SOURCE: “Identification of a Woman,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 37–43.
[In the following essay, Kelly analyzes the moral decadence of Antonioni’s characters in Identification of a Woman.]
Speaking of Red Desert, Antonioni once said that it was not a result but research, an apt description which could apply just as accurately to all his subsequent narrative films, until now. In Identification of a Woman, his first Italian film in nearly two decades,1 Antonioni consolidates and refines the formal and thematic explorations made earlier, blending effortlessly the abstractions of the English-language films with the more intimate milieu and deeper mode of characterization of the Italian films. In addition to drawing from his prior experiments with color, movement, sound, and montage, Antonioni relaxes his strictures on the use of otherwise conventional formal devices by deploying numerous flashbacks and subjective inserts, an abundance of extra-diegetic (“New Wave”) music, a freer use of the zoom, and, most surprisingly, dissolves. The result is Antonioni’s most lucid work, which brilliantly highlights his most pressing concerns, while helping to illuminate further his previous efforts, especially the much maligned English-language films.
The film revolves around the middle-aged, middle-class Niccolo (Thomas Milian), a film director, and his relationship with Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a young, upper class woman. Niccolo receives anonymous threats to cease their relationship, but ignores them, with the result that his sister, Carla (Veronica Lazar), loses her position as chief gynecologist of a hospital. After two months, Mavi “disappears” by moving from her apartment without any word to Niccolo. He begins a relationship with Ida (Christine Boisson), a young avant-garde stage actress. After a few weeks, Ida’s discovery that she is pregnant by another man ends the relationship. Niccolo, who all along had been seeking a serious subject for a new film, decides to make a science fiction film.
As always with Antonioni, plot summary yields scant indication of substance. It is in the wealth of plastic details and in their correspondences, rather, that his intentions are revealed. Set predominantly in Rome, Identification depicts a world beset by fear, some symptoms of which include a private alarm system, a gun-toting (and apologetic) neighbor, helplessly benumbed seminarians witnessing a street altercation, a harrowing panicked nocturnal drive at breakneck speed through dense fog, as well as more insidious effects on the character of individuals.
The surfeit of fear, so pervasive throughout the film, arises from what Antonioni sees as the fundamental problem of our age: the contemporary individual, bereft of any viable set of values, unable to maintain faith in any ideal, is becoming less and less prepared to adapt to the many unprecedented conditions of our rapidly changing world. This has been Antonioni’s most persistent concern. In his Cannes statement of 1960 he wrote of the “unsuited and inadequate” old morality “sustained out of cowardice or sheer laziness.”2 Since then, we have jettisoned much of the old morality, the sexual revolution being just one outcome, but the ethical void has yet to be filled. Thus without any set of values, and with the limitations of relying on the self-propulsion of egoism becoming ever more apparent, the “fears and terrors and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation.”3 are that much more evident. Accordingly, in Identification, Antonioni presents the individual as living in a constant state of exigency, tending to rely not on a balanced use of reason and instinct, but on instinct, which is woefully regressive since adaptation “occurs not by instinct, but in spite of it.”4
Backed into the corner of his/her own psychic...
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chaos, the modern individual has been reduced to a primitive level at which the sole criterion for action is the instinct for self-survival, the consequence of which finds the individual at odds with the good of the larger community, unravelling the social fabric to the point where we, as technologically sophisticated barbarians, annihilate each other. A frightening vision, no doubt, but not despairing, for Antonioni still sees the possibility of finding new values appropriate to our age.
In doors, the dominant visual motif of Identification, Antonioni has found the ideal object with which to suggest the moral condition of each character: when, how, or if a character passes through a doorway accentuated the ethical nature of his or her actions. This is a formal strategy Antonioni wastes no time in implementing. The first image of the film appears simply to be a floor-level shot of a wall imprinted with a subdued geometrical design. The longer this image is held, however, its perspective begins to seem out of joint, as the surety of the initial impression gradually gives way to uncertainty, to which the film’s intermittently obstructing titles only add. Then, what at first seems to be a piece of the floor rises at an acute angle from the base of the image, but reveals itself to be something quite different: an opening door, seen from above. This spatial dislocation, from an assumed viewpoint grounded securely on the floor to one situated precariously off the side of a wall above the door, is disorientating to say the least. And into this disorientating image walks Niccolo, the most ethically disoriented of the film’s major characters. Antonioni quickly augments the door/ethics correlation, as Niccolo, after climbing the stairs to his own apartment’s door and realizing he’s lost his keys, mumbles four times the word “karma.”
A closer look at Niccolo and the film’s two other major characters will help in getting a better idea of just how Antonioni conveys his concerns.
Niccolo differs from Antonioni’s previous male protagonists in that he is surprisingly affable and a much more credible object of women’s affections. The difference stops there, however; as with the others, his bad habits—selfishness, egoism, irresponsibility—overcome him. In his relationship with Mavi, in their numerous torrid love scenes, or when, for example, he places a blanket on the sleeping Mavi and watches over her, Niccolo appears to be attentive, generous and caring, but as Mavi tells him later, he cares for her physical, not her emotional health. And even this is cast in doubt when Mavi tells him (to the accompaniment of an off-screen siren), that the doctor ordered abstention from sexual activity, and he responds “one time can’t hurt.” Needless to say, the one time turns to many times.
Niccolo’s love relationships are strikingly impersonal; it doesn’t seem to matter whom he’s involved with. To Niccolo, a woman is more a habit than an individual. Although Niccolo professes to search for “the ideal woman” as inspiration for his next film, he views the real women in his life as objects, or interchangeable parts. When Niccolo discusses his chimerical search with a male friend, the latter asks about Mavi, whom Niccolo contemptuously dismisses from having anything to do with it. This dichotomous view of women is hinted at early in the film during this first conversation with Mavi.5 While waiting to see his sister in her office, Niccolo answers the phone and receives Mavi’s call to make an appointment. Niccolo likes the sound of her voice and arranges a date with her. In the course of their short conversation, while he tells her “I’m uneasy when I can’t visualize the person I’m talking to,” he looks at an x-ray of another woman. His talking to one woman while looking at or thinking of another is perfectly in keeping with his habitually divided attention. This is even more apparent in a later scene, when, after his unsuccessful initial search for Mavi, Niccolo is on a date with another woman (possibly his ex-wife) whom he quickly discards when he sees Ida for the first time.
The habitual nature of Niccolo’s behavior is given salient expression in the scene where he does succeed in tracing Mavi to her new home. While Niccolo hides on the landing above her apartment, Mavi returns from the outside, but must wait to enter the apartment until her roommate unjams the door lock. In the meantime, Mavi searches for matches to light a cigarette. Niccolo, who has been secretly watching, begins to move forward, his arm outstretched with lighter in hand. Suddenly, as if realizing the absurdity of his unthinking actions, he stops, and abandons his attempts to talk to Mavi.
On the very next day, when Niccolo and Ida take a trip to Venice, the tenuousness of his affections becomes glaringly evident. As they are out in a small boat on the lagoon, he suggests to Ida that marriage would be a “solution” to their problem. (This must surely be the most unromantic marriage proposal ever portrayed in a film.) The proposed solution, similar in spirit to what Antonioni termed the “mutual pity” informing the end of L’avventura, is, however, short lived. Upon returning to their hotel, Ida receives a phone call and learns of the positive results of her pregnancy test. Niccolo is cold at best when he thinks the child is his, and then downright callous when Ida realizes she already had been pregnant when she and Niccolo first met. Ida-as-mother no longer fits Niccolo’s solution scheme. Proposing only moments ago, Niccolo now seems a stranger, and long before the scene’s conclusion, his final response is intimated by the hundreds of pigeons seen through the glass doors of the hotel. When Niccolo walks up to those doors we already know that he will take flight from Ida.
Niccolo is not the only male in the film to exhibit less than admirable behavior. The scene in which Niccolo waits in the hospital to see his sister begins with a shot of a pregnant woman moving out of the frame. When Carla comes into the waiting room and Niccolo approaches her, a man suddenly runs up to them shouting “I was first.” Naturally this man is not waiting to see the gynecologist; his wife, presumably that pregnant woman, is. The man’s use of the first person singular to the exclusion of his wife is true to a type of male self-centeredness. In this same sequence, Carla tells Niccolo she has lost her position at the hospital. Even though it was Niccolo who had received the threats about continuing his relationship with Mavi, it is Carla who is victimized: another female casualty in the petty battle of male egos, in this case between Niccolo and, as it turns out, Mavi’s well-connected father. Taken together, Niccolo’s behavior and the seemingly incidental acts of the film’s other men form a rather unflattering portrait of the modern male, one which might best be titled, “Objectification of Women.” The film’s actual title is somewhat ironic as it suggests that which Niccolo is incapable of accomplishing, much less conceiving; for how could someone who views all women as essentially the same think of identifying a woman?
A recapitulation of this failing of Niccolo’s occurs near the end in one brief shot of him returning to his apartment building after the trip to Venice. From a medium close-up of a statue of a woman, the camera tilts down to reveal Niccolo turning away from the statue. The statue, like the ever-growing collage of photographs of women that Niccolo amasses in his apartment, defines the extent of his relationship with women: remote objects to be contemplated, completely void of any genuine emotional association. The tilt itself, by barring Niccolo from sharing the frame with the statue, expresses the separation between Niccolo and his chosen object(s) of contemplation.
Conversely, through his empathic portrayal of his female characters, Antonioni not only comes closer to the promise of the film’s title, but goes beyond it to approximate something of an identification with these women. Mavi is the most ambivalent character in the film. She is also the most self-destructive. Her sensitive and essentially honest nature conflicts with her own wealth and upbringing. Assimilated into the bohemian fringe, she eschews outward display of wealth by no longer spending time with her “old crowd,” and by living in modest apartments located in run-down neighborhoods complete with Socialist Party posters and Communist graffiti. But the only activities we see her involved in—making love, attending parties, and shopping—belie that image, and affirm that hers is actually a life of purposeless leisure, supported by enormous wealth. These consciousness-obliterating activities offer her immediate relief at the cost of long-term stability, and constitute a prevalent form of myopic behavior. This is true especially of her sexual activity; despite the doctor’s orders, she risks her health for its swift narcotic effect. That Mavi admits to having “problems” in sexual matters is significant too, as it intimates a possible awareness of, and inner dissatisfaction with, the inordinate disparity of importance between her sexual activity and everything else in her life. Further indications that something is amiss with Mavi’s sexual life are her unwillingness to undress fully, and her intensely narcissistic gaze at her own face in a mirror during her one on-screen orgasm.
Mavi’s addiction to sexually induced oblivion (her sexual appetite is reflected in her last name: Lupus) is so strong that it overpowers her intense anger at Niccolo and her awareness of the necessity to end their relationship. A simple pan and dissolve beautifully conveys this when they are in a country house following their harrowing drive through the fog. As they cease their discussion, which leaves no doubt as to the terminal nature of their relationship, Mavi suddenly runs to Niccolo, and they embrace. The camera pans left away from them, revealing a burning fireplace at the side of the frame and a closed door in the background. The image dissolves to the same set-up with the door—the bedroom door—open, thus effectively suggesting that the heat of her passion literally dissolves her conscious resentment of, and resistance to, this man she knows she should no longer be with.
But all is not hopeless with Mavi. She does leave Niccolo, albeit in a cowardly fashion, and she survives a difficult test of her resolve in the scene where Niccolo tracks her to her new apartment. Here, Antonioni employs the apartment building interior as a concise metaphor for the labyrinth of Mavi’s emotional state. Barred from entering her new home and from being with her new (female) lover, Mavi waits impatiently for the door to open. She asks her friend why she has locked the door in the first place, and when told that Niccolo earlier had been looking for her, she runs downstairs and slams closed the front door to the apartment building, thus placing herself in a state of limbo between these two doors and two relationships. As yet unable to truly enter the door to a new life, she desperately attempts to keep out her previous life—even though, in the form of Niccolo who is on the next landing) it is still an active element in her emotions. Once inside, however, Mavi closes the door behind her, and secures passage to a new phase in her life. In one of Antonioni’s most emotionally moving scenes (oozing with romantic piano music of a sort not heard since Il grido), Mavi moves to a window overlooking the street in which Niccolo now stands looking up. Hiding at first, Mavi moves directly before the window, at last confronting Niccolo and her own cowardice, and issues a wordless “addio.” “Will you leave me too?” asks Mavi’s new lover. Turning momentarily from the window, Mavi says no. When she turns back to the window, Niccolo is no longer there. The outcome of Mavi’s new relationship admittedly remains ambiguous (she had female lovers before Niccolo), but this last scene of hers does intimate a positive change in her life.
Ida is different. Down to earth and honest, she is the strongest character in the film. From a poor background, she has worked from an early age. In contrast to Mavi’s fruitless activities, Ida works most of the time as an actress. In her spare time we see her writing and horseback riding. She works in the city and lives in the country, demonstrating her ability to easily bridge urban and rural existences, while underscoring her life’s fundamental balance, something the other characters sorely lack. Although she exudes a strong sense of sexuality, we do not see her in any explicit love scene with Niccolo as we do with him and Mavi, for sex is not an all-encompassing impulse for Ida. Nor does Ida possess any hang-ups about being nude; she performs her stage work in the nude, and the one time she actually appears undressed in the film occurs as she is on the toilet in her bathroom—which has no door, indicating that body functions are shamelessly integrated elements in her balanced existence.
Ida’s ingenuousness infuses a transparency into her relationship with Niccolo, which is in marked contrast to the relationship of Mavi and Niccolo, so shrouded in a miasma of subtle deceptions, evasions and rampant anxieties. Indicative of the converse nature of these two relationships are the two extended exterior sequences in the film: the fog sequence, with its heavily laden atmosphere of fear, mistrust, and confusion, perfectly illustrating the equivocal nature of Mavi and Niccolo’s relationship, and the lagoon sequence, with its clear perspective leading all the way to the horizon, characterizing the genuineness of Ida and Niccolo’s relationship. This is not to say the latter scene is winsome; indeed, it is quite the contrary. Its image of two people alone on an otherwise empty and vast body of water hauntingly conveys what Jung termed the “unenviable loneliness” of modern existence. Furthermore, the scene exudes not a cryptic loneliness, offering the possibility for evasion, but a loneliness so conspicuous that in the dead of silence it cries out for recognition and examination. As demonstrated in her conversation with Niccolo, these are demands Ida candidly complies with.
Ida’s is an authentic existence. Like anyone else she is prey to the modern world’s attendant anxieties, but rather than evade or repress awareness of them, she confronts them, attempting to alleviate a problem, or learning to adapt to its existence. A good example of this can be seen in her response to Niccolo’s continuing obsession with finding Mavi. Rather than ignoring the situation in the hope it might disappear on its own, and despite the risk to her newly flourishing relationship with Niccolo, of her own accord Ida searches for and discovers information which leads him to Mavi’s whereabouts.
Ida’s authenticity manifests itself most outstandingly when, after just having agreed to Niccolo’s marriage proposal, she is placed in a quandary from which some kind of hedging might sympathetically be expected. Ida greets the news of her pregnancy with unalloyed joy, and when Niccolo asks if the news is good or bad, she doesn’t hesitate to reply affirmatively. But when she begins to ponder the possible effects on her relationship with Niccolo, she changes her answer to “I don’t know.” Niccolo’s blunt reaction to the news of her pregnancy forces Ida to summon up the courage to weigh the two new developments in her life, marriage and pregnancy, which are suddenly at odds with each other. With an inspiring honesty and courage Ida does something no other character in the film does: she sacrifices immediate self-satisfaction for something and someone else, the future and the child. Coming as it does toward the end of a film with numerous evocations of weakness and sterility, Ida’s decision is a singularly striking affirmation of human responsibility and hope.
The prominence given to Ida’s forthcoming child and Niccolo’s nephew in Identification brings to the foreground a significant element in most of Antonioni’s work: the figure of the child. While children have been more noticeable in certain films (e.g., Il grido,Red Desert), their appearances in the others, no matter how brief, have been of equal importance in conveying Antonioni’s cautionary implications for the future. In Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, children watch very intently the actions of their erring elders, waiting for their first chance at emulation. Children appear throughout The Passenger, some acting as a stimulus for the old Spaniard’s fatalistic discourse: “Other people look at them and they imagine a new world. But me, when I watch them, I see the same old tragedy begin all over again.” These sentiments are then visually articulated in that film’s penultimate shot: a child, who had been throwing rocks at another old man, runs off screen at the same time and frame location as Locke’s killers drive on screen, amounting to a temporal compression of mankind’s tragically perpetual passage from the child’s misguided “play’” of rock throwing to the adult’s murderous intent of bullet shooting.
The difference in the way children are perceived in Identification consists of an emphasis on the uncertainty of their continued existence. One of the key images of the film is an empty birds nest, seen from the balcony of Niccolo’s apartment. The image is presented twice, but it is not until the second time, when his nephew questions Niccolo about it, that its significance becomes clear. To the child’s question of where the birds are when the nest is empty, Niccolo responds that they are flying around, thereby linking the notion of sterility with flight.
Although flight from the responsibility for one’s own existence long has been an enduring major theme of Antonioni, the flight imagery in Identification is more subtle than in La notte, for example, with its lengthy rockets sequence and its revealing reference to Hermann Broch’s extraordinary novel The Sleepwalkers, a book with numerous digressions on the nature of flight, or Zabriskie Point, with its elaborate stolen airplane sequence. Nonetheless, the characters, save for Ida, are engaged in the same kind and, at the very least, the same degree of flight of their counterparts in the earlier films. Moreover, Antonioni has widened his field of scrutiny beyond the individual’s flight to include the larger ramifications of widespread flight.
As in the previous films, men are the preponderant perpetrators of flight, the worst consequences of which are left for mothers and children to face. This is clearly the case with Niccolo’s sister, and, of course, Ida. To highlight this male complicity, throughout the film Antonioni juxtaposes the male in flight with the woman’s role of mother: Niccolo passes a door through which emanates a pop song, “Mamacita”; he looks at a magazine photo of a woman giving birth; he shares the waiting room with a pregnant woman; and we see him with Carla, a single mother, and Ida, an expectant one.
But even more severely affected than women are children, depicted here as victims of neglect. Not only do we see and hear of Niccolo’s inattentive relationship with his fatherless nephew, but Mavi herself is shown to have borne needless suffering from the abnegation of paternal responsibility, made only more painful when her mother’s current lover, a man Mavi has always despised, suddenly discloses to her, undoubtedly out of his own selfish need to assuage guilt, that he is her father.
With this ongoing mass male migration from paternal responsibility, women understandably are becoming less willing to bear children, and many, like Mavi and her friends, have taken to what hitherto has been for the most part in Antonioni’s work a predominantly male activity: sexual flight. With procreation as the end of sexual union becoming anathema in our time, Identification looks beyond the breakup of the nuclear family, prefiguring the dissolution of all families. The empty birds nest, then, is a telling symbolic portent of what might become of the human future.
Another theme running parallel to that of threatened procreation is the sterility, or failure, of imagination, wherein our endeavors in the arts and sciences likewise have fallen prey to myopia and flight. The conspicuous consumption of facts and information, like the attainment of sexual gratification, has become an end in itself, with the desire for knowledge having replaced the quest for wisdom. Again, this is not new in Antonioni: Thomas in Blow-Up, despite his learning the process of observation (sorting out facts from a vast accumulation of visual information) remains ethically vacuous and is thus paralyzed at the end; in Zabriskie Point, the apparently inexorable tragedy of the self-destruction of a technological miracle crystallizes in the image of books—the recorded accumulation of knowledge—exploding to the accompaniment of an agonized scream; and in the final shot of The Passenger, a driver education car, in which a student is learning how to drive, but not knowing where to go, at last moves haphazardly to the left—which, in the film’s network of directional connotation, leads to destruction. In essence, all are brilliant illustrations of the aspect of the modern dilemma which John Herman Randall, Jr. concisely summarized: “The modern physicist tries to give man God’s knowledge of how to do it, but he has overlooked the knowledge of what is best to do.”6
Identification gives this theme added emphasis and urgency. Upon his return home from the trip to Venice, Niccolo takes yet another flight, this time in his work, by surrendering to the new mysticism, namely, science fiction.7 Accompanying an image of an asteroid travelling through space is Niccolo’s voice-over synopsis of what he images to be his new film: scientists have converted this asteroid into a spaceship so as to be able to fly close to the sun. Niccolo’s nephew is heard questioning the credibility of a ship flying so close to the sun, to which Niccolo cynically responds, “The laws of science fiction leave many doors open.” His nephew then asks why they should be flying to the sun, with Niccolo responding, “So we’ll get to know how the universe was made, and to know the cause of things.” Finally, with uncharacteristically verbal directness, Antonioni compellingly conveys the problem of the contemporary mind-set of attending to process without consideration of purpose, as he leaves it to the child to beg the question of our age: “And then?”
In each of Antonioni’s films, especially those in color, there exists a proportionate relationship between the sheer beauty of the images and the terrible reality contained in them. Identification contains at one and the same time Antonioni’s most beautiful images and the most terrifying truths, and might be said to be the latest of a series of metaphysical horror films. But these films are much more than exquisite images of desolation—nothing could be further from a passive acceptance of the world’s ills. “Profoundly political in its objective,”8 Antonioni’s work seeks to expose the inherent contradictions of our age, and offers the prerequisite for effecting positive change, understanding. In this context, Identification of a Woman is the most severe of Antonioni’s films, and, as he has described it, his “most sincere.”9
In 1979, Antonioni made Il misterio di Oberwald for Italian television. Based on one of Cocteau’s lesser plays, “The Eagle Has Two Heads,” it was shot and edited in video and later transferred to film. Hardly an “Antonioni film,” its only real interest lies in the director’s use of electronic color modification within scenes. In addition, his extensive use of the video technique of keying in may have caused Antonioni to reassess the value of dissolves in film.
Film Makers On Film Making, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), p. 208.
Antonioni, Ibid., p. 209.
Eugene Marais, The Soul of the Ape, (New York: Atheneum, 1969), p. 174. A study of the origins of primate consciousness, this is the book that book Locke and Robertson coincidentally were reading in The Passenger. Besides being a naturalist, Marais was many things, including journalist and gun-runner.
Although this is their initial conversation, it is the second time we see him talk to Mavi. Using a strategy he deployed in Zabriskie Point (the flashback of Daria’s first scene), Antonioni structures a large portion of Identification, from Niccolo’s wait in Carla’s office to Mavi’s late arrival at Niccolo’s apartment, as a flashback which isn’t immediately apparent as such.
The Making of the Modern Mind, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1940), p. 100. One further indication of the persistence of this theme in Antonioni’s work is the title of his aborted Amazon project, Technically Sweet, which he took from a comment by Robert Oppenheimer: “If one has a glimpse of something that seems technically sweet, one attacks this thing and achieves it.” (Quoted in R.T. Witcombe, The New Italian Cinema, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982], p. 8.)
This is not to say that science fiction is intrinsically so, but, unfortunately, it is a rare film of the genre that escapes this description. Antonioni himself is not opposed to science fiction per se, as indicated in his own thwarted plans to make a science fiction film in the Soviet Union (see “La Méthode de Michelangelo Antonioni,” Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 342, December 1982, p. 64). Also, while Niccolo’s intention to make any film could be seen as some kind of victory, the context of Identification renders it a shallow one at best.
Witcombe, p. 3.
Antonioni, before the screening of the film at the 1982 New York Film Festival.
Michelangelo Antonioni 1913-
Italian film director, screenwriter, short story writer, and painter.
The following entry presents an overview of Antonioni's career through 1999. For further information about his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.
Ranked among the world's great film directors, Antonioni is noted for the meticulous artistry with which he composes his films. Reviewers commend the visual grace of his camera work, his painterly use of color to express meaning, and his slow and thorough probing of the psychology of interpersonal relationships. He achieved the peak of his fame during the 1960s with films exploring issues such as the travels of the Italian Jet Set; the alienation and anomie caused by industrial capitalism; the unreliability of perception; and the loss of identity.
Antonioni was born in Ferrara, Italy, the son of a landowner. He attended the University of Bologna from 1931 through 1935, studying architecture and economics. Between 1935 and 1939, he worked as a journalist and a bank teller. He moved to Rome in 1939, where he reviewed films for Cinema and studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica. He worked with Roberto Rosselini and Marcel Carne in the early 1940s, but was drafted into mandatory service in the Italian army in 1942, which prevented him from continuing to work in film. After the war, he joined with the neo-realists, writing the script for Federico Fellini's The White Shiek, and directing short documentaries and feature films. As early as 1950, with Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1975), he began to move away from neo-realism and its nearly exclusive social focus, to concentrate on his characters' psychology. With L'avventura (The Adventure, 1960), he abandoned neo-realism entirely for introspective meditations on the interpersonal effects of the economic boom in Italy during the 1960s. After the 1960s, Antonioni continued to make movies but remained out of the public eye. In the late 1980s, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, with assistance from German director Wim Wenders, Antonioni directed Beyond the Clouds in 1996, and continued to make movies, directing Destinazione Verna and Just to Be Together in 1999. In 1995, Antonioni was awarded an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Among his other awards are the Grand Prize from the Punta del este Festival in 1951 for direction of Cronaca di un amore; the Silver Lion award in 1955, at Venice for Le amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955); the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Festival for La notte (The Night, 1961); prizes at the Cannes and Venice film festivals for L'avventura,Il deserto rosso, (1964), and Blow-Up (1966) and the Settembrini-Mestre Award for the best book of short stories, for his 1982 collection That Bowling Alley on the Tiber.
Although he had been working in film since the early 1940s, serving as an assistant to directors such as Marcel Carne, Roberto Rosselini, and Luchino Visconti, Antonioni came to prominence in the 1960s with his own films such as The Adventure,The Night, and L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). These features explore many of the typical themes Antonioni favors, such as the vacuous life of people who betray themselves and the lives of those who have been betrayed. Red Desert depicts the torments of a neurotic woman trying to maintain balance in her life despite feeling choked by the industrial landscape that dominates her surroundings. This was Antonioni's first color film and it highlights (to an even greater degree than his black and white films) his dedication to the aesthetic qualities and purposes of his work. Blow-Up, a meditation on creating and interpreting images, was Antonioni's first film in English, and was set in the swinging London of the 1960s. The film achieved immense popularity, even outside the art filmhouses to which Antonioni's works were usually restricted. His popularity declined considerably with the critical failure of Zabriskie Point (1969), a Hollywood film addressing the emptiness of American culture, and the pain many Americans experienced during the era of the Vietnam War. Professione: Reporter (The Passenger, 1975), a melodrama of third world violence as seen by an Englishman who has subverted his own identity, was the last of Antonioni's films to be given commercial theatrical distribution.
When it was premiered at Cannes in May 1960, L'avventura was booed. Penelope Gilliat, a film critic for the London Observer, wrote that she slept through the film. Two years later L'avventura had achieved considerable notoriety and was widely considered a classic by fans and critics alike. Antonioni's next three films, La notte,L'eclisse, and Il deserto rosso, were fashionable successes in the art-theatres catering to the new European intellectual film buffs. After the success of Blow-Up, Antonioni decided to direct a film in Hollywood, but Zabriskie Point was riddled with difficulties during production. The American crew on the film disliked the way Antonioni worked and regarded the film as “anti-American.” The feature was a critical failure, neither appealing to the popular nor to the art-house audience. Reaction to Antonioni's films has always been divided, but it has never been indifferent. To some viewers, the films are excruciatingly boring and pretentiously empty, lacking in plot or coherence, and luxuriating in neurotic anxiety and amateur profundity. However, others see Antonioni's work as profoundly beautiful and serious, exploring essential questions of identity, morality, and ethics.
SOURCE: “The Great Tetralogy: Plots and Themes,” in Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 51–83.
[In the following essay, Chatman analyzes how Antonioni explores “the modern condition” in L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso, using plots “liberated” from conventional narrative techniques.]
If the films of Antonioni’s apprenticeship show diverse and sometimes wayward strands of originality, the four mature films—L’avventura,La notte,L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso—constitute a solid core of achievement. Even early on, critics felt that the first three films formed a trilogy. I would extend the group to include Il deserto rosso, which differs from the earlier films only in its use of color but not significantly in theme, plot structure, or character type. About the plight of still another middle-class Italian woman, in another difficult relationship, again at odds with her environment, it looks backward rather than forward to the quite different thematic concerns of the later films. I do not claim that Antonioni intended a cycle of four films, only that the themes, style, and worldview are best understood if the films are looked at as a loose unity.
In the tetralogy, the “Antonionian film,” as the world understands that expression, was born. The surface of the world was finally captured and then polished with consummate skill. Plots and themes (this chapter), characters (Chapter 4), and settings (Chapter 5) were integrated in a new and brilliant synthesis in a style (Chapter 6) that would be increasingly admired and copied by other filmmakers.
With L’avventura (The Adventure, 1959), Antonioni established himself as one of international cinema’s great artists. The story, which occurred to him on a cruise among the Aeolian Islands off Sicily, concerns the unexplained disappearance of a young woman, Anna (Lea Massari), from the uninhabited island Lisca Bianca (“White Fishbone”), to which she had sailed on a luxury yacht, and the impact of her disappearance on her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Anna’s feeling for Sandro is highly ambivalent—she both wants him and rejects him. Claudia seems to be the only one who is genuinely upset by Anna’s disappearance. With unseemly haste, Sandro is attracted to Claudia and turns his attention to her. At first shocked, she finally responds to his courting as they wander through Sicily looking for Anna. During the search, Sandro sees a prostitute, Gloria Perkins, cause a riot in Messina; he observes the poisoned marriage of a pharmacist and his wife in Troina; and, in a moment of frustrated spite, he spoils the drawings of an architecture student in Noto. Now lovers, Sandro and Claudia rejoin the group of friends with whom they sailed on the fateful cruise—Patrizia, owner of the yacht, her husband Ettore, for whom Sandro works as consultant, and another couple, Corrado and Giulia, whose only pleasure is to torment each other. Arriving at a palatial hotel in Taormina, with Anna seemingly forgotten, Claudia and Sandro are a confirmed couple. But during their very first night there, Sandro betrays Claudia with Gloria Perkins, whom he meets casually in the hotel lobby. In the final scene, Sandro sits weeping with remorse in a deserted piazza; Claudia comes up behind him and puts her hand lightly on his head.
La notte (The Night, 1960) takes up problems at the other end of the love spectrum, those of a long-term couple. It concerns the marital difficulties of a successful Milanese writer, Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). As the film opens, the couple visit a friend, Tommaso, who is dying in a hospital. Overcome by tears, Lidia must leave the room. Giovanni soon follows, but on the way to the elevator he is lured into an embrace by a hospitalized nymphomaniac. Nurses burst into the room as they are about to make love. After a hectic drive through traffic, the Pontanos arrive at a cocktail party in honor of Giovanni’s new book. Lidia slips out for a long walk. In the Milan suburbs, she witnesses some toughs engaged in a brutal, almost ritualistic fight, and then she sees some more constructive youths launching toy rockets in a field. She finds herself in the neighborhood where she and Giovanni first lived together and telephones him to join her. He fails to share her enthusiasm for the place. That evening, they go to a nightclub and watch a striptease act, then to a sumptuous party at the house of a business tycoon. The party lasts all night. During its course, each wanders off, Giovanni to find Valentina, the tycoon’s daughter, and Lidia to be found by Roberto, a handsome man-about-town. Neither adventure comes to anything, and at dawn the couple walk away from the house across the tycoon’s golf course. Sitting in a sand-trap, Lidia tells Giovanni that Tommaso had been in love with her and had tried to help her develop her intellect when she was young, but she had been too foolish to appreciate him. She confesses that she no longer loves Giovanni; all she feels is pity. Refusing to accept the truth that their relationship is dead, Giovanni forcefully makes love to her in the sand-trap as the camera drifts away.
In L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) Antonioni continues his examination of the problem of emotional relationships. In one sense, his view about the very possibility of such relationships has grown bleaker than it was in the two preceding films, where, for better or for worse, the couples stayed together. This film begins with the breakup of one relationship and ends with the unexplained disappearance from the screen of both partners to a second. Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a Roman woman in her mid twenties, ends her two-year relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), a morose writer in his thirties. She cannot explain her reasons to him, though his distraction and apathy provide us with adequate reasons. Visiting her mother, who plays the stock market obsessively, Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon), an energetic young broker. He pursues her vigorously, and she finally accepts him as a lover, but she refuses to consider marriage or to treat the relationship as anything more than one of physical attraction. She cares for Piero, but she is put off by his materialistic approach to life. After making love one afternoon in Piero’s office, the couple part, their mood changing from playfulness to unexplained gravity. They embrace, promising to see each other that evening, and the day after, and the day after that. But when eight o’clock arrives and the camera awaits them at their usual rendezvous, they do not appear. Instead, we are shown seven minutes of the ordinary life of the EUR suburb of Rome, in a series of shots made strangely tense and even sinister by the absence of the characters. The film ends with a close-up on the blinding light of a streetlamp as the music swells to a harshly discordant climax.
Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), Antonioni’s first color film, concerns the plight of Giuliana (Monica Vitti), the highly neurotic wife of a Ravenna engineer, Ugo (Carlo De Pra), and mother of a young son. Visiting Ugo at the factory one day, she meets Corrado (Richard Harris), another engineer who is trying to collect a group of technicians for a project in Patagonia. Corrado is attracted to Giuliana, visits her at an empty store that she plans in a vague way to turn into a boutique, and invites her to tour the countryside with him as he looks for workers. She tells him indirectly about her mental problems—her attempted suicide and hospitalization. The scene changes to a shack on the river, where Giuliana, Ugo, Corrado, a lecherous friend, Max, his wife, Linda, and Emilia, a woman Max is trying to seduce, have a kind of orgy manqué complete with aphrodisiac quails’ eggs. Giuliana is able to relax in the warmth of the place, but when no one will confirm the scream she hears from a passing quarantined ship, she bolts and nearly drives off the pier. One morning, her young son awakens, apparently paralyzed in the legs. She tries to comfort him, telling him the story of a young girl who, playing happily alone on a beach, sees a strange ship approach shore and then leave and then hears sweet music coming from erotic-looking rocks and the sea itself. Giuliana learns that her son has tricked her, presumably in order to stay home from school. Highly upset, she visits Corrado in his hotel room, where they make love. Though that calms her for a moment, she leaves Corrado, presumably for good; on her way home, she stops in front of a docked Turkish freighter and tries to explain her plight to an uncomprehending but sympathetic sailor. In the final sequence, we see her with her son again in front of the factory, as in the opening shot; when the boy asks her whether the birds die when they fly through the poisonous yellow smoke issuing from the smokestacks, she says that the birds have learned to avoid the smoke. The implication is that there is some hope for Giuliana: though not cured, perhaps she is beginning to learn how to avoid whatever it is that sets off her anxiety.
THEMES AND THEMATICS
Instead of themes, one is tempted to speak, stylishly, of the thematics of the middle stage of Antonioni’s career. On the model of the French original, I use thematic to mean not themes taken singly but something like a coherent network of themes. And the themes of Antonioni’s later films do tend to interconnect in complex patterns.
In another sense, the suffix -ic means “the study of,” as rhetoric is the study of the rhetor, phonetics is the study of the phone, and so on. Thematic suggests a clear separation of subject examined from technique of examination. It enables us to see components of texts not as natural objects but as conventions and thereby to avoid the conclusion that it is in the “nature” of narratives to contain themes. For there is such a thing as a themeless or pointless story, even at the level of the art narrative (for example, some texts by the Surrealists). It is important to be able to ask whether there are such things as “Antonionian” themes, not merely to presuppose them, especially since Antonioni has said that his films are about “nothing.” Certain critics, missing the irony, have agreed. Precisely what he means is a principal question for any account of his art.1
Clearly, Antonioni’s films do mean more then they say, that is, they imply something more than “This is the surface of the world as I choose to exhibit it,” although they imply that, too. (Perhaps they imply that all other generalizations derive secondarily from this basic one.) We are made more comfortable about investigating Antonioni’s themes after reading interviews in which he articulates them himself. Unlike many visual artists, Antonioni is highly verbal, a brilliant speaker and writer fully capable of expressing his intentions. For instance, he has spoken of his desire to capture the “spiritual aridity … and moral coldness” (freddezza morale) of the upper classes of postwar Italian society. So it is not the films’ thematic meaninglessness but rather their unusual formal demands that make them difficult for the mass audience. Resenting the challenge, many viewers and reviewers prefer to believe that they are pointless records of modern life, that they are, indeed, about nothing.
Antonioni made his wonderful remark after a visit to Mark Rothko’s studio. What he said exactly was, “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing … with precision.”2 The best gloss on “nothing” that I have seen is Richard Gilman’s:
Antonioni’s films are indeed about nothing, which is not the same thing as being about nothingness.
L’avventura and La notte are movies without a traditional subject (we can only think they are “about” the despair of the idle rich or our ill-fated quest for pleasure if we are intent on making old anecdotes out of new essences). They are about nothing we could have known without them, nothing to which we had already attached meanings or surveyed in other ways. They are, without being abstract, about nothing in particular, being instead, like most recent paintings, self-contained and absolute, an action and not the description of an action.
They are part of that next step in our feelings which art is continually eliciting and recording. We have been taking that step for a long time, most clearly in painting, but also in music, in certain areas of fiction, in anti-theatre. It might be described as accession through reduction, the coming into truer forms through the cutting away of created encumbrances: all the replicas we have made of ourselves, all the misleading because logical or only psychological narratives, the whole apparatus of reflected wisdom, the clichés, the inherited sensations, the received ideas.3
What may seem to the casual moviegoer an inconsequential string of happenings is obviously a reflection of what passes for life today. In La notte, for example, the heroine visits a dying friend, attends a tedious reception, takes a walk in the suburbs, attends a fashionable party, and ends up bleakly confronting her husband with her feeling that their marriage has reached a dead end. Nonoccurrences these may be, but they are very resonant ones. They reveal what her life and, to a great extent, our own lives are like—what they are “about.” Their very inconcluiveness seems to be a profound part of the truth of the representation.
The reduction to “nothing” constitutes a rejection of the comforts of traditional narrative.4 By L’avventura (even by Il grido), Antonioni no longer felt the need to account for behavior, to provide clues to its meanings and consequences. He has achieved extreme honesty in a medium in which that virtue often seems unobtainable. Central to his honesty is the acknowledgment that one cannot know what motivates people, that actions are indeed a mystery. This would seem virtually fatal to an art that relies on large sums of risk capital. How can a producer justify investing in a film that he knows will frustrate and baffle the mass audience’s need for reassurance? “What do you mean, you don’t know?” he hears the crowds roar. “You’ve got to know!”
But Antonioni’s texts, while lacking in comfort, provide glorious esthetic rewards for those who are able and willing to accept his naked vision:
The acceptance is made of what we are like: it is impossible not to accept it as this film [La notte] dies out on its couple shatteringly united in the dust, because everything we are not like, but which we have found no other means of shedding, has been stripped away. … This stripped, mercilessly bare quality of Antonioni’s films is what is so new and marvelous about them. The island criss-crossed a hundred times with nothing come upon; the conversations that fall into voids, Jeanne Moreau’s head and shoulders traveling microscopically along the angle of a building, unfilled distances, a bisected figure gazing from the corner of an immense window, the lawn of the rich man across which people eddy like leaves; Monica Vitti’s hand resting on Ferzetti’s head in the most delicate of all acceptances; ennui, extremity, anguish, abandoned searches, the event we are looking for never happening—as Godot never comes, Beckett and Antonioni being two who enforce our relinquishments of the answer, the arrival, two who disillusion us.5
EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY: LA MALATTIA DEI SENTIMENTI
The central thematic of the tetralogy is the perilous state of our emotional life. Narcissism, egoism, self-absorption, ennui, distraction, neurosis, existential anxiety: many terms have been proposed for the complex state of mind that was first defined clearly by Kierkegaard and that has seemed particularly afflicting since World War II. These terms struggle to characterize a life lacking in purpose, in passion, in zest, in a sense of community, in ordinary human responsiveness, in the ability to communicate, in short, a life of spiritual vacuity. Antonioni had been preoccupied with that state of mind since Cronaca di un amore but, for the reasons proposed in Chapter 1, he was not able to portray it convincingly until he made his sixth feature film, L’avventura. As long as he tried to account for it through the conventional rationalizing structures of dialogue, genre, “psychology” (especially “female psychology”), his vision seemed doomed to inauthenticity. Only when his art grew strong enough to reject traditional narrative paraphernalia and to evoke the surface of life with clarity could he genuinely capture the lineaments of the modern mood.
What also helped was his emergent understanding of what he came to call the “fragility” (fragilità) of the emotional life—its unstable, shifting, amorphous character, in which one feeling passes without rhyme or reason into another, so that people do not know themselves why or how it is that they behave as they do. Feelings, he claims, are not definitive but “fragile, seductive, reversible.” Everywhere there are “symptoms of … restlessness in our psychology … feelings and … morality.”6 A virtual “malady of the emotional life,” he calls it, una malattia dei sentimenti. If we focus on the analytic rather than the moral overtones of this phrase, it serves very well to name the thematic of the tetralogy.
Naturally, such problems find their most acute expression in love relations. So all four films turn on love: love is the emotion in which restlessness, spiritual aridity, and moral coldness are displayed most revealingly. Women are the main protagonists, not because feminine psychology says that love is their proper domain but because Western civilization, Antonioni thinks, has left to them alone a modicum of the capacity to acknowledge feelings, a capacity virtually lost by men, especially intellectual men. The obsession with the erotic side of life
is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time. But this preoccupation with the erotic would not become obsessive if Eros were healthy, that is, if it were kept within human proportions. But Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy. The tragedy in L’avventura stems directly from an erotic impulse of this type—unhappy, miserable, futile.7
One cannot resist comparing Sandro’s behavior with that described in Freud’s famous essay, “The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life”: “When the original object of an instinctual desire becomes lost in consequence of repression, it is often replaced by an endless series of substitute-objects, none of which ever give full satisfaction. This may explain the lack of stability in object-choice, the ‘craving for stimulus,’ which is so often a feature of the love of adults.”8 Clearly, Gloria Perkins and, more sadly, Claudia (as he treats her) must fail to satisfy Sandro, since they are inappropriate substitutes, anodynes, for the creative and meaningful architectural work that he cannot do.
Work is the other half of Freud’s great dyad of life: Sandro, angry and guilty enough to ruin a young architect’s sketch “accidentally,” rushes back to the hotel and tries to force Claudia to make love (a particularly bad piece of timing; only minutes before, he was too preoccupied to respond to her light-hearted seduction, probably by obsessive architectural thoughts). Claudia senses that it is not herself that he lusts after but Woman, any woman, which is just his name for “distraction from meaningful work.” She says despairingly that at such moments she feels she does not know him. The remark is more profound than she realizes: in seeking Woman, he reduces himself to simple, instinctual Man, thereby losing whatever identity he has that is worth knowing.
The theme of sick Eros reverberates in the behavior of the minor characters, like the silly Raimondo, the would-be lover of Patrizia, owner of the yacht, a man bored with his useless life, following passively the dictates of a facile society; this year, the fashion is snorkeling. She indulges him, in a kind of ironic maternalism, out of her own moral indolence. Not virtue but boredom keeps her from succumbing. Her response caricatures Claudia’s indulgence of Sandro at the end of the film, while another aspect of love, that exemplified by Corrado and Giulia, the couple who have been together too long, caricatures the whole institution of marriage. No wonder Anna has grievous misgivings. And the masses? Sex in the head obsesses the entire male population of Messina. The adventuress and call girl Gloria Perkins splits her overly tight skirt, revealing a few centimeters of begartered skin for publicity purposes. An all-male crowd assembles and begins to howl. A reductio ad absurdum: so many howling for such small reward. It is sex twice removed: not even voyeurism, but the merest report of a voyeuristic possibility. What a superb image of mass anodyne sex as substitute for work: half a city not merely distracted but literally immobilized.
For Giovanni in La notte, sex is never far from consciousness. Two steps from the threshold of his dying friend’s hospital room, he cannot resist the temptation of a nymphomaniac’s “passion.” In nymphomania, of course, sexual preoccupation has become pathological. But what is significant is less the nymphomaniac’s fate than the test of Giovanni’s distractibility. He flunks ingloriously. When Giovanni asks Lidia (of all people) to sympathize, she refuses, remarking: “An experience like that is something you could turn into a nice story. Call it ‘The Living and the Dead.’” What does she mean? Superficially, Giovanni and the nymphomaniac, the would-be “lovers,” are the living, while poor Tommaso is the dead. But one can envision at least two deeper interpretations: the nymphomaniac is the living because of the psychotic vitality that arouses her to any man who passes by, while Giovanni is the dead because of the passive and predictable way in which he allows himself to be dragged into a meaningless embrace and to think that it was his charm that prompted it. Or, Giovanni is the living because he responds, even if weakly and absurdly, to the nymphomaniac’s compulsive and mechanical cravings, while she is dead because she can only imitate genuine love. The incident is a curious but efficient reflection, in the moral sphere, of Tommaso’s illness, which appears to be gastric cancer. Just as in cancer, where a hectic, abnormal life rages among the cells of the body, so in nymphomania a hectic, abnormal love rages among the cells of the spirit. It feeds on the normal, balanced structure of feelings, blocking the possibility of nonsexual sorts of human contact. (The themes of the cancerous body and the cancerous spirit find another parallel in the image of the cancerous city, which feeds on its inhabitants.) At the party, Giovanni thinks he has a chance for a “more meaningful relationship” with Valentina, the beautiful and intelligent daughter of his host. After a difficult night, however, during which nothing much happens between them, she ends up expressing more sympathy for Lidia than for him. She says wryly that the two have exhausted her. Finally, Giovanni’s sense of rejection is made complete by his wife’s sad, straight talk in the sand-trap. He cannot bear another refusal of his sexual favors and forces himself on his wife. People addicted to sex cannot afford diplomatic abstentions.
In L’eclisse, too, eroticism plays an intense role. Piero divides his obsessiveness among women, the stock market, and sports cars. For him, eroticism is simply another outlet for the power drive. In contrast, Riccardo needs a woman for security, as a haven between long and neurotic voyages into himself. Only in Vittoria do we find anything like healthy sexuality.9 She recognizes and accepts in herself whatever it is that a man excites, even if, like Piero, he is unsuitable in every other way. But in her case, the acceptance argues a downplaying of sex. Because she does not agree with the old mythology that sex is a be-all and end-all, that it should take place only with the “right” person, that it can bind up and resolve, in a single swoon, all life’s needs, Vittoria sees the world with rare clarity. She can take pleasure in life’s simpler beauties: the sight of rustling trees, billowing clouds, a calm provincial airstrip, flagpoles swaying in the breeze, and even, to Piero’s chagrin, a man passing in the street.
In Il deserto rosso, sexuality is a palpable mechanism of neurotic relief. At her most desperate moment, not knowing where else to turn, Giuliana goes to Corrado’s hotel room. In an ecstasy of ambivalence, she both fights him off and embraces him. And she does experience some relief, however fleeting. The relief is communicated by a celebrated experiment with color. When she enters the hotel, everything is a frigid white—Antonioni even had the plants sprayed with white paint. Afterwards, the walls are blushing pink. The minor characters, as in L’avventura, are more exaggerated and obvious in their eroticism. The quasi orgy scene in Max’s river shack is perhaps Antonioni’s most pointed commentary on the sexual maunderings of the alta borghesia. In the heated atmosphere, which Corrado clearly finds distasteful, the participants discuss sexual practices around the world with great relish. The orgy is curiously unconsummated and for reasons that perhaps go beyond mere concern for the censor. The film suggests that sex in the head does not end in bed. The last word is given to Max’s employee’s ragazza, a matter-of-fact lass who says, a bit disdainfully, that she prefers doing “certain things” to talking about them.
Anodyne eroticism wards off the boredom and despair that accompany the unconscious refusal to make one’s life meaningful. It does not itself reflect deep passion: on the contrary, it is a rejection, even a flight from passion. And it is not a viable means of communication, only a superficial substitute for it. Only Antonioni’s women can honestly confess to the endemic inability to communicate. Anna’s frustrated attempts to explain how ambivalent she feels about Sandro are conveyed in two remarkably constructed scenes: one with Claudia in the piazza outside Sandro’s studio, and one with Sandro on the island just before she disappears. Equally brilliant is the opening sequence of L’eclisse, in which Antonioni uses silence and fragmented dialogue to convey not only the gulf between Vittoria and Riccardo but her painful inability to articulate her feelings. “But why?” he begs. “Surely there is a motive.” All she can say is that she does not know why. (Piero, too, comes to complain about her inarticulateness.) By the time of Il deserto rosso, not even small children can be counted on to communicate their feelings. Giuliana’s son tricks her into believing that he is ill, and he cannot or will not explain why. Giuliana articulates her problems to Corrado in virtually psychotic terms. Only in the language of fairy tale can she describe her true feelings to her son.
It is impossible for these characters to communicate with one another, because they cannot communicate with themselves—an inability that we read in their faces. They are not clear about their real wishes or life goals. They might even deny that one could have any. They are conscious or unconscious escapists, running away from rather than facing up to their problems. The theme of escape appears in some form in virtually every one of Antonioni’s films, even his first. In Gente del Po, a woman working in the fields watches a barge pass down the river, and the voice-over reads her mind: “She thinks perhaps of happiness. To leave, to travel, to change her life. The sea is there, at the end of the trip.”10 But the field hand’s desire is at least real and justifiable for the quality of her life. Later characters flee—in geographical actuality or into the wilderness of their own minds—for less comprehensible reasons. To ask only about the main characters: What or whom does Aldo hope to find after Irma leaves him? Why does Anna disappear just because she is conflicted about Sandro? Why does Sandro hurl himself into “love” affairs instead of facing up to his need to go back to architecture? Why is Giovanni so tempted by the life of luxury that he seems ready to hire himself out to a tycoon? What makes Piero run so fast, and what is he running from—or to? What is Corrado trying to prove by going to the wilds of Patagonia? (And in still later films, why is Thomas “off London” this weekend? Where does Mark intend to fly in his stolen airplane? What takes David off to deepest Chad and then even farther, into the mysterious depths of another identity? Why cannot Niccolò find the actress for his film?)
The films clothe the theme of escape in details of imagery and dialogue. L’avventura starts with a fast ride by sports car to the easy south and then escapes from land in a luxury yacht. Not satisfied with that, Anna jumps overboard to swim off on her own in a rehearsal of her final disappearance. In La notte, Lidia first escapes from the tedium of the publisher’s reception by wandering out into the suburbs and later from the tedium of propriety by jumping into the tycoon’s swimming pool with her clothes on. She even allows herself to escape for a while with a handsome stranger, but for her own reasons she decides not to go off with him. In L’eclisse, we see Vittoria escaping from the oppressive prison that Riccardo has made of her life. Later, she escapes in her imagination to Africa amid the artifacts of Marta’s apartment. She also escapes to the Verona airport, a provincial place made exotic by the flight there in a private airplane. A more poignantly definitive escape is made by the drunk who steals Piero’s Alfa Romeo and ends up in the artificial lake of EUR. As the car is pulled out by a crane, we see the drunk’s open hand extending over the door in a gesture of farewell. In Il deserto rosso, Giuliana escapes Ravenna for a few hours by traveling around the countryside with Corrado as he tries to recruit personnel for his own escape to “meaningful work” in Patagonia. There is no evidence that he shall find it. The couple wander around ships and then amid radio astronomy antenna towers; the towers hint at still other voyages, into the reaches of outer space. Clearly, the mysterious boat in the tale that Giuliana tells to her son represents a fantasy of escape. It roars in from nowhere and turns about, without deigning to land: it has “crossed the seas of the world and—who knows?—beyond the world.” And at the end of the film, she explains to her son that the birds learn to escape from the poisonous yellow smoke coming out of the factory chimneys by flying around it. The theme of escape continues into the later films, too. If anything, it becomes more insistent, as we shall see.11
The theme of escape connects with the theme of distraction, a malaise common among Antonioni’s characters. One recalls Anna’s distracted smile as she looks at Sandro. Or Riccardo’s morose pensiveness: for all his concern about Vittoria’s departure, he keeps falling into a distracted reverie. Giuliana’s distraction amounts to a modus vivendi. Corrado cannot remain attentive to the workers’ questions about living arrangements on the project in Argentina; his eyes first wander up a meaningless line painted on a wall, then along some empty bottles as he leaves the building.
Distraction is attenuated escapism, a mental gesture of escape; one stays, though reluctantly, on the job.12 And it is also a kind of inhibited fickleness: the distracted person would like to change the situation, to get out of it, but he or she does not quite dare. So the person “forgets”—even what he or she is looking for. The syndrome is familiar to the psychoanalyst; it is one of the psychopathologies of everyday life: “You go into a room to find something and realize you have forgotten what you were looking for. Then you remember, but perhaps feel some vague sense of dissatisfaction: ‘Was that really it?’ This sense of bafflement is likely to be keener when you plan a day, a month, a career. The goals and purposes of life, which in youth may have seemed self-evident, in adulthood seem impossible to define.”13 Search is the other side of the coin of escape, its positive name. People who run to are often also running from.14 That is certainly Sandro’s case. To make things worse, he not only defends but rationalizes his behavior, speaking with the deft and dramatic “honesty” of one who needs to persuade himself as much as the other:
Claudia: And when I think you must have said exactly the same things to Anna any number of times …
Sandro: Let’s say I did. But I was as sincere with her then as I am right now with you.
But the search need not be escapist; it can be a genuine voyage of self-discovery. In each of these films, the female protagonist is honestly searching for some truth about life more profound than what a mazy, superficial society can offer. In L’avventura, Claudia’s ostensible quarry is Anna, but she recognizes at a less than conscious level that she is searching for a viable way for herself to be. Despite the hazards of anodyne sex that she sees around her—the eerie voyeurism of the men in the streets of Noto or the blowsy lust of Giulia for young Goffredo (the narcissistic projection of a woman too often rejected by her husband)—and above all despite the promptings of traditional working-class virtues like caution and loyalty, Claudia lets love take its course. It is an honest gesture. And so is the touch she gives to the wretched Sandro at the end; she continues to search, even as she consoles.
Lidia’s escape from literary cocktail party chatter into the streets of Milan also turns into a search for meaning, first in the urban space, then in the space of memory, the old neighborhood. But she cannot find meaning among the high rises and side lots and traffic markers of the city, and she cannot induce Giovanni, though he comes to fetch her, to accompany her down memory lane. Only on the golf course, when it is too late, will he be able to really hear how unbreachable a gulf has widened between them over the years.
Vittoria’s search seems more successful, if we can find joy (as she does) in the merest sights of life: rustling trees, swaying flagpoles, sprinklers in the sunshine, and the like. Even Giuliana, despite her illness, attempts an honest search. But the fate of the certifiably obsessive is an inability to concentrate. She tries hard to understand what causes Corrado’s wanderlust and what it has to do with her own problem; but neurotic fibrillation blocks her, forces her mind onto still another tangent. Even when she stumbles on an uncomprehending but patient Turkish sailor, she cannot stop poring over her symptoms, especially her everlasting need to be helped.
But somehow even Giuliana’s vicious circles are better than Sandro’s elaborate rationalizations. Antonioni’s women are the only ones to understand that the search is essential, for lack of any other viable way to be: “what matters is not the result, which remains in any case uncertain, but the journey itself, the search and the way it is lived out.”15 The model for survival in a desperate age is Vittoria, who, by acknowledging the need to search, manages to remain honest and even cheerful despite the terrors around her.
