden. The “New Wave” was about to break, and budding directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer were influential film critics who heralded Bergman, up until then relatively unknown, as the “world’s foremost director”. Quite simply, Bergman fitted in perfectly with the ideal they wished to promote: the auteur who uses the film camera as a writer uses his pen.

In this mould Bergman’s films rapidly came to typify the concept of “art house cinema”. In a period when film was once again striving for legitimacy, Bergman demonstrated that film could be something more than entertainment: it could indeed be art. As such, it is important to remember that Bergman immediately preceded the other “modern” European directors with whom he is often mentioned: Antonioni, Buñuel, Fellini, Godard and others. The fact that film studies emerged at the end of the 1960s as an academic discipline in its own right is in many respects down to Bergman, whose films of existential exploration naturally lend themselves to systematic analysis.

To a large extent, Bergman’s themes laid the foundation for his fame. His Strindberg-like conviction that marriage äktenskapet is hell on earth, and his recurring doubts about God gudstvivlet were, ironically enough, and to put it crassly, not much more than a summary of the Scandinavian cultural tradition at the time, with its budding sexual freedom and its already far-reaching secularisation. Yet abroad at the time, not least in the catholic European and South American countries, or in the morally conservative United States and Eastern Europe, Bergman’s films appeared revolutionary.

Neither can one totally ignore the contribution to Bergman’s success of what were, for the time, quite daring depictions of nudity and “natural” sexuality. Bergman’ films, with their unfathomable language, scenes of unspoilt natural beauty orörd natur and blonde women blonda kvinnor, were widely regarded as the embodiment of a Scandinavian kind of exoticism.

If one ignores the surrounding factors that contributed to the impact of Ingmar Bergman and looks instead at what makes his films unique, one can begin to discern the thematic and stylistic developments of his career. Although any attempt to compartmentalise any artist’s oeuvre is of necessity a simplification, one can nonetheless divide Bergman’s film production roughly into five periods. Such a division into periods requires a certain amount of omission (and in fact, the periods are often intertwined), but it does provide a snapshot of his development.

AB Svensk Filmindustri

1. 1944-1952. Focus on young lovers ungt kärlekspar, especially from the working classes. Often set in the city and its surroundings (the Stockholm Archipelago). Clear influences from neo-realism, especially Roberto Rossellini. Recollection is an important stylistic device. Frequently used actors include Alf Kjellin, Birger Malmsten, Maj-Britt Nilsson and Stig Olin. Cinematographers were usually Göran Strindberg and Gunnar Fischer. Various companies lay behind the productions: Svensk Filmindustri, Sveriges Folkbiografer and Terrafilm.

Important films of this period are Torment (for which Bergman only wrote the screenplay), his debut film Crisis, Prison (his first film with his own screenplay), Summer Interlude (which according to Bergman himself was the first of his “own” films) and Summer With Monika.

AB Svensk Filmindustri

2. 1952-1955. Focus on marriage äktenskapet, often with the woman kvinnan in the central role. Settings are often mundane, either modern cities or bourgeois environments of times past. Cinematic role models appear to be Mauritz Stiller or Ernst Lubitsch’s bedroom comedies, Alfred Hitchcock‘s technical skills and Jean Renoir‘s critiques of bourgeois hypocrisy. Gunnar Fischer is almost exclusively the cinematographer of choice. Casts were recruited from his regular place of work at the time, Malmö City Theatre: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Björnstrand, Eva Dahlbeck and Åke Grönberg. Bergman moved between two production companies: Sandrews and Svensk Filmindustri.

The most important films of the period are Waiting Women, A Lesson in Love and his first international success, Smiles of a Summer Night.

3. 1956-1964. Metaphysical period. Focus on angst-ridden male central characters. Settings increasingly involve barren landscapes, irrespective of whether the films are set in modern times or, as in two cases, in the Middle Ages. Despite significant differences, the religious problems presented in the films appear to be inspired by film directors Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson. Recollection continues to play an important part, and Bergman’s most important stylistic contribution to film history begins to emerge strongly: the uncompromising use of the close-upGunnar Fischer continues as his cinematographer until 1961, when Sven Nykvist takes over. His group of actors is now almost completely established with Malmö City Theatre continuing to supply names such as Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Max von Sydow. A friend from his early years, Erland Josephson begins to play minor roles. Bergman works exclusively with Svensk Filmindustri.

Almost all of Bergman’s best known films are made during this period: The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and the so-called “silence of God trilogy”: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. If one also adds in his extensive work in the theatre, this is the absolute creative high point of Bergman’s career.

4. 1966-1981. Focus on the role of the artist. Female protagonists. The films are set almost exclusively on the barren Baltic Sea island of Fårö (where Bergman makes his home), and the social setting is bourgeois. The period is Bergman’s most experimental, with modernist elements. Close-ups dominate the imagery in a way unparalleled elsewhere in film history. The most important actors remain, as before, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson and Max von Sydow, with the important introduction of Liv Ullmann. Sven Nykvist is always the cinematographer, and Svensk Filmindustri the production company until the early 1970s, when Bergman set up his own company, Cinematograph. Between 1976 and 1981 he makes films abroad (Germany, Norway), yet usually in Swedish.

The period sees the two films which many (including Bergman himself) regard as his most important of all: Persona and Cries and Whispers. Other important works include the successful television series Scenes From a Marriage and the film only recognised in recent times, the German language From the Life of the Marionettes.

