Beyond the Multiplex

Bergman vs. Antonioni: Discuss! Plus: A guide to the best indie films creeping out of the cultural fringes this summer.

Published August 2, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Didn't John Adams and Thomas Jefferson die on the same day too? The parallel is pretty distant, but I suppose in their own field they were just as important. When I was writing my obituary essay about Ingmar Bergman on Monday, I at first included a parenthesis to say that Michelangelo Antonioni and Jean-Luc Godard were now the last surviving big-name directors of 1960s art-house cinema. Late in the day I had to take that sentence out, marveling at the strangeness of fate; word came over the Associated Press wires that Antonioni had died in Rome, at age 94.

I don't want to get dragged into some facile compare-and-contrast, or the sort of wonky taxonomy that reveals film snobbery at its most unpleasant. You can't imagine contemporary cinema without both Bergman and Antonioni any more than you can imagine the history of the American republic without both Adams and Jefferson. (Unlike the second and third presidents, the two filmmakers liked and respected one another.) As different as Bergman's intense, emotional dramas were from Antonioni's highly stylized landscapes of cosmopolitan anomie, both were responding to the same phenomenon: the perceived spiritual emptiness of Western civilization in the decades that followed the horrors of World War II.

As the letters in response to my Bergman article revealed, so-called art film retains the ability to provoke angry cultural warfare -- much of it irrelevant and ad hominem -- out of all proportion to its actual audience. Long after the resounding global victory of pop culture, some of its adherents still seem to feel threatened, or lectured, or condescended to, by the handful of oddballs who still want to sit through "Cries and Whispers" or Antonioni's "La Notte," or, I don't know, Pedro Costa's "Colossal Youth" (a film I'll discuss below). Is this something like the belief that heterosexual marriage will be fatally undermined if Doug and Russell can get hitched too?

It's partly true that the defenders of high-modernist culture, even as it lies in ruins around them, remain responsible for their own reputation. Bergman's death occasioned an outpouring of prose from aficionados all over the world, much of it heartfelt and inspired but some of it also extremely pompous. Consider Brian Baxter's essay in the Guardian, an apparent eulogy that belongs to the finest small-minded, carrion-crow tradition of English intellectualism. Baxter places Bergman among such "second rung, but never second rate" directors as Antonioni, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Billy Wilder and Luchino Visconti, who "hover fitfully behind the handful of geniuses -- Bresson, Dreyer, Ozu, Renoir, Rossellini -- where poetry and originality transcend matter and realism."

I don't know what the last part of that sentence is supposed to mean, but the only conclusion I can draw is that Baxter thinks that Bergman, Antonioni, Wilder and the rest of his "second rung" are entirely too popular and well-known. (Where and why are they fitfully hovering? Are they like the plain-belly Sneetches, excluded from the weenie roast by star-bellies like Bresson and Renoir?) So I'd like to approach the simultaneous deaths of these two great filmmakers with some degree of humility, but without running away from my own opinions.

Many people I respect feel passionately about Antonioni's pictures, and one could definitely argue that his influence is more evident and more widespread in contemporary culture than Bergman's. I've always felt similar reservations about Antonioni's work as I do about Alfred Hitchcock's; in both cases, an extraordinary technical facility seems to put form ahead of content, style ahead of substance. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that for both directors form was content, and that this idea flowed from their most basic understanding of the world. In both cases, my problem is not so much with Antonioni or Hitchcock's movies (which I find powerful and impressive, though hardly ever moving) but with what I see as their baleful influence on later generations.

Antonioni's black-and-white trilogy of the early '60s -- the international sensation of "L'Avventura," followed by "La Notte" and "Eclipse" -- with their beautiful women, sharp-dressed men, sleek modern settings and startling compositions, shaped advertising and fashion photography for decades to come. Whatever Marxian-Freudian points the filmmaker was trying to make became subsumed in the decadent, sexy glamour of the whole enterprise. That isn't precisely ironic, and isn't precisely Antonioni's fault. Maybe it's just symptomatic of the problem those movies sought to address.

International celebrity followed, but didn't necessarily do Antonioni any favors. After his first color film, the masterly but irredeemably bleak "Red Desert," he was lured to swinging London to make "Blow-Up" and then to chaotic, late-'60s America, where he was followed by the FBI and investigated by a federal grand jury while making "Zabriskie Point." The first of those was an international hit and remains one of the decade's most influential pictures (although its critical reputation has faded somewhat), while the second was a legendary debacle that nearly sank Antonioni's career. I haven't seen either for many years, but I bet they're ripe for reconsideration. (Has Antonioni's original ending to "Zabriskie Point," featuring an airplane skywriting "Fuck you, America," ever been found?)

Only one noteworthy film came after that, the sun-baked, widescreen spectacle of "The Passenger," with a lizardlike Jack Nicholson bent on escape or transcendence or self-destruction as he drags Maria Schneider from one European location to another. It's another story of anomie and self-hatred, but driven by a restless energy and a consummate, decadent gorgeousness. I'm inclined to believe that it's Antonioni's one real masterpiece, a tantalizing suggestion of what he could have done with the right kind of access to Hollywood-level resources and movie stars.

