A Monumentally Sad Week

Aug 2, 2007

Two towering figures of cinema died this week, and while we can all be grateful that they lived such long and fruitful lives, their departures were nevertheless profoundly saddening, and shocking in their coincidence. Look to your right at our news column, at the pictures of these two giants in their prime: I get a jolt every time I see them linked this way, in their leaving us.

First the news of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the most well-known, and revered, film director of all time, and one we here at Criterion and Janus Films have an especially close connection to. (Just when we thought we knew it all about him, though, we got the opportunity to work on his overlooked early films recently; a revelation all around.) Then, mind-reelingly, the very next day, word came of the great Michelangelo Antonioni’s death. The two practically defined art-house cinema in its heyday of the sixties, a topic I became very well acquainted with last year when working on the Janus fiftieth-anniversary box set, particularly Peter Cowie’s history of Janus.

Working on this project with Peter and my colleagues here was incredibly enriching, full of surprises, and one of the most touching was a story told by Janus cofounder Cy Harvey about Antonioni coming to New York with Monica Vitti in 1960 for the premiere of L’avventura, and the director’s first encounter with the endlessly dim-witted New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. “Antonioni was very different from either Truffaut or Bergman,” Harvey recounted. “He was extremely shy, very emotional. So at ten thirty at night, we walked to the corner, bought the New York Times, and, of course, it was clear that [Crowther] didn’t understand it.” Crowther’s review began, “Watching L’avventura . . . is like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost.” Harvey, who was distributing the film, remembered, “Antonioni starts to sob, Monica Vitti starts to cry, and the tears are streaming down their faces, and they don’t quite understand what’s going on.” Happily, Crowther’s critical influence was more limited than his stupidity, and L’avventura enjoyed a healthy first run. (Bergman wasn’t spared Crowther’s witless prose either: on The Virgin Spring, he wrote, “This one is so thoroughly mystifying that we wonder whether Mr. Bergman himself knew what he was trying to say”; the film went on to win an Oscar.)

Antonioni, of course, had a long, brilliant run himself, with some of the most powerful, era-defining works of cinematic art in history: the “alienation trilogy” of L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse; Red Desert; the sexy British-mod Blow-Up (the first Antonioni film I saw); the American Zabriskie Point; and one of my favorites, The Passenger, taking us through Gaudí’s Barcelona and the Sahara and, finally, miraculously, that window. A chronicler of modern alienation, as they say, of the destruction of intimacy and the isolation of individuals by commerce and other depersonalizing contemporary forces, Antonioni created a breathtaking personal visual style—marked by monumentally scaled surroundings in which characters recede, or even disappear—that has been much bastardized in fashion advertising. But he was no cold cynic. And although he famously proclaimed early in his career that “Eros is sick,” he did not accept this condition happily and continually endeavored to resuscitate it. (Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote nicely about this in his essay on L’eclisse.) His last work, in 2004, was even a segment on the topic, for the film Eros, a triptych on eroticism and desire that was also a tribute by the two other directors involved, Wong Kar-wai and Steven Soderbergh, to an artist who had greatly inspired them, as he has, in less visible ways, many of us.