Something Like an Obituary

Cinema’s Summer of Loss

It’s a familiar line by now: the cinema, at least what we understood as cinema in the glory years (either 1939 or the early ’60s or the late ’40s or 1973, depending upon who’s doing the ranting), is dead and gone, and the mighty seventh art reduced to a stinking, bloated corpse after just over a century of life. It’s a seductive argument, and it’s hard to counter, especially if you live anywhere but New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. When the most exciting movie events are revivals (Rules of the Game and Army of Shadows last year or, if you were lucky enough to get a seat, the American debut, 37 years after the fact, of Jacques Rivette’s Out One, with the Janus Films retrospective and boxed set — the most recent of its 50 films a mere 35 years old! — as the exclamation point that caps the argument), it’s a sure sign that something is terribly wrong.

The deaths in the last year of five of our greatest filmmakers — first Danielle Huillet, then Ousmane Sembène, Edward Yang, Ingmar Bergman and finally, Michelangelo Antonioni — seemed to signal a final closing of the door, a confirmation that the art form’s death throes are over and all that’s left is the sad denouement. As Hollywood shifts completely to glorified theme park rides and less and less foreign filmmaking makes it to America, it’s easy to see why these deaths (at the average age of 79) seemed more significant than merely the end of five careers.

As Jonathan Rosenbaum argues persuasively in Movie Wars, the asininity of current American studio filmmaking doesn’t mean the end of cinema: we are, in fact, in a golden age, an era in which great masters are still producing significant work and younger talents are finding it ever cheaper to make films (so long as they don’t require real film stock or name actors). Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda and Pedro Almodovar continue to make astonishing work, as do relative newcomers like Claire Denis, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso, Bela Tarr, the Dardenne Brothers and Pedro Costa; the Chinese and Iranian avant-gardes have produced a dozen major filmmakers (Wong Kar-Wai and Abbas Kiarastami, most famously, but also Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Jia Zhang-ke); Mexican émigrés to the United States like Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro are making dazzling films; and American independents including James Benning, Nina Menkes and Charles Burnett are producing some of the best work of their long, fascinating careers. That much of this work is nearly impossible to see on a screen outside of a day here or there in a handful of major cities shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there is an avalanche of stunning work being made right now, much of it available on Netflix.

What united Huillet and Bergman, Sembène and Antonioni and Yang was an absolute mastery of mise en scène: as radically different as they were (and no one could mistake a Straub/Huillet film for an Antonioni), they all worked in the rough tradition championed and explicated by Andre Bazin. They placed their faith in the image, even at their most literate; their meanings are manifested not just verbally but spatially, in the movement of bodies within the frame and the relationship of people to landscape. Prone to long takes (at its Cannes debut, Antonioni’s L’Aventurra was famously met with cries of “Cut! Cut! ”), stasis and deliberation, these are filmmakers who privileged what happens in front of the camera over what was done in the editing room afterwards. The result is a feeling, in their best work, of complicity with the viewer: they trust us to be patient with their work, to give them time and space, and to let the meanings emerge without the guiding hand of the editor, through performance, movement and the passage of time.

All five filmmakers had a great feeling for place. The stark, forbidding air of Bergman’s island films (Persona, The Passion of Anna, and especially his masterpiece, Shame) are as much a matter of hanging grey skies and the desolate, barren rocks of Faro Isle as his famously “existential” world view — the land speaks to the stories told and reflect (or drive) the characters’ anxious desperation. This is true as well of Sembène’s Senegal and Yang’s Taiwan, though to much different effect (the desperation in Sembène’s work is rooted in the political rather than the personal, while the small epiphanies and connections in Yang’s stories are set against the alienating apartment blocks of modern Taiwan). In the case of the more cosmopolitan Antonioni and Straub/Huillet, they made each new location distinctly their own. Antonioni found ways to make mod Carnaby Street, North Africa and Los Angeles all feel like he’d designed them himself; in Too Early, Too Late, Straub/Huillet made the landscapes of Egypt and rural France speak more vividly about failed revolution than the voiceover text by Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein.

The best tribute we can pay to these five masters is to reject the (perfectly understandable) cynicism that says their work is part of something dead. In fact, their legacies are carried on by the most exciting work being produced today by younger filmmakers. For all the talk of the diminishment of the image, the death of film in favor of digital video and the shift away from theatrical release to home viewing, the filmmakers who are pushing the medium in the most exciting new directions are those most indebted to the past: Straub/Huillet live on in every frame of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth. And the cinema is very much alive.