My thoughts this week, of course, have been with Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, and I’ve been remembering their wonderful films. I’ve only seen about forty features by Bergman, several of which I’ve seen several times, and there are still two early features and all the documentary films by Antonioni for me to see, but I feel very close to the two men. One of my favourite cinema memories was travelling to a strange part of London one Christmas bank holiday at the end of the 1980s to see Fanny and Alexander. It was playing at a large old cinema in, I think, Stoke Newington. The cinema was overrun by cats. Well, that’s exaggerating a bit, two of the owner’s large cats walked around the auditorium and sat in empty seats during the film. There were about sixty paying customers dotted about the place, plus a very old woman in a wheelchair and her very Cockney assistant who arrived late. They caused quite a fuss with their chatter and apologies. Then the film began to take hold and the audience became very quiet. During the climactic scene, when Alexander is embraced by the incarcerated man/woman, the auditorium filled with the honest sounds of ordinary men and women crying.
Because of my extreme youth, I came late to the cinema of Antonioni. The first of his films I saw projected was L’Avventura in Oxford in, I think, 1994. This was when Empire Magazine’s best writer, David Parkinson, ran the Oxford University Film Society (with programming so good and so advanced, I was often his only customer). The cinema was packed for the screening, probably a couple of hundred patrons, and the film had a profound effect, I expect, on many of them. Afterwards there was the excited, breathless, happy chatter of a good group of people who know they have been privy to something special. It is, I’m sure you all know, an absolutely glorious film, a film about loss and loneliness and forgiveness that is encapsulated in the final scene of a hand resting on a shoulder. Antonioni’s films have sometimes been criticised for their coldness, but I’ve always been impressed by their very human warmth. The same is true of his later films, such as Beyond The Clouds, which came unexpectedly for one day only to a tiny cinema in Shrewsbury near to where I was working at an activity centre for children. Naturally I arranged for my day off to coincide with the screening, for I knew that the film would provide me with enough intellectual stimulus to see me through the summer.
The last Antonioni film I saw projected was The Passenger, which I saw at the great cinema museum in Bradford last November, when I was working with Ken Russell on his Bronte Ballet film. I’d been waiting for more than twenty years to see The Passenger, had almost shelled out £100 to see it on an imported Japanese DVD. Within minutes of the screening starting, I knew it would be a film I’d return to again and again.
Sometimes it’s embarrassing to be an Englishman, because England is the only country in the world where intelligence, beauty, thoughtfulness and thought are frowned upon and where stupidity and ignorance are celebrated. There are probably ten million or more English people who are so dumb they can’t really be said to have risen above the level of beasts. It’s a country where people in the public eye, such as footballer, Michael Owen, can boast that they’ve never read a book in their life because they and their public see stupidity as something good. It’s why our streets swill with drunks and swine almost as soon as the sun goes down. It is not surprising therefore that we have a press characterised by ignorance and by a cultivated dumbness. The reporting of the death and legacy of Bergman and Antonioni has been a case in point. Every right-thinking person knows that the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman is a boorish philistine so it was no surprise to see his clown-like eye-rolling and groaning on successive nights when he was called upon to talk about the works of two great men he couldn’t care less about. It is to no one’s credit that the BBC invited onto his show a shaven-headed imbecile to try to belittle the works and legacy of Bergman and Antonioni. The imbecile had no intention of ever seeing any of either men’s films, but that didn’t stop him from giving his uninformed opinion and trying to belittle the second guest on the show, Nigel Andrews, a man who had. Andrews is that rarity among English film journalists in that he is passionate about film and he knows the subject. He deserves a prize for the great dignity he showed as Paxman’s imbecile continued to stick his foot in his mouth by claiming that a good film is only one which can provide silly season fodder for dirty tabloid newspapers. Had I been there, I would have slapped one of the men and sworn at the other.
The idiocy continued, of course, in the national press. The Times newspaper printed a column in which Bergman was effectively called a deservedly forgotten mediocrity by a journalist who boasted of his own ignorance. ‘Can anyone even name a Bergman film?’ he wrote.
The Times refused to print my reply, or even to allow it on their website. So here it is:
“Only a British journalist could adopt a self-superior tone whilst boasting at how stupid they are. Being ‘thick’ impresses no one except insecure fourth-form school girls who think you’ll bully them if they don’t agree with what you say. Your editor should have told you that you were writing for a readership of intelligent adults. Ingmar Bergman needs no defence from me. You should get an education, you silly shallow boy.”