Thursday, August 02, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni (September 29, 1912 – July 30, 2007)


Michelangelo Antonioni, Bold Director, Dies at 94

The New York Times
August 1, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director whose chilly depictions of alienation were cornerstones of international filmmaking in the 1960s, inspiring intense measures of admiration, denunciation and confusion, died on Monday at his home in Rome. He was 94.

His death was announced yesterday by Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome. No cause was given. In 1985, Mr. Antonioni had a debilitating stroke that left him partly paralyzed, though he continued to make films sporadically for two more decades.

Earlier on Monday, another great director of the 20th century, Ingmar Bergman, died, at 89, at his home on a remote Swedish island.

Tall, cerebral and serious, Mr. Antonioni, like Mr. Bergman, rose to prominence at a time, in midcentury, when filmgoing was an intellectual pursuit, when purposely opaque passages in famously difficult films set off long nights of smoky argument at sidewalk cafes, and when fashionable directors like Mr. Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were chased down the Cannes waterfront by camera-wielding cinephiles demanding to know what on earth they meant by their latest outrage.

Mr. Antonioni is probably best known for “Blowup,” a 1966 drama set in swinging London about a fashion photographer who comes to believe that a picture he took of two lovers in a public park also shows, obscured in the background, evidence of a murder.

But Mr. Antonioni’s lasting contribution to film came earlier, in “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961) and “L’Eclisse” (1962), a trilogy that explored his tormented central vision that people had become emotionally unglued from one another.

It was a vision expressed near the end of “La Notte,” when his frequent star Monica Vitti observes, “Each time I have tried to communicate with someone, love has disappeared.”

In a generation of rule breakers, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most subversive and venerated. He challenged moviegoers with an intense focus on intentionally vague characters and a disdain for conventions like plot, pacing and clarity. He raised questions and never answered them, had his characters act in self-destructive ways and failed to explain why, and sometimes kept the camera rolling after a take in the hope of catching the actors in an unscripted but revealing moment.

It was all part of his design. As he explained, “The after-effects of an emotion scene, it had occurred to me, might have meaning, too, both on the actor and on the psychological advancement of the character.”

Many of Mr. Antonioni’s cuts, scene lengths and camera movements were idiosyncratic, and he frequently posed his characters in a highly formalized way.

“What is impressive about Antonioni’s films is not that they are good,” the film scholar Seymour Chatman wrote. “But that they have been made at all.”

Boos and Plaudits at Cannes

Perhaps the defining moment in Mr. Antonioni’s career came the night “L’Avventura” was screened at the 1960 Cannes International Film Festival. Unsure what to make of the film’s obscure story, many in the audience walked out. There were boos, catcalls and whistles. The director and Ms. Vitti thought their careers were over.

But later that night, Roberto Rossellini and a group of other influential filmmakers and critics drafted a statement, which they released the next morning. “Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, ‘L’Avventura,’ ” they wrote, “and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their admiration for the maker of this film.”

Being booed at Cannes became a badge of honor, and a legend of iconoclastic filmmaking was born.

“L’Avventura” went on to win the festival’s special jury prize and become an international box-office hit, establishing Mr. Antonioni’s reputation. But the debate about it was furious. Some viewers and critics found the film pointless; others read reams of meaning into its languid predicaments. The next year, Sight and Sound, the influential British film magazine, polled 70 critics from around the world. They not only endorsed “L’Avventura” but also chose it as the second-greatest film ever made, behind “Citizen Kane.”

Interviewers found Mr. Antonioni to be sometimes charming but mostly cool. “Even when he is telling stories about himself, Antonioni’s aristocratic face remains set in its habitually serious expression,” Melton S. Davis wrote in a 1964 profile for The New York Times Magazine. “Precise in manner, conservative in dress and quiet in speech, he could be taken for a banker or art dealer recounting an unfortunate business deal.”

After burnishing his reputation in the early 1960s, Mr. Antonioni surprised many of his admirers by making movies with Hollywood’s backing. One result was his biggest success, “Blowup.”

“My subjects are, in a very general sense, autobiographical,” he once wrote. “The story is first built through discussions with a collaborator. In the case of ‘L’Eclisse,’ the discussions went on for four months. The writing was then done, by myself, taking perhaps 15 days.

