Thursday, August 9, 2007

Never trust anyone under thirty


Viewer and screen in Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than the concurrent deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni has been the critical reaction to their passing. Of course by-rote praises were published for their achievements; but there was also a wheedling insistence that they were no longer relevant. In a rambling, unfocused essay in the New York Times, A.O. Scott opined that "the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good," but he didn't seem to think that was such a bad thing, musing that "The institutions that keep art alive do so at the risk of embalming it." (And I suppose the institutions that embalm art also do so at the risk of keeping it alive!) More tellingly, in an unguarded moment of self-revelation, Scott admitted, "For generations that were not part of the great cinephile vanguard of the ’50s and ’60s, for those of us who grew up in the drab age in between the flourishing of the art houses and the rise of the Criterion Collection, the masterworks of modern cinema had lost their novelty." Ah. So it was novelty that drove Bergman's and Antonioni's reputations - a novelty which inevitably wore off. Even Lionel Trilling, apparently, would concur: "“Time has the effect of seeming to quiet the work of art,” Mr. Trilling observed, “domesticating it and making it into a classic, which is often another way of saying that it is an object of merely habitual regard."

Ugh. Why, oh why, does every middlebrow hack trying to elevate his discourse quote Trilling (at left)?? Perhaps it's because criticism is much, much more likely than art to be 'domesticated' by habitual regard into a cultural commodity. (Still, the poor guy must have spun in his grave so many times by now that he feels like an unassimilated dreidl!)

No doubt Lionel - and Tony - got bored by the classics in the classroom; how could they not? The dimming of their power at the lectern, however, has no connection to their longterm purchase on the soul (as long as it exists, that is). In short, classic status is only a liability to the critic/academic, not to the work itself (as the steady sales of so many classics attest). Of course Tony does hint at this problem, although he can't quite say it aloud: "More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness." This is a bit like being sung to sleep by someone who thinks you're already dead, isn't it? But never mind.

In the Boston Globe, (reprinted here) meanwhile, Ty Burr was crooning a similiar tune, if a bit more bluntly: "[After their deaths]The two filmmakers almost seemed relevant again. In truth, they're anything but." At first it's hard to imagine what Burr might mean: they're still relevant to me, for example - but then perhaps the point is that I'm not relevant, because (and I admit it's true) I'm old:

. . . as I put together the Globe obituary . . . one of our department interns — a 20-year-old student who knows her pop history better than most — admitted she had never actually seen any of his movies. After a pause, she confessed she had always confused Ingmar Bergman with Ingrid Bergman, and what did he actually do? The next day was worse: She hadn't heard of Antonioni at all.

Ingrid, Ingmar . . . let's call the whole thing off! And as for Michelangelo Antonispumoni, didn't he paint the Sixteenth Chapel? Gosh, you'd think maybe an arts department intern who'd never heard of either might be fired on the spot, but you'd have thought wrong! Of course not - as Burr assures us, "her only crime is youth" (umm, and ignorance, right?) - and after all, "today's artistic rebel is tomorrow's old fart."


Image as object in Blow-up.

Uh-huh. Never mind about young farts, I suppose. The trouble is, though, that it's hard to see either Bergman or Antonioni as "rebels" - indeed, parsing them in that way already does obeisance to a pop mindset they were generally opposed to (even in Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, Antonioni deploys his pop soundtrack with a deadpan distance) - and robs them of their true significance. (And needless to say, once you've set up their reputations this way, it's oh so much easier to knock them down.) Essentially, they operated outside the boomer/Woodstock consensus that spawned A.O. Scott and Ty Burr. They had their social concerns, true, and both offered withering critiques of modern life, but what was essential to them was their internality; without a sensitivity to this, their movies can, indeed, seem at times like so much meandering pretentiousness. Of course perhaps that very internality has vanished in the audience - Burr gets closer to saying this outright than Scott does when he ventures that "The ironic detachment that the great post-war directors saw as a symptom of malaise has become the primary way of doing business." Indeed it has, Ty: what Bergman and Antoinioni were warning us we were becoming, our children have indeed become. But saying so might ruffle a few feathers out in Wellesley and Cohasset, mightn't it?

What's perhaps most horrifying about Burr's article is his quick sketch of what "an attuned young moviegoer should attend to": "a new Wes Anderson coming out in the fall and bleeding-edge videos to watch on YouTube, and that Irish rock musical you still haven't seen, not to mention the Korean horror flick — and wait, they've re-edited "Grindhouse" as two separate films for DVD."


Existential questions doggy style in Grindhouse.

Trust me, little intern - you can skip ALL that shit - Grindhouse, The Darjeeling Limited, The Host/D-Games, Once - none of them are really worth your time. In the same 12 hours or so (depending on how much sludge they've packed into Grindhouse 1 & 2), you can see The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona, Shame, and L'eclisse, Blow-up, and The Passenger. OR, you can check out the later work of Bergman and Antonioni's true heirs - perhaps Blue or Red, or part of The Decalogue by Kieslowski (whose grave is at left - note the hands framing a shot at the top of the headstone); then you could move on to The Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami); Cure (Kyoshi Kurosawa); and Funny Games (Michael Haneke), or even Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón). You may not have a soul now, but even today, with a little time and effort, you can still get one at the movies.

1 comment:

  1. It kind of reminds me of the quote: "In our current age, information is endlessly available to us, but where shall wisdom be found."

    VCR's came in while I was growing up, but I can still remember when seeing these movies was something that only occurred at places like a film archive, art house theatres, or the odd UHF movie nite.

    Nowadays, I know many people my age or younger who have not seen any of the films you have mentioned, yet would categorize themselves as "rabid cinephiles."

    The funny thing is that these films are instantly available on Netflix, etc. Sometimes in pristine transfers.

    An article was recently penned, by a film historian I think, that tracked how cultural references have been slowly screened out of how we teach history in public schools and academia.

    I think he opened the article talking about how virtually nobody graduating college today could tell you what all the fuss was about concerning Nude Descending a Staircase, much less could they tell you what "Nude Descending a Staicase" even is?

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