By the '80s, Antonioni was physically weakened, apparently bereft of ideas and perceived as unmarketable. He suffered a devastating stroke in 1985 and spent his last two decades partially paralyzed and unable to speak clearly, a cruel fate for a man once well known as a bon vivant. His only feature after 1982 was "Beyond the Clouds," a peculiar softcore fantasy made in 1995 that, by most accounts, was directed by Wim Wenders based on Antonioni's suggestions.

However posterity will judge him, Antonioni's reputation rests on just seven major films, while Bergman made more than 30. My own preference for Bergman's work may just be personal predisposition, or more specifically the fact that I was introduced to Bergman's films (along with Kurosawa's) as a child, and they became the unconscious gold standard by which I have judged all others. As I've said, Bergman and Antonioni liked each other, as men and as filmmakers, and both were instrumental in creating today's cinematic culture. But I think the longer you consider their work side by side, the more fundamentally different they appear.

Here's your homework assignment, if you choose to accept it. Hit up Netflix or GreenCine or your video store and watch the following pairs of movies, with as clear a mind as possible. In the First Success category, let's combine Bergman's "Seventh Seal" with Antonioni's "L'Avventura." As Artistic Breakthroughs, let's compare "Persona" to "Red Desert." In the Mature Masterpiece category, let's watch "The Passenger" and "Fanny and Alexander" (about the most bizarre double bill I can imagine). Discuss! You can submit to the letters section, of course, or send me an e-mail and I'll publish responses in the column.

There have been so many noteworthy releases over the last couple of weeks (as well as so many noteworthy deaths), that this week's column requires radical measures: A Blurbathon! I've always maintained that writing those little 150-word movie reviews for weekly papers is harder work than blathering on and on in cyberspace, but at least it takes less time. Herewith, in highly subjective descending order, a guide to the best indie films creeping onto the cultural fringes of this overcrowded summer.

"This Is England" I've already raved about Shane Meadows' extraordinary autobiographical film about his misspent skinhead youth after seeing it at the Tribeca Film Festival, and on repeat viewing I think that in its sneaky, subtle way it's one of the year's best movies. (Based on its boffo weekend opening at New York's IFC Center, viewers so far agree.) Young Thomas Turgoose stars as the pudgy, socially inept Shaun, an unhappy kid of 10 or 11 who's adopted first by Woody (Joseph Gilgun), the surprisingly kind leader of a teen skinhead gang, and then by Combo (Stephen Graham), a violent racist just out of prison who supplants Woody as alpha male. Even Combo is never a caricature, though he's clearly dangerous and unbalanced; the affection he feels for the fatherless Shaun is genuine, even if Combo expresses it by taking Shaun to neo-fascist political meetings and encouraging him to terrorize Pakistani shopkeepers. "This Is England" is marvelously acted and depicts its troubled young characters without judging or sugarcoating them. It's one of the simplest and best re-creations of downscale urban England during the gritty post-punk years ever put on screen, and it's both upsetting and very funny. Shaun's scenes with the disastrously made-up proto-Goth girl who becomes his girlfriend (she's several years older and a full foot taller) may make you laugh and cry in the same moment. (Now playing at the IFC Center in New York. Opens Aug. 3 in Los Angeles; Aug. 10 in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and St. Louis; Aug. 17 in Atlanta, New Orleans and Philadelphia; Aug. 24 in Nashville, Pittsburgh and Portland, Ore.; Aug. 31 in Dallas, Detroit and Indianapolis; and Sept. 7 in Seattle. Also available on many cable TV systems, via IFC In Theaters.)

"Blame It on Fidel" Another remarkable performance from a child actor, this time by Nina Kervel as a precocious 9-year-old Parisian girl whose parents are caught up in the heady left-wing fervor of potential worldwide revolution, circa 1970. Anna's Spanish refugee father (Stefano Accorsi) makes frequent journeys to Chile to work for Salvador Allende's socialist revolution, while her mother (Julie Depardieu, daughter of Gérard) becomes an ardent feminist, collecting case histories of illegal abortion and organizing against France's then-repressive laws on reproduction and contraception. Anna sails through all this ideology with sublime, princess-scale disdain, attending her upper-crust Catholic school, learning to cut fruit with a knife and fork, and viewing the bearded revolutionaries assembled in her parents' kitchen as untrustworthy madmen. This delightful, improbable tale of a family riven (and then reunited) by the tides of global politics is directed by Julie Gavras, daughter of the Greek-born filmmaker Costa-Gavras (of "Z," "State of Siege," etc.), and it's safe to assume she knows something about growing up as the child of distracted leftists (although this film is adapted from a novel by Italian writer Domitilla Calamai). A wrenching, funny and wise little picture, with a diva-like junior star at its center. (Opens Aug. 3 at Cinema Village in New York, with more cities to follow.)