“My scripts are not formal screenplays, but rather dialogue for the actors and a series of notes to the director. When shooting begins, there is invariably a great amount of changing. When I go on the set of a scene, I insist on remaining alone for at least 20 minutes. I have no preconceived ideas of how the scene should be done, but wait instead for the ideas to come that will tell me how to begin.”

Michelangelo Antonioni was born on Sept. 29, 1912, into a well-to-do family of landowners in Ferrara, in northern Italy, a “marvelous little city on the Paduan plain,” as he described it, “antique and silent.” Around the age of 10, he began to design puppets and build model sets for them. As a teenager, he became interested in oil painting, favoring portraits to landscapes.

He attended the University of Bologna, where he was a tennis champion and earned a degree in economics and commerce in 1935. It was there, too, that he began to write stories and plays and to direct some of them as a founder of the university’s theatrical troupe. A burgeoning interest in film led him to write reviews of American and Italian genre films for the local newspaper. Many were scathing. Soon he decided to try his hand at filmmaking.

An Early False Start

Mr. Antonioni wanted to make a documentary about the local mental hospital. The patients helped him set up the equipment. Then he turned on the floodlights.

The patients went berserk, he later wrote, “and their faces — which before had been calm — became convulsed and devastated.”

“It was the director of the asylum who finally cried: ‘Stop! Lights out!,’ ” he added, “And in the half-darkened room we could see a swarm of bodies twisting as if in the last throes of a death agony.”

He decided to give up filmmaking.

In 1940, at the age of 27, he moved to Rome, where he worked as a secretary to a count and then as a bank teller before joining the staff of Cinema magazine, edited by Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio.

In 1943, Mr. Antonioni returned to Ferrara and found a merchant willing to bankroll his first film, a documentary called “Gente del Po” (“People of the Po Valley”), about the wretched lives of local fishermen. The German occupying forces destroyed much of the footage, though a few scraps survived and became a nine-minute curtain-raiser at the Venice Film Festival for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound.”

After the war, Mr. Antonioni wrote more film criticism and made more short documentaries. But he became skeptical of the neo-realist movement that dominated Italian filmmaking, with its relentless focus on substandard social conditions. He yearned to look beyond such things and into the hearts of individuals. “His films were about street sweepers, not street sweeping,” is the way the film critic Robert Haller put it. But no one would let him make the kind of films he wanted to make.

“For 10 years, the movies forced me not to use ideas but empty words, cleverness, business sense, patience, stratagems,” he wrote in an introduction to a 1963 collection of his screenplays. “I am so scantily blessed with such gifts that I recall that period as being the most painful one in my life.”

At 38, he found backing for his most ambitious nondocumentary project, “Cronaca di un Amore” (“Story of a Love Affair”). Ostensibly about a man and woman plotting to kill her husband, it was the earliest example of Mr. Antonioni’s distinctive approach to storytelling.

In the film, the husband dies, but it is unclear whether he was murdered, committed suicide or died by accident. The plot line vanishes and the story focuses instead on the lovers’ emotions.

In 1954, his 12-year marriage to the former Letizia Balboni fell apart. “We lived in silence,” she told an interviewer. “We reached the point where we communicated with each other only through the characters he created and about whom he wanted my advice.”

Mr. Antonioni sank into depression. His insomnia worsened. He often spent the early morning hours writing screenplays.

In 1955, at the height of this crisis, he had his first important artistic triumph, “Le Amiche” (“The Girlfriends”), about the loveless lives of a group of middle-class women in Turin. It won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

Mr. Antonioni began experimenting with improvisation on the set. “It’s only when I press my eye against the camera and begin to move the actors that I get an exact idea of the scene,” he wrote. He used this technique extensively in “Il Grido (“The Cry”) in 1957, probably his grimmest film.

It was while shooting “Il Grido” that he met a young stage actress named Monica Vitti, who would become his most enduring star and almost constant companion during much of the ’60s.

The Turning Point: ‘L’Avventura’

For two years, he could not find a producer to back him. Finally, in 1959, he found someone and finished a long-brewing screenplay. But “L’Avventura” almost died before it was born. Short of money, his producer pulled out as Mr. Antonioni and the actors were working on a craggy island near Sicily.

