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The Tentacle


August 8, 2007

Playing Chess with God

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last week the world of cinematography lost two of its great artisans in one day. On July 30 Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and Italian modernist film director Michelangelo Antonioni passed away.

Both directors, in their own, but different and often controversial, methodology, helped bring the world of the big screen to an elevated appreciation in the world of art, at a pivotal moment when film was in its awkward adolescent years. They proved that film art could be as meaningful, relevant, and poetic as literature.

Their loss is the endnote of a bygone era of gravitas only matched by the likes of Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder - all now gone.

Mr. Bergman was the son of a Lutheran pastor who endured a severe childhood dominated by guilt and punishment. Numerous references note that "Bergman recounted the horror of being locked in a closet and the humiliation of being made to wear a skirt as punishment for wetting his pants."

It is prophetic that his first venture into the world of cinematography was in 1944 when he penned the screenplay for "Torment."

I first noticed his genius in the mid 1970s with the epic "Scenes From a Marriage," in which the camera voyeuristically intruded upon "Marianne and Johan" as they "separate, engage in extramarital affairs, bond, re-bond and eventually divorce. Their relationship continues after the divorce. though they argue most of the time," according to an old yellowed movie review in my files.

Not to be forgotten is Mr. Bergman's 1982 Oscar winning movie "Fanny and Alexander" or his 1973 "Cries and Whispers."

Then, who can forget the final scene of "The Seventh Seal," in which the main protagonist, a knight in the era of the Black Plague, is left playing chess with "the shrouded caricature representing Death."

The knight asks Death, "Why can't I kill God within me? Why does he live on in this painful and humiliating way even though I curse him and want to tear him out of my heart? Why, in spite of everything, is he a baffling reality that I can't shake off? Do you hear me?"

To which Death eerily responds, "Yes, I hear you."

In 1942, Mr. Antonioni co-wrote his first screenplay, "Un pilota ritorna," with Roberto Rossellini. Throughout the 1940s he made a number of short "neo-realist" - semi-documentary movies about the day-to-day existentialism and angst of the quiet desperation of ordinary folks.

He directed his first feature length production in 1950, "Cronaca di un amore," in which he showed an early pre-occupation with moral relativism and social alienation, by which, according to several published accounts, the film explored varying feelings of guilt, remorse, and responsibility "for two ambiguous (if not - incidental) deaths."

But he is best known in the U.S. for his 1966 award winning film, "Blowup." It is perhaps the most accessible of all his movies and yet, nevertheless, maintains more than a modicum of substance.

Although both directors had a dysfunctional relationship with God, Mr. Antonioni had no conflict with the abject severity of his bleak and godless world; whereas Mr. Bergman actively wrestled with God, psychologically, figuratively and, in some instances, literally, throughout his career.

Indeed, it was fascinating to see the word "God" used in so many post mortem visits upon the life and works of both artists. A point also noticed in a recent commentary by Dr. Peter Steinfels, who writes a biweekly column for the New York Times called "Beliefs."

Mr. Rothstein noted that Michiko Kakutani wrote in a 1983 profile that for Mr. Bergman "God is either silent or malevolent; men and women are creatures and prisoners of their desires."

Messrs. Antonioni and Bergman stand in sharp contrast with our contemporary superficial world. A universal existence the length of three news cycles in which the media is pre-occupied with the drivel and scatological remains of sniveling Hollywood types and images of lightweight, second-rate thinkers on the political scene.

These two film directors engaged in mortal combat on the big screen with the big questions of the day: mortality, morality, faith, existence, relationships, despair, love, lust and betrayal.

Yet we live in an era in which the fragility of the major characters in the media identify their very existence by their arrogant narrow political worldview, absent of any humanity and are quickly mortally wounded when challenged by perceived slights.

In an interesting parallel, touched upon by Dr. Steinfels, both film directors saw God as replaced by a post-religious modernism depicted by their detached amoral purposeless characters, and their hopeful fascination with fulfillment by superficial pursuits to an end that ultimately has no real meaning.

As Dr. Steinfels puts it: ".in their films those hopes regularly prove fleeting, illusory or betrayed by human (usually male) weakness."

Mr. Antonioni is mentioned frequently for utilizing a "series of apparently disconnected events" instead of the conventional linear dialogue as the narrator approach to telling a story.

It can be easily argued that advancing age and a working knowledge of both directors helps one to dissect the silly moral relativism and ambiguity of today's media and secular progressives with their pre-occupation with the urgency of superficiality accompanied by the obligatory rage.

Much of the contemporary script in public discourse is centered on the successfully disconnected obfuscation of the profound questions of a complex world with specious solutions offered in the pursuit of perception instead of performance. "We failed, but we'll put out a press release that says we really won."

Mr. Bergman is no longer with us to place a main character up against a stark white backdrop as an elliptical dialogue peals away the layers of life's big questions.

Perhaps, in today's constant march towards superficial solutions in a bleak secular progressive landscape, we're just playing chess with God.

But alas, all is not lost. Life may be inherently meaningless, but in our resolve to make it purposeful, lighten-up, ain't none of us going to get out of here alive.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: kdayhoff@carr.org



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