Michelangelo Antonioni Antonioni, Michelangelo (Vol. 20) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michelangelo Antonioni 1912–

Italian film director, screenwriter, and film critic.

Antonioni is best described as a director who exposes the core of the human soul. His films depict human alienation and the destruction of established values.

Cronaca di un amore, Antonioni's first feature film, contains qualities characteristic of much of his later work: desolate landscapes, unresolved plot, and discontented, aimless characters. In Le amiche, based on a short story by Cesare Pavese, Antonioni focuses on male-female relationships, using sparse dialogue. This technique would later become an Antonioni trademark.

L'avventura brought Antonioni international renown. In the film, the plot remains unfulfilled, and Antonioni's use of such an unusual technique caused an uproar at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. L'avventura is the first of three films to center on revealing aspects of relationships. La notte and L'eclisse also rely on elaborate detail to conceal the emptiness of affluent life.

Blow-Up portrays a male photograher caught up in the mod society of London in the mid-sixties. Based on a story by Julio Cortázar, Blow-Up relates an artist's struggle to reveal truth through rationalism. His next film, Zabriskie Point, was filmed in the United States and is generally viewed as an intense depiction of the futility of both idealism and materialism. In 1975, Antonioni directed The Passenger, a film which contains many characteristics of his earlier works. However, Antonioni's reliance on existential themes has prompted critics to compare the film to Camus's The Stranger.

Writing on Blow-Up, Max Kozloff has defined Antonioni's "repertoire of themes": "Without doubt, most of his earlier perceptions are present: of the insufficiency and transcience of human affection, of chilled eroticism, of the muteness of objects, of intermittent hysteria, and a sundered social fabric." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Richard Roud

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Unlike the first works of many directors (Bresson, for example), Cronaca di un Amore can be seen today not only as a fully realised work but also as a virtually complete definition of Antonioni's artistic personality and technique. Significantly, it ran counter to the neo-realist method then prevailing in Italy. (p. 8)

Antonioni is a man of the left and certain social preoccupations make themselves felt in this film. Guido's studies were interrupted by the war and he has since been forced to earn his living as a car salesman. When he suggests to Paola that she leave her husband, her ironic glance at his packet of Nazionali cigarettes is warning enough that she cannot accept a life without luxury. Throughout all Antonioni's work, one finds unsentimental illustrations of his belief that the emotions are often conditioned by social factors and tastes. At the end of Le Amiche, for example, Clelia refuses to marry the workman who loves her. She has made a life for herself in the haute couture world of Turin and is unwilling to slip back to the slums of her childhood; for she, like Claudia in L'Avventura, is really an outsider in the world of wealth.

Whenever Antonioni's social preoccupations gain the upper hand, however, his work seems to suffer. I Vinti (The Vanquished), for example, deals with delinquent youth in France, Italy and England…. [Beyond] a general suggestion that the adolescents have unsuitable home lives, there is no attempt to show why an Italian, for instance, has gone into the smuggling racket. If Antonioni had taken any one of the three episodes and allowed himself to develop it fully, then perhaps the film might have avoided the impression of a perfunctory enquiry. A generalised concern for social problems, however praiseworthy in the abstract, is not enough to make a convincing film. (p. 9)

In the words of Scott Fitzgerald, one of his favourite authors, Antonioni lives permanently in the world of three o'clock in the morning, the real dark night of the soul. It is a world of suicide and despair, a world in which passions are real but transient, in which guilt and remorse are permanent and inescapable and one is held to account as much for what one has allowed to happen as for what one has done: a world that is grey and cold, hard and spare, and where the sun rarely shines. L'Avventura marks a lightening of this outlook, and it remains to be seen whether La Notte will return to it….

Le Amiche begins with an attempted suicide and finishes with an achieved one. Between these two acts is inscribed a world of boredom, the metaphysical boredom of the rich, who, their...

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Ian Cameron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Structurally [L'Avventura] is remarkable for its almost complete lack of resolution—particularly in the case of Anna, who is, after all, one of the two leading characters in the first part of the film. Little explanation is given for her disappearance, and none at all of what she has done….

We receive information as it is presented to the characters, in the wrong, or rather "illogical," order. Example: we are not actually told until near the end of the film, when she mentions it to Patrizia, that Claudia comes from a poor family. In retrospect one can find sufficient evidence of her social position earlier in the film, but one only realizes its significance after one has been told—Antonioni relies heavily on the audience's power of recollection. (p. 3)

We are shown what the characters see and learn what they learn, but without identifying with them, so that our appreciation of their feelings must be primarily intellectual. We are therefore more conscious than the characters of the meaning of their behavior (as we would not be if we started identifying with them). This places us in a position to correlate our observations of all the characters and reach the general conclusions which Antonioni expects us to draw. (pp. 3, 5)

Why should we condemn [Anna's fiance, Sandro, for pursuing Claudia]? The expected answer is that standard woman's-pic gambit: "If you don't just know, I can't tell you." With Antonioni, it's not moral unawareness that prevents him from judging Sandro: his output could be summed up as a critique of society by way of its moral precepts. The complex of reasons underlying the refusal to condemn Sandro is central to the whole of Antonioni's work.