“It had gotten to the point where there was no food,” he remembered. “One crew deserted us. We got hold of another crew and they, too, left. I had 20,000 meters of film and the actors stayed, so I carried the camera on my back and continued shooting.” Eventually a new producer appeared.

“L’Avventura” proved to be the turning point in his career and is widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Like most of Mr. Antonioni’s films, it focuses on the comfortable, enervated lives of well-to-do Italians, in this case a group of friends on a yachting trip. Without warning, during a visit to a wave-thrashed atoll, one of them, an emotionally troubled woman named Anna, simply vanishes. Had she drowned herself because her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), seemed in no hurry to marry her? Had she fled on another boat?

The small island is searched. It rains. Police arrive. Sandro develops an attraction to Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Ms. Vitti). She resists, then warms to him. The action shifts to a seaside town. They stop mentioning Anna at all. The search is forgotten. Sandro betrays Claudia, for no apparent reason. What happened to Anna remains a mystery.

In “L’Avventura,” Mr. Antonioni’s technique can be seen in full flower, conveying an “overwhelming sense of estrangement,” the film historian Andrew Turner wrote.

Mr. Antonioni’s next two films further explored this theme of alienation. (The three, he said later, were meant to be seen as a trilogy.)

In “La Notte,” Marcello Mastroianni plays an author with writer’s block and a loveless marriage to Jeanne Moreau. The film won the Golden Bear at the 1961 Berlin Film Festival.

“L’Eclisse” (“Eclipse”) most directly addressed the alienating effects of material wealth, portraying the love affair of a young woman of simple tastes — Ms. Vitti again — and a money-hungry stockbroker (Alain Delon).

The film’s ending is much discussed. Abandoning the principal characters, it closes with a montage, several minutes long, of 58 shots, most of them on or near a street corner where the lovers used to meet. Water seeps from a barrel. The brakes on a bus screech. A fountain is turned off. Finally, the camera zooms in on the white, annihilating glare of a streetlight. The end.

Mr. Antonioni said he had intended the ending to show “the eclipse of all feelings.” He saw it as a coda both to the film and to the trilogy.

In 1964, Mr. Antonioni made his first color film, “Il Deserto Rosso” (“The Red Desert)” with Richard Harris. It, too, starred Ms. Vitti, as a woman coming unhinged. Mr. Antonioni used color to mirror her mental state, having houses and even trees painted bright colors and then changing those colors from scene to scene.

By the mid-’60s, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most famous and controversial film directors in the world, and a Hollywood studio, MGM, came calling. He signed a three-picture deal.

“Blowup” was his first effort for the studio. Filmed in English, with the British stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the hip milieu of the swinging London fashion scene, “Blowup” became Mr. Antonioni’s biggest hit. It was also more conventionally plotted and faster-paced than his previous films, though still fundamentally ambiguous.

He then came to America to make his first big-budget film, choosing the student protest movement as his subject. The movie, “Zabriskie Point” (1970), was a flop, one of the biggest financial failures of its day.

After a Setback, ‘The Passenger’

Mr. Antonioni was devastated. He had made six films in the 1960s, many regarded as masterpieces, but would release only four more full-length nondocumentary movies before his death, only one of which, “The Passenger” (1975), was successful in the United States.

With it, Mr. Antonioni recaptured critical respect. The film stars Jack Nicholson as a reporter in North Africa who, for obscure reasons, assumes the identity of a dead gun-runner. It closes with a famous, 10-minute tracking shot in which Mr. Nicholson is seen in his hotel room, waiting to be killed. The camera pulls out of the room and meanders through the courtyard. People and objects move in and out of the frame before the shot comes full circle and re-enters the hotel room to find Mr. Nicholson dead.

“ ‘The Passenger’ leaves no doubt about Antonioni’s mastery,” wrote the film critic David Thomson, who called it “one of the great films of the ’70s.”

In 1980, after taking time to study new technologies, Mr. Antonioni made a television film called “Il Mistero di Oberwald” (“The Mystery of Oberwald”). Shot on videotape and transferred to film, it received an award for visual effects at the 1980 Venice Film Festival, but it made little international impact.

