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5 for the Day: Michelangelo Antonioni

For a long time I thought I didn’t get Antonioni.

Photo: Janus Films

For a long time I thought I didn’t get Michelangelo Antonioni. I rejected what I saw—a cool, detached intellectualism—as stuffy pretentiousness. I knew something was happening in L’avventura but I couldn’t articulate my anxious distaste. Also, I was bored. So I let it sit, somewhere behind something else in the recesses I don’t dip into every day and went on enjoying Godard, devouring the French director’s 1960s major works to the point that Antonioni wasn’t even a part of my filmic landscape. The snap and fizz of Godard’s cinema, still a joyous one in that early period, got me nervy with excitement: it was a palpable reaction I could easily pinpoint and much the opposite of the migraine-inducing L’avventura.

Time passed. I read more and began to, at least, understand the appeal of L’avventura (and its director) for some people. “It’s the European answer to Psycho!” is a favorite dubious explanation as it is reductive, audacious, and plain idiotic. Is that really why you like the movie? Not because Monica Vitti’s gaze is mesmerizing? Not because the location photography dazzles the eye? Not because its view of modernity, as an odd magician’s trick that vaporizes individuals, fascinates you? Not because this movie you are watching is actually good? During my first viewing I was floored by Vitti’s eyes, the barren rocks and the looming architecture, but I couldn’t see that those element comprised a social network that habitually fails its inhabitants. I was too disinterested. The film, like its absent primary actress (Lea Massari cedes prominence to Vitti a quarter into the picture), felt unmoored—as lost as its characters. And I couldn’t deal with the vertigo, at first.

My mind changed about L’avventura sometime around seeing The Passenger on DVD. The latter made perfect sense within its network of identity riddles. The embrace of color completely shifted Antonioni’s cinema—or, perhaps more accurately, it shifted my perception of it. The black & white of his earlier films, which ended with L’eclisse, alienates viewers, removing them from the experience. Monochrome offers a focused purity: the absence of color forces us onto the neurotic characters, and them, even more, onto us—which builds a resistance in some viewers.

In Antonioni’s color period, which began with Il Deserto Rosso, there’s an immediate perception in the lie of the camera. Despite his fascination with the architecture of a film, to say its framework, Antonioni never blocks out his space: the space is the image. The camera’s presence is always felt, but it’s used as a documentary tool, simply to capture. The Passenger, then, is an immediate perception of lack—and how its protagonist, a reporter named Locke played by an atypically laconic Jack Nicholson, fills the internal void: by stepping into a dead man’s shoes and leaving his behind, empty. Once I caught a whiff of Antonioni’s structural genius, where every image informs every other one, from the baroque finale to the wobbly handheld opener, his work opened up for me. You must absorb his language, along with peculiarities that are specific to each film, then claw through to the end so that, when the frames empty of humans, you see his world (his cinema) is one defined by its very engagement with each object—individual and unique in itself. His cinema is one not of plot but of pure image, networked together and grounded by words, but alive in its own agency.

The next month was spent with the “Ennui Trilogy” (another reductive, narrow label) of L’avventura, La Notte, and L’eclisse. I more fully grasped L’avventura’s power this time but it still kind of bored me; the tornado is a key moment full of mystery but even that is removed, untouchable. Despite the new respect, and engagement, I doubted this newfound fascination almost immediately. La Notte was yet more insufferable. Didn’t I see this movie before, and better, when Fellini made it and called it—in a celebratory move—La Dolce Vita? I never felt privy to the worlds of those first two films, and I doubt I ever will—and that can’t be considered a failing, because the films are meticulously designed to elicit such a reaction. So I watched L’eclisse: alone and willing to shut it off if it, too, distanced me. And how does it open? Monica Vitti, queen of anxious mugging, rejects her life indoors and walks outside, down into town. I was hooked. Still, as a colleague said, we must admit the film is “freakishly boring” in stretches, if brilliant. It’s how we navigate that boredom that defines our experience, and how we may check it for its consistencies and inconsistencies alike, both with film and life. Another argument I’ve heard in favor of Antonioni (and other “boring” filmmakers like him) is, “Isn’t life boring?” The reductiveness of that statement baffles and tickles me.

