Monday, July 30, 2007

RIP Bergman and Walsh

In atonement for the picture of that idiot Ward Churchill that has been disgracing the page for the past few days, today we bring you a tribute to two truly brilliant men who have left us in the last 24 hours: Ingmar Bergman and Bill Walsh. These are two guys who made it cool to be a nerd before Rivers Cuomo was born. Both were unabashedly intellectual men working in mediums not know for rewarding intellectualism. They redefined their jobs and influenced all that came after them, raising the collective IQ of their chosen professions.

Bergman, of course, was one of the last surviving members of the great generation of post-war international art film directors who created the idea of cinema as a means of personal expression. Bergman was the most cerebral of the bunch, typically not going for the genre film action of Kurosowa or the decadent carnivals of Fellini. But that doesn't mean his films were boring. His major works, such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, grabbed you with their compelling visuals and intense acting, leaving you enthralled even if 90% of the Big Ideas were going over your head. He was more daring than Kurosawa and more consistent than Fellini, and he opened up narrative cinema in the second half of the 20th-century and the early 21st to experimental new directions. All of the most important films of the last decade, from The Matrix to Fight Club, would be impossible without the marriage of philosophy and experimental filmmaking with conventional narrative storytelling that Bergman pioneered.

Walsh did something similar for the sport of football. Until Walsh came along, football coaches from Knute Rockne to Vince Lombardi to Tom Landry fashioned themselves at Patton-esque generals whose power derived from their ability to discipline and inspire large groups of men. Walsh was passed over for NFL head coaching jobs for more than a decade because it was thought he lacked the toughness to be a coach. But when he finally got the chance to take over the lowly San Francisco 49ers, he unveiled the wild experiment he had been tinkering with in his years as an assistant and college coach. His West Coast Offense was built on strategy and precision, with the players as interchangeable moving parts. The personal mythology Walsh built around himself fashioned him as more Bobby Fisher than Patton, winning with innovative strategy rather than brute force. He didn't believe in inspiring "Win one for the Gipper"-style speeches, but instead spent practice and locker room time drilling his playbook into his players' heads. Like Bergman, Walsh's influence has spread everywhere in football. His pass-heavy style has entirely changed the way the game is played, and his quiet cerebral persona is aped by current coaches such as Bill Belicheck and Tony Dungy.

So, in a world where it seems like we are getting dumber and dumber everyday, especially when reading the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, let's take a minute to remember two people who made it cool to be smart.

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