THE LAST OF THE HIGH MODERNISTS
[Cover images are from monographs written by Robin Wood]
"High modernist" film making does not directly or chronologically correspond to "high modernist" production in other arts. European modernism - Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, the list goes on - is generally said to have pinnacled in the 1920s, plunging into even more scattered pluralisms after World War II. In visual art, George Grosz, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Henri Matisse are wildly different but said to be consummately modernist. In music, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Eric Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. Writers like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, and Ezra Pound.
Film was a new medium during the other artistic modernisms, and therefore did not reach comparative maturity until the late 1940s and 1950s. Once the European economies regained their footing, film industries began to expand such that they could accommodate niche styles and subjects. One such impulse which grew into a worldwide passion was "art cinema." Art cinema - films with ambiguous narratives, innovative, individually anchored styles, serious and/or bleakly realist themes, on subjects which ranged from nationally specific to wildly universal - is an organizational label which truly encompasses a wide range of films. Practitioners of art cinema came to be known as the high modernists of film making. Many have been long dead...Visconti, Fellini, Anderson, Rossellini, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Bunuel, Tati, and a host of others died before I started calling myself a cinephile. In a very cruel stroke of bad luck and ill health, two of the best-known, most challenging directors in cinematic history have died.
Ingmar Bergman (dead at 89) was Sweden's most famous creative mind. He left a wonderful mark on film, television, and through work on the stage. While there are many films, many moments worth remembering, I'd like to focus on his last major work, SARABAND (2003). Originally shot for television and later exhibited theatrically, SARABAND is a continuation of the relationship between Marianne and Johan, the two central characters in Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). A story that once centered on a marriage-in-crisis, with arguments, deceptions, and the rest, is transformed into a mediation on old age. Johan is dealing with demanding, financially draining decedents. Marianne visits, and the two start on the way to reforging a relationship. Though typically complex, the film is heartrending in its ability to convincingly show how two people with long pasts can reconcile their squabbles in favor of a more inclusive life. It is a film in which Bergman revisits his own past, remolding and reimaging some of his previous creations. The movie is delicately paced, reflecting the contemplative modes of old age.
Michelangelo Antonioni (dead at 94) was the more self-consciously obtuse of the two. He was less humanistic, more mechanical, and ultimately more cerebral. His films, at their best - L'AVVENTURA (1960), IL DESERTO ROSSO (1964), BLOWUP (1966) - thrust contemporary people into sharp, slicing contrast to their alien world. Critics often speak of his pervasive alienation, which I find to be a very apt word. While Bergman's characters were always alienated from each other, Antonioni's were alienated from the each other and
the world itself. Through disjointed dialog, expert cinematography, and inventive editing, his films remake the familiar into the new.
Their films are not always easy to watch, but the best ones seldom are. While both men could be hard to work with, deference to their craft was often the norm. By 2007, both were legends, elected saints to the secular ruling class of artistic film makers. Netflix queues will probably begin flooding with Antonioni and Bergman films, yet it lamentable that my younger generation of cinephiles needs death to recognize how much can be at stake.