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Films and filmmakers

08/01/07 5:55PM By Jay Craven

(HOST) Lately the news has been full of headlines about films and film makers. And commentator Jay Craven has been thinking about the interesting - and sometimes surprising - cultural influences that some of them share.

(CRAVEN) The recent deaths of master film directors Michaelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman prompted me to think about inspiration, spirituality - and the Simpsons.

Antonioni initially drew his cinematic inspiration from the neo-realists but he then helped lead Italian cinema away from those films about harsh post-war social conditions. Instead, he made pictures like Il Grido and L'Aventura that probed the souls and psyches of people blindly navigating a bleak industrial landscape. Inspired by existentialist writers like Beckett, Camus and Sartre, Antonioni's stark visuals and emotionally alienated characters broke ground on screen.

As a 16 year old, I saw Antonioni's "Blow Up" at a rural Pennsylvania drive-in. With its vivid depiction of the swinging 60's London fashion scene, the film overflows with tantalizing creative ambiguities. In it, a photographer discovers that his casual image of two lovers in a park may, in its background, reveal evidence of a murder. "Blow-Up's" open-ended and even opaque subtexts and sexy, stylish surfaces convinced me, on the spot, that I wanted to make movies.

Through films like "The Seventh Seal," "Wild Strawberries" and "Scenes from a Marriage", Ingmar Bergman tackled urgent moral questions and probed the soul of a post-modern world. His films differed from Antonioni's but revealed similarly troubled people, haunted by memories, dreams, unresolved emotions, and a quest to determine the presence or absence of God. In Antonioni's world, characters were often motivated by desire but their lives were largely devoid of love. Intimate relationships fascinated Bergman and he investigated them for insight into love's deepest and often painful meanings.

So, what could all this possibly have to do with the Simpsons? I mean, Simpson's creator Matt Groening appears to draw from the 50's sitcom The Honeymooners, Hannah-Barbera's Flintstones, and the madcap world of Rocky and Bullwinkle - not the grim writings of Sartre and Camus.

But the Simpsons' world includes an Antonioni-style industrial landscape and Homer and Marge's relationship faces challenges like those that Bergman also conjured. Groening treats it satirically but the layered meanings in the Simpsons have spawned books linking the series to philosophers ranging from Aristotle, Nietzsche, and Marx, to, yes -- Sartre. There's a book on religion, too, arguing how the Simpsons promotes discussion of religion and family ethics. In the new movie, Homer protests a trip to church arguing that he'd prefer to practice religion the way lots of other people do - by praying non-stop on his death bed.

Bergman and Antonioni's passing marks the end of an era. They pioneered aesthetic and cultural expressions that will resonate for generations, even though their films are rarely watched today. Simpsons creator Matt Groening operates on Charlie Chaplin's dictum that good comedy requires a laugh every 30 seconds. Despite his deft comic touch, however, I think Groening is a direct - if unlikely - descendent of these now departed cinema pioneers - who opened unconventional ways to engage and critique our modern world.

Filmmaker Jay Craven teaches at Marlboro College and directs Kingdom County Productions.
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