Monday, June 21, 2010

Michelangelo Antonioni: Under the Microscope

In honor of the long-awaited, upcoming Criterion release of Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) tomorrow (6/22/10), I decided to finally continue with my Director's Corner series. Enjoy!

Michelangelo Antonioni ranks right up there with Eric Rohmer in the pantheon of directors who are reviled by many moviegoers for being boring.

Despite this similarity in mainstream audience response, Rohmer toiled in obscurity while Antonioni was an internationally-renowned auteur who spent his free time in bed with internationally-renowned beauties and made exactly the sort of movies he wanted. Antonioni was even courted by both the Brits and the Yanks, back when Americans still thought Europeans were cool.

The strangest thing about this drastic difference in fortune compared to that of Rohmer is that Antonioni's movies are even slower than those of Rohmer. To give you an example, one of my favorite Antonioni scenes involves three characters who hardly say a word to each other--and one of them is an oscillating fan.


Well, I guess that is why you are either in his court or you aren't. Some people would be bored, longing for the simplicity of Martin Lawrence or maybe Woody Allen's fusillade of dialogue, while others see the beauty in that scene, in slowly discovering the human emotions laid bare on the faces of the actors, in the minutiae of their movements, in the unspoken words hanging menacingly from their lips, in the brilliance of the lighting/framing/editing, in the screams filling the silence.

Love him or hate him, there is no doubt Antonioni was an artist with a keen eye for style who painted vivid pictures. Delightfully, these pictures did more than tell a story--they were also loaded with politics, social observations, and philosophy. But although he plumbed the depths of humanity, it is important to note that Antonioni rarely took a stand on any issue--like a good documentary filmmaker, he documented, he explored, but he did not judge.

It should not be a surprise, therefore, that Antonioni began his career as a documentary filmmaker. After three years of making popular short documentaries about overlooked corners of Italy--one was about a street cleaner in Rome, one about the people of the Po valley, one about a cable-car ride through the Dolomites, and many more!--Antonioni finally made his feature film debut in 1950, with Story of a Love Affair, which was distributed in both the UK and US (not too shabby), as well as back home in Italy.

With all that in mind, please enjoy this tour of the art of Michelangelo Antonioni. I have tried my best to provide a window into those movies of his I think you will enjoy most, so please keep in mind it is a selected filmography...

The Early Years

Cronaca di un amore (1950)  [aka Story of a Love Affair]
A rich man suspects his wife of cheating and hires a detective to dig around in her past, which ironically results in the reunion of his wife and one of her former lovers, who is an impoverished used car salesman. They plot to kill her husband, but--in classic Antonioni form--the murder never happens, since that is not the point--the point is seeing what drives these people to think murder is a good idea, to see that money more often buys mischievous boredom instead of happiness. Not quite a neorealist film, not quite a noir, this movie involves many elements of both, but is ultimately a movie about money, as Antonioni himself once said. This classic is not as rewarding as his later works, but is an enjoyable deep cut for those who have already seen those movies and want more.

Le amiche (1955)  [aka The Girlfriends]
This movie is a bit dated and slow to develop, but really improves on the home stretch. Essentially, it is a fictionalized documentary about the changing roles of women in the 1950s. They were working, they were accumulating money, they were having one-night stands, affairs--they were flexing their muscles and exerting control in situations where they were historically passive. All that aside, the story is told by men and seemed a bit sexist to me at first blush, but when I tried to break down what it was saying and compared it to my experiences with women, with the situations even modern women find themselves in...I think it is pretty accurate to what women went through. The best thing I can compare it to is a 1950's Italian version of the relationships explored in Sex and the City, except this is much better than that. The story centers on four women, some of whom let their feelings for men dominate their lives, some of whom toy with men, and some who are conflicted. Nobody is smarter than the others, the story is just a slice of their complicated lives and, more than any other movie of Antonioni's, this one betrays his documentary roots. Much like Cronica di un amore, I would save this for after you have viewed his later movies.

Il grido (1957) [aka The Cry]
This one is my favorite of Antonioni's early dramatic efforts. He moved one step closer to the great artist he became, as this is the first movie he made that utilized silence to great effect (his earlier efforts had much more dialogue). After finding out that the legitimate husband of his lover of seven years has died in Australia, the hero, Aldo (played--oddly--by American actor Steve Cochran), is excited about the chance to legitimize their affair, but is instead cast aside in favor of another man. An emotional wreck, Aldo decides to leave his job and wander around the Po Valley with his daughter, trying to fill the hole in his heart with a series of other women who never measure up--a former lover, a gas station owner, and an impoverished prostitute. While certainly rife with depressing scenes, Il grido is a beautiful exploration of the psychology of a spurned lover.

