Maybe I have a thing for impending mortality, but I find the last works by Bergman and Antonioni to be among the most chilling, compelling and enthralling works that either made. And I find it interesting that these legends of celluloid both embraced digital technology to realize their final visions.
A few years ago, at the Q&A for the New York Film Festival screening of Saraband, someone asked Liv Ullmann if Bergman’s shooting technique was different since they were shooting with HD equipment and not film. She replied yes, that when shooting on film, Bergman would usually sit right next to the camera so that when the actors performed directly to the camera they were also performing directly to him, to generate that kind of intimacy he’s famous for. But this time the HD equipment prevented Bergman from using this technique — not only was he kept away from the camera during takes, he was in another room watching on a monitor! But then Ullmann said that when she heard “action”, she suddenly was able to sense Bergman in front of her, as if she was receiving signals from him telepathically.
This marvelous sensation of sensing something old through a new medium, of seeing what was in front of you all along with new eyes, is perhaps why Saraband is special to me. From my notes:
“I actually realized how familiar he is to me, that despite my protestations I’ve somehow managed to watch 17 of his movies, and that I was actually grateful to see one that was brand new, and recognize how distinctive and inimitable his dour, self-absorbed voice really is to my ears. It’s truly a dysfunctional relationship when one is comforted to be reunited with these foibles; whereas I’ve long found them annoyingly familiar, this time I found them familiarly annoying, if that makes any sense.
But the thing is that this film also sheds new light on those familiarly annoying elements; like I said this is ultra-late Bergman, with a feeling of twilight that gives everything, even the bitter arguments between characters, an underlying sense of grace and eloquence… His shooting on high-def digital video also gives his familiar settings a strange new palette of colors and textures, as if it were a Bergman film being beamed from another land of soft pastels and slightly metallic hues, almost as if it were a dream.”
Indeed, Saraband looks like a Bergman movie transmitted from the afterworld. If this is true, it’s oddly reassuring that Ingmar the Grouch is still carping about the human race in the great beyond. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A stroke-afflicted Antonioni used CGI to enable himself to walk one last time for Michelangelo’s Gaze aka Eye for Eye (found on the extras of the Eros tryptich DVD). Stone silent, Antonioni just looks and looks as he beholds a restored Michelangelo sculpture of Moses (the joke here is that Antonioni, through “the magic of cinema” has himself been restored to his feet — so we have two restored Michelangelos in each other’s presence). The film’s nearly silent soundtrack is the polar opposite of the typically chatty Bergman, but in actually it expresses itself in much the same way as Bergman’s films do — in gazes. And Antonioni’s gaze in this film is without equal. The level of concentration in the Antonioni’s act of looking, the desire to reach out and connect with another object in the world and absorb all it has to offer — the conviction that if you stare at the Michelangelo sculpture long enough, gazing deeply at the taut, robust surfaces of Moses’ visage, you can feel all of Michelangelo’s desire to reach out and grasp the essence of humanity in his own hands, to make it real and alive by his creation, an impulse passed along centuries and pulses through every frame of this film.
Fortunately YouTube has my favorite sequence of cinema of either director: 8:36 of the purest cinema you’ll see anywhere (preferrably on DVD or widescreen rather than this tiny online clip). In a seemingly random but carefully assembled series of shots, the universe just seems to expand and expand with stories, potentialities, a life that is everywhere and nowhere at once, just as Antonioni and Bergman are now.