Remembering Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni
On July 4, 1826, two American political giants died
on the same day. That fateful date, John Adams and
Thomas Jefferson passed away.
Last month on July 30, 2007, on the same day, two
international movie giants died. Swedish director
Ingmar Bergman and Italian director Michelangelo
Antonioni passed away.
As with Adams and Jefferson, the day that Bergman
and Antonioni died marked the end of an era with great
If the deaths of Adams and Jefferson made people
think back 50 years to the Founding Fathers, the
deaths of Bergman and Antonioni made us think back 50
or 60 years to the 1950s and 1960s and the golden age
of modern international cinema.
It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine those
fertile days. It was an exhilarating time when
Americans lined up at Art Houses to see the latest
creative, provocative films of France’s Truffaut and
Godard, Japan’s Kurosawa, Italy’s Fellini and
Antonioni, Sweden’s Bergman among others.
In some ways film was elitist — education always
is. It didn’t mean foreign films were for everyone.
You still had people saying, “Wasn’t Ingmar Bergman
the woman in Casablanca?” But at least there was a
world beyond Blockbusters.
Today is a different time. In the 1960s selling out
was bad; now it is good business. Today Jesus would
check the Magi for their credit rating. The stable is
now a Wal-Mart.
Films today have very restrictive borders. American
cinema doesn’t go much beyond the border of
Springfield, Vermont. Chris Tucker and other wags
disdain everything French. Paris is no longer the City of Lights;
it’s now the celebrity of dimness.
Today’s formula for movie success is to get a huge
audience in the seats for the first week. Fill the
papers with hysterical quotes of praise by hacks such
as Pete Hammond, show most of your best scenes in the
previews, and hope to rake in the bucks.
There is no room in the inn or cineplex for foreign
films. Occasionally a foreign film such as La Vie en
Rose and a few other illegals will slip through the
cracks, but who wants a stable when you can have a
The movies worldwide in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
were full of irony, alienation, and ambiguity. Today
faith-based irony, faith-based alienation, and
faith-based ambiguity don’t compute. Skepticism once
was active; now it’s gone the way of WMDs.
Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni and their
peers made movies that were unique and
thought-provoking. Their very personal movies made way
for personal American movie in the 1970s — the golden
age of American cinematic creativity. Then Jaws devoured the small personal cinema as though it was Robert Shaw’s leg.
The films of Ingmar Bergman are some of the
greatest ever made. The Seventh Seal (1956), in
which Death played chess with a Knight on the beach,
was compelling cinema. The Virgin Spring (1960) was shocking.
Wild Strawberries (1957), The Silence (1963), and Persona (1966) are evocative classics. But these classics are as irrelevant as Vietnam is
in the 21st century.
Liv Ullmann, one of the greatest movie actresses
of all-time and a haunting staple of Bergman’s cinema, is nearly forgotten.
Worse than that, Ingmar Bergman has no more
currency than a Swedish hula hoop in today’s society.
His questions are not the questions asked anymore. We
have all the answers.
Another once-potent questioner was Michelangelo
Antonioni. He changed cinema with his classic
L’Avventura in 1960. Blow-Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975) offered
popular enigmas. The Passenger has a seldom seen performance by Jack Nicholson, that is one of his best.
Nicholson was the presenter when Antonioni was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1995 and gave an unforgettable, eloquent introduction.
It’s rare to see a Bergman film or Antonioni film
today. The Art Theatres that once proudly showed their
films became porno theatres, and then deteriorated out
of business. The venues for Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo
Antonioni are defunct. Only the shimmering profound
A better time has passed.