All the commentary on Ingmar Bergman’s death has been appropriately mournful — except at the New York Post op-ed page, where they couldn’t wait to dance on his grave. They ran a spectacularly philistine editorial that must be read to be believed. At first, I thought the writer was just using Bergman’s corpse as a convenient foil to score political points against modernism in art — a cultural battle that the right lost 75 years ago, even if the Post won’t acknowledge it. (If only the editorialist had waited a day, he could have hurled similar imprecations at Michelangelo Antonioni’s corpse as well.) But really, it’s just a cry of resentment over movies and art that have the gall to try to make audiences think instead of spoonfeeding them sensation. Whatever else Bergman was, he was first an entertainer and storyteller, one who hung his philosophical ponderings on sturdy frames of narrative and character, but the editorialist insists that watching such heavy movies (like The Seventh Seal, pictured) is a masochistic form of punishment. Maybe to him; to others, cinematic punishment may mean enduring Eli Roth’s torture-porn or Michael Bay’s synapse-frying audiovisual assaults — but hey, at least those movies aren’t pretentious or artsy.
The editorialist says Bergman was the mascot of unnamed movie critics (that is, straw men invented by the writer) who thought only lofty European existentialist dramas could be art, not lowly Hollywood genre films. This assertion is, of course, totally false. The auteurists who championed Bergman and Antonioni also championed the westerns of John Ford, the action movies of Howard Hawks, the musicals of Vincente Minnelli, and other mass-appeal Hollywood fare. One of those early Bergman advocates, the still-active critic Andrew Sarris, weighs in from his post at the New York Observer with an essay recognizing Bergman’s strengths and limitations. It was inevitable that the Swedish director’s biggest fan, Woody Allen, would also have something to say. Talking to Time, he claims that, for all their artistry, Bergman and Antonioni were both “regular guy[s]” in person. Anyone who’s seen the pantomime tennis match at the end of Blow-Up would relish the mental image of Antonioni and Allen playing ping-pong.
The most illuminating thing I’ve read about either director this week comes courtesy of Roger Ebert, who digs up this account of the actor who played the putative murder victim in Blow-Up, who told the critic that Antonioni’s trademark lack of narrative closure may not have been entirely intentional; the actor claimed that the Blow-Up shoot ran out of money, forcing the director to piece together what footage he had. If that’s true, Antonioni still managed to make something out of not much. Accidental or not, the film’s refusal to answer the questions it posed offered plenty of food for thought, which was typical of Antonioni’s and Bergman’s films. That’s what made them popular with imaginative moviegoers — rather than those who demand that art should be propaganda that tells passive viewers what to think and feel.