Must-see Antonioni

Hamish Ford

Alain Delon, Monica Vitti, L’eclisse, 1962

Alain Delon, Monica Vitti, L’eclisse, 1962

The Cannes Film Festival, 1960: 2 hours into a new film, a woman runs down the long corridor of a baroque hotel. Spectators shout “cut, cut!” amid laughter and jeering; Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, the film’s director and star, flee the cinema. A petition circulates the next morning among filmmakers and critics forcing a second screening of what the signatories claim is a radically modern film. L’Avventura eventually receives a special Cannes Jury prize: “For the beauty of its images, and for seeking to create a new film language.” Two years later, Sight and Sound’s international poll proclaims it the second best film of all time.

Four decades later, the 2004 Sydney Film Festival is screening an almost exhaustive retrospective of Antonioni’s work. Since being at the very forefront of progressive ‘art cinema’ in the early 1960s, Antonioni’s reputation has waxed and waned. The festival’s purchase of this retrospective (first put together for Venice in 2002) illustrates a global resurgence of interest in his work. Today films such as L’Eclisse (1962) can be seen as both encapsulating what post-war modernity meant in 1960s Europe, and as a modernist rendering of an imagined future, a science-fiction challenge that has been only partially taken up.

After his impact on art-house film culture in the early 60s, Antonioni subsequently influenced the world of more commercial cinema with his 1966 hit Blowup, a freakish art/pop box-office success many directors sought to emulate. The film exemplifies why Antonioni films should be watched on the big screen with a good print: while Blowup looks merely dated on video, its precise sound-image compositions and framing provide the key to Antonioni’s subtle investigation of technology’s ability to render truth. With new 35mm prints, you can see the incredible depth and architectural detail that make up space as framed by Antonioni’s camera, and our eyes and minds are given time to glean thematic content from the canvas on screen.

Antonioni remains a challenging director, in his radical use of time and space. What so perturbed the L’Avventura audience at Cannes was that shots, scenes, even the film itself, continued after narrative interest had expired. The effect is something Antonioni scholars later described as temps mort or ‘dead time’. L’Avventura offers a tentative, lethargic kind of narrative energy in the first hour, but for the last 90 minutes space and time have a narratively entropic effect via the road trip of 2 characters through southern Italy. This not only flattens the later scenes’ dramatic tension, but retrospectively empties out the drama of the first hour, burying it beneath rising waves of spatio-temporal force so that it seems like a dream. With the forgetting brought about by space and time, as Gilles Deleuze argued, we are faced with an almost uniquely insidious Nietzschean challenge to human values via the filmic expansion of the world’s nihilistic forces.

La Notte (1961) features an especially reluctant narrative impetus from the start. For a long time, Milan’s modern architecture seems as important as the central characters’ subdued drama, the camera flattening Marcello Mastroianni against the imposing concrete surfaces of the urban environment and the contours of his chic interior spaces. The stasis of these early scenes is set off against the tellingly vacuous ‘action’ of the party sequence that comprises the second half of the film. Movement, including sexual pursuit, is never where the real action or meaning is; instead it functions merely as a regressive turning away from real problems.

This is brought to a head in L’Eclisse, which offers an extraordinary expansion of spatial and temporal power, totally disabling human action and decisiveness. From the sublimely composed temps mort of the first scene, this effects the whole film exponentially until Antonioni famously evicts his characters from the screen 7 minutes before the film’s conclusion. This leaves the viewer, tied to an increasingly non-anthropocentric camera, to explore the characters’ suburban milieu alone. L’Eclisse’s coda radically makes literal an idea that informs all these films: what we are used to thinking of as human essence is no longer viable under the conditions of 20th century modernity.

Following the perfection of his monochromatic film art with L’Eclisse, Il Deserto Rosso (1964) was Antonioni’s first colour film. Set in the environmental disaster zone of an oil refinery, where a functioning humanity seems almost entirely lost, an extreme use of telephoto lenses combines with a truly remarkable colour scheme to tip Antonioni’s cinema into a very reflexive version of Expressionism. Many critics see this film as the final chapter in Antonioni’s innovative work of the early 60s. Nonetheless, a few critics actually prefer the less extreme 1950s films, a notable example being Le Amiche (1955), a watershed for the director’s deep space architecture and suggestive framing of human groups against nature.

Some prominent Italian critics for many years preferred Antonioni’s ‘international’ period, including the big-budget MGM production Zabriskie Point (1970). A critical and commercial disaster in America, favourable critics now highlight the characteristically ambivalent gaze Antonioni casts over late-60s campus counterculture in Los Angeles and the film’s commentary on human culture’s frail relationship to a nihilistic universe. This is encapsulated by the film’s conclusion, when the detritus of consumer culture explodes into abstract shapes, the apogee of both late 60s apocalyptic fantasy and Antonioni’s fascination with the potential within entropy.

Although omitting Cronaca di un Amore from 1950 and The Passenger from 1974, the Sydney Film Festival’s retrospective offers a broad panorama of Antonioni’s work, including his notoriously elusive 1972 documentary on China, Chung Kuo Cina, and many short works from the early and late periods of his career. If you’re new to this filmmaker, it’s a superb chance to inaugurate a relationship many of us forged through poor video and archive prints of his canonical films. If you’re familiar with Antonioni, an engagement with his freshly re-minted oeuvre will generate a new appreciation of this exquisite, utterly unique filmmaker. Antonioni literally remade what cinema can be. Film modernism has never been so aesthetically ravishing, or so filled with fecund thematic possibility.

Michelangelo Antonioni: A Retrospective, 51st Sydney Film Festival, Dendy Opera Quays, June 11-26

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 16

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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