Coming into His Own

L'avventura (1960) [aka The Adventure]
This movie was the start of something big, why Antonioni came to eventually own 1960s cinema, in my opinion. Combining the bourgeois women of Le amiche with the quiet, self-reflective, confused, and unresolved journey of Aldo in Il grido, Antonioni found his magical formula. L'avventura centers on a character played by Antonioni's real-life muse--the luscious fox Monica Vitti--who accompanies a beautiful friend of hers on a little boat trip with her boyfriend and a bunch of wealthy layabouts. When the friend disappears on a (nearly) deserted island, her boyfriend quickly moves on to Monica Vitti and the two embark on a half-hearted search for the missing babe, following up a series of questionable leads. Do they ever find her? Who cares. The point here is not the destination, but what you discover along the journey. The first time I saw this movie, I was extremely disappointed (nothing happens!), but my appreciation for it increased notably upon second viewing, when I was prepared for nothing to happen and instead soaked up the beauty of the details. My favorite character (albeit a minor one) is the wealthy owner of the boat, Corrado, who utters one of my favorite lines in the movie, regarding his wife: "Giulia is like Oscar Wilde. Give her all the luxuries and she will manage without the little necessities."

To give you an example of the polarizing reaction to L'avventura, here is an excerpt from the informative Taschen book on Antonioni:
The response of the audience at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival was boos, laughter, catcalls, and exaggerated yawning noises. But the next morning, 37 writers and artists, including Roberto Rossellini, sent an open letter praising the film and condemning the previous night's noisy reception. The film was given a special jury prize 'for its remarkable contribution toward the search for a new cinematic language.'
Although still divisive, the movie went on to international box office and critical success. Coulda been worse...

La notte (1961) [aka The Night]
This is the second film in Antonioni's holy trilogy, and although it is excellent, it doesn't quite make my top three. After L'avventura catapulted him to international art-world acclaim, Antonioni could get any actor he wanted, so he got Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, all the while retaining the services of his muse, Monica Vitti. Once again the milieu is disaffected upper class lovers in an indescribable funk. Something is wrong in Marcello and Jeanne's marriage, but they don't really know what it is. Since it is what they do, they go to yet another boring party one night and both flirt with an affair, but ultimately stay true to one another and make love on the rich host's golf course at dawn. As you can see, there isn't much there as far as plot goes, but there is plenty of rich detail to enjoy and plenty of realism when you compare their mysteriously ailing relationship to one you may have been in, one that a friend of yours has been in, or one those people at the other table in the restaurant are in. This one is definitely worth watching.

L'eclisse (1962) [aka The Eclipse]
This is my favorite of all of Antonioni's movies. Yes, it is the one with the oscillating fan. It also, surprisingly, illustrates the allure and danger of the stock market better than any other movie I have seen (Wall Street can't hold a fucking candle). It also, unsurprisingly, contains a pitch-perfect performance from willowy, capricious Monica Vitti, who shines as the restless, fiercely-independent object of two successful men's lust. The movie opens with her telling her boyfriend/boss that their affair is over and he has trouble facing the truth. She hangs with her mom, who is obsessed with the stock market, meets her mom's handsome young broker (Alain Delon), parties with her girlfriends in blackface, chases dogs down the street at midnight, flies in an airplane, witnesses the collapse of the stock market, falls for Alain Delon, and ultimately decides to go it alone. In one of the best endings to a relationship I've ever seen, they arrange to meet at a street corner the next day and neither one of them shows up. Monica Vitti has a number of fantastic lines (I mean, she does break the hearts of two men in this movie), but two I remember distinctly are both offered to Alain Delon's character and help to flesh out the uncomfortable indecision that pulsates through this movie:
"I wish I loved you more or not at all."
"Why do we ask so many questions? Two people shouldn't know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But, then, maybe they shouldn't fall in love at all."

