Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Remastering the Film: Michelangelo Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni's death on the same day as Ingmar Bergman's (30 July 2003) was comparable to the deaths of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West within twenty-four hours of each other, December 21-22, 1940 (West was on his way to Fitzgerald's funeral when he was killed in a car accident). And although Antonioni was 94, and had not made a film unassisted since 1982, his very existence was a reminder of how brilliant film was capable of being.

With the three films that make up a loose trilogy, L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962)(1), Antonioni expanded the supposed limitations of film expression. He proved that imagery alone was capable of supporting immense thematic and emotional weight.(1) And he arrived, in L'eclisse, at a nearly plotless narrative. Prior to L'avventura, with his adaptation of the Cesare Pavese novel Tra Donne Sole, known as Le Amiche (1955), Antonioni had already demonstrated an impatience with conventional plotting. In his next film, Il Grido (1957), he moved even further away from pat explanations for his characters' actions. He also drew the ire of his actors, who were never given what they regarded as proper motivation in their roles. (Richard Harris, who would appear in Red Desert (1964), called Antonioni a "quasi-intellectual".)

In 1957, actress Monica Vitti joined Antonioni's Milan theater group, Teatro Nuovo. Whatever her shortcomings as an actress, Vitti became something of a muse for him - so much so that her departure from his work was disproportionately felt. In 1965, Antonioni signed a contract with Carlo Ponti for three films to be made in English, which necessitated his departure from Italy, first to England for Blow-Up (1966). Though it inspired alot of spirited discussion, Blow-Up is a beautiful but ultimately hollow film. While Dwight Macdonald commented that it was a relief to get away from "the miseries of Monica," Vernon Young wrote that Blow-Up "pleaseth the eye but sticketh not in the memory."

His second film in English, Zabriskie Point (1970), was an embarrassing failure, a paean to the youth "counterculture" movement which was then all the rage. After his controversial documentary on Mao's China, Chung Kuo, Cina, which was not shown until 2004, Antonioni fulfilled his contract with Ponti with The Passenger (1975). Regarded highly by some (3), it is handcuffed by a preposterous, pseudo-Pirandellian plot about the ultimate shakiness of identity.(4) Stanley Kauffmann commented that, if viewed simply as a thriller, it is successful.

In 1985, Antonioni suffered a debilitating stroke which left him unable to walk or to speak. He managed to make himself understood to a female companion, who became his unofficial interpreter thereafter. This enabled him to work, and he made Beyond the Clouds (1985), with the help of director Wim Wenders. Antonioni repudiated Wenders work, however, and cut out nearly all of it from the finished film. Visually refulgent, it was welcome but saddening. He also contributed an episode to the anthology film Eros (2004).

While John Simon continues to insist that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest artist the cinema has yet produced, I think that Antonioni is far more integrally important. And Bergman, great as he was, never made a film to equal L'Avventura, which holds riches that will be prized for generations to come.

(1) In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Orson Welles once again showed off his cluelessness: "I don't like to dwell on things. It's one of the reasons I'm so bored with Antonioni - the belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, 'Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road.' But he does. And then she leaves and you go on looking at the road after she's gone." (This Is Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, 1992.)
(2) Some critics have attempted to make it into a quartet with the inclusion of the inferior Red Desert (1964).
(3) Roger Ebert, who originally called the film "pretentious," now says, "I admire the movie more 30 years later. I am more in sympathy with it."
(4) The credit for the script lists Antonioni, Mark Peploe (brother of Clare, who was Antonioni's mistress at the time) and Peter Wollen, author of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), which is easily one of the most impenetrable books ever written about film.

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