"Summer '04" German director Stefan Krohmer's tale of sun, sand and sex starts off as a witty, Eric Rohmer-esque comedy about a European family suddenly thrown into erotic disorder on their summer vacation, and then halfway through takes a sharp left turn into thriller-ish darkness. There may be something formulaic or deterministic about the film's ultimate direction, but along the way it's quite a ride. Martina Gedeck is tremendous as Mirjam, the unself-consciously sexy, 40ish wife and mom who doesn't even realize she wants more than she's getting from family life. (For about the 755th time, I will observe that American films pretty much never offer middle-aged women these kinds of roles.) At first, Mirjam's problem is Livia (Svea Lohde), the way-way-precocious 12-year-old vixen who is officially her teenage son's girlfriend but starts to go sailing every day with a beefy, cheerful guy named Bill (Robert Seeliger), who happens to be much closer to Mirjam's age than Livia's. Like everybody else in this movie, Bill has depths he doesn't reveal at first, but Mirjam can't figure him out: Is he a dangerous predator, an innocent man-child or a trustworthy father-surrogate? Soon enough, Mirjam finds herself competing for Bill's affections against a 12-year-old, while her husband and son look on, and then a shocking, unexpected event throws the summer further askew. A well-crafted and deceptively leisurely film, with a heart of ice. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York, with wider release to follow.)

"The Willow Tree" One of the minor consequences of the 2005 election of nutso Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been that the flow of pictures to the West from Iran's troubled but always vital film industry has almost stopped. I don't think this is actually the Iranian government's doing, since censorship in that country has always worked at the level of domestic distribution, not film production. It's more like political issues and news headlines got in the way, making Iranian films even a harder sell in the United States than they were already. (It's become nearly impossible even for major Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf to visit the U.S., which is bizarre since they are hardly defenders of the current government.) All that is by way of saying that Majid Majidi's exquisite film "The Willow Tree" is likely to make a very brief stop in theaters en route to home video, so catch it when and if you can. Majidi's work (which includes "Baran," "The Color of Paradise" and "The Children of Heaven") has always been based in folk tale and spiritual allegory, and "The Willow Tree" comes under the heading of "Be careful what you pray for." A middle-aged academic named Yusef (Parviz Parastui), who has been blind since childhood but is happily married with a young daughter, miraculously regains his sight after having corneal surgery in France. (Majidi needs to make no political commentary when he shows the way women dress in Paris and in Tehran.) Yusef comes home to discover that he doesn't find his own wife attractive; his uncle's babealicious young sister-in-law, though, is another story. Developing a story of erotic fixation in a cinema that can't show so much as an ankle or a shoulder is challenging, but Majidi pulls it off with panache, depicting Yusef's descent into madness and self-destruction in a series of haunting, masterfully constructed sequences. A beautiful film, both simple and profound, which suggests that bargaining with God is a bad idea in all cultural traditions. (Opens Aug. 3 at Lincoln Plaza in New York, with wider release to follow.)

"Colossal Youth" There's no way to grapple with the ambiguous phenomenon that is Portuguese director Pedro Costa in this amount of space. Let's just say that his slow-moving, impressively photographed and deliberately repetitious zero-tech docudramas about the degraded lives of the poor will infuriate and alienate far more people than they please, but that to a certain small population of film-school enthusiasts, he might be the hottest thing in world cinema. "Colossal Youth" has no plot to speak of, and requires some understanding of Portuguese society to make sense at all. Crucial elements are unexplained: The dour protagonist, a black Cape Verdean immigrant named Ventura who lives in a Lisbon neighborhood being cleared for urban renewal, keeps paying visits to people he says are his children, even though they are white and he seems not to know basic facts about their lives. Long, semi-improvised scenes go seemingly nowhere; Ventura lies on the bed of his non-daughter Vanda while she tells him that she's wiped her eyes with a baby wipe and now they sting. (Indeed that was pretty dumb.) Like Costa's other films, "Colossal Youth" is officially fiction, although the actors are people he meets on the streets of Lisbon and they generally have the same names as their characters. Eventually, across the monumental boredom, mesmerizing, nearly still images and poetic rhythms of this 155-minute film, something like pathos or meaning can be sensed, if not really apprehended. Certainly the lyrical love letter Ventura composes for an illiterate friend, to send back to his wife in the islands, becomes a heartbreaking mantra for their lives of ruination and despair as we hear it again and again (and again). I'm genuinely glad I made it all the way through "Colossal Youth," but remain agnostic about whether the pain was worth it. Consider yourself warned. (Opens Aug. 3 at Anthology Film Archives in New York, as part of their Costa retrospective, which will eventually tour to other cities.)

"The Camden 28" An inspiring, straightforward documentary that explores one of the most interesting activist exploits of the Vietnam era, when 28 protesters -- many of them Roman Catholics motivated by religious faith -- broke into an office building in Camden, N.J., and tried to destroy an entire draft board's records. As director Anthony Giacchino gradually develops through interviews with surviving activists, FBI agents and historians, the result of their arrest was an intriguing trial that explored the most fundamental underlying issues of social morality and personal responsibility in a time of war. Not exactly blazing cinema, but intellectually riveting. (Now playing at Cinema Village in New York, with more cities, and DVD release, to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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