L’eclisse, as we have seen, continues the thematic of the first two films. But it also extends it. The earlier films limit themselves to the personal impact of the malattia dei sentiment—the uncertainty of emotions, anodyne sex, the problem of communication, escapism. But L’eclisse raises the specter of a generalized, over-riding, nameless dread whose grounds are so real, whose possibilities are so genuinely terrifying that it cannot be written off as merely neurotic. It is a fear of the unknown—not only of the atomic bomb, since weapons only top the long list of means by which modern man can destroy himself. The fear is intensified by the fact that few people are willing to articulate it. Not a syllable concerning this brooding anxiety is spoken. Our only hints are commonplace sights: the headline—“Peace Is Weak”—in a newspaper that an anonymous pedestrian is reading, jet vapor trails in the sky, two men watching from a rooftop, a man whose face is taut and unsmiling, and so on. The montage of such shots, which state nothing explicitly, creates a sense of deep foreboding. No one speaks of fear: the ambience makes it hard to say exactly what one is afraid of. Such fear feeds on itself, hanging in the air like the failing light. In an atmosphere of unexpressed and even unconscious apprehension, a love relationship, indeed any relationship, seems impossible to sustain. Surely, it is the trace of fear (the only thing they truly share beyond sexual attraction for each other) that shows in the faces of Piero and Vittoria as they huddle like children together in the last scene in which we see them.
Of all the images in the concluding section of the film, that of the unfinished building veiled in straw matting is the most disquieting. What it seems to say is, “I represent the future, not only its architecture but all its shapeless menace.” It reminds us of Yeats’ nameless beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born. There is no turning back to the comfortable, familiar shapes of the past. The only honest thing is to acknowledge our apprehension of the future, a future sparked, for better or for worse, by the incredible energies of science and technology.16
EMBODYING THE THEMATIC: THE REJECTION OF SYMBOLISM
So the films of the tetralogy are indeed “about” something: they are about the anxiety that the world has felt since the fifties. But in a way foreign to commercial movies of the sound era, this condition is shown primarily in images. It is not spelled out in dialogue or connoted by mood music. It is always depicted, never pronounced. It occurs in visual details of plot, behavior, and composition so veiled and subtle that Antonioni risks making the audience impatient and bored. The audience could well protest that there is no action. It would be more accurate to say that the film requires the audience to reconstruct the states of mind that prompted what action there is. Not every moviegoer can or wants to perform such labor, but the numbers are sufficient to persuade retrospective cinemas, art museums, college film clubs, and the like to keep on screening the films.
The particular kind of interpretation demanded by the tetralogy is that which uncovers significance in the minutiae of appearance. Antonioni’s art resembles that of a novelist like Virginia Woolf, except that her medium, in its easy access to the minds of characters, permits explicit psychological interpretations of the text. A Clarissa Dalloway or a Mrs. Ramsay or a Lily Briscoe or the narrator, for that matter, can verbalize the significance of someone’s faint grimace or slight hand movement. But those who view a film by Antonioni must do that for themselves: they must learn to read the meanings in appearances—Anna’s enigmatic smile, or Lidia’s close observation of Valentina as she reads her book at the foot of a long staircase, or the movements of the twig that floats in the cistern at the fatal EUR street corner, or the intense red of the docked freighter in the penultimate sequence of Il deserto rosso.
So much is thrown back on the viewer’s interpretative ability that it may seem unfair to accuse him or her of overinterpreting. But that is what many critics have done. So it is essential to establish outer as well as inner interpretational limits. The films are open texts, but that does not mean that they are open to any interpretation. The problem is particularly acute for viewers disposed to finding symbol or metaphor in the slightest textual uncertainty. For example, the toy rockets launched in a scene in La notte were all too quickly labeled phallic, and Antonioni was accused of “heavy-handedly” showing that “sexual restlessness” drove Lidia out into the streets. One critic even argued that the film should have communicated this feeling “directly,” that is, unsymbolically. The urge to see symbolism prevented more sensitive interpretations of Lidia’s state of mind. To argue that she is looking for sex, that she is “cruising,” is to misread her character by falling into the very trap of erotic obsession that, as we have seen, is one of Antonioni’s themes. Lidia clearly has other things than men on her mind. In the scenario, she says to Giovanni over the phone: “I’m in front of the Breda plant. In the same old field, there are children playing. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that. Imagine, they have rockets. They fly way up. It’s beautiful. Don’t worry, nothing’s happened to me. No, no! I told you nothing happened! Come pick me up, will you?”17 Then she returns to the field, waiting for him to arrive. The scene is described as follows:
The rockets are very well built. They shoot up quickly into the sky to a considerable altitude, to the children’s cries of delight. But the two rockets with which the boys are playing are apparently the last ones, as it is starting to get dark. The children pick up their equipment and leave. Lidia is alone, standing in the field. The sunlight is nearly gone, and the scene again turns squalid and desolate.18
Given the context, even the most determined Freudian should find little more than ordinary sublimation of sexuality in a harmless, even creative hobby, especially when rocket launching is compared to the sullen and ugly behavior of the young thugs in the previous scene, who were methodically beating out each other’s brains. The youngsters with the rockets have transformed their sexual drives into constructive, quasi-scientific activity. What is important is not the drive but the way it has been made socially useful, even exciting, by the brave new world of technology that Antonioni has celebrated in other contexts, for example, in the colors and shapes of industry in Il deserto rosso. Lidia’s part here, as elsewhere in her sojourn, is that of silent and objective witness to the sights of the city. To find sexuality so indiscriminately in her behavior is to violate a larger and more important contextual meaning, which is confirmed by the expressions on her face, the movements of her body, the angles and distances from which she is photographed.
Another mistake is to find too precise a tenor in images that bear only a vague or contingent significance. In L’eclisse, rustling trees are juxtaposed often enough with Vittoria to suggest an association, but it is, I believe, far too explicit to argue that they symbolize the “agitation of her own thoughts.”19 A symbol or metaphor functions as an independent sign, that is, a something that can stand for another thing when that thing is absent. But when a single rustling tree is seen in the coda portion of L’eclisse, the thought that comes to mind is not, “Oh, that stands for Vittoria’s agitated thoughts” but rather, “Where’s Vittoria?” The appropriate rhetorical figure is not metaphor or symbol but metonymy, the figure of association or contiguity, which, as Roman Jakobson has argued,20 occupies the semantic pole opposite metaphor.
As we shall see in a later chapter, Antonioni works assiduously on his visual juxtapositions of people with things and of things with other things. Backgrounds are never fortuitous: they provide implicit comment on the characters’ actions or vice versa. At the beginning of L’avventura, Anna finds her father discussing with a worker the encroachment of the trashy housing development onto his beautiful estate. The restlessly modern Anna is identified with the transitory, noisy new buildings, while her father is matched with the magnificent dome in the distance.
Father: I thought you’d already sailed.
Anna: Not yet, Papa.
Father: Don’t they still wear sailors’ caps with the name of the yacht on them?
Anna: (frowning) No, Papa. Not anymore.
Architecture and dialogue provide co-metonyms of the theme. They do not abstractly symbolize flimsy modernity: they are themselves concrete examples of it.
Similarly, in La notte, the graceful old building behind Lidia as she stands at the window of Tommaso’s sterile hospital room is metonymic of the waning of old values. It embodies them. Antonioni did not just think up that building, the way Robert Burns thought up the rose or Donne thought up the compasses. Metaphor depends on the sudden and unexpected perception of similarity. Metonymy does not, because it is purely associative, purely tied to the real. The idea of traditional values is reinforced by Lidia’s old-fashioned flowered dress, which strikes a quaint and even discrepant garden note in Milan’s barren streets. Neither building nor dress is an abstract symbol or concretion taken from another semantic sphere, as are the rose and the compasses. Metonymy is at once a figure for and a literal part of its referent. Hence, it reinforces the actuality of the world of the text. Antonioni’s very manner of working, his reliance on the inspiration of actual environments, ensures the supremacy of relational metonymy over substitutive figures like metaphor and symbol.
To argue that Antonioni’s images are not usually symbolic in the ordinary sense of the word is not to suggest that they are not motivated by thematic considerations. Motivation is always there, but it is subtle and unassertive (the shot of the exploding desert mansion at the end of Zabriskie Point is a rare exception). And it is always rooted firmly in the complex tissue of event and circumstance that constitutes the film. Consider the shot on the train in which Claudia refuses Sandro’s overtures and implores him to get off at the next station. The camera cuts to a view of the beach and the surf running alongside. It would be forcing a category to say that the running surf signifies—to Claudia or to us—the mutability of life (or of anything else). The sea, of course, is a traditional symbol of mutability. But this is a particular sea, into which Anna has disappeared and where she still may be. So its connection with Claudia’s thinking and situation is basically pragmatic rather than figurative, or it is only incidentally figurative. The film is not “stating” that life and the sea share the property of mutability and that Claudia sees her own fickleness or “fragility of emotion” in it. The association is lighter, more tangential, more allusive. And unlike a genuine symbol, it does not explain the inside by referring to the outside.
In short, Antonioni’s images always reverberate with the charge of the whole film, and it is a mistake for interpretation to reduce them to mere symbols. Valentina’s floor may resemble a checkerboard and hence suggest the hazard that Giovanni will incur by dallying with her, but it remains obdurately a floor. Whatever there is of phallus or atom bomb in the water tower that looms so visibly outside Riccardo’s window must not obscure its own solid weight as an object that is part of modern life. To reduce Antonioni’s richly envisioned objects to abstract signs in the interests of discovering what they are “about” would be as much an esthetic desecration as to project his films with a dim bulb.
The titles of the films, however, are verbal, not visual, indices, and they do work in a symbolic way. We see no literal desert in Il deserto rosso, no literal eclipse in L’eclisse, so efforts to ascertain the meanings of these expressions on symbolic grounds are clearly justified.21 The words The Adventure signify—in the superficial travel bureau sense of the word—an eventful trip on a yacht. At a less superficial level, there is the adventure of Anna’s disappearance. Then there is the “sexual adventure,” the trivial erotic escapade that Sandro unfairly accuses Claudia of desiring but in which he himself actually indulges with Gloria Perkins. At the deepest level, there is Claudia’s painful spiritual adventure of trying to get close to another person in all his psychological complexity.
The night of La notte is literally the long night of the party, which ends at dawn on a bleak prospect of marital misery. But it is also a vehicle for the obscurity in our emotional lives that makes marriage so difficult and that darkens our sense of direction in general.
The title The Eclipse is more problematic. What or who is overshadowed? How are they affected? What are the global consequences? The film ends, after the disappearance—or, better, the nonreappearance—of hero and heroine, with an illuminational phenomenon: “Sudden close-up of an illuminated street light with a glaringly bright halo encircling the lamp.” Is that the eclipse? We tend to think of an eclipse as the darkening of a heavenly body, not as a brightening: the sun is obscured by the moon or the moon by the earth’s shadow. But the reverse is at least theoretically possible: a darker body can be eclipsed by a brighter one. Does the bright streetlamp, as metonym for material progress or symbol for the atomic bomb, obliterate the lovers’ meeting? Antonioni recalls going to Florence to photograph an eclipse and speculating about the impact on bystanders’ emotions. There are two versions of what he said. The English version in the introduction to The Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni reads: “In that darkness … I speculated whether even sentiments [emotions] are arrested during an eclipse. It was an idea that was only vaguely connected with the picture I was making, which was why I didn’t retain it. But it could have been the nucleus of another film.”22 But in the 1964 Italian edition of Sei film, he writes: “During an eclipse emotions, too, are probably arrested. It was an idea that had vaguely to do with the film I was preparing, a sensation more than an idea, but that already defined the film when the film was still far from being defined. All the work that comes after, all the shooting, is always related to that idea or sensation or presentiment.”23 The second version suggests a more interesting account of Antonioni’s feelings in the matter. The nonreappearance of the protagonists argues that love is extremely difficult if not impossible in the contemporary world. And since the pair cannot have a “meaningful relationship,” Antonioni decides not to show them at all. Their disappearance from the screen seems to be a synecdoche for the suspension of emotional life at a historical moment when civilization pauses to gasp incredulously. At the advent of … what? The millennium? Armageddon? The savior (looking perhaps like Albert Einstein)?
The title Red Desert is even more enigmatic. Neither industrial Ravenna nor industrial anywhere is written off as a wasteland. The desert seems, rather, to be what Giuliana makes of it. The film is inexorably tied to her point of view. The desert is in her own mind. And, from what Antonioni has said of the “color” of emotions and from what he does with colors in Il mistero di Oberwald, red is perhaps the sign of overheated neurosis, of hellish burnout. But paradoxically the heat does not make the colors and shapes of the world less beautiful—it makes them more intense, more saturated and lurid.
Antonioni’s themes are only part of his films—and by no means the most important. We should not allow problems of interpretation to obscure the glories of the other parts—the minimalist plot structure, the subtle characterization, and, above all, the unique beauty of the visual surface.
PLOT STRUCTURE: THE OPEN TEXT
It has been argued that the key to Antonioni’s mature art lies in a kind of “dedramatization” of plot. The term is suggestive, though its implications need careful examination. It is not that the films of the tetralogy are undramatic, for, clearly, they depict conflicts, interpersonal tensions, and the characters’ attempts to cope with them. They are dedramatized only in the sense that the conflicts are not shown in a direct and conventionally theatrical way. Drama there is, certainly, but it lies behind the characters’ impassive faces. It breaks out at odd moments, for reasons that are not always immediately obvious, as when Vittoria screams at seeing her reflected face trapped between the edge of the mirror and depressed Riccardo in the background.
In another sense, dedramatization can mean denarrativization. Here, the situation becomes more complex. Antonioni’s films are denarrativized in the way that much modern fiction is. Critics have exhaustively analyzed the difference between the twentieth century’s attitude toward plot and that held by previous centuries (and by unsophisticated audiences today). A common but mistaken view is that writers like Woolf, Joyce, and Proust simply give up plot—or, to use the common phrase, that “nothing happens” in their novels. Of course, those who use that phrase do not mean literally that nothing happens but, rather, that nothing “significant” happens. There are no “important” events by the ordinary standards of life—falling in love, marrying, succeeding or failing in business, dying, and so on. Further, modernist novels tend to avoid making events interpretable—lisible, readable, is the fashionable term—by clear chains of causality. As we have seen, the older, causative narrative logic prevails in Antonioni’s early films. For example, in the first sequence of Cronaca di un amore, the detective discusses the case with his boss; in the second, he questions several people in Ferrara about Paola’s early life. We conclude that his visit to Ferrara is the consequence of his boss’s instructions. Guido appears in Milan and meets with Paola: again, we infer, even before we hear the couple speak, that the meeting is the result of the detective’s investigation. Cronaca di un amore, like the vast majority of films, moves through a “readable” sequence of cause and effect, in which earlier actions clearly give rise to later ones.24
In modernist twentieth-century fiction, the logic of narrative sequence changes. The connection between events becomes less conventionally consequential. It is not always possible to find causation in the plots of A la recherche du temps perdu, or To the Lighthouse, or Ulysses. Sequence, of course, necessarily remains, for narrative must preserve chronology, the march of events, if it is to remain narrative and not become another kind of text—exposition, argument, description, or something else. But in modernist narratives, later events are not self-evidently the consequences of earlier. We may sense a relationship, but it is attenuated, indirect, and it suggests less a particular development of events than a general state of affairs.
It seems useful to have a term for this attenuated narrative logic that avoids suggestions of causation and that still hints at some principle of connexity. In Story and Discourse, I proposed contingency: event B may be said to be contingent on event A if it succeeds it in the chronology of the plot and if both events can be understood to contribute to a more general state of affairs. (Some avant-garde plots depict events as completely random, but that is not Antonioni’s way.) In La notte, Lidia and Giovanni go from the hospital to a reception for his newly published book—not an obvious causal sequel. Traditional narrative logic would prompt us to look to a later event for an explanation of the connection to the earlier event. But what follows is Lidia’s walk in the suburbs, then the nightclub, then the party at the industrialist’s mansion, then Giovanni’s encounter with Valentina and Lidia’s encounter with the handsome bachelor, then the sad scene on the golf course. The causal connections among these events are not clear. For example, there is no particular reason why Giovanni and Lidia should not have gone to the cocktail party first and then to the hospital. The reasons exist only at the level of theme, character, and situation: seeing the dying Tommaso—we infer—makes Giovanni’s success seem all the more shallow to Lidia; the cocktail party, the scene of Giovanni’s present triumph, makes her anxious to get away by herself; walking alone in the city (an unusual event for a Milanese housewife in 1960) makes her more sensitive to it as a hostile environment; distaste for that environment makes her seek the nostalgia of the old neighborhood; and so on. The critical word here is infer: where the connections between events are tenuous, the demands on the audience to interpret, to provide connections, intensify.
Strange as it may seem today, many reviewers felt that La notte pushed narrative structure beyond recognizable limits. They said that the story had disappeared, or, if they were more favorably inclined, they described La notte as “pure lyric.” But it is clear that the film does tell a story, in the familiar sense of that word: it evokes a state of affairs and its consequences. That is, it describes the Pontanos’ desultory marriage and Giovanni’s discovery of his wife’s early attachment to Tommaso, of his own inability to satisfy her deepest emotional needs, and of the shallowness of his own emotional life. Of course, contingent plots can question the very need for events to fit into a pattern in which event B means event A because it is its result. The contingent plot indulges freely in “unnecessary” events, whose relation to an ongoing logical chain is marginal or even nonexistent. Consider two parallel situations, one in the causal plot of Cronaca di un amore, the other in the contingent plot of L’avventura. In both situations, one person interrogates another about the person whom he is looking for: the detective interrogates one of Paola’s old teachers in Ferrara, and Sandro interrogates the old man who is the only resident of the barren island. The teacher’s undisguised lechery, whatever independent value it has as a realistic portrayal of the type, remains causally relevant: he remembers Paola’s charms because it is important to know that she was extremely sexy even as a teenager. But the information provided by the old man of the island is completely gratuitous: the place belongs to Australians; he lived in Australia for thirty years; the people in the photograph are his family; he has just returned from Panarea. None of this information has anything to do with Anna’s disappearance or, indeed, with anything else in the movie. The effect is realistic precisely because the information is gratuitous; the old man is not there to advance the plot. He is simply there, as one more of Antonioni’s stubborn “found objects.” His Australian experience and the other details seem to be true because they have no reason not to be. While Cronaca di un amore selects details and events that function as signs of the plot, L’avventura and its successors undermine this convention by introducing events that are “useless,” “pointless” by traditional standards.25 Not only that: they are played in real time, lasting exactly as long as they would in real life. This is the only justification for what would otherwise be an absurdly long depiction of the search for Anna on the barren island. Not only must Anna’s disappearance remain unexplained, but the search for her must be shown to be only a pretext for something else that is going on.
If we look closely at the published shooting script of L’avventura, we can see how the plot became more contingent than causal on the set (or in the editing booth), since Antonioni deleted many explanatory passages in the actual process of filming. In one scene, for instance, the idea was that Claudia should yield to Sandro’s sexual advances partly because the spectacle of the deserted town had made her feel so lonely and isolated that she needed to cling to him for warmth. The scenario is quite explicit:
Claudia is … silent, somewhat dismayed. Instinctively, she presses up close to Sandro who leads her to a shady spot where the ground is overgrown with weeds … Claudia offers no resistance; in fact, she entwines her fingers around his, almost with a sense of desperation. Sandro tries to kiss her. She makes a feeble attempt to resist, looks around, and sees the deserted town, the barren fields, the crumbling, sun-baked walls. She turns and looks at Sandro again, and now it is she who kisses him.26
None of this business occurs in the film. There is no look of dismay, no eye-line matches with the deserted town or the like. We see only the following: a shot of Claudia saying “This isn’t a town, it’s a cemetery. My God, how dismal. Let’s get out of here”; a shot of an alley looking toward the open square, which is dominated by the modernistic church; a shot of Sandro’s car starting up and then driving away from the church; the church itself in an extended temps mort, as if the town, for the moment, were given the point of view just as it was being abandoned by Claudia and Sandro; and finally a shot of the pair on the hillside in the act of making love.
In transferring the shooting script to film, Antonioni deliberately avoids the easy causative, pregnantly meaningful glance or gesture in favor of depicting things simply as happening. Emotions are “fragile,” contingent, and so no more predictable than anything else in this world. Antonioni’s practice presupposes a certain audience, one that knows how it feels to offset an attack of loneliness with lovemaking. Audiences that are unwilling or unable to recognize the experience will find Claudia’s motivation obscure. But for the proper viewer, the ellipsis will seem just right, more “real” a representation of life than anything that conventional films can offer.
Of course, narratives based on contingent rather than causal logic run the risk of seeming obscure. But the challenge of open texts encourages audiences to participate actively in the interpretive process. The viewer may feel a healthy desire to see the films again. And since the films are very rich, the second viewing is amply rewarded. An event that on first viewing seemed meaningless or capricious or included purely for visual effect is seen on subsequent viewings to fit neatly into the plot. For example, Sandro and the young architect whose drawing he spoils are distracted from their quarrel by the spectacle of a long line of young seminarians dressed in black and shepherded by their teachers. Why that particular spectacle? At the surface level, it may seem to be just a photogenic excuse to get Sandro out of an awkward situation. But a second viewing may recall Sandro’s remark to Claudia as they stand on the roof of the church among the bell ropes. Trying to explain why he gave up architecture for cost estimating, he says, “Because … once I was asked to draw up an estimate—how much it would cost to build a school. The job took me a day and a half. I earned four million lire for it.” The shot of the seminarians going to school recalls that remark, made ironic by the fact that these pupils walk daily to solid architectural triumphs, not shoddy reinforced concrete boxes. That is not the only meaning of the shot, but it is certainly one of them.
It is obvious that the preference for contingency over causality suggests an epistemology. Since the end of a film never ties up all the threads of its plot, the end is only one more event and no less accidental than any other. So, instead of traditional essences and values, Antonioni’s tetralogy emphasizes sheer existence as such. The heroines in these films discover that ideal happiness cannot be found in this world and certainly not in a lover. The best that they can hope for is a modicum of hard-earned freedom. Vittoria, in L’eclisse, comes closest to finding it, but only in solitary moments—at a small airport in Verona, on a midnight walk looking for a dog, in a sudden view of wind-tossed trees, in a new friend’s apartment as she dances to African drums. The causelessness of these events argues the fortuitousness of life itself. Antonioni’s protagonists can achieve nothing more than a positive attitude toward fortuitousness. They can enjoy the exquisite moments when and as they come, even in solitude, without demanding them and without expecting an impossible, all-in-one consummation in love. In that sense, the theme of L’eclisse is not only unsentimental but antisentimental: it directly repudiates the ladies’ magazine view of life that haunted La signora senza camelie and Le amiche.
Ellipsis is an important formal property of modernist plots.27 Ellipsis is not the omission of events but of their mentions; thus it is a matter of narrative discourse, not of narrative story, for the missing events remain necessarily implied. Like novels, commercial films have become more elliptical in recent years. Antonioni’s practice was ahead of its time. Still, his plot leaps are never so great as to be incoherent. The theme is always marked strongly enough to account for connections, and at this distance in time it is difficult to understand all the critical fuss that greeted the films.28
In most films, especially action films and melodramas, the purpose of ellipsis is to quicken the pace and increase tension. In Antonioni’s tetralogy, ellipsis has a different function. It contributes to the sense that motives are unclear, perhaps even inexplicable. Nor does Antonioni use the time saved by ellipsis to add things, to make the plot more intricate; on the contrary, his films seem slow, contemplative, even dreamy. Time saved is more likely than not used (“wasted” in the eyes of conventional critics) for visual effects like temps morts, dead holds on the scenery after the actors have departed. This effect, about which I will have more to say, was early related by French critics to the “microrealism” of the nouveau roman. They found in it a devotion to what they called the “minute banality of things.” In Antonioni’s world, however, things are banal only at the superficial level of the traditional, causative plot; at a deeper level, as we shall see, they clamor for our attention. In Antonioni’s hands, their individuality and integrity makes them precious, precisely because we cannot explain them away by assigning to them easy background or symbolic meanings. We are forced to see them—truly to entertain them—with the fullest visual attention that we can muster. As Barthes put it, Antonioni has caught their very vibration.29 Through ellipsis and other manipulations of narrative time, Antonioni insists the way painters do on the sheer wonder of the world’s appearance.
That many of the ellipses in L’avventura were the idea of Antonioni rather than of his screenwriters emerges clearly from a comparison of the scenario with the finished film. The scenario amply documents the characters’ feelings and thoughts. Antonioni could have (and practically every other filmmaker would have) externalized his intentions through conventional means—dialogue, facial expressions, music. Instead, he conveys a few feelings through the scenery, which he uses as a sort of objective correlative, and others he makes no direct effort to express at all, leaving it to viewers to infer them from context as best they can. For example, at the critical moment when Claudia, doubtless feeling rather ambivalent, finds Sandro at the pharmacy in Troina, virtually nothing is said, yet it is not difficult to infer the emotional storm that is raging or the importance of their decision to go off together.
Antonioni often intensifies ellipses by showing them through the straight cut, the shortest instant of film perception. A good example is the ellipsis between the shot of the couple’s departure from the deserted village and the shot of the couple making love on the hillside as the train goes by. The straight cut can be made to present information that virtually defies analysis because of the speed at which the viewer’s mind must work. Antonioni uses the ellipsis to make it doubly difficult to grasp motives: what is important is not only that the couple have fallen in love, or that they are panic-stricken at the spectacle of the deserted village, or that a woman has been seduced, but that we see an attenuated combination of these events and more: “the whole truth is more complicated and ultimately escapes analysis.”30 The ellipsis is the device par excellence for rendering both the fragility of the emotions and the impossibility of accounting for them in any definitive way.
Discarding traditional narrative’s obsession with past and future, the films of the tetralogy engage the present event, liberating it from the dictates of conventional story. Antonioni raises to prominence the tangible present by playing against expectations. Audiences must expect Vittoria and Piero to meet again if their not doing so is to have any shock. What happens instead is that story time—the time of the chain of events—stops: the film is denarrativized, and another kind of time, descriptive or expository, takes over. An open-ended ellipsis occurs—the fictional story ends, although the movie continues for another seven minutes.
An ellipsis at the very end of a narrative from which the protagonists have disappeared is so unusual that many critics had difficulty interpreting it. Some talked, for example, about Antonioni’s excursion into “abstract art.” However, he denied that intention point-blank: “The seven minutes have been called abstract, but this is not really so. All of the objects that I show have significance. These are seven minutes where only the objects remain of the adventure; the town, material life, has devoured the living beings.”31
The final sequence can be considered an establishing shot in reverse, a kind of disestablishing shot. In Hollywood jargon, an establishing shot is a shot at the beginning of a movie whose purpose is to fix the site of the action. There are some good examples at the beginning of Stagecoach,Psycho, and Manhattan. The logic is this: “If you grant the existence of such and such a place—Monument Valley, downtown Phoenix, the New York City skyline—and how can you deny that it exists when you have it there staring you right in the face?—then it will be easy for you to accept the events that follow as plausible.” The convention further argues that all the establishing shots belong to an indefinite time preceding the action itself. Establishing shots function more like travelogues than like documentaries; what they show resembles stage sets more than actual locations of the action. They go little beyond the anticipational, working mostly like a concert overture: “We are beginning,” the movie says, “and here are some ‘views’ to validate the action and put you in a receptive frame of mind.” Unlike documentaries, which invoke places to make statements about them, fiction films show places so that the action can get under way.
In L’eclisse, however, the shots of the nondescript Roman suburb come at the end, frustrating the viewer’s expectations of a well-formed narrative conclusion. Ordinary movie logic insists that if protagonists are supposed to meet, we either shall see them meet or learn why they do not. The coda of L’eclisse, however, accumulates shot after shot of what has until then been only background. Gradually it dawns on us that this is all there is. We are not going to see Vittoria and Piero. But, if all that Antonioni wanted to do was to evoke their parting, he could have ended the film with the shot of Vittoria saying goodbye to Piero or with the high-angle shot of the empty street corner. Why does he embark on a kind of minidocumentary of EUR, showing bus wheels, light towers, skyscrapers jutting into the sky with tiny figures on top? (See photo on p. 65.) And above all, why did he people the landscape with real inhabitants of EUR—total strangers to the fiction? The sequence is a classic example of open text, and any single interpretation, even Antonioni’s own, can prove only partial.
As already noted, it has been suggested that the passage leaves the domain of narrative for that of lyric.32 But what makes the passage lyric (if indeed it is) is not its “poetry” (whatever that word means for cinema). It is rather that narrative time stops and that another textual order takes over. The focus on event becomes a focus on place and on the people and objects that occupy it.33 Not temporal succession but spatial coexistence becomes the guiding principle. Even the gathering of dusk does not alter the descriptive function. The coda is a portrait of the suburb, not the story of how night falls on it. The substitution of this new, non-narrative text seems to universalize the motif of the going out of the light. The failing light suffuses the street corner where the fictional characters are supposed to meet just at the moment when the street corner ceases to be fictional and resumes its place in the real world. The area of relevance moves beyond the fictional situation of the characters alone: it is a whole society, ultimately a whole civilization, that cannot meet. The end, we cannot help but feel, may be more than just the end of this love affair and this film: hence the power of the final image, the blazing streetlamp (see Frame 44, p. 72).
Though the final sequence is atemporal, it possesses an ordered, descriptive logic, the order of disestablishment, since it moves away from the known particular to the unknown general. The first shots in the sequence show details recalled from Piero’s and Vittoria’s meetings there—the sprinkling system, the nurse pushing the baby carriage, the pile of bricks outside the building under construction, the barrel standing at the corner of the wooden fence. These peripheral synecdoches invite us to look for the central components, the two characters. Instead, we get a distanced view of the corner from a high angle looking down on the zebra stripes—more of the whole itself, but the critical human parts are still missing. Instead, a stranger (that is, a “real” resident of the “real” EUR) crosses the pedestrian stripes that until then have “belonged” to the fictional protagonists. The stranger suddenly introduces the randomness of real life. Disestablishment has begun. Freezing out whatever measure of warmth we have gathered from our identification with the fictional Piero and Vittoria, the image of a nonfictional pedestrian suffuses the complexion of the street corner with the cold pallor of reality. From now on, we see only indifference in the buildings and vehicles and streets. Or vague anxiety in the faces of bystanders—an anxiety universalized precisely by the fact that we shall never know their stories.
I do not mean to say that the buildings and streets of the EUR suburb are made more important than the characters. It would be too simplistic to insist on a single reading, say, “Things will predominate”—the moral counterpart perhaps of the neutron bomb, which kills people but leaves buildings intact. That would be simply to reinvoke the old convention. No, characters and settings are of equal importance (or nonimportance), since every thing, like every event, is merely contingent. The film asserts nothing; it merely acknowledges the chance coexistence of things and people unrelated, even irrelevant, to one another.
Except in their predilection for ellipsis, the plot structures of the four films do not go beyond the normal ways of handling time. The emphasis on the here-and-now precludes any tampering with time sequence, for example, in flashback or in the summarizing or eliding of long periods of time: the films range from the single day of La notte to the indefinite couple of weeks of L’eclisse and Il deserto rosso. Their tendency to adhere to the classic theatrical unity of time is one more reason for rejecting easy uses of terms like dedramatization.
Another misapprehension is that the films are needlessly depressing. But, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts it:
Except for La notte … none of Antonioni’s work is ever so arid, or so alienating, as a conventional analysis of his ideas might suggest. In each of his films there is a positive pole and a negative, and a tension between them. The abstraction, the ‘ideology,’ lies mostly at the negative pole. The concrete and actual evidence, the life of the film, is more often positive—and more often neglected by criticism (Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Shape Around a Black Point,” Sight and Sound 33 [Winter 1963/64]: 17).
I heard the story from my friend Peter Selz, then curator of the Museum of Modern Art, who took Antonioni, at Antonioni’s request, to Rothko’s studio. Richard Gilman uses the remark as the title of one of the most perceptive early discussions of Antonioni to appear in America (“About Nothing—with Precision,” Theater Arts 46, no. 7 [July 1962]: 10–12). Antonioni confirmed the story in conversation, adding that he later became friends with Rothko and even bought a painting from him, paying in advance. Unfortunately, Rothko died before he was able to meet his commitment.
Gilman, p. 11.
See Roland Barthes’s S/Z (New York, 1970) for an account of the many ways in which traditional or lisible narrative reassures the reader.
Gilman, p. 11.
“A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work,” Film Culture, no. 24 (Spring 1962), p. 46.
“A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni,” p. 51.
And the psychoanalyst who thus quotes Freud goes on to say:
The movie makes a sweeping, it could almost be said an encompassing, statement about the erotic life of modern man. It is doomed from the start, the movie asseverates: doomed because the quest for the beloved is hopeless and because its hopelessness breeds disenchantment, cynicism, and self-hatred; doomed because sexual fulfillment is so often unsatisfactory and guilt-ridden; doomed because sex is used, wrongly, as solace for frustrations and defeats, as an anodyne for the soul-sickness which afflicts us because of our own compromises, weaknesses, and corruption, and as an outlet for angry, destructive feelings which besmirch it; doomed, finally, because despite all this the quest goes on and must go on, though joyless, sterile, and, after a time, devoid of any prospect of success. Eternal restlessness and frustration are the inescapable conditions of our erotic life (Simon O. Lesser, “L’avventura: A Closer Look,” Yale Review 54 : 45).
In his interview with Antonioni, Godard remarked, “There seem already to be traces of the neuroses which appear in Il deserto rosso in the character of Monica Vitti in L’eclisse.” But Antonioni disagreed vigorously. “Oh no. The character of Vittoria in L’eclisse is the complete antithesis of that of Giuliana. In L’eclisse, Vittoria is a calm well-balanced girl who knows why she acts as she does” (“Jean-Luc Godard Interviews Michelangelo Antonioni,” Movie, no. 12 , p. 32).
Il primo Antonioni, ed. Carlo Di Carlo, p. 27.
The theme of escape is illuminated by Carlo Salinari, Miti e coscienza del decadentismo italiano (Milan, 1960). Salinari sees in escapism a central topos of the decadent movement in Italian literature.
Alberto Moravia observes somewhere that, though ennui—noia—seems to be the opposite of “fun,” it is really quite similar from the psychological point of view. The latter, too, diverts or even distracts. Like other distractions, “fun” is really a kind of insufficiency or inadequateness or scarcity of reality.
Lesser, p. 44.
The best article I have seen on the psychiatric meaning of distraction in Antonioni’s films is Piero Amerio’s “Appunti per una psicologia dell’irrelevante,” in Carlo Di Carlo, Michelangelo Antonioni, pp. 45–51. Amerio attributes the theme of distraction to “the irrelevant drive.” Much of Sandro’s behavior, he contends, is explainable as a “flight intended to block a less bearable state.” Sandro busies himself with finding Anna so that he can get his mind off other problems, including Claudia. She in turn becomes the object of the irrelevant drive distracting him from the problem of his work. The state of mind is a kind of psychological “vagabondage.”
Nowell-Smith, “Shape,” p. 17.
Antonioni was interested as early as 1939 in making a film about the destruction of civilization. In an article called “Terra verde,” he proposed a Technicolor production based on notes toward a novel published by Guido Piovene in the Corrière della sera in November 1937. Piovene envisioned a lost civilization on the east coast of Greenland, which flourished until the Gulf Stream deviated to the east, leaving the once flourishing land to the mercy of encroaching glaciers. Antonioni was particularly inspired by a passage in which a farmer, putting his horse out to graze one day, sees the grass change suddenly from green to silver and then back to green. This is not only the first sign of the coming of the glacier but the first sign of Antonioni’s desire to control the color of natural objects, a desire that led him to have streets, woods, and hotel lobbies sprayed with paint for Il deserto rosso and to shoot Il mistero di Oberwald from a television console so that he could mix colors on the spot.
The Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni (New York, 1963), p. 230.
The Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni, p. 231.
Strick, Antonioni, p. 12. Dwight MacDonald was one of the reviewers who let a penchant for symbolism spoil his reading of L’eclisse. For instance, he found “pretentious” and “obvious” the shot of the two nuns walking below Piero’s house as he tries to seduce Vittoria. But it is precisely because their presence is so common a sight in Rome’s streets that they do not work as symbols of asceticism or sexual purity. In their silent and odd, antiquated shapes, they seem, rather, to be one more embodiment of that mystery of the quotidian that forms so much a part of the film. MacDonald is no less off base in arguing that the stockbrokers “stand for” Civilized Man and the African natives in Marta’s photographs for Natural Man. Such readings reduce the film to mere allegory (Dwight MacDonald, Dwight MacDonald on Movies [Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969], p. 338).
Nowell-Smith was among the few who sensed the predominantly nonsymbolic or metonymic character of Antonioni’s art:
Contrary to what is often thought, Antonioni has a horror of obvious symbolic correspondences. It did not take him long to realise that his starting point for L’eclisse, the actual solar eclipse, would provide in the finished film only a tedious and unnecessary metaphor—“the eclipse of the sentiments”—for what he really had to say. So he cut it out, and it survives only as an allusion in the title. Speculating here, I should also say that if it had been pointed out to him that the shots of the emptying water butt and the water running to drain in the final sequence of the same film would be taken conceptually as a straightforward symbol of Vittoria and Piero’s affair running out, then he would probably have cut them out or altered them so as to minimise, if not eliminate, the association. The meaning of this final sequence, even in the cut version shown in London, is extraordinarily rich and complex, and is diminished rather than enhanced by this sort of interpretation. It depends, like much of the best lyric poetry, on a subtle interplay of subjective and objective, of fact and feeling; but it derives most of its imagery from the narrative structure of the earlier part of the film.” (“Shape,” p. 19)
The same point is made by Gavriel Moses in an excellent study of the opening sequence, Eclipse: Opening Sequence (New York, 1975). Moses sees Antonioni in the context of modernism and recognizes Antonioni’s minimalist action, his relation to the nouveau roman, his use of the witness—which he calls flaneur—and the importance of figure-ground relationships in his films.
Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle, Fundamentals of Language (The Hague, 1956).
On several occasions, Antonioni was asked what the title Red Desert means. To Michèle Manceaux he answered: “It isn’t meant to be symbolic. Titles of this sort have a kind of umbilical cord linking them to the work [a very good description of metonymy]. I don’t really know why. It’s more of an open title, and anyone can read into it whatever he likes” (“In the Red Desert,” Sight and Sound 33 [Summer 1964]: 119). Antonioni has made similar remarks about his films on other public occasions to questioners who pressed him for an interpretation. It is clear that he does not privilege his own interpretations, neither of titles nor of the films themselves, and that he intends the films to work as texts open to the viewer’s own interpretation.
The Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni, p. x.
Michelangelo Antonioni, Sei film (Turin, 1964), p. xi. Antonioni also said (in an interview published in Positif, March 1962, as translated by Strick, Antonioni, p. 52):
The loneliness which separates us from others and brings on the eclipse of all feelings is what Vittoria in the film feels above all else, but it is not a dramatic crisis or a moral one, it’s a choice. Under her layer of anxiety she is serene enough. She knows, so does Piero, that they will not be able to love as they would want to, that they will not know how to live with this love. So he plunges back into his search for money, and she accepts it. She is resigned, but eventually she is smiling: love isn’t everything. And up to now eclipses haven’t been final.
See my Story and Discourse (Ithaca, 1978), p. 54, for a descriptive diagram and, more generally, for the theory of narrative presupposed by the discussion here.
See Bernard Pingaud’s important essay “Antonioni et le cinéma réel,” Preuves, no. 117 (November 1960), pp. 63–66, reprinted in Carlo Di Carlo, Michelangelo Antonioni, pp. 214–20: “In Antonioni, the truly significant shots, instead of constituting hints in the chain of the action, insidiously bend them, deter them from their course, furnishing spectators with other motives of interest.” (Antonioni confesses in interviews that he is often distracted as he writes a story by the next story or an alternative one.) Events “—like question marks in the margins—[show] that the past is not as clear as it seems, that it can be read differently.” This causes a peculiar kind of articulation, a kind of intentional “misfiring”: the plot moves along in short jerks, through small total fractures instead of the smooth “continuity” of traditional filmmaking. “The hinges of the story do not coincide with the beginnings and endings of the scenes.”
For the theory of verisimilar irrelevance, see the classic essay by Roland Barthes, “L’effet de réel,” Communications, no. 11 (1968); English translation, “The Realistic Effect,” by Gerald Mead, Film Reader 3 (February 1978).
The Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni, p. 183.
Chatman, Story and Discourse, pp. 70–72.
Bosley Crowther said about one film that several reels must have gotten lost, and Dwight MacDonald complained that there were not enough reasons or causes provided and that “nothing happens.”
Barthes, “Caro Antonioni,” p. 4.
Nowell-Smith, “Shape,” p. 16.
As quoted in Strick, Antonioni, p. 17.
Nowell-Smith, “Shape,” pp. 19–20: “His camera here is the voice of a lyric poet who draws on real material but fuses it together in a purely imaginative way in order to envisage subjectively a purely imaginative possibility—that the light should have gone out on the love between Piero and Vittoria.”
For the dialectic shifts between time and space, see Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleaumier, “L’espace et le temps dans l’univers d’Antonioni,” Etudes cinématographiques, nos. 36–37 (1964), pp. 17–33.
Gente del Po [People of the Po Valley] (documentary short) 1947
Nettezza urbana [N. U.; Sanitation Department] (documentary short) 1948
L'amorosa menzogna [Lies of Love] (fictional short) 1949
Cronaca di un amore [Story of a Love Affair] (film) 1950
La signora senza camelie [The Lady without Camelias] (film) 1953
Le amiche [The Girlfriends] (film) 1955
Il grido [The Cry] (film) 1957
L'avventura [The Adventure, 1960] (film) 1960
La notte [The Night] (film) 1961
L'eclisse [The Eclipse] (film) 1962
Il deserto rosso [Red Desert] (film) 1964
Blow-Up (film) 1966
Zabriskie Point (film) 1969
Chung Kuo (documentary) 1972
Professione: Reporter [The Passenger] (film) 1974
Il mistero di Oberwald [The Mystery of Oberwald] (television feature) 1979
Identificazione di una donna [Identification of a Woman] (film) 1982
Quel bowling sul Tevere [That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director] (short stories) 1982
Al di là delle nuvole [Beyond the Clouds] (film) 1996
Destinazione Verna (film) 1999
Just to Be Together (film) 1999
SOURCE: “Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Pirandello’s Shoot!,” in Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 129–33.
[In the following essay, Cole argues that Pirandello’s 1916 novel Shoot! provided more inspiration for Blow-Up than the Julio Cortazar story which is its credited source.]
Although the credits for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) indicate that the screenplay was “inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar,” essays treating both film and story inevitably conclude that the differences between the two are far greater than their similarities. Cortázar’s amateur photographer takes one picture of a woman talking with an adolescent boy while he speculates on the possible outcome of what he deduces is a sexual “pick-up.” His action interrupts the encounter; the boy runs away; and a man waiting in a parked car is seen joining the woman in apparent anger and agitation. Several days later the photographer, contemplating an enlargement of his picture, experiences, first, shock, as he now reconstructs imaginatively that what he interrupted was an attempted homosexual seduction; and second, relief at having had a role in permitting the boy to escape. Apart from the obvious complexities of Antonioni’s adaptation, the carefully elaborated social and cultural context of “liberated” young people in a trendy, “mod” world, there is an essential difference even in the central experience of a photographer coming to a belated realization that what he had photographed was more horrible than he had earlier realized.
Cortázar’s photographer is in fact horrified and disgusted at the “reality” of the attempted seduction, but we have no way of determining with certainty that what he imagines to have been the case was in fact the case. His perceptions and descriptions all tend to point in that direction, but he himself provides a perspective of ambiguity in narrating the incident. He confesses very early that he is troubled about the difficult process of telling the story: “It’s going to be difficult because nobody really knows who it is telling it, if I am I or what actually occurred or … if, simply, I’m telling a truth which is only my truth. …”1 Later, as he imagines the possible human responses of the boy to the woman, he accuses himself as one “guilty of making literature, of indulging in fabricated unrealities” (157). Despite all such self-conscious warnings, however, the reader is inclined to share the narrator’s conclusions about what was about to happen, and—even more important—is convinced of the personal truth of his emotional revulsion.
In the case of Antonioni’s photographer, on the other hand, the murder is more than a probable speculation; it is real; it did happen. And his response to that discovery is in telling contrast to that of Cortázar’s photographer: there is neither shock nor revulsion, but an amoral fascination at having been a recording witness of the death. Coming upon the actual corpse, his chief response is the desire to photograph it. And even that wish is liable to quick submergence when the more immediate pleasures of a pot-party overwhelm him.
Because the corpse has mysteriously disappeared by the next morning, and because the film’s final sequence shows the photographer witnessing and even participating in a mimed tennis match (there is no ball, but mimes and photographer act as if there were one), some critics have been inclined to assert the theme of illusion and reality as central to the film, and in that connection have often alluded to Pirandello. The allusions are made in a general way, associating Pirandello with the theme itself, and with technical theatrical strategies that embody that theme. But there is a far more relevant connection to be drawn between Antonioni’s film and Pirandello’s work: it lies in several close similarities between Blow-Up and Pirandello’s novel, Shoot! (Si Gira, 1916, 1925), a narrative cast in the form of notebooks by a motion-picture cameraman who has undergone the traumatic experience of filming a scene of simulated violence that suddenly becomes an actual human slaughter. Indeed, given the nature of the themes and attitudes elaborated in Pirandello’s novel, it would be far more accurate to credit it rather than Cortázar’s short story with having inspired Antonioni’s film.
One of the most striking sequences in the film presents the photographer at work in his studio with a glamorous model (played by Verushka): their interaction takes on the characteristics of sexual love-play, the model responding with increasing intensity to the photographer’s excited direction. Their mock-climax takes place as the model, writing slowly on the floor, with the photographer first standing and then kneeling astride her, heeds his suggestive words: “Go at it. Go, go. Great. That’s it, keep it up. Lovely. Yeah, make it come. Great. Don’t give up now. … Love, for me. Love for me, Now, now … Yes, yes, yes. …”2 The abrupt conclusion leaves the model prostrate on the floor and the photographer slumped exhausted on his divan. For all its surrogate sexuality and mock-intimacy, the bizarre procedure has been “professional”—both photographer and model are being paid for what they are supposed to do: to provide images of sexual glamour. The commercial manipulation of sexuality is “all in a day’s work.”
Pirandello’s motion-picture cameraman in Shoot!—Serafino Gubbio—works for a Rome film studio in the days of silent movies; unlike Antonioni’s figure, he plays no directing role, but merely operates the camera in response to the commands of others. His studio also is interested in providing images of sexual glamour, among other, fantasies, and one of the scenes he must film is a counterpart to the Antonioni sequence. In it, the leading actress of the company plays a young Indian woman who kills herself in the course of a dagger-dance which she performs nearly naked. The cameraman recalls the intensity of her performance:
Through the painful contortions of that strange, morbid dance, behind the sinister gleam of the daggers, she did not take her eyes for a minute from mine, which followed her movements, fascinated. I saw the sweat on her heaving bosom make furrows in the ochreous paint with which she was daubed all over. Without giving a thought to her nudity, she dashed about the ground as in a frenzy, panted for breath, and softly, in a gasping whisper, still with her eyes fixed on mine, asked now and again: “Bien comme çͣ? Bien comme çͣ?”3
The quasi-sexual intimacy between actress and cameraman leads, at the scene’s end, to mutual exhaustion:
I was utterly exhausted … I saw Carlo [an actor] help the woman to rise, wrap her in the cloak and lead her off, almost carrying her, to her dressing room.
Pirandello’s protagonist is a remarkably reluctant participant in the world of surface sensations that he meets around him; in fact, his deepest feelings run counter to the profession that employs him, a profession he finds meretricious, impersonal, mechanized, and fraudulent. His journals record disturbing sentiments and questions which would never occur to Antonioni’s photographer, who has not only “bought into” the restless, sensation-hungry, and technologically enhanced mod culture but also drifts on its erratic currents without reflection, thought, or judgment. People like that are just what Pirandello’s cameraman despises. Two or three instances of his reactions to particular incidents bring to mind analogous situations in the film.
The first occurs very early in the book, when he recounts meeting up with an old friend who is now a teacher in a “Casual Shelter”—a social service center and charity “hotel” for the down-and-out, not unlike the London “doss-house” where Antonioni’s photographer has spent the night surreptitiously photographing that segment of the human scene which is ordinarily excluded from his more fashionable surroundings, and which will be quickly “translated” into parts of a photo-book he is soon to publish. Pirandello’s character is struck by the sordid plight of many in the shelter, but is far more upset to see the place invaded by a troupe of film-actors who have come there to shoot “a scene from real life” (30): “I remained to look on disgusted at the indecent contamination of this grim reality, the full horror of which I had tasted overnight, by the stupid fiction which [the director] had come there to stage” (31). Motives of exploitation for amusement purposes, and insensitivity to actual human distress are what offend him most. Although such feelings are not shared by Antonioni’s photographer, it is evident enough that the perspective of the film gradually establishes just such an implicit judgment upon its central character, who manipulates and exploits others for his own esthetic and commercial ends.
Pirandello’s cameraman also resents and resists the mechanizing aspects of life in a technological age. He finds the dizzy, mechanical pace of modern life out of measure with more reflective, human experience; and he becomes increasingly cynical about his own impersonal role as that of a mere hand that turns a handle. So much does mechanical function define the man that on the studio lot he is known by the nickname, “Shoot.” (The depersonalization has taken still another step in Antonioni’s film—the photographer is never named at all!) Machinery has opened the way to new sorts of amusements, thrills, and excitation, but Pirandello’s character is not at all attracted to them. Two small but symbolic instances underline that judgment. In the first, the cameraman on his way to work in a horse-drawn carriage is overtaken by a motorcar carrying three actresses: they “laugh, turn round, wave their arms in greeting … amid a gay, confused flutter of many-coloured veils” (77). He sees this as an artificial excitement, something not quite genuine: they do not greet “because there is anyone in the carriage particularly dear to them”; rather, “the motor-car, the machinery intoxicates them and excites this uncontrollable vivacity in them” (78). Surely there is something of the same flavor in the “staged” rag which opens Antonioni’s film, with its waving and shouting students in mime make-up who erupt from their whirling jeep to pour into the otherwise silent morning streets. When he arrives at the studio, Pirandello’s photographer also notes with some contempt the pitiful hangers-on who wait patiently for work as “supers”—some of them content with the mere opportunity to don a costume (82). Something of the same impulse lies behind the two young would-be models who hope to be photographed by Antonioni’s photographer; ironcially, their yen to don a new costume leads to their getting stripped in more ways than one.
Gubbio’s function as a camera operator combines two elements of modern life inimical to the human spirit: the mechanical, and the sham. He finds himself reduced to something mindless and will-less as he turns the handle of the camera; and he finds the cinematic enterprise itself a huge hoax:
How are we to take seriously a work that has no other object than to deceive, not ourselves, but other people? And to deceive them by putting together the most idiotic fictions, to which the machine is responsible for giving a wonderful reality?
What is more, he senses that there is something inimical to life in the process of cinematography, that it feeds upon life and transforms it to dumb images, that it deprives the actors of their greatest artistic satisfaction, the emotional interaction with a live audience. The camera, in such ways, kills and devours, transforming humans into phantom images.
Although identified by the outsiders with his function as a cameraman, inside, Pirandello’s narrator is thus deeply at odds with the goals and procedures of his profession, precisely because they threaten human sensitivity, individual personality, the more genuine sources of emotion and relationship. His private notebooks contain a sense of outrage which his fellow-workers never see, but for the reader it is always clear that his voice is the voice of a judge and prophet within modern culture. Nothing could be farther from the role of Antonioni’s photographer, who seems to bob atop the crest of the wave of his culture—a high priest in the “fab” world of fashionable fantasy, amoral spontaneity, and the recreational imperative. Nevertheless, both novel and film are energized by an implicit tension between the spectacle of a modern culture, amplifying its capacities for sheer sensation, and a sense of stifled humanity, losing its attachment to values of love, compassion, justice, intimacy, responsibility. Pirandello’s narrator is still stirred by humane feelings and judgments; at one telling point, struck by the suffering of a tormented and rejected man, he is very nearly moved to call him “brother.”
No, I did not utter that word. There are certain words that we hear, in a fleeting moment; we do not say them. Christ could say them, who was not dressed like me and was not, like me, an operator. Amid a human society which delights in a cinematographic show and tolerates a profession like mine, certain words, certain emotions become ridiculous.
Gubbio’s bitter realizations are Pirandello’s chief means of criticizing the new insensitivities of contemporary culture; Antonioni’s way is more subtle. His photographer sees and feels but never judges, or, more precisely, judges only by criteria of esthetic or pleasurable impact. Through his camera’s eye and his own voyeuristic eye, all persons, places and events are reduced to stimuli, some of which he packages photographically for consumption by others. The absence of any ethical dimension in his responses to those stimuli is a key mark of his diminished humanity. He plays the spy among the urban down-and-out to expand his portfolio of candid images of human blight; but he is shaping an artsy book, and shows no sign of one disturbed by injustice or ill-tended misery. London itself he judges adversely “this week” because it fails to “do anything” for him. Most telling of all is his response to the murdered corpse; which he perceives not as a victim of crime but as an object to be photographed. Whatever comes his way he reduces to an actual or a potential frame in a sequence of images, which is also the task of Pirandello’s more reluctant cameraman.
Gubbio, too, in the climactic episode of the novel, films inadvertently a premeditated murder. The killer in this instance is a love-crazed actor who, in a hunting scene where he is to shoot an attacking tiger, suddenly turns his rifle against the actress who has rebuffed him and shoots her before getting mauled to death by the animal. The cameraman, in a kind of mechanical trance, films all of this unrehearsed violence. The profits of this unexpected footage bring him and the company financial success, but Gubbio himself (“Shoot” by nickname) loses his power of speech in the shock of the incident. In his silence he finds an ironic perfection, a finishing touch to his role as mechanical image-maker, a hand and an eye without anything to say as a human being. Antonioni’s photographer, though unable to film the corpse after he has assured himself of its reality, is also reduced finally to an eerie silence. The last episode in the film shows him observing a mock tennis game performed by mimes, a game which draws him into its illusion when the players beckon him to return the “ball” which has supposedly been hit out of the court. He mimes the return throw, and an ironic smile plays briefly over his face as he seems to realize his immersion in illusory games.
Antonioni has claimed that one of his film’s chief themes is “to see or not to see properly the true value of things.”4 His photographer’s way of seeing (and not seeing) is a splendidly supple embodiment of that theme, wherein persons, places, and events are manipulated into an esthetic frame for esthetic “effect.” Their value is reduced to that effect, and ordinary human concerns and values (personal respect, compassion, responsibility, privacy, justice) are rendered irrelevant. The fashionable mode of esthetic (and frequently fantastic) seeing anesthetizes human feeling. That theme was also at the core of Pirandello’s novel, which clearly prefigured, and perhaps even influenced directly, Antonioni’s film. In any case, Pirandello would certainly have appreciated the movie, not only out of sympathy for its underlying judgments, but above all for its startling paradoxical achievement as an invented image whose human resonance is inversely proportional to the loss of human resonance in the image-maker whose story it portrays.
Cortázar, “Blow-Up,” End of the Game and Other Stories, trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Random House, 1967), rpt. in Focus on “Blow-Up,” ed. Roy Huss (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971) 152.
“Blow-Up”: A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni (London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1971) 31–32.
Shoot!, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff (New York: Dutton, 1934) 127–28. Page references for subsequent quotations will appear within parentheses in my text.
Interview in Cahiers du Cinéma (Jan. 1967), quoted in “Blow-Up”: A Film, 14.
SOURCE: “Blow-Up, Swinging London, and the Film Generation,” in Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 134–37.
[In the following essay, Lev examines Blow-Up in the context of its “social-cultural moment.”]
