Kovacs, Bergman and Antonioni

originally published July 31, 2007

It’s been a bad week and change for fans of classic film, and classic men. Three giants of cinema have left us, always in threes.

First it was Laszlo Kovacs, famed Director of Photography for films such as Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider. His career spanned more than seventy films over four decades, his influence apparent in the works of dozens of his peers to this day.

Kovacs turned to more mainstream work in the latter stages of his working life, films some would consider blase and without substance. While the plots and principles may have paled in comparison to his earlier credits, his eye remained brilliant to the bitter end.

More impressive than his time in Hollywood was his time in his native Hungary, specifically his final days there during the 1956 Hungarian communist revolt. Kovacs, fresh out of film school, used borrowed equipment and together with fellow cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond captured days of powerful footage of a nations fight for freedom. The two young filmmakers wrapped their cameras in paper bags with holes cut out for the lenses, capturing street warfare and oppression that would shock the world. They literally carried thirty thousand feet of film on their backs across the border into Austria as political refugees, eventually finding Asylum in the US in 1957.

Shortly after CBS news showed a summarized version of the footage with voiceover from then anchor Walter Kronkite. To this day that footage remains some of the most courageous imagery of a people in crisis ever seen.

Yesterday famed Swedish director Ingmar Bergman died in his sleep at age eighty nine. Bergman, a master of imagery in his own right, directed more than fifty films including Smultronstallet, Sasom I en Spegel, Viskningar Och Rap and Ansikte Mot Ansikte, all of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

His career began humbly enough in puppet theater before taking up writing in 1941. His work is cited by dozens of the worlds most famous and prolific directors as key influences, his love for the genre of film being legendary. He is listed by numerous critics and film societies as one of the most influential filmmakers that ever lived. The world of cinema today is largely what it is because of Bergman and the inspiration he provided to hundreds of his proteges.

Then finally this morning the news broke that Italian director Micahealangelo Antonioni had died at the age of ninety four. I find it hardly a coincidence that he passed only hours after Bergman, it appears the theory of old married couples dying in sequence has spilled over to the world of film, where two giants often compared throughout their careers left us almost in sync.

Antonioni directed more than thirty films in a career that lasted seven decades. His most famous film, at least in the US, is the 1966 Blow Up, although most fans would site his trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse as his most beautiful and endearing work. His films depicted the ideal that people in the twentieth century had become emotionally distant and difficult to one another, the pain of his work strong and magnetic. Antonioni was famous for raising questions he did not answer, for vague characters and complex, rambling plots that often left the audience confused. In the truest vein of an artist, he did not care, focusing instead on the beauty of his landscapes and his characters pain.

While the world of filmmaking has made extraordinary advances in technology and technique, it is imperative upon the death of these three men to recognize their collective contributions, and to hold tight to the memory of their work. Without their daring, innovative styles modern filmmakers like Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and so many others could not be what they have become – the world of film in general is a darker place today with them gone.

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