Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seven Syllables

Vernon Young once said that the names of some Italian filmmakers - Vittorio De Sica, Federico Fellini, and Mario Monicelli - had an incantatory magic for him. That was in the 1950s, when the Italian film was arguably the most vital national industry in the world. By the early 1960s, when the French New Wave burst onto the scene, film had clearly come into its own as the art of the 20th century.

But it may well go down as exclusively a 20th century art. In his premonitory 1999 essay, "The Death of Film, The Decay of Cinema", Godfrey Cheshire mourned the physical death of the celluloid medium (being gradually replaced by digital) and the disappearance of films that were formally comparable to the best films of the fifties and sixties, to the sophisticated mastery of Smiles of a Summer Night, L'Avventura, and Red Beard.

All the old masters, who had been young in the fifties, are either dead or incapacitated by age. Kurosawa died in 1998. Bergman and Antonioni died on the same day, July 30, 2007. All three had won a few Golden Palms and Lions and Bears along the way. Antonioni and Kurosawa got an honorary Oscar, or what I like to call the Golden Bowling Trophy.

I have gone back over this old ground because of the presentation last week at the 64th Annual Cannes Film Festival of an honorary Palm d'Or to Bernardo Bertolucci. Seven syllables as well. But no more magic. His film The Last Emperor won nine Oscars in 1987. Gaining "unprecedented" access to Beijing's Forbidden City during filming, it is a fair representation of Bertolucci's mind - filled with extravagant nic-nacs but uninhabited by ideas.

Looking back at the twenty-three films with which he is credited, the only thing that distinguishes most of them is how egregiously silly they are. Thank goodness that giving Bertolucci such a prestigious award doesn't mean there is a paucity of Old Masters still living. There are, of course, several that fit the bill far better than Bertolucci, such as Ermanno Olmi (b.1931), Bertrand Tavernier (b.1941), Ken Loach (b.1936), and Jan Troell ((b.1931). Their works aren't merely pretty or flashy or facetious. Their only weakness is that they aren't nearly as well-publicized. They require intelligence and discrimination to be appreciated - qualities that are conspicuously scarce in places like Cannes.

At the end of his review of Stealing Beauty (1996), Stanley Kauffmann wrote: "Something else becomes clear about Bertolucci. When a career is so heavily
laden with vacuous artiness, so full of inadequately examined choices, so emptily assumptive of superiority, a hard fact looms. Fundamentally, under the chi-chi, Bertolucci is stupid."* Giving Bertolucci an honorary Palm d'Or shows how even mistaken judgements can sometimes be written in stone (or, in this case, chiseled on crystal) rather than on the wind.

*Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic, 24 June 1996.

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