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Ten Pop Culture References to Antonioni and Bergman

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By Aaron Hillis, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore

IFC News

[Photo: “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” Orion Pictures, 1991]

The world lost two of its greatest filmmakers on July 30th, when Ingmar Bergman and then Michelangelo Antonioni passed away. The directors defined a type of serious arthouse film, and both have had immeasurable impact on cinema and on pop culture… but, like many artists whose work can be described as challenging, more people know of their work than actually know it. Then again, even the most subtitle-adverse person has had unintentional brushes with Bergman and Antonioni — their films have seeped inexorably into the popular consciousness. Below are ten (and more) songs, shorts, movies, shows and novels that pay tribute to the pair’s work.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

One would think that the last place you’d find a Bergman reference would be in the mostly inferior sequel to a classic, spectacularly stupid ’80s comedy. And yet, right there in the middle of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” is a shining spoof of the Swede’s lugubrious “The Seventh Seal.” Having perished, our titular heroes elude the pallid, accented — it’d be generous to place it as Scandinavian — Grim Reaper (William Sadler) with the help of a crippling schoolyard maneuver (“I can’t believe we just melvined Death!” they note afterward), only to be caught eventually and tossed into Hell. The pair grasps at their one chance of escape, and challenge Death to a contest. Cut to Bill saying “J-7” and Death admitting from across the table “you haf sank my battleship,” before insisting “best two out of three!” The trio moves on to progressively more ludicrous games, finally settling things after a climactic Twister victory. Chess, it ain’t, but it’s a bit more fun to watch. —Alison Willmore

Caetano Veloso’s Michelangelo Antonioni (2000)

Towards the tail end of 2000, Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso released “Noites Do Norte,” an album heavily influenced by Afro-Cuban drumming and haunted by Brazil’s history of slavery. But incongruously sneaking in at track number six is “Michelangelo Antonioni,” a minimalist evocation of the director’s films achieved through Veloso’s shimmering falsetto and the use of a gentle pulse of violins, arranged by producer Jacques Morelenbaum. No stranger to movie homages, the previous year Veloso had released an album length tribute to another Italian Art film titan, Federico Fellini, with “Omaggio a Federico e Giulietta.” But in order to reflect Antonioni’s austere style, Veloso limits himself to a one verse song that elegantly encapsulates the alienated iconography of the director’s work. It’s short enough to quote the translation (Veloso sings it in Italian) in its entirety: “Vision of silence/Empty street corner/Page with no sentence/Letter written on a face/In stone and mist/Love/A useless window.” As with Antonioni, what may read as cliché when put on paper murmurs with life when experienced. Antonioni admired the song enough to use it in his final film, a section of the omnibus work “Eros” (2004). —R. Emmet Sweeney

Interiors (1978)

Woody Allen’s official statement on Bergman’s death announced that the late master was “certainly the greatest film artist of [his] lifetime.” No shock there: few filmmakers have ever loved other filmmakers with the fervor with which Allen loved Bergman. Though Allen drew inspiration from many great foreign directors, he borrowed the most from good ol’ Ingmar. In 1978, Allen was at the very heights of his power in Hollywood. The most beloved and critically respected comic director of the decade, he’d just won two Oscars for writing and directing the seminal “Annie Hall” (the film itself won Best Picture over “Star Wars”) and could probably do just about anything he wanted. And what he wanted was the chance to prove that despite that New York Jewish exterior and the library of brilliant comedies, that he was, at heart, a dour Swede. 1978’s “Interiors” is an intensely serious portrait of a disintegrating family, and was so thoroughly influenced by Bergman that Vincent Canby wrote that it was “almost as if Mr. Allen had set out to make someone else’s movie.” Of course, this seeming dalliance into contemplative European art cinema became a career-long obsession, one that Allen chased for most of the 1980s, starting with “Stardust Memories,” which appropriates Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” and into the 1990s, as in the similarly themed “Deconstructing Harry.” —Matt Singer

Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma is known for his cinematic recombinants, mostly Hitchcockian concoctions like “Dressed to Kill” (“Psycho,” “Vertigo”) and “Body Double” (“Rear Window,” “Vertigo”). Ironically, his finest film lift is actually “Blow Out,” an ingenious reinvention of Antonioni’s “Blowup.” In the original film, a photographer unwittingly stumbles on evidence of a murder in his pictures; in De Palma’s version, the hero, played by John Travolta, is a soundman working in sleazy horror pictures. Out recording natural sounds for his latest project, Travolta witnesses a car accident he comes to realize is far more sinister than it first appeared to be. Befitting his interests, Antonioni’s version was a philosophical exploration into the nature of perception; De Palma’s (which, I must admit, I’m partial to) is more paranoid, and more focused on the nature of moviemaking itself; as in the scene where Travolta’s character combines his audio track of the accident with a flipbook of pictures of the crash to create a primitive and exhilarating film of the event. “Blow Out” is a great movie specifically because it doesn’t feel derivative like some of De Palma’s other homage-heavy films. Both versions are completely distinct takes on one source material by two very different filmmakers. —M.S.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Fair enough, Bergman’s first collaboration with cinematographer extraordinaire Sven Nykvist nabbed a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but who could’ve guessed back in 1960 that “The Virgin Spring” (in turn based on a 13th century ballad) would eventually be reconfigured as one of the most notorious grindhouse flicks of all time? Bergman’s distressing original stars loyal regular Max von Sydow as a medieval peasant farmer whose flaxen-haired and, yes, virginal daughter is raped and murdered by mouth harp-playing herdsman on her way to church. Oppressive spiritual guilt is then felt by everyone, from the victim’s half-sister who prayed for her demise to a self-flagellating von Sydow after exacting his bloody revenge on all three baddies, including a sickly child. A dozen years later (but before introducing us to Freddy Krueger or the slasher-deconstructing “Scream” trilogy), a young filmmaker named Wes Craven used his documentary background to grant “The Last House on the Left” a sickening realism, easily the most visceral of his career. On their way to a Bloodlust concert, two teenage girls try to score pot and find themselves in the clutches of an escaped criminal and his gang, who far more brutally rape, torture, humiliate through forced urination, and finally disembowel them, all before one girl’s papa goes (appropriately) medieval on their asses with chainsaws, rifles, and a wicked idea for electrocution. Rather than guilt, Craven’s Vietnam-era parable eulogizes ’60s idealism while setting a path for the breed of torture porn we now see at multiplexes instead of the seedy, edge-of-town theaters they once inhabited. Could an argument be made that Bergman is indirectly to blame for “Captivity,” “Hostel: Part II,” or at least, 2008’s Craven-produced “Last House” remake? —Aaron Hillis

Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)

A young woman vanishes while visiting a small island in the Mediterranean, and both her closest friend and the person she loves drift about hopelessly searching for her. Strange that the closest successor to the elliptical Antonioni of the famous trilogy of “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961) and “L’Eclisse” (1962) is both a novelist and Japanese. Critical darling Haruki Murakami often explores a minor key world of social alienation and subtle surrealism not unlike that of Antonioni, but his 1999 novel “Sputnik Sweetheart,” published in the U.S. in 2001, is a direct and unmistakable salute to “L’Avventura” — it follows the schoolteacher narrator K as he befriends and pines for the bedraggled writer Sumire, only to watch her fall in love with another woman, the sophisticated, distant Miu. While the two are on vacation together on a small Greek island, Sumire essentially evaporates, having impossibly crossed through some veil of reality. But while Sumire’s disappearance remains at least as inexplicable as Anna’s in “L’Avventura,” she and her companions are neither shallow nor plagued with the terrible burden of constant ennui. Instead, they are all fumblingly human, and what haunts them s their failure, despite this, to connect with one another. —A.W.