Il deserto rosso (1964) [aka Red Desert]
Antonioni's first venture in color, Il deserto rosso, is remarkable if only for its hauntingly beautiful industrial-scape visuals. Deliberate use of color and shallow depth of field help paint the picture of Giuliana's debilitating, chronic delirium and suffocation. An annoyingly noisy soundtrack adds to the effect, but sadly, that effect is ultimately far too irritating and resulted in me not liking this movie very much.

I understand what Antonioni was going for--the movie allows us to share Giuliana's pain, confusion, frustration, etc. However, much like Giuliana hates that feeling, so the audience hates this feeling. Roman Polanski tried a similar effect with Repulsion the very next year, to much better effect.

Despite the fact that L'eclisse and L'avventura are filled with pent-up frustration, bourgeois ennui, lust, and little plot, they always seem to be going somewhere, and even if they don't ever arrive at a destination, the ride remains enjoyable and full of meaning--maybe even more so for their deliberate, realistic lack of a firm resolution.

Il deserto rosso, however, teems with frantic confusion, constant complaining, even less plot, unlikable characters, and an intermittent soundtrack that may as well be nails-on-a-chalkboard. Sure, there is symbolism aplenty, but symbolism is lost when the audience does not care one way or another what happens to anyone in the movie. Toward the end, I found myself wishing for Giuliana to kill herself in some fantastic display, or offer herself as a prostitute on a cargo ship sailing for points unknown. Anything would have been better than more pointless and vague complaining, more endless scenes devoid of any kind of satisfaction.

Perhaps my opinion will change on a second viewing (as it did with L'avventura)--especially since it will be of a new and crisp Criterion transfer--but my fear is that this movie represents a high point in Antonioni's arrogance (perhaps only surpassed by Zabriskie Point, which deservedly lost millions of dollars and nearly tanked his career). In the world of cinema--even art cinema--entertainment value should always supercede philosophy, social commentary, and intellectual symbolism because if the audience is not entertained, they are not listening, they are not watching, and therefore all else is irrelevant. Suffice it to say, I'm grateful that Antonioni returned to form after this disappointing endeavor, albeit briefly (with Blow-Up and Professione: Reporter).

The International Years

Blow-Up (1966)
Blow-Up is by far the most Pop Art and accessible of Antonioni's movies; it is unsurprisingly also his most successful. He loved London and wanted to make a movie there, so he did, as part of a three-picture deal with MGM. He soaked up all the mod '60s London had to offer and came up with a strange mystery involving photos taken accidentally by a swinging professional photographer--and plenty of sex, drugs, and confusion to get in the way of a resolution. The movie is definitely highly stylized and polished, with some great moments, but I have always been disappointed by it for some reason. Maybe because it is in color, in swinging London, and full of sex and drugs, I want it to be a different kind of movie than it is, I want there to be a tidy resolution. And even more sex.

Zabriskie Point (1970)
I'm sure I can't make the call as to which is better, so I'll just sit on the fence and say Zabriskie is tied with Five Easy Pieces for the best ending I have ever seen in a movie. It is a movie about the 1960s counterculture revolution in America and so it is understandably scattered, confused, and dangerous, but--unfortunately true to the revolution our Baby Boomers never fully consummated--it is ultimately disappointing. There is some interesting footage at a meeting of radical college students and the ensuing uprising, but it goes on too long. There is beautiful desert scenery, but beautiful desert scenery does not a movie make. There is a crazy orgy sequence in the desert that also goes on too long--can you imagine ever saying that? The two main characters are attractive but completely uninteresting, which is no doubt a result of Antonioni using untrained actors for some reason. My favorite parts of the movie take place in a random office building and a fabulous desert home, after a sexy young secretary comes in for her first day of work and the boss invites her out to his house to seduce her at a meeting with some clients. Unlike Antonioni's previous efforts, there is just too much waiting in Zabriskie that feels like...well, waiting; waiting for some kind of payoff that never happens. Although, ultimately, I find Zabriskie Point misguided and boring, there are some fantastic scenes in it that make viewing it at least once a worthwhile endeavor, so I recommend renting it and giving it a go, but don't expect to be blown away.