In 1982, he made “Identificazione di una Donna” (“Identification of a Woman”), about a film director who has affairs with two women following the death of his wife.

Mr. Antonioni, who had a stroke in 1985, married for the second time a year later, to Enrica Fico. She was at his side when he died. He had no children.

Mr. Antonioni did not direct a feature film again until 1995, when he was lured out of retirement to make “Al di là Delle Nuvole” (“Beyond the Clouds”) based on a book of stories he had written. Because of his infirmity, though, the German director Wim Wenders joined the production and is listed as co-director.

Because of his stroke, Mr. Antonioni had difficulty speaking, leaving his wife, Enrica, to interpret his demands on the set. The film starred John Malkovich and Jeanne Moreau.

The same year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave Mr. Antonioni an award for lifetime achievement at the Oscar ceremonies. He also made several documentaries during this period.

He then astonished the film world by agreeing to return to narrative filmmaking in his 90s, directing a segment of a film trilogy called “Eros,” which received a limited United States release in 2005. His final release was a 15-minute documentary about art called “Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo” (“Michelangelo Eye to Eye”), which was added as an extra to the “Eros” DVD.

To his champions, like David Thomson, Mr. Antonioni’s place in the cinematic pantheon is assured. “Antonioni’s best films will continue to grow and shift, like dunes in the centuries of desert,” Mr. Thomson wrote.

“In that process,” he added, “if there are eyes left to look, he will become a standard for beauty.”

But for others, Mr. Antonioni remained not only enigmatic but also unreachable to the end.

One interviewer asked him to look back over his life. “In a world without film, what would you have made?” he was asked.

Mr. Antonioni replied: “Film.”


An Appraisal: A Chronicler of Alienated Europeans in a Flimsy New World

The New York Times
August 1, 2007

Decades before it was given a name, Michelangelo Antonioni recognized the malady we now call attention deficit disorder. In his great 1960s films, “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Eclipse” and “Red Desert,” but especially in “L’Avventura,” his masterpiece, it wasn’t diagnosed as a chemical imbalance, but as a communicable social disease.

Spawned in a psychological petri dish in which idleness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the material rewards of life combined to create and spread a chronic, generalized, mild depression, it was an ailment peculiar to the upper middle class. What made audiences susceptible was the glamour that attached to it. As I watched the attractive aristocrats and climbers in his films mope through their empty lives, a part of me wanted to be just like those people: self-absorbed and miserable, perhaps, but also fashionable and sexy.

The ever-acute critic Pauline Kael recognized this contradiction in a famous essay, “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties,” which aroused the ire of Antonioni devotees like me. More than four decades later, that contradiction remains unresolved in popular culture. Such is the power of film and television imagery that glamour and sex, no matter how tawdry or morally bankrupt, command our attention and whet our fantasies.

Mr. Antonioni was the movies’ first diagnostician of what back then was called alienation, anomie, angst and decadence. If his films had their silly side (the image of Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, grappling fully clothed in a sand trap in “La Notte”), they were also prophetic. Their melancholy poetry transmuted an overriding mood of self-pity into something deeper and closer to tragedy.

Mr. Antonioni’s death on Monday, so close to Ingmar Bergman’s, should give us pause. Their deaths bring down the final curtain on the high-modernist era of filmmaking, when a handful of directors were artistic gods accorded the respect and latitude of great painters or authors. Among the European masters of the 1960s, only Jean-Luc Godard, that most modern of modernists, remains.

For all their differences of temperament, Mr. Bergman and Mr. Antonioni were staunch moralists. If Mr. Bergman, the Scandinavian, was stern and austere, Mr. Antonioni, the Italian, was a sensuous aesthete who, when it suited him, resorted to painting nature the way he wanted it to look on the screen.

If both had bleak apprehensions of the decline and fall of Western civilization in an increasingly secularized age, Mr. Antonioni’s vision was more urbane and cosmopolitan. The final bleak street-corner montage in “Eclipse” is downright apocalyptic. In that movie, the third part of the trilogy that included “L’Avventura” and “La Notte,” the world is consumed with stock-market fever. Greed trumps love. Sound familiar?

