Two of the great directors died this week on the same day. Ingmar Bergman died on July 30 in Sweden, and Michelangelo Antonioni died in Rome.
More Different Than Similar
Their work is probably more different than similar. You could say they both knew, used, and expanded the grammar of cinema; or that they approached cinema psychologically. But you’d probably be stretching it for the sake of making a connection.
Bergman was trained in the theater, and it shows. He had a fondness for actors. In fact, some of his most memorable characters are actors, including the protagonists from The Seventh Seal. Many of his films take place in a single setting, as though Bergman were for the theater. Though Bergman could do comedy, he was best at drama, and he was more interested in the human angle than in plot or action.
Antonioni was Bergman’s contemporary. Both started directing films in the 1940s and tapered off in the 1980s. Antonioni was a provocative director. His best known films show the vapidity and aimlessness of the upper classes. Deliberately uneventful and vague, L’Avventura and Blowup are probably more respected than liked.
Persona and L’Avventura
Nevertheless, if I had to choose two “desert island” films, I could easily pair Bergman’s Persona (my first choice) with L’Avventura. I would choose these films, not because I like them, but because I do not like them.
Persona is the story of two women on an island, one taking care of the other. Halfway through, Bergman switches their identities. I’ve seen the film three times and never been more than frustrated.
And L’Avventura, far from being an adventure, is a mystery that never gets solved. While on a holiday, one member of the party gets lost. The group gets so caught up in their own vapid lives that they forget they were looking for their missing friend. In fact, the film itself seems to forget how it began, and the end hardly resembles the beginning. I had more luck “getting” L’Avventura than Persona, but after at least two viewings, I’m still mostly frustrated.
Flavor that Lasts
The audience at Cannes booed L’Avventura, which is partly why it makes my short list for desert island movies.
If I can only watch two movies on my island, I will quickly grow bored with them. To pick on a harmless current example, I could probably only stomach Daddy Day Camp one time, if that. It wouldn’t frustrate me, anger me, or push my buttons. It would simply bore me. There would be no hidden depth to explore, no mental stimulation to work through, only the same surface-level candy, time after time.
Better to choose something that has subtlety and resonance that can’t be easily grasped in one viewing. Better to choose Bergman’s Persona and Antonioni’s L’Avventura, even if they’re frustrating, because they’ll last much longer. If after another score of viewings I still hated them, I might at least begin to understand why, and that in itself would be worth knowing.
It’s interesting that Fate tied these two directors together at the end. Though they are probably more different than similar, their films have occupied the same space in my mind. Both men are now gone, but I still have time to try to hear what they were saying. I haven’t heard them clearly yet, but when I get shipwrecked, I’ll listen to them instead of more familiar and comforting voices.