In the first place, judgment implies the acceptance of standards. But what standards? "We make do with obsolete moral standards, out-of-date myths, old conventions," said Antonioni….

The rejection of "obsolete" moral standards could mean, as it does for [Roger] Vadim, the substitution of a personal code according to which actions are judged. But Antonioni does not propose a replacement and therefore refrains from judgments. "I'm not a moralist," he insists (and one can only agree on the most superficial level). "My film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon."

He would not, I'm sure, allow that he had the right to condemn Sandro's actions, for the implication would be that he was in some way superior to Sandro, an ideal which would hardly appeal to Antonioni who has in his film totally abandoned the "superannuated casuistry of positives and negatives," as Tommaso Chiaretti remarks in his introduction to the published script of L'Avventura. Thus "there are no heroes in Antonioni's films, only protagonists." Being himself a product of the milieu which he depicts in his films, Antonioni does not believe that he is qualified to judge his characters. (p. 7)

Sandro's yen for Claudia derives partly from his insecurity: he needs comforting as well as the boost to his ego that would come from her seduction. He finds refuge from his troubles in his over-riding impulse—desire is only part of it—for Claudia. Now Antonioni sees this as a general condition: the world is sexually awry because men have found in a compulsive eroticism some diversion from their problems. "Why do you think that eroticism has flooded into literature and entertainment? It is a symptom (perhaps the easiest one to perceive) of the emotional sickness of our time … man is uneasy … so he reacts, but he reacts badly, and is unhappy."

Antonioni sets out to show us that the sexual urge that has taken hold of Sandro is not something particular and therefore significant only on a personal level. Throughout the film we are presented with sexual behavior that is silly, lewd, or grotesque…. [Sex] in Antonioni's eyes has degenerated from a joyful expression of emotion into a gloomy means of escape….

In Antonioni's world, actions are often determined as much by the surroundings as by the people themselves—either in an immediate and physical way by the setting or by conditioning from the environment which tends to limit their choice. At times Claudia and particularly Sandro seem to be activated more by social and environmental forces than by their own decisions. Thus placed outside the area of individual moral judgments, their actions take on a wider significance…. Unlike some other directors who attempt to analyze behavior, Antonioni makes his characters retain a human unpredictability. They do not perform actions worked out to be consistent with a thesis. In fact this sort of unreasoned but not gratuitous action is of the greatest importance to Antonioni. "I wanted to show that sentiments which convention and rhetoric have encouraged us to regard as having a kind of definite weight and absolute duration, can in fact be fragile, vulnerable, subject to change. Man deceives himself when he hasn't courage enough to allow for new dimensions in emotional matters—his loves, regrets, states of mind—just as he allows for them in the field of technology." (p. 8)

In L'Avventura there are two main elements which provide the environment for the action: the sexual looseness of the secondary characters, and the barrenness and/or solitude of the locations—the island, the deserted village, the train without passengers, and the hotel on the morning after the party….

Throughout the film, the locations and even the climatic conditions play a crucial part in its development. Anna's home, which is glimpsed in the opening sequence, and Sandro's rather precious flat help to characterize them. In addition to its function as a symbol of barrenness, the island location allows us to see the characters separated from the milieu in which they are accustomed to operate. (p. 10)

[The ending of L'Avventura is hardly happy]—the fade-out music is discordant and behind [Claudia and Sandro] in the last shot are an expanse of blank wall and mountains covered in snow. But it is easier to find some optimism in it than in any of his other films except perhaps La Notte.

Claudia has lost a certain purity of purpose which made the love scenes lyrically exuberant. (In the published script there is a dialogue exchange with Patrizia on the yacht, suggesting that Claudia is a virgin.) At the end she is thrown for the first time into the sort of emotional turmoil which is a commonplace for the others. But having vastly more personality than they, she will recover. She will—as Antonioni has said—not leave Sandro…. They will stay together out of "a mutual sense of pity"—and of shame which Claudia shares as she has contributed to his downfall by abandoning him to his friends. And perhaps with the help of Claudia, Sandro will somehow find the strength to give up his comfortably lucrative job and resume his vocation.

Sandro may not be any less weak than he was previously but at least he has found some feeling of responsibility for the way his actions affect others or, at any rate, Claudia. This has come out of his contact with her. Sandro's irresponsibility, his lapsed vocation and his unsatisfactory love affair at the beginning of the film are all bound up together and related to the weakness of his social environment. I agree with Chiaretti when he says in his introduction to the script, "L'Avventura could not have taken place except in an anaemic milieu like that of the Italian bourgeoisie."

