[Note: Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale is taking some time off, but The Reeler is in the good hands of trusted friends and colleagues. Lewis Beale is a veteran Reeler contributor who also writes about the entertainment industry for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Newsday..]
It was at the Circle Theater in Washington, D.C. that I first got turned onto Ingmar Bergman. I was attending George Washington University at the time, and occasionally I'd cut class to hit the local rep house, which showed double features of the best in foreign film. This is where I caught The Devil's Eye, a minor piffle from the great Swede but a flick that seemed incredibly exotic to me because it was probably the first subtitled movie I'd ever seen. And for some obscure programming reason, Bergman's little comedy was paired with Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd, starring the utterly angelic-looking Terence Stamp as the beleaguered Melville sailor. I remember stumbling out of the theater that day absolutely destroyed by Billy's fate, and wondering who this Bergman guy was, determined to see more of his films.
This is what it was like back in the days BSW (Before Star Wars). Especially for those of us who grew up in an era when multiplexes didn't exist, and moviegoing generally meant heading downtown (in my case, Center City Philly) to sit in a large theater and watch the latest Hollywood extravaganza -- usually a musical, western or Biblical drama. If independent pictures were out there, I sure didn't know about them, and the same goes for films from foreign lands; they weren't on the radar of most Americans.
And they still aren't. But the recent deaths of Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni reminded me of a time when cineaste culture was all the rage. It was a time when the release of films by Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard and others was not only written about with intelligence and passion, but talked about in numerous conversations at the end of screenings, when the coffeehouses and bars of every hip neighborhood were filled with excited filmgoers grooving on the art of le cinéma.
This was the era when the student film program at Temple University, where I went to grad school, would show a work like Persona, a picture viewed reverently by the sellout crowd of several hundred, which filed out stunned and speechless at its shattering conclusion. Or, if you were lucky enough to live in certain areas, you could go to a first-run theater and catch Costa-Gavras' Z, whose anti-authoritarian political message was wildly applauded by the New York audience with whom I saw it. It was even a time when Pauline Kael's floridly-written criticism was read religiously, and no one could have imagined that a derisive term -- Paulettes -- would ultimately be attached to her most rabid followers.
In those days, the films of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and (thank God!) Michael Bay and Brett Ratner were still years in the future. People didn't talk about box-office gross, but mise en scene and meaning. No one had come up with the term "postmodern." And movies had yet to achieve Tarantinoesque self-referentiality. All of us, everyone who went to see Dersu Uzala or The 400 Blows or Cries and Whispers, we all felt we were discovering a new and exciting art form. Film had become part of the intellectual canon.
So what happened? Star Wars and Jaws happened. The international market and the concept of the mega-blockbuster happened. People began assigning star ratings to pictures and discussed weekend box office as if it were as important as the stock market ticker.
Then the grand masters of the cineaste culture began to get old or lost their creative steam, and were never replaced. No new Bergman, no 21st century Kurosawa. Film schools began showing works by the new elite -- Scorsese, Altman, etc. -- and started bumping the classics off the agenda. Even worse, all too many film fans grew up with a love for big effects and a hatred of slow-moving, thoughtful, black-and-white films. Show a b&w film in a classroom these days (I have) and the response you get is outright boredom, if not intense hatred (which, of course, eliminates even cool stuff like film noir).
It's not that there isn't a cinema culture out there anymore. It's just that what there is has somehow been diminished, been crushed in spirit and driven to the cultural edges. Does Wong Kar-wai get the same amount of media attention as Bergman did in his prime? Is the latest from any current Italian director (I'll bet you can't name three) greeted with the kind of critical exegeses that attached to Last Tango In Paris?
There were giants in those days, and an audience that looked up to them for a sort of spiritual guidance. Now they're nearly all dead. And their replacements are nowhere in sight.
Posted at August 10, 2007 8:59 AM
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