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Death of a cinema culture

Two more of the old masters are gone, and with them an era of film as art.

August 05, 2007|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a film critic for Time.com and the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

The deaths on the same day of two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, naturally prompt gloomy end-of-an-era reflections -- particularly in the case of the former, who, though he had largely ceased to direct movies, continued to write screenplays ("Faithless," "Sunday's Children," "The Best Intentions") that I think are among his best work.

But, in truth, what I've been mourning these past few days is not so much the passing of these difficult, masterful old men but of the cinematic era they dominated -- which sputtered out, its passing largely unremarked, well over 30 years ago.

I'm talking about the international cinema culture that arose in the postwar 1940s and dominated not just the screens of the world but the sensibilities of a newly impassioned audience at least until the early '70s. I'm talking about Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray, the entire French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Melville) and, lest we forget, the cheeky Czechs of the Prague Spring.

Most of these figures are now dead or silenced by age -- and by the world's indifference. But I'm here to tell you that they made a huge difference to those of us lucky enough to see their films at an impressionable age. We were much less than a mass audience; we were something more of a cult. But by the early '60s, there were about 700 "art" theaters in the United States dedicated to our needs (up from 150 a decade earlier).

To a large extent, we defined ourselves not by the books we read but by the films we saw. And, to an unprecedented degree, we redefined the nation's high and middlebrow culture. In this era, collegiate film studies burgeoned, publishers flooded the market with books about movies and, when I began my career as a movie reviewer at Life, which had the biggest weekly circulation among American magazines, I wrote regularly, without objection from editors or readers, about all the great directors listed above. At one point, the competition from foreign films grew so intense that the Los Angeles Times, no less, called for a protective tariff on cinematic imports.

Think of that! Bergman mourning God's sudden silence. Antonioni insisting that life was an unfathomable (and narratively indeterminate) mystery. Godard pressing on the limits of what constituted a well-made movie, Fellini making his exuberant jokes at the expense of our expectations, Kurosawa's shrugging, scratching samurai blending the flash of violence with somber silences. Did Hollywood really fear this work? Probably not. But we had never seen anything like these themes and techniques on the screen, and they shook our complacency. We regarded each of these directors as a genre onto himself, and didn't care if they succeeded or failed. We went to see the new Bergman or the latest Truffaut with the same high hopes and good faith that other people brought to a new Doris Day or John Wayne movie.

God, it was fun to be a part of all that, even if there were impurities in our enthusiasm. American movies were in a pretty bad place just then -- they got better, briefly, in the '70s -- which granted a default interest to the infinitely more discussable movies from abroad. Nor can we discount the adorability of Brigitte Bardot's bottom in luring us to the art houses, though, in truth, the more sophisticated eroticism of foreign films was one of their legitimate advantages over American "product." But never mind that. The truth was that the Bergmans and the Antonionis were media stars and, as with everything else in America, you need to attach names to ideas if the latter are to gain any traction in the culture.

Then, of course, they aged. And faltered. De Sica died in 1974; Francois Truffaut died in 1984; Fellini died in 1993; And their survivors and successors were bullied to the fringes by the resurgent American film industry. By the '90s, something like 70% of the movies shown in theaters outside the U.S. were American-made. That deeply eroded markets (and financing) for serious moviemaking in those countries. Worse, once blockbuster productions became the American norm, and the only reliable movie audience was juvenile, widespread interest in aspiring filmmakers and filmmaking from overseas simply dried up here.

We still import movies, of course, but you will perhaps have noticed that they tend to be very old-fashioned pictures -- farces, romantic comedies, glum literary adaptations, fatuous biopics such as "La Vie en Rose" -- genre works that cater to an older, conservative audience that is not being served by modern Hollywood.

In this context, a great artist like the Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos cannot expect to compete with "The Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. Even a deft entertainer like Patrice Leconte (the French director and screenwriter currently represented by "My Best Friend") cannot hope to entrance American audiences as he might have 40 or 50 years ago.

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