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The Reeler Blog

Reeler Pinch Hitter: David Hudson, GreenCine Daily

[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. David Hudson is the editor of the most essential film blog on the Web, GreenCine Daily.]

In the immediate wake of cinema's freakiest day in years, the day both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died, several words some of us liberal arts majors last scrawled in blue books decades ago were getting kicked around again: angst, read,
alienation, modernity. It was history then, but now, after about half a century of postmodernism, give or take, such words positively reek of dust. On blogs and in the papers, commentators seem to have been looking back at the high seriousness of high modernism with a discomforting mixture of yearning and embarrassment.

Oddly, though, if we're to peg Antonioni and Bergman as modernists -- which, admittedly, not everyone's keen to go along with, seeing as how their greatest works would be appearing a bit late in the game, but let's, for the moment -- there's something missing: the city. The very vortex of modernism: Joyce's Dublin, Eliot's London, Baudelaire's Paris, Bely's Petersburg, Kafka's Prague, Döblin's Berlin, Musil's Vienna. And on the screen, from Vertov on through entire genres -- gangsters, noir, musicals -- the city is more of a full-blooded (and often fully bloodied) character than a mere backdrop. The map of modernism's multi-tiered concerns and penchants, Metropolis, "was directly inspired by the skyline of Manhattan," David Edelstein reminds us, "which the Austrian [Fritz] Lang beheld in 1924 from a ship in New York harbor. He told his wife, Thea von Harbou, that he envisioned a scenario in which the cityscape would be dominated by soaring towers of glass and steel while far below, in cellars and catacombs, the workers whose labor sustained it were physically and spiritually crushed -- almost literally turned into machines."

Dark as it is, such imagery is not only absent from the work of the two just-departed European icons, even thematically, it's only very distantly related. Of course, this goes more for Bergman than for Antonioni. That 1960 Time cover is one of the best portraits of the director in that it sets that stern face, that pale forehead against a chase scene worthy of the kitschiest movie poster -- set in a monochromatic deep wood. For all of God's overbearing silence, Bergman's films are seeped in the Bible, probably the most anti-urban book ever written. In the Old Testament, whole cities are destroyed by "brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven," who punishes anyone daring to take in the spectacle by zapping them into a pillar of salt. In the New Testament, Jesus is something of a nomad, coming into town to either knock over merchants' tables or face his earthly demise.

Much has been said in the past fews days of both filmmakers' works about spatial context as an oblique mirror of characters' psyches. In Bergman's case, we nearly always think of the stark and craggy edges of Faro, the Baltic island where he practically became a hermit in his later years. Hardly a surprise that the one film that could be filed under "urban" and "the modernist period," The Serpent's Egg, is widely regarded as one of his worst.

Of the two, though, Antonioni "was more urbane and cosmopolitan," as Stephen Holden puts it. But with the exception of London in Blow-Up, Antonioni's cosmopolis -- usually Rome, occasionally Milan -- is often an eerily quiet and empty place to roam. As he departed from the neorealism of, say, Rossellini's violently bustling Open City, he also seems to have taken to the immediately surrounding 'burbs. As you may remember, though, it's not that he didn't know the "metallic echo" of a true urbanscape; more likely, all that joyous noise was, for him, the
exact antithesis of what he was actually hearing, mid-20th century.

And maybe that is what drew both filmmakers out of the city, albeit in radically different ways: the silence.

Posted at August 7, 2007 2:28 AM

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