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No More Lubitsch Films

Remembering Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

By Patrick Z. McGavin


At the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler remarked, "No more Lubitsch." Billy Wilder responded, "Worse. No more Lubitsch films."

For lovers of the elastic and ineluctable possibilities of divine and mad movie love, few days have been as cruel in discovering Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died hours apart from each other. Their deaths come just weeks after the shocking, devastating passing of Taiwanese new wave master Edward Yang and the loss of Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene. Robert Altman died this spring.

Many of the great masters are dying. It is not just the movies that have suffered. Sembene was an important novelist and Bergman an extraordinary director of theater and opera. Altman also did exemplary work in theater, opera and television. With the exception of Yang, just 50 years old, you might argue these deaths were not unexpected. Each artist remained active artistically until the end, and they continued to probe, create and distill their ideas and impulses into tactile and absorbing work. In part owing to his physical incapacities from the 1985 stroke that rendered him partially paralyzed, Antonioni worked mostly in shorter forms. His 17-minute, 2004 essay piece, Michelangelo Eye to Eye, was a glorious and rapturous interplay of one great artist thinking about and responding to another.

Just recently, I saw for the first time the director's 1982 film Identification of a Woman. It was his last film before he suffered the stroke. Concerning the erotic and artistic concern of a filmmaker searching for an actress for his new film and a new lover, the movie is certainly opaque, strange and beguiling. It also features one of the most extraordinary sequences of the director's career. It is an abstractly beautiful moment of Tomas Milian driving through an eerie, depopulated fog-bound, nighthawk landscape. It is that flattening of space that throbbed and darted in the imagination, continually looking at the frame and the arrangement of bodies and objects that Antonioni's work a particular tension, edge and mystery.

The final movement or montage of L'eclisse finds Antonioni returning to the streets, locations and landscapes visited by the two lovers, the spaces now marked by their complete absence. It is not just the most remarkable moment of the director's career; it rates for me the most electrifying moment of movie-watching I know. The director's American movie, Zabriskie Point, is another film I've recently revisited. Sure, it has some awkward moments, though it has moments of poetry and beauty, of entwined interludes and shots, like his lyrical contrasts of the desert landscape traversed by a car and single engine plane that floats through the diaphanous sky. After his stroke, Antonioni turned even more ravenous with the camera; it is constantly alert to bodies and the play of light. The camera is a substitute of his thwarted expression.

Thinking of all these directors, I'm reminded of movements, shots, actors' faces and women's bodies. The first Bergman film I ever saw was Persona. That was a conventional circumstance. The opening shot that penetrates the interior of the camera is a telling metaphor for the director. Bergman used the camera to study the most intricate, bruising and withering explorations of human behavior, sexuality or moral inquiry. In Persona, I also vividly remember the stunningly erotic confession made by Bibi Andersson. If Bergman's films are imbued by moments of mortality and doubt, I prefer the lyrical bursts of imagination, the entirety of Smiles of a Summer Night, the carnal, lusty sensuality in the early passages of the long form of Fanny and Alexander, or the novelistic fluidness of memory and time in Wild Strawberries.

Asked about the difference between working with Altman and Bergman, Elliott Gould said: "Altman knows who [American basketball player] Dave DeBusschere is." Bergman was full of surprises, like his famed two-night television appearance with Dick Cavett in the early Seventies, where he revealed himself the very opposite of the dour, solipsistic Scandinavian by speaking perfect English and demonstrating an understated sense of humor. In 1997, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Cannes Film festival, it convened a highly impressive international group of filmmakers. The festival bestowed its highest honor on Bergman. Critically, the director's reputation has swung fairly precipitously, moving from decline and neglect to some brand of resurrection.

Antonioni's early and late films cry out for reappraisal. Bergman's long-form television versions of Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander constitute, along with Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night, his greatest achievements. His memoir, The Magic Lantern, is also quite extraordinary. Bergman and Antonioni are better represented than most major foreign-language directors on DVD. (Yang's four-hour masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day and many of Sembene's best films are either not currently published or unavailable in top grade transfers.)

No more Antonioni or Bergman films. Right now, all I want to do is go home and lock myself in a room and watch their movies. Right now, the day feels very impure and incomplete, as if something essential has been lost.


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