Blow-Up must be approached from the dual perspectives of art and commerce. It is certainly a key film in the distinguished artistic career of Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the world’s great film directors. Blow-Up has excellent credentials as an art film: script and direction by Antonioni, based on a story by the Argentine modernist Julio Cortazar, and with an emphasis on theme and visual imagery rather than on genres or stars. Yet Blow-Up must also be considered an entry into the world of big-budget commercial filmmaking: produced by Carlo Ponti for MGM, made in London at a time when that city was exporting popular culture (films, music, fashion) around the world.
The artistic aspects of Blow-Up have monopolized critical discussion. Article after article has delved into the film’s mysteries. The film seems to be particularly attractive to American critics, perhaps because it is one of the few widely admired art films to have achieved extensive distribution in this country. Without denying the interest of Blow-Up criticism, I would like to concentrate in this essay on the film’s economic and cultural backdrop. I feel that economic and cultural factors can illuminate the film’s distinctive look and feel, and can solve some, though not all, of its mysteries.
The film Blow-Up was based not only on Cortazar’s short story “Las babas del diablo” (the English translation was titled “Blow-Up” after the success of the film), but also on the article “The Modelmakers” written by Francis Wyndham for the London Sunday Times Magazine. Wyndham’s article is a long interview with three successful young photographers—Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan, and David Bailey—which describes the milieu of British fashion photography circa 1964. A handful of fashion photographers, with David Bailey perhaps the best known, were among the new celebrities of London in the 1960s. Young, wealthy, creative, impatient with tradition (most came from working class backgrounds), they cut dashing figures in the era of the Beatles. Their professional and personal innovations included a more directly sexual approach to fashion, photography and art photography, and a similar coming together of documentation of an event and creation of an event. The photographers observed the London scene but also helped to create it.
As Alexander Walker notes, the idea of a feature film set in London on the life of a fashion photographer, and based in part on Wyndham’s article, did not originate with Antonioni. The highly commercial Italian producer Carlo Ponti, working on a multi-picture production deal with MGM, began discussion on such a film in 1964. At one time David Bailey himself was scheduled to direct the film. However, Bailey turned to other projects, and the “photographer film” was stalled until Antonioni and Ponti came to an agreement on it. (Walker 316–317, 320–322)
Although Antonioni was not involved in the earliest stages of the “photographer film,” he did have ample opportunity to shape it to his own artistic needs. Antonioni had the idea of loosely basing the film on the Cortazar story (which concerns a photographer, a mystery, and a crucial scene of making enlargements; it is otherwise quite unlike Blow-Up). He wrote the script with his long-time collaborator Tonino Guerra and with British playwright Edward Bond. He also cast the picture, filmed it, and supervised the editing.
Why was Antonioni interested in such a commercial and “trendy” subject? Without undue psychologizing, a few answers are possible. First, Antonioni had observed the London art and fashion scene in 1964, when he accompanied Monica Vitti to England for the filming of Modesty Blaise. At that time he saw something in mod London that intrigued him. In doing interviews about Blow-Up, Antonioni several times expressed interest and even a qualified support for the freedom and iconoclasm of mod London.
Second, despite his critical reputation, Antonioni had not at this time established himself as a commercial filmmaker. A proud man, he insisted on being treated as a major artist. In a notorious interview with Rex Reed in the New York Times (which Antonioni later complained about in a letter to the Times), Antonioni expressed resentment about being underpaid and under-recognized in comparison to less-talented contemporaries. He may have turned to the fashionable subject of Blow-Up in a conscious attempt to make his mark in commercial filmmaking. The success of Blow-Up did, in fact, have this result. Antonioni reached a broader public with Blow-Up than ever before or since in his career, and the film’s success led to a contract for three more English-language films with MGM (only two were ever made: Zabriskie Point and The Passenger).
Many critics have noted a changed visual style in Blow-Up as compared to Antonioni’s earlier films. Blow-Up is more colorful, more rapid, more active than the gray, languid Italian films Antonioni made in the early 1960s. The change of style and mood can be attributed to both commercial and artistic attributes of Blow-Up. Commercially, Blow-Up is a film of “swinging London,” of a free and creative youth culture which reached a worldwide audience in the mid-sixties. Academic critics may easily overlook the extent to which the milieu presented in Blow-Up—fashion, rock music, pot parties—was in itself attractive to audiences of the time. The film is a privileged look at British youth, and may have positive connotations independent of Antonioni’s personal interpretation of the London scene. MGM’s press releases on Blow-Up heavily emphasize the youth appeal of modern London, “where teenage pop singing groups have their records sold in shops owned by people their own age, and photographers who have barely started showing drive Rolls Royces with radio-telephones.” (Publicity Release) Even incidental details of the film may have a powerful attraction; for example, a student of mine has his own video copy of Blow-Up, because it is “the only film with Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck playing together” (in the brief scene of the Yardbirds at the rock club).
The environment of swinging London, so important to the commercial prospects of the film, is for Antonioni the art film director only the beginning of a process of creation. For if Antonioni is fascinated by the surfaces of mod London, he also finds the youth culture problematic in some respects. As Andrew Tudor explains, Blow-Up, represents a new departure for Antonioni, a move away from the alienation of traditional Western societies and toward a greater freedom and individualism. The changed visual style and atmosphere of the film correspond to the freedom of this new situation, which Tudor labels “counter-cultures.” (Tudor 26–28) But counter-cultures present new problems. For example, in a world where things are often not what they seem (e.g., the photographer introduced as a bum leaving a shelter, the tryst in the park as a setup for murder), and where no one standard of values prevails, how does someone follow through on a personally and socially meaningful action? The photographer fails to do this, allowing himself to be distracted from reporting the murder. The bright colors and rapid movements of Blow-Up might thus be seen as distractions and illusions rather than as unambiguous representations of attractive mod London.
Another cultural context influencing the production and reception of Blow-Up was the evolution of motion picture censorship in the 1960s. The restrictive production code governing Hollywood films was rapidly eroding in this period (its replacement, the ratings system, was fully in place by 1968), and censorship rules were being liberalized in many other countries as well. A key argument in the fight against censorship was that rigid censorship codes unduly restricted the possibilities of film art. Blow-Up was very much in the middle of the censorship debate, since 1. it was made by an internationally prestigious director, and 2. it contained sexually explicit scenes that had not, to this point, been acceptable in a film released by a major Hollywood company. After much discussion in the press, including Antonioni’s refusal to make any cuts,1Blow-Up was released not by MGM but by “Premier” films (a subsidiary company of MGM) and under the heading “Carlo Ponti Presents.” This was done to avoid putting MGM in the situation of releasing a film without the MPAA Seal of Approval. The censorship controversy surrounding Blow-Up created a great deal of free publicity and almost certainly contributed to the film’s commercial success. Censorship controversies involving Blow-Up in Italy, Argentina, and Japan probably had the same result.
Although there is much merit in the argument that censorship of sexually explicit material restricts film’s artistic possibilities, it is important to note that film art and sex in cinema are linked for commercial reasons as well. Historically, the popularity of the foreign film in the United States after World War II—and continuing to the present—can be explained at least in part by the frank attitudes toward sexuality presented by the European imports. “Art film,” “foreign film” and “sex film” have at times been almost synonymous in the United States. This does not mean that all foreign films are calculating and exploitative in their use of sexuality. In many cases, the presentation of sexuality is so thoroughly and intimately tied to theme and style that it is absolutely essential to a film’s meaning. But the presentation of sexuality can also be seen as a provocative display which has commercial possibilities. From this point of view, Blow-Up becomes an arty backdrop for three sexually daring scenes.
Blow-Up is an art film, a meditation on a certain young generation by the master filmmaker Antonioni. Blow-Up is also a commercial film about sex, drugs, and rock and roll set in swinging London. Does this duality imply a dissociation, a split between art and commerce in the film? Blow-Up can be read as a schizoid film, where film art and a commercial popular culture uneasily coexist. But the real distinction of Blow-Up lies in the extent to which it unifies art and popular culture, the extent to which Antonioni’s vision and the environment of swinging London become one.
Antonioni’s Italian films of the 1960s, from L’avventura to Red Desert, had repeatedly analyzed a social world in crisis—fragmented, confused, anomic—where intimate relationships in particular had lost strength and meaning. Blow-Up offers an alternative to this social world, a departure from upper-middle-class Italy that expands and renews Antonioni’s interests while at the same time presenting a very current subject. Swinging London graced the cover of Newsweek, for example, at about the same time that it was being presented on film by Antonioni.
More important than this congruence of interest, though, was a willingness of film audiences of the time to look for artistic and philosophical dimensions of motion pictures. The mid-1960s was the era of the “Film Generation,” the period when motion pictures seemed to be replacing the novel as a dominant cultural form.2 In this context, audiences were willing to accept Blow-Up as both popular entertainment and philosophical exploration. Blow-Up’s manipulation of ideas of reality was debated in the popular press, and Antonioni was interviewed at length in Playboy. The hippies and other youth culture figures of the time were themselves playing with ideas of reality, which might partially explain the respectful treatment given to Antonioni. In other circumstances Blow-Up might have reached only an elite, minority audience—the audience which watched Antonioni’s earlier works and his post-Blow-Up films.
The point to be made is not that Blow-Up can be reduced to a few historical and social conditions. But I do object to criticism that looks at Blow-Up as the timeless masterpiece of the great filmmaker Antonioni adapting the great writer Cortazar. Instead, Blow-Up is Antonioni plus Cortazar plus swinging London plus the Film Generation plus sex in cinema plus Carlo Ponti plus MGM. … The complexity of Blow-Up lies in the encounter of a great film director and a particular social-cultural moment.
Antonioni did, however, trim a few seconds from the scene where the photographer observes his neighbors making love for American release prints of Blow-Up. This was done with no publicity, according to Variety, perhaps because of “exploitation expediency” (“MGM Prunes”). The trim is documented in Blow-Up (script), p. 99.
The phrase “The Film Generation” stems from a famous essay of the same tittle by Stanley Kauffmann.
Antonioni, Michelangelo. Blow-Up (script). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Kauffmann, Stanley, “The Film Generation: Celebration and Concern.” In A World on Film (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 415–428.
“MGM Prunes Print on QT.” Variety 26 January 1967.
Publicity Release, Blow-Up. For Director’s Guild of American Screening, Los Angeles, December 14, 1966.
Reed, Rex. “After the ‘Blow-Up,’ a Close-Up.” New York Times 1 January 1967.
Tudor, Andrew. “Death Valley.” Cinema (London) 6–7 (1970): 23–30.
Walker, Alexander. Hollywood U.K.: The British Film Industry in the Sixties. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.
Wyndham, Francis. “The Modelmakers.” London Sunday Times Magazine 10 May 1964.
Arrowsmith, William. Antonioni: The Poet of Images. Edited with an introduction and notes by Ted Perry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Essays based on lectures given at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on the visual structure of Antonioni's major films by a noted classical scholar and translator.
Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Close visual and textual explications of Antonioni's major films.
Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni, or, the Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Encompasses all of Antonioni's films in chapter by chapter discussions.
Powers, John. “Antonioni’s Magnificent Impasse.” Film Comment 36, No. 4 (July 2000): 52.
Powers sees Identification of a Woman as a brilliant Antonionian exploration of heterosexual love relationships.
Rifkin, Ned. Antonioni's Visual Language. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1977.
Analyzes the elements of Antonioni's filmmaking in a detailed survey of his films.
Rohdie, Sam. “Chapter Three.” In his Antonioni, pp.43-56. London: BFI Publishing, 1990.
In this chapter focusing on Cronaca di un amore, Rohdie argues that uncertainty is an fundamental theme in all of Antonioni’s films.
Turner, Jack. “Antonioni’s The Passenger and Identity/Identifying.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 17, No. 2 (June 2000): 127-35.
Turner offers a Lacanian reading of The Passenger, identifying the characters in the film as representing the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real.
Walker, Beverly. “Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of Zabriskie Point.”Film Comment 28, No. 5 (September 1992): 36-48.
In this essay, Walker, who worked as the publicist for Zabriskie Point, recalls the many difficulties involved in making the film.
Additional coverage of Antonioni's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 45 and 77.
SOURCE: “Homevideo,” in Cineaste, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990, p. 60.
[In the following excerpt, Jaehne complains that the home video release of L’avventura strips the film of the aesthetic virtues which made it important when it first appeared in theaters.]
Italian cinema is making a come-back, say popular pundits. Some recent Italian video releases allow us to measure how far they’ve come to get back. Perhaps nothing evokes Italian influence more than Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960, the same year La dolce vita was presented there. These films heralded an Italian avant-garde that soon became synonymous with European sophistication and so influential that they set young filmmakers of all nationalities to avoiding plotline for decades.
L’avventura was a trend-setter, an existential study of moral decay, that made observing behavior more important than storytelling. The film is about manners and morals as they unfold around a crisis, not about the crisis. A perspective of thirty years, however, prompts us to question the way the film cavalierly banishes Anna (Lea Massari) from the story, after taking pains to make her likable—virtually indispensable. Even now, after thirty years of knowing she’s—Fwoosh!—gone: we watch for her return, wonder how her friends will react and compensate for their betrayals. But now, we ask ourselves, why exactly did she constitute the moral anchor? Wouldn’t Gabriele Ferzetti and her best friend, the arriviste sexpot Monica Vitti, have drifted together anyway, right under Anna’s nose?
These and other theological, sociological, and psychological questions are raised by thoughtfully prolonged shots of the impervious rocky clusters of volcanic islands off the west coast of Sicily, where this fashionable crowd is on a yachting holiday. Unfortunately, the panorama of that unyielding, unforgiving landscape and seascape is diminished on video, so accustomed is the cathode tube to a vast wasteland of a different disorder.
It’s hard today not to be a bit flip about that which was once analyzed, dissected and designated great, when its motor—the developing indifference of friends of the vanished Anna—seems slight, incapable of generating the stomach rumblings of the morally hollow human it was aimed at. It seems rather an excuse for an unguided tour of the best Sicilian sites—ancient, medieval, baroque, and modern. Perhaps critics were more hollow and less touristic in 1960 than today. This denial of nostalgia notwithstanding, L’avventura remains the visual equivalent of Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Are video-watchers so literate?
SOURCE: “Sexual Noise,” in Sight and Sound, Vol 2, No. 1, May, 1992, pp. 32–4.
[In the following essay, Wagstaff argues that in Blow-Up Antonioni confronts the theme of ethical perception and the process involved in separating the “signal,” which ought to be paid attention to, from the noise, which distracts from it.]
From 1960 onwards, Antonioni’s films analysed characters whose world had been put in crisis by some event: the disappearance of a lover, the death of a friend, the end of a love affair, a nervous breakdown—these were the starting points of the tetralogy of The Adventure (L’avventura, 1959–60), The Night (La notte, 1960), The Eclipse (L’eclisse, 1962) and The Red Desert (Il deserto rosso, 1964) respectively. Antonioni used for his analysis sex. Men and women didn’t just make love in his films; love-making was a sign, related to notions of alienation and commitment; it was treated for its meaning, revealing how his characters perceived reality and the ethical choices they made on the basis of that perception.
People tend to think Blow-Up is a lighter film than Antonioni’s previous ones. They think that because it is confusing for the viewer, Antonioni meant it to be ambiguous, and if he meant it to be ambiguous, then he did not mind whether we understood what he was trying to say, or maybe he wasn’t clear about what he was trying to say, or maybe the overall meaning of the film was not so terribly important: perhaps its glittering surface was what he was really offering the viewer. But Blow-Up is not so different from his previous films; it just goes a little further. It is not a love story, but it is a story about love stories that are not really love stories: Thomas and Veruschka; Thomas and Patricia; Jane and the murder victim; Jane and Thomas; Thomas and his wife; Thomas and the aspiring models; Bill and Patricia. Even in this film, a character’s relation to reality and the world is largely coded in cinematic terms by means of sexual representation. The only parts of the film that are not in some way concerned with putative love stories are the scenes relating to the dossers, to the Rag week students, and to the Yardbirds’ rock concert, all of which can be shown to have a very precise accessory function, of a basically didactic nature.
Let us challenge many orthodox interpretations of the film, and assert that Blow-Up is not about illusion and reality. That is a metaphysical question, and Antonioni is concerned with ethics: what is the right thing to do? The only way his characters can know is by accurately perceiving the world they are in, and knowing and understanding themselves. The world must have meaning, which is perceived by means of a commitment to the concrete reality in front of them. They know and understand themselves by looking back on what they have done, by reinterpreting what their commitment has been to the world in front of them.
That is why three of the films in the tetralogy and Blow-Up end early on the morning after; it is the morning after when the characters look back and understand where they missed opportunities, and where they failed to engage actively in the reality before them. Thomas’ artist friend Bill says about his paintings: “They don’t mean anything when I do them—just a mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to—like that … like … that leg. And then it sorts itself out. It adds up. It’s like finding a clue in a detective story.” Antonioni himself, replying to a question about how he came to the idea of the mimed tennis game, said: “You are asking me how ideas come into being. They generally have a very confused history. They pop up all of a sudden, and then gradually become clearer. Just as they do in poetry, I believe: some words come into the poet’s mind, and then they sort themselves out and become verses.”
The interviewer on this occasion wanted to push Antonioni into an interpretation of his film, that it was about reality and illusion, and Antonioni refused to agree. The question was this: “Reality is therefore just appearances, in the film? Esse est percipi? Reality equals appearance, illusion, dream?” Antonioni’s reply was: “I wouldn’t say that the appearance of reality is equal to reality, because appearances can be many, but I don’t know about this, and I don’t believe it to be the case. Reality is perhaps a relationship [emphasis added]. But I’m not accustomed to disembowelling the themes of a film from a philosophical point of view; that’s not my job.”
Blow-Up represents the process of perception. We watch Thomas perceive. And we see that it is an ethical relationship with reality that determines his perception. In the tennis match at the end, he is asked to pick up the ball; everybody is looking at him, willing him to do it; he thinks, and decides to do it. He has to put down his camera to do so. If you stand back, and look only on the surface, you will see nothing. just as Thomas sees little of Patricia’s suffering, just as he fails to see what Jane is doing, and just as the camera finds when it backs off Thomas at the end of the film, and he disappears. He wants the pictures of Jane to finish off his book tidily.
It is to be a book that will use stark images of human suffering as a contrast to other, softer photographs, and for which Thomas pretended to be a dosser. His ‘documentation of reality’, his book, his neo-realist photographic documentary, was going to be the product of the same nonchalant non-commitment as his fashion photographs, and his portraits of Veruschka. Note that when he photographs Veruschka in a frenzy of erotic arousal, he is photographing only her face in extreme close-up, not the erotic body. It is a real situation, genuinely erotic: he kisses her, she responds—it is not an illusion. It is done to get a certain kind of photograph, and it is of no ethical substance. But the camera is not being used to analyse Veruschka, to put her into a meaningful context in space, or over time.
I am making Antonioni out to be a dull moralist. He isn’t. In all his films he combines a playful experimentalism with an exuberant sense of form. For example, Antonioni doesn’t accept the wide-screen rectangle for his images. He masks the frame to alter its shape in order to suit what he is photographing. We see this in almost every shot of Blow-Up, and it is particularly noticeable when he takes a middle-distance shot of a standing person, and masks out the entire screen except for the slim vertical rectangle in which the person is framed. He asserts his right to paint abstractly with the camera in the same way as a painter does. Much of Blow-Up is built on the rectangle, and plays with almost monochrome superimpositions of rectangles, which are then related to the notion of framing.
But the concern with form is apparent on an even larger scale in Blow-Up. The film starts and ends early in the morning, with a sort of chorus, the Rag week students. Within that frame, it starts and ends with Veruschka, firstly being photographed, saying that she is going to Paris, and lastly at the pot party, saying that she is in Paris. Within that frame there are at the beginning the five fashion models whom Thomas photographs in his studio, and at the end, the impassive spectators at the rock concert and the fashion dummies in the shop window in front of which he throws down the broken guitar neck, just before he goes to the pot party. Within that frame are the two visits to Bill and Patricia’s house, and his two exchanges with Patricia. Within that frame are the two encounters with the aspiring models. Within that frame are the two visits to the antique shop, the two encounters with Jane, and the two sessions of enlargements, each leading to a different re-interpretation of the scene in the park. Directly after the scene in the park, Thomas meets the publisher of his photographic documentary, Ron, in a restaurant, and offers the immediate, uninterpreted version of the park scene as a feature of the book; we and Ron are also shown the photographs that are the product of the night spent at the Camberwell Reception Centre, with which the film started. After the first re-interpretation of the park scene, Thomas telephones Ron. After the final interpretation, he again sees Ron. Thomas as a fashion photographer, as an artisan, needs no interlocutor but the market. But as artist, as documenter of the real, he needs an interlocutor, his publisher. As man, he has Patricia, and perhaps Jane. In the pale light of the ‘morning after’ he still survives as artisan and technician, but he has learnt some hard lessons as artist and as man: he has failed to get his publisher interested in reality, and he has rejected Patricia’s call for help.
In order to know how you should be acting, you have to know what is the reality that is before you, and in which you have to act. Cinema invites the audience to look at a film and interpret it. Antonioni’s films invite us to watch a character looking at reality and interpreting it. The character finds the task difficult, and Antonioni’s point is that the task is difficult. His main characters are often weak, but that is because they have difficulty reading the world, and Antonioni knows that it is difficult. So we, the viewers, share in the difficulty of the task of interpretation that Antonioni sets his characters. But what Antonioni is telling us is not necessarily supposed to be difficult for us to understand. We must not transfer the difficulties facing the characters to the task offered the viewer. Antonioni is not trying to make his message difficult to understand; on the contrary, he goes to great lengths to make parts of his film very clear. The trouble is, viewers often cannot tell which parts are clear and which are not, and confuse the characters’ difficulties with their own.
For example, is Thomas married? In his studio, his telephone rings and he passes the phone to Jane, telling her it is his wife. When Jane refuses the telephone, he tells the caller: “Sorry love, the bird I’m with won’t talk to you.” He then progressively reduces his moral commitment to his wife, to the caller, with the following monologue: “She isn’t my wife really. We just have some kids … No. No kids. Not even kids … Sometimes, though, it … it feels as if we had kids … She isn’t beautiful, she’s … easy to live with … No she isn’t. That’s why I don’t live with her.” I don’t think Antonioni wants us to doubt the truth of what Thomas is saying. On the contrary, the illustration of Thomas’ weak ethical hold on reality and on the nature and purpose of human relationships that this monologue expresses depends on it being a true expression of Thomas’ difficulties vis-à-vis his wife, not ours.
A notion borrowed from information theory may help to explain how Antonioni’s films work. It is the aural metaphor of the ratio of signal to noise in a communication. If you want to hear a Chopin recital on an AM radio late in the evening, and you find a lot of hisses and whistles partly drowning out the music, you might try turning up the volume of the radio, only to discover that the interference gets so loud that you cannot hear the music at all any more. The Chopin nocturne is the signal that you are after, and the interference is the noise that the channel of communication produces while carrying your signal. If the signal is much louder than the noise, you can turn down your radio to hear the signal at a comfortable level, and the noise is thereby reduced to imperceptibility. It is still there, of course—you can’t get rid of it—but the Chopin nocturne completely drowns it out for you.
Let us apply this notion to life. Between men and women there is sexual attraction and desire. Let us call that a noisy channel. On top of that comes a signal of true feeling. But you get at the signal through the noise. How can you tell the signal from the noise? When Thomas photographs Jane, he hears noise: he sees lovers. Jane is a woman, having meaning (especially to a fashion photographer) as an erotic image, not as an initiator of action, least of all as a murderer. She is in a lush green world of nature, which reinforces that image, as does her embrace with her partner. This is all ‘noise’. When she rushes at him, he creates more noise: “You know, most girls would pay me to photograph them.” He plays a seductive sexual game. Jane says “I’ll pay you,” and Thomas replies teasingly: “I overcharge.” When she tries to grab the camera, he says: “Don’t let’s spoil everything. We’ve only just met …” Thomas doesn’t want the signal (Jane’s aggression and anxiety) to spoil the erotic noise. But Thomas sees it the other way around: he mistakes signal for noise and vice-versa.
When Jane comes to his flat, he carries on trying to interpret as signal what is in fact noise. Jane says: “My private life’s already in a mess. It’d be a disaster if …” Thomas replies: “So what? Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out.” Thomas is trying to turn up the volume, and all he is succeeding in doing is increasing the noise to a point where it drowns out the signal altogether—Jane takes off her clothes, kisses him, laughs and starts relaxing. When Jane leaves, his desire motivates him to take a look at the photographs: still thinking that he is involved in an essentially erotic realm. He blows up the photographs, and becomes ethically committed to the reality that they represent, and is persuaded to invert the relationship between signal and noise. But, of course, Antonioni takes it one step further, because the photographic signal is carried by fragments of silver nitrate, which form a noisy channel; as Thomas blows up the photographs, as he turns up the volume to hear the signal louder, the noise drowns out the signal—in this case the noise is the grain of the photographic emulsion. Bill says of his paintings, which are compared to Thomas’ final enlargement, that he has to learn to decipher the signal in the noise. At this point, we are reminded of something I have quoted Antonioni as saying: “Reality is perhaps a relationship.”
If you think this is fanciful, think again about the scene at the Yardbirds’ rock concert. The group are singing an r&b song called ‘Stroll On’. They are singing to an audience whose responsiveness mirrors that of the five fashion models at the beginning of the film. While we, the viewers, are supposed to be paying attention to the signal of Thomas searching for Jane, and the audience to the signal of the music, one of the musician’s guitars starts producing noise, a crackling. The musician gets angry, and his attempt to quash the noise, by smashing his guitar against his amplifier, becomes the main attraction of the concert; it becomes signal, and in fact, when he throws the neck of his guitar into the crowd, the audience wakes up and responds in a way they had never responded to the music. So signal and noise are represented in a state of permanent reversal. Thomas responds to this new signal by fighting to gain possession of the guitar neck, but when he gets back on the street, he realises that out of context the neck is just noise, and throws it away. The rock concert is not a piece of swinging London, but an illustration of the semiotic structure of what Antonioni is trying to say.
The difficulty of discerning signal from noise is the difficulty that faces the Antonioni character in all his films. The most frequently repeated theme is that of discerning the signal of true human commitment in the noise of sexual attraction. But this is, in its turn, perhaps, a metaphor for the difficulty of perceiving the reality of the world in which we live. The signal/noise or figure/ground opposition is what makes choice possible, but it is also what makes that choice difficult. What people see as the ambiguity of Antonioni is better understood as his illustration of that difficulty.
And it is the very first thing he offers us. The credits of a film are usually lettering applied to a background. In the opening credits of Blow-Up, the lettering contains the image, which consists of shots zooming in and out of some women modelling bikinis on a stage for photographers. We even have the noise of sexuality here. Indeed, the film constantly returns to photography’s (and cinematography’s) transformation of women into images.
An interesting feature of Antonioni’s procedures is this: he does a lot with his camera to make it hard for us to orient ourselves in the scenes that he shows of Thomas’ life, and of London. Antonioni had always been famous for long takes. In this film, he fragments his shots, and so fragments our grasp of the pro-filmic world that is being represented. Most viewers never get a sense of the lay-out of Thomas’ flat-cum-studio. Antonioni creates this difficulty in order to communicate to us the difficulty of perceiving the real world if you are not ethically committed to it. However, when Thomas starts to get involved, then Antonioni starts filming space and time in a way that gives us a firm grasp of the pro-filmic world. The case of the montage of enlargements has been noticed by a number of critics. It is not a straight montage of still photographs, but is instead a carefully planned sequence of pans and zooms, isolating small parts of enlargements in a progressively didactic way. The interpretation of the world becomes easy both for Thomas and for us as soon as moral commitment is brought to the task.
The search for meaning on the part of a protagonist of Antonioni’s is prompted by a crisis. There is no such crisis for Thomas—if anything, his crisis is a product of the search. But the Rag week students replace that function. Rag week is usually Carnival, in England and in Italy. One has to admit that this conflicts with the lush foliage on the trees, but those are the result of the vagaries of the shooting schedule, and there is no doubt that the people are students (they are art school students in the script), and that the notion of Carnival, where conventional reality is overturned, is central to their representation. The film starts with a visual and sound antiphon between the students and Thomas pretending to be what he is not, a dosser, in order to acquire his representation of reality. It ends with the tennis match on the emblematic morning after.
The whole point of a tennis match is the ball. The game is a test of skill. Whether you get the ball over the net and in the court depends on many factors not directly in your control. When you mime the game, it all comes down to will. In a real game, if you hit the ball into the boundary fence, that is an error; it is noise. In a mime, everything is signal: if the ‘ball’ goes into the fence, it is because the participants all communally will it there. There is no chance, and therefore no ‘noise’. Thomas is willed into the game by the students. The woman in the red stripes points imperiously at him and at the ‘ball’ that has gone over the fence. As she does so, all the other students are shown leaning away from the fence, applying their will also to Thomas. In a sense, Thomas is for them like a real ball; he is the one element that is not directly under the control of their will. But if his will can be engaged, he too can participate. And he does. As Antonioni says, reality is a relationship. It is not that the game is an illusion, or that all reality is an illusion, but rather that it is will and choice, coming from understanding, that give his characters a reality in which they can act.
To return to information theory for a moment, we could say that a message that is predictable is clearly meaningful, though it may not carry much new information. If I get a Christmas card from my mother, it is clear what is its meaning, but it is an event low in information. But if I get a Christmas card from the governor of Arkansas, the message obviously carries more information, because it is so unpredictable. The trouble is, I wonder which of all the possible meanings was the one intended. The same is true of the end of the tennis match. The sound of the tennis ball that rises on the soundtrack, as we look at Thomas watching the game (the camera unexpectedly stays on his face, and doesn’t follow the ‘ball’) and as we see his eyes almost imperceptibly droop in discouragement, is loaded with so much information that we can have difficulty deciding what is its meaning. In this way, too, Antonioni makes us share the experience of his characters, faced with the enormity of reality, and not knowing which aspects to choose as a basis for action.
SOURCE: “Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up,” in Philosophy in Literature: Volume II, San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992, pp. 415–420.
[In the following essay, Johnson considers the theme of uncertainty of knowledge in Blow-Up.]
Several friends with whom I recently watched Blow-Up felt the film was dated. I think they were paying too much attention to the clothing worn by the characters (especially the models), the hairstyles, the automobiles and the lifestyles of the central characters; these aspects of the movie made it obvious that it was produced in the Sixties. Still, the philosophical questions posed by Blow-Up are enduring ones: what can we know about events in our surroundings? To what extent can we be certain about empirical facts? In what ways can we be fooled or misled? Does technology help supply answers to these questions?
Prepare yourself for a visual treat. While using no special effects in Blow-Up, except some effective and unusual lighting, Michelangelo Antonioni created a masterpiece of cinematography. The film won the Best Picture Award at the Cannes Festival in 1966; Antonioni received the Best Director Academy Award nomination, and the New Yorker and Life rated the film “best of the year.”
Antonioni was already well known for his unusual camera angles, thematic use of color, long, lingering shots, and the slow pace of his films. The pacing and editing result in a sense of serenity in most Antonioni films, and the photography session Thomas has in the park (where he takes the crucial pictures) is very serene and peaceful, until the Girl confronts Thomas and demands his photographs. The pacing of the sequences in which Thomas examines his enlargements is still leisurely, but a sense of increasing tension and anticipation results instead of calmness.
Blow-Up would have made an excellent silent film. The most crucial sequences have no dialogue whatever. Antonioni shows the viewer the story; he does not simply tell it. When Thomas is examining his enlargements, Antonioni pans to follow Thomas’ vision. You, as the viewer, see the blow-ups in closeup, when necessary, and in the same order that Thomas views them. As a result, with no narration and no omniscient access to Thomas’ thoughts, you have the opportunity of seeing the enlargements as Thomas does; you may then draw many of the same conclusions about what happened in the park.
Antonioni uses a minimal soundtrack. He never uses music coming from some unknown source for dramatic effect. Most of the music is by Herbie Hancock. Cool jazz plays in Thomas’ photography studio and living quarters. The jazz creates an effective backdrop for the mod lifestyles of swinging London in the mid-Sixties. Herbie Hancock is a fine choice as a soundtrack musician. His mellow jazz fits very nicely with the mood of the film. The only other music in the film is by the Yardbirds; Thomas wanders through a concert they are giving (he is in search of the Girl from the park whom he thought he had spotted shortly before). The Yardbirds were among the finest and most influential rock groups of the sixties. Their guitarists included Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They were the first group to use innovative audio techniques such as fuzztone, feedback and modal playing. Their influence on later groups, especially heavy metal bands, can still be heard. The song that they played in Blow-Up is “Stroll on.” Please notice the motionlessness and individual isolation of the members of the audience at the Yardbird’s concert. The only people in the room who are moving are the musicians, one couple listlessly dancing in the back, and Thomas, who winds his way through the crowd.
There are two “natural” sound sequences in the soundtrack that should be given some attention. One is the repetition of the sound of a gentle wind going through trees. Wind sounds are in the soundtrack when Thomas takes his photographs of the couple in the park; you hear the same wind again when Thomas is examining his enlargements and forming conclusions about them. Also, listen closely to the “snap” sound that startles Thomas when he returns to the park to find the body. In the screenplay there is a suggestion that it sounds like a twig snapping, but, elsewhere, Antonioni hinted that it could be interpreted as the click of a camera shutter. We can be sure of one thing in this film. There was a shooting in the park, namely the camera shots made by Thomas. If the mysterious sound is a shutter click instead of a twig snap, then Thomas was shot as well (by more than just Antonioni’s movie camera).
Be sure to look at Bill’s paintings and pay close attention to what Bill says about them. Then, compare Bill’s paintings with Thomas’s increasingly enlarged photographs. Notice all the allusions to illusions in the film. Thomas creates visual illusions with his fashion photography using, for example, smoked screens. He also does a sight-of-hand magic trick with a coin while casually talking to the two young women who come to him requesting to be photographed. Antonioni created a visual illusion by having a large neon sign overlooking the park. The eerie light from this sign creates a mysterious and unnatural aura when Thomas returns to the park at night and sees the body by this light.
Thomas could have experienced sensory illusions because of his being over tired and the smoking and drinking that he does during the day (by my count, he consumed at least four glasses of wine, two glasses of scotch, three beers, and about six cigarettes; they were apparently marijuana; the way he smoked them, viz., taking long, slow inhalations followed by retention of the fumes in the lungs, suggests the cigarettes were not tobacco).
The mimes also must be watched closely. They form a counterculture that fits neither with conservative London nor swinging, mod London. Please pay close attention to the mock tennis game at the very end of the film and notice what happens in the soundtrack when Thomas participates with the mimes.
Finally, note that the principal characters do not have their names mentioned anywhere in the film. We know Thomas’ name only from the screenplay. Patricia, Bill, and Ron are the only characters whose names are mentioned. The models are, of course, nameless.
Critics were generally pleased with Blow-Up from the outset; however, Andrew Sarris provided an apt warning for the readers of critical reviews who have not yet seen the film. He wrote:
If you have not yet seen Blow-Up, see it immediately before you hear or read anything more about it. I speak from personal experience when I say it is better to let the movie catch you completely unawares.1
I think Sarris is correct. Hence, I have already said too much to nonviewers of the film. I strongly urge you to see Blow-Up before continuing, and I urge readers who have not yet seen it to stop reading many pages before this (while you are accomplishing that task, you might as well try believing six impossible things before breakfast).
While the characters and lifestyles depicted in Blow-Up are dated, the philosophical issues raised are not. Some contemporary reviewers recognized this and sought to draw attention to it. In response to possible negative responses to the film, which were likely, considering the trailer used for publicity purposes in America, Carey Harrison wrote:
… Blow-Up is not a study in decadence. His easy life cramps the central character’s initiative, and contempt for his own success has upset his values: he regards fashion photography and the fashionable world as utterly unreal, documentary photography and the outside world as completely ‘real.’ The discrimination is too glib, and the shock is all the more severe when he discovers that the outside world is just as opaque as the sets inside his studio. There is no ‘more real’ world.2
Harrison’s point is that the social setting of the film is secondary to its significance. The importance of Blow-Up resides in the epistemological (and, perhaps, ontological) issues it raises. The triumph of Blow-Up is that it reveals the limitations of technology, in this case, perception-enhancement technology; even after the machines have done their work, human perception and interpretation must come into play. The tragedy of Blow-Up lies in Thomas forced acknowledgement that the “real” world can be as difficult to understand and decipher as the illusory world of fashion advertising he creates in his studio.
Perhaps the scenes used to establish Thomas’ lifestyle are about the epistemological theme of the film in that they provide an empathetic basis for his personal confidence. When Thomas has his camera and can view things through the lens, he feels in charge; he exhibits no hesitation. In the course of the film, this confidence is severely eroded. Harrison agreed; he wrote:
As a photographer he believes he has a consuming, satisfactory relationship with reality, the surface of reality, the subject matter of his art. And the crisis he experiences is with his material, not with the women in his life. By means of the camera he believes himself to be a faithful interpreter of reality, and when his means prove fallible, all his self-confidence is challenged. For the first time in his life, it seems, he realizes how deceptive reality can be, that all his life it has been unfaithful to him and his camera. The audience experiences the film as a series of similar discoveries.3
Harrison, sensitive to the epistemological problems Thomas confronts, was well aware of the extent of his failure and of the probable personal effect this had upon him. He commented:
He believes his photographs tell the truth. But now that the corpse has disappeared, he has no means left of telling this adventure at all. Who will believe him, without the body or the photographs? Not only his mode of expression but his mode of perception is threatened: the fallibility of his perception, made real to him when he discovered what the camera had seen and he had missed, is now endorsed by losing all the evidence of that discovery itself.4
By the end of the film, Thomas, who begins as a character exhibiting complete self-confidence, becomes a person who is not sure of anything at all; he seems horribly diminished. Harrison phrased this conversion well; he suggested that “… the Thomas once so sure he could interpret what was real, confesses himself a doubting Thomas.”5
Harrison stressed (appropriately) that Thomas should not have become so despondent. As a professional, he should have been well aware of the limitations of his medium and his craftsmanship; he should have taken these limitations into consideration. Harrison made this point by comparing a photographer with a scientist:
As a scientist does, working in a stricter symbology than the artist, a photographer understands what a medium of communication or a mode of perception is: it is a construct, more or less fallible.6
Just a scientist should be constantly aware of the tolerance ranges of her measuring equipment and the metaphorical status of her theories and models (Thomas certainly should have known that models are metaphors), Thomas should have given consideration to the technical limitations of his camera (especially without a telephoto lens) and the developing and enlarging processes.
Another contemporary critic concentrated on the personally tragic elements in Blow-Up. Macklin emphasized that Blow-Up reflects Antonioni’s world of “disengagement and sharp contrasts.”7
There is certainly personal, social disengagement separating the characters, but Thomas (and the others) also seems to disengage themselves from London and the world while trying to be cool. Unfortunately for them, their coolness comes crashing down. This is happening by means of slow erosion for Patricia, but it occurs in a comparative rush for Thomas. In the end, he is a loser; Macklin remarked, “Blow-Up is a film about ignorance and loss—something gone, gone in a way that Hemmings [Thomas] disappears from the green earth at the last flickers of the picture.”8
More recent reviews of the film are quite favorable; it has endured well, and it may, one day, be regarded a classic. Leonard Maltin ranks it “∗∗∗ [frac12],” while Pauline Kael, of the New Yorker, gives Blow-Up a mildly negative review while not commenting at all on the epistemological topic of the film.
Andrew Sarris, “No Antoniennui,” The Village Voice, December, 1966, p. 19.
Carey Harrison, “Blow-Up,” Sight and Sound, 37 (Spring 1967), p. 60.
Ibid., p. 60.
F.A. Macklin, “Blow-Up,”December 9 (1967), p. 141.
These data were obtained from: Leslie Halliwell, The Filmgoer’s Companion, Sixth Edition, Avon, New York: 1977; and James Monaco and the editors of Baseline, The Encyclopedia of Film, Perigee Books, New York: 1991.
SOURCE: “The Searchers,” in Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 29, July 20, 1993, p. 49.
[In the following review, eleven years after Identification of a Woman premiered, Brown calls the film “beautifully made … bewitching and exhilarating.”]
Antonioni’s last feature, Identification of a Woman, played in the 1982 New York Film Festival but got hostile reviews and never, as far as I know, opened for a theatrical run. I remember the totally dismissive tenor of the notices—they made the movie sound impenetrable and interminable. I assumed I hadn’t missed much. Now a warped and beat-up print arrives for just one weekend of the Public’s summer Italian festival, and I see that we missed something very special. Continuing in the vein of L’avventura and Blow-Up. Antonioni made a beautiful, riveting, very personal film, which reminds me of Vertigo and of a film made around the same time,’ Nostalghia (actually, Tonino Guerra, a collaborator on Antonioni’s screenplay, worked on the Tarkovsky picture).
Maybe it has partly to do with that lean, ascetic, academic visage, but Antonioni has always passed as an intellectual, and he’s probably mentioned (disparagingly) more than anyone else as singlehandedly responsible for some terminally arty cinema of ideas. The truth is that he’s really as compulsive and directly instinctive an artist as, say, Hitchcock, who’s usually placed at an opposite pole. The trouble with and beauty of Antonioni’s films is precisely that they don’t reside in ideas; reduced to ideas (if a catchword like “alienation” can be called an idea), they really are boring.
It’s probably safe to say that Antonioni personally suffers, or once suffered, a radical estrangement from the world of others, and that “reality” for him is a personal construct, an improvisation. All of his movies are based on some central, unsolvable mystery. Why did a woman commit suicide? What caused another to walk away one day without a trace? At a lower, basement level, a profounder doubt kicks in. Not who was killed in the park and why, but was anyone killed at all Corpses in Antonioni are rarely found. Bodies have their own logic.
In Identification of a Woman, the threatening forces are Other People, particularly the Very Rich—the class that always attracts/repels Antonioni (as it does many another political Socialist). At a party for aristocrats and such, Niccolo (Tomas Milian) is so disoriented he mistakes a woman’s bracelet for an ashtray. Today, the film seems prescient about the prevalence of corruption in Italy, the economic narcissism: “Once it was the poor who left the country. Now, these people do.”
Like Godard, Antonioni starts by quoting from American detective movies; whatever else they may be, his protagonists are usually amateur private eyes. Here the nod comes right off when Niccolo, a filmmaker between films, gets a call, ostensibly from someone’s “gorilla,” or gunsel, warning him to stay away from Mavi, a woman he’s seeing. Throughout, there’re all sorts of hints that he and/or Mavi (the dramatic Daniela Silverio) are under surveillance—then again, they may not be. (A local enigma here is whether there is or isn’t some sort of listening or video device in the tree outside his window.) Eventually, Mavi disappears and Niccolo himself turns tracker and watcher.
The title sounds like something to do with identifying a female body. But where’s the body? As in Vertigo, the woman evades a man’s private obsession, his projections—except that here there’s no victim; the lady’s not for identifying.
If Antonioni’s idealizations of women, his notions of their connections with universal truth or indigenous angst, began to grate around the time of Red Desert,Identification, signals Antonioni’s recognition that he never knew women at all. Here women even look, like boys and turn to other women for sex—though one prefers riding horses. (The movie offers a couple of eye-popping sex scenes.)
The nominal plot has something to do with a director (another of Antonioni’s artist heroes) seeking a woman—in the newspapers, in the zeitgeist, in the women he meets—to structure his new film around. In the past, of course, Antonioni has always used women’s stories. But here Niccolo can’t find woman or story. Extraordinary women appear but it’s his own impoverished sensibility, his bafflement, that serves as point of view. It takes his sister, a gynecologist, to lead him to Mavi; after Mavi (who begins to look like an aviatrix) disappears (à la Amelia Earhart?), an old girlfriend discovers the enchanting Ida (Christine Boisson). Mavi and Ida (two terrific-looking women) are united by secrets concerning paternity—a symmetry that renders each inaccessible. Or so Niccolo believes.
Identification frustrates those who fancy a firm, hand-holding plot and who need to distinguish flashback from present tense. Its real power is hidden deep in the language of image. Take the sensual promise of the opening sequence: The enigma of a tiled wall that turns into a patterned floor leading to the first of the movie’s spiral staircases. At the top our hero (the word is used loosely) slips his moorings, and encounters remnants of his ex-wife’s fears (fears he never understood and certainly did nothing to alleviate).
Nothing, much less a woman, gets positively identified in Identification. Yet the journey is bewitching and exhilarating, and all the more moving for having been lost to us for the past 11 years.
SOURCE: “The Night: On Michelangelo Antonioni,” in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 83–108.
[In the following essay, Rudman meditates on the world of Antonioni’s films and themes such as creation, obsession, isolation, time, and perception which recur in the works.]
Summer, 1993. The worst heat wave in living memory. I lie awake all night, night after night, in Windham, Vermont, thinking about the floodwaters of biblical proportions sweeping across Kansas and Missouri; the Mississippi swollen, bursting the levees, the farmers eyeing their drowned fields from National Guard helicopters.
I go downstairs and pace the two-hundred-year-old rented farmhouse, stare out the windows and wait for the deer. Torn between ecstasy and exhaustion in the gray of dawn, any thoughts I might have had about a split between the mind and the body are destroyed in this insomniac state.
I had despaired of how to begin an essay on Michelangelo Antonioni until another long night of sleeplessness threw me a line.
I thought of Monica Vitti’s rapt gaze when she looks up as the wind strums the stark white flagpoles against the blackest sky, and of the couples in the trilogy L’avventura,La notte, and L’eclisse, and the photographer in Blow-Up, who stay up all night. It is only in this fragile, indeterminate state that we can begin to see for ourselves the presence of the world that Antonioni’s films relentlessly present.
The pure fact of the world. The egalitarian nature of the sensual world.
Why the night? Stay up through the night and you come to the end of something. Something that is disappearing.
At that time I slept very little; I’d adopted the habit of going to bed as soon as the day’s gradual fade-in began.
The work of the most demanding artist of the stellar group of directors to emerge in the 1950s seems to be in eclipse. The Passenger was the only film of Antonioni’s to be shown commercially since Zabriskie Point. He could not get his late films distributed or made. Identification of a Woman never opened in America after its screening at the New York Film Festival. The Crew, which intensifies Antonioni’s focus on the Third World, was never shot. Neither was Technically Sweet, his most ambitious screenplay, though many of its themes were absorbed into The Passenger. And yet the reputations of his somewhat more literary contemporaries, such as Bergman and Kurosawa, have, if anything, grown in the past two decades.
On my way to the retrospective of his work at the Walter Reade Theater I could not help but note that a building under demolition across from the café looked like a three-tiered jungle ruin: the exposed floors, the steel cables sprouting everywhere like vines. The air was heavy with an almost paralyzing humidity. And each day there was less of the site, though by the time I arrived, mostly in the late afternoon, there was no sign that the wrecking ball had been at work. Just dust and silence and the hovering presence of the ruin.
I would not mention this building’s being leveled had it not brought to mind the most riveting scene in I Vinti (The Defeated), in which to escape his pursuers a man on the run descends the scaffold of a construction site, going endlessly down and down, as if the planks and ladders had no bottom, and we switch from thinking about his escaping the other men to his escaping this dark labyrinth. Physics has sprouted a metaphysics.
There were screenings for his early films at 10:00 A.M., and one time I went with Rachel Hadas to see La signora senza camelie. We arrived anxiously, as one does to such events, and struggled to be on time, because, even if there is no one there, or just two or three desultory souls (who nevertheless take up a lot of room) scattered throughout the theater, the projectionist will run the film at the appointed time. Still, it is a shock to see only two or three people in the theater (or do “film people” have such easy access to the cosmic archives that they can see what they need to see when they want to see it, when amateurs like myself are forced to bend their schedules to fit the screening time?).
The process of creation is notoriously difficult to record on film. Writing, music, painting: all resist being captured by a machine which renders only outward appearance. As Antonioni stated in an interview: “Film is not image: landscape, posture, gesture. But rather an indissoluble whole extended over a duration of its own that saturates it and determines its very essence.” That process is most evident in Blow-Up, in which Antonioni uses photography, the least metaphorical of all the arts, to define the human condition. He takes his cue from ancient sources and quotes these remarkable lines of Lucretius: “Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only thing certain is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain” (my emphasis).
From the moment Blow-Up opens, the photographer Thomas seeks that which is missing, the disappearing center. After spending the night taking photographs in the flophouse for the homeless, he is too wound up to sleep, and after asking that his clothes be burnt—shaving half-dressed in his white jeans and wide black belt while his gofers attend upon his eagerness to leave—he dons the last part of his outfit, an emblem of his youth and high spirits, a midnight blue velvet blazer, and makes his way toward a park where he revives, comes alive like a young colt under our eyes. Storming the steps, “relaxed and payin’ attention” (as the line from the Byrds’ song from that time has it), he enters a garden (one of paradise’s false trapdoors) and proceeds calmly, in full control, ready to receive the image: the mystery is ready to offer itself to him.
Antonioni wonderfully depicts the restless waiting, the fever that precedes creation. Thomas is frustrated by the ease with which he can control the finite realm of his work and still feel there is a fragile bond, at best a truce, between what the naked eye sees and reality. Once at work, he is focused, intent: fully alive. Alone in his darkroom he blows up a seemingly innocent, yet suspicious, photograph—again and again until a gun can be made out, and it is not long till it’s clear that it’s pointing at a dead man. But as he goes on looking (as the camera pans back and forth between him and the photograph on the wall), enlarging the image, it decomposes.
Disappearance is the normal order of things for Antonioni.
“People disappear every day,” The Girl in The Passenger says. “Every time they leave the room,” Locke replies.
And the strange thing is that there’s a vague sense of guilt at the back of my conscience, I feel it flowering like a shadow, a Hitchcock-like shadow of doubt that falls on the coherence of my life.
Blow-Up returns over and over to Thomas’s photographs of the disinherited, the homeless; they are part of the larger puzzle he is trying to assemble along with the death of love between himself and his wife and the escapism of the woman in the antique shop who wants to get out of herself and find renewal in Nepal (to whom Thomas replies, wittily and wearily, “Nepal is all antiques”).
Thomas comes to understand, in the course of the film’s slippery dialectics of appearance and reality, that he is one of the disinherited—that what separates him from the men in his photographs is economics. His camera has recorded something that his sensibility could not register. By uncovering the “secret violence” that appears before him in the darkroom, he begins to learn how to live inside manifold contradictions. To exist—even as he is implicated.
It is in direct opposition to dailiness that Antonioni fastened on the night-long vigil as a way of opening his characters’ eyes. Sleeplessness awakens them to their animal nature: it peels away the folds of ego, pretense, identity. What remains is a naked eye that sees the alien strangeness of the familiar world.
The beautiful and terrible moment before dawn when the gray light signals the sky’s clair-obscur resistance. … There is a shagginess to this hour that I love.
The trees fill with wind; expand. And the all-night vigil prepares the way for the eye to see. The blindness of a sleepless night lays down the path for sight; insight—duration’s timeless time.
Last night, in the long-awaited thunderstorm, it was like driving underwater and it reminded me of two scenes in Antonioni’s films that have that “terrible beauty”: the scene in Identification of a Woman where the headlights can make no further headway in the fog, and there is no self or other in the wetness that encompasses the lens; and the crucial scene in L’eclisse in which Vittoria and Piero watch the “dire spectacle of the wrack” of Piero’s car, driven into an artificial lake by a drunk, rise from the dark water with its headlights on, casting a ghostly trail.
The night, during which Vittoria and Piero get acquainted, prepares the ground for their rendezvous at the intersection the next afternoon. They do not appear, but the camera does. In a seven-minute crescendo, a Waiting for Godot with objects as characters, it renders the independence of the world apart from an individual point of view. The sequence provides an escape, a break from the problem of other minds; a resolution, not a solution.
The director’s problem is that of embracing a reality that ripens and consumes itself, and to set forth this movement, this reaching a point and then advancing, as fresh perception.
In the tense, night-long lover’s quarrel which makes up the first scene of L’eclisse, Vittoria keeps going to the window, from which she sees the wind blowing through the stark black trees and the fiercely alien mushroom shape of what I take to be a water tower. (This suggestion of a mushroom cloud comes back in the form of a headline warning of nuclear threat in the final sequence.) Then the camera moves outside the house for the first time and we see Vittoria suddenly dwarfed by the black trees nearest the house as they lean toward her, embodying the full range of the terrible and the beautiful.
It is not the trees and water towers that grow stark and gigantic in the night but our senses that are awakened. Our working lives prevent us from indulging in the night. I pause, having taken up this essay when the temperature was rising, to listen to the wind in the trees and see if it spells some relief. …
The world Antonioni renders means something very specific to him. He deploys his art as one way of crossing “over the border of the purely physical without knowing it.”
So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon
Absolute, they say Arid. A city of corporations
Glassed In dreams
And the pure joy Of the mineral fact
Tho it is impenetrable
As the world, if it is matter
More a filmmaker of place than of objects, Antonioni has gone so far as to color smoke and paint trees so that places in his films could be expressive of his character’s inner crises. He took this to an extreme in Red Desert, where yellow, factory-waste smoke insults the sky and chemicals mar the blue-green Adriatic off the coast of Ravenna. “There’s something terrible about reality,” Giuliana tellingly remarks, “and I don’t know what.”
Antonioni is an investigator, a diagnostician of social ills. His devotion to uncovering the truth, peeling away the layers of his characters’ self-protective armor, is a laborious, tense-making activity. His work cuts against the grain of modern life, which turns its back on time and duration and sees itself cut off from the past.
Perhaps Antonioni had to hit bottom and make Il grido, with its dour portrait in gray—in which the characters are truly in the landscape and in the grip of labor conditions in the Po Valley in winter ten years after the war—before he could in good conscience alter his focus from the social to the existential. I mean literally hit bottom—as the protagonist Aldo (played by the sluggish American actor Steve Cochran) hurls himself from a tower and for a moment his agonized cry scorches the air.
The form that “secret violence” takes is also—death.
In addition to the suicides of Rosetta in Le amiche and Aldo in Il grido, there is the death of Giovanni’s best friend in La notte; the death of a stockbroker (who was given “a minute of silence” broken by the antiphonal ringing of the phones) in L’eclisse; the murder in Blow-Up; the question of whether or not Mark killed a cop in Zabriskie Point; Robertson’s death in The Passenger (which enables Locke to assume his identity). All these are deaths about which no one cares enough; but they are deaths which galvanize action—and force the living to confront their lives.
Learning how to live is necessarily learning how to mourn.
Antonioni’s films became more and more rarefied as he came to locate, to focus on, to blow-up, to explode, the timeless human problems signified by a title like Identification of a Woman. The lives of characters freed from “the practical restraints which imprison him or her” allowed him a more intense focus on the conflicts that lie underneath the social matrices, or the “cover” of work.
Antonioni has always been incisive where matters of class are concerned, and nowhere more prominently than in the early films in the neorealist vein. Consider the nightclub scene in Cronaca di un amore where Guido, tense, sweating, as if flames were about to shoot out from the crown of his skull, looks on as Paola—the ultimate object of his desire, the rich girl, pursuit of whom is his raison d’être—carries on in a flippant fashion, bedecked in jewels and a ludicrous, absurd “leo-leopard” hat.
Profession: Reporter. Antonioni started out as a journalist, film critic, and documentary filmmaker and always approaches filmmaking as a kind of investigation. Part of his task is to give an account of certain conditions. Watching his characters try to live their lives against a background of modern verticals and horizontals that show no love for human scale, we understand why he envisions his work as digging: “archaeological research among the arid material of our times.” His worldliness and awareness of history have given him the freedom to leave it out and look more closely at the problems of living after the Second World War.
