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Friday, August 17, 2007

Bergman's Checkmate

As those of you who share my deep, manaical love for the cinema already know, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died last week. Even though Antonioni was my favourite of the two, my first thought was of Bergman's Seventh Seal and the knight's chess game with Death.

The film centres around a knight returning from the Crusades who is confronted by Death. Death offers him the chance to save himself by winning a game of chess against Death. This answers the twin questions of why Bobby Fischer has survived for so long, despite being a loon, and also why chess matches take so blooming long.

One imagines Bergman, who lived a long and productive life, sitting at a chess table, deftly manoeuvring his king about the board. He engages in a measured retreat, sacrificing a few pawns along the way. Suddenly, sometime this week, he utters the Swedish word for "Oops!"

Antonioni on the other hand would spend the entire match commenting on how interesting the chess board is. "Is that a maple or oak?" "The veneer of the wood is highly reflective." At other times he'd merely stare at the corners of the board and wonder how they affected the chess pieces, if at all. Finally, he got around to the game, which probably lasted a dozen moves.

Both filmmakers practiced what some would refer to as "depressing European cinema." However, they were truly different kinds of filmmakers. Bergman was literate-minded and had films packed with intense, often self-lacerating dialogue, the exception being the occasional The Silence or The Virgin Spring. On the other hand Antonioni's films frequently contained lengthy silences of the kind that normally occur when someone tells a risque joke at formal religious function. They were intensely visual, cinematic experiences that asked the viewer to participate in the drama, even if the viewer wasn't particularly keen on the idea.

I suppose, if one wanted to narrow them down, you could say that Bergman would make a film about some one who had enormous doubts and anxieties, and spent a good deal of time talking with people about them, sort of a serious Woody Allen without the wanking jokes and occasional narcissism.*

Antonioni woud make the same film, only instead of talking things to death, the characters would stand around staring at each other, waiting to see if the others would seduce them or tire of the whole enterprise and disappear. Maybe they'd be on camera half the time.

Quite amazing that they left this world within hours of each other.


*Yes, I know that Woody Allen actually imitated Bergman, rather than vice versa. It's still a useful comparison.

Blimey, this turned out more serious than I intended.


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