5. 1982-2003. Epilogue and autobiography. During Bergman’s later period his films are largely concerned with a reflective summing up both of his earlier career and his own life. Previous themes such as marriage, religion and the role of the artist recur: even previous characters re-emerge. His films are made exclusively for television. Important roles are played by Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, but also by new actors for Bergman such as Börje Ahlstedt. He also writes screenplays for other people; the subjects are his own life of those of his parents, and the directors are often people with personal connections to himself, such as his son Daniel Bergman, or his former partner Liv Ullmann.

The period’s major film in all respects is Fanny and Alexander, yet After the Rehearsal, In the Presence of a Clown and Saraband also rate highly in Bergman’s later filmography.

AB Svensk Filmindustri

This division into periods above does have its limitations. Certain themes, for example, first appear earlier than they are mentioned above, and important films such as Sawdust and Tinsel or The Magician do not fit comfortably into the pattern. Yet as a basic overview of Bergman’s film career, it also has its strengths.

A highly important director, Ingmar Bergman today seems ironically to have been virtually forgotten. His impact has been so all-pervasive, his influence so great and his films such obvious benchmarks, that his work has almost become invisible. Yet just as one occasionally has to revisit the Bible to understand something of western culture, one needs to see Bergman’s films anew. For many it was a long time ago; for others it will be for the first time. Whichever it is, the films will feel familiar.

Michelangelo Antonioni directed “The Passenger,” a 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson that was a runner-up on my Overlooked Films Top Ten list just recently. This next tribute comes from the Star-Telegram, courtesy the Associated Press:

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose depiction of alienation made him a symbol of art-house cinema with movies such as “Blow-Up” and “L’Avventura,” has died, officials and news reports said Tuesday. He was 94.

The ANSA news agency said that Antonioni died at his home on Monday evening.

“With Antonioni dies not only one of the greatest directors but also a master of modernity,” Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said in a statement.

Antonioni depicted alienation in the modern world through sparse dialogue and long takes. Along with Federico Fellini, he helped turn post-war Italian film away from the Neorealism movement and toward a personal cinema of imagination.

In 1995, Hollywood honored his career work – about 25 films and several screenplays – with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. By then Antonioni was a physically frail but mentally sharp 82, unable to speak but a few words because of a stroke but still translating his vision into film. The Oscar was stolen from Antonioni’s home in 1996, together with several other film prizes.

His slow-moving camera never became synonymous with box-office success, but some of his movies such “Blow-Up,” “Red Desert” and “The Passenger” reached enduring fame.

His exploration of such intellectual themes as alienation and existential malaise led Halliwell’s Film Guide to say that “L’Avventura,” Antonioni’s first critical success, made him “a hero of the highbrows.”

The critics loved that film, but the audience hissed when “L’Avventura” was presented at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. The barest of plots, which wanders through a love affair of a couple, frustrated many viewers for its lack of action and dialogue, characteristically Antonioni.

In one point in the black-and-white film, the camera lingers and lingers on Monica Vitti, one of Antonioni’s favorite actresses, as she plays a blond, restless jet-setter.

“In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting,” Jack Nicholson said in presenting Antonioni with the career Oscar. Nicholson starred in the director’s 1975 film “The Passenger.”

Antonioni was born on Sept. 29, 1912, in the affluent northern city of Ferrara. He received a university degree in economics and soon began writing critiques for cinema magazines.

Antonioni’s first feature film, “Story of a Love Affair” (1950) was a tale of two lovers unable to cope with the ties binding them to their private lives.

But Antonioni grew more interested in depicting his characters’ internal turmoil rather than their daily, down-to-earth troubles. The shift induced critics to call his cinema “internal Neorealism.”

After the international critical acclaim of “L’Avventura,” which became part of a trilogy with “The Night” (1961) and “Eclipse” (1962), Antonioni’s style was established. He steadily co-wrote his films and directed them with the recognizable touch of a painter. His signature was a unique look into people’s frustrating inability to communicate and assert themselves in society.

On Oscar award night, his wife, Enrica Fico, 41 years his junior, and “translator” for him since his 1985 stroke, said: “Michelangelo always went beyond words, to meet silence, the mystery and power of silence.”

The first success at the box office came in 1966 with “Blow Up,” about London in the swinging ’60s and a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film.

But Antonioni with his hard-to-fathom films generally found it hard to convince Italian producers to back him. By the end of the 1960s, he was looking abroad for funds. American backing helped produce “Zabriskie Point” (1970), shot in the bleakly carved landscape of Death Valley, California.

Asked by an Italian magazine in 1980, “For whom do you make films” Antonioni replied: “I do it for it an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public. Frankly, I can’t do it, even if so many directors do so. And then, what public? Italian? American? Japanese? French? British? Australian? They’re all different from each other.”

Using sometimes a notepad, sometimes the good communication he had with his wife and sometimes just his very expressive blue eyes, Antonioni astonished the film world in 1994 to make “Beyond the Clouds,” when ailing and hampered by the effects of the stroke.

With an international cast – John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Irene Jacob, and Fanny Ardant – the movie wove together three episodes based on Antonioni’s book of short stories “Quel Bowling sul Tevere” (“Bowling on the Tiber”) to explore the usual Antonioni themes.

Worried that Antonioni would be too frail to finish the movie, investors had German director Wim Wenders follow the work, ready to step in if the Italian “maestro” couldn’t go on. But Wenders wound up watching in awe and letting Antonioni put his vision on film.

Antonioni is survived by his wife. He had no children. ANSA said that a funeral would be held Thursday in Antonioni’s hometown of Ferrara in northern Italy.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 ChrisKnudsen August 7, 2007 at 7:33 am

People die in 3s and I’ve said this before but Eric Rohmer is next to go.

Reply

2 ChrisKnudsen August 7, 2007 at 7:33 am

People die in 3s and I’ve said this before but Eric Rohmer is next to go.

Reply

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