“The sun is fierce up in these hills,” writes another chronicler of those years, Cesare Pavese (whose novel Among Women Only Antonioni adapted as The Girlfriends). “I had forgotten how its light is flung back off the bare patches of volcanic rock. Here the heat doesn’t so much come down from the sky as rise up underfoot—from the earth, from the trench between the vines which seems to have devoured each speck of green and turned it to stem.”
Antonioni’s films in general—not only The Girlfriends—reflect Pavese’s tone: his obsession with real time and the feeling of being, as he phrased it in his diary, “alone, alone, alone.”
For Pavese, who committed suicide shortly after receiving the Strega Prize for Among Women Only, only others had life. He was undone by the problem of other minds. In one revealing diary entry he wrote: “6th January 1946. Gods, for you, are the others, individuals who are self-sufficient, supreme, seen from the outside.”
Pavese makes you compliant in his quest: he offers an invitation to wander, saying, come on, let’s go into the hills, it’s cool, it’s clear, and we can look back at the town and get things back into perspective. There’s the long, slow ascent, the careful deciphering of paths from natural openings in the brush that don’t go far enough, the blend of solitude and dialogue (if accompanied by a friend), self-abandonment, all tied to the ascent; then the melancholy turn homeward and the more thoughtful, darker descent, as the perspective gained from the height is lost again.
But sometimes Pavese did not want to come down. He did not want to sacrifice possibility—which seems endless when you look down at the town from far away—for the probability that he would return to the old ways when he reentered the town walls. In town, among others, he felt lonely. In the hills, alone, he felt—for a moment at least—the joy of solitude. A moment, a split-second, of solidarity with the world.
Antonioni takes this quest for perspective a step further. His characters have a lust for altitude: they “get high” by taking to the air. In a splendid digression in L’eclisse, Antonioni reveals Vittoria’s capacity for elation as she enjoys her ride as a passenger in a small plane—a scene that conveys what it feels like to fly better than any film footage I’ve seen, as if we were experiencing it from the point of view of the plane itself. Daria and Mark communicate best in Zabriskie Point while he flies a plane over her car in the azure air in slow, teasing, twisting, erotic circles against a backdrop of mountain, mesa, and the whiteness of the desert.
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Antonioni was inevitably drawn to the character who is the embodiment of professional entrapment: Locke in The Passenger (originally titled Professione: Reporter). Not that Locke (Jack Nicholson)—in a segment excised from the final cut, and handed out with the director’s approval at the retrospective under the title of “The Reporter You Never Saw”—isn’t aware of how different things could be. “Yeah, it’s strange how you remember some things and forget others. If we suddenly remembered everything we’d forgotten, and forgot everything we usually remember, we’d be totally different people” (my emphasis).
There is no escape from the desire to escape.
Antonioni is nothing if not restless: he loves to let his camera pick up the other stories that appear around the edges of the story. Or to find oblique and eerie ways of detailing the inner states of his characters. Niccolo, the blocked director in Identification of a Woman, dreams of escaping to the sun. In the bravura coda, Antonioni shoots his spaceship—made of minerals able to withstand millions of degrees of heat—into the savage red.
Antonioni’s endings break free of what precedes them like rockets sprung loose from their boosters. And his characters fight against their animality; but they cannot escape (not even “to Nepal”). In Professione: Reporter, the uncut version of The Passenger, when Locke and The Girl repair to a garden, he grows quickly restless in paradise and says, “Let’s go eat. The old me is getting hungry.”
It is no small task to convey the experience of transcendence on film: in L’avventura, Antonioni builds up to it in the uninhabited town under construction, the nowhere before they reach Noto, where Claudia and Sandro wander between ancient arches in the rough whiteness—drying out the spirit.
“It isn’t a town, it’s a cemetery.”
“They designed it like a stage set.”
“Once they had centuries of life, now—twenty years.”
The nun who leads them up to the bell tower in Noto has never ascended to that physical height before even though she lives right below it. When Claudia (Monica Vitti) accidentally touches the bell rope on the tower, it sets all the bells in the ancient city ringing out in response to her love: they answer her call.
Sandro is an architect who has abandoned aspiration for commercial success—and whose life is hell on account of it; a fact which strikes with shocking force when, having come down from the tower, he knocks over a bottle of ink by letting his keys swing to and fro until the inevitable occurs, and he destroys an architecture student’s sketch. Inevitable, too, is the way the student, not yet crippled by a life of waffling, flies at his throat. It is the energy of this student that Antonioni will gravitate toward in the future when his love affair with Monica Vitta comes to an end.
I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass—the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along—to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. … May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind m[a]y fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer? Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel—By a superior being our reasoning[s] may take the same tone—though erroneous they may be fine—This is the very thing in which consists poetry.—John Keats
Even Locke (now Robertson) has a moment of delirious freedom when he simulates flight, leaning from the funicular out over the blue waters of Barcelona harbor. But ecstasy exacts its price. In the next scene, as Locke waits in the park in Barcelona for his first rendezvous with the cipher “Daisy,” he meets a winsome yet curmudgeonly old man who sees the children playing as his springboard for this pessimistic reflection—other people look at the children and they imagine a new world but he just sees the same old tragedy begin all over again.
These sentiments recur in Locke’s bleak parable at the end of The Passenger: a man has been blind all his life is so disturbed by what he sees when he gains his sight—the dust, the ugliness, the repetition—that he kills himself.
Antonioni is trying to discover what mutations in the character of his characters have been brought about by change in the world. “The milieu … accelerates the personality’s breakdown … [but] it isn’t the milieu that gives birth to the breakdown; it only makes it show. One may think that outside of this milieu, there is no breakdown. But that’s not true.”
Seeing has been the central metaphor of Western culture ever since Oedipus plucked out his eyes, even more so since Freud fashioned his complex out of that singular action.
The art of film is not only well-suited, but may have been created, in an evolutionary sense, to get this paradox of sight out in the open. Sight, where moving pictures are concerned, requires the dimension of time, and this is where mainstream cinema most often relinquishes its claim as art. Alone among directors (with the exception of Bresson and those who responded to his gesture, like Tarkovsky in Nostalgia), Antonioni has had the courage to experiment with real time in long takes, phrased and framed within a context in which there is at least a trace of a story. He has sought “a cinema free as painting which has reached abstraction … a cinematic poem with rhyme.” Time passes. Duration is timeless; it exists out of time. “Only through time can time be conquered,” wrote Antonioni’s favorite modern poet, T. S. Eliot.
Antonioni devoted a sketch to Eliot in That Bowling Alley on the Tiber.
“Who is the third who walks always beside you?” When a line of poetry becomes a feeling, it’s not difficult to put it into a film. This line of Eliot has often tempted me. He gives me no peace, that third who walks always beside you.
Antonioni resisted the bastardization of montage into shock-effect-“Mabusian”-audience-control, knowing that the time was propitious to go the other way, to get back to and rediscover the origins of an art that had developed, from a technical point of view, too quickly for its own good.
I believe I’ve managed to strip myself bare, to liberate myself from the many unnecessary formal techniques … of much useless technical baggage, eliminating all the logical transitions, all those connective links between sequences where one sequence served as a springboard for the one that followed. The reason I did this was that I believe … that cinema today should be tied to the truth rather than to logic. (my emphasis)
In place of controlling the emotional reaction of the viewer with a cut, Antonioni holds his long take until a trace of true feeling can come through, as he phrases it, in “a world where those traces have been buried to make way for sentiments of convenience and appearance: a world where feelings have been ‘public-relationized.’”
Antonioni exhibited a series of paintings, blown-up gouaches really, in Rome in the early 1980s called The Enchanted Mountains. While I found myself unable to respond much to the work, the sequence clearly alluded to Cézanne’s method of painting the same mountain again and again; which is how, in his long takes, Antonioni lets time fan out, expand, and flower, in a scene, so that truths imperceptible to the naked eye can be perceived. In film he has sought to hold the retinal focus until duration enters the work of its own accord. For his paintings he magnified the initial “image” a thousand times.
Not concentration on the “thing,” but on the scene.
(And what did Antonioni do in the short documentary Return to Lisca Bianca if not, to the bewilderment of the crew, make everyone sweat out a hot July morning on the island and wait until noon for two clouds to provide some shadow-play before saying yes to Take One.)
The fact of a secret violence that throws everything in an uncertain light is what we come to after an hour on the treeless, rocky island of Lisca Bianca, searching for Anna, the disappearing center of L’avventura who has been reading Tender is the Night. (This “disappearance” is Antonioni’s concession to plot mechanics—akin to Hitchcock’s MacGuffins.) The starkness of the rocks on the island; the steady pulse of waves broken once by a cataract that rushes up and scare-thrills Claudia; the high, direct sun, forcing everyone to squint and screen their eyes to keep the glare from blinding them; the elemental otherness of this wild outcropping of stone in contrast to what awaits them on land.
Is there something sinister or menacing about the universe? Something more—than indifference? Or is it that people are often flummoxed by the curve-balls, change-ups, and sliders that life throws them? Life is lethal; ambiguity the poison of choice.
There is a stillness that takes place in the interstices of volcanic activity.
The black donkeys move single file down the narrow lane, hooves striking sparks on the stones, while magnesium flares answer back from obscure peaks.
—Eugenio Montale, “News from Mount Amiata”
Antonioni’s work is perched on an active volcano: it registers the seismographic shock of the scene in Rossellini’s earlier Journey to Italy, when on a visit to Vesuvius Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders come upon a man and a woman who, while making love, were buried in the lava-flow that leveled Naples.
Sandro remains too mired in melancholy to respond to Claudia’s joy. He embodies the dangers of professionalism. Which ignores the night. He’s the “new man”—and a new kind of character for Antonioni to use.
In successive films Antonioni identifies the architect; the stockbroker; the writer; the photographer; the reporter. And then a woman—who is two women.
The architect is a paradigm of the larger human problems: how to address life, to stay in touch with the violence underlying change, rather than making something that is merely the mirror of the time. And postwar Italy is a place, as Montale has it in “News from Mount Amiata,” of “fragile architectures.”
Sandro’s character is an instance of how you do yourself no good in the long run by scaling down your ambition, artistic or spiritual, to make your life more frictionless in passage through this world.
The “novelist” Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) in La notte is similarly trapped in his (glum) idea of what it is to be a writer (like a Moravia character adrift in a novel by Pavese).
Having emerged from the womb of his room only to attend his own book party, he moves around like a ghost of himself for the rest of the day and through the night.
He notices that Valentina (Monica Vitti) happens to be reading Hermann Broch’s modernist classic The Sleepwalkers. This makes her climactic line even more pungent: “I’m not intelligent, just wide awake.”
The night allows the truth to slip in, or slip out, as in the final scene toward dawn when Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) reads Giovanni a love letter that he, ghost of himself that he is, thinks is beautiful beyond measure, unaware that it was he who had written it.
In the lyric moment that concludes this sequence Valentina tells the numbed couple that they have “exhausted” her, and then she stands, quietly alone, silhouetted in the doorway, right knee slightly bent, black hair and dress in stark contrast to the whiteness of her skin, and turns out the light.
If there is a central weakness in Antonioni’s oeuvre it is that his male leads are rarely adequate to the complex parts he would have them play. He needed characters, like the architecture student, in whom the animal was still alive.
After the dissolution of his offscreen relationship with Monica Vitti, Antonioni moved his focus away from women to raw youths, like David Hemmings in Blow-Up and the streetwise nonactor Mark Frechette in Zabriskie Point, who could move like kinetic and magnetic cursors through his meditative films.
The quiet of the night awakens our sensitivity to sound-images that we are normally too preoccupied to attend to.
In Antonioni’s films you are never free from sounds. In the first scene in L’eclisse the loudness of the fan—which encroaches on the room and oppresses it like a praying mantis—is played off against the sussuration of the wind in the bushes. At the end of the scene the slamming of the gate reiterates the finality of the man’s departure.
And at the “press screening” of The Passenger to open the retrospective, which Antonioni attends with Maria Schneider on his arm, the propeller fan in the first scene whirrs like an infernal machine; whirrs so loudly I think there’s something wrong with the projector.
In Blow-Up the soundtrack replays the sound of the wind in the trees (which I imagine must have some very personal root in the etiology of Antonioni’s imagination) that accompanied the first stage of his discovery.
It is not the first time Antonioni puts wind on the soundtrack where there could be no such sound in the room.
It is like the sensation I have when I feel that it’s the shrilling of the telephone wires in the country that makes the landscape impatient. Especially in the first days of spring, when you hear more.
I think of this impatience transferred to people, peasant families for instance. It’s not true that peasants are patient. And I think of the crisscrossing of the telegrams in those lines, with all their stories. And a soundtrack based on that shrilling. …
Antonioni looks at people—not objectively, not independent of any point of view—but to investigate how they interact with objects, and to underscore how human development lags pitifully behind technology.
Technos grows. People talk to each other face-to-face less and less.
Mechanical objects are monsters of repetition. Niccolo can’t get the burglar alarm his ex-wife has installed to stop ringing.
Gadgets multiply, like the child’s robot in Red Desert which beats its head repeatedly against the wall.
During the showing at the Walter Reade Theater of his early documentary about workers on the Po river, Gente del Po, a tear appears in the screen. The bulb behind it blazes like the streetlight at the end of L’eclisse.
And all I can do is stare at the hole in the screen, the rip in the fabric, the light that cuts through the masts of the barges as they set off down the Po.
There are no long nights without an element of boredom. And boredom is an essential component of Antionioni’s work. The problem of boredom is inseparable from the problem of time. Antonioni’s use of time is the closest analogue I can think of to the use of time in the works of Faulkner, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, and Broch (more in Death of Virgil than The Sleepwalkers). This has to do with the ramifications of duration—moments of perception which take consciousness a long time to detail, to populate. Consciousness can never unravel all that it perceives happening in an instant.
Any inquisition into the nature of time is doomed to the use of paradoxes, analogies, which are doomed to imprecision. You’re always running up against a wall of intervening space.
That means it’s time to buy something: it’s easy, satisfying, and only begins to exert an inertial pull after it has been possessed, like the guitar Thomas tosses into the street after working so hard to wrest it from others at the Yardbirds concert.
The night and time. Things get fuzzy when you talk about time. Science is still in the process of discovering the intermittances that the body knows—“intermittances of the heart,” as Proust phrased it in his search.
At the end of August a slight breeze sets off a clicking in the dry weeds. Driving back roads, I note the change in the attitude of nature when it’s further from the highway, or well-trafficked route: fences step out of shadows and the curvatures in the hills let you see them in more detail. This is a landscape whose language is a fructive dialogue between wilderness and settlement. And yet I sense there is something perilous in the spaces between the cultivated and the wild.
I walk into the woods at nightfall, down a path I have not taken before. I walk a while, begin to feel my way and notice it is darker than when I set out. Ten, fifteen minutes have passed. The darker it grows the clearer it seems that I am walking through a tunnel, that the trees have been here so long their topmost branches touch, intertwine; and the tunnel looks like it is narrowing, but it is the absence of light that makes it look like there is less space ahead.
Only now do I note that it is (once again) darker than when I last registered the change in light as light. This is what I remember best about the walk and it occupied maybe ten seconds out of half an hour’s meander.
This is close to where duration is positioned in relation to time. Duration exists in time yet it is hard to imagine it separately from space. Duration is time as it curves into space.
The artist who lets himself be pursued by duration risks, in defeating time, defeating the tension necessary to make the work live. You believe in moments out of time, Eliot’s “moment in the rose garden,” or you do not. The latter row is easier to hoe. The sensualist argues against timelessness. Duration occurs in time but feels subjectively like it is out of time. In time you’re coterminous with yourself. In duration, you’re walking beside yourself.
Once I look back and the entire path is in shadow I realize I have to gauge my progress by the sky.
Shadows put a matte finish on the path.
What is infinite about this silence if I am in the act of hearing it?
While boredom is not necessarily a component of music or the visual arts, I can’t imagine literature in some degree without it—with the singular exception of lyric poetry which destroys as it conflates the dimension of time. (That time is not a factor in, say, a sonnet is one reason why the form is so adept at arguing that nothing will outlast its “powerful” rhymes.)
Antonioni has staked his claim as an artist. I remain confounded as to why people who admit to having no problem with the boredom factor in such works as The Iliad, the confessions of Saint Augustine and Rousseau, The Prelude, Tolstoy’s novels, and the numerous more ambitious works of the modernists, object to what is a precondition of Antonioni’s long takes. They are the cinematic analogue to Proust’s way of touching on the rush of images that flooded Marcel’s sensorium.
Antonioni knows how to release the tension of a long take and release it powerfully—as when Lidia in La notte, in flight from the breezy hospital room where Tomasso lies dying, walks fearlessly (scaring a man who stares at her) through the outskirts of Milan and comes across the boys who shoot off rockets in a field and talk of reaching the moon. A phallic chant goes up: “Terrific thrust!” This thrusting off into outer space is congruent with Antonioni’s avowed desire to be in on the action and catch a ride up there as soon as possible: Kennedy, just prior to his assassination, had granted him permission to participate in a space flight.
I’ll admit that the scene at the stock market in L’eclisse, a brilliant riff on gambling, is a little too long, but how do we know that it does not shrewdly set the tone for the scene that follows, giving it maximum impact: Vittoria watches an elderly man who has just lost a fortune proceed stoically and matter-of-factly to the pharmacy, for a tranquilizer, and then down it quietly at an outdoor café, with no visible sign of grief.
It’s a risk to fashion an art that shows people in a shiftless, distracted, uneasy state; between the acts, in the mess. And yet to show them killing time in this state of anxious uncertainty is to show them at their most human—which doesn’t mean that members of the anxious audience would recognize themselves in these portraits. Antonioni is after truth, not proof; diagnosis of the problem, not a cure for symptoms.
He is the artist of the peripheries, for whom the only center is that which does not exist (except to disappear, like Anna and the victim’s body in Blow-Up). The periphery is the realm of the possible.
It’s … the sort of film I’ve always wanted to make and have never been able to, a mechanism not of facts but of moments that recount the hidden tensions of those facts, as blossoms reveal the tensions of a tree. … [I]t was one of those evenings controlled by invisible looks. In short, an unexpressed tragedy. The characters in a tragedy, the places, the air one breathes—these are sometimes more fascinating than the tragedy itself, the moments preceding tragedy and those that follow it, when the action is firm and speech falls silent. Tragic action itself makes me uneasy. It’s abnormal, excessive, shameless. It ought never to be performed in the presence of witnesses. In both reality and fiction it excludes me. (my emphasis)
Film is a hybrid, an admixture of all the arts that preceded it. Antonioni’s use of these materials is ascetic—no empty virtuosity, technique for him has always been the servant of necessity. By the time of The Passenger in 1975 he no longer wanted to “employ the subjective camera, in other words the camera that represents the viewpoint of the character.” After Locke’s death the camera, as if weary of confinement, wants to look outward again. What does Antonioni do when confronted with what had hitherto been thought of as a technical impossibility? In the final scene of The Passenger, which consists of one long take, he had his crew cut through the window bars of the hotel in Osuna so the camera could see further, emerge, look back at the scene it had just shot.
When asked in a filmed interview with Lino Micciche, Antonioni as seen by Antonioni, shown for the first time in America during the retrospective, “Does the camera have a future?” Antonioni, still spry and youthful in his seventies, did not hesitate to answer: “It will.”
As if to echo the ending of an Antonioni film, I had no sooner completed this essay than a friend lent me a documentary that Antonioni made in 1991—a film that deftly amalgamates many disparate themes that circulate throughout his work. It is an ecstatic yet lucid meditation on terror and beauty. The benign and the malevolent are married everywhere in this deft ten-minute imagist/cubist tone-poem.
The film is as relentless in its own way as D.H. Lawrence’s contrapuntal “Bare Almond-Trees”:
Have you a strange electric sensitiveness in your steel tips? Do you feel the air for electric influences Like some strange magnetic apparatus? Do you take in messages, in some strange code, From heaven’s wolfish, wandering electricity, that prowls so constantly round Etna?
Noto. Synthesizer bells and bird songs. The faces of gargoyles, ranging from the beatific to the loutish. The female gargoyles gaze upward like aspiring angels; the males leer from the balconies. These gargoyles are brutish but shrewd: not moral. They indicate that the human conception of what it is to be human has not changed so much over the years.
He reacts, he loves, he hates, he suffers under the sway of moral forces and myths, which today, when we are at the threshold of reaching the moon, should not be the same as those that prevailed at the time of Homer but nevertheless are.
The meditation on their expressions link up with the carnival masks at the end of the film. And they bring to mind the coarse faces in the stock market scenes in L’eclisse, where it is easy to mistake the human lust for activity with greed.
Mandorli. There is nothing terrible about the blossoming almond tree in this segment as it fills the lens. Only the world surrounding it is terrible. And yet this Edenic moment, like the grove that Locke and The Girl enter in Professione: Reporter, owes everything to history, violence, and chaos.
Vulcano-Stromboli. The volcanoes come as an interruption but they are in themselves interruptions. Volcanoes are populated. They are not at the core, they are the core. As children we pretended that molten lava flowed between the volcanoes of our adjacent cots. We wrestled. And the loser would be dissolved in the infrared flow.
I have walked the cracked, sulfurous lava crusts on the island of Hawaii where several thousand small earthquakes occur every day, and while they don’t shake you up, you pick up the activity in your nerves. It is not unpleasant—because it is real, an inviolable seismographic reminder that life is fragile, robust, dangerous; a reminder that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, like the murder in Blow-Up which the camera—more sentient than the man who wields it, yet without any moral authority—records.
Antonioni is asking us to ask: what can be done with information? Can I act on a received image? I? Vittoria can transform herself after looking at some photographs of lions at home in the bush in Africa, but can lions react to photographs of us? Can lions be deceived by images, like Stevens’s men eating images of themselves?
How else explain the force of distraction in Antonioni’s films? The volcano is a silent witness to history, to the explosions of news and eros.
In most films violence is erotic, often delicate to the point of being balletic in execution: that is part of its allure. With Antonioni sex and violence occur with volcanic force, as when Guido comes under the spell of the nymphomaniac in La notte, or Rachel Locke’s feral boyfriend crowds her in The Passenger.
And there is always Mount Aetna, brooding over Claudia’s hesitant caress of Sandro in the last shot of L’avventura.
Volcanoes: female when they smoke; male when they erupt.
The camera approaches the crater slowly, circling, trying out various approaches. The volcano changes with every new angle. The gorgeous green-gray verges on the comforting, like the park in Blow-Up that looked so “peaceful and still” to the photographer even as a murder was being committed. Murder and death are allied within the seething center here.
The camera does wonderful things with the craters; they’re ridged; entry is blocked. Sulphurous fumes rise continually from the vents around the rims. A hovering precedes descent. Bare, barren. Curvaceous. The lens caresses the black igneous rock, revealing now a whale’s hump, now the concave look of a sarcophagus. Everything has a double life: the steam around the craters’ rims recalls the deus ex machina “fires of hell” at the end of Faust, and the refining fires which the lovers pass through in The Magic Flute.
Gradually a center is revealed, steaming on all sides. Closer and closer the camera moves toward the heat at the center.
I am violent by nature. A doctor told me so when I was a boy. And I must give vent to this violence one way or the other.
Carnevale. The grotesquerie is not to be taken lightly. The masks are vastly less ambiguous than the gargoyles. There is something inexorable about the slow, mechanical movement of the shark’s jaws as it bites the empty air; and the tinsel-breathing, lean, intent face of the dragon grows ferocious in its glittering. Time does not move on the charming, feline, papier-mâché clockfaces.
These shots marry the heat of the volcanic cones and this reflected light that then—in a quick cut—blazes as a sunflower, with lights strung along all of its paper petals, like steam rising from the rims of craters. Like light on light, reminiscent of the final shot of L’eclisse: a close-up of light itself; energy in radiant form. And yet the center of the sunflower is dark. …
Night is threatened. It is not what it used to be. The night is what we can see of the volcanoes: a night that offers no repose is terrible. It is an incendiary night, about to burst into flames,
Either now or tomorrow or the day after that.
Once again, silently, definitively here, an inquiry into perception.
NOTE: All quotations unless otherwise noted come from interviews with Antonioni or from his prose, especially That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, translated by William Arrowsmith.
SOURCE: “Chance Encounters,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 12, December, 1994, p. 61.
[In the following essay in praise of L’eclisse, Peck selects several sequences which show Antonioni’s ability to convey the subtleties of alienation, uncertainty, and dread which characterize “The Atomic Age.”]
I was 15 when I first saw Antonioni’s L’eclisse. It was screened for only one afternoon at the Tooting Classic. I skipped school games to go and see it and as a result got slapped into a two hour detention. The impact the film had on me in 1963 was devastating. It was unlike anything else I had seen, and it seemed to describe the kind of world into which we were moving—it was almost science fiction.
L’eclisse was made some months before the Cuban missile crisis and my memories of it are strongly linked to that terrifying week of nuclear brinkmanship. I think that a premonition of a looming, unidentifiable catastrophe was what made the movie so disturbing. It is difficult to communicate just how frightening that October in 1962 was at the time. We all lived under the threat of obliteration, the end of everything, fini. Subsequent international crises no longer felt so remote, each one could take the world to the brink again, and this time some maniac might press the button.
Antonioni’s film was the first I saw that seemed to be made with acute awareness that the old myths, however comforting, were no longer adequate. It eschewed all certainties of characterisation, dramatic intent and narrative resolution. It was altogether a different sort of movie—it felt ‘modern’, its very fabric disturbed by an uncertainty that could now be said to underlie everything. This is not to reduce L’eclisse to being ‘about’ the nuclear threat (although a newspaper headline “The Atomic Age” appears as part of a montage during the film’s climax, and is especially unsettling). Trying to describe what the film—or any other work by Antonioni—is about, is not a simple task as it can’t be reduced to a plot synopsis, although it is definitely preoccupied with the narrative space between events, actions and intentional dialogue.
The opening scene is a long sequence set in an apartment showing two lovers, Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), at the end of a love affair. Worn out from talking all night and past the point of having anything further to say, they are unable to make the definitive break. Most films, I believe, would shoot the action prior to this—the night itself—but Antonioni is a director who focuses on what films leave out. Much of this scene is without dialogue. As it progresses, we increasingly become aware of an electric fan and, later, a razor. These objects, which in other movies would provide background noise, become under Antonioni’s direction extraordinarily highlighted. He is one of the most sensitive film-makers to the use of sound; aircraft propellers, car engines, ringing telephones, opening and closing of doors, footsteps on stone floors, all carry weight, not for any pointed narrative purpose, but as evidence of the technologies we communicate with, the machines we travel in, the cities we inhabit and adapt to.
There is a story in L’eclisse, but its emphases are similarly elsewhere than usual. Monica Vitti leaves the apartment and begins a walk that lasts, in a way, for the majority of the film. Her journey is without any particular destination, a series of detours, explorations and, most importantly, distractions. These distractions are the substance of the story and include a brief relationship with Alain Delon.
A characteristic Antonioni sequence is the flight in a small four-seater plane from Rome to Verona during which we listen in to a virtually inaudible conversation. Nothing happens in the conventional sense; the journey, which takes considerable film time, appears to have no dramatic aim or climax, sounds and images take over and become the dramatic content. As with Vitti’s character, the film has a wandering, searching quality. Antonioni has been described as “the poet of alienation,” and this is shown by Vittoria’s detachment from the world—which may be interpreted as either a sign of health or equally of neurosis.
There are two sequences, both set in the Borsa (the Rome stock exchange), which constitute the hub of the film. This is the world inhabited by Alain Delon’s character Piero, a young stockbroker. It is observed with an anthropological eye for detail. Only in the stock exchange are people shown to be full of passion, energy and action; it is an emphatically male world, preoccupied with money, profit and deals, and one in which Delon is comfortable. Duration is an important component of Antonioni’s style (the park in Blow-Up, the desert house in Zabriskie Point, the rocky island in L’avventura, the space outside the hotel at the end of The Passenger). He films the Borsa with relentless curiosity, as if to say, “look long enough and perhaps this place may reveal something of itself.”
If the narrative finds its organisation around the brief affair between Delon and Vitti, it is something of a shock when both characters simply slip out of the film altogether. The final time the couple are seen together, they make an arrangement to meet on a street corner. Neither one turns up, but the camera does. For a full seven minutes it records the world that carries on without them. Passers-by, seen in earlier scenes, take their regular walks; buses pull up, stop, drop passengers and drive on. Twice a person who might be Monica Vitti or Alain Delon turns out to be someone else. The streets empty and darken as day turns to dusk. This is an extraordinary sequence, acknowledging that it has lost both the original characters and the narrative. Other lives, which we know nothing about, cross the screen and disappear, leaving in the end just the city—functioning, automatically, part of a vast man-made machinery, within which individuals find temporary escape and pleasure in passing sensations of motion and contact. It is a chilling viewpoint.
SOURCE: “Eclipsing the Commonplace: The Logic of Alienation in Antonioni’s Cinema,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, p. 22–34.
[In the following essay, Moore discusses Antonioni’s exploration of alienation in his films.]
Talk of alienation in Antonioni’s cinema is more often than not negative. Despite Peter Bondanella’s observation that characterization in Antonioni’s films might not be all that negative, typically Weberian interpretations of disenchantment dominate readings of Antonioni’s cinema.1 I would like to elaborate upon Bondanella’s observation by supplying a theoretical framework, and then, noting some instances from Antonioni’s work, argue that alienation is more accurately portrayed as negativity in Hegel’s and Adorno’s sense of a reflection on value. As an instance of negativity, alienation, in this view, is a positive event promoting aesthetic progress in the face of novel experience.
In Weber’s by now classic analysis of the modern condition, alienation arises when the self becomes disenchanted with the world and retreats into itself, oftentimes to reflect upon its relations with the world and its relationship with others. In this sense, alienation implies a universal dimension to a self that sequesters itself in order to remain constant or faithful to its emotional dispositions and priorities despite alterations in the world. In retreat, the orthodox self ponders the option to embrace or retreat from a world which either meets or denies its set desires. One problem with this maneuver, however, is that the historical world is overall an exemplification and a realization of human desires, and so by retreating from the historical world, the self retreats from historical aspects of itself as well. Regardless of how we choose to understand this retreat of the self from itself into itself, it is at best paradoxical, and it is this paradox which motivates the logic of alienation and progress in Antonioni’s cinema.
Weber’s sense of alienation is by and large understood negatively, as a motivated retreat from an uninhabitable world no longer capable of providing a good home and safe haven for the human spirit. And it is this negative assessment which embodies, in a summary fashion, the notion of alienation most often deployed in interpretations of Antonioni’s work. Most critics would agree that alienation is the property of being which is the central aesthetic determiner of his representations of modern life, although it is the negative or reclusive effects of this property that are more often than not cited as thematically significant to comprehending the ambiguities of his work. To be alienated in an Antonioni film is to be resentfully situated in an overly industrialized, capital-intensive world that fails to provide a nurturing environment in which the emotions might flourish.
The chief difficulty in criticism’s near uniform application of this negative notion of alienation, however, is that it obscures a utopian gesture implicit in it. Although it is true that disconnection and its chief effects, loneliness and isolation, are thematically relevant to Antonioni’s cinema, the alienated self’s melancholic search for its lost ideal world tells only half the story. The other half is history, or the historical self’s search for an accommodation with a world it has itself produced. Rather than an end in itself, alienation, the effect of deidentification and noncorrespondence, is the beginning of a process which, ideally, re-places the self back into a world of its own devising and into a community of like-minded others as well.
The possibility that there exists a positive, communal form of alienation is affirmed by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, who writes, “In each of [Antonioni’s] films there is a positive pole and a negative, and a tension between them. The abstraction, the ‘ideology’ lies mostly at the negative pole. The concrete and actual evidence, the life of the film, is more often positive - and more often neglected by criticism.”2 It is to the neglected “concrete and actual” aspects of alienation that I wish to attend in order to suggest, via hypothesis and example, that there exists a positive dimension to alienation, and that this positive dimension is as much at issue in Antonioni’s work as the negative dimension which has garnered most of the attention.
Entertaining this possibility depends, however, upon seeing the self’s relation to knowledge and to knowledge about itself in a specific way. Seymour Chatman points out that way when he notes that Antonioni’s “preference for contingency over causality suggests an epistemology.”3 Though he does not define what that epistemology could be, I will suggest that it is empirical in character and so equally the source of Nowell-Smith’s “concrete and actual evidence” which informs “the [positive] life of the film.”4
Rather than being “incapable of using his films to argue a political position,” as Chatman claims, Antonioni’s empirical vision constitutes a reformist political stance, one consonant with what we know of his aesthetic interests.5 Fundamental to this vision is Antonioni’s understanding that there is a world out there which is the source of genuine novelty. It follows that changes in the historical world promote changes in the self if the self is held to be fundamentally historical rather than transcendental. Since the historical world has perceptibly changed, the self must have changed as well, given the ratios of transformation within dialectical materialism. The suspected changes or adjustments within the emotional structure of the subject have not been recorded, thus they remain the obscure object of a speculative desire. Recording those changes requires the gathering of evidence in a series of controlled experiments, guided by the hypothesis that such changes have occurred. The discovery of new emotional states and relationships (evidence) would transform the emotional commonplace (romance) in the ways that remarkable scientific discoveries transform the physical commonplace. Such a transformation would situate the historical self in the historical world once again, thereby calling a close to its flight from history into comforting yet alienating notions of selfhood whose priorities and emotional dispostions are falsely imagined as absolute and unchanging.
During the filming of the Eclipse Trilogy, Antonioni had this to say about film-making and the progress of the human spirit: “What have we done up to now? We have scrutinized, vivisected, analyzed thoroughly the feelings. This we have been able to do. But not to discover new ones.”6 The discovery of new emotions defines the positive, utopian goal of which negative alienation is but the first stage. If we recall Antonioni’s early interest in Hegel’s and Marx’s writings and the transformative or progressivist stance either implies, or his appreciation for Italy’s ermeticismo, a poetics for which style constitutes resistance to a fascist conformism, or the theme of Makaroni, an unfilmed screenplay in which an absolute freedom empowering self and social transformation is achieved at the lawless border of collapsing personal and political domains of authority, then the pertinence of his speculation regarding novel emotions will not seem either absurd or alien to his way of thinking.7 In all of the above interests, the common theme is the progress of the self (of the spirit) out of the past and into the present as it seeks novel accords or relationships (identifications and sympathies) with an ever-changing world. Antonioni’s films, from Netezza urbana in 1948 to his last full-length feature, Identificazione di una donna (1982), investigate the various possibilities for representing historical difference (alienation) arising at the impressionistic and indeterminate edges of mimesis, where generic notions of selfhood are weak and subject to eclipse. In this regard, we might understand the closing words of Identificazione to speak the logos of the empirical quest exemplified in various ways by his entire canon: “E dopo?” or “What’s next? What is to come?”
It is this search for whatever is next that motivates Antonioni’s cinema experiments. The hypothesis that orchestrates the search is this: the self is fundamentally historical and therefore subject to the effects of historical transformation; changes in our emotional constitution have already arisen as a result, but they have not been registered. Our emotional tomorrow is here today, and it is only today’s interpretative norms that obscure its appearance. The camera is the microscope Antonioni deploys to discover these hidden “motions” or adjustments of the soul. As a director, or “registrar” (il registra), he seeks to record those emotional nuances that escape “Hollywood” film-making, dominated as it is by standardized, generic, and commonplace forms of romantic comprehension. His scientific method of direction and registration requires that he set up his mise-en-scenes so that optimally they will produce the effects his materialist hypothesis tells him he should see.8 In this way, Antonioni’s films are genuinely experimental and not solely experimentalist in the art-house usage of that term.
Suspended strategically between the quiescence of an emotional conformism with nothing left to say and the silence of future possibilities without a voice, Antonioni’s protagonists are situated on the horizon of cognition, a liminal zone where representation is unstable and subject to eclipse. It is here, at the edges of the visible, that Antonioni indirectly seeks confirmation of his redemptive hypothesis. Guided by such a vision and situated within an empirical world, his cinema is both cognitive and aesthetic, while his intention to undertake this epistemologically vexed project stems from his interest in creating a genuinely historical art.
With an understanding that these intentions and goals are the productive source of ambiguity in his films, we might quickly review his renowned Cannes statement of aesthetic intent in which he states that the world is divided between a progressive science and a regressive morality. Being is thus frozen between an arresting nostalgia and a desire for a future of difference. Modern science is humbler and less dogmatically inclined than the cultural sciences which moralize, and it is their moral norms that cinema ordinarily honors. Ideally, cinema should alienate or distance its audience from a reflexive pathos which all too easily forges identifications between the self and melodramatic norms that authorize a sick eroticism. Such a dissolution (analysis) of emotional identifications can be achieved by equating the scientific unknown, whose object is nature, with the moral unknown, whose object is human nature. The strongest impediment to human flourishing is a moral cowardice that compels cinema to abandon the adventure of investigative reporting (L’avventura) and return to generic or “classical” representations of romance and reality in which neurosis, delusion, and dreams are the only avenues of escape from the prison house of culture (Il deserto rosso).9
Despite inherent theoretical problems not at issue here, Antonioni’s allegiance to an empirical stance is clear. Along these lines, we might understand the intent of his neorealism to mean that he seeks to document the emotions in cognitive or psychologically actual ways, as opposed to representing them formally and conventionally, in accordance with Hollywood norms. His allegiance to empiricism situates his cinema within the domains of science and technology, where it shares the epistemological and ethical problems to which those domains are typically subject but which do not prohibit them from making the remarkable discoveries that they do.
One immediate effect of seeing his cinema as an empirical practice and his cinematography as investigative reporting within the human sciences is that we can now understand negativity (or negative alienation) “positively.” Films in the Eclipse Trilogy, for example, resist the easy identifications forged between viewer and viewed, audience and character, observer and object-subjectivity, upon which the classical Hollywood cinema depends. This methodological resistance situates the viewer in a nonvoyeuristic or objective position where reference is intentionally underdetermined rather than loaded with symbolic (i.e., fetishistic) content.10 Antonioni is out to explode or blow up all pat interpretive schemes (beliefs) regarding romance and reality by embarking upon cinematographic investigations of our perceptions of emotional perception.
Freed from the biases of secondary interpretation, which forge conventional identifications between sense and sensibility, knower and known, Antonioni’s films do not appear all that paradoxical, ambiguous, unmotivated, or even indeterminate.11 Instead, they appear as good science insofar as they represent an empirically based investigation into real possibilities for emotional progress. Negative alienation, then, is the first stage of the investigation wherein the subject is isolated and scrutinized to see whether or not new psychic structures have arisen over time. Positive alienation, on the other hand, is the final stage, heralded by the discovery of a new emotional “fact” which, in turn, would transform the totality of such facts or culture itself in the same way that the discovery of alien or novel information mandates the reformation of the entire body of scientific facts to which it relates.12
As a residual benefit to his empiricist disposition, Antonioni’s methodology restores film’s original charter to scientifically represent the contemporary in motion, showing the “real” as it really is by a “technically sweet” enhancement and amplification of those invisible articulations which support the gross regularities perceived by the naked eye.13 The changes any discovery motivates, moreover, would be no more, though no less, startling than those that occurred when cinema shifted from theatrical gesturing to naturalistic displays as the normative center of its emotional language.14 Any power his art might forfeit by eschewing common expressive norms it would regain as the drama of science in which discovery as cognition replaces discovery as recognition as the main source of delight and suspense, method replacing form as the center of organizational interest.
Negative alienation, then, does no more than name the necessity for which positive alienation supplies the want. Thus the goal of positive alienation is correspondence and community, just as the goal of negative alienation is individuality and a contemplative isolation. The dialectic between negative and positive alienation defines the normative flow of aesthetic engagement and disengagement within healthy cultures, and so it is imperative that Antonioni emphasize the positive if he is to offer cinema as one means by which an erotically sick culture might return to moral health. Thus the backward-looking melancholia fostered by the negative alienation displayed in L’avventura finds its forward-looking counter-direction in the “adventure” or quest inaugurated in that film. That adventure concludes, I argue, in L’eclisse, when the alienated self finds an other alienated like herself, and together they disappear into the contemporary world, their disappearance a sign that they no longer stand apart from it.
While the progression from negative to positive alienation is utopian at best and creates as many problems as it tries to solve, these are nevertheless the right problems for a rationally interested cinematic investigation of the interplay between history and aesthetics. Moreover, if an argument is “weak” or even unconvincing, the type of argument that it is may be of interest because it contributes to the aesthetic achievement associated with the presentation of the argument. In the present case, these considerations are crucial if we are to progress beyond detailed rehearsals of a, by now, generic understanding of modernist alienation in Antonioni’s cinema.
The logic and goals of positive alienation are most apparent in L’eclisse. A new sensibility arises in this film, calling to a successful close the quest that Anna began in L’avventura.
Each film in the Eclipse Trilogy opens with a scene of divorce or alienation from the familiar, yet only two of the three films (L’avventura and La notte) conclude tragically, with the alienated subjects pathetically retreating back into the life-threatening world of available erotic identifications, having incurred on their quest the added burden of futility and despair. The melancholia which suffuses these two films arises from the protagonists’ failure to achieve their desired ideal of reconciliation or even to sustain the possibility for such; they remain negatively alienated. In L’eclisse, however, things turn out differently. Vittoria remains positively alienated, and she is rewarded for her resistance to the temptations of the emotional commonplace with the discovery of a new emotion or of novel emotional reserves, which is perhaps why Antonioni names her “Victory.”
L’eclisse opens by recapitulating the establishing scenes in all films in the trilogy. In effect, the experiment begins again in order to test its conclusions once more. Vittoria’s disappearance, or alienation, from the familiar recalls Anna’s, and indeed Monica Vitti plays both Claudia, the woman who substitutes for Anna in Anna’s life, as well as Vittoria, who returns to complete the quest as a victorious Anna, the woman who finds what she wants.
When we first see her, Vittoria is visibly beside herself, an emotion whose metaphysical resonance implies an internal displacement engendered by self-reflection. The self she is beside is her “old” self, constituted of those emotional “residues” and “dead feelings” which, when filming an eclipse in Florence, Antonioni noted were the chief inhibitors of emotional progress.15 At the beginning of her struggle to be free of Riccardo, her lover of ten years, and the deadening past he represents, Vittoria stands against an action painting whose conceptual indeterminacy exemplifies her internal condition. At this turning point in her life, she identifies with the sublime indeterminacy of the action painting rather than with the beautiful, determinated norms and ends of institutionalized erotic behavior. She is determined to divorce herself from her “beautiful” cultured world, and this determination inaugurates her aesthetic crisis.16
Vittoria wants to divorce herself from the deadening claustrophobia of high modern culture, represented by Riccardo at its liberal, cosmopolitan, and refined best, in order to resituate herself within the enabling conditions of authentic cultural (aesthetic) production. As good as Riccardo’s cultural world is, it is not good enough, not lively enough, to engage her emerging sensibility. Baffled by her desire to alienate herself from all that seems to him beautiful and desirable, Riccardo asks Vittoria to marry him. His offer misses its mark because it mistakes her desire for something different as a desire for a more normative role within their relationship and within their society.
Rather than settle for the established best, Vittoria resists Riccardo, as well as the good life of the Roman bourgeoisie, which, the film makes clear, is predicated upon the stock market (La boursa) and the art market or culture industry (La dolce vita). Acting as a counterpoint to Italian conformist postures, she refuses to conform to the dominant passions of the day. Italy’s romance with materialismo and capital hold no interest for her. She makes her position clear later on when she asks the stockbroker Piero, “What kind of passion is that?”17 Visiting the stock market, she is the only person without a passionate concern for its world-constituting interests. Alienated from a passionately materialist culture, she is divorced from all contemporary romantic investments and so at liberty to redirect her erotic capital toward the more enlightened enterprise of aesthetic renewal.
Significantly, Vittoria first overcomes established aesthetic norms when she plunges her hand into what appears to be an abstract painting comprised of geometric shapes. As it turns out, the painting is “really” a configuration of concrete objects behind a picture frame. By rearranging the objects in the frame, she demonstrates to herself (and to us) that the aesthetic is not a realm of fixity but a fluid domain subject to choice and human determinations. By daring to pierce the frame, she acknowledges the priority of method over norms, experiment over interpretation, inquiry over explanation, practice over speculation; and these priorities will guide her as she seeks to rearrange the composition or frame of human life. Symbolically, she sets her hand against all abstract expressionisms rendered absolute and definitive by cultural norms held to be transcendental. Her rearrangement of the concrete figures within the frame returns the frozen, transcendental world of the universally human to the concrete and developing realm of particular human interests, choices, and situations called history.
Because she is willing to abstract (alienate) herself from a delusively concrete world of determinative abstract expressionisms, she becomes the only person in the film who is not alienated from the fluid, historical, and mobile “nature” of the self. Her reengagement with the concrete aspects of life, symbolized by her breaking into the frame, begins her journey out of the shelter of beautiful norms and into the empirical world of indeterminate experience. At this point in her quest, she is like that which she has pointed to: a picture of indeterminacy, a person without a frame to contain or define her desires.
Vittoria views the present as an ashen world of burnt-out passions (she even removes from the picture frame an ashtray laden with butts). Not willing to go back to such a world, she chooses to go forward. Thus, she walks an edge zone between the exhausted past and an emergent future. This zone is further defined when Riccardo asks her how she feels. She responds, “I don’t know.” Her reply suggests the nescience of the self when confronted with feelings for which there is no specific name. She feels something, but there is no available way to frame the way that she feels. At this point, she represents herself as an abstract portrait of desire without or beyond language. She will all but say this when she asserts her will to divorce herself from Riccardo by telling him that she will no longer translate for him, though she knows another woman who will. Her refusal to translate implies that she would rather remain silent and thereby preserve the integrity of her difference than deploy accommodations that would carry some of her meaning but would not communicate what she is about.
Divorced from all romances and marriages Italian-style, Vittoria becomes a radical individual who journeys through old Rome, new Rome (E.U.R.), her girlhood room, and an elegant Roman apartment like an alien visitor from the future, amazed at the antique character of the present. To represent her sense of the pastness of the present, Antonioni shoots her walking beneath a water tower that hovers over her like a flying saucer. At Marta’s apartment, Vittoria, in her desire “not to translate,” or have past conventions speak for her present self, goes so far as to pretend to be African. Decorated with things African, the apartment suggests a foreign country. The African landscapes Vittoria sees there arouse her desire to escape the contemporary into a place positively alien. Seeking to identify with the alien, Vittoria dons an African costume and paints her body black, after which she asks Marta, the in-house expert who has lived in Africa, “Do I look it?” Vittoria then dances her way into a bedroom muralled by a panorama of Lake Naivasha in Nairobi, and Antonioni shoots the sequence as though she were stepping into a picture, going “through the looking glass” into a foreign world.
Vittoria’s African dance does not, however, bring her the positive alienation she seeks. Instead, she enacts a culturally tame expression of difference, one cultivated by both modern artist and capitalist, whose “primitivist” fantasies are devoid of all historical, material substance except the desire for difference.18 The futility of her iconic appropriation of difference is made apparent in the scene immediately following, in which Marta’s black dog runs away to join a tribe of strays only to be discovered by Vittoria walking on its hind legs, paw extended in anticipation of a genteel handshake. Even the animals, it seems, are conformists whose “otherness” has been tamed.
At play in Vittoria’s blackface masque is the issue of logical precedence and experimental method. Vittoria must experience a novel emotion of her own as the sign of her reengagement with the world of experience, after which she can construct an adequate symbol to communicate its salience to others. The authentic alienation she seeks in Marta’s apartment is not to be found in modernism’s alien chic, which, rather than exceed contemporary norms, reinstates them by other means (styles). Costumes, decor, and photographs, no matter how authentic, are at best cosmetic changes. Moreover, the available past suggested by primitivist fantasies is not the place where Vittoria will find an authentic foreign or alien experience. Primitivism can suggest a model or picture of what she is looking for, but the foreignness she seeks must be her own, and can only evolve out of her relationship with the modern world.
A clue to the source of the genuinely modern emotion she seeks arises immediately afterward, when she is drawn to a strange, rhythmic sound that reminds her of the recorded African music to which she had danced at Marta’s apartment. Seeking the source of the lyrical chimes, she discovers that the music is produced “naturally” by metal highway fence poles blowing in the wind. The image is unmistakably aeolian, and the aeolean harp is unmistakably empirical in its emblemizing immediate or intuitive relationships between self and world, or, more concretely, between body and experience via impressions. As Vittoria listens in wonder to the metallic harp, we see the central icon of her empirical redemption. Indeed, the next time we see her she is flying high over the labyrinth of old Rome. She will ask the pilot to dive into a cloud which, he informs her, is actually “snow suspended in water.” The empirical emphasis in both scenes is clear: redemption arrives by our keeping in touch with the nebulous, obscure, and actual character of reality which is the source of our historical novelty and renewal.
Vittoria continues her quest for difference through a sequence of scenes exemplifying the dead and petrified emotions that dominate the present. She even purchases a flower imprisoned in stone, signalling the status of both life and art. A drunken man, who unsuccessfully tries to engage Vittoria’s attention, steals Piero’s car, loses control, and plunges to his death in the Tevere; the crowds that gather on the following day to see him fished up laugh and enjoy the event as though it were a festive occasion. The stock market collapses, bringing in its wake the passionate disappointment of millions, and a jazz pianist is noted as “good” because he is an “old timer,” left over from an age when the world and the self were attuned. Piero needs medicine to sleep; Vittoria walks through a half-built city on the periphery of Rome where she impulsively engages in role reversals, chasing after a man with a beautiful face. Just before she and Piero embrace for the first time, they are positioned in the middle of a black-and-white striated crosswalk where she tells him, “We are halfway there” (“siamo meta”). By this time it is apparent that she wants to love, but not in the old way, which would only lead to a return of the old scene of divorce with Riccardo.
Piero will invite Vittoria to his parents’ staid apartment to impress and seduce her. Yet its typical antique beauty does not impress her, and she asks him why he did not take her to his “small home,” which at least had the value of being properly his. She feels trapped and frightened in the apartment, particularly when positioned between the oval portraits of his parents. There, ringed round by the past and its inevitable return as the present in her life, she tells Piero she “loves to think one should not know the other” when in a relationship, after which she advises him, “Maybe we should not love at all?” as a way of differently relating. She will reassert her view when, later, she tells him, “I wish I did not love you or that I loved you better.” She desires either to not love him at all or to love him in a better way in order to preserve their relationship from contamination by conventional engagements. Her desire to avoid commonplace romance is another sign that she has engaged a positive form of alienation that will move her toward unconventional future correspondences.
Confirmation of the novel emotion Vittoria desires first arises in E.U.R.’s park and then in Piero’s office, after hours. As marginal areas at the center of the sociocultural system, both environments invite the engendering of novelty or difference which can only arise at the edges or outer boundaries of reference where concepts shade into sensations and impressions speak louder than words. Both the park and the afterhours office suggest this edge zone, where and when business as usual gives place to the unusual business of making love in a new way.
Vittoria and Piero arrive at the park through a sequence whose rapid dislocations suggest the immediacy of a felt intuition; after they fall on the bed kissing each other ecstatically, they awake in the park. Piero tells her that he feels he has entered a “foreign country,” to which she replies, “How strange! That’s how you make me feel.” He responds by asking, “Then you won’t marry me?” His mistake is identical to Riccardo’s. That they make each other “feel foreign” throws Piero off because he has not yet understood that this is what she wants and that their shared alienation will be the source of a novel correspondence.
This distinction is perhaps what led Antonioni to avoid a tragic ending for L’eclisse like those of L’avventura,La notte, and Il deserto rosso.19 That he changed the conclusion so that L’eclisse would not end tragically should tell us something about how to read Vittoria’s alienation. Piero, in turn, must learn to read Vittoria differently and learn to sympathize with her difference. When he later proves himself capable of understanding her, this shared understanding establishes alienation as a collective project of aesthetic renewal, the shared center of the new world of differences and the productive source of a truly modern romance. If, that is, to invent a new language would be to invent a new manner of being, as Wittgenstein has suggested, then it is equally true that to invent a new manner of being would compel us to invent a new language to suit its dispositions.20 Empirically speaking, evidence must precede language, and it is just this evidence that Antonioni conceptually offers in L’eclisse.
A second instance of the same misperception and adjustment arises when Piero questions Vittoria about marriage, and she replies, “I am not nostalgic for marriage.” Her response is ideal in its commitment to differ from the presiding norms and values determining erotic life. She does not look back to a safe haven but forward, in the hope of arriving at a different place. Equally to the point, her not missing “missing” is, in itself, an achieved finding insofar as the absence of nostalgia implies that she has freed herself from any sense that she lacks something in not wanting what is “natural,” conventional. Her alienation is not established nostalgically, by a negative reflex toward a lost or unachieved ideal, but positively, in the expectation of finding an unfound ideal: the novel emotion.
That Piero eventually understands her alienation becomes evident when he and Vittoria “re-enact themselves as they behaved during the earlier love scene … exaggerating the comical aspects of their gestures and attitudes.”21 Their mime suggests an act of mastery over generic forms of romance achieved by advancing empathy to the level of critique. Beside themselves with laughter as they parody their own love-making as well as that of other couples, Vittoria and Piero methodically alienate themselves from the very force of desire that compelled them to intimate identifications in the first place. Moreover, their self-reflexive play upon a moment with generic claims to maximum seriousness in life and in art “makes light” of the weight of the traditional moment when destinies are fixed, thereby producing a qualitatively different moment empowered to differently determine their future.
Just as they laughed together at the empty box of chocolates he had offered her (a sign of the emptiness of past romantic forms), their parody compels them to remain “beside themselves” with laughter as they make love. Through parody, they exhaust and transform romance as a serious form of engagement and thereby place themselves outside the frame of institutionalized erotic practices and the emotions authorized by them. Their enlightened mimesis enables Vittoria and Piero to evade entrapment within invariant and ideologically frozen regimes of private behavior as they renew their desire for a novel emotion in whose light they now perceive the world. The play of romance, moreover, returns romance to history as but one of the many human practices subject to transformation as the world is transformed in and through the totality of those practices and the social relations they encourage. At this cumulative moment to all rescue operations in the Eclipse Trilogy, Vittoria’s relationship with Piero is sustained by the priority of difference (parody); she has found what she wants by differing, by remaining different, and then by encouraging Piero to feel the difference. In the end, then, Vittoria’s alienation becomes theirs.
This difference is further implied when, after making love in Piero’s office—a love-making that encourages him to disconnect all phones in a scene demonstrating his refusal to return to business as usual—the couple promises to meet “tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and the day after the day after that” in “the same place at eight o’clock.” Having designated the time and place of their relationship, they disappear from the scene of representation. Their disappearance from the world of negatively alienated life suggests the positive quality of their collective alienation. Thus although it is true that L’eclisse ends with a vision of a benighted and anxious world, Piero and Vittoria are not in this world. They have evolved (disappeared), and their disappearance implies that the aim of the experiment in emotional progress has been achieved. Their story, then, concludes logically where and when it should, at the time and place where alienation becomes a life-practice whose eternal return guarantees a history to the aesthetics of selfhood.
Immediately before she disappears with Piero, however, we see Vittoria walking beneath a spreading tree. When she left Riccardo, she wanted to walk alone in the woods at dawn. Then, we saw her gazing at the trees through a picture window. Now, we see her once more “walk into the picture” which is not a picture at all but the sensorium of the world, the source of all aesthetic delight. The implication here is that she is finally out there, where she wants to be, in a world of process and change. Her final walk further recalls the moment when she and Piero kissed, first behind a glass pane, then beyond the glass where their lips touched. These scenes of contact and merger with the world and with other bodies correspond to the empirical mise-en-scenes that conclude other “investigative” films such as Blow-Up,Zabriskie Point, and Identificazione di una donna, in which the great sensorium of experience blows up or consumes the formal framework of conventional perception.