The meticulous compositions in Mr. Antonioni’s films depict a shiny but flimsy new world displacing an older and more solid one. Classic stone architecture constructed to last for centuries is contrasted with bright, new high-rise skyscrapers without character. Nuns in black habits rub shoulders with avaricious starlets and shallow socialites. The affluent new generation senses its own susceptibility to corruption. Sandro, the faithless male protagonist of “L’Avventura,” is a once-serious architect who is bitterly aware that he has sold out his talent.

“L’Avventura” and Federico Fellini’s more flamboyant film “La Dolce Vita,” to which it was continually compared, tugged the European art film toward fashion. Together they inaugurated a vogue among trendy Americans to punctuate their conversations with “Ciao” (often uttered in a petulant, pseudo-Italian accent) instead of “Goodbye.”

As the ’60s wore on, Mr. Antonioni increasingly succumbed to the taint of fashion. His most successful film, “Blowup,” set in swinging London among photographers and models, was clever but shallow. Yet the protagonist’s search for an elusive photographic truth was prescient.

Mr. Antonioni’s vogue ended abruptly in 1970 with the critical and commercial failure of “Zabriskie Point.” At the time, that movie, his first feature made in the United States, was widely misunderstood by fans longing to identify with its young lovers, who dabble in revolutionary politics. When no revolution occurred at the end, the audience that had lined up to see it (I saw its first two New York screenings) left frustrated. In hindsight, its climactic fantasy of a house repeatedly exploding (to the strains of Pink Floyd) predicted the imminent failure of that so-called revolution. The notion that it was just a fantasy was a message nobody wanted to hear.

But Mr. Antonioni’s fashionableness shouldn’t distract us from his accomplishment. He was a visionary whose portrayal of the failure of Eros in a hypereroticized climate addressed the modern world and its discontents in a new, intensely poetic cinematic language. Here was depicted for the first time on screen a world in which attention deficit disorder, and the uneasy sense of impermanence that goes with it, were already epidemic.

The startling conceptual coup of “L’Avventura” was the story’s unexplained disappearance of a young woman, Anna, from a desolate, rocky island where she and a yachting party have landed. Even before the group, which includes Sandro, leaves the island without finding Anna, Sandro puts the moves on her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). She resists his advances, but succumbs once they have returned to the mainland.

As the police search for Anna, the members of the party become distracted. Even for Claudia, the movie’s conscience and Mr. Antonioni’s alter ego, the urgency of finding Anna recedes in the heat of her new relationship. The cycle of betrayal culminates with the final scene: Claudia and Sandro are staying in a hotel, and she awakens to find him gone.

Venturing downstairs, she finds him sprawled on a couch with a prostitute, an exhibitionist with whom they had crossed paths earlier, as the prostitute created a paparazzi frenzy in a village they were passing through. This character may be the movies’ very first “celebutante.” Today she is everywhere.


Before Them, Films Were Just Movies

The New York Times
August 1, 2007

BY an awful and uncanny coincidence — the kind of occurrence that, in a movie, would have to be taken as symbolic lest it seem altogether preposterous — Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died on the same day. Since Mr. Bergman was 89 and Mr. Antonioni 94, neither man’s death came as much of a shock, but the simultaneity was startling. Not only because they were both great filmmakers, but more because, in their prime, Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman were seen as the twin embodiments of the idea that a filmmaker could be, without qualification or compromise, a great artist.

Not that everyone agreed or saw them both in equally glowing light. There will always be those who scoff at the idea of cinema as a form of art. And those who do embrace the notion have always been notoriously prone to quarrel and dissension. In “Anticipation of ‘La Notte,’ ” for instance, his touching, self-aware memoir of youthful cinephilia, Philip Lopate recalls being part of an undergraduate claque of film buffs in the early 1960s who worshiped Mr. Antonioni and disdained Mr. Bergman.

The title of Mr. Lopate’s essay records a giddy state of waiting for Mr. Antonioni’s “sequel” to “L’Avventura” — before he went to see it on opening night, the author recalls, “I began dreaming, for several nights in a row, preview versions of ‘La Notte.’ ” It seems that he experienced no such ecstasy at the prospect of Mr. Bergman’s “Virgin Spring.” (Not that ecstasy would necessarily be an appropriate response to that bleak, brutal film about rape and revenge in medieval Sweden.) Mr. Bergman was, as far as Mr. Lopate and his friends were concerned, “the darling of the suburbs.”

