In the beginning was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, pleached and Proustian, released in February 1960. This was followed soon after, at Cannes in May 1960, by Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which invented slow cinema by taking a Hitchcock premise through a maze with no end. In June the following year, Last Year in Marienbad was released, in which Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet entered the very cauldron where time and experience are formed out of stillness and silence. And Fellini’s 8½, appearing in February 1963, deployed all this and decided at the last (he had two endings) to return us to easy affability, albeit in a circus ring (the alternative, unused ending took his actors into death on an eerie Marienbad train).
Four films, all perfectly realised works of art, all in widescreen, all black and white: in three years the astonishing peak of modernist cinema had been accomplished and everything we understand by ‘film as art’ had been laid down. Despite the nonsense often put forward at the time about portrayals of decadence, we can see clearly in hindsight that they are pagan works, non-censorious, deeply human, ground-breaking and liberating.
It is probably no accident that these new ways of seeing and exploring the world co-incided with the appearance in society of hallucinogenic drugs. Of the four films, Marienbad is the most intellectually notorious, and poses the great question: ‘What on earth have I just seen?’ The film’s mesmeric beauty means the question cannot be brushed aside.
The curators at the Kunsthalle in Bremen recently mounted an exhibition to probe this question; and they have also produced an accompanying book, now published in English translation, which is a work of art in itself. The first half is a collection of essays, with whose proposals I could grow very disputatious; but the texts are printed in white on black paper, which seems to be a metaphor for saying ‘These analyses are only stabs in the dark.