“Empiricism,” Kant advised, “is based on touch, but rationalism on a necessity which can be seen.”22 Vittoria’s story concludes then on an empirical note, with her touching, or getting in touch with, the empirical world. She has progressed beyond things that can be named or seen to a place where feeling precedes seeing and naming. Her and Piero’s final absence is our conceptual guarantee that they no longer stand apart from the world but have merged with it and that the long-awaited eclipse of the commonplace has arrived.
The eclipse that concludes the film reinstates the paradox of alienation which suffuses the trilogy. For Vittoria and Piero, eclipsing the commonplace is a positive, aesthetic event. For the world at large, holding on to its dissipating romantic heritage for dear life, it is a negative event. Antonioni strongly suggests this bivalence by concluding L’eclisse with the illumination of a street lamp. The street lamp bears a strong formal resemblance to the table lamp that filled the screen when the film began. Looming in close-up, the table lamp illuminates a row of books which suggest the cultured life that Riccardo and Vittoria have shared. The comparison between opening and closing scenes is furthered when we note that the table lamp illuminates an unnaturally darkened room, for day has dawned. Yet neither Riccardo nor Vittoria notice its arrival because they are engaged in a long and painful discussion regarding their imminent separation.
The street lamp that concludes the film takes us back to this illuminating beginning, only now Antonioni casts the entire world as Riccardo’s artificially lit study. Cultural discourses, the comparison suggests, and the art of interpretation are helpless to move things forward (or to move Vittoria at all); beauty offers enthrallment, not liberation. By attending to culture’s rational, cognitive interests, however, we break free of exhausting hermeneutic circles in which emotional understanding is repetitious, fatiguing, and conventional because universalistic myths of the self deny histories to personhood. By implying a sense of history to the self, we begin to think concretely about the historicity of the spirit, after which we can investigate the self scientifically, “experimentally,” and experientially. This is what Antonioni has attempted in this film, which, as its title suggests, belongs to the science of art and aesthetics.
To reinforce this awareness, Antonioni concludes L’eclisse with a montage that displays the constructed character of perception. In the montage, we see images we have seen before, only now we see them differently, in a new and alien way, our alien vision perhaps approximating Vittoria’s when, at the beginning of her quest, she plunged her hand into the picture frame and rearranged the items within. Tellingly, the montage is comprised of mostly circular images of repetition, exhaustion, and incompletion: a jockey in his traces, the sports arena at E.U.R., the bus route at the end of the line, half-built modem buildings, and a water barrel emptying into a gutter. Overall, we can assume that Vittoria’s experiment in life has succeeded because she is absent from a world dominated by scenes of emotional repetition and exhaustion. Like Anna, whose disappearance opened the quest for difference in the Eclipse Trilogy, Vittoria also uses disappearance, but this time in order to conclude that quest. Yet unlike Anna, who disappears alone, Vittoria disappears with Piero.
To this epistemically graphic representation, Antonioni supplies two written texts, both appearing as headlines in L’espresso. The first reads: “The Atomic Age,” suggesting the radical particularity of sensation free of the concept, the putative source of experience in art and science; and the second reads: “The Peace Is Weak,” implying that all accords are temporal, negotiable, and volatile, thus asserting the methodological value of science and the aesthetic. The headlines also evoke thoughts of nuclear destruction unless novel social accords are reached, as well as the dawning of a new era—for which new relationships are appropriate but weak, because experimental, and subject to further scrutiny and renegotiation (further eclipse).
In the concluding montage, we witness form uniting with content to reveal method as theory of knowledge. Poised in the eternally returning time and place of alienation (the transformative position within the logic of structure), L’eclisse closes with a global image of negativity in which all established orders are on the verge of becoming atomized, blown up, or erased—and with good reason. In this respect, L’eclisse ends where and when it logically should by suggesting the two alternatives that the trilogy has established: either the present fades as the future emerges or the present remains imprisoned within universalistic interpretive schemes, the modern becoming the postmodern and so on and so forth into the night. And in understanding the aesthetic options presented by paradox, we see that Vittoria’s quest has exemplified a form of alienation which, rather than negative, is a positively inclined “life politics concerned with human self-actualisation, both on the level of the individual and collectively.”23 Such a life politics can only be achieved, Antonioni implies, within an empirical framework, and it is from within such a framework of knowledge that Vittoria emerges from “the shadow which emancipatory politics has cast” on the emotional commonplace, and then goes forward to realize a genuinely contemporary identity, one consonant with the historical world and not alienated from it.24
Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 1994). Neurosis, for Bondanella, arises in Antonioni’s work when his characters fail to adapt to the modern world. He writes, “Guiliana’s neurosis [in Red Desert] is caused by a failure to adapt to the new world. Her alienation is not the result of her supposedly dehumanized and hostile surroundings,” but of her inability to appreciate a technologically remarkable world. p. 218.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Shape Around a Black Point,” Sight and Sound 33 (Winter 1963–64), p. 17.
Seymour Chatman, Antonioni or The Surface of the World (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985), p. 78.
Understanding Antonioni’s cinema as empiricist-tending is not new; understanding it as strictly and idealistically empirical is. See, for example, David Cook’s summary assessment of Antonioni’s “new style” as partly due to his emphasizing “the overwhelming importance of the material environment on the interior life of his characters,” in David Cook, The History of Narrative Film, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), p. 627.
Chatman, p. 78.
Michelangelo Antonioni, Screenplays of Antonioni (New York: Orion Press, 1963), p. x.
Ermeticismo is a poetic movement specific to Florence between the two world wars. For writers such as Gadda, Vittorini, Montale, Landolfi, Contini, and De Robertis, style constituted a formal polemic against realistic representational modes of ordinary mimesis. Antonioni’s Makaroni (1958), written with Tonio Guerra, has as its premise the polling of soldiers recently returned from World War II. The interlocutor asks the men to describe the best and the worst period of the war for them. The worst was, predictably, the concentration camps, but the best, surprisingly, turns out to be the period immediately following the peace, when the Germans had fled and the Americans had not yet arrived. Then, “disorder and chaos reigned; it was freedom in its ultimate state.” See Makaroni, in Ted Perry and Rene Prieto, Michelangelo Antonioni: A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986), p. 202.
A controlled mise-en-scene and random information gathering are both essential to scientific film-making. This process is nicely summarized by Sean Morris in this way: Once you frame your experiment and put the cameras in place, “you take a shot of a thing without really knowing what its going to do … other than you know the beginning stage and the end stage you’re aiming at. But in between that, it’s fairy-tale land. It’s a surprise every minute.” Sean Morris, “Still Motion,” Nova (Oxford Film Institute, 1981).
A summary of Antonioni’s Cannes statement can be found in Seymour Chatman and Guido Fink, L’avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni, Director (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989), pp. 177–79.
Underdetermination of the sign is central to empiricist epistemology as well as to realists such as Andre Bazin, who claim that “the immanent ambiguity of reality” occasioned by our awareness that “events have an undetermined outcome” is the genuine source of cinematic realism’s power and mystery. See Andre Bazin, What Is Cinema?, vol. 1 (Berkeley, CA: University of California (Press, 1967), p. 46.
Sam Rohdie is the most recent critic to summarize at length these stylistic effects of Antonioni’s cinema. See Antonioni (London: BFI Publications, 1990).
This is Willard Van Orman Quine’s picture, and it has become extremely widespread because of his influence. Quine describes robust empiricism this way: “The totality of our so-called knowledge or beliefs, from the most casual matters of geography and history to the profoundest laws of atomic physics or even of pure mathematics and logic, is a man-made fabric which impinges on experience only along the edges. Or, to change the figure, total science is like a field of force whose boundary conditions are experience. A conflict with experience at the periphery occasions readjustments in the interior of the field.” (42) The drama of Antonioni’s films is occasioned by the conflict between sensation, experience, and concept or, as Quine would have it, between the periphery and interior of the self. See W. Van Orman Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” in From a Logical Point of View, 2nd ed., rev. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 20–46.
“Technically Sweet,” or technicamente dolce, is the title of an unfilmed Antonioni script written shortly after L’eclisse. Antonioni changed the screenplay’s title from La giungla (The Jungle) shortly after hearing this comment of Robert Oppenheimer’s regarding the atomic bomb: “In my opinion, if one has a glimpse of something that seems technically sweet, one attacks this thing and achieves it.” Technically sweet portrayals of world-dissolving “blow-ups” are central to films from L’eclisse through Zabriskie Point and Identificazione di una donna. R. T. Witcombe, The New Italian Cinema: Studies in Dance and Despair (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 80.
Charles Musser briefly discusses the shift in early cinema from presentational or theatrical acting styles, set designs, and visual compositions to naturalistic representational modes. I see no reason why we should not see Antonioni as continuing this line of “realistic” development by his shifting from “naturalistic” representations become generic to more finely grained or cognitively accurate representations than those offered by standard cinema. Such an updating of emotional representations would perhaps be as difficult for audiences to see or comprehend as were the “modern” naturalistic styles for audiences used to presentational or theatrical styles of representation, and this might be a further source of ambiguity or incomprehension in Antonioni’s films. See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. Volume 1 of The History of American Cinema, Charles Harpole, gen. ed. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), p. 3.
Antonioni, Screenplays, p. x.
In the regard, Vittoria initiates Adomo’s project for aesthetic renewal, which he characterizes in this way: “‘How lovely!’ becomes an excuse for an existence outrageously unlovely, and there is no longer beauty or consolation except in the gaze failing on horror, withstanding it, and in unalleviated consciousness of negativity holding fast to the possibility of what is better. … All collaboration, all the human worth of social mixing and participation, merely masks a tacit acceptance of inhumanity.” Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (New York: Verso, 1974), p. 25. We should keep in mind, too, that in La notte, Tomasso writes an article on Adorno for Europa Literaria which Giovanni Pontano declares to be very good. Adorno’s position, that the culture of beauty is unlovely, seems to be at issue in the entire trilogy.
All translations from the Italian are mine, except where otherwise noted.
Two points are at issue here. First, modernist primitivism is a mannerism which contains rather than liberates the desire for or even a genuine appreciation of difference or otherness. Second, as a continuation of the dominant tendencies of romantic art, primitivism “cultivates” rather than deviates from neoclassicism’s aesthetic authority. For an instructive account of the normative content of modernist primitivism, see Hal Foster, “The ‘Primitive’ Unconscious of Modern Art,” October 34 (Fall 1985), pp. 45–71; for a critique of the normative role of interpretation which denies art a role in the construction of difference, see Arthur Danto, “The End of Art,” in The Philosophical Disenfranchment of Art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 81–117.
Ian Cameron and Robin Wood, Antonioni (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 104.
In this light we might see Vittoria as the femme fatale in a feminist drama of alienation from patriarchal values and views regarding romance and the crotic. Were this the case, my argument would then be the same as Mary Ann Doane’s: “Since feminists are forced to search out symbols from a lexicon that does not yet exist, their acceptance of the femme fatale [in noir films] as a sign of strength in an unwritten history must also and simultaneously involve an understanding and assessment of all the epistemological baggage she carries along with her.” It is the importance of this “epistemological baggage” and the politics of empiricism which I have been at pains to elaborate. Doane, “Gilda: Epistemology as Striptease,” Camera Obscura 11, p. 15.
Antonioni, Screenplays, p. 353.
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck, in The Library of Liberal Arts (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), p. 14.
Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 7.
This is Giddens’ summary assessment of the most urgent political agenda for the self in late modernity (see p. 7).
SOURCE: “L’avventura,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 5, No. 12, December, 1995, p. 54.
[In the following essay, Darke examines L’avventura, and stresses the artistic and cultural innovations in Antonioni’s cinema.]
Sandro, a jaded architect who has settled for easy success rather than professional fulfilment, joins a small cruising party along the northeast coast of Sicily given by Princess Patrizia on her yacht.
Sandro accompanies his fiancée Anna, daughter of an ex-ambassador, who brings her friend Claudia, a young woman not of the same privileged class. The group swim and then go ashore to investigate a volcanic island. Anna is increasingly upset about the inadequacy of her relationship with Sandro. A storm rises and the group prepares to leave the island, but Anna is nowhere to be found. In the ensuing search, Sandro becomes attracted to Claudia who, in turn, is confused by his advances and rebuffs him.
Anna remains missing but Claudia and Sandro continue searching for her. Individually at first and then together, they visit places on the mainland where a woman fitting Anna’s description has reportedly been seen. Struggling with her feelings of guilt and shame and with the thought that Anna is dead, Claudia eventually succumbs to Sandro’s attentions and becomes his. mistress. Their search effectively over, the couple attend a lavish party in a hotel where they encounter members of the original cruise. Claudia, fatigued, misses the party to rest. When Sandro fails to return to their room she searches the hotel for him and finds him in the arms of a prostitute. Nevertheless, she forgives the tearful Sandro. Anna is never found.
In the early 60s, Michelangelo Antonioni visited Mark Rothko in his New York studio, having spotted a kindred sensibility in the painter’s abstract expressionism; “We both make work about nothing,” Antonioni explained, “but with precision.” By that time Antonioni was established as the European director whose work demanded the sort of scrutiny normally accorded to painting. Although his style divided critics, none denied his importance. Like Godard’s A bout de souffle and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour,L’avventura took cinematic language itself as a subject. This was a modernist cinema characterised by faith in its resources to go beyond literary and generic forms. It was also a cinema of the everyday that scrutinised emerging emotional, social and physical landscapes at a time when old certainties had been decimated by war and tragedy. These films are the radically sceptical observations of survivors waking to new realities, and their emphasis on form was an invitation to audiences to meditate on the breach that had opened up between perception and expression.
Antonioni’s sixth feature L’avventura was a cause célèbre whose long-take sequences and evanescent plot scandalised the 1960 Cannes Festival. The film began the director’s enduring collaboration with Monica Vitti, his actricefétiche, in a sequence of films—the others are La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962) and Il deserto rosso (1964)—in which he conducts what P. Adams Sitney calls a “psychoanalysis of the boom.” With these films Antonioni asks, “How does it feel to live here and now?” and delivers a case study of the post-war Italian ‘economic miracle’. Alienation, the impermanence of relationships, the impossibility of communication between men and women and the fragility of moral certainties in a brute consumerist object-world: these themes became thoroughly intertwined with Antonioni’s image as a film-maker—although for some they epitomise a solemnity dismissed by Pauline Kael as “Antoniennui.”
Part of the newness of these modernist films was that they delivered new images of middle-class femininity in contrast to those of such Hollywood figures as Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day. Monica Vitti’s troubled and independently-minded Claudia is as significant a portrait of modernity as Anouk Aimée in La dolce vita, Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, or Emanuèlle Riva in Hiroshima mon amour. There is a questing element to Claudia that complicates her feelings of guilt over Anna’s disappearance and the sense that she has betrayed her friend by embarking on the desultory affair with Sandro. Her yearning for lucidity is accompanied by a readiness to face disillusionment, and then to move on.
In L’avventura, as in all of the Antonioni/Vitti films up to Il deserto rosso, the men are weak; Gabriele Ferzetti’s Sandro pursues Claudia more out of reflex than through active desire. His is merely one version of the testosterone-automatism for which Claudia is the uncomfortable focus throughout. Anna (Lea Massari) is more a felt absence, inhabiting the film like a ghost. Her spectral subjectivity comes to be ominously identified with the camera itself. This is implied in the eerie travelling-shot that advances on Claudia and Sandro along a narrow street as they leave a deserted, De Chirico-like village.
Antonioni’s technique puts equal emphasis on length and depth. His sequences include moments before and after events that, in narrative convention, are usually considered temps mort. These moments show that Antonioni is as vigilantly observing landscape as character. The relationship between character and setting, ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, is crucial to his films. Nothing happens but everything in the frame counts. Through the tunnelling perspectives of Antonioni’s compositions or the bisected frames in which characters face away from one another, foreground is always intimately tied to background. The moment when Claudia, visible through the window of the room as a speck on the piazza, waits outside for Anna while Anna and Sandro make love gives a typical unnerving edge of isolation to the scene. Landscapes in L’avventura—the inhospitable volcanic island, the opulent sterility of the upper middle class interiors and the backgrounds of brooding nature and classical architecture—each combine phenomenological realism (Antonioni remained a neo-realist in his taste for location shooting) with symbolism
L’avventura’s beauty, however, is not that of a fashion-spread glamour airbrushed with angst; it’s altogether stranger. Describing an Antonioni film is like giving a running commentary on clouds: the contours of the narrative are allusive, evocative and atmospheric yet paradoxically exact. He proceeds at a tangent, approaching the edges of his object of interest and finding central significance in fugitive undertow and repercussion. It is not only Anna who disappears and yet remains present. The search for her itself fades imperceptibly as a plotline into another story of emotional aimlessness and bad faith. This moment of transition from one story to another may be the object of Antonioni’s investigation. His films are always dramas of transition between presence and absence, togetherness and isolation.
L’avventura is the perfect introduction to Antonioni’s cinema of absence, a style both unique and influential—John Boorman’s Point Blank, the American paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and all of Atom Egoyan’s films are inconceivable without him. David Thomson best summed up his enduring relevance when he wrote “I suspect that Antonioni’s best films will continue to grow and shift: like dunes in the centuries of desert. In that process, if there are eyes left to look, he will become a standard for beauty.”
SOURCE: “Antonioni: Before and After,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 5, No. 12, December, 1995, pp. 18–20.
[In the following essay, Nowell-Smith argues that Antonioni not only created a new cinema, but that his films, even as they age, stay fresh.]
The early 1960s was a great time for cinephiles. There was the old cinema, and there was the new. The old was Hollywood: not the Hollywood of new releases (good new American films were few and far between) but the Hollywood of the recent past—the great backlog of film noir, Mann and Boetticher Westerns, Tashlin/Lewis comedies, all still circulating around inner-city fleapits and in gaunt suburban Odeons on Sunday afternoons, to be hunted down relentlessly by neophyte zealots of the auteur theory. And the new? The new was also occasionally America (Cassavetes) but mainly Europe (Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Fellini, Antonioni, Fassbinder), shortly to be joined by Latin America (Rocha) and Japan (Oshima). Hollywood, more than Europe, was where films had been made in the past: Europe and the rest of the world was where films were being made and would be made in the future.
Subsequent history has turned this simple vision upside down, and the auteur theory had a lot to do with it. For the auteur theory—a theory, yet—begat (or was godfather to) the movie brats, and the movie brats begat the New Hollywood, and the New Hollywood, like it or not, is the cinema today. As for what was the new cinema, there’s precious little of it around. Some of its protagonists, like Rocha and Fassbinder, died young. Few of its survivors—Godard is the obvious exception—have renewed themselves, and it has few successors: Kieślowski and Kaurismäki, Edward Yang, not many others.
But the films of the now-no-longer-new cinema can still surprise one. 30 years on, they can still look modern; and even if one has seen them before, they can still look new. The pleasure of going back to films from the past is generally that of a return, return to the time one first saw the film or to the time of the film itself. This is especially true of films which have nostalgia built into them, such as those of Ford, Mizoguchi or Ophuls. But there are other films which have (for me) the capacity to annual that sense of a return, and present themselves as if they were completely new. I have had this experience on belatedly catching up with Rocha’s Barravento,, and on reseeing Cassavetes’ Shadows and Godard’s A bout de souffle. Most of all I have it with L’avventura.
L’avventura is of course a classic, made 35 years ago. As if to underline its classic status it is in black and white, a sure connotator nowadays of nostalgia. It gets off to a shaky start: a rather stilted conversation between a father and his grown-up daughter. But even that stilted conversation has an uncomfortable ring of truth; the embarrassment conveyed by it is a lifelike embarrassment, that of two characters who have grown apart, as parents and children did and do. From this moment on one is plunged into a world of sporadic, discontinuous conversations, of remarks that miss their target, of looks that do not engage, of relationships that develop erratically and form (rather than conform to) the structure of a plot. In what is shown or in how it is observed, L’avventura is a modern film. A modern film, but not, please God, a classic of modernism.
In the years since the early 60s, L’avventura—together with the other films Antonioni made with Monica Vitti, La notte (1961), The Eclipse (1962) and The Red Desert (1964)—has gone through the inevitable cycle: fashionability, neglect, return to fashion. Its rerelease in Britain coincides with the premiere of Beyond the Clouds, Antonioni’s first feature for over ten years, and with a stream of retrospectives of the work that made the director’s name an icon. This prompts the question: is Antonioni being revived, or embalmed? Are we looking at films which were destined to become classics and have now achieved their destiny, or at a more labile phenomenon, possibly just a fad, a re-evocation of the 60s similar to the digging up of Beatles outtakes?
SUDDENLY, NOTHING HAPPENED …
I would not want to take any bets on the success of the Antonioni revival. But then it would have been unwise to take bets on his success in the 60s either. L’avventura in fact nearly never made it to the screen at all. Halfway through filming the original producers went bankrupt. Cast and crew were marooned on a volcanic island, living on credit from reluctant lodging-house keepers while the director went back to Rome to negotiate a fresh start with a new producer. Shooting was held up for several weeks. Scenes supposed to take place in the summer were not shot until well into the autumn, giving a quite accidental mystery to the eerie light that suffuses the island sequences, as the idle-rich protagonists splash in the no-longer warm waters off the Sicilian coast. Then when the film was premiered in Cannes in May 1960, it was roundly booed by sections of the audience disappointed that the bizarre and unknown Monica Vitti turned out to be the star of the film, rather than Lea Massari (the actress who plays the young woman saying goodbye to her father in the opening sequence). The critics too were divided. Penelope Gilliatt, at the time the recently appointed film critic of the Observer (and later a rather good writer on film for the New Yorker), proudly claimed to have slept through it and suspected others had done the same. (Though if she had really slept how could she know?) For every person who found the film miraculously exciting there was one who pronounced it deeply boring.
Even among Antonioni’s fans, his films of the early 60s provoked puzzlement as well as excitement. What was the fascination of movies in which so little happened, or appeared to happen? And what were they actually about? If they were ‘about’ anything it was probably alienation—an idea made fashionable by existentialism and by the newly discovered Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of the young Karl Marx. And if they were not about alienation, did this mean they were about nothing—that is to say, not about anything or, indeed, about Nothing? There was a quasi-philosophical dimension to the debate which tended to obscure both their originality and the extent to which they remained in many ways quite conventional. L’avventura and The Eclipse were talked about as if they were Waiting for Godot, in which nothing does indeed happen and which is indeed a play about nothing. To understand their wider and more enduring appeal it is therefore necessary to strip away some of the rhetoric that surrounded them at the time they were released.
REAL LIFE DRAMA
For a start, they are not films in which nothing happens. In L’avventura, over a period of a few days, Claudia (Vitti) experiences the loss of her best friend, enters into an affair with her friend’s lover, and is betrayed by him (as she perhaps has betrayed her friend) but seems prepared to accept a reconciliation. In La notte, in less than 24 hours, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) also experience the loss of a close friend, which triggers off a crisis in their relationship; both are tempted by adultery but decide against it, and they end up dubiously together. In The Eclipse, Vittoria (Vitti) terminates a longstanding relationship, enters into a frenzied affair with Piero (Alain Delon), but decides (or appears to decide) not to continue it. By the standards of ordinary life (if not necessarily the cinema) this is hardly nothing.
In Antonioni’s presentation of them, however, these quite dramatic events are not dramatic at all. The disappearance of Anna in L’avventura might be suicide, it might be kidnap or even murder (like the murder of Janet Leigh which dramatically disposes of the heroine early in Hitchcock’s Psycho, which appeared the same year), but we are not shown what happens, nor is the mystery ever explained; nothing is ever more than a possibility, a shadow hanging over the plot. In La notte we do not learn that the dying friend, Tommaso, has actually died, until Lidia lets drop in conversation that a phonecall she received earlier was to tell her about his death. Nor does any drama attach to the crisis in the marriage or the tempted adulteries. The couple do not row, they are just palpably unhappy. When Lidia goes off in the car with Roberto, we see the car stop outside the hotel, and then move on, but we don’t hear their conversation, nor can we even see their faces, which are obscured by the rain beating on the car windows as they talk. As for Giovanni’s flirtation with Valentina (Vitti), it is just allowed to peter out after Lidia has eavesdropped on it. And in The Eclipse we assume that Vittoria and Piero have each decided to bring their affair to an end, but only because neither of them comes to the rendezvous they have set up.
It is not the case, therefore, that nothing has happened, but that the status of what has happened (and something undoubtedly has happened) remains uncertain. Narrative expectations are set up, and then defeated. (It is this, rather than mere boredom, which provoked the hostile reaction of the Cannes audience.) On the one hand this can be seen as elementary realism, a reproduction of the messiness and uncertainty of everyday life as against the conventional predictability of melodrama, and there is no doubt that part of the appeal of Antonioni’s films lies in this lifelikeness. But the lifelikeness is also an effect of art, the result of a deliberate play with film conventions. What holds the rambling plot of L’avventura together is not what happens but the expectation of something happening—the return of Anna or an explanation of her disappearance—which if it were to happen would give the narrative sense, but since it doesn’t happen leaves the story poised over an uncomfortable void. And in The Eclipse it is again the expectation of a resolution—that Piero’s and Vittoria’s affair will continue and be formally sealed as a ‘happy end’—that holds the audience’s attention during the extraordinary last sequence, in which time passes and the lovers never show. On the one side, something lifelike, two characters uncertain as to whether the affair they have drifted into is one they would like to continue. On the other, something which has nothing to do with Piero and Vittoria as people at all: a meditation on transience provoked by teasing the audience into expecting the story to do what stories usually do, and then not delivering.
Antonioni may underplay narrative in order to foreground something else, but he most definitely plays with it. From his first feature film, Cronaca di un amore in 1950, to Identification of a Woman in 1982, passing through L’avventura and Blow-Up (1966), recurrent reference is made to the mystery or detective format, in which the narrative is set in motion by a suspected crime, which the rest of the story then sorts out. The difference, of course, is that in Antonioni films (with the exception of the generally atypical I Vinti in 1953) the mystery is not sorted out but is left in the air, a possibly important, possibly unimportant shadow hanging over the lives of the characters and keeping the audience in deliberately mild suspense. This could be seen as little more than a device, a thread on which to hang a set of concerns which are not so much non-narrative as anti-narrative. Antonioni’s characters tend to live only in the present, carrying with them very little baggage from the past and with few if any ambitions for the future. They don’t have historic grudges and they don’t make projects. This makes them poor narrative material, since the stuff of narrative is motivation, and Antonioni’s characters on the whole don’t have it. Hence the need for an external thread on which to hang the story.
EVOKING MYSTERY, WITHHOLDING FACTS
If this is the case—and I think it is—two questions are then raised. One is a further question about the status of the narrative and the other, which I shall deal with first, concerns the characters. Antonioni’s characters are not entirely without motivation, and not entirely languid. Some of the men, in particular, are compulsively active. Piero is a dealer, frenziedly buying and selling shares on behalf of clients. But the deals mean nothing to him and there is more than a hint that his sex life is like his work; he picks up women and drops them as easily as he trades in and out of any other commodity. Thomas in Blow-Up is equally compulsive; life for him is a flurry of photosessions, of bending objects—especially models—to his will. But none of these characters, whether active or passive, blind or observant, knows where they are going, unless something happens, provoked by the narrative, to give them pause. They have few social, family, or workplace ties and live relatively unconstrained by conventional moral codes. This does not mean that they have no morality, but rather that they have to make their own moral choices as they go along, which they sometimes do and sometimes don’t. It is the seeming rootlessness of these characters, accentuated by a mise en scène which isolates them within the frame, which has given rise to the label attached to them: ‘alienated’. There is also something distinctively modern about it, in the sense that they inhabit situations which sociologists, then as now, characterise as typical of modern societies.
The modernity of Antonioni’s characters may have reflected a sociological commonplace, but for the cinema it was something new. For reasons too complicated to go into here, the mainstream cinema was deeply resistant to modernity in this form. A kind of existential listlessness occasionally surfaces in American films of the 40s and 50s (in They Live by Night and other Nicholas Ray films, for example), but only as a property of lone individuals. It is not generalised across an entire social world, nor is it disabling to individuals. The American hero remains an action hero and his actions are endowed with meaning. But in the entropic world of Antonioni’s films there is little scope for meaningful action for the hero or heroine (if indeed there are heroes and heroines in these films) to engage in—unless, of course, like Mark in Zabriskie Point or Robertson in The Passenger, they invent new roles for themselves to perform.
Antonioni’s characters are not free-standing entities. They are brought into being by story and mise en scène, and it is to these levels that we must return to explain what in fact makes the films distinctive. Narrative tends to be described at two levels: that of a narrated content, and that of the way it is narrated. The classic examples of a disjunction between these two levels are the Oedipus myth and the detective story, in each of which there is an order of events (a murder is committed and the murderer is brought to justice) and an order of presentation (there has been a killing and the nature of it has to be investigated). The resolution of the narrative comes when the two levels are brought together and the truth is revealed.
Antonioni, as already mentioned, enjoys playing with the detective story format. But he plays with it sceptically. Mysteries are evoked but never solved and the narration never reaches a moment of truth produced by the solution. The audience never learns what happened to Anna in L’avventura (nor do the other characters) or who killed Locke and kills Robertson in The Passenger. Even in films which do not use the detective story format, facts are withheld from the audience or the characters or both—not so that they can be revealed in due time but because they have no real pertinent existence. The world of the films is the transient world the audience sees, not a more solid world underlying it and acting as guarantor of its truth. In the epigraph to Sam Rohdie’s book on Antonioni, the director is quoted as saying “the world, the reality in which we live … is invisible, hence we have to be satisfied with what we see.” Or in computer language, What You See Is What You Get.
SPACE IS THE PLACE
What you get is a narration, and a narration of a very pared-down kind—which consists of a series of views of spaces where characters enter, perform their actions and depart. In conventional film narration, spaces are defined by the characters who occupy them and by the actions performed in them, and the succession of spaces (the editing of shots) is determined by the continuity of the action. In Antonioni’s films space pre-exists the action, and asserts its reality independently of the action performed within it. Although there are conventional matched-action cuts in the films, there are also many shots which begin or end with no character in frame at all (most notably in The Eclipse). The character makes an appearance in the shot, redefines the space as the space of an action, then disappears, restoring to the space its original independent reality. What anchors the narration is not a story but a composition.
This foundational quality of the filmic space means that the action of the film often takes the form of an interaction between the characters and the spaces they move in and out of. Characters are often presented as more sensitive to their environment than to other characters. Landscape and the elements—mud, rain, deserts—are powerful determinants of the action, but so are smaller spaces, the emptiness or constriction of a room, the closeness of a blank wall. The physical prevails over the social, and landscape cuts characters down to size. In Red Desert, Corrado (Richard Harris) tries to persuade a group of refinery workers to join him on a drilling expedition to Patagonia. The workers listen but are not convinced. The camera lingers on their faces, traces the lines of brightly painted pipework, focuses on huge glass jars used for storing acid. The sheer presence of the immediate environment is overpowering, and against it Corrado’s vision seems insubstantial, a mere will-o’-the-wisp.
Many of the features of Antonioni’s films can be found in other films of the 60s and after. Just occasionally they can be found earlier. The listless characters of L’avventura,La notte, and The Eclipse are to some extent prefigured in Fellini’s films of the 50s (particularly strong is the similarity between Mastroianni-Marcello in La dolce vita and Mastroianni-Giovanni in La notte). The Nouvelle Vague also brought in its crop of existential heroes who invent their own morality. The sense of landscape and filmic space as preceding narrative is prevalent in Ozu. Narratives which do not resolve can be found in film noir. But so concentrated a challenge to the norms of narrative-as-action is unique in the cinema (or at least in the kind of cinema that gets theatrical release). Antonioni in a real sense invented a new cinema, and very often where features of that cinema recur, it is (for good or ill) a result of his influence. Yet his influence has been indirect. Other directors of his generation have been successfully plundered for ideas and mannerisms, and something of their work survives in the work of their imitators—Bergman in Woody Allen, early Godard in Tarantino, the Godard of '68 in a whole host of film-makers who took up his slogan of “making films politically.” Antonioni, however, has not proved easy to imitate. His films represent an opening up of cinema to new possibilities of vision, but they also involve a closing down, since the vision they embody is so precise, and that precision cannot be manneristically reproduced. Little bits of what might seem to be his manner permeate a number of the art films of the 60s, as part of a generalised rebellion against the tyranny of the rule-book. But when audiences in the late 70s rebelled in their turn against unfocused artiness, the valuable part of Antonioni's lesson could not be absorbed. His was very much a cinema of its time, marked by the emergence of a public which had begun to grow tired of conventional cinema and expected something different. The world into which Beyond the Clouds is being released is a different one. Audiences are smaller, and their demands are more focused, though also less ambitious. But in other respects the way the world has changed only confirms the vision of it prospected in Antonioni’s films of the 60s and 70s. The films may be a throwback to a past era of cinema. But what they propose is still new.
SOURCE: “Still Hazy after All These Years,” in New Yorker, Vol. 72, No. 29, September 30, 1996, pp. 88–90.
[In the following review of Beyond the Clouds, Lane offers a melancholy tribute to Antonioni’s films, and to art films in general.]
In the fog of an Italian town, a handsome young man falls in love with a beautiful young woman. He tries to kiss her. When this fails, he tells her, “I’m a drainagepump technician.” Amazingly, this approach, too, is unsuccessful. They spend the night in the same hotel, but in separate rooms. She undresses and waits for him, in vain. In the morning, she is gone. A voice informs us, “They never met again.” Two years later, they meet again. By chance, they attend the same movie. Afterward, she brings him up to date. “I’ve been wondering recently why I have such a need to hear words,” she says. He feels differently. “I’m enslaved by your silence,” he says. At last they go to bed, where his desire is so perfect that he cannot possibly spoil it by actually making love. He leaves. Whether they ever meet again is unclear. Only one thing is certain: we have been watching a Michelangelo Antonioni film.
Beyond the Clouds, which plays at the New York Film Festival on September 28th and 29th, could well be Antonioni’s final work. I hope that I’m wrong about this, but the man is turning eighty-four next week, and is not in the best of health, and the movie feels like a summation of his abiding concerns. More than a distillation, certainly: it’s a long haul, not exactly rambling but taking its time to stroll through a number of separate plots, as if touring the soundstages of a favorite studio, and pausing every so often to enjoy the sights, most of which consist of women’s legs. There are four stories in all, beginning with the drainage pumper (Kim Rossi-Stuart) and his beloved (Inès Sastre). The scene then switches from Ferrara to Portofino, where a movie director (John Malkovich) spies a woman (Sophie Marceau) in a shopwindow. When they finally meet, and even before they retire for the statutory coupling, she announces that she murdered her father. The third and most complicated section—the only one, at any rate, in which cause and effect, rather than dream logic, have a say in human conduct—takes place in Paris, where Roberto (Peter Weller) has a lengthy affair with Olga (Chiara Caselli), to the chagrin of his wife, Patrizia (Fanny Ardant). When Patrizia eventually walks out, she goes to rent an apartment and finds it occupied by a man (Jean Reno) who looks as beached and betrayed as herself. Guess what happens next. Finally, we get a joke—a playlet that depends on its punch line. Niccolo (Vincent Perez) follows yet another beautiful woman (Irène Jacob) to church, where he falls asleep. When he awakes, she is gone. He runs after her, sweet-talks her, and asks to see her the next day. Whereupon she turns at the door of her apartment and fires off the last word in put-downs: “Tomorrow I enter a convent.” And she goes inside, without even bothering to stop and have sex. Extraordinary behavior.
Beyond the Clouds is not a misogynist picture, but Antonioni is so thoroughly conditioned by the habits of an Italian lifetime to revere women, and so keen to ascribe a grail-like fascination to their bodies and souls, that it might be easier for all concerned if he did dislike them. The entire film, in fact, is riddled with the shortcomings that have made irreverent moviegoers snort at Antonioni for so long: his own sense of humor, for one thing, lying withered and unused in the corner, not to mention his sententiousness, and the infuriating ease with which he foists his characters into a kind of spiritual gridlock before—or, to be precise, instead of—making any attempt to introduce them. Such loftiness, which was already sky-high when Antonioni made L’avventura and La notte, thirty years ago, has hardly succumbed to the gravity of the years; Beyond the Clouds is still, as you might guess from its title, way up there. On what ground, then, might one dare to argue that this is, despite everything, a pretty wonderful movie, and that you should find a ticket while you can?
Well, there is the small matter of loveliness. After a summer of movies whose directors could quite feasibly have been swapped around without either raising or lowering the quality of their respective pictures, there is an intense autumnal relief in coming upon a filmmaker who could never be mistaken for anyone else. Antonioni’s movies beg for parody, but the true parodic instinct is by definition born of homage—it’s a half-respectful reply to a style that demands attention. Antonioni brings his own spaces and silences; he shrouds the earth in his own weather—close to the lyrical gloom of Marcel Carné, but with an extra pearlgray veiling, which, far from clinching lovers together, tends to keep them errant and apart. I recall Woody Allen’s expressing admiration for the fog scene in Identification of a Woman and a corresponding desire to re-create it for one of his own productions; Woody’s eyes should mist over at the sight of the new movie, which appears to deliver its dramatis personae from a netherworld of haze and rain. They could, you sense, be sucked back into it at any time; it’s as if every relationship on view here were distantly modelled on that of Orpheus and Eurydice, its urgency matched only by the undying threat of transience. The one trustworthy status is that of solitude—you can break out of it, launch brief raids into the lives of others, and then retreat to lick your wounds. Nothing in Beyond the Clouds is more uncluttered, or more evocative, than a shot of John Malkovich at the beach: he sits perfectly still on a swing, while the sand at his feet, whipped by the coastal wind, eddies and breaks like waves.
So much sadness seems to rise and radiate from this scene that, as often happens with Antonioni, you’re amazed that he feels the need to enlarge upon it in the surrounding dialogue. Reading back through my notes on the movie, I was battered by the memory of bad lines: “Have you noticed nobody watches sunsets anymore?”; “I think that to be happy we should eliminate our thoughts”; “We always want to live in someone else’s imagination.” In the unlikely event that any of these remarks turned out to be true, they would still be marked by an indelible dramatic gaucheness; it’s almost touching to think that an effortless visual maturity can coexist with such adolescent tristesse. Malkovich gets the worst of the deal; in the role of the movie director—Antonioni’s representative on earth, so to speak—he is not only caught up in the Portofino chunk of the plot but charged with the Virgilian task of guiding us through the other parts. The film begins with his cinematic musings on an airplane, and he keeps popping up, as if to reassure us, just in case we’ve forgotten, that it is a film. Well, I never. At the end, when Irène Jacob slips into her apartment, leaving her admirer on the stairs, Malkovich is there on the street where she lives.
There is an odd naïveté to this pattern of appearances; Antonioni nudges us to theorize about his work—he condemns us to become film critics, you might say, instead of proper viewers—even though the landscapes of Beyond the Clouds, both human and geographical, can and should be left to speak passionately for themselves. No one has found such fired-up anger in Fanny Ardant before, or such creepy brooding in the skullish features of Peter Weller; nobody—not even Kieślowski—has looked so carefully at Irène Jacob and realized that her natural expression is a kind of pun, at once flirtatious and sweetly devotional. When he gets down to sex itself, of course, Antonioni is in his element; the closeups of limbs and breasts have a certain chill to them—if we are honest about lovemaking, he suggests, does it really comprise more than the suave or fumbling rearrangement of body parts?—and yet the sheer intentness of the erotic scenes shows people at their most desperate to come alive. I used to balk at the Antonioni movies of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, at the insistence—the moral bigotry—with which alienation was urged upon us as the only available option. The director was serious in his purposes, but that very sincerity acquired a frill of chic; what is most moving about Beyond the Clouds is that, far from growing crusty or irascible in his old age, Antonioni has relaxed. The film is rife with images of discord and disquiet, but, possessed of a grace that I haven’t seen in his work since the elegant early days of Story of a Love Affair, it has the good manners to offer its unhappiness less as a precondition than as a suggestion: take it or leave it.
There are two reasons you should go and see Beyond the Clouds at the festival. First, it has so far failed to find a distributor here, thus joining such distinguished recent company as Leos Carax’s “Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” and Emir Kusturica’s “Underground.” Second—and this is hardly a separate reason—it feels like one of the last of its breed. Beyond the Clouds is many things, some of them more successful than others, but I take it to be, above all, an elegy for the art movie. I never quite thrilled to the battle that was pitched between mainstream and art cinema, but if low-level warfare has simmered for the last fifty years it has now been comprehensively won by Hollywood. The dedication to European cinema has, within a generation, sunk from a robust moviegoing habit to a buffs’ charter. That is why there is such relief, and a breeze of nostalgia, in watching Beyond the Clouds. It even contains a brief, inconsequential skit that serves no purpose other than to provide cameos for Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni—king and queen of the art house. I know perfectly well that there is something absurd in such crumbling Continental melancholy, in the concoction of ravishing women and reflex and virtually thoughtless philosophizing. But this weakness for profundity nevertheless signals, in retrospect, a certain strength of character—an eagerness to get something across, or at least to wrap us in a hypnotizing mood. I don’t happen to believe that Antonioni’s work is profound, but the illusion of profundity is so spooky, and so exquisitely managed, that it will do just as well. “There’s a cure for everything,” Jean Reno tells Fanny Ardant. “That’s what concerns me,” she replies. The world of Michelangelo Antonioni throngs with sick souls, and we may be slightly sick of them by now, but I wouldn’t want them to get better.
SOURCE: “Beyond the Clouds,” in New Republic, Vol. 215, No. 18, October 28, 1996, p. 30.
[In the following review, Kauffmann laments the fact that Beyond the Clouds had trouble finding a distributor, even though he does not regard the film as “first rank Antonioni.”]
The latest work by Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the premier artists in the world history of film, is Beyond the Clouds. I put no distributor after the title because, as yet, it has none for this country, although one is said to been route. The picture was shown at the recent New York Film Festival. As one who has severely questioned that festival, I must note that it has shown all three of Antonioni’s films since The Passenger (1975). The two others were The Mystery of Oberwald (1980), adapted from a Cocteau play (one of only three films in Antonioni’s career adapted from other people’s material) and Identification of a Woman (1982). None of the three most recent films has yet been released here. One doesn’t have to believe that they are first-rank Antonioni in order to shudder at a system in which new works by a major artist are, so to speak, not acknowledged to exist.
Antonioni was 83 when he made Beyond the Clouds and, because of a stroke in 1985, paralyzed down his right side. He cannot speak. (I once had a ninety-minute conversation with him on PBS. When he was in New York in 1992, we shook hands—left hands—and he made some sounds in his throat.) How did he do a film?
First, the screenplay. It consists of four stories adapted from pieces in his book, That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. On this adaptation he had the help of his longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra and of Wim Wenders. Wenders directed the prologue and epilogue of the film and also served as standby director. (Wenders, eminent in his own right, has long been associated with the novelist-dramatist-filmmaker Peter Handke, whose work has distinct affinities with Antonioni.) The co-cinematographer, with Alfio Contini, was Robby Muller, a Wenders veteran.
Impressive though this team certainly is, its members emphasize that the whole project was closely under Antonioni’s control. This becomes clear very early. The prologue done by Wenders is cinematically trite. We see the wing of an airliner above the clouds, then shots of the plane’s interior and a man within it, then that of the man from the outside—as he looks through a window. (This shot, very familiar, always tickles me. From whose point of view? A passing angel’s?) But, as soon as the first story begins, so does the real Antonioni. His ability to see is still overwhelming. We’re in Ferrara (his hometown). A long perspective of a cloister-like walk with two modern young people in it strikes an Antonioni chord: people of the European present still embraced by the past, like it or not.
The man we met on the airplane is the compere for the film. He addresses us in English, sometimes on camera, sometimes on the soundtrack. He is a film director, the “I” of the Tiber book, thus Antonioni. (Whether this is true in the second story, where the man has an affair, is a bit more ambiguous.) John Malkovich plays this narrator-guide and is obviously meant to give the man depth. Malkovich has intelligence: even his worst performances convey it. But I don’t find him, as is clearly intended, someone whom I immediately want to know more about.
For the first of the four stories Antonioni has found two young actors, Ines Sastre and Kim Rossi-Stuart, who are astonishingly beautiful. Lovers in Antonioni films are usually played by attractive people, sometimes more than that, but these two are remarkable. Antonioni seems to have departed from his usual practice in this instance to emphasize that their very difference from us, terrific though we of course all are, is emblematic.
The story (in Italian) is about a delayed encounter. The two meet by chance, then spend the night separately in different hotel rooms. Three years later they again meet accidentally, and this time they go to bed; but, after he has adored her exquisite body, he suddenly leaves, without actually making love. Nothing is said. We are meant to infer his thought that actual sex would be only a utilization of this perfect encounter, not its fulfillment. Tacitly, she perhaps agrees. If we can register the difference from the way we less beautiful persons might behave, the episode is, in two senses, platonic.
The three other stories are less resonant. In Portofino our cicerone meets a young woman who tells him in their first conversation (done in English) that she murdered her father, stabbed him twelve times. Since she was acquitted in her trial, the killing was apparently justified. (We don’t learn why.) Her declaration doesn’t discourage the man. They go to bed. Then he leaves, having said that he thinks twelve stabs were “domestic,” fewer would have been murder. The woman’s confession and its sexual effect on him have a certain pungency, but it quickly evaporates.
The third episode, set in Paris and done in French, is so neat that it’s almost a satire on the neatness of French boulevard comedy. A wife leaves her husband because he won’t stop an affair. She tries to rent the apartment of a man, she learns, whose wife has just left him for a lover. The two bereft ones get together.
The fourth episode, set in Aix-en-Provence and also done in French, is Gallic in a different way—a sort of Maupassant twist. A young man tries to pick up a young woman, even accompanying her to church. (Imagine a huge crucifix in the background of an Antonioni shot.) She is amiable, but she tells him that she is in love. As he walks her home, he asks what would happen if he fell in love with her. She says, “It would be like lighting a candle in a room full of light.” When they part at her door, she tells him that the next day she will enter a convent.
There’s also a witty little sketch, between the second and third episodes, apparently because Antonioni wanted a touch of lightness and a whiff of nostalgia. Marcello Mastroianni is a painter on a hill doing a landscape that Cezanne once painted, except that now there’s a factory in the vista. Along comes Jeanne Moreau, who (in French) questions the worth of copying. He says that if he can at least repeat one gesture that Cezanne made, he will be gratified.
The chuckle is about more than painterly repetition. Moreau and Mastroianni were together in one of Antonioni’s masterpieces, La notte (1960).
None of these stories, except the first, incises deeply, but all of them are immersed in a sense of place, riche but not nouveau riche, no ostentation. Some old Antonioni elements and some new ones are used. We see a bit of a street carnival, as in Blow-Up; boats pass by just outside a window, as in Red Desert; the wind is a character in a scene, as in Eclipse. New elements are the crossfades—I can’t remember dissolves from one shot into another in previous Antonioni films—and the cuts to a black screen. But the most startling novelty is negative: the absence of his revolutionary attitude toward time. As Mark Rudman has said, “Antonioni is among the few directors who have had the courage to experiment with real time.” (Remember the two lovers by the railroad track in L’avventura, Vittoria at the airfield in Eclipse.) Not here. Time is used in conventional filmic ways. Apparently Antonioni felt that this material would not bear the weight of the virtual experience that he used so brilliantly in the past.
None of the performances is extraordinary, though all are adequate. The best- known actors, other than those already named, are Fanny Ardant, as the Parisian wife, and Irene Jacob as the nun-to-be.
This will almost certainly be Antonioni’s last film. Whatever we think of it, we can all be glad that it was made. A collection of his writings and interviews, The Architecture of Vision, was published here recently. In one article he says:
There are moments when I seem to perceive, however confusedly, the why of certain things. When this happens, I become a combative optimist. … Am I not still here, making films (good ones, bad ones, whatever) which are always against something and someone? Isn’t this obstinacy? And isn’t this obstinacy itself a kind of optimism?
Perhaps the trouble with Beyond the Clouds is that it isn’t “against” enough. But the obstinacy is inarguable.
SOURCE: A review of The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, in Film Criticism, Vol. 32, No. 2, Winter, 1997, p. 66.
[In the following review, Harrison argues that this collection of Antonioni's writing illuminates the filmmaker's objectives and emphasizes the limitations of theory.]
It is difficult to overestimate the pleasures of having access, in one splendid volume, to Michelangelo Antonioni’s collected writings on film. So much remains unsaid in the work of Italy’s most intellectual director that the desire to be privy to his thoughts tends to be greater than with, say, Fellini, Pasolini, or Bertolucci. Antonioni has remained more silent in the print media than they. His films pose more problems of comprehension, often circling around unsolvable conundrums (e.g., what happened to Anna in L’avventura). His work, in his own words, records “abortions of observation” more frequently than full-fledged visions. The most abstract of Italian film-makers, Antonioni is also the most experimental, using techniques that share as much with poetry and painting as with filmic narration. To make matters even more puzzling, one senses a deep philosophical subcurrent to his dramas of human incomprehension, calling out for the clarifying texts of a Sartre or Camus, if not for treatises on perception and film theory itself.
With The Architecture of Vision, then, we are afforded the opportunity to look unto some of these issues inspired by the films themselves. The first in a multi-volume project covering Antonioni’s complete works, this one arrays fifty-one highly articulate pieces chronologically over four divisions. The first, called “My Cinema,” consists of essays, prefaces to screenplays, and formal discussions. The second, “My Films,” is made up of published writings on individual films. The third is devoted to “Interviews” with Antonioni on his art in general, the fourth to “Interviews on Films,” ranging from Story of a Love Affair (1950) to Identification of a Woman (1983). The great bulk of this material—in excellent translations by Allison Cooper, Dana Renga, and Andrew Taylor—is made available in English for the very first time.
Underlying the essays and interviews is a nagging question: to what extent do an artist’s reflections, reminiscences, and speculations unlock his hermetic procedures? “I don’t believe that what an author says about himself and about his own work would help make sense of his work,” Antonioni himself insists. As Giorgio Tinazzi notes in his introduction, however, even writings as incidental as a film-maker’s travel log will inevitably give “indications of his tendencies, of his interests, and of his poetics.” This rationale may be overly cautious. In her incisive preface to the English edition, Marga Cottino-Jones actually demonstrates how Antonioni’s theories illuminate some of the thornier issues in his art: his “coldness” toward his characters (aimed in one particular case, he notes, “at avoiding the possibility that the story could influence the public even in an involuntarily negative way”); his fondness for the long take (allowing him to ponder the after-effects of situation on character); his heavy manipulation of color (putting viewers in a frame of mind to follow unusual tenors of dialogue); his ambivalent uses of technology (“I adopted technology to eliminate technology”). By putting her finger on these types of connections, Cottino-Jones reveals that, although Antonioni’s readings of his own motives and accomplishments may not be “authoritative,” they open important directions for investigation that critics might not otherwise pursue.
In interview after interview, Antonioni appears as reticent to theorize his art as his characters to voice their emotions. In itself, this is surprising, for Antonioni is one of the most literate of directors’ famous for his references to Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Max Scheler; to Mallarme, Lucretius, and Dostoevsky. In this case, however, the reticence is particularly eloquent, revealing—even by means of this erudite help—a profound conviction. To Antonioni’s way of thinking, ideas, theories, and reflections never do justice to the complexity of intentions, moods, and aesthetic situations. Even when invoking the philosophers, Antonioni reaches with words towards regions that lie beyond them. And this clarifies his commitment to film. Precisely because Antonioni takes verbal language so seriously, searching its literary and philosophical articulations as thoroughly as he does, he discovers the necessity of film, the need for a means of communication that reading and writing do not attain. The Italian original of The Architecture of Vision takes its title from the statement, “fare un film per me e vivere” (to me, film-making is living). By providing these writings in English, Cottino-Jones supplies an extended gloss on the meaning of the phrase, Filmmaking, for Antonioni, is not only a particular species of writing. It is not only an alternative to the written or spoken word. It is a form of life, embodying the entire project of understanding. It is an expression of what his phenomenological philosophers call “preunderstanding,” “disposition,” the unspeakable complexity of “being-in-the-world.”
In an interview from the late seventies, Antonioni bemoans the fact that in this confused decade “people no longer want to ‘figure things out.’ There are too many people who sense that the reality around them is unfamiliar, and they hardly even want to come to know this reality because they feel that it would not solve anything” (205). While Antonioni is intending to be critical here, the situation he describes is not all that different from the one his films record from start to finish, where experience seems to have lost its clarity and characters cannot find their bearings. When he grows impatient with his interviewers’ ceaseless intellectual prying, is it not also for the same reason—namely, because they, too, are trying, impossibly, to figure things out?
To “figure things out” is to achieve discursive understanding of the reasons things are the way that they are, to have a clear sense of cause and effect. But, by Antonioni’s admission, this is the type of story that neither he nor his characters can tell. If anything, they are more interested in an opposite sort of narrative, and one more appropriate to the inarticulateness of the human emotions and understanding in the third quarter of the century. Antonioni’s narratives try only to seize “what I seem to see around me,” and that is a historical situation in which stories can exist “with neither a beginning nor an end necessarily, without key scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead” (142). More precisely still, Antionioni does not tell stories at all; “I try to ‘show’ stories” (209).
To “show” a story, in Antonioni’s fashion, is to reject the distended logic of plot, the construction of a dramatic line, the development of a coherent narrative progression—for all of them are correlatives of “theory,” of mental explanation, of experience subordinated to idea. To “show” a story is to privilege instead the mute evidence of singular, historical events, of life’s puzzling, unamalgamable episodes. Feeling as Antonioni does “an instinctive and sincere need to reduce everything to images” (62), he proceeds to wonder whether these images might not be made to cohere in a pictorial or figurative way, perhaps in the manner of that paratactic montage he explored in his documentary, People of the Po Valley (1943–47). At its most ambitious, the narrative disunity that makes a cinematic sequence appear to be just a string of separate and isolated shots is essentially an attempt to open cinema to “ways of expression that are absolutely free, as free as those of literature, as free as those of painting which has reached abstraction” (26).
Antonioni’s resistance to discursive meaning also shows up in his distance from the screenplay. “These are the limits of scripts,” he notes, “to give works to events that refuse words.” Writing a screenplay is just “describing images with provisional words, words which will no longer do” (67). If the dialogues of Visconti’s Obsession appear dated in the seventies, for example, it is “not because they are wrong, but because they no longer fit the images” (208). For Antonioni, the images are always what is prior, possessing an autonomous and ingrained power that the discursive embellishments do not share. And this helps explain why Antonioni’s own art tends toward minimalism, preferring “to say things with the least means possible” (43).
To reject the notion of cinema as an audiovisual “illustration” of a meaning, theory, or discursive intention is nevertheless not to divorce it from those living discoveries that words themselves serve. In fact, Antonioni himself suggests that his own films might best be seen as documentaries “of a thought in the making” (58). The greater part of this thought occurs in the process of production, not in the plans that precede it: in the scouting of locations, in choices about framing and camera angle, in the arrangement of characters in space, in expressive manipulations of color, in the extemporaneous gestures of actors (and finally in the adjustments to the script that all this thinking then comes to entail). The meaning of the film, if it has one, is to be found in these ways that its thinking takes shape. “Certain lines in the script might take on a different meaning once they’re spoken against a wall or against a street background. And a line spoken by an actor in profile doesn’t have the same meaning as one given full-face” (28). To understand the genesis or objective of a film, Antonioni suggests, one must heed Wittenstein’s advice to abandon explanation in favor of description. Instead of answering the question, “What did you want to say?” With a particular film, Antonioni “would prefer to respond along these lines: “In that period, certain events happened in the world, I saw certain people, I was reading certain books, I was looking at certain paintings, I loved X, I hated Y, I didn’t have any money, I wasn’t sleeping much” (57). Ideas, motivations, feelings, and believes cannot be abstracted from the situations that gave them birth. They are outcrops of existential experience—which is the very process that cinema transcribes.