Professione: reporter (1975) [aka The Passenger]
The Passenger is my favorite of Antonioni's later films and the last good one he made that I have seen. It is also Jack Nicholson's favorite film that he worked on, for all you trivia buffs out there. In fact, thanks to him and his largesse, the original negative was cleaned up and a beautifully-restored DVD sits on my shelf, complete with a fantastic commentary track by Jack himself. All that aside, the two things I like most about The Passenger are the gorgeous locations/set-design and the rhythm of the story. It begins in the desert of Africa, as Jack chases down a radical leader in hiding. Dialogue is sparse, everything and everyone moves at a glacial pace, and the viewer has almost no idea what is going on. Comparing the opening third of the movie to the rest--after Jack fakes his own death, adopts the identity of somebody he barely knew, and heads out on a tour of Spain with Maria Schneider--it seems almost absurd that you are watching the same movie. Toward the end, after the requisite bit of delightfully unresolved intrigue, the pace of the story once again slows to an African pace and ends beautifully with a legendary seven-minute shot that took Antonioni and his crew eleven days to film. Jack Nicholson is fantastic and effortlessly carries the movie on his famous eyebrows. Maria Schneider is perfectly beguiling in her role as 'The Girl.' In fact, there really isn't anything not to like about this movie.

Final Analysis

Okay, okay--you're interested in diving headfirst into some Antonioni stew, but what should you see first? Which ones should you avoid?

I hear ya, which is why I compiled the handy quick-reference list below for your reference:

The Litmus Test

L'eclisse - If you don't enjoy this movie, then you probably don't like Antonioni

The Greats
Professione: Reporter

The Very-Goods
La notte
Il grido

Skip Unless You're Curious or a Completist
Cronaca di un amore
Le amiche
Zabriskie Point
Il deserto rosso

Haven't Seen Yet, Available on DVD
Identificazione di una donna (1982)

Haven't Seen Yet, Unavailable on DVD

I vinti (1953)

La signora senza camelie (1953)

Probably Never Will See, You Should Do the Same
Gente del Po (1943-47) [9 minute doc short about residents along the river Po]
N.U. (1948) [9 minute doc short about Roman street sweepers]
L'amorosa menzogna (1949) [10 minute faux-doc short about the making of a comic-book movie]
Superstizione (1949) [9 minute doc short about rural Italian superstitions]
Sette canne, un vestito (1949( [10 minute doc short about the manufacture of rayon]
La villa dei mostri (1950) [10 minute doc short about the Villa Orsini]
La funivia del Faloria (1950) [10 minute doc short about a funicular]
Tentato suicido (1953) [20 minute documentary about suicide]
Prefazione: Il provino (1965) [20 minute faux-doc about the Queen of Iran's attempt to become an actress)
Chung Kuo Cina (1972) [doc mini-series about China]
Il mistero di Oberwald (1980) [feature based on a Cocteau play]
Ritorno a Lisca Bianca (1983) [10 minute short about the island in L'avventura]
Fotoromanza (1984) [music video for the song by Gianna Nannini]
Kumbha Mela (1989( [18 minute doc short about an Indian religious festival]
Roma (1990) [8 minute short on Rome for a combo film of 12 stories]
Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, Carnevale (1992) [8 minute doc about the famous Italian islands]
Al di la delle nuvole (1995)
Sicilia (1998) [10 minute short about Sicily]
Lo sguardo di Michelangelo (2004) [15 minute doc about Antonioni's visit to Michelangelo's tomb]
Il filo pericoloso delle cose (2004) [30 minute short about a man who desires 2 women]

Hopefully this exhaustive guide will help you navigate your way through the catalog of one of my favorite directors of all time. For a list of other directors I whose work I adore, check out my controversial Top 16 Directors of All-Time.



Karl said...

I haven't seen all of these, maybe half. I pretty much agree with everything you say, though I'm a little more forgiving of Zabriskie Point's flaws than most people are. So many amazing little sequences and shots in it...

Which kind of sums up how I feel about most Antonioni movies. Sure, they can be tedious at times, but by the end, you've been stuffed full of more stuff than you can easily digest. They're all like huge feasts. I also tend to come out of one of his movies thinking, "That was interesting, but I'll probably never want to sit through it again," only to be thinking about it and wanting to watch it again half a year later...

Goodtime Charlie said...

I also have a fondness for certain sequences of "Zabriskie Point," and I will certainly watch it again more than once in my lifetime, but it just doesn't measure up to his best work, hence my disappointment with what could have been a fantastic movie.

I think you make a good point about the effect Antonioni can have on an unsuspecting viewer--it's like a sneak attack on the senses, on the dark corners of your mind, that takes some time to sink in. I think that's why so many of them improve upon a second viewing.

Might have to give "Red Desert" another chance on DVD this week...