| Michelangelo Antonioni
When Ingmar Bergman died last Month, a friend sent me an sms: “Bergman dead. Strange. Thought he had died a long time ago….” I was travelling and so not in a position to do my usual trawl through the obituaries, but even as I was thinking about Bergman, I saw the small item in the newspapers the next day which told me Michelangelo Antonioni had passed away. At 89 and 94 respectively, neither passing was tragic or unexpected. Both had lived full and rich lives and both had completed their substantial bodies of work; Antonioni was, amazingly, still working till very recently while Bergman was in firm and graceful retirement. Neither may have physically left the film theatre of the world but the fact was that both had had the good fortune to see their major contributions absorbed, and in many ways digested, by the image-alimentary channels of succeeding generations.
In that sense, they were comparable to those two other greats, the late Akira Kurosawa and, of course, Jean-Luc Godard, who is still very much with us. Neither Bergman nor Antonioni was cut off tragically, with potential work still simmering inside, like Ritwik Ghatak, Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Andrei Tarkovsky; despite health problems, neither had to face the brutal ambush of age and the quick ebbing away of his great powers as did Satyajit Ray. If there was ‘A Late Style’ in the sense that Edward Said defines it, then it came early for Antonioni, and Bergman could be argued to have developed his almost in mid-career; both had done their great early work by the early Sixties, and each then proceeded to push his envelope, secure in the knowledge that the place of his oeuvre in the history of cinema was secure. Antonioni had the major works of Red Desert, Blow-up, Zabriskie Point and his crowning achievement in The Passenger, before a steep drop into slightly sad soft-porn ramblings; Bergman, too, re- invented himself from Persona and Scenes from a Marriage onwards, moving on towards the finish with the elegant but comparatively slight Fanny and Alexander, The Rehearsal and so on.
What was gripping about each cineaste, gripping in very different ways and yet shared, was the way in which they moved away from the cage of dramatic narrative and plunged deeper and deeper into the pure pleasure and the unadulterated pain of the moving image. The words were always there, of course, and in Bergman’s case, always retaining a kind of pride of place, but they no longer ruled in tandem with plot and drama. For a while, roughly between 1962 and 1975, these two (arguably along with Bresson), were the ones you went to see when you wanted the pure and complex flicker of image and sound without controlling static from the story-bunker. It was quite edgy stuff then, difficult and definitely an acquired taste, something akin to dhrupad or the music of Stockhausen or Ornette Coleman and it is quite hard to take even now, unless you’re really in the mood. But what many young critics don’t understand — especially Western ones who think cinema began with Quentin Tarantino — is that among these two, Bresson, and the choppy and stroppy Godard, they irretrievably altered the DNA of the moving image. They changed the lensing through which we perceive light and architecture, both immobile and that of humans; they shifted our sense of colour, actually even before they began to work with colour film; ultimately they provided the successful experiments which now allow us to break up visual time, much in the same way Picasso and Braque sliced up pictorial space in painting.
Naturally, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, aka Dramatic Narrative and Story-Line, weren’t about to take this lying down. They hit back with the massive, spiteful force of any State or Corporate mega-power that’s been stung in a bad place. As these directors weakened or faltered or the situation tugged at the carpet under them, the old criminals re-established themselves under the guise of ‘anti-elitism’, of ‘accessibility’, of ‘serious entertainment that carries a message’, and so on. The result was that, politically, at least, the big art-politik powers seemed to have won hands down: neither Bergman’s sparely despairing humanism nor Antonioni’s elegant anarchism made any major dent. Aesthetically and stylistically though, it was a different matter — the missiles did go in and have been imploding quietly over the last two decades.
The difference between Picasso and Braque and these guys was that the earlier two brought Modernism into fourth gear, while the two who recently departed were a part of the small gravedigger-crew that buried Modernism — even while giving us some of its late supernovas, for example in The Seventh Seal and L’ Avventura’; perceptologically, they helped bring us to where we are today, helping us to deal with whatever shattered post-mo planet we now inhabit.
Today you can see (and you don’t even have to look that carefully) the ghosts, the traces and re-seedings of Antonioni and Bergman everywhere, from the crassest advertising to the most sophisticated commercial cinema: the vast, empty architectural space might be the pregnant site of a gun-battle about to ensue; in the tight close-up of the woman flitting in and out of focus, Liv Ullman’s face might have been replaced by some new Hollywood talent doing unmentionable sexual things; the oddly amplified greens and reds of a landscape might just be the setting for a perfume ad; but the traces are there, as is the huge debt owed to the two masters who’ve, bizarrely, made their exit in tandem.
As if two geniuses going was not bad enough, I got news the other day of the death of K.K. Mahajan, the brilliant cinematographer who worked with Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and so many times with Mrinal Sen. Strange again, the timing, for here was the one Indian cinematographer who understood and absorbed the cine-language of Bergman and especially of Antonioni very early indeed. From the late Sixties, Mahajan was the sometimes difficult and irascible man to whom directors turned when they wanted to move the Image from its Third Class Sleeper to sit in the First Class compartment next to the over-fattened passenger, Mr Story.
If Subrata Mitra and his generation of light-masters were the bravura artists of the perfectly formed frame, then Mahajan was perhaps the first one who was the virtuoso of the imperfect image. He was the man who partnered the new generation of Indian Art Film directors as they attempted to construct the images of the India of the Seventies. The country and society that were emerging needed a very different look from the one produced by the mirrors that had been (mostly) turned to the past during the Fifties and the Sixties and K.K. was among the pioneers who embraced the European cinema and film-philosophy thrown up by the violent churn of the Sixties.
Unlike Antonioni and Bergman and their cameramen, there was to be not much international fame for Mahajan, no cult status a la Sven Nykvist, Bergman’s great collaborator on camera, no jet-setting challenges like the ones received by Vittorio Storaro, who was first Bertolucci’s and then Coppola’s cinematographer. Increasingly, as his directors (save Mrinal Sen) became more and more frustrated under the tepid but ceaseless onslaught of Indian ‘middle cinema’, Mahajan’s own work and life also took damage. As a new generation of cameramen and women began to occupy the avant-garde ground (such as it was), twinned with their director pals from film-school, assignments reportedly became rarer and rarer for K.K. Though very different in both style and nature from Subrata Mitra, the isolation of his last years was not dissimilar: the double exile of the man who is always behind the scenes, always behind the director, and, increasingly, forced, if not to be behind, then at the side of the times despite having once been a major ground-breaker.
But, as we are still in the process of seeing, these things sometimes turn in cycles, and who knows' Perhaps in some pellicular Valhalla, these three men, two quite old and one not quite so old, are nodding to each other in calm recognition and waiting for a different film to begin.