Documentaries of a thought in the making can easily be built out of “flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment” (91). Something as simple as a sensation, says Antonioni, can define a film even when its story remains far from defined. (“One day I invented a film while looking at the sun: the meanness of the sun,” 61). If anything, the resulting work elaborates a type of “internal neorealism” (16). It portrays the “innermost thoughts” of a character (8), the subjective after-effects of a historical scene (25), the forces that motivate us to act in one way instead of another (26). This subjective type of art hits its mark when it occasions a similar response in the spectator: “A film does not need to be understood. It is enough if the viewer feels it” (168).
The question of course remains of just how one feeling (converted into an image) reproduces itself in the viewer. According to Antonioni, the process entails a mysterious conjunction of internal and external vision: “At a certain moment the two visions approach each other, and like two images that come into focus, they are superimposed upon one another” (58). While this coincidence of subject and object may be the motivating principle of Antonioni’s aesthetic, it is also, however, its bone of contention, for more often than not his films examine quite the opposite experience—namely, the noncorrespondence of inner and outer vision, of spiritual and material worlds, of desire and its dramatic surroundings. Antonioni’s documentaries of a “thought in the making” focus on the problematic experience of characters jolted or alienated for the events in which they participate. Instead of showing ideas reflected in actions, they dwell on the difficulties inherent to the reflection. Something more fundamental than coincidence then comes into view, namely, the situation on which is based, the naked experience of “mankind facing his environment and mankind facing mankind” (65). It was the sense that these feelings were not issuing into some “natural,” comfortable, dramatic behavior that led him to investigate those feelings to begin with.
A cinema that seeks form for non-rational feelings is thus spurred by the absence of that form. That, too, may explain why Antonioni is more interested in the perceptions of women, who “provide a much more subtle and uneasy filtering of reality than men do” (191). His film force the spectator to reflect on the relationship between experience and understanding, between subjects and objects, between “field” and “counterfield” (25). The problem of relationship eventually engulfs that spectator who relates to the film. “It is like studying a microcosm: while you observe a phenomenon, you change it, and the particle that you try to photograph changes its course” (202). The harder you try to penetrate the meaning of an objective image, Antonioni showed in Blow-Up, the less sure you are that such a meaning is actually objective. “Observing reality,” he concludes, “is only possible on a poetic level” (202). “You cannot penetrate events with reportage” (62). Film-maker and spectator alike help construct the grammar of all thoughts in process.
Antonioni’s film provides only the occasion for such construction. It has been distinguished from the neorealistic cinema among which he began his career in being less interested in the sociopolitical realities of the underprivileged than in the intellectual and emotional problems of the middle class. But here, too, the writings prove crucial: “The middle class,” Antonioni remarks, “doesn’t give me the means with which to resolve any middle class problems” (40). The deepest problem of this middle class, one suspects, may be its inarticulateness about the nature of its problems. Its stories, visions, and explanations are askew in some manner or other. Antonioni must therefore reconfigure those visions, rethink the very nature of its thinking. He must devise a new architecture of vision. Not even this architecture, however, can stand on its own. Antonioni, the middle class man, lacks the means to resolve middle class problems. And this identifies the great interest of these writings: they show that the vastest implications of his architecture of vision are intimately embroiled with the objectives and limitations of theory.
SOURCE: “Fulfilled by the Folly of the City,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,894, January 17, 1997, p. 15.
[In the following review, Pizzichini links Beyond the Clouds thematically, narratively, and stylistically to Antonioni’s earlier films.]
It is fourteen years since Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film, Identification of a Woman; now, at the age of eighty-four, he has completed Beyond the Clouds, a kind of final reckoning, in which the veteran director, though wheelchair-bound and unable to speak since his stroke in 1985, addresses the chilling ennui of his earlier work—and moves beyond it. Based on autobiographical pieces (published as Quel bowling sul Tevere in 1983), the film’s four stories recall unsuccessful relationships. As a concession to the film’s backers, Beyond the Clouds has been made with Wim Wenders’s assistance. His contribution is a series of linking episodes that feature John Malkovich as a nameless film director who, camera in hand, travels across Europe in search of characters. In effect, he plays Antonioni, trawling through his memories in order to furnish a film.
Beyond the Clouds opens with Malkovich above Ferrara, Antonioni’s birthplace, in an aeroplane. It is the “folly of the city,” he tells us, that a love affair that lasts for years, without ever existing, should take place there. Under a mistswathed colonnade, Silvano (Kim Rossi Stewart) falls in love with Carmen (Ines Sastré) at first sight. Nothing comes of their encounter until years later, when they meet again. They declare their love, but as Silvano’s trembling hand hovers over Carmen’s naked body, he realizes that the consummation of his desire will bring disappointment, and leaves. The choice of location—Ferrara is famous for its constant shower of fine rain—lends a suitably vaporous feel to the narrative.
Malkovich’s voice-over elaborates on Antonioni’s more opaque handling, but when the ghostly director steps into the action, it is only to confirm his ineffectuality in the real world. Like Thomas, the photographer in Blow-Up (1966), he goes in search of images, but finds a murder. In cold, dank, out-of-season Portofino, Malkovich is smitten by a beautiful shop assistant (Sophie Marceau), who responds to his looks of entreaty by confessing to patricide—“I killed my father … stabbed him twelve times.” Because he reminds her of her father, they make love, but the camera is more interested in her than in Malkovich—its putative master—so the director moves on.
In L’avventura (1960), near-riots erupt on the streets of Messina when a prostitute splits the seams of her skirts; a frenzy of voyeurism momentarily shakes the townspeople out of their inertia. This search for distraction is taken up again in the third segment of Beyond the Clouds, in which the inhabitants of austere Parisian apartments drift in and out of relationships. “We must wait for our souls to catch up with us,” Olga (Chiara Caselli) tells Robert (Peter Weller). Instead, they embark on an affair. Meanwhile, another couple splits up, and Robert’s wife (Fanny Ardant) turns to the husband (Jean Reno) for consolation. She strokes his cheek, but her look of weariness betrays the gesture’s futility. In the last story, we see a woman (Irene Jacob) at prayer, through the eyes of Vincent Perez. He admires her fervour and chases her along narrowing streets; on the threshold of her door, he asks if he can see her the next day. She smiles: “Tomorrow, I enter a convent.”
Although these stories are slight, they possess an internal logic that makes Wenders’s linking framework unnecessary. He acknowledges his superfluousness, however, in a wry coda, which recalls Antonioni’s 1961 film La notte, by featuring its stars, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. Moreau mocks “Il Maestro,” as Mastroianni painstakingly recomposes a Cézanne landscape, inserting factories in a feeble attempt to update it. Antonioni’s vision, Wenders suggests, needs no renovation or faddish enhancement, either. The sense of isolation that has always suffused his work is made more poignant, here, by the severity of his own illness; the women remain inaccessible, the men—mimicking his paralysis—immobilized in the face of desire. But Antonioni also reveals an unprecedented compassion for his characters’ loneliness and, for the first time, celebrates some of the unusual pleasures of abstinence. In their belated re-enactment, his unfulfilled longings achieve something akin to fulfilment.
SOURCE: A review of Beyond the Clouds, in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 3, May-June, 1997, p. 59.
[In the following review, Hogue praises Beyond the Clouds for its unity and “combination of present-tense immediacy and timeless detachment.”]
Beyond the Clouds is the work of a great director. It is one of the major films of the decade. But as of this writing, it has no announced American distribution. That this is a late work of the man who made L’avventura,Red Desert,Blow-Up,The Passenger, and many more is enough by itself to make the film worthy of serious and widespread interest, but it more than stands on its own as an example of inspired contemporary film art. Indeed, Michelangelo Antonioni’s accomplishments seem all the greater when we consider that he has brought this film off in the middle of his ninth decade and despite the disabilities from a stroke suffered in the 1980s.
Produced in collaboration with Wim Wenders, the film consists of four episodes, all based on stories in Antonioni’s book That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, and directed by Antonioni himself, with linking sequences (including a prologue and an epilogue) shot by Wenders. This episodic structure and the piecemeal nature of the filming might seem to augur a somewhat scattered film, a loose-structured anthology, say, or even a mere set of footnotes by an octogenarian filmmaker who has not been in the forefront of international cinema since The Passenger in the mid-Seventies, and has been more or less inactive since Identification of a Woman in 1982. But Beyond the Clouds is in fact a brilliantly unified work in which the various episodes and digressions develop in complex, and at times oblique, concert with one another. The film is distinctively of a piece with Antonioni’s very best work, and yet it also charts new directions and fresh developments.
For simplicity’s sake, one might say that Beyond the Clouds consists of four unusual love stories linked by the musings and reflections of a filmmaker wandering in search of material for his next film. This filmmaker character, known as the Director and played by John Malkovich, makes remarks and pronouncements drawn from the writings and interviews of Antonioni himself, and also appears as a major character in the second episode. The episodes themselves have distinctive swings: first the story of an unconsummated love affair, set in Ferrara, Antonioni’s birthplace in Italy; second, a flirtation in Portofino between the Director and a shopgirl who claims to have murdered her father; third, the story of a Parisian marriage torn apart by the husband’s errant amorousness; and fourth, a young man’s flirtation with a young woman devoted to her religion, in Aix-en-Provence.
Each of these is, in a sense, a story of an “impossible love,” and each concerns itself with a couple that is, to one degree or another, “on the make.” But the episodes connect up with one another in ways that are subtle and varied, and more attached to style and detail than to any obvious narrative resemblances. This deceptively casual network of interconnections includes a number of familiar Antonioni themes and concerns: alienation and isolation, deflected passion and blocked emotions, existential ambiguities amid modern prosperity, spiritual uncertainties and romantic failure, the complex interplay of character and setting. But the episodes are also linked by some concerns—religion, youthful sexuality, the male gaze—that are relatively new and fresh in the director's canon.
In all four episodes, drama and narrative are set in motion when a character makes a bold pass at someone he or she has just seen for the first time. This impulsive eroticism emerges in a variety of contexts, and the results and consequences vary a good deal, too. Youthful sexuality plays a worriment role throughout, and female nudity is a conspicuous element in each of the first three episodes. but not at all in the fourth, which concerns itself with pursuit of a young woman whose serene chastity gradually takes shape as her strongest quality. The interruption and/or frustration of sexual desire is a recurring element as well—except perhaps in the third episode, in which comparatively abundant fulfillment becomes inextricably intertwined with frustration of an especially paradoxical sort. Alongside this erotic element, the episodes also display an ongoing fascination with serious conversation. The first and fourth episodes give us flirtations that also seem to take the form of spontaneous, fragmented philosophical dialogues, and the second makes a powerful fetish out of rash, unabashed confession. The seduction of the husband in the third episode takes place by way of a young woman’s provocative application of an anecdote about travellers who stopped on their speedy journey to wait for their souls to catch up with them. And the husband’s relationships, with both his mistress and his wife, turn on the power of his sudden declarations to each of them—his words are winning with both women, but the net result is that he can succeed finally with neither of them.
The Director speaks of the lovers in the Ferrara episode as emblems of the “quiet folly” of their city, but that episode takes its most evident shape as an exquisitely mysterious love story. Silvano (Kim Rossi-Stuart), a travelling technician, and Carmen (Ines Sastre), a young schoolteacher, meet by chance in a hotel and are almost instantly immersed in a strong, mutual attraction. Both evidently intend to spend their first night together, but each waits for the other to make the first move and they end up falling asleep in their separate rooms. That first attraction is intense enough for the two of them that they quickly resume their passion when they meet by chance again, some three years later. This second chance brings them into more intimate contact as well as into bed together, but again the lovemaking is never completed. Despite their frankness about their passions, which appear genuine and wellnigh overwhelming, both characters hesitate at crucial moments in their growing intimacy; and the ultimate hesitation—with the two naked lovers caressing each other on a bed in the afternoon—is the most inexplicable one. Both characters are bold and articulate, but their attraction is largely unspoken and intuitive, and whatever produces their hesitations and parting goes unexplained. Thus, this Ferrara episode assumes dual guises—fable on human contradictoriness and tribute to the mysteries in sexuality. The centerpiece of it all is the nude scene, in which Silvano covers Carmen with phantom caresses—lovingly exploring the contours of her body, but rarely if every actually touching her.
The Ferrara episode has a dancelike quality, rather like a combination of tango and hesitation waltz, with the lovers throwing themselves into a choreography of advance and retreat—patterns that recur in the subsequent episodes. The second, in Portofino, echoes the advance-and-retreat motif, but with the would-be lovers being at once far less talkative and much bolder than the pair in Ferrara. Much of the Portofino episode is a battle of gazes, male and female. The Director character glimpses a young woman (Sophie Marceau) walking by and follows her down the street to the harborside shop where she works. He enters and moves about, but he has plainly come only to look at the young woman, and she in turn is quite conscious of his gaze even before he enters. She shies away at first, but reasserts herself with stares of her own. Eventually, the Director leaves the shop without having spoken to her. On another day she sees him at an outdoor cafe and approaches to announce, “Whatever you have in mind, it’s better if I tell you who I am. I killed my father—I stabbed him twelve times.” The Director is understandably taken aback by this, but soon he is walking with her and inquiring about the nature of the killing (for which she was acquitted). She wonders what he’s doing that evening, and—after a false start or two—they go to her apartment. Their brief love scene there seems a darker variation on the final stages of the Ferrara episode.
The Portofino episode is the briefest and least discursive of the film’s main stories, but it gains considerable substance from the presence of the Director, who speaks elsewhere in the film of his devotion to images and his wandering pursuit of subject matter, situations, and settings for each new film. In this episode, artistic activity becomes at least partly interchangeable with sexual adventure, a theme that is retrospectively implicit throughout the film’s gathering of these “tales of a director.” And the amour fou that briefly animates this unlikely relationship between filmmaker and patricide serves to remind us of a gentler brand of mad love in the first episode.
The Paris episode is the most complicated and convoluted of the film’s segments. Most of its characters are older than those in the other episodes’ couplings, and it is (rather ironically, as it turns out) the episode with the most in the way of fulfilled flirtations and lovemaking—ironic because the patterns of advance-and-retreat and abrupt farewells make themselves felt here, too.
This episode starts by showing us the beginning of a love affair between a married man (Peter Weller) and a young woman (Chiara Caselli) who approaches him in a cafe, then skips ahead three years to show us the man and his wife (Fanny Ardant) quarreling over his continued failure to end the affair with the woman from the cafe. The husband’s promise to make an immediate break leads to passionate lovemaking, but when he visits the younger woman to say farewell, the ensuing quarrel leads to a similar result—furious lovemaking. After this, the Paris episode introduces another married man (Jean Reno), who returns home to find that his wife has left him and taken much of the furniture with her. He takes a phone call from the departed wife, who tells him not come looking for her, and then gets a visit from the unhappy wife of the previous scenes, who has come to rent the apartment and has arranged for her furniture to be arriving not far behind. They recognize that they have a “perilous circumstance” in common, but while he is optimistic that “there’s a cure for everything,” she seems to have gloomy reservations even as she tentatively accepts his embrace. She, after all, is the one who has insisted that “love is ridiculous” earlier on.
The Aix-en-Provence episode returns to flirtation and young love via another chance encounter on the street, but the woman in this case is religious in ways that become increasingly significant as the sequence proceeds. The young woman (Irene Jacob) is on her way to Mass, and she consistently resists the attentions of the young man (Vincent Perez), but she is enough engaged in the developing conversation that she avoids turning him fully away for a while. Secure in her faith, she is wary of the worldly pleasures—talk, thoughts, the body—which the film elsewhere seems to celebrate, but her intellect, wit, and plain beauty appear to make a claim on the loquacious young man just the same. Both seem drawn to each other through conversation, and it is only when she finally declares that she’s about to enter a convent that the young man and we ourselves in the audience can see that the sexual potential in this brief relationship will never be realized. The young woman’s chastity ensures that this episode’s couple is unique among those in the film, and yet there is a sense in which these two are distinct variations on the unfulfilled couples in the other segments. Indeed, versions of her serenity and his aggressive interest can be traced to one figure in each of the other pairs in the film—with gender links applying in most but not all instances. The religiosity of the Aix episode has no parallel in Antonioni’s previous films, but it reverberates in details of the Ferrara episode and in the more metaphysical elements of the director’s ruminations in the linking sequences.
The Director’s voiceover passages in the linking sequences are too rich in philosophical overtones to fully register in the course of viewing the film. But they set a lofty tone of thought and emotion that gives the film a larger kind of coherence while also reasserting an aura of existential mystery. The voiceovers provide a sense of his skepticism about humans’ ability to change with the modern world (“I fear that we remain irreparably ourselves, as we were when we began to live”) and a haunting sense of his vocation (“I am someone profoundly attached to images. I only discovered reality when I began photographing it …”). The Director’s devotion to the act of seeing with all of its attendant difficulties is beautifully embodied by the suave, fluid mise-en-scene throughout Beyond the Clouds—which provides the strongest of its powerful links to Antonioni’s masterpieces. And the voiceovers ultimately establish a sense of the Director’s image-quest as something both mystical and quixotic: “We know that beneath the image that is recorded lies another, more faithful to reality, and beneath that one lies another, until we come to the final image of that absolute mysterious reality which no one will ever see.”
Taken by themselves, the episodes can sound rather slight, but their cumulative effect is richer and more extensive than any plot summary can indicate. Antonioni’s characteristic oblique narrative methods are put to fresh use in this anthology” setting, and the interplay of episodes is enhanced by a small array of miniature episodes that echo and mirror the main ones: a brief flirtation and battle of gazes in an elevator in the Paris episode, for example, and an older couple (Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau) turning up briefly to banter about images in Cezanne country during the prelude to the final episode. The complex relationship of image and word—another recurring element of Antonioni’s work in general—makes regular contributions to this process in Beyond the Clouds as well. The characters’ dialogue is frequently articulate and precise, but just as frequently the film makes us aware of quiet and subtle disparities between the seen and the said.
The phrase “beyond the clouds” comes from That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, but not from any of the adapted stories. It appears in the volume’s opening story “The Event Horizon,” which concerns an aviation accident. One of the officials who investigates the crash speaks with the press at the accident scene and finds himself describing the wreckage in coldly precise terms while his gaze drifts away from his listeners and on toward the distant horizon—“at the clouds” and, finally, “Beyond the clouds.” Looking “beyond the clouds” is a mode of protective irony, a way of being inside a difficult situation and outside it at the same time, and as such, it is an image that can speak to the essentials in Antonioni’s whole approach to filmmaking. After all, his best work—Beyond the Clouds included—is distinguished by extraordinary combinations of present-tense immediacy and timeless detachment. And it is this uniquely cinematic way of seeing that makes Beyond the Clouds into a consistently intense experience with exceptional moment-to-moment richness throughout.
SOURCE: A review of The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, in Film Quarterly, Summer, 1997, pp. 38–40.
[In the following review, Chatman draws on Antonioni’s writing to describe how the filmmaker worked as a director.]
Antonioni was an active cinema critic in the 30s and 40s, but stopped writing about other directors’ work after making his own first film, Story of a Love Affair (1950). From then until his debilitating stroke in 1985, he wrote a number of short pieces and gave many interviews; two particularly, at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia; are of such importance and influence that the editors call them “oral writings” and include them among the essays of the first section of this book [The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema,], “My Cinema.” Section 2 contains writings by Antonioni on several of his own films (from Attempted Suicide  to The Mystery of Oberwald ). Section 3 reprints other interviews of a general nature, and 4, interviews on specific films, from Story of a Love Affair (1950) to Identification of a Woman (1982). Many of these pieces have already appeared in English, but they lie scattered among a variety of journals, and it is useful to have them assembled in one volume. Perhaps inevitably, such assemblage leads to some repetitiousness. But that is as much the interviewers’ problem as Antonioni’s, since they tended to ask similar questions, Antonioni, being consequent and clear about his art, tended to provide similar answers.
Antonioni vowed from the beginning to eschew standard filmmaking practices. His first feature film employed extremely long takes and temps mort holds on characters to glean the “true” reality in the actor’s face and body after she thought the shot was finished. Antonioni developed the long take on his own—it just seemed right for Cronaca (he says that he did not see The Magnificent Ambersons until much later). But he did not feel bound to the long take forever: “Later … I became aware that perhaps it was not the best method after all, that perhaps I was concentrating too much on the external aspects of the actors’ states of mind and not enough on the states of mind themselves.” In Red Desert, he used many short takes: “Perhaps it was the fact that I was using color that suggested this technique to me, this deep-seated need to deal with [colors] in large blotches, as if they were pulsations that penetrate chaotically inside the characters.” Similarly, he explains his use of the telephoto lens in Red Desert to “limit the depth of field … to put the characters in contact with things” (one remembers how Giuliana needs to cling to walls). It’s too bad that Antonioni cites only a few such concrete examples of how and why he chose specific techniques on the set. Mostly, he speaks in generalities about his need to trust intuition. In his desire to “fill the image with a greater suggestiveness,” Antonioni dispensed with some standard Hollywood shooting and editing conventions. For instance, he permitted himself certain “errors” in shot/countershot editing (presumably crossing the 180-degree line). His constant desire was to get rid of “unnecessary technical baggage.”
His direction of actors, too, was unorthodox and was criticized as such. In several of these writings he defends his practice against accusations of mistreating them. He explains how he had to give opaque directions to Massimo Girotti (the protagonist in Story of a Love Affair) to keep him from overacting, to slap Lucia Bose to get more expression into that lovely face, and to “deceive” Betsy Blair and Steve Cochrane to get compelling performances in Il grido. This deception obviously pained him—he is far too gentle for sadism—but he found it essential. Only the director, he argues, can decide how characters should look, move, and speak; an actor need not understand her role, she need only feel it. Explaining the character to her is not the way to achieve that result. Antonioni sees the actor as only one element in the ensemble of features that have to be organized. Like an orchestra conductor, only the director can blend the heterogeneous elements into a unified and meaningful whole. Not being an actor himself, Antonioni could not in any case show actors how to perform their roles. His resort to “deception” is clearly not a question of ego but of simply doing his art as he saw it. What Antonioni doesn’t say, however, is that his method really only works with great actors—Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau, Mastroianni, Delon, Hemmings, Redgrave, and Nicholson—actors able to respond intuitively to the signals that he did give. Unlike De Sica, he could not get accomplished performances from amateurs like Daria Halperin and Mark Frechette. Great actors have a sixth sense that thrives even under reticent direction.
Antonioni says relatively little about his use of the sound track. He prefers recording on the set to postproduction dubbing because what is “picked up by microphones [has] a power of suggestion that can’t be obtained with dubbing.” As for commentative music, in the late 50s he began to cultivate a “dry manner” (climaxing in stark electronic sounds in Red Desert). His decision was simply that music provided unwanted “outside commentary”; it was “old-fashioned and rancid” and tended simply to “duplicate” the action. Music, he felt, belonged on phonograph disks, where it could have its own autonomy. Up to 1966 he increasingly insisted on “let[ting] silence have its place.” (Later, however, he was to reincorporate music, especially of a pop sort. This often worked better if the source was diegetic—on-screen or within earshot; the technique obviously sounded less artificial to him than nondiegetic off-screen music.)
Antonioni dwells more on his creative state of mind than on how he cultivated his style. He repeatedly describes his need to arrive alone on the set “in a virginal state,” to absorb and choose visual nuances from what lies before his gaze. His need for freedom was so great that he preferred to work in sunless locations, since “in the sun, the camera’s angles are fixed.” This intense quest for spontaneous inspiration from visual cues—“an idea almost always comes to me through images”—lies at the opposite pole from a storyboard director like Hitchcock. It also reveals the profound degree to which Antonioni trusts his visual instinct. Visuals are also at the core of his narrative invention, the very way he discovers stories (his most recent film, Beyond the Clouds (1995) is about a director who wanders about, picking up stories from what he sees around him). This was his method from the very beginning: chancing on a drowned man on the beach on his way to Paris for his first feature-film job with Marcel Carne, he saw a black bathing-attendant in a white singlet; a girl in a flesh-colored bathing suit; a ten-year-old boy pointing the body out to an eight-year-old girl and asking if she was scared; the police clearing the beach; the bath-attendant leaving to give a lady with violet hair “her usual lesson of gymnastics.” End of story. But, remarks Antonioni, his movie version of this experience, if he had made one, would “remove the actual event from the scene, and leave only the image”—the white sky, the deserted sea front, the sea cold and empty, the hotels white and half-shuttered. For “the event here adds nothing: it is superfluous. … The dead man acted as a distraction to a state of tension. But the true emptiness, the malaise, the anxiety, the nausea, the atrophy of all normal feelings and desires, the fear, the anger—all these I felt when, coming out of the Negresco, I found myself in that whiteness, in that nothingness, which took shape around a black point.” Many of the sketches of Antonioni’s book That Bowling Alley on the Tiber (ea. and trans. William Arrowsmith [New York: Oxford, 1986]) have exactly this sketchy, allusive, and highly visual character. And so do the four short films that constitute Beyond the Clouds. Antonioni explicitly defends the right of the director—like that of the postmodern novelist—to present stories “with neither a beginning nor an end … without lacy scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead.”
Antonioni has always freely discussed the thematics of his films. He learned at the 1959 Cannes Festival, when L’avventura met with initial hostility, that he would have to educate the public about his films’ intentions. He has done so in a clear and articulate way, as the eminent European intellectual that he is. (His erudition is astonishing: these pieces contain a wide range of casual but informative allusion to writers from Adorno to Virginia Woolf, Wittgenstein to Joan Didion.) He refused to simplify his message, disagreeing, for instance, that the final shot of L’avventura is either pessimistic or optimistic and arguing for a more complex interpretation.
When asked what his work brought him, he deprecated the question: “It gives me everything. It gives me the chance to express myself, to communicate with others. Being inept at speaking, I would have the sensation of not existing at all—without the cinema.” His later career, especially his astonishing production of Beyond the Clouds at the age of 83, testifies to the depth of that need and his stamina in satisfying it. It is touching to learn the price he paid for staying true to his own vision. After the success of Blow-Up, an American producer called him into his office, where, seated between Mia Farrow and an artistic director, he offered to write Antonioni a check for ＄1,300,000 to direct Peter Pan. He asks his interviewer wryly, “Can you see me doing Peter Pan?”
But Antonioni protests too much about the “ineptness” of his speech. This book illustrates that, until his stroke, he spoke and wrote copiously and well. Indeed, few of his peers can match his verbal articulateness. Nor, as Beyond the Clouds and recent paintings and drawings show, can he be imagined to cease expressing himself—one way or another—as long as he lives.
SOURCE: “Antonioni in 1980: An Interview,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1997, pp. 2–10.
[In the following interview, conducted in 1980, Chatman discusses with Antonioni the filmmaker's body of work.]
I recently unearthed the tape of an interview I had with Michelangelo Antonioni in November 1980, recorded as I was preparing my book, Antonioni, or the Surface of the World. Antonioni invited me to his beautiful apartment on the Tiber. He was warm, friendly, open, and always candid. The interview was partly in English and partly in Italian.1 For this publication, Antonioni graciously allowed me to reproduce some of his own drawings and texts.
[Chatman:] In your early, “apprentice” films of the 1950s (the documentaries, and Cronaca di un amore, I Vinti, La signora senza camelie, and Le amiche) were you working within the genres or were you trying to work your way out of them? You wanted to make a film, Cronaca di un amore, so you made a giallo, a film noir.
[Antonioni:] Yes, but it happened without my willing it; I just wanted to tell that story. I didn’t want to demonstrate anything with my movies, you know … not to start from an idea and to explain to the audience that this is my idea, that I want to tell you this and this. I just wanted to tell a story and depict the emotions it contains.
Was the story of Cronaca more familiar to the public than the kind of story told by your films of the 60s?
What you’re doing is making a critical analysis and asking my opinion about it. But I find it very difficult to respond because I scarcely know how to judge my films from a critical point of view. My films come from my emotions and correspond to a certain period of my life. Of course, behind my emotions there are experiences, ideas, thoughts, observations of reality, and political, social, philosophical, and moral convictions—everything!
And aesthetic convictions?
Of course. But I don’t know how to sort these matters out either before or after the film is finished. For me a film is only a record of a period of my life. I find it terribly difficult to say whether I wanted to make this or that kind of film. I have never thought about the public. Only one person is the public. And it’s me.
Were you conscious in 1959, when you made L’avventura, that you were entering a radically different phase of your career?
No. I have to tell you something. I never, never, never think of myself. Never. I’m a “man of action.” I have to do. And every time I have tried to think about what I was doing it was so difficult that I decided not to do it any more.
Does this most recent stage of your work concern general philosophical questions?
Maybe. Because getting old, you try in a certain way to total things up—ideologically and morally and emotionally. But also because you read new and different things. You change the way you read. I started to read more books about science, for instance. I got very interested in astronomy and things like that, in the world, in the universe. As soon as you talk about the universe, everything is involved.
Now your new film, Identificazione di una donna …
This is the script [pats it on the table].
Is the script more like the films of the early 60s, more like L’eclisse or La notte, than the later films?
Yes, I think so.
Set in Italy?
In Italy, in Rome. But there is something new compared to those earlier movies. That is to say, the milieu—the way they live, these people—is more contemporary. There is a lot of vulgarity. The cars. The people, I mean everything. I am in very close contact with this town. The life of the people in Italy today is very vulgar.
Am I right in detecting a dramatic change when you stopped collaborating with Suso Cecchi D’Amico and started working with Tonino Guerra?
Pio Baldelli says that D’Amico’s scripts were like high-class fumetti [comic strips] for ladies’ magazines.
Not the movies, but the scripts. I think Baldelli was making a distinction between the scripts and your resultant films. He felt that Le amiche, for instance, very much weakened Pavese, that D’Amico had sentimentalized it. How do you feel?
I wouldn’t say that D’Amico wrote the script. The script came out of a cooperation between me and two women: Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Alba De Cespedes. D’Amico is not a great writer, but she’s a good writer. She knows the feminine mentality very well. But they hated each other, Suso and Alba, so they never talked together. I picked up some material from one and some more material from the other, and then I did the script. Maybe the script was not as good as it might have been. However, I believe that the substance of the film is dramatic enough. The emotional and existential crises of the characters are the same kinds of crises you find in my other films, though the material was structured in a different way.
You’re working with Tonino Guerra again on Identificazione di una donna.
I had this idea for Identificazione di una donna many years ago, and I wrote some scenes, I made some notes, and I kept thinking of it all during those years. And suddenly, two summers ago, I was in Sardinia, and I wrote it. I wrote a hundred pages. Very quickly, in ten days. And then I gave the script to Gerard Brach, Polanski’s scriptwriter. Brach is very intelligent and very able. But he did not write much original material; he only developed the hundred pages which I had written. And then, one night he left for Paris and I needed someone to discuss the scenario with, so I turned to Tonino. I work very well with Tonino. He and I wrote the final draft.
The published English version of L’avventura shows that you cut out many things. To me its elliptical quality makes it one of the first great modernist films. Was your method to write the scenario and then to omit parts as you shot and edited the film?
To let the audience fill in the gaps themselves?
Yes. It’s very instinctive for me, you know. Now I cut my movies by myself, and I like it very much. And it comes very naturally to me to cut something. My two best shots—nobody saw them because I cut them! One in N. U. [Netezza urbana—on garbage workers in Rome] and one in Blow-Up. Oh, it was so beautiful. Do you remember the tunnel under the Thames? There is an elevator. It was in the introduction to the movie.
What’s the shot?
The protagonist was going toward the elevator, at the end of the tunnel. And he got into the elevator and went up. I moved the light: it was beautiful.
And what about the shot deleted from N.U.?
I was on top of Via Sistina, on top of Piazza Espagna, near the obelisk, at dawn. The streets were deserted, and if you look down you see Via Sistina, Piazza Barberini, Via Quatro Fontanne, the whole street—that day you had a gray sky—it was fantastic.
Le amiche was still in the narrow screen format, and when you moved to the wide screen—when you made L’avventura—it became possible to have several people in the frame without crowding, and to convey a new sense of design. Did you feel liberated by the wide screen?
Well, I can’t say, because, you know, I’m so tied to the reality. I’m like the other Michelangelo when they told him, “Listen, this is the Sistine Chapel; you have to paint it—this size, not larger or narrower.” And the same is true of my screen: if it’s wide, I have to imagine the composition, you know, according to the wide space; if it’s small, to the small one. But I must say that I prefer the larger frame.
How do you feel about [the made for-TV] Il mistero di Oberwald?
Well, you know, it’s not one of my films. I just directed it. And I tried to do my best. It’s a kind of melodrama, a very strong drama between a queen and an anarchist. It also contains some ideological reference to our contemporary scene in Italy: this anarchist could be compared to a terrorist, though the connection is rather slender. But I found it diverting to tell a kind of story which is so different from my own stories. I have never shot very dramatic scenes, but in this film I had to do so. That didn’t frighten me because in this strong scene the emotions are very precise. They are not full of nuance or withheld; they are not ambiguous. It is much easier to shoot this kind of film.
How did it come about?
Well, Monica Vitti proposed that I shoot Cocteau’s La voix humaine, but I didn’t want to do it because it might seem like a kind of confrontation: Rossellini had already shot a version with Anna Magnani. So we had Cocteau in hand and we selected L’aigle a deux tetes [The Eagle with Two Heads]. Maybe it was a mistake: I don’t know. But I thought it was easier to do.
And then you could concentrate on the technical opportunities?
Yes. It was interesting because of the possibility of writing the film while making it, while inventing it, more than we anticipated. When I am shooting a sequence, normally I try to find the solution, the technical solution, within the set itself. I make a travelling shot here, a close-up there, and so on. When you rehearse on TV you are in touch with the cameramen through a microphone, so you tell them, “Go from here to there,” and you see the rehearsal on the monitor. And you find a lot of things in between these two points that you hadn’t predicted.
How about video color-mixing in The Mystery of Oberwald? Were you satisfied with your experience?
Well, you know, the electronic field is something completely new and very exciting. Because you have everything in your hand: you can put in colors, you can make the image more completely abstract. The possibilities are infinite!
I hear that you are planning to colorize L’avventura.
As soon as I have time, I want to try. I mean, of course we have a lot of limits, but I think we can do it. You know why: because there is a picture in Il mistero di Oberwald, an old picture, you remember those old discolored photographs, about this big? Suddenly this figure becomes stronger, like a real person. And behind him there is some landscape, and the landscape becomes a little green, and this guy a little blue. So why don’t we try to add color to a film? To transfer from film to tape, and then put in the colors, electronic colors.
For showing emotions?
Well, to emphasize.
You’ve always liked to play off narrative conventions, for instance, the roman noir.
Yes, but in fact narrative conventions have given me a lot of trouble. Also cinematographic conventions. I always try to avoid them. However, it’s not always possible, because you risk failing to communicate. Since the public is used to a certain kind of story, it’s necessary to follow conventions a bit—but only a bit. One can’t risk being incomprehensible.
We talked about ellipsis—leaving things out. Now there are other possible developments in narrative, for instance, there is experimentation with point of view or stream of consciousness, interior monologue. You’ve never been interested in that?
Yes, I thought of it—interior monologue. But I don’t like it for film. I think it’s very easy. Too easy. The challenge is to express the same things in a different way.
By surface appearances?
Eisenstein wanted to make The American Tragedy as an interior monologue film, and have the voice-over of the hero speak his thoughts, though his lips were closed. Would that have been too easy?
It is too easy. Because as soon as you notice the technique, the film goes down a level, in my opinion.
Are there any other modern novelistic techniques that you would like to capture on film?
No, because I never think of technique. I just choose the technique when I start to shoot, not before.
The subject starts with the visual?
First you see something, then you make up a story in your head about what you see? Then you write it down. Then you go out and find a location?
No. I have to see the location while I am writing, not after. I cannot describe a landscape without knowing it. Unless it is a house: a house is very easy to create in my imagination. But if I’m making something in the street, I have to know which street I am talking about. I want to see first, then I place the characters. Actually, the streets give me the idea for the scene.
But when the original subject is expanded into full film, then you have to find other locations to match that original one?
No. If I select a location, I want to shoot in that one, not another one which matches that one. That is my way of being autobiographical.
You would never write an autobiography?
No, I don’t think so. I could only tell something which happened at a given moment of my life. If I think, for instance, of Cronaca di un amore … You remember the movie is about money? And what I remember about myself is that I didn’t have any money at that time. And that’s very important, because I looked at that story from a certain angle.
From the angle of Guido [the male protagonist]?
No, it was from the angle of … I mean, I acted like I had money, because I wanted to have it. I never succeeded.
I want to ask about the future. You mentioned wanting to do a science-fiction film, an animal film, and a film of violent action.
Well, I just have some ideas. I cannot tell you about them. But I have different needs now. I’m fed up with psychology, with emotional analysis, psychological introspection. I’d like to try something else.
I next saw Antonioni in 1982 at a conference in his home town, Ferrara, in honor of his seventieth birthday: the conference papers were published as Identificazione di un autore (Identification of an Auteur) in 1985. Later that year, he kindly sent a print of Identificazione di una donna, and agreed to come to celebrate the publication of my book at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. But sadly a debilitating stroke interfered.
For several years, Antonioni had tried to get funding for La Ciurma (The Crew), cowritten with Mark Peploe, the scenarist of The Passenger. The film was to have been about a mutiny at sea against a yacht owner trying to save everything on his ship in a terrific storm. Antonioni wrote that the crew’s behavior “seems counter to good sense, but the sailors have their reasons.” Violence in such circumstances is “logical … [because it] is the only contemporary way to live and survive.” For the cast he wanted Matt Dillon, Kurt Russell, Giancarlo Giannini, and Gerard Depardieu, and he had invited Martin Scorsese to be co-director. He also prepared a script, with Rudolph Wurlitzer, called Due Telegrammi (Two Telegrams) about a woman in an office in a skyscraper who receives a telegram from her husband asking for a divorce. The shock makes her dizzy. Observing a man framed in the window of an office in the skyscraper opposite, she sends him a telegram but instead of answering her, he tosses the telegram out of the window, and she watches it flutter slowly to the ground (the shot would surely have been endless).
The only film that Antonioni was actually able to shoot in 1983 was the short Ritorno a Lisca Bianca (Return to Lisca Bianca), an amusing revisit to the bleak Aeolian island which was the setting for L’avventura. Reverberating voices on the soundtrack keep calling “Anna, Anna”: she’s still missing after all those years.
Antonioni doubtless felt so frustrated by his inability to turn his sketches and scenarios into films that he published them, first as pieces in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della sera, and then as a book of short stories, called Quel bowling sul Tevere (translated by William Arrowsmith as That Bowling Alley on the Tiber [Oxford University Press, 1986]). During these years Antonioni continued painting, and his series of pictures called Le Montagne Incantate (The Enchanted Mountains) was exhibited at the Museo Correr in Venice as part of a Biennale, and again in 1993 at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. (These and other works are now in the new Antonioni Museum in Ferrara.)
His devastating stroke in 1985 left him unable to talk and paralyzed on one side of his body. In 1986, he married his longtime companion and assistant, Enrica Fico (who played Nadia in Identificazione di una donna), and with her help slowly resumed his career. He and Enrica gathered footage shot in India in 1979 and assembled it into the short documentary Kumbha Mela in 1989. It was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. For the World Cup Soccer matches in Italy in 1990, he contributed the short subject “Rome” to a compilation film on Italy called 12 autori 12 citta (Twelve Auteurs Twelve Cities). In 1992, he made several travelogue documentaries (with exquisite cinematography) about various places in Italy—Noto (the Sicilian city in which part of L’avventura is set), Mandorli, Vulcano, and Stromboli—and one about Carnevale.
I didn’t see Antonioni again until 1992, on the occasion of a retrospective of his films at Lincoln Center. Though the effects of his stroke were visible, he seemed to have great energy and stamina. In 1995, Antonioni was awarded the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar for Lifetime Achievement; it was presented by Jack Nicholson in an event viewed by an enormous world television audience. His new film, Al di là delle navole (Beyond the Clouds) premiered at the American Film Institute. The film is in four parts, connected by the wanderings of a film director in search of subjects. (This wrap-around frame story was done by Wim Wenders.) Antonioni’s four segments are set in Ferrara, Portofino, Paris, and Aix-en-Provence, and are based on some of the sketches in Quel bowling sul Tevere. The film has not been distributed in America, so it may be useful to describe it briefly.
The Ferrara episode, “Story of a Love Affair That Never Existed,” concerns the inexplicable refusal of a young man (played by Kim Rossi Stuart) to make love to a beautiful woman (Ines Sastre) who has received him into her bed. The narrator of the published story explains: “Only a citizen of Ferrara can understand a relationship that lasted eleven years without ever existing.” In the Portofino episode, “The Girl, the Crime,” the director (John Malkovitch) meets a salesgirl (Sophie Marceau) in a seaside boutique who both sleeps with him and confesses that she killed her father, stabbing him twelve times. (Why twelve? “Twelve stabs were much more familiar, more domestic, than two or three,” writes the narrator of the short story.) A gentler but no less enigmatic woman is the heroine of “This Body of Dirt” (Irene Jacob). Smiling, she allows a young man (Vincent Perez) to follow her to church in Aix; he falls asleep as she prays, then wakes and races back to her apartment. When he asks if he can see her again, she gracefully declines, explaining that she is entering a convent the next day. The Paris episode, “Don’t Look For Me,” is perhaps the most familiarly Antonionian: a sophisticated Parisienne (Fanny Ardant), sick of her husband’s relationship with his mistress, moves out. She finds what seems to be an empty apartment to rent. But the owner of the apartment (Jean Reno)—who has himself just been left by his wife—returns before she unpacks. So the two “losers” join forces. The film is perhaps as close to comedy as Antonioni has ever come. He had originally intended to base this episode on Two Telegrams, but he was unable to get access to two adjacent skyscrapers as a set.
Antonioni’s astonishing ability to direct Beyond the Clouds was the subject of Enrica Antonioni’s fine hour-long documentary Fare un film e per me vivere (Making Films Is My Life), a title taken from Antonioni’s article in the Italian film journal Cinema Nuovo. It is fascinating to watch him communicate with cast and crew by hand and facial gestures and an occasional grunt. Wim Wenders was at his side through much of the shooting, but by his own testimony did more learning than helping.
At last account, Antonioni had not given up on Two Telegrams and is hoping to start shooting soon. He is now 85.
Gavriel Moses helped me polish the translations.
Pio Baldelli, Cinema dell’ambiguita; Bergman e Antonioni, second edition (Rome: 1971).
SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 1–27.
[In the following essay, Brunette surveys Antonioni’s career and various critical responses to his work.]
Michelangelo Antonioni, who first gained prominence on the international cinema scene in the 1960s, has become the very symbol of that increasingly rare form, the art film, and of all that the cinema has ever sought to achieve beyond mere entertainment. Along with the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, the directors of the French New Wave, and a few others, Antonioni’s films were, during the 1960s, absolutely essential to the cultural life of the educated elite around the world. His work, especially, has carried both the cachet and the condemnation of being particularly “artistic”—that is, symbolic, indirect, metaphysical, and even downright confusing.1
Antonioni’s early interpreters saw his films primarily as an expression of “existential angst” or “alienation.” (Pierre Leprohon, for example, speaks of “the anguish of existence.”)2 In the mid-1960s this was undoubtedly the appropriate tack to take toward films that insisted, in what seemed to be an entirely new manner, on dealing overtly with a certain philosophically inflected Weltanschauung in a popular, commercial medium.
Now, however, we can see that this manner of regarding Antonioni’s films as transhistorical artifacts is itself not transhistorical but is typical of critical response to the art-film milieu of the period. In other words, his films came to be viewed in this way not only because of their own inherent features, but also because of the period’s interpretive frame—at least as posited by critics whose primary interest was aesthetic or formal, rather than political. This focus can also be explained historically by the fact that in the late 1950s European existentialist philosophy, as popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre and others after World War II, began to filter down to more popular artistic forms such as the movies.
I am not saying that these themes are absent in Antonioni’s films. Many of them are concerned with the essential loneliness of individual human beings and the difficulty of adapting to a relentlessly changing technology that at times seems utterly antihuman. Though these themes are far from irrelevant to the present age, the times now are different, and if the themes of alienation continue to be emphasized to the exclusion of all else, Antonioni’s films will quickly become museum pieces, historical artifacts documenting, at best, a certain moment of film and European cultural history. (My students, dumbfounded by this pervasively negative critical attitude, ask me why everybody was so depressed in those days. It is not a bad question.) Therefore the time has come to rethink these films. One way to do that is to examine more closely the errancies of their textual particulars and to pay less attention, at least for a while, to the “big picture.” These films continue to be vital precisely because their other themes have more immediate bearing on the present historical situation as the world moves toward the new millennium. Ironically, their relevance becomes clearer when one considers the historical particulars that the “alienation” thesis has tended to overlook.
This rethinking might take several paths. One approach might be to reconsider the rhetorical force of these films’ visual metaphors and the way they always exceed whatever rational meaning an audience may attach to them. Another might be to resituate the films in the economic, social, and cultural context in which they arose. We too often forget that directors by and large need to make financially successful films in order to continue their work; the long periods of enforced silence throughout Antonioni’s career provide eloquent testimony to this fact of life. Instead of glossing over this commercial and popular context, as is often done in dealing with “art films,” we need to explore the precise ways in which such films came to be made in the frame of the Italian film industry and what they “meant” to that industry as an alternative paradigm to more blatantly commercial product.
One might ask how such a challenging, formally demanding film as L’avventura (The Adventure), could be financed in 1959 and, even more surprisingly, how it managed to break even at the box office in Italy? (La notte [The Night], which followed in 1961, did even better, showing a substantial profit.) Unfortunately, such questions turn out to be much easier to ask than to answer. Before beginning my research on Antonioni, I knew, from prior experience, that the bulk of Italian film criticism—all of it deeply auteurist—was either formalist, philosophical, or political in nature. But I was taken aback to find that only one slim volume, a book by Vittorio Spinazzola called Cinema e pubblico: Lo spettacolo filmico in Italia 1945–1965 (Cinema and its audience: Film in Italy 1945–1965), published in 1974, even attempted to answer questions similar to those I had begun to pose. Spinazzola’s treatment of Antonioni is also rather skimpy; given the limited scope of the present book, I cannot claim to have gotten much further in providing the sociocultural fact-finding that I now believe is necessary to contextualize the formal and thematic analysis of any film.
In addition, the very necessity of resituating these films historically leads to a whole set of other problems that arise in the context of what has come to be called cultural studies. All too often, cultural critics have, in their desire to establish firm connections between political and social events and cultural products, unconsciously resorted to crude metaphors of “reflection,” as in “this film reflects the governmental crisis of 1960.” But what does it mean to say that a text “reflects” some historical event? What metaphors of seeing and vision are unconsciously at work here, and what is their effect on the analysis?
Even more important, in the rush to establish this relationship between the textual and the supposedly extratextual (that is, History or “the way things really are [or were]”), it is often forgotten that history and even “the real” are themselves texts that must be read, and that the meaning of past events or present reality is never given directly but is always constructed after the fact. This is common knowledge, of course, but sometimes it is more convenient—because more “productive”—to forget it. Above all, cultural critics sometimes tend to forget that the cinematic texts themselves must always be interpreted. Reading, in the fullest sense of the word, is a labor that cannot be dispensed with, and thus no matter what political claims, or clandestine truth-claims, are made for or about a text, they will always be situated within a host of limiting, interpretive frames.
I take it to be axiomatic that Antonioni’s films—like all films, like all texts, for that matter—are by definition impossible to dominate. Their recalcitrant particulars, the gritty, diverse, innumerable, even contradictory, facts of their being refuse to give in gracefully to overpowering master narratives that claim (usually only implicitly) to control or subjugate them. In fact, nothing ever really seems to add up in these films, nothing, that is, beyond a vague sense of uneasiness and alienation, and thus most critics have taken this to be what they are about. Such apparent unanimity, however, is only arrived at by means of a certain violent epistemological gesture of transcendence, a gesture that moves one quickly and painlessly from the supposedly “superficial” (and certainly confusing) level of the film’s particular, material details to a “higher,” more synoptic level where things can be made to cohere.
This hermeneutic operation is probably inevitable in all forms of sense-making, for all works of art, for all books, and, of course, for all films. What is especially interesting about Antonioni’s films, however, is that this process is itself often, or even always, foregrounded. In other words, these films seem self-consciously to present such a plethora of particular, unreconcilable textual details that critics are unable to escape a confrontation with the fact, the procedures, and the consequences of interpretation. The emphasis, visual or aural, on which viewers rely in most films to help them locate the “important” textual details is often missing or, what amounts to the same thing, present everywhere. Emblematic for me is the moment at the very beginning of L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) when Vittoria (Monica Vitti) sits at a table idly looking through some empty picture frames. By so doing, she and the director point to the constant necessity and inevitability of framing, that is, of reading within a context, whether the frame is visible, as here, or invisible, as it is in the rest of the film (though everything one sees is, of course, always “within” a frame, the film frame). The question then becomes, what is the proper, or better, most productive, context for reading these films?3
Antonioni’s films continually offer the promise of meaning, like the gaping garment of French theorist Roland Barthes, tantalizing the viewer and yet always withholding any unambiguous signification. The necessity of interpretation is already obvious when the critic confronts such complex films as L’avventura (1960), say, or Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), or the other films of this period; later, however, in Blow-Up (1966) and The Passenger (1974), the interpretive operation is itself foregrounded as part of the plot and incident of the films. There, the hermeneutic work of the audience has been introjected into the characters themselves, as the photographer in Blow-Up and the journalist in The Passenger are actively forced to interpret the texts—and the world—that surround them. (Actually, even as early as L’avventura, in the search for the missing Anna, the films’ narratives replicate this epistemological problem of making or discovering meaning.)
The vast majority of Antonioni’s films thus can be seen as collections of signifiers that turn out to have ambiguous signifieds (which is not a bad description of the world, either), and this impetus, this need to interpret, to make sense of experience, occurs even on the level of the shot. Important narrative or even cognitive information is often withheld, and the constant visual mysteries that result also contribute to a certain “hermeneutic pressure” that is always present.
So, too, whatever seemed to remain of the “natural,” the “real,” and the “direct” has been evacuated from the world, as Antonioni’s characters learn. All is necessarily offered up to an active interpretation that, both for character and for audience, is a never-ending activity; the films thus rehearse what the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo has described as the “infinite interpretability” of reality.4 As cinema historian Gian Piero Brunetta has pointed out, in Antonioni’s films, “things, in their totemic presence, become signs of signs.”5 Things thus take on the presence and mystery of the film’s characters, and the characters themselves take on the rigidity, but also the symbolic signifying potential, of things.
One of the consequences of the interpretive operation I have been describing is that the very ambiguity of these films causes them to become vast blackboards on which individual critics scrawl their own desires and obsessions, thinking all the while that they are describing the films, and only that.6 (I do not exclude myself from this self-deluding process.) The critic seems earnestly to believe that she or he is attending to the specific particulars of the text, scrupulously avoiding the merely impressionistic, but the exact nature of this negotiation between the critic’s position outside the text and the text’s inside—terms that are easily reversible—is seldom considered. As such, the details of a film come to resemble the elements of Morse code, or better (because that implies something too systematic), a bunch of apparently unrelated visual and aural signifiers that the critic rearranges and reformulates to send her or his own conscious or unconscious message.
This vast uncertainty or undecidability concerning the films’ meanings sometimes leads critics to postpone a close engagement with the particulars of any given film by attempting a comprehensive description of what might be called the world of these films. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this Antonionian world, even more obviously than the real world, is always a textual one and thus is subject to the same “incoherence” that is inevitably found in all texts. One localized version of this world-making comes in the insistent treatment of L’avventura,La notte, and L’eclisse as a trilogy—which Antonioni scholar Seymour Chatman and others expand to a tetralogy with the addition of Red Desert. Although it is true that these films have much in common, having been derived from the same cultural matrix by the same director, continually lumping them together also has the effect of erasing their considerable differences. In general, it seems productive to efface boundaries between films, or at least to recognize the inevitable permeability of such boundaries by trying to understand the films intertextually. (For example, the character that Monica Vitti plays in L’avventura clearly affects the reading of her character in La notte and the other films in which she appears.) In this way, the metaphysical tyranny of the rigid logocentric separation between outside and inside, and thus between discrete texts, can perhaps be rethought and rewritten; there is no logical reason for the individual film to be the sacrosanct, basic unit of interpretation.
But regarding these particular films as a trilogy (or a tetralogy) does not have the effect of rewriting the inside/outside opposition or questioning the notion of boundaries. Rather, such a gesture often merely reconstitutes these cinematic texts as a larger textual unit, which in turn leads the critic to attempt to produce a more inclusive, more synoptic reading of that text. In other words, the individual films do not become texts whose boundaries are permeable and whose meanings as individual texts are thus forever dispersed because they cannot ever be kept “inside,” but rather they become a kind of megatext that the critic may then proceed to interpret in essentialistic terms, in a more or less conventional manner.
Consider now the kind of misleading exclusions that have resulted from the overinsistence on the themes of alienation and anxiety described earlier. I am thinking here of the specific political content of these films (“political” in the largest sense of the word, that is, including social critique) that most film commentators, especially Anglo-American and French, have systematically repressed. It is all too often forgotten that Antonioni was, like every other artist, responding to specific social, cultural, and moral problems that had arisen as part of il boom. Italy’s amazing fifteen-year economic recovery from collapse at the end of World War II. Pierre Leprohon, who, ironically, was a chief architect of the “alienation” thesis, was almost alone among earlier critics of Antonioni in also insisting that both L’avventura and Fellini’s La dolce vita, which appeared the same year, were “first and foremost testimonies on their period.” He also stressed the “particular social circumstances” behind the “sexual crisis” in Antonioni’s film.7 It may be true, in other words, that Antonioni’s characters are alienated, but this alienation seems to be an effect of a specific social organization, rather than a generalized response to the difficulties of something called “modern life.”
Armando Borrelli, in his Neorealismo e marxismo (Neorealism and Marxism), published in 1966, provides a good example of the ambiguity with which earlier political critics greeted these films. Borrelli grants that Antonioni is interested in modern Italian reality but believes (along with many others) that he is finally more concerned with the ontological fate of man than with any specific political struggles. Thus Borelli castigates the director for the ambiguity of his social portraits because he allows spectators to draw from these films conclusions that are either critical and Marxist—in other words, that say it is not life in general that is meaningless, but this particular form of social life under these particular historical conditions—or religious, in their emphasis on the inevitability of human unhappiness.8 Borrelli’s ultimate judgment of Antonioni, though, is a positive one. Although contemporary alienation is not always expressed as concretely as one would like—as it is, say, in L’eclisse, Antonioni’s most explicit attack on capitalism—Borrelli believes the director has done his part by examining the crisis in this society with scientific precision, leaving it up to the spectator to take from these films a sense of the necessity of creating a different world in which “man makes the decisions that affect his life,” a world in which he is not inherently alienated from reality.9
In assessing the political aspect of Antonioni’s films, one should also remember that they often contain explicit, detailed depictions of class and class relations. For the most part, the director focuses on the middle class, and the absence of other groups can make viewers forget that they are, in fact, examining the foibles and failings of a particular class of people. The director himself is very conscious of this aspect of his films, once saying in an interview:
Inasmuch as I am the product of a middle-class society, and am preoccupied with making middle-class dramas, I am not equipped to [give solutions]. The middle class doesn’t give me the means with which to resolve any middle class problems. That’s why I confine myself to pointing out existing problems without proposing any solutions.10
Not surprisingly, the director has been attacked by many leftist Italian critics for focusing on the middle class, but film historian Lino Miccichè has rightly seen this as one more example of Antonioni’s political agenda. Having realized, perhaps unconsciously, that the bourgeoisie had “won” (for example, in the person of Piero, the flamboyant stockbroker of L’eclisse), Antonioni “became interested in the ‘winner’ because he wanted to x-ray the ‘disease’ that resulted from the apparent spread of the dominant ideology.”11
The problem is that by investigating the bourgeoisie, the class that, as Barthes explained in Mythologies, refuses to name itself in order to appear more natural, it may seem that Antonioni is offering, once again, a “universal” portrayal of Man, when it is actually a particular portrayal of men and women bound to a specific class. Unfortunately, Antonioni’s interest in exploring class dynamics is perhaps most overt in earlier films, such as Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), I Vinti (The Vanquished, a controversial, clearly self-conscious social document made in 1952), Le amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955), films that are rarely seen nowadays, and most important, in Il grido (The Cry, 1957), whose protagonist is a worker. It is true that this character, Aldo (played by Steve Cochran), suffers from a kind of nebulous melancholy, a psychological depression whose metaphysical roots go beyond the emotional disappointment that motivates the plot, but Antonioni also explores his feelings in the context of a specific possibility of collective political action that he, for reasons that are never made clear, explicitly refuses.