De Düva: The Dove (1968)

[Watch this on AlterTube.] In 1968, Ingmar Bergman released “Hour of the Wolf” and “Shame,” and both were ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However, a short film entitled “De Düva” (The Dove) was nominated for an Oscar as Best Short Film. A sign of the flood of Bergman parodies to come (and of the subsequent dive in his reputation), it’s a mildly amusing exaggeration of the Swede’s style. The film is subtitled, but speaks in English with a slew of ska’s and nsk’s appended. Its main target is “Wild Strawberries,” with this Professor taking his nature wanderings to a port-a-potty rather than a verdant field. The requisite “Seventh Seal” gag has the Prof’s sister play badminton with Death, after which they run off for some incestuous fun in a lake. It’s mostly forgettable except for the brief appearance of spoof-queen Madeline Kahn, making her film debut. She portrays Sigfrid, the Professor’s cousin, a haughty gal making a play for his sister. Offering her a cigar in a thick Nordic accent she asks, “Phallikin symbol?” —R.E.S.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: The Money Programme (1972)

[Watch this on YouTube.] Antonioni’s cinematic genius wasn’t lost upon even Brits working within the populist medium of TV sketch comedy. In the final three minutes of “The Money Programme” episode, a band of imperial explorers begin to lose hope after getting lost in the jungle. “All that’ll be left of us is a map, a compass, and a few feet of film recording our last moments,” whines Graham Chapman, until they all realize that that logic means someone is indeed filming them. Walking towards the camera, another angle reveals the adventurers shaking hands with a three-man crew. John Cleese speaks up: “If this is the crew who were filming us, who’s filming us now?” A third angle exposes another director, in blackface, who cuts the take and complains in a badly inflected African accent: “How we going to get that feeling of personal alienation of self from society with this load of ‘Bulldog Drummond’ crap? When I was doing ‘La Notte’ with that Monica Vitti gal, she didn’t give me none of this empire-building shit, man.” Soon enough, Inspector Baboon of Scotland Yard’s Special Fraud Film Director’s Squad (Cleese again) enters through a randomly placed door in the greenery: “Not so fast, Akarumba!” The man who is so obviously not Michelangelo Antonioni is arrested for impersonating him, and Baboon begins a lecture on the late master’s oeuvre, from his “largely jettisoning narrative in favor of vague incident and relentless character study” to works like “Cronaca di un amore,” “Le Amiche” and “L’Avventura.” But which film does he rant about most as the credits roll? That would be “L’Cleese”… er, I mean “L’Eclisse.” —A.H.

The Persona Profile Shot

Bergman’s signature shot, with the women of “Persona” poised, one facing forward, the other in profile, their faces melding, may well be “one of the most famous images of the cinema,” as speculated by Roger Ebert. It’s also one of the most copied and referenced, sometimes for fun and sometimes as shorthand for all of “Persona”‘s themes of fragmentation, transference and the blurring of personalities and characters. See the end of Woody Allen’s “Love and Death” (1975) for one; then look to David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.”, which echoes “Persona” thematically until it very deliberately echoes the film in look as well. Catherine Breillat’s “Fat Girl” (2001) wanders into “Persona”‘s territory and imagery as it barrels toward its shock ending, while Almodóvar cribs from Bergman’s shot in “Talk to Her.” And, lest you think this is all and always in seriousness, track down the “Meatballs or Consequences” of mid-’90s cartoon “Animaniacs,” which not only features a checkers duel with Death but also a scene in which Yakko faces the camera while Dot speaks in profile. Welcome to Sweden, land of meatballs and Volvos. —A.W.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

I didn’t even realize that “Austin Powers” included an homage to Antonioni’s “Blowup” until years after I saw the film for the first time in 1997. But to creator and star Mike Myers and director Jay Roach’s credit, their numerous references to Antonioni’s most famous work (particularly in the sexy end credits of the first “Powers,” and in a hilarious photo shoot sequence in the sequel, “The Spy Who Shagged Me”) was, in a funny way, my first introduction to “Blowup,” much as it was my gateway to loads of ’60s cultural landmarks (like “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” or “The Ipcress File”). And if you are going to send up the ’60s, “Blowup,” which practically defined swinging mod culture for a generation, absolutely has to be included. The film is dated now, but in a good way, it feels like a document of a very specific time and place, and an attitude as well. Austin, the ultimate man out of time, is equally dated. —M.S.

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