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The deaths of Bergman and Antonioni end a great chapter in film history

The world of cinema mourned the passing of two titans last week. Ingmar Bergman was 89, Michelangelo Antonioni 94. Front page obituaries celebrated their accomplishments and the nightly news tossed up 30-second clips of "The Seventh Seal" (Bengt Ekerot's Death coldly moving his pawn) and "Blow-Up" to remind us of their greatness.

The two filmmakers almost seemed relevant again.

In truth, they're anything but. The hallowed days of post-World War II art-house cinema -- that period from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s when people went to the movies expecting metaphysical transcendence to go with their popcorn -- is long gone, and all the Criterion DVDs in the world won't bring it back.

I was reminded of this the morning Bergman died, as I put together the Globe obituary. One of our department interns -- a 20-year-old student who knows her pop history better than most -- admitted she'd never actually seen any of his movies. After a pause, she confessed she'd always confused Ingmar Bergman with Ingrid Bergman, and what did he actually do?

The next day was worse: She hadn't heard of Antonioni at all.

I relate this not to beat up on the intern -- whose only crime, after all, is youth -- but to underline that culture moves on, that today's artistic rebel is tomorrow's old fart, and that the ground beneath cinema's feet has irrevocably shifted since Bergman and Antonioni were in their prime.

Can "Persona" and "The Passenger" speak to college students today? Of course they can -- if you can get them to consider the films in the first place. But why should they when there are so many movies unspooling right under their noses? There's a new Wes Anderson coming out in the fall and bleeding-edge videos to watch on YouTube, and that Irish rock musical you still haven't seen, not to mention the Korean horror flick, and, wait, they've re-edited "Grindhouse" as two separate films for DVD.

All things an attuned young moviegoer should attend to, and that's the tip of the iceberg. Yes, Bergman and Antonioni also made movies you had to see to be culturally conversant -- 40 years ago. The Swede's last major work was "Fanny and Alexander," in 1982. Antonioni's was "The Passenger," in 1975. I don't think my intern's parents were out of high school by then.

The more pressing question is one of the past: What place does cinema's back catalog have for today's filmgoer? What place should it have?

The answer used to be obvious. If you wanted to see an old movie three decades ago -- and you were lucky enough to live in a big city -- you went to a revival theater and joined the worshipers at the altar. The art houses played new work, too, by Bergman and Antonioni and Godard and Buñuel and dozens of other once-necessary names. They were churches of cinema. No wonder the films were so serious.

The video revolution killed off the revival houses and the community that went with them. Ironically, it's far easier to find older movies today -- the DVDs are right there on Amazon, and the prints are great -- but you have to watch them on your own. What was once a vibrant communal experience has become a solitary pursuit. As with so many other things in the 21st century, movie history is a Balkanized casualty of an attention-deficit culture.

Also vanished is a sense of higher purpose in filmgoing. You didn't walk out of "The Seventh Seal" talking about the movie, you came out talking about life. The great art-house and foreign-language classics of the '50s, '60s, and '70s were good, and they were good for you. But that makes them sound like medicine now, and who wants that when there's so much tasty fast food available?

Today's must-see directors (the Coen brothers, Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, many others) get at their truths through whimsy and trickiness. They know we need the spoonful of sugar, and they're skilled at amusing us. The ironic detachment that the great post-war directors saw as a symptom of malaise has become the primary way of doing business.

So if the Globe intern and her hipster friends do get around to checking out Bergman's "The Virgin Spring," say, or Antonioni's "Blow-Up," the slow pacing and high seriousness may seem even more foreign than the language. Perhaps they'll get bored and switch back to "Entourage."

Or perhaps not. Maybe they'll be inspired to dive deeper and rediscover Fellini, Ozu, the French New Wave, the German renaissance of the '70s -- a cinematic past with forgotten claims on the present. Maybe they'll recognize these films as the products of a time when movies weren't afraid to tackle the big questions. Maybe they'll wonder what we're scared of today.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe .com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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