American critic Richard Roud agreed, some thirty-five years ago, that it was important to stress this sociopolitical aspect of Antonioni’s films. In a survey of the director’s early career, written after the release of L’avventura, he said that “throughout all Antonioni’s work, one finds unsentimental illustrations of his belief that the emotions are often conditioned by social factors and tastes.” In this way, Roud sought to counter the prevailing view that any investigation of emotional life must inherently be a middle-class (and therefore apolitical) project; characteristically, he also felt compelled to add that “whenever Antonioni’s social preoccupations gain the upper hand, however, his work seems to suffer.”12
Another theme that is cast in a different light once one moves beyond the prevailing “existential angst” thesis is Antonioni’s resolute focus on women. In this he may have been inspired to some extent by his compatriot Roberto Rossellini’s obsessive concentration on his wife Ingrid Bergman in his films of the late 1940s and early 1950s; in any case, the emphasis is unmistakable. This particular interest is often regarded as a function of Antonioni’s view that women are “more sensitive” than men, and therefore that they are better exemplars of the alienation that contemporary society has foisted upon all human beings. In other words, whatever attention Antonioni pays to women is usually seen as part of a more general critique and not as a specific concern with women as women. He himself has said that “reality can be filtered better through women’s psychologies. They are more instinctive, more sincere.”13 Besides its essentializing of certain so-called feminine characteristics (and its covert, but familiar strategy of associating women with the body or the animal through the use of words such as “instinctive”), Antonioni’s statement also implies that this filtered reality is ultimately the same for everyone, irrespective of gender: its essence, he might say, is just better shown by filtering it through women.14
What this reductive view of the portrayal of women in Antonioni’s films misses—in other words, what Antonioni himself misses—is just how probing their examination of gender dynamics frequently can be. These films not only document the difficulties that attend any emotional relationship, as most critics have pointed out, but they also offer a specific analysis of the situation of women in contemporary Western society of the 1960s, an analysis that presents a sustained attack on the patriarchy (whether consciously or not is not ultimately relevant here), and this attack is surprisingly, for its time, sympathetic toward women as women.15
Antonioni is concerned in large part with the male way of being in the world. In L’avventura, for example, men voraciously watch women from beginning to end. The spectacle of thousands of aroused males following Gloria Perkins (a British prostitute who says she writes in a “trance” and wants to make films) and her torn, slit skirt—an incredibly overt, and thus purposely ridiculous, symbolic exteriorization of female genitalia—is only the most grotesque moment of this scenario. The male obsession with sex is hardly an uncommon theme in Italian cinema (Fellini made a whole career out of it), but here the obsession assumes truly monumental and ugly proportions. Similarly, when in the same film Claudia is momentarily left alone in the Sicilian town of Noto, she is entrapped by a large group of men, who surround her in an intensely threatening manner. It is more than just the supposedly playful “boys will be boys” theme promoted by too many Italian films; Claudia seems truly frightened for her personal safety, in a way familiar at least to American women in the 1990s, and to a degree that can make the “existential anxiety” she supposedly manifests seem remote and almost laughable by comparison. The world here is completely male controlled, in the most physically palpable way, and any slight autonomy that women might have wrested from men in the more sophisticated urban centers by 1960 has evaporated in this Sicilian town. In Il grido, the working-class protagonist Aldo beats up his common-law wife, Irma, in front of the entire village, and no one comes to her aid. Later in the film, he is accompanying another woman, Elvira, when she is physically attacked by a group of men. In both of these films, and elsewhere, the patriarchy shows itself in raw, ugly, physically threatening terms.16
If the films do seem to be about the complexities of the heterosexual relationship, this, too, must be seen in a historical perspective. Thus when Leprohon privileges the normative “unity of the couple” that is, according to him, at times assailed in the films and at other times fostered, in hindsight such a putative “unity” will almost always appear asymmetrical, given the power structures that exist in patriarchal society. And given the fact that feminist film theoreticians have elaborated a complex theory concerning the film’s positioning of the male spectator who gazes at the female on screen—a theory continually being rewritten over the past twenty years—Antonioni’s films are also enlightening in terms of what has been called his “feminine temperament.” What is the nature of the apparently contradictory relationship between such a temperament and the phallic, penetrating power of Antonioni’s camera, that technological stand-in for the male gaze?
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these films is that this often unnoticed social critique is held in tension with a rigorous formalism that was utterly new to mainstream cinema in 1960. That is, the films depicted interiority (e.g., interior emotional states) externally on the screen, in the form of gestures, expression, and—most important—abstract means such as line and color.17 Even more radically, in film after film, the audience is led to react to the characters as graphic expressions as well as humans with whom they identify emotionally. Psychological realism (“What would a character with such and such a personality say or do in a situation like this?”) is rarely Antonioni’s goal. Rather, his characters can be seen (and to some extent, must be seen, in order to make any sense at all) abstractly as textual elements, as much as fictional representations of “real people.”
In this regard, Antonioni’s formalist project is reminiscent of that under-taken by the American painter James MacNeil Whistler as long ago as the 1870s. In painting after painting, Whistler carefully portrayed specific, easily recognizable people in an unproblematically representational manner, yet he always insisted on giving these paintings abstract titles that foregrounded what was for him their true subject matter. The public (as well as the curators, to judge by the wall labels in museums that exhaustively detail the sitters’ biographies) seem to want to see paintings such as Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 2: Thomas Carlyle, or Arrangement in Grey and Black (more familiarly known as Whistler’s Mother) principally as representations of specific people, whereas Whistler apparently wanted to see them at least as much, or more, as arrangements of line, color, and shape.18
The perception that Antonioni’s characters are not to be understood in traditional ways is abetted by the director’s stated view of the role of the actors in his films:
Inasmuch as I consider an actor as being only one element in a given scene, I regard him as a tree, a wall, or a cloud, that is, as just one element in the overall scene; the attitude or pose of the actor, as determined under my direction, cannot but help to effect the framing of that scene, and I, not the actor, am the one who can know whether that effect is appropriate or not.19
The point is that, despite appearances, Antonioni’s films are much more formal, graphic experiences, say—almost like animated paintings with characters and narrative—than they are typical film stories to which the viewer responds by identifying with the characters in all the conventionally “human” ways.20 (It is also significant perhaps, that the period in which L’avventura and the other films were made was also the height of the U.S. art movement known as abstract expressionism,21 and that the male ethos critiqued in Antonioni’s films of this period was a salient, even celebrated, aspect of that movement.) In addition to line and shape, color comes into play, even in his early black-and-white films, for as French theorist Pascal Bonitzer has pointed out, all the colors in Antonioni’s palette, including the blacks and whites, are ideas rather than just ornamental, emotional, or psychological features. As with all abstract art, the problem comes when one tries to determine precisely what these ideas, or even emotions, are.22
Clearly, the relation between the films’ social critique and their involvement in expressionist abstraction provides a tension that activates much of what is most powerful in them. Yet these poles must not be regarded as irreconcilable opposites, either. An argument can be made that it is precisely when Antonioni is at his apparently most formal that he is also at his most political. According to Lino Miccichè, Antonioni’s work is comparable (and preferable) to that of the more overtly political Italian filmmakers:
It is doubtless true that in the Italian cinema, often enough, the loud militancy acts as noisy cover and clamorous industrial subjection to an expressive acquiescence badly masked by striking ideological rigors, to an unlimited faith (mysteriously enough based, it’s true) in the possibility that progressive “ideological subject matter” can, without paying or losing anything, be born from regressive formal models. All the films of Antonioni … bear witness to the refusal of this handy alibi and to the positive choice of the primary political engagement that one should demand of a filmmaker: that of being “politically” responsible for his or her own expressive means.23
Critics have, in addition, found it difficult to understand that Antonioni’s “political” vision extends far beyond the field normally covered by that term. For he is also trying to grapple with huge technological changes that are perhaps altering human beings at their very core, and his documentation and analysis of these changes transcend the easy binaries of left and right but are no less politically charged for all that. (This effort is perhaps best exemplified in Red Desert , a film that Antonioni sees quite differently from his critics.) He believed that “a great anthropological transformation is occurring that will ultimately change our nature,” in the same way that increasing knowledge about the sun, for example, has made us regard it differently. After buying a telescope that enabled him to see the rings of Saturn, he remarked:
I get out of this a physical perception of the universe which is actually so upsetting that my relationship to the universe can no longer be the same as it was before. … [S]ome scientific notions have set in motion a transformational process that will end up changing us too—that will lead us to act in a certain way and not in another, and consequently will change our whole psychology, the mechanisms which regulate our lives.24
These will not be merely political and economic changes, the director insists; rather, human beings will themselves be utterly altered. These transformations will also have important, if vague, formal consequences for his own work:
If what I say is true, I must look at the world with different eyes, I must try to get to the heart of it by routes other than the usual ones. This changes everything—the narrative material I have at hand, the stories, their endings—and it cannot be otherwise if I want to bring out, to express, what I think is happening.25
Furthermore, Antonioni’s decision to accentuate the productive ambiguity of his films can be seen as being, in the widest sense, political. As Roland Barthes has pointed out in his essay “Cher Antonioni,” the director’s subtlety of meaning is politically decisive because “as soon as meaning is fixed and imposed, as soon as it loses its subtlety, it becomes an instrument of power. To make meaning more subtle, then, is a political activity, as is any effort that aims to harass, to trouble, to defeat the fanaticism of meaning.”26
Barthes also praises Antonioni’s ability to make the object “vibrate, to the detriment of dogma,” and this notion of a vibrating object—which obviously has its graphic features—also leads inevitably to a more overtly philosophical inquiry into the classic problem of the relation between the object and its perceiver, the subject. Here I follow the lead of the Italian critic Lorenzo Cuccu, who describes Antonioni’s complicated investigation of vision in such books as La visione come problema (Vision as problem, 1973) and Antonioni: Il discorso dello sguardo (Antonioni: The discourse of the gaze, 1990). Antonioni has often been accused of heavy-handed visual symbolism (a question that will be discussed in greater detail in the specific context of the films), but Cuccu provides an inkling that the source of this perception lies in the overwhelming pressure that the director can put on individual images, “the problematic and dynamic tension internal to an image that cannot be reduced to being a mere illustrative function of the story.”27
From the beginning, according to Cuccu, Antonioni saw the camera not as “a passive and indifferent instrument, but as a concrete expressive function” (p. 20). In this, his approach departed from the prevailing aesthetic of neorealism, as seen in the work of such major figures as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, and Vittorio DeSica. For Antonioni, “the cinematic operation is creative not because it reproduces a creatively elaborated [prior] material but for what it adds, in meaning and artistic elaboration, to this material” (p. 21). Narrative and poetic functions thus coexist in Antonioni’s images, and these correspond to the metonymic and metaphoric functions of language that have been identified and catalogued by linguists and semioticians. From this perspective, Antonioni’s famous long takes can be seen as a product of the disruption, by the metaphoric level, of the metonymic or narrative level. Nevertheless, these poetic images are necessary to fill out the meaning of the narrative (p. 34).
Cuccu also describes Antonioni’s vision as “estranged,” “a form of vision whose structures or spatiotemporal articulations follow a function which might be called ‘self-representative,’ in the sense that they serve to render perceptible … the visual experience that the author is having regarding the visible world” (p. 137). Antonioni’s self-conscious philosophical exploration of the nature of his own vision becomes clearly political in The Passenger, in which he considers the possibility of approaching reality through the visual media, in the explicitly political context of revolutionary Africa.
In exploring the nature of vision, Antonioni also examines the nature of the perceiving self, or subject, which is usually thought of as fixed and in command, visually at least, of all that it surveys. Both the object (“vibrating” or not) and the subject come to be portrayed as ambiguous and insubstantial in the films under study; in this light, Antonioni can be regarded as the most postmodern of directors. And in describing this relation, Antonioni adds to its complexity by always questioning as well his own inevitably compromised subject position as filmmaker.
Antonioni was born in 1913 to a middle-class family, in Ferrara, a mediumsize town north of Bologna known principally for its Renaissance school of painters whose work tended toward the expressionistic. After graduating from the University of Bologna and dabbling for a while in painting and semiprofessional tennis, his first connection with the movies began in 1935 as a film critic for Corriere Padano, the Ferrara newspaper to which he also contributed short stories. Late in the 1930s, Antonioni tried to make a documentary on the inmates of a mental asylum and, to judge by his moving account of the experience some twenty years later, it troubled him profoundly. When the bright lights necessary for filming were turned on, Antonioni recounts,
for an instant, the inmates remained absolutely stationary as though they were petrified. I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors. The scene that followed is indescribable. The inmates started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor. … In no time at all the room became an inferno. The inmates tried desperately to get away from the light as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster. The same faces that had kept madness within human bounds in the preceding calm, were now crumpled and devastated. And this time we were the ones who stood petrified at the sight. The cameraman didn’t even have the strength to turn on the motor, nor I to give an order. It was the head of the asylum who yelled “Stop, lights off!” And as the room became silent and subdued, we saw a slow and feeble movement of bodies which seemed to be in their final stages of agony.28
What later came to be recognized as one of the director’s most characteristic artistic traits, a certain tentativeness regarding the “investigative” or “penetrating” power of his camera, may have stemmed, at least in part, from this experience.
In 1938 Antonioni left the provinces for the greater opportunities of Rome and, for a while, worked on the Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR), the World’s Fair scheduled for 1942, which, owing to the outbreak of World War II, never took place. (The section of Rome that was to be the site of the fair, now associated with Mussolini’s grandiose dreams for a new Roman Empire, is the futuristic, alienating setting for L’eclisse.) Antonioni spent a few months writing for Cinema magazine—an important source of ideas and personnel for the neorealist movement—which was, curiously enough, presided over by the Duce’s son, Vittorio Mussolini. Then, in 1940, he enrolled for a few months in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, the prestigious film school that had been recently established by Mussolini père.
At the Centro, Antonioni made a short film about a prostitute who blackmails a well-to-do lady. Apparently the most interesting thing about the short, now lost, was that he used the same actress for both parts; Antonioni is said to have been very proud of the invisible cut that makes the lady’s approach to the prostitute seem to consist of a single, impossible shot. The future director next collaborated on Roberto Rossellini’s patriotic film, Un pilota ritorna (A pilot returns), in 1941, a film that so embarrassed Rossellini that he rarely spoke of it in later years.
In 1942 Antonioni was drafted and, like virtually everyone else connected with the Italian film industry at this difficult time of divided loyalties, he did everything he possibly could to avoid being sent to the front. Since Italy was fighting a losing battle on Germany’s side, this reluctance was more than understandable. During a period of leave, Antonioni signed a contract with Scalera, a well-known Italian production company, and went to Paris (then under Nazi occupation) to work as assistant to the great French director Marcel Carné on Les visiteurs du soir. His unstable army situation forced him to return to Italy, however, and thus he had to turn down additional film offers from other French masters such as Jean Cocteau and Jean Grémillon.
About the same time, he wrote favorably in Italia Libera of the most revolutionary new film of the era, Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, which so displeased Fascist censors with its gritty, startling portrayal of working-class life that it was banned within a week of its release. In the winter of 1943, with the help of the Istituto LUCE (which had been busy making propagandistic documentaries on the “successes” of the valiant Italian army), Antonioni shot his first documentary, the completely nonpolitical Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley), a strongly realistic yet intensely poetic ten-minute film based on a treatment he had published in Cinema in April 1939, about life on the river that ran through his hometown.
It is during this period that Antonioni’s special fascination with vision and the nature of the look seems to have ripened. (Significantly, his Cinema article, “Toward a Film on the River Po,” contained nine photographs, four of them half-page in size, even before the film was shot;29 in the finished documentary itself, information is often conveyed in purely visual terms, rather than through the more conventional means of the voice-over.) Antonioni later told an interviewer that once he began looking at objects with the intention of making a film, everything changed:
The things themselves were claiming a different attention, acquiring a different significance. Looking at them in a new way, I was taking control of them. Beginning to understand the world through the image, I was understanding the image, its force, its mystery.
As soon as it was possible for me to do so I returned to those places with a camera. This is how People of the Po Valley was born. Everything that I did after that, good or bad as it was, started from there.30
When the southern half of the country was liberated by the Allied forces in mid-1943, effectively dividing the country in two, Antonioni had to put the film aside. He was finally able to finish it in 1947, but only after 70 percent of the footage he had shot was accidentally destroyed during the developing process.
Immediately after the war, Antonioni worked for a while as a translator, film critic, and scriptwriter (he wrote two unproduced scripts for Visconti) and made a magnificently photographed nine-minute documentary called N. U.—Nettezza urbana. A study of the men who clean the streets and gather the garbage in Rome, the film poetically documents the magnificence of early morning in the city. It won an important critics’ prize in 1948.
Next followed several other shorts such as L’amorosa menzogna (Lies of Love, 1948–9), a film that humorously and ironically describes the gap between the glamorous lives of photoromance stars—all the rage at the time—and their real lives, and Superstizione (Superstition, 1949), which documents the superstitious customs still to be found among rural folk. About the same time, he wrote a treatment for Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik), based on the same idea as L’amorosa menzogna, which was made into a film by Fellini in 1952. Three more made-to-order shorts came in 1949 and 1950, including a documentary on the production of rayon, another on the cable car that runs to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites skiing area, and a third on the Villa dei Mostri, a Renaissance garden featuring grotesque figures carved in the rocks.
The urge to document everyday life that appears in all of these films is not surprising given the fact that Antonioni came into his cinematic maturity during the heyday of neorealism, the most famous movement in Italian cinema history. Visconti’s little-seen 1942 film Ossessione was a forebear of the movement, but although it wallowed in the grit and dirt of everyday life, a look that was to become a staple of neorealism, it lacked that sense of social concern for the downtrodden as a group that would also come to characterize neorealism. By general agreement, the first “real” neorealist film was Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, which came out in 1945 and was followed by such cinema classics as Vittorio DeSica’s Ladri di biciclette, (Bicycle Thief, 1948) and Visconti’s La terra trema (The Earth Shakes, 1948). The movement began to lose steam in the early 1950s, owing to an exhaustion of creativity and attacks by government ministries fed up with seeing Italy’s “dirty laundry” advertised around the world.
Even at the height of the movement, however, few of these films were successful with the Italian film-going public, who were, not surprisingly, tired of the misery of their everyday postwar lives and anxious to see comedy and fantasy on the screen. As a cliché of the time had it, right after the war “one made films either about the people or for the people.”31 According to Vittorio Spinazzola, the crucial weakness of neorealism was that it failed to alter in any significant way the relationship between the audience and the cinema, thus giving free play to the political powers aligned against the movement. Unsupported by the public and restricted to what Spinazzola calls “the radical wing of the bourgeois intelligentsia,” most neorealist directors suffered a crisis of confidence and severely altered their approach as the years went on.32
Given his emphasis on poetic expressiveness, it now seems clear that Antonioni was never a neorealist. Yet, like all other postwar Italian directors, he cannot be understood except in reference to the movement, as an oppositional background, the way that neorealism itself cannot be understood without reference to its opposite, or what it posed as its opposite, conventional Hollywood narrative cinema. His early documentaries, so concerned with the feeling of place and the specificity of fact, obviously were conceived within the terms of a dominant neorealist aesthetic. But whereas neorealism was “obsessed with the visible,” as Italian film historian Guido Fink has put it, Antonioni has always been at least as interested in the not-seen as in what is realistically there, before the camera.33
In 1958 Antonioni himself wondered aloud: “Am I a neorealist director. I really couldn’t say. And is neorealism over? Not exactly. It is more correct to say that neorealism is evolving.” He stressed the necessity of an interiorization of the neorealist project, taking DeSica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief, as his example. He pointed out that now filmmakers needed to go beyond the stolen bicycle, which was almost the center of DeSica’s film, in order to enter the protagonist’s heart and mind.34 It is unclear exactly how interior states might be shown, except through a simultaneous process of exteriorization; obviously, it is just this tension that so brilliantly animates Antonioni’s best films.
In more thematic terms, and in the context of the features that the director began making in the early 1950s, Gian Piero Brunetta has outlined Antonioni’s relation to neorealism in an admirably succinct fashion. Brunetta points out that although neorealism always regarded reality from a decidedly anthropocentric viewpoint—whatever meaning or coherence reality can be said to have stems from the central place of human beings in that reality—“the Antonionian man is no longer either center or measure of space and of reality. He moves and acts in a relationship of inadequacy in respect to others and to his surroundings.”35 Even more than the neorealist films, which typically accentuate the heavy tragic destiny of common people (rather than their inherent political power, through group solidarity, to actually change things, which is what leftist critics understandably wanted filmmakers to emphasize), these early features, according to Brunetta, “insist on the chain of necessity with which the flux of existence pushes the individual from error to error, right up until the final collapse, without the resources of the individual subject ever being able to bring him out of himself to establish a relation with his kind.”36 Although this is an accurate assessment of the way these early films outdo the negativity of most neorealist films, it leaves open the central political question: Is this sad state of affairs the result of something inherent in human fate or human nature, or is it the product of a particularly dysfunctional social formation?
This deterministic trajectory is especially evident in Antonioni’s first feature, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), starring Lucia Bosè and Massimo Girotti, the smouldering leading man who had first come to wide notice in Visconti’s Ossessione in 1942. It is a dark tale of illicit passion and fateful encounters that in fact strongly recalls the brooding atmosphere and iconography of the Visconti film. This film also shows early signs of certain Antonionian mannerisms, such as the use of extreme long shots of empty spaces to convey emotion, as well as expressive lighting and striking black-and-white compositions. The director’s focus on a female protagonist is also noteworthy here; it is a focus that will persist for more than fifteen years.
His next film, La signora senza camelie (The Lady without Camelias, 1953), once again features Lucia Bosè in the lead role. It is a bitter look at the complications of love and human relationships (note the ironic reversal of the title of Dumas’s novel and play, La dame aux camélias), filled with dark, expressive streets and duplicitous noirish men, with the world of the film industry as a backdrop. Significantly, the emphasis on the woman’s perspective is even stronger in this film, and the director is clearly sympathetic to her, for he emphasizes the way she is dominated and mistreated by the selfish and inconstant men who surround her. Neither she nor the director, however, at least in 1953, seems able to imagine a life for her without a man.
Though it was actually begun earlier than La signora senza camelie, Antonioni’s next film, I Vinti (The Vanquished), had its premiere six months later, in September 1953, at the Venice Film Festival. Originally titled Uno dei “nostri figli” (One of “our children”), the film, composed of three separate episodes shot in three countries (Italy, England, and France) and in three languages, was to prove one of the director’s most controversial projects. Based on true stories, it is an earnest European version of the “troubled youth” movies that were popular throughout the developed world in the 1950s. Both the British and the French episodes were banned in their respective countries because the portrayed families objected, and the censor’s permission to shoot the Italian episode was withdrawn at the last minute and another story substituted.
The French part of the film tells of some young people who kill a friend for his money; the Italian episode concerns a young man from a good family who smuggles cigarettes and dies from injuries suffered in a fall that occurs while he is running away from the police; the English section recounts the story of a young poet who kills a prostitute to get his name in the newspaper. The emphasis on documenting a particular historical moment betrays the neorealist context in which this film was conceived, but the long shots of empty streets also show the director’s desire to exteriorize internal emotions, and to move toward a stylization that, apart from Visconti’s La terra trema, was rather rare in neorealism. And although the entire film is filled with a bitter postwar world-weariness that questions the status of all heretofore “eternal” values, the very impulse to describe a particular social problem, precisely as a problem to be solved, seems to carry with it some sense of politics, and even a sense of hope.
A crucial document, both in terms of Antonioni’s work and of more theoretical questions in general, is “Tentato suicidio” (“Suicide Attempt”), Antonioni’s segment of L’amore in città (Love in the City), a compilation film released in November 1953. The director used some fifteen actual survivors of suicide attempts brought about by failed love affairs to tell their stories to the camera, in the semblance of a police inquest. Four of the stories are “re-created” by their protagonists, raising tantalizing questions about the relation between reality and its “fictional” representation.
Antonioni’s next major film was Le amiche (The Girlfriends), which opened in 1955. Based loosely on a novella by Cesare Pavese called Tra donne sole (translated in 1959 as Among Women Only), it tells a group of interlinked stories of young, glamorous women and their loves and careers. It is surprisingly advanced in its examination of feminist issues such as conflicts between love and career or between “femininity” and sexual independence; class differences are also explored. Most important, perhaps, Le amiche resolutely, and unapologetically, focuses on women. Though it won the Silver Lion prize at the Venice Film Festival, it did poorly at the box office.
Il grido was the director’s next film, and the one that proved to be his entree onto the international scene. Shot during the winter of 1956–7 in and around the Po Valley, where Antonioni had grown up, the film is especially important because its protagonist, for once, is a worker. Women seem at first to be the locus of power in the film, as the worker, Aldo (played by the American actor Steve Cochran), is thrown into a deep depression after the woman he has been living with for seven years, Irma (Alida Valli), decides to leave him for reasons that are never explained. The balance of power is more than reestablished, however, by his harsh treatment of the other women in the film. In a kind of road movie that reprises characters, situations, and imagery from both DeSica’s Bicycle Thief and Visconti’s Ossessione (down to the sexual dynamics at a forlorn gas station in the Po Valley), Aldo wanders from place to place with Rosina, the daughter he has had with Irma, revisiting old women friends and trying to pull his life together. In the midst of labor unrest and an attempt by the government to throw the farmers off their land, Aldo can think only of Irma; the director explicitly shows him rejecting the group solidarity that motivates and gives hope to his fellow workers. Eventually, he gives in to despair and dies when he falls off (or jumps off) the tower on which we first saw him at the beginning of the film. Il grido is punctuated by the trademark Antonioni long shots, denuded landscapes, and fog-enshrouded scenes that lead naturally into the triumphant formalism of the great films to come.
At the box office, none of these early films was very successful (Cronaca di un amore earned 175 million lire, La signora senza camelie 140, and I Vinti 129, all ridiculously small sums). Even Le amiche, which grossed 260 million lire—because, according to Spinazzola, it had a story by the famed writer Cesare Pavese, a recognizable plot, and several well-known actresses in it—nevertheless finished only fortieth in box office receipts the year it was released. Il grido—the most formally challenging and most “depressing” of all the pretrilogy films—made the least of all: it ended up grossing only 100 million lire, of which only 25 million came during its initial release.37
And then in 1959–60, which is often described as the annus mirabilis of postwar Italian cinema, everything changed, for Antonioni and for the entire Italian film industry. Films such as Fellini’s La dolce vita and Antonioni’s L’avventura leave the war and antifascism behind, finally, and begin to focus, for really the first time, on present-day middle-class mores. Strangely enough, both of these films are serious works of art of a high intellectual nature, quite “trying” according to conventional standards, yet both were deeply appreciated by the public as well as the critics, in the provinces as well as the major cities.
The entire Italian industry, in fact, experienced a powerful upswing at this moment. According to Gian Piero Brunetta, by 1959 Italy was number one in Europe and second only to the United States in the number of spectators and size of box office receipts; amazingly, there was one theater seat for every nine people in Italy. In the meantime, Italian film production jumped from a robust 140 films in 1958 to an amazing 246 in 1962.
Brunetta attributes this huge change to a number of factors:
The birth of a center-left government, new lifestyles, the rapid process of industrialization, the rise in mass consumption, the new distribution of leisure time, the maturation of a new social and political conscience, the change in sexual behavior and in social habits, the phenomenon of mass emigration from the south toward the large industrial centers of the north: all of this finds, in the cinema, a terrain that reacts immediately. Precisely in 1960 Italian cinema—like an extremely sensitive seismograph—notes and registers, with perfect timing, all of the processes of transformation in the economic, social, and political life of Italians. And, at the same time, it aims at a complete renewal of its own framework, offering very wide possibilities to a few directors who had come to the fore already in the 1950s, attempting to demonstrate how also the auteur film could translate into both a commercial and critical success.38
In 1960, according to Brunetta, Italians began wanting to see a specific film, rather than just go “to the movies.” This situation was to last until private television came on the scene in the mid-1970s.39
For Antonioni, the critical success of L’avventura (notwithstanding the hostility it aroused at the Cannes Film Festival) and of the other films that quickly followed—such as La notte,L’eclisse, and then, his first film in color, Il deserto rosso—was a personal vindication for the initiator of a brilliant new style of filmmaking. These films focus relentlessly, almost exclusively, on female protagonists and, in their apparent aimless indirection, explore human relationships and the meaning of human existence using narrative and formal techniques that the cinema had never before attempted. Since the bulk of this book is devoted to these four films, I will forgo further comment on them here.
Antonioni’s next effort was a twenty-five-minute segment of a compilation film entitled I tre volti (The Three Faces, 1965); Antonioni’s not very interesting section stars Princess Soraya as herself and is called “Prefazione: il provino” (“Preface: The Screen Test”). But it was Blow-Up (1966) that made Antonioni the internationally known figure that he remains today. Released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), set in sexy, “swinging” London, and shot in English, the film, despite its enigmatic (and to some, laughably “arty”) exploration of the connection between reality and its photographic representation in the guise of a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film, became a huge hit. It is discussed in depth later in the book.
Antonioni went on to make Zabriskie Point, the second film in a three-picture deal with MGM (produced by Carlo Ponti) and released in 1969. Set in the Berkeley of the student rebellion, the film is burdened with an implausible plot and inexperienced actors whose weak delivery greatly detracted from what could otherwise have been a very interesting film.40 The problems go deeper than that, however, for Antonioni’s uncritical portrayal of the supposed innocence of his youthful protagonists (and the corresponding, one-note depiction of the policemen and capitalist land developers as completely evil) seemed naive even in 1969. Furthermore, in its celebration of a hippie orgy in the desert—no matter how magnificently composed, visually and aurally—the film also serves as a tacky and embarrassing record of the fifty-six-year-old director’s own presumed sexual liberation (or wish-fulfillment). In an interview with Look magazine at the time, Antonioni said:
America has changed me. I am now a much less private person, more open, prepared to say more. I have even changed my view of sexual love. In my other films, I looked upon sex as a disease of love. I learned here that sex is only a part of love; to be open and understanding of each other, as the girls and boys of today are, is the important part.41
Despite its failure, the film displays moments of brilliance, especially in its initial, documentary-like depiction of a political discussion concerning the possibility of revolutionary action undertaken by middle-class white students, and in the complicated abstract visual designs that reappear throughout.
Antonioni next undertook, at the invitation of the Chinese government and the RAI, the Italian television network, a documentary on contemporary life in China. Shown in 1972 on Italian, French, and American television, “Chung Kuo” seemed to most Westerners a rather straightforward depiction of the Chinese Communist attempt to build a “New Man,” but Chinese officials reacted violently against the film, citing its “distortions” and attacking Antonioni for “imperialistic cultural espionage.” The Chinese threatened to break diplomatic relations with any country that showed the film, but a shortened version was eventually shown again later in the United States, with additional commentary.
The Passenger, Antonioni’s third and final film in his three-picture contract with Ponti and MGM—and, in my view, one of the best he ever made—was based, for the first time in the director’s long career, on a script written by others. Starring the already well-known Jack Nicholson as a television journalist who exchanges identities with a man he barely knows who has died of natural causes in their hotel in the Sahara, the film returns to the themes of the trilogy but with a new depth and historical specificity (and a sharpened political edge) that made it feel thoroughly up to date when it was released; it, too, is treated in detail later in the book.
Next came Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1980), a weird experiment in color for Italian television that was based on a play by Jean Cocteau and starred Monica Vitti. Set in an unspecified Mitteleuropa country in the nineteenth century, the film tells the melodramatic story of a reclusive widowed queen and a young assassin who becomes her lover and, finally, her murderer as well. Antonioni seems to have agreed to the emotional, somewhat silly project in large part because he had not made a film in five years and because it allowed him to play creatively with the television equipment, changing colors, improbably but expressively, for each character, through purely electronic means.
His next theatrical film was called Identificazione di una donna, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in 1982 under the title Identification of a Woman, but which never received U.S. distribution. The film has its partisans, but the subtle connection that reigns in films such as Blow-Up and The Passenger between the director and his alter ego, the protagonist, is here made completely obvious and thus infinitely less interesting. The main character is now a film director, no less, involved in an obsessive search for two women. Many of Antonioni’s typical themes reappear, as well as his trademark formal techniques, bundled together with passionate and revealing sex scenes that seem to overwhelm the rest of the film. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby, a longtime partisan of the director, called it “an excruciatingly empty work,”42 but the best analysis was provided by Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice:
Antonioni has always been up there on the screen, but we tended to mistake his reflection for a portrait of Modern Man with all his wires disconnected. Yet now that the director stands at last nakedly before us, the absence of a plausibly compelling narrative drains his confessional film of the necessary tension to sustain our interest.43
Improbably, this connection between character and creator was to become even more blatant in the eighty-four-year-old director’s most recent film, Beyond the Clouds, made with German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whose presence was necessary for the film production company to obtain completion insurance. (Antonioni suffered a serious stroke in the late 1980s and is no longer able to speak.) In this film, which was shown at the 1996 New York Film Festival and elsewhere and opened commercially in London in early 1997, the film director character, played by John Malkovich, mouths inane dialogue that includes some of Antonioni’s bons mots from various interviews he has given. An uncompelling vanity production populated by the crème de la crème of contemporary European cinema (Fanny Ardant, Jean Reno, Sophie Marceau, Jeanne Moreau, and the late Marcello Mastroianni), the film tells several stories of lost love and misunderstanding that seem nearly to parody the director’s greatest works in that vein. More charitably, Anthony Lane, writing of Beyond the Clouds in the New Yorker recently, had this to say:
I don’t happen to believe that Antonioni’s work is profound, but the illusion of profundity is so spooky, and so exquisitely managed, that it will do just as well. … The world of Michelangelo Antonioni throngs with sick souls, and we may be slightly sick of them by now, but I wouldn’t want them to get better.44
As of this writing, according to the trade journals, the apparently indefatigable, still speechless Antonioni is soon to begin shooting another film, entitled Just to Be Together, this time with that most Antonionian Canadian director, Atom Egoyan (The Adjuster,Exotica,The Sweet Hereafter), as guarantor-sidekick.45
Whatever else it may accomplish, this study does not aim to provide a master narrative of Michelangelo Antonioni that purports to “explain” him and his films once and for all. Besides the obvious complexity and ambiguity of the films themselves, the sheer volume of criticism in French, Italian, and English (to name only the most obvious sources of commentary) is itself impossible to master or to give any adequate accounting of.
What I hope to achieve in the following pages is a more modest goal, an “exploration” of what I judge to be Antonioni’s “central” films. (Even choosing which films to concentrate on, of course, is already an act of interpretation.) I have decided to focus on L’avventura,La notte,L’eclisse, the films of the so-called trilogy; Red Desert, the director’s first film in color; Blow-Up, his first “international” film; and, finally, The Passenger, the most artistically successful film of his maturity. For considerations of space, I have had to skip over all of the director’s earlier films; I especially regret having to omit Il grido, since it is the entry film for the themes of the trilogy and beyond. However, the other omitted films are, to my mind at least, clearly secondary efforts.
Some will question the very viability of an “auteur” study focused on an individual director, and whether anything of value can be achieved using such an “old-fashioned” method. Film history of the 1970s and 1980s taught us to look suspiciously upon the auteurist claims that had naturally arisen in the 1960s, when film was struggling in the academy for the acceptance that other art forms already enjoyed. The argument then was—and in large part still holds true—that, perhaps more than any other art form, film is marked by its collaborative nature. Nevertheless, it is also true that Antonioni’s films, like those of his countrymen and European filmmakers in general, were created in the context of an auteurist aesthetic that has always valued personal expression—even in such an obviously commercial, “compromised” form as film—above all else.
The auteurist approach was also dealt a serious blow by the writing of French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who loudly, and convincingly, proclaimed “the death of the author” in favor of a new emphasis on the interpretive work of the reader in making sense of texts. Jacques Derrida has also raised doubts concerning the possibility that the artist can ever express him or herself in a noncontradictory fashion, given the fact that consciousness, like everything else, is inherently divided. Then there is the question of ideology. In many ways, of course, it is true that the unconscious ideology of any society is always speaking, using the author as its often unwitting mouthpiece, in every text. Yet as Robin Wood has pointed out in a seminal essay on Hitchcock, (now twenty years old but still valuable), “It is only through the medium of the individual [artist] that ideological tensions come to particular focus.”46
It is also the case that if one’s own critical writing about film or anything else is to be coherent—and no publisher I know has become sufficiently “postmodern” to forgo those demands—it must have some principle of design. If that is so, then any form of organization—by period, theme, country, whatever, as well as by author—will implicitly depend upon an essentializing process that, by definition, will “deform” its object of study.
Ultimately, since there is before us the hard existential fact that these particular films would never have come into being without this particular author, maybe then it is just as valid to consider these films in terms of their author as any other way. In this regard, I am encouraged by Antonioni’s simple but incontrovertible response to an interviewer who innocently asked whether the director’s assistants chose the locations: “The location is the very substance of which the shot is made. Those colors, that light, those trees, those objects, those faces. How could I leave the choice of all this to my assistants? Their choices would be entirely different from mine. Who knows the film I am making better than me?”47
To many critics in the 1960s, these films seemed especially, and perhaps illegitimately, “novelistic.” French critic Pierre Leprohon worried about this, particularly in regard to La notte (1961):
Does it not present a real danger, that of once again drawing the cinema out of its proper domain? Is it not possible that this new approach, making use of all the techniques of the novel [whatever that might mean, since, after all, these are films], may create a literary cinema which will soon prove as vain as the theatrical cinema it is meant to replace?
(Pierre Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni: An Introduction, trans. Scott Sullivan [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963], p. 76)
Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni, p. 59.
For a fuller discussion of the question of the frame, in all the senses of the word, see Peter Brunette and David Wills, Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), esp. chap. 4.
See Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988).
Gian Piero Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano, vol. 2, (Rome: Editori Riuniti, 1982), p. 739.
One example among hundreds: a male critic describes the colors of the love scene in Corrado’s hotel room in Red Desert as well as those of the scene of Thomas’s frolicking with the young girls in Blow-Up as “alive and playful,” thus implicitly regarding these scenes themselves in the same light. From a feminist perspective, they can just as legitimately be seen as obnoxious.
Pierre Leprohon, The Italian Cinema, trans. Roger Greaves and Oliver Stallybrass (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 168. Interestingly, though, and somewhat bafflingly, Leprohon asserts elsewhere that it is not “useful to enter into a discussion of Antonioni’s atheism or his interest in Marxism. While it can be argued that they explain his moral position, they certainly do not determine it” (Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni, p. 68). It should also be noted in passing that during the 1950s Antonioni was a frequent contributor to the communist film journal Cinema nuovo (which, unfortunately for the director, did not keep that journal from attacking his “bourgeois” films later on).
Armando Borrelli, Neorealismo e marxismo (Avellino: Edizioni di Cinemasud, 1966), p. 148.
Borrelli, Neorealismo e marxismo, p. 171.
“A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work,” in Michelangelo Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, ed. Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi, American ed. Marga Cottino-Jones (New York: Marsilio, 1996), p. 40. (Originally published in Film Culture, no. 24 [Spring, 1962], this interview was translated from “La malattia dei sentimenti: Colloquio con Michelangelo Antonioni,” in Bianco e nero, vol. 22, nos. 2–3 [February—March 1961].)
Lino Miccichè, Il cinema italiano degli anni ’60 (Venice: Marsilio Editore, 1975), p. 27.
Richard Roud, “Five Films,” Sight & Sound, no. 30 (Winter 1960–1), p. 9.
Yvonne Baby, Le Monde, September 16, 1960, and in several other interviews.
In talking about Il grido, Antonioni said: “The workers go to the heart of the questions, to the source of the feelings. Everything is more true (with them)” (quoted in Vittorio Spinazzola, Cinema e pubblico: Lo spettacolo filmico in Italia 1945–1965 [Milan: Bompiani, 1974], p. 152). What is interesting here is the uncanny resemblance between the woman’s and the worker’s supposed greater access to truth: they are both seen as marginal cases that can lead us to the reality that the (normative) middle-class male misses.
Even before the advent of feminist theory in the early-1960s a critic such as Pierre Leprohon was intelligently pointing out that in Antonioni’s films “the woman has become an autonomous character; she is no longer designed to serve as a complement to one or more partners: that is to say, deformed by the domination of a masculine figure” (Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni, p. 30). Leprohon does not at this early moment have the critical concepts with which to probe this dynamic further, but his suggestion that Antonioni’s early films were not financially successful precisely because they were dominated by women is a trenchant one.
Interestingly, what we hear the men murmuring on the sound track (not translated in the subtitles) is: “Is she a foreigner? Do you think she’s French? She must be French.”
One example of this is Antonioni’s decision in Red Desert to paint parts of the landscape, literally, in order, as he said, to more clearly portray the interior feelings of his characters.
Further information on Antonioni’s own career as a painter and the complex relation between painting and his films can be found in “Identification of a Filmmaker,” an interview with Sophie Lannes and Philippe Meyer originally published in L’Express (August 9–15, 1985), and reprinted in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, pp. 245–56.
“A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work,” p. 36.
Antonioni also said in the Film Culture interview: “I think it is important at this time for cinema to turn towards this internal form of filmmaking, towards ways of expression that are absolutely free, as free as those of literature, as free as those of painting which has reached abstraction” (“A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work,” p. 26). Later in this same interview, the director testified to the great importance of painting in his life: “I have a great love for painting. … painting is something that moves me passionately” (p. 44).
It should be added that in his 1961 article, Richard Roud, in discussing several apparently gratuitous camera movements in one of Antonioni’s early films, La signora senza camelie (The Lady without Camelias), was thinking along the same lines that I am trying to develop when he congratulated the director for giving us a “non-representational element for our pleasure … an experience in pure form” (Roud, “Five Films,” p. 11).
Antonioni’s films not only borrow a formalist visual aesthetic from modern painting but also quite consciously resemble the modern novel in ways that are too complex to go into here. See William Pechter’s statement: “The best new novel I have encountered in the past few years is L’avventura. And it is a film” (Pechter, “On L’avventura” in L’avventura, ed. George Amberg and Robert Hughes [New York: Grove Press, 1969], p. 287).
Relevant here is a remark that Antonioni is said to have made during a visit to the studio of famed abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko in New York: “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing … with precision” (quoted in Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, the Surface of the World [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985], p. 54). Chatman goes on to quote an article by Richard Gilman, published contemporaneously with the encounter between the two artists, that elaborates on the quotation from Antonioni: “[Antonioni’s films] are part of that next step in our feelings which art is continually eliciting and recording. We have been taking that step for a long time, most clearly in painting, but also in music, in certain areas of fiction, in anti-theatre. It might be described as accession through reduction, the coming into truer forms through the cutting away of created encumbrances” (Richard Gilman, “About Nothing—With Precision,” Theater Arts, vol. 46, no. 7 [July 1962], p. 11; quoted in Chatman, Antonioni, p. 54).
For Antonioni, this notion of abstraction has always been obscurely tied up with the larger question of realism. He realized that, in principle at least, more details of a filmed reality were latent on the film stock than could be made visible through current photographic technology. Thus, in a sense, the cinematic image is always an abstraction.
Miccichè, Il cinema italiano, p. 27.
“An In-Depth Search,” interview with Alberto Ongaro, reprinted in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, p. 345. (This interview originally appeared in Italian in L’Europeo, December 18, 1975.)
“An In-Depth Search,” interview with Ongaro.
Reprinted in Cher Antonioni: 1988–89 (Rome: Ente Autonomo Gestione Cinema, 1988), p. 20.
Lorenzo Cuccu, Antonioni: Il discorso dello sguardo: Da “Blow-Up” a “Identificazione di una donna” (Pisa: ETS Editrice, 1990), p. 11.
“Making a Film Is My Way of Life,” reprinted in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, pp. 14–15. (Originally published in Cinema nuovo in 1959.)
Carlo di Carlo, “Voir d’un oeil nouveau,” in Cher Antonioni, p. 37.
“Preface to Six Films,” in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, p. 66.
Spinazzola, Cinema e pubblico, p. 7.
Spinazzola, Cinema e pubblico, p. 12.
Guido Fink, unpublished lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley, April 1993.
“My Experience,” in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, pp. 7–8. (Originally published in Bianco e nero in 1958.)
Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano, vol. 2, p. 740.
Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano, vol. 2, p. 147.
Spinazzola, Cinema e pubblico, p. 146.
Gian Piero Brunetta, “Il giardino delle delizie e il deserto: trasformazioni della visione e dei modelli narrativi nel cinema italiano del dopoguerra,” in Schermi e ombre: Gli italiani e il cinema nel dopoguerra, ed. Marino Livolsi (Scandicci: La Nuova Italia, 1988), p. 65.
Provocatively, Brunetta insists on seeing Italian film of the 1960s—“whose importance is not less in the history of Italian cinema than neorealism”—as a movement. As such, it has its own formal differences from preceding cinema (in the use of montage and the long take); commercial differences (the director, as auteur, is removed as much as possible from the demands of the industry); and differences in subject matter (with the new treatment of taboo subjects such as Fascism, factory work, and the Republic of Salò) (Brunetta, “Il giardino delle delizie e il deserto,” pp. 66–7).
In a recent, otherwise excellent book about Antonioni, critic Sam Rohdie uses the following “thoughtful” adjectives in characterizing the American critical reaction to Zabriskie Point: “vicious,” “stupid,” “uncomprehending,” “insulting,” “vulgar” (Rohdie, Antonioni [London: BFI, 1990], p. 137). Rohdie attacks Seymour Chatman for his “stodgy book” and, especially, for choosing not to like this failure of Antonioni’s: “He [Chatman] dislikes Zabriskie Point because it is merely, pointlessly beautiful; narratively it is badly acted, unrealistic, inaccurate (no ‘real,’ ‘true’ American could accept it), unlikely, over-contrived” (pp. 137–8).
Pace Rohdie’s intemperate remarks, few Italian critics thought more of the film than did we Americans. Goffredo Fofi, for example, attacked the director for his “megalomania” and said that Antonioni always failed when he attempted the “grand historical-philosophical-sociological vision” (Fofi, Cinema italiano: Servi e padroni [Milan: Feltrinelli, 1971], p. 100). He called the film “a wagonload of commonplaces from the American ‘analytic’ cinema, youthful rebellion, and off-Broadway and off-Hollywood theater and film that provoke a horrible feeling of the already-seen and already-noted, with the difference that this operation of supposed synthesis is extremely more presumptuous and therefore more irritating than all the things that he is recording or manipulating” (p. 101).
Look, November 18, 1969, p. 40.
New York Times, September 30, 1982.
Village Voice, October 19, 1982.
New Yorker, September 30, 1996, p. 90.
Variety, December 8–14, 1997, p. 22.
Robin Woods, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” in Hitchcock’s Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), p. 292.
“Antonioni Discusses The Passenger,” in Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, p. 334. (Interview originally appeared in Filmmakers Newsletter in 1975.)
SOURCE: “Antonioni’s Heideggerian Swerve,” in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, October, 1998, pp. 278–87.
[In the following essay, Schliesser argues that Blow-Up represents a cinematic dramatization of Heidegger’s writing on ways of seeing.]
In 1995 Michaelangelo Antonioni was presented with an academy award for his “lifetime achievement” as a filmmaker. In a parallel universe, such recognition would seem cruelly ironic. In our own, however, it is simply, depressingly suggestive of how Hollywood has typically treated its most gifted artists (for lack of financial backing, Antonioni has not made a film since 1981). I will not dwell on the film industry’s fickle relationship with Antonioni: it is, like the struggles of so many other visionary directors, an old and familiar story. What I would like to address, however, is the current revival of interest in Antonioni’s films after two decades of virtual neglect (the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award was followed by the publication of William Arrowsmith’s Antonioni: The Poet of Images and a veritable blitz of articles on the director), a critical interest unfortunately undercut by the nonrelease of Antonioni’s latest film in the United States.
But what is the present sense of Antonioni’s achievement? To what extent does hindsight command a reevaluation of his contribution to the cinema? I would venture an unorthodox answer to these questions by suggesting that the single greatest “achievement” of Antonioni’s “lifetime” is not, as is generally believed, the films of his tetralogy (L’avventura , La notte , L’eclisse , The Red Desert ), but rather his most commercially successful and hence possibly least critically appreciated film, Blow-Up (1966).
Critics have long concentrated on the philosophical resonances of Antonioni’s earlier films (whether seen as existential or, more recently, empiricist), which they tend to associate with the director’s signature long takes and silences, as well as the behavior of his typically alienated protagonists. Yet little notice has been taken of Antonioni’s transcendent attempt to engage such modern schools of thought more directly through a sophisticated process of adaptation, a kind of cinematic “downloading” of their primary texts. Seymour Chatman grants that Antonioni’s thematization of the visual in Blow-Up is “something quite new.”
According to Chatman, Blow-Up marks the first time “Antonioni directly engaged the question of art and in particular its links to illusion” (139). Yet Chatman underestimates the roles preexisting texts played in making Antonioni’s particular treatment of vision in Blow-Up so startling and revelatory upon the film’s release. In response to Chatman, I would suggest that Blow-Up may be better understood and appreciated through a careful look at its added literary dimension; the deceptive complexity of Antonioni’s later approach to filmmaking may also be better grasped through a recognition of his ability to inflect noncinematic source texts through his already distinctive, if not revolutionary, cinematic style. I would claim that Blow-Up constitutes not only a pivotal thematic turn in Antonioni’s oeuvre, but also a point of unprecedented stylistic maturity (Antonioni’s long takes and stunning visual compositions were at this point put at the service of story as well as theme and mood). The film reveals the heightened literary and philosophical sensibilities of a filmmaker known almost exclusively for his nonliterary emphases and is groundbreaking precisely because it arises from a graceful cinematic fusion of difficult source texts.
The compass setting Antonioni’s “new” thematic and stylistic trajectory was the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar’s experimental fiction “Las babas del diablo” (translated and published in 1963 as “Blow-Up”); and it points, if less explicitly, in the direction of what Frederic Jameson has recently identified as “Antonioni’s Heideggerian and metaphysical dimension” (20). The movement from Cortazar’s short story toward a cinematic dramatization of Heidegger’s later writings on vision within the larger narrative framework of the film reflects a shift in what many have seen as Antonioni’s essentially existential perspective, and/or what Kevin Moore has recently, and rather provocatively, described as “Antonioni’s allegiance to an empirical stance” (25). In Blow-Up, the predominantly “psychiatric” and/or empirical interests of Antonioni’s previous films, and the moral concerns at the heart of Cortazar’s story, are ultimately transcended in the interests of exploring a deeper, modern metaphysical crisis (Cortazar 154). At this midpoint in his career, Antonioni gambled on constructing a modern philosophical critique of the visual in cinematic terms; he sought to screen a treatise on our perceptual relation to the world and what lies beyond it that was qt once provocative and accessible. The cloaking of Blow-Up’s phenomenological investigation in the guise of a murder mystery only partly explains the film’s broad appeal. The other side of the film’s persistent allure must be comprehended with regard to Antonioni’s informed openness to the modern problem of the visual. By analyzing Antonioni’s “adaptation” of Cortazar’s story, and his transformation of it into a suitable groundwork for a cinematic inflection of Heidegger’s contemporary critique of vision, one can begin to cast light upon Jameson’s provocative but rather cryptic observation about Antonioni’s later films, as well as redeem Blow-Up as the philosophic masterwork of the cinema that it is.
THE ORIGINAL TEXT
Cortazar’s short story is set in Paris and involves the enigmatic Roberto Michel, a French-Chilean translator who, “in his spare time,” is also “an amateur photographer.” After leaving his apartment on a Sunday morning, Michel strolls along the boulevards of Paris with his camera and stops in an “intimate square.” There he witnesses a scene which at first intrigues him:
What I’d thought was a couple seemed much more now a boy with his mother, although at the same time I realized that it was not a kid and his mother, and that it was a couple in the sense that we always allegate to couples when we see them leaning up against the parapets or embracing on the benches in the squares.
but proves progressively perplexing. “All this was so clear, ten feet away,” laments Michel. Michel’s speculations about the relationship between the teenage boy and the older woman continue to shift as the scene unfolds. The more he watches, the more baffling things become to him. His suspicions about the relationship between the woman and the boy grow, but he cannot put his finger on what exactly is bothering him:
Strange how the scene (almost nothing: two figures there mismatched in their youth) was taking on a disquieting aura. I thought I was imposing it, and that my photo, if I shot it, would reconstitute things in their true stupidity.
Mistrusting himself, fearing he might be “imposing” the “disquieting aura” of the scene through a projection of his own thoughts and feelings, Michel eventually takes recourse to his camera. Although his eyes may play tricks on him, Michel seems to think the camera will not lie: it will locate the banal truth of what is passing before him and thus set things straight. It will, he believes, serve as a neutral medium between him and what he is seeing and thus prove that he is indeed “imposing” the “disquieting aura” of the scene. Ultimately, however, Michel’s faith in the camera’s capacity to objectively “reconstitute things” in their essential truthfulness leads him down the proverbial garden path: by implicitly denying the subjective space contained within the grain of the photograph, he remains blind to the possibility of also “imposing” a perspective on the scene via the camera’s limited field of view. Moreover, he fails to recognize that he is putting the camera at the service of another contrary desire: to purge the scene of the rottenness he instinctively smells at its core but nevertheless believes he may be tainting from afar through the projection of the disturbances in his own fractured interiority (throughout the story Michel intuits and worries about the fragility of his own psychological and emotional state). His impulse to restore the scene to a more benign state than the one he imagines for it is thus no less internally informed, arising from a trance of wishful thinking and an equally dangerous assumption that what preexisted his perceptual encounter of the woman and boy was inherently innocent.
The “scene” at the heart of Cortazar’s story (as Michel himself self-consciously describes it) thus thematizes a fundamental loss of faith in visual perception and a recognition of the fallibility of the mechanical documentation of perception (manifest in the limitations of the camera-eye). In the hyperrea! world of inflated visual simulation recently generated by the inventions of photography, cinema, and television—the buttresses of a world ever more dominated by the proliferation of electronic media—Michel begins to wonder if he can indeed “believe his eyes” or, for that matter, place any trust in the object which provides a mechanical extension of them. Cortazar reinforces this theme by destabilizing the narrative agency that governs the story. At first, Michel narrates the story—he speaks to us directly as “I.” But his initial status as an internal narrator (a character who participated in the story in the past and now reports it from a retrospective, discursive position) soon becomes eroded, and though he continues to speak (i.e. continues to enunciate the story), he begins to refer to himself indiscriminately with the first and third person pronouns (Cortazar 155). As Michel struggles to recall the event in the square, he switches from “I” to his proper name or the masculine pronoun: for example, “but Michel rambles on to himself easily enough, there’s no need to let him harangue on this way” (155). Yet in the following paragraph he reassumes the classic first person position: “As for the boy I remember the image before his actual body … while now I am sure that I remember the woman’s body much better than the image” (159). This confusion in narrative agency seems to result from the perceptual and moral crisis Michel endures after the key event in the story: “I think I now know how to look, if it’s something I know, and also that every looking oozes with mendacity” (160) Still, the causal/temporal relation between the impact of this event on Michel and his reliability as a narrator is left open. It is also possible that the destabilization of Michel’s psyche (which becomes manifest in his schizophrenic modes of reference) actually prefigures the destabilization of his perceptual framework and thus leads to his growing confusion.
