View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.