It's not exactly John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dropping dead within hours of each other on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the passing this past Monday of two of the most significant European filmmakers of the past half-century or so, the 89-year-old Ingmar Bergman and the 94-year-old Michelangelo Antonioni, both towering figures of cinematic modernism, certainly qualifies as an odd coincidence.
In his commercial heyday, from the late 1950s through the 1970s—a run that included such films as The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and the remarkable Persona—Bergman was perhaps the best-known foreign filmmaker in the United States, his reputation rivaled only by that of Federico Fellini. As has been the case with Fellini, Bergman's critical stock has fallen a bit in recent years (not that one would get a sense of these shifting currents from Monday's New York Times obituary, which may have single-handedly set the cause of film history back 25 years), but he remains a great artist possessed of a singular vision, whose work is instantly recognizable for its religious/spiritual fixations, high-contrast lighting (courtesy of his two great cinematographers, Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist), and baroque dream sequences. A tireless worker during his prime, Bergman divided his career between theater and cinema, and in a way his achievement was ultimately more theatrical than cinematic: finding ways to dramatize the innermost conflicts of the human mind and soul.
If Antonioni strikes me as an artist of a wholly different order, it's in part because he was first and foremost a filmmaker—the awkward English title of the documentary portrait "To Make a Film Is to Be Alive" accurately captures his view of himself and the medium (it is telling that the most dramatic scene of Antonioni’s best-known movie depicts a photographer in the act of developing film). Few have done as much to expand the possibilities of that medium: Filmmakers since the dawn of the talkie era had shown people in conversation, but how to show them in silence?
Almost all of Antonioni's greatest films—L'Avventura, Eclipse, The Passenger, and of course the oft-misinterpreted Blowup—can be described as mysteries without solutions. L'Avventura is the purest example: Ostensibly about the disappearance of a young woman during a daytrip to a barren island, the movie ends up focusing on the subsequent relationship between the woman's lover and best friend, who like the movie itself, soon forget about her entirely (this unprecedented thwarting of viewer expectations contributed to the film's being roundly booed at the Cannes Film Festival—where it went on to win a prize). But that description doesn't begin to do justice to L’Avventura, a masterpiece of rhythm and pacing that seeks nothing less than to represent the unrepresentable. The movie's ultimate subject is not "relationships" but their inverse—the insoluble gaps, silences, and unanswered glances of which people's lives are often made, particularly people born in the West and into a certain amount of money.
Alfred Hitchcock once defined drama as life with the boring parts cut out. In Antonioni's anti-dramas, the boring parts are most definitely left in. In almost any movie made before 1960, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, the director will edit the scene so that the process only takes three or four seconds of screen time. In Antonioni's middle and late films, if a character takes 10 seconds to cross a room, then it takes 10 seconds on-screen. People don't always look at each other when they're talking and the human figures themselves are often overwhelmed by the landscapes surrounding them, whether natural (the barren island in L'Avventura) or manmade (as in the shot from Red Desert where the sickly yellow smoke of a factory smokestack slowly fills up the screen).
I could go on for hours, but I'll leave off here with one definitive Antonioni scene, the last of Eclipse. The man and woman at the center of the film's story have made plans to meet on a street corner. It's hardly shocking when neither of them bothers to show up. But Antonioni's camera does show up, and rather than ending, the movie simply goes on, depicting the sights and sounds of an unremarkable urban evening for what must be seven or eight minutes of terrifying emptiness. Background has suddenly becomes foreground and there's nothing left to distract us from the spiritual aridity of the world we've been watching for nearly two hours. For half a century, over the course of 16 features and a handful of shorts, Antonioni cast off the conventions of screen drama and trained his camera resolutely on such absences, voids, and silences, illuminating the darkness of contemporary life by inventing whole new ways of seeing. And we're all a little richer for it.