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Depth of Field: Reel-evancy

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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s been heartbreaking to read the tributes to fallen idols Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni this week. These true titans of cinematic excellence have earned every celebratory word, every gushing career-spanning elegy. But even more depressing than their deaths is the growing sense of irrelevancy expressed by a number of online critics, bloggers, and the usual self-appointed jacked-in know-it-alls. While most acknowledge the contribution made by these important artists, the post-millennial conclusion is that both men remain footnotes, not founding figures, in the overall develop of the medium. In essence, their dispute goes a little something like this: “Yeah, their passing is important – but just wait until George Lucas goes! Now there’s a blow to cinema!” Groan.


It’s clear that time outside the limelight, either in self-imposed exile (Bergman) or advancing illness (Antonioni) have left both filmmakers clinging to their classical status. After all, in this short attention span society where information is processed and poured over the populace in streams of syrupy insignificance, two decades without a noteworthy motion picture product becomes a couple of lost lifetimes. And in the case of the Swedish cynic and the Italian idealist, they are so ingrained in the time of their triumphs (the ‘50s through the ‘70s) that many of their most ardent fans are well past middle age – meaning outside the zone of nu-media (read: Internet) meaningfulness. Thus the amicable accolades, the kind word or two before moving on to obsess over the latest design for the Iron Man suit.


In the world of web journalism, it is clear that the audience dictates the direction. Write something salient about the Polish New Wave movement and its influence on Eastern Bloc cinema (and policy) and you can practically hear the readership shutting off their browsers. Call Sacha Baron Cohen a talentless hack and watch the comments fly! Unlike the print medium, propagated on the notion of providing news of universal import, the Internet flourishes on the niche. In fact, the main drawing point during the technology’s earliest days was the discovery of like minded people who enjoyed – and in some cases, were consumed – by the same things as you. Usually limited to incredibly minor or cult entities, the water cooler wonders of such an international coffee klatch remains one of the main reasons we’ve become slaves to the router.


But over the 15 years since dial-ups went digital, fanaticism has replaced free thinking, the “I’m right/you’re wrong” dichotomy substituting for serious analytical consideration. Call it the “because I say so” benchmark, but the reason that Bergman and Antonioni are suffering in their posthumous significance is that the proposed pundits who set the cultural agenda have determined that they no longer matter. While their contributions to moviemaking can be recognized, there are others – at least in their limited experience minds – who are more noteworthy. It’s all part of a paradigm shift that suggests that old school scholarship be abandoned for the will of a more populist opinion. Indeed, if every country’s considered auteur needs to be recognized upon passing, there’d be no room on your favorite review site for a discussion of the Watchmen casting.


Now, there is a somewhat valid point buried deep within such a poisoned position. For a long time, Hollywood and the West set the motion picture schema. They determined what was relevant, and tried as hard as possible to ignore fascinating foreign trends until the box office warned of certain business suicide by doing so. Bergman was making movies for almost a decade before he became a bleak street master. Antonioni was trying to mesh the neo-realist with his bourgeois roots before Blow-Up created his cool cause celeb. Without the ivory tower trendsetters who plucked these skilled symbols of artistic globalism out of the morass of meaningless world cinema, they may have been nothing more than names on a film snob’s roster of consequence.


So it was up to critics to raise the cry, to seek out these elusive efforts in their cosmopolitan concealment (read: the out of the way art house), and convince the unwashed that these moviemakers mattered. They had to create the yardstick so that everyone else would recognize the true measure of their specialness. In a funny way, it’s the same thing that happened – in the negative - to Ed Wood. It was the Medveds – Harry and Michael – who used some anecdotal evidence about the horridness of Plan 9 from Outer Space (remember, this was before the ready availability of VHS proof) to declare the director the celluloid equivalent of a mortal sin. In the case of Bergman and Antonioni, the high minded analyzers of entertainment deemed them important and/or trendy and/or significant, so it must have been, and so far continues to be, true.


It’s only natural then that the outsider looking for a convenient way to publish their thoughts on an unheralded Japanese auteur, or disregarded British craftsman, would grab onto the Internet and use it for all its worth. And for the most part, their resilience has been a godsend. Most mainstream critics have scoffed at genres like horror and action, yet the web monkeys have uncovered and supported the status of incredible talents like Takashi Miike, John Woo, Guillermo Del Toro, and Tom Tykwer. They latched onto unknown offerings like District B13, Man Bites Dog, and Brotherhood of the Wolf, giving them a prominence that no American marketing machine could (or wanted to) create. And let’s not forget anime. While it initially made strides in this country during the ‘80s, the Internet has so solidified the demographic (and opened up the otherwise limited product possibilities) that there are now entire cable networks devoted to the cartoon category. 


Of course, such a scattered sensibility does lead to a lack of consensus – perhaps the most important component in the overall deliberation regarding timelessness. In essence, if you can divide the opinion on a particular filmmaker – say, Steven Spielberg – in enough ways, reducing him or her to a series of stereotypes and past production artifacts, you can start the process of mass marginalization. And once you’ve started down that path, the slippery slope to unimportance isn’t far behind. It is even easier with someone like Bergman or Antonioni, filmmakers who haven’t made a movie in many years and are, therefore, stuck in a telling time warp of era-appropriate appreciation. Let’s label this The Jazz Singer syndrome – no one can argue the 1927 movie’s importance as a technological hallmark (the coming of sound). But as a movie? Bah!


That’s what’s happening all over the culture nowadays. In some cases, its just jealousy mixed with the foul stench of shoddy self-realization (or in other words, just a bunch of losers bitching). But as the old guard folds, as newspapers drop their long-tenured critics and go with a wire-based set of analytical standards, the Web more or less wins. After all, while all the print people were patting themselves on the back and basking in the buffet at the latest studio junket, the ‘Net heads were back at home, watching movies, scouring rental and retail shelves, and putting in the footwork that a Kael took decades in a theater to acquire. They may lack the mental acumen to put their collection of cinematic tidbits into a proper theoretical or cohesive perspective, but they’ve been on the court playing day in and day out while the supposed Fourth Estate all-stars were sipping the studio’s Kool-Aid.


This merely makes them different, not definitive, however. A website devoted to the greatness that is Gymkata is not the same thing as another celebrating the work of Melville or Chabrol. Determining that the works of someone like Nakata Hideo deserve as much recognition as the oeuvre of Wes Craven does not put both filmmakers on the same level playing field. While the Internet may seem infinite, and your thoughts expressed on same set in temporal concrete, just remember this – six years ago, Richard Kelly and his Donnie Darko were the definitive darlings of the IPS crowd. His slacker sci-fi became such a circuit board cult that it received all manner of media exposure. Now, a little less than a decade into his career, he can’t get arrested. His most recent effort – the one year in the waiting waste Southland Tales – will finally get a release date this coming November. But the buzz has been so toxic that its failure is not only assured, it’s more or less predestined.


So dismiss names like Bergman and Antonioni at your own peril, messageboard surfing film geeks. Continue to glean through the lists of underappreciated names and write your rants about unfairly disregarded movies. Nominate your new masters and foam like fools over their inability to fulfill their projected promise. There’s a reason cinema mourns men like the ones grieved for this week – their imprint may not be modern, but it sure as Hell is meaningful. Not every Italian filmmaker deserved Antonioni’s stature, and Sweden could count the number of name motion picture icons on a single one of their national gloved hand. These men were important because, in the seven decades since they started in movies, their names correspond to unequivocally superior work. They didn’t need DSL cheerleaders to root for them. Their efforts spoke for themselves – and in truth, that’s all the relevancy they require. 

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