However this happens to be read, at a very basic level, Michel’s psychological split mirrors the general rift between perspective and reality explored by Cortazar in “Blow Up”: as hard as this character tries, he can never quite find the right angle from which to see or report. Nor can the camera correct this problem: it records, but also from a particular vantage point; it documents, but leaves room for the imposition of narrative.
While Michel’s confusion seems at one level to emerge simply from his violent encounter with the ruses of visual perception, it is also specifically associated with the guilt he feels over his voyeuristic tendencies. By definition, the voyeur watches an event to the exclusion of actively participating in it. Thus, when the woman in the plaza notices Michel, she shatters the protective glass between him and the scene he has been surreptitiously observing and photographing. By confronting Michel, she makes him visible, now a part of the incident to which he had previously only been a secret witness.
To displace the shame he feels over being caught looking, Michel recasts his voyeurism as an expedient intervention on the behalf of a child: “the important thing, the really important thing was having helped the kid escape in time” (160). Briefly, he conceives of his involvement in the scene as voluntary and heroic, and deludes himself into transforming a traditionally amoral act (voyeurism) into a moral victory:
Out of plain meddling, I had given him the opportunity finally to take advantage of his fright to do something useful. … In the last analysis, taking that photo had been a good act.
As in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the immorality associated with voyeurism is overshadowed by the possible occurrence of a much more severe moral transgression. On the surface, Cortazar has only changed the crime by replacing murder with molestation. Yet, in contrast to the conclusion of Rear Window, the rationalized sense of moral victory that accompanies Michel’s recollection of the incident is ultimately circumvented, rather than confirmed, by the photos he has taken in the square:
It wasn’t because of the good act that I looked at (one of the pictures) between paragraphs while I was working. At that moment I didn’t know the reason, the reason I had tacked the enlargement onto the wall.
Thus, at the end of the story, Michel can no longer stand upon the ostensibly moral effect of his intervention—the scene he believed he finally grasped and acted upon accordingly, morally, had in fact deceived him. Upon closer examination of the blow-up on the wall, Michel begins to consider what is unseen in the photo and yet the gathering force behind it:
The kid was less startled than he was suspicious, once or twice he poked his head over the woman’s shoulder and she continued talking, saying something that made him look back every few minutes toward that area where Michel knew the car was parked and the man in the gray hat, carefully eliminated from the photo but present in the boy’s eyes (how doubt that now) in the words of the woman, in the woman’s hands, in the vicarious presence of the woman.
From this point, Michel must envision what remains virtually invisible in the photo, but very much behind the scene. He does not literally see the man who is the real instigator of the seduction in his photographic record. Rather, the man (as key to the truth of the witnessed events) is a product of the narrative Michel has reconstructed from his memory and his speculative, guilt-ridden imagination:
When I saw the man come up, stop near them and look at them, his hands in his pockets and a stance somewhere between disgusted and demanding … I understood, if that was to understand, what had to happen now, what had to have happened then, what would have to happen at that moment, among these people, just where I had poked my nose in to upset an established order, interfering innocently in that which had not happened, but which was now going to happen, now was going to be fulfilled. And what I had imagined earlier was much less than the reality. …
Michel’s accidental return to the evidence usurps his brief moral triumph (and the subsequent exoneration of his amoral voyeurism), and he falls into sudden despair. The “reality” to which Michel refers (the man for whom the woman was only acting as a ploy) plunges him into feelings of desperate guilt and helplessness:
there was nothing I could do, this time I could do absolutely nothing. My strength had been a photograph, that, there, where they were taking their revenge on me, demonstrating clearly what was going to happen.
All faith in seeing is henceforth shattered in the story, the eye rendered “impotent” and “mocking” (162). And the eye’s extension, and recorder-the camera-becomes something “incapable of intervention” (162). Where Hitchcock uses the final revelation of the murder to affirm the status of the visual, Cortazar deploys Michel’s aporia to sever the presumed link between sight and truth.
In the end, Michel’s initial belief that he had successfully intervened on behalf of the boy is reduced to an “if only” fantasy:
and I leaned up against the wall of my room and was happy because the boy had just managed to escape. … For the second time he’d escaped them, for the second time I was helping him to escape, returning him to his precarious paradise. …
Thus in “Blow-Up,” Michel is at first haunted, then devastated by the superficially innocuous incident he witnesses in the square. His experience of self-deception unhinges his moral sensibilities from their basis in sight. When seeing is revealed as a “mockery,” the perceptual foundation of moral judgment and action crumbles, as does, presumably, Michel’s sanity.
Although my reading of “Blow-Up” is clearly only one of many possible interpretations, the story’s openness and complexity cannot be disputed. These qualities in and of themselves already make it seem an unusual choice for filmic adaptation, especially considering that most commercial feature adaptations tend to be based on conventional, realist fiction. Moreover, most feature-length film adaptations are derived from novels, where some form of condensation is usually required. The case of “Blow-Up” is just the opposite: because of its length and focus, Cortazar’s story actually needed expansion to work as a feature-length film. Such conditions have undoubtedly allowed Antonioni to maintain that he was only “inspired” by the story and state “that the only thing he really borrowed from (it) was the idea of a crime discovered by making a photographic enlargement.” Chatman has shown how Antonioni’s statements are “not quite true” by charting out many “other similarities” between the story and the film (139). While Chatman’s observations of the similarities between the two texts do reveal Antonioni’s tremendous debt to Cortazar, one may also understand Antonioni’s minimization of this debt in light of his divergence from the path of the original story. Although the central premise of Cortazar’s story is retained in the film, many other significant aspects of it are changed. One might thus conclude that Antonioni’s selection of Cortazar’s text was based in part precisely on its “openness”; that is, the text’s openness allowed him wide play with the original story’s theme of vision, a chance to significantly “blow up” and tailor this theme to his own philosophical conception of the modern crisis of the visual.
Antonioni’s divergence from his original source is at once subtle and dramatic. His approach to Blow-Up most closely resembles what Harold Bloom refers to as “clinamen,” a revisionary initiative which seeks not to confront an influential text directly, to aggressively challenge or refute it, but rather to “swerve” away from it and in so doing lead it in a new direction (14). Seen in this light, Antonioni thus holds onto Cortazar’s central visual problematic but “swerves” so as to veer away from the heavy psychological and moral implications of the story and shifts the emphasis of his film to a more purely metaphysical inquiry into the nature of the visual. But where does this swerve come into play, and where does it lead?
Chatman has suggested that Antonioni’s changes in characterization reflected his desire to shift the “problems” the protagonist faces in the story from the “psychiatric” to the “existential” (141). I would add to this by carefully considering the differences between the protagonists of the story and the film, and by relating this to an equally careful study of the director’s transposition of the original setting of the story. For instance, one may wonder why Thomas, the cinematic reincarnation of Michel, was transformed from an amateur into a successful professional fashion photographer. Why should this character have gone from introverted loner to extroverted hipster? As well, it may seem curious that Antonioni opted for “Swinging London” over Cortazar’s gray and baroque Paris, given that the latter setting seems much more in keeping with the mood of the first three films of the tetralogy. For that matter, why should an urban square have become a nonurban park in the film? Such changes were not arbitrary, or merely motivated by the inevitable expansion of the original story. They were, to be sure, the key to the success of Antonioni’s swerve from Cortazar to Heidegger, and his ultimate melding of these two sources.
INTO THE CLEARING
In general, the change from Cortazar’s dour Paris to “Swinging London” was central to Antonioni’s textual enterprise, as the inhabitants of this “mod” urban culture (at least those with whom Thomas interacts) have seemingly foregone psychological depth and introspection for beautiful surfaces. The chaos and distraction that characterize this milieu secondarily create a backdrop against which the later silences of the crucial scenes in the park become stunning, if not epiphanous.
Much as the central event of Cortazar’s story takes place in a city square, the crucial action of Antonioni’s film occurs in the park where Thomas discovers the couple and attempts to photograph them. Antonioni’s transposition of the square into a more natural, pastoral setting signals a conscious move away from the enculturated site of human interaction, morality, and the worldly issues that concern Cortazar. As a vast and mysterious openness essentially devoid of people, the park functions as the unmediated space wherein we may come into contact with that thing that Jameson calls “Antonioni’s Heideggerian and metaphysical dimension,” that entity that Antonioni obliquely referred to in interviews with Cahiers du Cinema following the release of Blow-Up as a “beyondness” (a term that sounds suspiciously similar to Heidegger’s “Being”).
When Thomas approaches the park, the position of the camera dramatically changes. Before this, Thomas had been depicted in close-ups and medium shots and had essentially dominated the mise en scene of the film. As he enters the park, however, he appears in an extreme long shot, framed by two large trees swaying in the breeze. This visual reemphasis suddenly sets us at a great distance from Thomas, and thus briefly ruptures our alignment with him as a filter character. For a moment, the pace and mood of the film no longer appears contingent upon Thomas’ point of view. Instead, his previously overbearing presence is dwarfed by the encompassing spectre of natural space that has come into view. The moment of his entrance into this place gives us pause, and compels us to change our own visual gears. But after the previous quickly paced, almost hectic sequences involving Thomas and his models, we welcome the reprieve offered by this pastoral space, and Antonioni makes the most of this, emphasizing the gentle rustling of leaves in the trees, the songs of birds, the quiet sound of the breeze. We continue to look at Thomas as he approaches, but from whose vantage point? Detached from his filter, we are left to gaze upon the open field and absorb it with a sense of wonder. The camera has ceased to be a mere recorder of Thomas’s distracted, chaotic movement-it has instead become an organ of receptivity, an open window onto the open meadows before us. With each long take, we are quietly swept up by the soothing yet humbling force of this vision, encouraged to ponder the stillness and mystery of what would ordinarily pass as mundane.
Gradually, however, the camera returns Thomas to the center of the mise en scene and forces us to reestablish an alignment with his filter. But just as the mood evoked by Antonioni’s representation of the park temporarily alters Thomas’s ethos in the story (he suddenly appears small and insignificant in the face of “beyondness” that is apparently shielded there), it thus also tempers our relation to him. When he spots a couple playfully walking up the slope, he still seems under the peaceful spell of the park. The image of the couple strikes a chord in him, but a very different chord than the equivalent image in the story struck in Michel: although somehow mysterious, it does not initially arouse suspicion, but rather seems a picture of romantic innocence, a perfect image to offset the predominantly dark and disturbing photographs of Thomas’s upcoming book. Unlike Michel, Thomas’s attraction to the couple is motivated by aesthetic and professional interests. The fact that this image is less immediately strange and arresting than that of the woman and boy in Cortazar’s short story makes its deception that much more powerful. Ironically, of course, the photos Thomas takes in the park prove to be his most beguiling and disturbing of all and lead to his complete disappearance at the end of the film.
While clearly more than “inspired” by Cortazar’s visual dilemma and the story he created around it, interviews after the release of Blow-Up indicate that Antonioni was simultaneously attracted to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s post-war writings, many of whose later works were characterized by an “explicit critique of visual primacy” (Jay 269). Many have seen Heidegger maturing to a point in these writings in which he actually privileged the acoustic over the visual, but Martin Jay has recently argued that Heidegger was actually concerned with the ascendancy of one type of seeing over another: “Contrasting the early Greek attitude of wonder, which lets things be, with that of curiosity, which is based on the desire to know how they function, Heidegger linked the latter with the hypertrophy of the visual” (270–71). Heidegger sought to undo the triumph of curiosity over wonder by critiquing curious seeing as “a peculiar way of letting the world be encountered by us in perception” (272). This curious or epistemological type of seeing is conceived of as “abstracted, monocular, inflexible, unmoving, rigid, ego-logical and exclusionary,” while its opposite, an ontological mode of vision, is “multiple, aware of its context, inclusionary, horizontal, and caring” (274). It was this latter “more benign version of sight, which refuses to stare aggressively at its objects” that Heidegger wished to reinstate in Western thought (275). By juxtaposing these two modes of vision and revealing the dire consequences of the former type, Blow-Up becomes a watershed moment in cinema, transcending those preceding films (Rear Window,Peeping Tom, and so forth) which had already begun to shadow the antiocularcentric writings of the post-war period. Antonioni’s achievement is to thus to swerve toward Heidegger’s position and construct his implicit critique of epistemological vision through the two technologies which seem to be its most vigorous promoters, photography and film.
Thus, from a Heideggerian standpoint, it is highly significant that Thomas follows the couple into a clearing rather than watches them in a small city square, and that this is the point where the open and receptive mode of vision registered by the camera at the beginning of the scenes in the park comes to an end. At the most literal level, the clearing in the park is where Thomas can get the best light. But the changed setting also corresponds to what Heidegger referred to as the “lichtung,” or forest clearing, his metaphor for the opening where Being reveals itself by coming into the light:
The forest clearing is experienced in contrast to dense forest, called Dickung in our older language. The substantive Lichtung goes back to the verb lichten. The adjective licht is the same word as open. To open something means to make it light, free and open, e.g. to make the forest free of trees at one place. The free space thus originating is the clearing. What is light in the sense of being free and open has nothing in common with the adjective “light” which means “bright,” neither linguistically nor factually. This is to be observed for the difference between openness and light. Still, it is possible that a factual relation between the two exists. Light can stream into the clearing, into its openness, and let brightness play with darkness in it. But light never first creates openness. Rather, light presupposes openness. However, the clearing, the open region, is not only free for brightness and darkness but also for resonance and echo, for sound and the diminishing of sound. The clearing is the open region for everything that becomes present and absent.
By transposing Cortazar’s original setting, Antonioni transforms Heidegger’s metaphor for the opening wherein Being both reveals and conceals itself into a cinematic image. In Blow-Up, the clearing becomes a literal, spatial form—the stage on which Heidegger’s visual metaphysics may be dramatized. Here the openness of the clearing provides us with the dual possibilities of brightness and darkness, as well as an image that is benevolent in appearance, neutral before it is put up for “desperate inspection before the eye” (Jameson 24). It is only when Thomas imposes himself upon the scene, attempts to “bring it into the greatest possible proximity to us” that its essential darkness is brought into the light only to blur out of focus again and again.
Although the scenes in the park superficially resemble Cortazar’s scenes in the square, Antonioni has reformulated them to reflect the paradox that Heidegger believed to be inherent in aesthetic reception:
In the thing-concept just mentioned there is not so much an assault upon the thing as rather an inordinate attempt to bring it into the greatest possible proximity to us. But a thing never reaches that position as long as we assign as its thingly feature what is perceived by the senses. Whereas the first interpretation keeps the thing at arm’s length from us, as it were, and sets it too far off, the second makes it press too physically upon us. In both interpretations the thing vanishes.
Antonioni depicts this “vanishing” through Thomas’s search for the transcendent image, his attempt to capture it, to freeze it with his camera, and thus bring the rendered object close. The photos taken in the park are thus too small to be revealing at first. Blown up, they are too near, too much “upon us,” and blur out of focus. As Chatman has already shown, the disappearance of the coveted object in the photographs Thomas takes in the park (its progressive blurring) eventually hastens a disappearance of the subject (Thomas) in the story. Thomas is ultimately victimized by the hubris Heidegger implicitly condemns in the above passage. By investing in a perceptual path toward the truth (a sensory epistemology), this character falls prey to the same fate as the object he is trying to capture and literally vanishes in the final scene of the film.
The realization of this critique also required significant modifications in the traits of Cortazar’s original protagonist. We have already seen that this character as re-drawn as a high-level professional instead of an amateur photographer. Now we may look at how this change functions with respect to changes in setting.
In Blow-Up, the often troubled, neurotic characters of Antonioni’s previous films have been replaced by cool, detached aesthetes like Thomas. A character like the guilt-ravaged Michel would have been more at home in the films of the earlier tetralogy. On the other hand, Thomas emerges from a new breed of counterculture artists who, rather than looking inward for inspiration, appear to glide upon the surface of things, promiscuously indulging in the visual temptations of the external world. While Michel’s amateur photography brings about this character’s psychological, interior unraveling, Thomas’s professional quest to obtain the perfect image leads him to destructive hubris. As an artist, Thomas is the genuine article. Yet he also represents the visual artist in his new mod garb, Antonioni’s blind alterego, an arrogant, reckless amoral presence through which the director could put a perceptual spin on the old ontological question. In the mod era, Being is no longer strictly a metaphysical problem; in this contemporary image saturated cultural context, being cannot be understood apart from seeing. Antonioni’s remark to Moravia that “to see or not to see is the question” suggests his belief that these terms have become completely interdependent (Chatman 138).
Unlike Michel, Thomas’s professional status give him license to violate certain moral imperatives. As I have already shown, Michel is aware of the amorality of his voyeurism but may retrospectively rationalize it as a condition which leads to what he sees as his moral action of intervening on behalf of the boy. When reprimanded by the woman (played by Vanessa Redgrave) in the park for infringing on her privacy, Thomas justifies his actions by coldly declaring, “some people are bullfighters. I’m a photographer. I take pictures.” In direct contrast to Michel, Thomas appears coldly professional, egocentric, aggressive, arrogant, and absolutely insensitive to the moral and personal issues which abound all around him. In the Heideggerian sense, such traits make Thomas quintessentially representative of the modern subject. Such a man “fights for the position in which he can be that existent which sets the standard for all existence and forms the directive for it” (Heidegger 283). Especially in the role of photographer, he stands for the agent of “the basic process of modern times,” making Heidegger’s figurative notion of “the conquest of the world as picture” literal (282).
By altering Cortazar’s original protagonist in such as way, Antonioni has created a character that epitomizes Heidegger’s “epistemological seeing” and its manifestation as a technological practice. Thus, when Antonioni detaches the film’s narrative from Thomas’s subjectivity in the park by virtue of a more distant, objective camera position, he may pose the alternative, or “ontological,” way of seeing for an audience not entirely sympathetic to the type of person Thomas represents. At such a point, for a brief but startling time, the camera becomes still, patient, a medium through which the world is absorbed rather than conquered.
As I have suggested, the force created by this visual reemphasis even seems to descend over Thomas for a moment. Indeed, the momentary opening of Thomas’s vision appears to lead him to the revelation of the couple and, subsequently, to the clearing. However, when Thomas becomes intent on photographing the couple and takes up a concealed position in a stand of trees on the edge of the clearing, Antonioni reassumes his critical representation of an aggressive, epistemological mode of looking. The minute Thomas takes aim through his camera lens, the previously open and supple image of the couple in the filed ceases to be contained within a revelation of Being, and becomes instead an object Thomas seeks to record, to capture. Combined with his zealousness to freeze truth in an image, Thomas’s arrogance and false sense of power compel him to raise his camera against the preferable ontological mode of seeing. Rather than letting things be, he succumbs to his desire to know the visual field of the clearing through the technological mechanisms of the camera. Hence within the context of Antonioni’s Heideggerian thematization of vision, Thomas’s desire to know ensues from a need to control and a failure to understand that “the visible deeply objects to our habitual objectification.” Such a desire is not without dire consequences for his character.
In retrospect, we may uneasily begin to wonder if, in casting the pall of his own gaze onto the clearing, Thomas has thereby rendered the previously open, neutral image of the couple into the dark deed that he later believes he discovers in his photographs. Although, unlike Michel, Thomas does not stop to consider that he may actually have imposed the scene, we may unconsciously wonder whether or not his resumption of an aggressive gaze has painted its own violence onto the scene. And if he hasn’t, what does it matter? There is thus something of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here. Thomas’s hubris leads him to impose himself upon the clearing and, subsequently, impose a narrative on what he saw. As a result, his fate is to return to and disappear in the very clearing wherein the epistemological and ontological modes of vision clash.
But Antonioni never lets us get far enough away from Thomas during the film to be able to look down on him as the hapless victim of his own arrogance in the face of Being. As Thomas photographs the couple from his hiding place, we watch the man and woman from a distance against an essentially silent backdrop (at this point we hear only the sounds of the breeze and clicking of Thomas’s shutter) and must imagine what they are saying to one another. Given the lack of information conveyed in the soundtrack during this scene, we must guess about what we cannot hear, and the suppression of sound in the park scenes later forces us to fall back on Thomas, the consummate professional, and the details he has been able to capture through his lens. As well, the reconstruction and blow-up process that follow in Thomas’s studio become key to our own attempt to understand the events in the park. Although we may find Thomas personally distasteful, we become progressively dependent on him for story information and hence closely realigned with his visual perspective after the scenes in the park. At the same time, our brief experience of the ontological mode of perception in the park makes this alignment tense: after Antonioni presents us with an alternate form of vision, it is difficult to return to epistemological seeing without, at the very least, establishing some critical distance from it. Thus, in our simultaneous closeness to Thomas’s filter and our general complicity in a curious, aggressive visual relationship to the world.
During the scenes in the park, Antonioni’s representation of ontological seeing serves several purposes. First, it contrasts epistemological and ontological seeing for the viewer. Second, it allows Antonioni to detach himself from the artist protagonist of his film and emerge as implicitly critical of him and the spirit of technological conquest he represents. Finally, it shows that the camera need not simply be a tool at the service of domination. The camera can act much in the same way as the clearing described by Heidegger, opening itself up to light, becoming a revelatory tool of wonder.
The deceptive textual complexity and philosophical depth of Blow-Up become all the more significant when we situate it among the post-war films which constitute the cinema’s response to the strongly anti-visual thread of twentieth-century Western thought. While Blow-Up appears to form a continuum with other narrative films that thematized the relation between vision and violence, most notably Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1953) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1962), it swerves from and, I would suggest, transcends its predecessors by offering not only a critique of the aggression inherent to modern vision and its supporting technologies, but also a cinematic conception of its redemptive alternative, Heidegger’s coveted “ontological seeing.”
The importance of Antonioni’s pivotal inquiry into the visual is reflected by later American film responses to it. His adaptation of “Blow-Up” stimulated a cultural and aesthetic fate for the Cortazar text which runs parallel to the central thematic of the original story: it was destined to be enlarged over and over, revised, remade in 1974 by Francis Coppola as The Conversation and remade again in 1981 by Brian DePalma as Blow Out. These films pay tribute to Antonioni’s most sophisticated achievement, while performing their own swerves from its provocative cinematic exploration of the limits of perception.
Antonioni, Michaelangelo. Interview with Cahiers du Cinema. 1967.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. New York: Oxford P, 1973.
Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni; or, The Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California P, 1985.
———. Reading Narrative Fiction. New York: Macmillan, 1993.
Cortazar, Julio. “Blow-Up” in Focus on “Blow-Up.” Ed. Roy Huss. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York: Haper and Row, 1977.
———. “The Age of the World” in Measure. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1951.
Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes. Berkeley: University of California P, 1993
Jameson, Fredric. The Geopolitical Aesthetic. Bloomington: Indiana University P, 1992.
Moore, Kevin. “Eclipsing the Commonplace: The Logic of Alienation in Antonioni.” Film Quaterly 48, No. 4 (1995).
SOURCE: “The Consuming Landscape: Architecture in the Films of Michelangelo Antonioni,” in Architecture and Film, edited by Mark Lamster, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, pp. 197–215.
[In the following essay, Schwarzer analyzes the metaphorical use of architecture in Antonioni’s films.]
In day-to-day experience, the sight and feel of buildings is subject to extreme shifts of attention, duration, and familiarity. We experience buildings on pragmatic excursions, in the rounds of routine, and via flashes of discovery. In the representation of architecture (through drawing, model, or rendering), by contrast, the approach to buildings is abstract and ideal. With film, the experience of architecture is more directed than in everyday situations and less focused than in architectural representation. In a dark auditorium whose seats point toward a fixed screen, great demands are made of a viewer’s attention and vision. Images of buildings unfold off reels in a linear sequence, yet this succession is guided not by the steady flow of experienced time but by the choices of the filmmaker. The camera has the capacity to associate buildings with a great many objects and events, moods and atmospheres, locations and relations. Film brings architecture into focus only to disperse it within the hubbub of life.
No filmmaker has used architecture to greater effect than Michelangelo Antonioni, who studied architecture before becoming a film director and remained fascinated by the built world throughout his career. Many of his films depict famous buildings or sites, and several feature architects as characters. Nevertheless, the larger statement Antonioni makes about architecture has less to do with buildings designed by famous architects than with the expanses and particles of building and landscape. Following in the tradition of Italian neorealism, Antonioni first picked up on the acute observations of the Italian poor as they anxiously wandered through cities and the countryside. In Il grido (The Cry, 1957), shot mostly out-of-doors, his camera chronicled the events of a road journey along the Po River, and established a connection between the starkness of the landscape and the futility of the characters’ actions.
In the tetralogy of films that followed, Antonioni undertook a sustained critique of the lives of affluent and middle-class Italians. In L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La notte (The Night, 1960), L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), and Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), the director explored architecture and the urbanized landscape as the physical soul of modern humanity.
Unlike such celebrated “architectural” films as Metropolis (1926), The Fountainhead (1949), and Blade Runner (1982), the architecture and landscapes explored by Antonioni are real. And unlike most directors, who confine their renderings of real settings to title sequences and small interludes in plot, the forms and spaces of architecture and the city stalk the viewer throughout this tetralogy. In fact, since Antonioni is so unconcerned with plot, character development, and dialog, he shifts the viewer’s attention to the wide-open confinements of the modern mise-en-scène. Architecture both contributes to the events taking place among actors and acts independently with other objects in motion and in space. Architecture is protagonist and antagonist, nucleus for the slow collapse of perception into a space between the actors’ lines, a visual language with a power all its own. As Frank Tomasulo has noted, for Antonioni, architecture “enunciates themes of ancient vs. modern, nature vs. culture, atheism vs. Catholicism, woman vs. man, and even socialism vs. capitalism.”1
In the opening credits of La notte, Antonioni explicitly announces that architecture will serve as much more than a background. We first see a noisy street, bursting with traffic and the ornamental excesses of a late-nineteenth-century facade. A sudden cut transports us skyward to the unoccupied and sharply defined upper terraces of Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower of 1957, Milan’s tallest building. In these first two shots, Antonioni establishes the oppositions of turmoil and order, of crowds and silence, and of historicism and the modern movement that run throughout both this film in particular and the tetralogy in general.
From the tower’s summit, the camera begins a slow descent down the facade. This scene has been often interpreted as a commentary on the fall from the high ideals of modernism to the earthly chaos that modernism sought to eliminate. But beyond this metaphor, Antonioni fixes architecture as a means of constructing the mood of the film. As the camera gradually makes its way down the sheer walls it looks head-on at the building’s glass and steel surfaces, creating an analogy between the shots on a reel of film and the stories of a building. Both reflect the city with varying degrees of opacity; despite the tower’s monolithic stature, we see that the windows of some floors are transparent, whereas others are cloudy, and others still are divided by venetian blinds. Midway down the building, the camera abruptly pans ninety degrees and looks out toward the city. The shot is a split image divided between the camera’s view of the city and the camera’s view of the city as reflected by Ponti’s building. Architecture becomes object viewed and frame for viewing.
With the first scene of L’avventura, Antonioni introduces what will be one of his central themes: the destruction of tradition and community by the forces of industrial society. A year before Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accatone (1961) chronicled the seedier side of the Roman demimonde, Antonioni had already unveiled the calamity of Italy’s burgeoning urban periphery. We first see Anna, the protagonist who will later disappear on the island of Lisca Bianca, walking out of an old walled garden into a noisy and vacuous urban space. There, on unpaved ground in view of nearby construction sites, she meets her father, who has just commented to a workman that his peaceful villa will soon be torn down to make way for a modern housing development. Seconds later, as a background of menacing housing projects is scanned, Anna’s father remarks on the growing distance between him and his daughter. The collapse of family occurs amidst the demise of a family home. Antonioni’s vision is not completely despairing. Positioned (for a moment) over Anna’s left shoulder is the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, the seat of the Papacy and the center of the Catholic community. An archetypal image, the dome serves as a counterpoint to the present chaos in both architecture and society, hope out of the distant past.
Soon afterward, Anna, her boyfriend, Sandro, her friend Claudia, and a group of decadent acquaintances take a yacht trip around the Lipari Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Despite the idyllic setting, they are almost universally afflicted with modern maladies of the emotions—ennui, anxiety, restlessness, and disorientation—and these are set against the tumultuous gray of the sea, the brilliant sunlight, and the jutting rocks of the islands. After arriving on Lisca Bianca, Anna vanishes without explanation and is never seen again. In the subsequent disinterested search for her, we see several times the pyramidal shape of a volcano on the nearby island of Stromboli. In one sense, the volcano may be read as a metaphor for the inner flame that might (or might not) still burn within the souls of Anna and her friends. In another, as a mountain that has existed for millions of years in the form of one of architecture’s most potent archetypes, a pyramid, Stromboli is a counterpoint to the corrupting specter of indifference and indolence displayed by the human characters. As is the dome of St. Peter’s, the pyramidal mountain is a symbol of humanity’s connection to lasting meaning. Together, such archetypes contrast with the chaotic foreground scenes in which they appear, and provide a measure of hope that there is perhaps divine guidance in the modern world after all. A similar device is later used in La notte, where the camera views a tragic scene in a hospital room from behind the round, steady head of a silent mother. For a brief moment, motherhood provides a foundation of meaning and security in a world where words no longer provide answers.
Antonioni again and again poses the upheavals of modernity against the order of religion, family, and nature. Toward the end of L’avventura, the troubled Sandro, an architect who has sold his creative soul to become the pawn of a real estate developer, intentionally knocks over a bottle of ink onto the drawing of an architectural student. The drawing, following the intricate details of a shell niche on the Sicilian Cathedral of Noto, is a reflection of a lingering aspiration for beauty within modern society. But inasmuch as Sandro has renounced the search for beauty elsewhere in his life, he is driven to destroy it here. Interrupting the inevitable confrontation between the angry student and the embittered architect is the sudden appearance of a linear procession of children emerging from the door of the cathedral, among them, perhaps, a future artist.
Antonioni is skeptical, however, of attempts to create archetypes in modern times. Claudia and Sandro’s Sicilian search for Anna and their own developing relationship leads them to a ghost town outside of Caltanisetta. Composed in cubic geometries, with simplified classical forms like blind arches and blank pediments, the town’s vacant abstraction looks like a facsimile from the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Yet, if the painter’s metaphysical dream was to re-establish an archetypal language of geometric forms, this town, constructed during the fascist era of Benito Mussolini, is an unrealizable fantasy of community and a relic of dangerous dreams. While Sandro wonders why such a well-built place was never occupied, Claudia remarks on a similar town in the distance—or is it, as Sandro interrupts, a cemetery?
The inability of modern-age designers to achieve idealized dreams of pure geometric cities is highlighted throughout L’eclisse. Much of the film is shot on the southern outskirts of Rome, in the EUR (Exposizione Universale di Roma) district, the same locale where Federico Fellini had shot a disturbing murder-suicide in La dolce vita (1960). Intended by Mussolini’s architects and postwar planners to be a utopian city that would replace the congestion and chaos of old Rome, the neighborhood where translator Vittoria lives appears much more like a cemetery for the living. The streets are silent, devoid of stores, people, cars. The inhabitants that do appear seem robotic, mechanized into routine, and out of touch with their physical surroundings. They walk in the middle of streets and alongside playfields where the only action is a rotating sprinkler. This city of white slab buildings, flat grassy fields, and empty roads is as much a failure as the ghost town depicted in L’avventura. The archetypes designed in the godless times of modernity are dreams for illumination that shed only darkness.
If archetypes cannot be created in the modern era, what about a return to history? Throughout the tetralogy, Antonioni sets the frosty architecture of the modern city against the earthtones of architecture’s past. Characters often project their most vital desires onto old buildings and public spaces, and onto memories of their youth associated with objects unspoiled by modernity’s infertile conventions. For example, it has been frequently observed that in a hospital scene in La notte, the view of the protagonist Lidia from her dying friend Tomasso’s bed opens out through a window onto an old, intricately designed building. Seen from elsewhere in the room, however, without Tomasso’s loving gaze at Lidia, the view takes in sleek gray modern buildings that hover menacingly over the polychrome grain of the old building. In L’avventura, Sandro and Anna’s only sensual moment occurs in an older building, their union consummated by the crisscrossing lines of a ceiling’s parabolic vault.
Similarly, the only bright moment of Il deserto rosso occurs when housewife Giuliana, worried over the loss of sensation in her son Valerio’s legs, tells him a story of a little girl who lives alone on a tropical island. In contrast to the drab surroundings of Ravenna’s industrial quarter where they live, the island’s beauty lays in the fact that modernity hasn’t yet reached it. As Seymour Chatman writes:
It is interesting to note the textural difference between the beach scenery in the story she tells to her son and the surfaces of her life in Ravenna. Everything near her home is smooth, hard, and cold to the touch, a medley of modern materials—steel, glass, and plastic—whereas the sand and sandstone of the fantasy beach are warm and soft-looking, resembling nothing so much as the limbs and breasts of lovers embracing in the sea.2
Is this connection to unspoiled nature and historic architecture anything more than a dream? Can we live in the past? Or do images of the past come clattering down on the present?
In a powerful scene in L’avventura, Sandro and Claudia view Noto’s cathedral square from the roofscape of a nearby church. What begins as a romantic ramble through a monument of architectural history ends up highlighting the dimness of Sandro’s past and future. At first, Sandro is inspired by the panorama before him, an enormous plaza enclosed on its principal side by a long facade articulated by pilasters, urns, towers, and a central pediment and dome. He comments stirringly on how the baroque was planned with extraordinary freedom as a stage set for its times. These bright thoughts lead him to reflect on how he’d like to be an architect again, a creator of ideas instead of profits. But despite Claudia’s encouragement, Sandro quickly demurs from his enthusiasm. Beautiful things don’t last long in a transitory age, he sadly reflects; whereas new buildings once persisted for centuries, now they have lifespans of only ten to twenty years.
Then, incredibly, after only a few seconds, Sandro impulsively asks Claudia to marry him. Trapped between ropes that pull the great church bells above their heads, Claudia is a caged animal. Sandro, who does not see the possibility of lasting architecture, clearly does not believe in the permanence of marriage. Architecture’s fragmentation presages social disintegration—neither cupolas nor couples will last long in his world.
At the all-night party that concludes La notte, Antonioni likewise expounds on the impossibility of permanence. The industrialist Gerardini wants writer Giovanni to come work for him, to pen a history of his company and then direct the firm’s public relations office. After telling Giovanni that his garden already contains more than one thousand roses and many valuable statues, Gerardini goes on to reflect that his commercial enterprises themselves are works of art. Only he, the grand capitalist, can create solid design, a lasting monument to the times. Although Giovanni wants to differ, he labors sentences whose words end in affirmation. Yes, he sadly reflects, the free artist or architect is today an anachronism; the times indeed are in the hands of industrialists.
Earlier in La notte, Lidia embarks on a great journey through modern Milan, from its center to its periphery, but fails to escape from its grasp. Her journey begins at a downtown party celebrating her husband, Giovanni’s, new book. Trapped between cocktail glasses and overflowing pretense, she flees the social game that the dying Tomasso had never learned to play. In a flowered dress, she begins her great walk through the anonymous streets of the modern city, a journey in search of renewed love for a wayward husband who now resides in the anteroom of fame. Along the way, Lidia encounters numerous people but is unable to connect with any of them. Instead, her encounters are with buildings and machines, dissonant sirens and jet planes, rows of uniform windows and balconies, a canvas of forms and sounds opaque to her heart. She is trapped once again, not by ruthless people but by the harshness of modern architecture, by the restless shadows and cutting shapes cast by smooth-skinned buildings.
Modern architecture not only cuts people off from each other, it also cuts them off from the past. At one point on her walk, Lidia looks in on a site where an old building is being demolished. There she discovers and comforts a solitary weeping child. As she leaves the gloomy confines, Lidia gently touches the remaining wall of the building. The cracked paint easily peels off. Mother “protector” has abandoned both child and architecture.
Seeking to rid herself of the repetitive, clamorous loneliness of the modern city, Lidia takes a taxi to a spot on the outskirts of the city where she and Giovanni had once enjoyed romance. But what must have once been a quaint town reached by railroad has been engulfed by the fringe of metropolitan development. The small pavilions and train station are abandoned. The hotel is run-down and the fields overgrown. The old magic is gone. Having found no deeper meanings or stability, the event that most captivates Lidia is a bottle-rocket launching, another feeble attempt at escape.
Not all of Antonioni’s characters seek to escape their lives. Several live comfortably within the pretenses of the present. In L’avventura, Antonioni juxtaposes the empty lives of the rich with the monumental weightiness of the palaces, churches, and ancient villages they frequent yet blithely ignore and even degrade. One palace is now a police station; another has become a hotel and the setting for interminable parties. Their apathy toward their heritage is clearly reflected when, during the search for Anna, one member of the group finds an ancient vase in a crevice. While at first they all marvel at its beauty, the vase is suddenly and carelessly dropped. After lamenting its loss for only a couple of seconds, the characters nonchalantly move away from the shattered pieces.
In L’eclisse, the past offers no comfort whatsoever. Much of the film alternates between the modern environment of EUR and the old city of Rome. Yet the contrast here is not one of modern alienation and traditional community. To the contrary, the scenes in Rome’s narrow streets and, especially, at its stock exchange reinforce the notion that the commodification and senselessness of modern life has penetrated every nook and cranny of the historic city. In a tradition that reaches back to the neorealist films of Vittorio de Sica and Roberto Rossellini, the old cities of Italy have become stages for depicting the struggle for survival.
If Italians labored just to find enough food following World War II, by the early 1960s their struggle transcended material survival. Now, the characters battle psychic breakdown. This is reflected in L’eclisse, at Rome’s stock exchange, when Vittoria tries to speak with her mother but is repeatedly rebuffed. The bedlam of commodity trading has taken over modern life; Vittoria’s mother is only interested in financial gain. The incongruous consequences of Italy’s newly won material prosperity are screams of stock prices and orders, rushing hands, constantly ringing telephones, and the loss of time for human conversation.
Setting the hell of capitalism within a giant columned space adds poignancy to Antonioni’s commentary. This hypostyle hall is no longer a sacred grove, the center for community it would have been in the past. Instead, the thick columns of the stock exchange stand as mute reminders of an ancient world covered by the sands of accumulation. In a frequently analyzed shot, the columns actually divide Vittoria from her potential new lover, Piero. Here as elsewhere in Antonioni’s films the life and solidity of historic buildings are bent and broken by the derangements of modern society.
Throughout the tetralogy, Antonioni uses architecture to emphasize his themes of alienation and isolation. Walls, in particular, illustrate the ability (or inability) of his characters to relate to each other. For Antonioni, blank walls—whether concrete, brick, or stone—often symbolize mute feelings, an inability to express oneself or connect with others, metaphors for a distanced soul. Walls, of course, are also notoriously prey to multiple meanings. Are they a means of support or are they a fortification for defense? Does their traditional stone or brick impenetrability contribute to social isolation or a focused interior life? Does their modern transformation into transparent curtains by steel and reinforced concrete frames free people to engage with the outside world or expose people to their disadvantage?
In L’avventura, Patrizia and Claudia represent the walled and the unwalled, the one who accepts social conventions and the one who tries to stay true to her individual emotions. Patrizia, the wife of a real estate developer, is immersed and surrounded by the social pretenses of the well-to-do. While her yacht is anchored off gorgeous island caverns, she prefers to play puzzles and nuzzle her little dog in the boat’s lower cabin. Later, toward the film’s conclusion, Patrizia admits to Claudia that she feels comfortable at meaningless social gatherings; what she cannot stand are islands where she is surrounded by emptiness.
Claudia is the unwalled. She is still in touch with—yet troubled by—her visceral emotions. On the boat, it is she who intently watches a dolphin thread waves in a rhythmic dance. She is also the only one who really cares that Anna has disappeared. And, she is even willing to love Sandro, who already on the island had substituted Claudia (for the missing Anna) as the goal of his search. It is Claudia’s flickering spark of life that makes the final scene of the movie so difficult. After Sandro’s inevitable infidelity to her, she ends up forgiving him and, therefore, admitting that she too must join society and its hypocrisies. In the closing shot of the film, as Claudia comforts the scoundrel Sandro, the background of the frame is evenly split between a wall of the villa on the right and an open shot of Mt. Etna appearing as an island over the Gulf of Catania. Can individuals live unwalled like mountains or islands, distanced from conventions they abhor, yet separated from others? Or, shall individuals (as Claudia now seems to be doing) accept the confinements of walls, of claustrophobic and superficial modern society, but at least belong to something?
In Il deserto rosso, Giuliana, because of a mysterious industrial accident, takes the path that Claudia did not take, that of trying to find her true feelings outside of the walls of social convention. But she has taken this path because she is no longer sane. Corrado, the engineer Giuliana meets through her husband, is attracted to her madness much as he is to great engineering challenges. She is a project for him, an objective terrain to be researched and reconstructed. Corrado has made the opposite choice of Giuliana, accepting the compromises and dislocations inherent in modern society. Like the other principal male characters in the tetralogy, he is entangled in the circumstances of modernity. Whereas Giuliana wants to connect to everything around her, but cannot, Corrado pointedly remarks that he only travels with a couple of light suitcases because the world is his home. In a sense, both have become the social islands feared by Patrizia in L’avventura, but social islands of a different tenor. Throughout the film we witness Giuliana walking inches away from walls hoping for some imaginary support; Corrado, his soul at ease in the global world, walks in the middle of the street, unburdened.
Giuliana’s greatest hopes rest on an implausible plan to open a gallery on a deserted downtown street where there is obviously no potential clientele. The walls of her gallery are bare; unable to relate to the world, she is incapable of filling them with art. Similarly, throughout La notte blank walls reveal troubled spirits, as when Lidia rests alongside the hospital’s exterior wall after seeing Tomasso for the last time, or when the psychiatric patient who seduces Giovanni in her hospital room is pictured like a rabid animal against the expanse of a stark white wall.
The blank walls of modernist architecture were polemical statements, the realization of a functionalist aesthetic that sought to reveal the materiality of pure surface and banish the pretense of historical ornament. In Antonioni’s films, however, these all-too-honest walls are often contrasted to their disadvantage with premodern walls. Modernity’s sterile surfaces lack the textural depth of Noto’s baroque facades in L’avventura or the rhythmic monumentality of the ancient Hadrianic columns attached to Rome’s stock exchange building in L’eclisse. Modern walls, like islands, refuse social hypocrisy but at the risk of alienation and madness. Antonioni thus likens ornament to an acceptance of social pretense whereas modernist asceticism ends in isolation.
During the 1920s, Le Corbusier had announced that steel and reinforced concrete construction represented a revolution in the history of the window. Windows could be elongated to fill the space between the members of a structural frame. Transparent glass could replace opaque walls and bring light and air into a building. Enshrined as one of his “Five Points” of architecture, the strip window was expanded by other architects into a glass curtain-wall where interior and exterior became a unified visual realm. In the work of architects like Richard Neutra, the view through expansive plate glass onto nature was understood as one of modern architecture’s great contributions to the spiritual and aesthetic well-being of humanity.
For Antonioni, however, this great contribution yielded consequences unintended by its proponents. In L’eclisse, when Vittoria pulls open the curtains revealing the strip windows of her apartment, as if to relieve her soul in a view of nature, she is confronted instead by a water tower whose form resembles an alien spaceship or atomic mushroom cloud. Similarly, in Il deserto rosso, a strip window in Giuliana’s home reveals a dizzying view onto giant ships plowing through a harbor. If modern architects envisioned the strip window offering a healthful gaze onto nature, for Antonioni those windows exacerbate the anxiety of being held hostage in a world of entwining mechanical objects.
In all four films, Antonioni’s principal characters are well off. Survival is not an issue for them. As a result, their material possessions are something other than necessities governed by a logic of use. They are playthings, distractions, masks, even uninvited guests with minds of their own. Apartments, streets, and urban spaces teem with an ungodly dance of vacuous particulars, artificial lights, droning appliances, racing automobiles, and smoke-plumed factories. The sounds of objects and machines are a speech unto themselves, a technological yet archaic rumble that obscures human dialog. In this storm of engineered objects the rhythm of human relationships is terminally interrupted.
The numbing effect of materialism on the human condition is the principal theme of L’eclisse. A tundra of pointless material accumulation and real estate development shrouds everything. The film opens much the way it ends, through a slow-moving panorama of objects in disarray and human relations in decline. The only difference is that the object incantations of the opening scene have a counterpoint in the collapsing relationship between Vittoria and Riccardo. By the end, human relationships are beyond a state of collapse; consumerist materiality submerges anonymous people in its gray final music.
The first shot in L’eclisse is of a table lamp illuminating an apartment cluttered with objects. Through a scan of these objects, absent any dialog but filled with the disturbing drone of an electric fan, Antonioni establishes a mood of disarray in human relationships and a connection between that disarray and those objects. We quickly see that Riccardo’s arm had been part of the first shot, although it appeared an inanimate object. Predictably, Vittoria cannot connect with this lifeless lover, nor can her own lifeless consciousness offer any verbal cause for her disconnection. Yet the reasons surround them, the paintings, vases, trinkets, razors, and manuscripts that pull people apart from each other and from themselves.
If Vittoria is torn apart by the demands of objects, her attempts to connect with objects end obscenely. In a friend’s apartment, she is astonished by the collection of emblems and trophies from Kenya pasted onto walls and inserted into cabinets. In a trance, Vittoria assumes the character of these objects, becoming an African dancer, complete with darkened face cream, hoop earrings, and a spear.
Vittoria unwittingly relinquishes her soul to the exhibition of engineered objects and loses everything. Whereas men are more or less able to dissolve themselves in the modern spectacle’s material fantasies and fetishes, the principal women in Antonioni’s films are always ill at ease. Vittoria’s counterpoint is Piero, the floor man at the stock exchange who aspires to material possessions and financial gain. He is comfortable navigating the rocky shores of capitalistic opportunity. When someone steals his automobile and plunges it into a pond, the automobile is pulled by cranes from the waters. The material world replaces the materials that are lost.
The material world of L’eclisse ends in a set of images in which people are more dead than alive. Set in the haunts of EUR, the final scene is bereft of dialog. Instead, the camera scans a patchwork of unresolved built shapes and natural forms, mechanical objects and human figures, a city dissolving into silent noise, an abstract art. In the twilight approaching evening, humans are objectified and objects animated. We see the crooked lines on the face of an old man and the clean sharp lines on the balcony of a modern apartment building; water floating in a tank and then flowing toward a drain; a nondescript corner where a building’s scaffolding indicates a state of impending demolition more than renovation.
If the mood is serene, it is deeply disquieting, an elegy to our ability to discover meaning in things and hence in ourselves and each other. Ian Wiblin describes the strange beauty that emerges from Antonioni’s random arrangement of buildings and objects:
Finally, a bus comes and goes, its braking interrupting the quiet of the scene, adding an almost violent edge that jars with the emptiness, the lack of activity. The urban space has eventually won out over the characters and the narrative thread has finally been dissolved.3
The film ends amid the blinding light of a streetlamp. But unlike Alexander MacKendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957), where blinding lights energize New York City and its people, Antonioni’s last frame is monochromatic white. Amid an energy created solely by machines, humanity is eclipsed.
It is logical, given the ending of l’eclisse, that the ominous shadows cast by industrial technology are the subject of the last film in the tetralogy, Il deserto rosso. Shot in the ancient city of Ravenna, Antonioni never allows a glimpse of the old city and its magnificent Byzantine architecture. The action, or inaction, is set on the industrial barrens alongside the Adriatic Sea, marshes that have become dumping grounds where giant ships move eerily through channels cut into the land. The modern world’s Stygia, it is a place of droning noises and sudden sounds, of earth that releases white vapors, a place by the sea where seafood must be bought from elsewhere because the waters now taste of petroleum.
Giuliana wanders through these infernal haunts over the course of the film, frequently accompanied by a dense fog that fades the human figure and spirit. Although the terrain has been constructed by men, people are forced to walk between tight passages, under hovering cranes, and alongside plumed releases of gas. Giuliana’s engineer husband seems hardly human; he differs little from the giant machines he controls at work and the gadgets and robots with which he fills his son’s room. At the beginning and end of the film, we see Giuliana and her son trying to negotiate a ground made barren by grime and filth, furtively eating sandwiches under skies whose yellow poisonous smoke, she tells her son, the birds have learned to avoid.
Nature and humanity assaulted and defeated, machines disclose a new order of dazzling forms and lascivious colors. The great ships move like dinosaurs in a prehistoric swamp, hulking-edged shapes in a murky bowl. Giant transmission towers point antennae out into space, the interests of machines having shifted already from our world. In the way this landscape is modeled, there are bits of new-found beauty. As Diane Borden writes:
One danger of the architectural wasteland is that is can be transformed into a “beautiful object.” The factories of Red Desert become works of abstract art when Antonioni paints pipes, walls, and machines orange, blue, and yellow; places the actors in sculpted positions within the mechanical constructs of the shot; and shoots fog, steam, and belching sulfur to create an atmosphere that is almost magical.4
The machine architecture of Il deserto rosso can be seen as boldly expressive where the human landscape has become mute, a composition of formed power and chromatic range where the slab architecture of human residence has become reductively regular and white. In Corrado’s hotel room, walls, furniture, and bed are all of an austere white. The power station is a hodgepodge of brilliant color. Both the formal complexity and fantastic colors of the machined environment have surpassed the reductive logic of modern architects.
Antonioni’s overriding interest in the tetralogy is the enervating numbness of modern life, the defeat of the human spirit amid material affluence and technological progress. This preoccupation with the extraordinary failure of modernity continues in Antonioni’s subsequent English-language films, although these films are more plot-driven and attentive to the popular and revolutionary culture of the sixties.
Architecture does not play a large role in Blow-Up (1966). Set in London, the film begins as a jeep of merry mimes drives around the austere plaza of Peter and Allison Smithson’s Economist Building and quickly cuts to a column of morose workers emerging from a brick factory. Beyond these scenes, however, Blow-Up is a film about the vagaries of perception. Through a story about a fashion photographer’s accidental shooting of a murder, the landscape becomes a terrain where the real and unreal, the seen and the unseen, are blurred.
In Zabriskie Point (1970), the architecture of America is subsumed by signs: signs on billboards, signs on trucks, signs on taxicabs, benches, and buildings. Anticipating Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972), the signscape of Antonioni’s Los Angeles takes on the sonority of a boombox blasting nonstop random messages. This visual bombardment reaches a crescendo at the film’s conclusion in the Arizona desert, where a sumptuous modern house explodes in slow motion over the course of six minutes—in a psychedelic sky show, clothes, books, furniture, and Wonder Bread wrappers dance the last dance of consumer culture. The Passenger (1975) begins in another desert, the Sahara of North Africa, before moving to scenes in Germany, London, and Spain. In Barcelona, Antonioni films the entrance and rooftop of Antonio Gaudi’s Casà Mila and Park Güell, contrasting their variegated and polychrome textures with the flat emotions of his characters. As in L’avventura, the protagonist, for no apparent reason other than acute modern ennui, decides to disappear. The difference is that he assumes the identity of another man, a gun runner for African revolutionaries, and later dies as a consequence of this game in a Moorish-style courtyard hotel, eerily evocative of the fascist ghost town in the earlier film. The relentless materialism that degrades buildings and cities has finally turned people into disturbed facsimiles of one another.
In all the films, but especially those of the tetralogy, Antonioni makes use of the laconic aspects of modern architecture to accentuate the muteness of the modern individual. Ideas are conveyed not as much by revealing conversation or facial expression, both of which are typically lacking, but by situations in which the threadbare emotions of people are conveyed on the razor-edged corners of balconies or the implacable expanses of smooth walls. The films are a sequence of collages that confront the disturbing affinities between the modern urbanized landscape and the modern mind. As Antonioni himself writes: “The best results are obtained by the ‘collision’ that takes place between the environment in which the scene is to be shot and my own particular state of mind at that specific moment.”5
Like later directors, such as Terrence Malick in Badlands (1973), Antonioni filmed landscape as an echo of the alienation inherent in the modern age. Apartment buildings, power stations, and new towns billow as barren mental breezes, accumulating the blankness of material accumulation, twisting with the false seductions of technology, or whispering dangerous dreams of nostalgia. Asphalt avenues and curtain windows reflect the estrangements of modern subjectivity, and are bathed alternatively in monochrome flatness, blinding contrasts of sunlight and shadow, the white cream of moonlight, or the sudden flashes of a thunderstorm. Not just columns and walls, but also screens, balconies, and windows separate people as they attempt to see or speak to one another. A figure on a balcony overlooking an interminable forest, cut in half by an angular shadow, and seen furtively by another person through a doorway, such are the frames by which Antonioni animates modern architecture and landscape into a corollary of the disintegrating modern mind.
Antonioni’s viewpoint should not be reduced, as some critics have tried, to a blanket rejection of the modern world in favor of the past. Granted, his camera consistently and deliberately falters on the threatening hiss of power stations, on the apathetic acquisitions of individuals, and on the neurotic shadows of tall buildings. Yet, over the course of the films, such images pile atop and around one another, and compress the human characters into slow-motion trances that are themselves intensely captivating. The plotless stories, the desultory rhythms, and the lugubrious visual contents wage offensives on two fronts. For Antonioni, modern architecture is menacing but exact; it is monotonous but exquisite. Modern architecture is Antonioni’s grand metaphor for the turbulence, tedium, and sublimity that make up the age.
Indeed, Antonioni seems to have a romantic belief in the insights to be gained from juxtaposing the longings of the modern mind with the disharmonies of the modern landscape. As Mira Liehm states: “He used the immediate significance (presence) of things to reach beyond their mere objectivity and create out of their phenomenal existence a Proustian metaphor of oblivion.”6 Perhaps that is why so many of his films end at dawn or dusk, that time of luminary transition when the sharp glare and clear lines of the marketplace world are diffused and the anxiety of human emotions softened.
At the conclusion of La notte, Giovanni and Lidia walk onto a great lawn that opens onto a distant view of the horizon. As they wander in the misty morning air, absorbed in their individual thoughts, the two figures are set against single trees, fragments of the larger woods that define what is actually the fairway of a golf course. At this hour, the space is not a playing field with rules and routes any more than Giovanni and Lidia are individuals with purpose. Instead, the vista evokes the romantic sublime, a panorama onto an infinite space where their troubled souls may roam freely together. Lying together in a sand trap, Lidia reads aloud an intensely passionate letter Giovanni had written her years earlier. He is moved by the letter, so much so that he asks who wrote it. His mind has become obscured by the dense fog that envelops the trees and fairway, the irresolute atmosphere of the modern condition that swallows illusions of individuality and community in great gulps.
Frank Tomasulo, “The Architectonics of Alienation: Antonioni’s Edifice Complex,” Wide Angle 15 (July 1993): 4.
Seymour Chatman, Antonioni: Or, the Surface of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 113.
Ian Wiblin, “The Space Between: Photography, Architecture and the Presence of Absence” in Cinema & Architecture: Méliès, Mallet-Stevens, Multimedia, ed. François Penz & Maureen Thomas (London: British Film Institute, 1997), 106.
Diane Borden, “Antonioni and Architecture,” Mise-en-Scène 2 (1980): 25.
Michelangelo Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, ed. Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi (New York: Marsilio, 1996), 27.
Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley: University of California), 178.