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The end of good old times?

English Pages, 13. 8. 2007

An essay about the life and death of Antonioni and Bergman

Those of you who realize that the Czech president is an expert in architecture and the interactions of the climate and the society may ask whether he is a world-class movie critic, too. We report, you decide.

During the last two days, movie experts have written almost everything about the two, perhaps the most famous personalities of the world's cinematography - Ingmar Bergman of Sweden and Michelangelo Antonioni of Italy. Nearly simultaneous death of these two giants who have lived for respectable 89 or 94 years, respectively, has led almost all of us to stop, meditate, and recall the past. We always do so when someone close dies and this case was no different.

I dared to write that they were close people even though I have never met either of them. However, they were such important co-creators of the whole epoch of "mine" that they had to be close to everyone who was living and feeling the first decades after the second world war. That era had its characteristic features. It was still a modern era, not a postmodern era. Certain values were still holding their validity, they were not relativized, and therefore seriously questioned. Giants were giants and they were respected as such. It wasn't possible to overlook them and everyone had to deal with them in one way or another - both at the professional and personal level. Even though we talk about an era before the age of the Internet, uniformization of the European Union, and globalization - and even though the era saw a world that was deeply divided to freedom and communism, a certain unity did exist, after all. This unity could have also existed because we didn't live in such "fireworks" of cultural products that we see today. The supply, especially in our world griped by communism, was much more limited. But the same fact has allowed us to embrace all of it. Basic things simply couldn't be overlooked.

Television didn't exist, at least not as a mass phenomenon. We used to read, probably much more than today, we used to go to theaters and exhibitions. But the films were dominant. The movies were the main tool to form norms, role models, and examples of behavior. It was an efficient way both in asking questions as well as in formulating the answers. I have seen none of the movies of Bergman and Antonioni on TV. One of the reasons was that we didn't have any TV at that time. Among the giants who were influencing us most intensely (and who didn't die a long time ago like Fellini, Visconti, and Buñuel), Bergman and Antonioni were exactly the two men who "sticked with us" up to the present. I don't know whether they have "survived" that era or whether they allowed the era to continue by living around us. But I prefer to believe the latter.

We discovered Antonioni because of his cute, very gentle, apparently slow, and definitely un-adventurous trilogy L'avventura, La notte, L'eclisse (The Adventure, The Night, The Eclipse). Together with him, we also discovered an unknown and beautiful Monica Vitti. After these, extraordinarily sensitively shot black-and-white movies that resonated with reverbations of the Italian neorealism, Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) became a pioneer in using colors as a tool of expression. It wasn't a story captured on a colorful film but something entirely different. The Blowup however became his most famous movie that I first saw in Paris, a few days after its premiere. Its mystery in my eyes was substantially increased because of my poor knowledge of French. There still exist many disputes about its interpretation and the French version I saw has made it even more difficult. But it is likely that no one will ever surpass such a masterful way to ask where is the boundary between reality and fiction. I spent the following day by searching through Paris for the light blue shirt with little cubes, a shirt of David Hemmings in that movie. After I returned home, the shirt has allowed me to boast for quite some time.

When I was a teenager, Bergman appeared in my life with his Summer with Monika. I can't forget that in that "chaste" era, the most erotic scene of the movie were wobbles of a canoe sailing a Swedish lake. Through Bergman, one could penetrate to the Scandinavian world and the terse protestant environment - something that was new, too. Smiles of a Summer Night didn't have much of an impact on me but it was more than compensated by Sawdust and Tinsel, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Magician, The Virgin Spring, The Silence, Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame. I am sure that I have forgotten something. But let me admit that I barely survived the naturalism of Cries and Whispers. Bergman was creating his own world but it was a world that was saying a great deal about "our", very real world.

I am afraid that without Antonioni and Bergman, the movie industry can no longer be what it used to be. However, the epoch has changed, too, together with the cultural and civilizational framework where the movies are shot. These changes have removed cinema out of its old, proud pedestal. Clearly dominant television has replaced it. However, I would be very happy if we didn't live exclusively in the world of Shreks, Harry Potters, Pupendo, Dark Blue World, and The English King. Let's believe that cinema will find its Bergmans and Antonionis again and that the current era is just an exhaling before another aspiration. A nearly simultaneous death of these two great men almost suggests that they wanted to say something to our postmodern world. The question is whether we can understand their message.

Václav Klaus, Lidové noviny, 2. srpna 2007

Translated by Luboš Motl


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