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Helmers shared bleak beauty

Loss of Antonioni, Bergman is a big one

Are there any directors today made of such stern stuff as were Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni?

As a matter of fact, there are — the likes of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami and Bela Tarr come to mind. But the miracle of Bergman and Antonioni, who died on the same day, July 30, at the ages of 89 and 94, respectively, is that, while making films expressive of bleak, even despairing world views, they commanded the attention, not just of critics and film buffs, but of the entire cultured world, and in the process developed a sufficiently wide public to sustain commercially viable careers. Their work was demanding and often forbidding enough to be off-putting. But in forcing a sizeable international public to confront and try to digest their films on their own terms, these artists deepened and enriched the idea of what films might aspire to and accomplish.

Certainly Bergman was the director who won over literary snobs to the idea that the cinema could be an art. Fifty years ago, the American intelligentsia was dominated by critics and academics who either never saw movies or looked down on them as formulaic diversions. Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” probably did more to begin a shift in thinking than any other film, with Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, mon amour,” Antonioni’s “L’avventura” and several other Bergman films soon following to fuel the fire.

In short, Bergman made cinema acceptable among the high-brows, who were additionally impressed by the fact that he practiced his art under unconstrained conditions in a faraway land unhampered by crass commercial considerations. But this doesn’t mean that his legacy should be limited to this rarefied view of his work. As chance would have it, “The Seventh Seal” was the first subtitled film I ever saw — at 14, I somehow heard about a campus screening at a nearby university — and I was duly impressed and intimidated, especially since the film’s gravity required a half-hour talk by a professor about the meaning of it all.

Not long thereafter, however, I discovered a different aspect of Bergman’s art that warmed me to him forever — his evocation of eroticism and sensuality. Although hardly explicit by contemporary standards, his early ’50s works “Summer Interlude” and “Summer With Monika” remain unsurpassed in their intelligent portrayal of youthful sexual longing and angst backgrounded by intensely portrayed natural landscapes; daring for its time, “The Silence” has one of the most beautiful shots of a female breast in cinema, and “Persona” famously features Bibi Andersson’s extraordinary monologue about a long-ago sexual tryst on a beach.

Quite apart from his probing, rigorous work as a director, Bergman the dramatist must be considered in his own right; I can’t think of another screenwriter anywhere who has written so many original scripts, mostly directed by himself, but occasionally, and exceptionally, by others, notably “The Best Intentions,” by Bille August, and “Faithless,” by his longtime collaborator and once-upon-a-time companion Liv Ullmann.

Bergman had an entire other career, as a theater and opera director, which most of us will never be able to properly assess. He brought some Swedish-language productions to BAM in later years, but the one Bergman stage venture I was fortunate enough to see was “Hedda Gabler” at the National Theater in London in 1970. It starred Maggie Smith, then 35 and in her immediate post-“Jean Brodie” prime, and it was devastating. The production was dominated by a set drenched in womb-red, much like that which shortly thereafter marked Bergman’s film “Cries and Whispers,” and it remains in my memory as one of the greatest evenings at the theater I have ever experienced. One can only imagine how many other productions of equal stature he staged over the years in Sweden.

A propos of “Cries and Whispers,” when I worked for Roger Corman in the ’70s, he said he persuaded Bergman to let him distribute the picture by promising him he’d get the ultra-serious drama booked into drive-ins. “I’m going to make you the new Jack Hill!” Corman told the Swedish auteur, referring to one of the era’s low-budget maestros. Bergman evidently was so tantalized by this prospect that he let Corman have the film, and Corman was good to his word, playing a dubbed version at ozoners and making the picture one of Bergman’s greatest successes.

Antonioni was a definitive example of a difficult director who, through the sheer force of his vision and the beauty of his images, forced people to look at things in a different way, to regard contemporary society from his point of view. Andrew Sarris coined the term Antoniennui, which conveys a lot, and “L’avventura” was famously booed when it premiered in Cannes in 1960. It took a while for American audiences, at least, to come around to the chilly poet of alienation, and it is doubtful he would have ever become anything approaching a household name had it not been for the freak success of “Blowup,” an enigmatic thriller that traded on the fascination with mid-’60s swinging London, models and photographers.

I definitely shared in that fascination at the time and, though underage, managed to sneak into what was meant to be an adults-only film. I was mesmerized and must admit that, after having started my high school student filmmaking career making nothing but comedies and stop-action pranks, immediately shifted gears and blatantly imitated the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t pretensions of “Blowup” in my very next 10-minute picture (and won prizes, probably wrongly, by so doing).

All the same, I have always been reserved in my feelings about Antonioni. For one thing, I prefer directors who inject vitality into their stories and life into their characters (Renoir, Hawks, Lubitsch, Truffaut, Walsh, et al) rather than draining the blood out of them; I’ve always felt there was something vaguely vampiric about Antonioni.

Secondly, he seemed to follow fashion as much as set it, particularly in the English-language phase of his career. “Blowup” started this, and “Zabriskie Point,” his one American studio venture, confirmed it; I remember vividly his hobnobbing with Bay Area radical chic types before and during production, and their desperation to be accepted by him. I actually found the film rather interesting in the end, crippled mostly by its uninteresting leading actors and the specific political references.

Commercially, his career never really recovered from this flop, although two of his subsequent films, the infinitely watchable “The Passenger” and “Identification of a Woman,” are among his best.

Although both Bergman and Antonioni lived and continued to work until relatively recently, two generations have grown up since they burst upon the scene, and it’s been 25 years since “Fanny and Alexander,” the last film made by either of them to have made a significant impact.

Despite their films’ ready availability on DVD, especially Bergman’s on Criterion, today’s film students have scarcely seen them and might consider them a chore if required to do so. Bergman and Antonioni defined the cinema as high art, and little of that gets out before the public these days.

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