Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Antonioni/Bergman Blind Spot

When I first started getting deeper into movies, I read everything I could about film history and the canon, as it existed circa 1988. When I left for college in the fall of that year, I immediately had access, via the University Of Georgia library, to videotapes and laserdiscs of nearly every canonical film ever made, and I bulled my way through them over the next four years, with the help of a couple of film classes I took along the way. Then when I graduated, I took a job at a Blockbuster Video, and watched (or stole) as much foreign-language and art-house fare as I could. And through all that, I made some important discoveries about my taste in cinema:

I didn't like Ingmar Bergman, I didn't like Michelangelo Antonioni, I didn't like Alain Renais, and I didn't like Federico Fellini.

At first I felt bad about this. I thought that my inability to grasp the slippery slopes of Persona, Blow-Up, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and 8 1/2 were a lot like my persistent difficulty with reading poetry and solving calculus equations. I figured I just didn't have a brain wired for abstraction. Not smart enough.

Then, right toward the end of my college days, after I'd started writing movie reviews for the student newspaper, a kindly lit professor who liked my writing suggested I read some Pauline Kael. So I hit the used bookstores during one of my regular culture-gathering-and-Braves-watching trips to Atlanta, and bought pretty much every Kael book I could find, devouring them over the course of my last summer in Athens. I especially enjoyed her takedowns of Last Year In Marienbad and all those other "come dressed as the sick soul of Europe" movies, and how she described deflecting the disciples of Antonioni and Fellini, who'd rave to her about how their movies "say so much" by sighing, "Yes dear, but what?" So it's not just me, I thought. These guys are overrated, and everyone else is just too snooty to see it.

But a funny thing happened over the next two decades. I lost my taste for slaughtered sacred cow, and began to realize that just because I don't like something doesn't mean I'm an idiot, and doesn't mean the thing in question is necessarily lousy. It just means it doesn't have an immediate appeal–at least to me.

So I've kept trying with those dour European masters of the '50s, '60s and '70s. I've bought their DVDs, and tried to get assigned to review them, so I could study the movies closer. And whenever one of their films pops up on TCM, I set the TiVo, even if I've seen it before. And I've discovered that while Renais still leaves me cold and Antonioni mostly eludes me, I actually do like Fellini. I'm still not gung-ho for 8 1/2, but I Vitelloni, La Strada, La Dolce Vita and Roma have all knocked me out. And while I still have trouble with the higher-toned Bergman movies like Persona and The Seventh Seal, I watched Smiles Of A Summer Night and Wild Strawberries last year and enjoyed them both immensely.

My friend Jim Ridley wrote a nice appreciation of Bergman yesterday, mostly quoting Michael Atkinson in the main part of his post but then elaborating with more of his own thoughts in the comment section. What he says about Bergman can also be applied to Antonioni. Both men were ill-served by the post-Kael school of film criticism, which equates intellectual rigor and thematic seriousness with self-indulgent pretension. (It's worth noting that Kael was an early supporter of Antonioni, Bergman and Fellini, and only jumped off the bandwagon when she felt they all got too full of themselves.) Yes, pretentiousness can be a blight on art, but it can also be a mere byproduct of an artist thinking big, and trying to push people to see the world in a different way. Spend enough time with Bergman, and his chilly Scandinavian austerity melts a little, revealing an artist with a rich understanding–and even a love–of human frailty. Antonioni's even icier, but the pervasive ennui of his '60s films has a perverse romantic appeal, like the music of Joy Division or the paintings of Edvard Munch.

If I'm thinking about the filmmakers whose work means the most to me, Antonioni and Bergman probably don't crack the Top 40. But I appreciate what they did, and I ain't mad at 'em anymore. The good news is that because of my years of avoidance, there's a lot of Bergman and Antonioni films that I still need to watch. And Kael be damned, I can't wait.