My love for the Antonionian cinema was cemented last summer when BAM/Rose Cinemas played a near-complete career retrospective that included not only all his features but most of his shorts, save two. I only saw two films in the series, as time and wallet permitted, but they were unforgettable. One crystallized everything about L’eclisse’s anger in an explosive finale, the opposite of L’eclisse’s calm observation, which the second leaned on for an epic meditation about social contracts and cultural structures, common Antonioni themes made explicit in the documentary form. (Both are listed below.) Now, UC Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive offers Bay Area film fans a more-than-a-month-long dispersal of BAM’s program last summer, only more fractured to fit into the rest of the calendar. The series, “Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni,” debuted with Il Deserto Rosso Friday (March 2nd, 2007) and continues somewhat sporadically on weekends and odd Thursdays until April 22nd, 2007. Below I offer five highlights I would urge any Antonioni doubter to attend, in the order they appear on the calendar.

1. L’eclisse (Friday, March 9th, 2007—7:00pm) Alain Delon is the prettiest man in an Antonioni film—and conspicuously so. He’s so pretty he’s prettier than Vitti, Antonioni’s lover and muse through the early 1960s. Their love is thwarted not by perverse neuroses, as in many previous films (and the next, Il Deserto Rosso), but by their overbearing world that only ensnares them in daily minutia. It’s a love set aside, as if unmanageable in today’s world, eclipsed (yes) by those brilliant cars, manic brokers and rigid towers of modern architecture.

2. L’avventura (Thursday, March 15th, 2007—7:30pm) If only because it’s the one everybody names. At best because its detachment is unrelenting and cruel, an unsympathetic logos but a valid one all the same: the horror of lost identity is precise and ugly and terrifying. In a good way.

3. Zabriskie Point (Saturday, April 7th, 2007—8:30pm) The angriest film Antonioni ever made, with one of the angriest finales I’ve ever seen. Yet its not simply an anti-American screed: the film is dissatisfied with all objects, even those we take for symbols of knowledge, and especially the ones we think of as devoid of thought. This extends to its characters: they hold no keys, they are closed idealists, even the free-love hip-to-it youngsters. Everybody’s got a dogma. At least, of course, until the end when it all goes up in smoke. (Pink Floyd never sounded better or more apt.) It’s that willingness to immolate, to leave it all behind, that liberates the film, and the rest of Antonioni’s career.

4. The Passenger (Friday, April 13th, 2007—8:50pm) Jack Nicholson was never so down on himself. He’s so unhappy he’d rather be dead. Or, appear dead and live on anew. But time is luck in the world of a gunrunner and in this, the closest thing to a thriller Antonioni could possibly make, it’s a stop-watch lollygag to the end. And an end is coming. This finale, while not as flamboyant as Zabriskie Point, will still drop your jaw. (I like to see Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice as a final synthesis of the two, combining the engulfing flames and adrift camera that, respectively, typify each sequence.) And it’s the sense of lost footing, the meandering perspective that defines The Passenger: death is final but forever untethered, much like life, like existence.

5. Chung Kuo Cina (Sunday, April 15th, 2007—2:00pm) Antonioni was invited to China in 1970 and he emerged eight weeks later with so much footage he wound up building a 217 minute (not counting the intermissions) epic testimonial travelogue. Although it originally aired on Italian TV, you won’t find an Italian DVD. There are bootlegs on eBay but they’re usually ports from shitty VHS copies and unworthy of both your well-earned cash & your keeps-on-clicking time. However, this print, from CineCitta, while slightly faded and yellow, is still clean enough to transport you: to place you as the biggest fish ever in the smallest pool imaginable for an outsider. Yet it’s the calmest documentary I’ve seen to date. Even in its most off-putting moments (we watch an entire cesarean section performed in real time, with acupuncture instead of anesthesia) it feels unforced and natural. Again, this is life: distilled moments, seemingly random, that hang together through time as an odd narrative. There is no arc. There is only time, and images.

House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.

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