Aug 11, 2007

Gods of Cinema: Bergman and Antonioni

In today's New York Times there are two tributes about Bergman and Antonioni, written respectively by Woody Allen and by Martin Scorsese. It is a lovely idea. But of the two, the Scorsese one is the real jewel. If Martin Scorsese were to give a Master Class in cinema, and he should, I would start lining up now. Not only are his enthusiasm and absolute love of film contagious, but he is a genius at articulating what a film does to the viewer emotionally, what it achieves artistically, why it is important. He is incredibly generous with his knowledge, he is eloquent and utterly illuminating. As with the best teachers, the ones who truly inspire, one learns something. Even as he says how the movie shocked him and changed the way he looked at cinema, he writes self-effacingly. It is not about himself. He gives all his thought and passion to the work of Antonioni, and to exhorting us, inviting us and seducing us to watch, learn and partake.
As for the Woody Allen piece on Bergman, it is an amusing personal recollection, but it is very different from Scorsese's tribute. It has more to do with Allen than with Bergman. And even though he enumerates in a list the reasons why Bergman is important (with all due respect, like a college student would in a term paper, just a string of clichés), he doesn't really explain what makes Bergman's films unique. He doesn't make you want to run out to watch the entire oeuvre, like Scorsese does. Woody is proud to have been friends with Ingmar. Fine. But the piece is very revealing in quite a different direction, and I'm sure quite unconsciously:
I did manage to absorb one thing from him, a thing not dependent on genius or even talent but something that can actually be learned and developed. I am talking about what is often very loosely called a work ethic but is really plain discipline.
I learned from his example to try to turn out the best work I’m capable of at that given moment, never giving in to the foolish world of hits and flops or succumbing to playing the glitzy role of the film director, but making a movie and moving on to the next one. Bergman made about 60 films in his lifetime, I have made 38. At least if I can’t rise to his quality maybe I can approach his quantity.
Precisely. Don't. Scorsese learned from Antonioni that cinema could be freeing, and that the camera could invent true, devastating emotional landscapes. Perhaps compulsive Scandinavian workaholism is not the best lesson to learn from Bergman, who had the advantage of being a truly gifted, creative being. Instead, it would behoove Allen's immense talent to churn out less half-baked films and try to recapture with less discipline but more artistic rigor the great comic genius he once was.

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