Saturday, August 04, 2007

This has been a terrible week in the history of film. Even tho their great works were decades behind them, losing Bergman & Antonioni in such a short time is the film equivalent of losing, say, Ginsberg & Creeley in three days. Or Pound & Williams – pick your generational elders. Plus the death of cinemaphotographer László Kovács. With the deaths earlier this year of Robert Altman & Ousmane Sembène, 2007 is not going to be looked at as a good year for cinema. It’s rare, if not impossible, to have four great directors born in one year, so to lose that many leaves a deficit that goes beyond just numbers. Altman & Sembène were still active. I reviewed Sembène’s last film, Moolaadé, when he brought it to Philadelphia in late 2004. I missed Altman’s last film because I couldn’t get past my allergic reaction to the smugness that is Garrison Keillor, the Howard Stern of the chablis set. But Altman was a notably uneven director. Some of his films – Nashville; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; The Player; Short Cuts – are as good as anything that has come from Hollywood, and there are a number that fall just short of those four. But I never cared for M*A*S*H, a big hit whose only redeeming feature may have been the title’s influence on the typography of Charles Bernstein, nor for McCabe & Mrs. Miller nor Popeye.

In my discussion awhile back concerning Barrett Watten’s list of influences (which he’s now revised, incidentally), I noted that Watten’s claim for Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, tho also one of my favorite films ever, as having “taught me that all art is a construction” isn’t one that I could make, simply because Antonioni had given me the same lesson somewhat earlier. For me, the magic movie is always going to be The Red Desert with its obsessively wonderful sense of color. Richard Harris & Monica Vitti bed down in a white room, the lights go out &, when they come back on, everything is the palest pink. There is one scene in which, in a small building on a pier, Harris looks out a window as a tanker passes by slowly, in real time. That scene for me is one of the two or three greatest moments in all of cinema, matched perhaps only by one in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore when the pathetic weasel of an intellectual, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (like Eustache, a protégé of both Truffaut & Godard), leaves his girlfriend, played by Bernadette Lafont, to dash off to his mistress on learning that she’s pregnant. Lefont puts on Edith Piaf’s "Les amants de Paris" – a 78 if I remember right – and listens to the entire song in real time with her head in her hands. It’s a devastating moment. Those two scenes showed me how art, any temporal art, at its very greatest slows down time.

I saw a cheesy movie about a catastrophic series of storms that begets a new ice age the other night on the telly, The Day After Tomorrow, written & directed by Roland Emmerich, a German-born director known for Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla & Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. In one scene, the last surviving people in Manhattan have taken up residence in the New York Public Library, where they’re burning books to stay warm (a conscious decision was made not to burn Guttenberg’s Bible, but everything else was toast), when an abandoned freighter literally floats up the street and comes to rest next to the library. The protagonists first see the freighter through a window – a straight steal from Antonioni, even to the direction in the frame, going right to left. In the midst of all this silliness (the arctic wolves on the freighter come a few scenes later), it was a breath-taking moment, simply because I knew what Emmerich was saying & doing with that shot, a level of communication I didn’t think this movie had the capacity to make.

Europeans routinely characterize Antonioni’s work as leading up to the “Eros Trilogy,” the three black-and-white films that immediately precede The Red Desert. From my perspective, that’s like saying Bach was pretty talented until he took up music. No one thought more thoroughly about the possibilities and meaning of color on the screen than did he – it’s true even in his less successful films like Zabriskie Point. Shooting some secondary scenes in the Bay Area, Antonioni put out a call for “college-age male extras” who needed to show up wearing brown tweed sport coats – something I did not own at the time. One of the local papers also noted that a scene that was being filmed out at a junior college campus in Contra Costa county took forever because the crew had to paste leaves onto the trees to get just the right effect for the director. Today this attention to detail seems reasonable – you could add the leaves through CGI even – but in the 1960s, this was the essence of European indulgence, or so the article suggested.

A piece in the New York Times notes the much of Antonioni’s work has never made it to DVD. It’s true that Antonioni only had one “hit” in America, the frenetic follow-up to The Red Desert, Blow-Up, loosely predicated upon a short story by Julio Cortázar. This film is about pacing and decidability as much as anything else – and the sense of timing is a telling commentary coming from someone capable of such lavish, languid shots. In typical western movie fashion, the revelation, which in Cortázar’s story is about homosexuality, is amped up into a murder. Even here, both in the studio sequences, in the choice of making the protagonist a fashion photographer, in the lush, layered greens of the park, Blow-Up is no less about color. It’s an active presence in the film.

I always found Bergman’s symbolism a little ham-fisted and corny. But any excuse to see Max von Sydow or Liv Ullman was good enough for me & Bergman’s films were something like the required reading of my generation. My first formal date with Krishna was to see Fanny and Alexander. Once, at UC Berkeley, when I was first getting to know David Bromige, he & I had repaired to the Rathskeller, a beer & burger place just west of the campus, where we attempted to talk poetics – this was ten years before Duncan’s famous allergic reaction to langpo, a moment when Bromige was not yet sure these new kids (Grenier, myself, David Melnick, George Ushanoff, etc.) were really aligned with his own take on the New American Poetry. We found talking poetics, as such, far too awkward, so had the longest discussion instead about Bergman & all his various films of that period, tho in fact neither of us was talking about Bergman at all. And we were not, as it happened, so very far apart. That was very much the kind of use one could make of his work – it literally was the coin of the realm.