Sunday, August 12, 2007

FILM TAKES A LONG TIME TO DIE

I spent a good chunk of my life as an actor. From the beginning, I rather saw myself as a physical type actor – a comedian really. What captured me early on I think was the theatrical nature of the imagination and the blood-red notion of the holy clown’s tragic but entertaining fall from grace.

You know how it is, don’t you? By a spider’s thread, we hang… and when we do happen to catch the eye of god, it only seems fitting that we should be found expressing ourselves with something approaching an acrobat’s sense of commitment.

In any case, to be an actor is to try and learn more than you can possibly perform – so that you won't come up shallow when questions of lifelikeness are at stake. Young actors must be hungry to devour the world – and I was no exception.

One common thing that actors do, is immerse themselves in movies. In the period I'm talking about - before VHS, Cable and DVD, the class movies were all foreign, and the only way to see those films was in dark art house cinemas.

Among the filmmaking giants who dominated that 1960's to 1980's period, were two who died this week, both at ripe old ages. I am speaking of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Closing the book on these two adds a lush posthumous infusion into the world’s collective cinematic memory.

These were two very different filmmakers, but each a master of the art form. Remember too, at the time of Antonioni’s birth in 1912, the art form itself was less than 20 years old! These men were of the generation that literally brought the medium to its first maturity.

Check out some very thoughtful writing in the New York Times (8.12.07) with Martin Scorsese writing a tribute to Antonioni, and Woody Allen in a tribute to Ingmar Bergman.

For a young actor looking forward one day to roles of substance and depth, projecting yourself into the films of Antonioni and Bergman was a very guilty and justifiable pleasure.

Now, add to these two, that other European icon of the World War II generation, Federico Fellini, (who died in 1993), and you have, what was for me, the greatest constellation of 20th century filmmaking.

As I am not likely to go back and write something separately on Fellini, allow me to add him to this triad of transcendent filmmakers.

Now, as this is a spooniversal musing you’re reading, you can be fairly certain that there is a trigrammatic graphic lurking hereabouts to help me illustrate my point. And here it is.

Of course, this is a crude simplification of distinctions overflowing with subtle complexities. But nonetheless, the extent of my tribute is simple enough that I can allow them to stand like totems in the following trigrammatical spread.

Bergman (Spirit) was a stalker of human moments. He told stories of the sort that emerged in the course of daily life. He loved women, and his camera was never in a hurry to leave contemplation and admiration of their joys and sorrows. His great gift to us was his unflagging fascination and energetic devotion, which was revealed again and again in his patience with and connection to all that was authentic in human character.

Antonioni (Action) was a stalker of the unseen. In his newly re-born into modernism post-war world, beautiful men or women were powerless to do much more than surrender themselves to the unfathomable vagaries of life and survival. They also had to surrender themselves to Antonioni’s camera, which he used with such devlish style, that one comes to feel both dumbstruck and enlightened by the glistening Italian geometries that he so meticulously inks onto our retinas. If in life we never know whom or why anyone is, then why should film know any more? For Antonioni, life was the mystery of life, and it was his job to reveal it through mapping unintended consequences against crystalline surfaces.

Fellini (Message) Our old friend Fellini – where did he fit in? Well, more than anyone else, Fellini saw the world as he would dream it to be. A child’s spirit caught in the cocked hat persona of a maestro – a dreamer who only has to shout the name “tiger,” for one to magically appear – right on cue and twice as pretty as a sunset. Fellini was the undying power of the imagination… that daily wakes us with a loving mother’s touch and sends us upon our day, assuring us that she will be there when we return from our little adventures out in the big, wild world.

More than either of the other two, Fellini’s moments are postcards of the imagined.

An Antonioni postcard would be a suspenseful glimpse into a world not so different from what is right in front of you.

Bergman’s postcard would capture the moment when revelation strikes.

That’s all. The wheel turns, but the conditions that brought these three filmmakers and 20th century film into being no longer exist. So, what we are seeing really is beauty and truth as it existed once in a long gone world – a world that thanks to these artists and their films, will never lose its appeal or its immediacy for those of us lucky enough to wander darkly through it with them.

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