“I once debated a fellow student for six hours,” he remembers, “because he called ‘The Seventh Seal’ a great movie.”

That argument ended long ago. Mr. Lopate, as his youthful ardor cooled and his critical sensibility matured, was able to see some of Mr. Bergman’s virtues as well as Mr. Antonioni’s limitations. By the time I entered my own phase of undergraduate cinephilia, about a quarter-century later, Mr. Bergman’s greatness was beyond dispute, and Mr. Antonioni’s reputation was only slightly less secure. The two of them — along with the other masters whose work had defined, from the mid-’50s through the late ’60s, a golden age of high-brow movie love — were pillars in the pantheon, canonical figures toward whom the only acceptable posture was one of veneration. They were discussed in seminar rooms, dissected in honors theses and ritualistically projected in darkened dining halls by the more serious of the campus film societies.

This was truer of Mr. Bergman than of Mr. Antonioni, some of whose later works still carried a frisson of countercultural daring and disrepute: the desert orgy at the end of “Zabriskie Point”; the rock ’n’ roll in “Blowup”; Jack Nicholson in “The Passenger.” But with both directors, the impulse that brought you to their movies was less likely to be aesthetic ardor than a sense of cultural duty or historical curiosity. This was true even though both continued to make films. Your appreciation of “Fanny and Alexander” or “Identification of a Woman” rested on the understanding that these were late works and that their authors belonged definitively to an earlier era.

Which is not to say that a passionate response to some of their earlier films — that feeling of profound disturbance, of being overpowered and rendered speechless that can signal the presence of genuine art — was out of the question. It did not always come easily, though. The institutions that keep art alive do so at the risk of embalming it. For generations that were not part of the great cinephile vanguard of the ’50s and ’60s, for those of us who grew up in the drab age in between the flourishing of the art houses and the rise of the Criterion Collection, the masterworks of modern cinema had lost their novelty. Their assaultive energies were ensnared in a version of the paradox identified by Lionel Trilling in his great essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” first published in 1961, the year after Mr. Lopate dreamed of “La Notte.”

“Time has the effect of seeming to quiet the work of art,” Mr. Trilling observed, “domesticating it and making it into a classic, which is often another way of saying that it is an object of merely habitual regard. University study of the right sort can reverse this process and restore to the old work its freshness and force — can, indeed, disclose unguessed-at power. But with the works of art of our own present age, university study tends to accelerate the process by which the radical and subversive work becomes the classic work.”

The particular works Trilling had in mind were the (to him) still-fresh monuments of literary modernism, writings by the likes of Joyce, Eliot, Kafka and Yeats whose difficulty was not merely formal, but also, to use a word much in vogue at the time, existential. Their radicalism seemed to dwell in the challenge they posed to reflexive assumptions about society, consciousness, being and time.

Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman, for their parts, were the supreme modernists of world cinema. Mr. Antonioni helped to push Italian film beyond realism, infusing landscapes with psychological rather than social meaning and turning eroticism from a romantic into a metaphysical pursuit. Mr. Bergman, heir to a Nordic strain of modernism represented by Strindberg and Ibsen, developed a film language dense with psychological symbolism and submerged emotion. The two of them upheld, as filmmakers, T. S. Eliot’s observation that “poets, in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult.” “L’Avventura” and “The Seventh Seal,” though they have little else in common (apart from exquisite black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of Aldo Scavarda and Gunnar Fischer), are both hard to watch. Not because the content or the imagery is upsetting, but because they never allow the viewer to relax into a conditioned expectation of what will happen next or an easy recognition of what it means.

There was, among certain filmgoers in the 1960s, an appetite for difficulty, a conviction that symbolic obscurity and psychological alienation were authentic responses to the state of the world. More than that, the idea that a difficult work had special value — that being challenged was a distinct form of pleasure — enjoyed a prestige, at the time, that is almost unimaginable today. We would rather be teased than troubled, and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness.

Given all that, it may be hard for someone who wasn’t there — who never knew a film culture in which “La Notte” didn’t already exist — to quite appreciate the heroic status conferred on Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman 40 years ago. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good. All that’s left are the films.



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