In the midst of having read the news about the recent Golden Globe Awards and preparing for the upcoming Academy Awards, I watched this film on the life of the great director, Ingmar Bergman.
All this has brought me to a strong hypothesis that I would like to explore in this short essay. It is this: we had a golden age of film in roughly the decades of the 1950s to the early1970s. And, despite all the money and technological advantages that have since been brought to bear, we have slipped badly and find ourselves in an age of film that is mediocre and both thin and bloated compared to that of the golden age.
Though I have seen films in the last few decades that I admire, I will leave it to the reader to advocate for them against some of the films from the past that I will discuss. Some new films surely merit inclusion in a list of greats, but that some, I think, is very few. Further, I realize that the times and fashions of the day, most younger folks might argue, would lead to the view that more recent directors and their films are more compelling and relevant to the current generation. Plus, some will argue that the excellence that was achieved in film 50 years ago has shifted to other, more currently desirable video media today. I recognize and acknowledge all that. But as to artfulness and enduring power, I simply do not think even the best of today holds up to the best of the golden age.
My effort here is simply to look back at the golden age and identify ten of its many extraordinary directors, lay out a few of their films, and invite a counter-argument that would show convincingly that directors of, say, the last 25 years match up. Further, I will only look at foreign film directors because, while we have had great American directors, it is the rise in quality of films abroad during the golden age that is most notable and spectacular, and its fall that is most regrettable.
- Ingmar Bergman. I might try in another essay to make the case that there was no figure in 20th century arts who generally matched this giant. But that argument is for another day. Further, as with the other top directors, it would take 500,000 words, not 500, to properly consider their remarkable contribution. But, at least, think of Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal in their treatment of life and death; Fanny and Alexander, on childhood, family, ghosts, and life; Persona and Cries and Whispers, on the psyche, emotions, faith, redemption; The Virgin Spring, on cruelty and evil on the most personal level; and The Magic Flute, on the simplicity of beauty, music, love.
- Akira Kurosawa was a true giant in film, perhaps matched by no one except Bergman. Think, among many of his great films, of Rashomon, that classic of crime and the uncertainty of truth; Ikiru, on the matter of loneliness and the desire for company and meaning at death; Ran, on epic battle; and The Seven Samurai.
- Federico Fellini. (As I think of Fellini, I wonder at my folly of getting into this game of comparing the giants.) Think of La Dolce Vita, on the moral rot and cynicism that began the current era; 8 1/2, on the mix of ego, creativity, fame, control in the artist; and Amarcord, as fantastic a tale on coming-of-age as there is.
- Francois Truffaut. Think of The 400 Blows, on hardship, poignancy, and reality in childhood; Jules and Jim, on the mystery of love; The Wild Child, on the primitive, with issues of nature/nurture.
- Yasujiro Ozu. Think of Floating Weeds, among others, on core truths of people and family.
- Vittorio De Sica. Think of The Bicycle Thief – dispassionate, realistic, poignant, heartbreaking account of people/family in hard times; and The Garden of the Finzi Contini, a lovely, haunting tale of fascism and its price in personal terms.
- Jacques Tati. (There should be a playful, deeply comedic director in the bunch.) Think of Playtime, a crazy, comic, always-timely account of the modern city.
- Kenji Mizoguchi. While I play too easily with the idea of “the best of the best,” I acknowledge the strength of the argument that Mizoguchi is the best. Think of Sansho Dayu, with the extraordinary imagery and composition in its account of family tragedy; and Ugetsu, a gentle, heartbreaking “ghost” story,” ethereal, mysterious.
- Jean-Luc Godard. For those who are forever into “cool,” here’s the true parent of cool. (Who needs the final two hours of a “cool movie” to be senseless violence, Quentin Tarantino? Sorry to break my own rule.) Think, among so many others, of Breathless, on the amorality, deconstruction/worship of Hollywood genres.
- Michelangelo Antonioni. Of so many of his remarkable films, think of The Eclipse, on the struggle between materialism and idealism.
Okay, there’s my list of the top ten directors of foreign films from the golden era. Keeping in mind that the criteria are artistry, the power of showing life’s truths, and enduring quality, I invite all comers to pick another era’s directors and beat it.