Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both challenged audiences and understood the power of film, saysLen Klady
Earlier this week a US television commentator, in marking the passing of Ingmar Bergman, referred to him as the greatest film-maker of all time. He didn't use any qualifiers and his tone evinced not the slightest bit of puffery. It was evident he meant it and in an all too brief eulogy one gleaned that The Seventh Seal had a profound effect on the commentator's life.
The yardstick used to measure absolute greatness may not be exact but regardless where one chooses to place Bergman in the pantheon, it's not idle palaver to say his contribution to the seventh art had comparable significance to that of Beethoven, Van Gogh or Shakespeare in their respective fields.
One could say the same of Michelangelo Antonioni who died the same day. For someone who grew up on their films and those of Bunuel, Godard, Fellini and Kurosawa, it was like a punch to the stomach.
While you couldn't call them kindred spirits, Bergman and Antonioni shared common characteristics. Both challenged audiences to dig deep and confront the essence of their being. Each understood the power of the medium and strived to employ it in a fashion that would resonate with the people who bought tickets.
You didn't have to read the credits to know you had entered into their realm. They had poetry and visual signatures in the way they used natural light and composed their frames.
My wife worked for Antonioni on Zabriskie Point and she remembers getting lunch with him at a cafeteria during a break in filming. They were discussing some production problem as they went along putting food on their plates. When they reached the cashier, my wife looked down at what she'd selected and described it as resembling a child's finger painting; the film-maker's was a visually pleasing, perfectly colour-balanced piece of art.
When you look at early work by either of these artists, you can see the foundations of their great films. It was a different era and a different film industry. Bergman wrote screenplays, Antonioni made documentaries and both directed a lot of films before they found their voice.
Bergman famously grappled with man's isolation in the world in the aforementioned film and in such works as Through A Glass Darkly, The Silence, Persona, Winter Light, Wild Strawberries and Cries And Whispers. Antonioni challenged one's perception of order in L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse and Blow-Up.
They were singular visions and it's not surprising few - such as Tarkovsky and Kieslowski - would follow in their path.
Film-maker Paul Mazursky tells of a conversation with cinematographer Sven Nykvist - Bergman's eyes on 18 films - when they worked together on Willie And Phil. Mazursky wanted to know whether Bergman had a sense of humour. Nykvist appeared surprised by the query and said, 'No, Ingmar is like his films, very serious and dedicated.' However, the following day on set the cameraman relented and conceded that his long-time collaborator and friend 'sometimes has funny nightmares'.
There will be no new nightmares, but the ones he and Antonioni leave behind - haunting, revelatory, touching, confounding, exquisite and sometimes even funny - are nonpareil.