'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Film Notes: The Deaths of Bergman and Antonioni 

Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day, prompting joyous reflection from a generation that reveled in the obscure alienation of their movies. I was not part of it, primarily because I have seen none of Bergman's films, and only two of Antonioni's, The Red Desert and The Passenger.

Both are fine, but I wouldn't say that either of them excited me a great deal. Certainly, one can relate to the The Red Desert as a manifestation of the alienation associated with the postwar era, a prefiguration of the purported postmodern world, a world in which life becomes more and more aimless, and, hence, neurotically agonizing. because of the lack of social conflict and cultural significance. But I suspect that Antonioni, if he were still alive, would respond angrily to such a linear interpretation. So, perhaps, it is better just to note the cool erotic vulnerability of Monica Vitti, and the fun of trying to identify all of the settings that Antonioni had painted (including trees!) before shooting the film.

Looking back, I have always been fascinated by films about people often described as socially marginal, people who survive, and even flourish, within the covert spaces of everyday life. People like the black marketeers, merchants, pimps and washed up film stars in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the Taiwanese who lived through the transformation of their country from a Japanese colony to an technological and economic powerhouse, as chronicled in in the movies of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and the entrapped, yet independent women portrayed in the films of Imamura Shohei.

Indeed, the Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 1960s is one the great cultural achievements of recent memory. It is rare if one does not encounter a theme or subject prominently emphasized in a fine American or European film that has not previously been addressed, usually in a superior manner, in an earlier Japanese one. Perhaps, by evaluating these subjects within the context of a new, unfamiliar world, we are able to see them, and understand them, more clearly. I guess that I am more drawn to movies about people who engage with, and struggle against, their social conditions, instead of withdrawing from them.


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