Art movies: R.I.P.

Long before Bergman and Antonioni died, the mystical art-house film experience faded to black. Plus: How rock can rehabilitate, and a vote for Kelly Clarkson.

Published August 8, 2007 11:15AM (EDT)

The 2008 presidential sweepstakes have hit the doldrums as the pack of eager candidates of both parties dutifully make their rounds and tread water like tar. Whoever survives this corrida-by-boredom will presumably have the brass cojones to run the government. By what national curse must we suffer another year of this?

Trivialities and missteps clog the political news: is Mrs. Rudy Giuliani a vampy, trampy film-noir gold digger? Did Mrs. John Edwards, playing phone tag, put her foot in her mouth by single-handedly rehabilitating Ann Coulter's reputation for seat-of-the-pants, high-testosterone counterpunching? Why was Clinton campaign advisor Ann Lewis (sister of Barney Frank) so addled and strangely superheated by the Washington Post's whimsical meditation on the saggy Hillary cleavage that she instantly turned it into a crass cash come-on?

Meanwhile, the war drags on in Iraq, where the worthless Baghdad government has fled the blistering summer heat while American soldiers, laden with their battle gear, suffer and die. When will this fruitless exercise in nation building end? No one will ever resolve the eternal hatreds and ethnic rivalries of the Middle East, which have been churning and festering for 5,000 years. The extremist Muslim drama is only half the story.

As I replied to a Salon reader in my last column, yes, if the United States makes a strategic retreat from Iraq, we may well be returning in a decade or two, this time with regional allies. But things will be vastly different: no more happy facade of pacification and reconstruction; no more corrupt protectionism of commercial contractors; no more costly police or military training of volatile, faithless local recruits; no more intrusive neighborhood patrols with our soldiers blown to smithereens by cheap booby traps. It will be real war, heavily applied by air force, with maximum damage inflicted at minimal cost to our troops.

The thick-headed Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triad may have grotesquely bungled the Iraq incursion, but Republicans (barring a breakaway third party) will still comfortably retake the White House next year if my fellow Democrats don't get their act together on the cardinal issue of geopolitics. Terrorism isn't going to go away if and when we withdraw from Iraq. We need to recalibrate our global strategy and more intelligently address the fractured, dispersed nature of jihadism, which is germinating everywhere from Indonesia and the Philippines to the Western world. Throwing billions into the desert morass of Iraq isn't getting us anywhere -- especially with our porous domestic security and our alarmingly decaying infrastructure needing urgent remediation.

On the culture front, fabled film directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni dying on the same day was certainly a cold douche for my narcissistic generation of the 1960s. We who revered those great artists, we who sat stunned and spellbound before their masterpieces -- what have we achieved? Aside from Francis Ford Coppola's "Godfather" series, with its deft flashbacks and gritty social realism, is there a single film produced over the past 35 years that is arguably of equal philosophical weight or virtuosity of execution to Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" or "Persona"? Perhaps only George Lucas' multilayered, six-film "Star Wars" epic can genuinely claim classic status, and it descends not from Bergman or Antonioni but from Stanley Kubrick and his pop antecedents in Hollywood science fiction.

Tragically, very few young people today, teethed on dazzling special effects and a hyperactive visual style, seem to have patience for the long, slow take that deep-think European directors once specialized in. It's a technique already painfully time-bound -- that luxurious scrutiny of the tiniest facial expressions or the chilly sweep of a sterile room or bleak landscape. What my generation was passionately responding to in European films was their sexual candor and their low-budget protest against the peachy Technicolor artifice and forced jollity of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking in the Marilyn Monroe/Rock Hudson/Doris Day era, with its postwar myths of ever-imperiled virginity and ideal marriage.

I'm not sure who, if anyone, still views moviegoing as a quasi-mystical experience. As a college student in the mid-'60s, I saw the movie screen as a door into another world. When Roman Polanski's hypnotic "Knife in the Water" was shown in my very first week at Harpur College (the State University of New York at Binghamton), life seemed to change overnight. Jean Cocteau's "Orphée," a surreal modernization of the Orpheus legend in existential Paris, sent me staggering out speechless under the twinkling upstate stars.

Other indelible memories: the grinding of the collapsing stone balustrade in the baroque gardens of Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad." The night wind eerily stirring the spray-painted green trees in the London park of Antonioni's "Blow-Up." The column of army tanks ominously rumbling through the city street in the unknown land of Bergman's "The Silence." The life-giving waters of the Fountain of Trevi suddenly stopping in Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," stranding Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg mid-kiss.

When Antonioni's plotless "L'Avventura" was shown at Harpur, the entire theater emptied within a half-hour -- except for the front row of me and my friends, transfixed by the aquiline profile of a very anxious Monica Vitti, her blond locks tossed this way and that, as she searched a desolate Italian island for her capriciously absent friend. When I saw Bergman's "Persona" at its first release in New York in 1967, I felt that it was the electrifying summation of everything I had ever pondered about Western gender and identity. The title of my doctoral dissertation and first book, "Sexual Personae," was an explicit homage to Bergman. On a British lecture tour for the National Film Theatre in 1999, I asked to sleep with "Persona" -- whose five reels, like holy icons, rested in two silver cans next to my bed.

But art movies are gone, gone with the wind. In some cases, what once seemed suggestive and profound now feels tortured and pretentious. For example, why should the rivetingly supersophisticated Jeanne Moreau have to drive her car off that damned bridge at the end of François Truffaut's "Jules and Jim"? It's factitious and absurd. All of the major European directors hit the skids in the '70s. I, for one, had little interest in late Bergman, Antonioni or Fellini, who seemed to decline into pastiche and self-parody. With Bergman in particular, the austere turned sentimental. But why should any artist have to compete with his or her peak period? We should be satisfied with the priceless legacy of genius.

Art film as a genre has waned with the high modernism that produced it. The premier modernists -- from James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf to Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso and Martha Graham -- were rebelling against a hierarchical, authoritarian tradition that suffocated their youth but whose very power energized their work. They became larger from what they opposed and overcame. Today, anything goes, and nothing lasts.

Ingmar Bergman's creativity was certainly stimulated by the overly cerebral, puritanical Protestantism in which he was raised. In film after film, he militantly made space for emotion and intuition, usually embodied in elusive, charismatic women, whose faces his inquiring camera obsessively searched. Bergman's artistic drive was inextricable from the religious impulse.

Now, in contrast, aspiring young filmmakers are stampeded toward simplistic rejection of religion based on liberal bromides (sexism, homophobia, etc.). Religion as metaphysics or cosmic vision is no longer valued except in the New Age movement, to which I still strongly subscribe, despite its sometimes outlandish excesses. As a professed atheist, I detest the current crop of snide manifestos against religion written by professional cynics, flâneurs and imaginatively crimped and culturally challenged scientists. The narrow mental world they project is very grim indeed -- and fatal to future art.

My pagan brand of atheism is predicated on worship of both nature and art. I want the great world religions taught in every school. Secular humanism has reached a dead end -- and any liberals who don't recognize that are simply enabling the worldwide conservative reaction of fundamentalism in both Christianity and Islam. The human quest for meaning is innate and ineradicable. When the gods are toppled, new ones will soon be invented. ("Better Jehovah than Foucault," I once warned. For more on this, see "Religion and the Arts in America," a lecture I gave at Colorado College earlier this year that was broadcast on C-SPAN's "American Perspectives" series and that has just been published in Arion.)

The waning of art film has been just one of the bitter cultural disappointments that the baby-boom generation has had to endure. Rock music, which exploded in the artistic renaissance of the '60s and '70s, seems to have exhausted its formulas. At the moment, hip-hop and disco-derived dance music enjoy far greater prestige everywhere.

It's no coincidence that the geriatric Rolling Stones are still going strong: Their style is grounded in African-American rhythm and blues, which the ultra-virtuoso Keith Richards still spiritually mainlines in hotel rooms on the road. Hence I was thrilled to discover a home video of a young British acoustic guitarist from Liverpool/Manchester, Naomi Mather, studiously working her way through the great Howlin' Wolf song "Smokestack Lightning," which the Yardbirds (seen in Antonioni's "Blow-Up") had turned into blazing rock-god theater:

Way to go, Naomi! Rock will be spectacularly reborn by a faithful return to roots.

In general, aspiring young performers emerging from the bland white middle class in America seem to be having trouble expressing or controlling emotion, with its myriad of subtle gradations. Unless they hail from the gospel-rich South, they lack direct experience of the vocal authority and operatic dynamics that most young African-Americans automatically absorb from church. And then Mariah Carey, who has phenomenal natural range, has unfortunately spawned a girly epidemic of glossy, manufactured faux crescendos.

In contrast, I've been deeply impressed with the visceral intensity and exquisite poetic shadings of Kelly Clarkson's moody "Irvine," which Matt Drudge has been playing on his Sunday night radio show. Clarkson claims to have composed the song in 20 minutes while lying in despair on a bathroom floor after a concert. The spare live production, with its ascending changes and haunting ornamental guitar slides, is gorgeous. As long as music of this quality is being made, the American fine arts will revive.

Believe me, after recently rushing to Blockbuster to rent "Factory Girl" on its first available day, I wasn't so sure. What a godawful film -- which blew a golden opportunity to re-create the scintillating heyday of Andy Warhol's seminal Factory (a mammoth influence on me in college). Sienna Miller has a charming vitality, but she completely misses Edie Sedgwick's waiflike self-destructive subtext. As for the rest of the hangdog cast, whether they were more paralyzed by the inert script or the obtuse direction would be pointless to waste thought over.

At least we have (a triumph of the improvisational Warhol aesthetic) to cop serendipitous doses of image and sound. Check this out (below) for a delicious reveling in classic Hollywood iconography: it's Mazzy Star's dirgelike "Fade Into You" contemplatively set to a celebration of that dancing diva Rita Hayworth. What sensual beauty and glamour!

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Camille Paglia's column appears on the second Wednesday of each month. Every third column is devoted to reader letters. Please send questions for her next letters column to this mailbox. Your name and town will be published unless you request anonymity.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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