This, I think, is the core of the film: on a general level, the connection between the condition of a society and its morality; individually the integration of sexual behavior with the rest of the personality—for instance, the relevance of Sandro's emotional life to his work. (p. 15)

[Cronaca di un amore] and La Signora senza camelie are much darker in feeling than L'Avventura—actions never have the hoped-for result, because of people's inability to realize how others—or even they themselves—will react. In every interview he gives, Antonioni talks about the fragility of emotions. The characters in the early films are totally unable to allow for emotional changes, and so all actions calculated to produce a particular result are doomed to failure. It was not until L'Avventura that Antonioni could see any way out of this gloomy situation.

The sensitivity to objects and locations that distinguished L'Avventura is already to be found in Cronaca. Antonioni has said, "I have a great feeling for things, perhaps more than for people, although the latter interest me more." He is able to use his feeling for things to aid him in describing the action which is psychological rather than physical, internal rather than external. It is often not obvious from what the characters are doing, but must be suggested through the way they are shown. Antonioni had realized that the human face is a rather inexpressive object when isolated from its surroundings in a close-up. He used no big close-ups at all. Instead he paid particular attention to the relationship of the characters...

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Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Eclipse] begins, as L'Avventura and La Notte ended, at dawn. Outside the window a water-tower looms like some futuristic mushroom; inside, a man sits rigid in a chair, inertia containing anger, while a girl restlessly circles the room. The affair is over; they have talked themselves to a standstill; and this time neither can pick up the shattered pieces. It is, unmistakably and in every detail, an Antonioni sequence…. Intellectually, one is aware of what Antonioni is doing and why he has chosen to do it in this dehumanising way. But at the same time, in its deliberate echoing of the more sombre moods of La Notte, the scene pushes style towards the thin edge of mannerism….


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Peter Cowie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cronaca di un amore is its objective study of the clash of social standards. The glossy bars, the elegance of Paola's clothes, and the luxury of Fontana's home … are contrasted expertly with the dingy hotels where Paola and Guido (who has "degenerated" into a car salesman since their first affair) are compelled to meet…. The closing images of the film, as Paola stands weeping in a deserted street at night, her opulent evening dress splashed with mud, summarise this contrast. There is in Paola a fundamental fear of poverty and squalor. (pp. 9-10)

Technically, this first feature provides a foretaste of the methods Antonioni uses in his more mature work....

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Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Empiricism has always been the agnostic's epistemology, and Antonioni is a radical agnostic. In his films there is never any certainty, any definite or absolute truth. The meaning of single events is often ambiguous, and cumulatively these events add up to a picture of a world from which order, value and logic have disappeared. This should not be taken in too metaphysical a sense. The characters in Antonioni films do not go around, like the followers of Sartre or [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty, earnestly trying to put back the essences into existence. They are simply faced with the business of living in a world which offers of itself no certainty and no security, at least not in the immediate present. And when a character...

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John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In each of [Antonioni's early films N. U. (Nettezza Urbana), L'Amorosa Menzogna, and Superstizione] the accent is, far more than in most documentaries, placed fairly and squarely on the people: the street-sweeper, the hopefuls on the fringes of show-business, the camera-shy old men and women of Camarino weaving their spells…. And the thing which all these people have in common, as pictured by Antonioni, is their solitude: the sorcerers are as alone in the modern world as the forgotten fisherman of the Po: the 'performers' in the-photo-romances are pathetic in their hopeless ambitions and set apart by the tawdry glamour which surrounds them in the eyes of their equally foolish and pathetic readers; even...

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Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Red Desert] is a romantic view, no doubt, of the industrial process. But it belongs to another order of romanticism from the Soviet-style worship of controlled power, or the cottage industry idealism which expresses itself in a loathing of the conveyor-belt and the factory. It is forms and colours, architectural firmness and clarity of line, which Antonioni emphasises: the object rather than its purpose. (p. 80)

Antonioni is employing colour as the major unsettling element in a total landscape of disturbing strangeness. It is a winter landscape, in which people look pinched and chilled, and the light in any case plays tricks with colour values. In the last sequence of The Eclipse...

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Richard Schickel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The scene where the young woman offers herself to the photographer in exchange for the film is the most important incident] in the long chain of circumstances out of which Michelangelo Antonioni has expertly fashioned the fuse that finally ignites his Blow-Up, which seems to me one of the finest, most intelligent, least hysterical expositions of the modern existential agony we have yet had on film. The most obvious of its many endlessly discussible implications—that we are so submerged in sensation and its pursuit that we cannot feel genuine emotion any more—is hardly novel. But the cool specificity of Antonioni's imagery (it always reminds me of Henri Cartier-Bresson's great still photography), his...

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Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[What] would we think of a man who conducted a leisurely tour of "swinging" London, lingering along the flashiest routes and dawdling over a pot party and mini-orgy, while ponderously explaining that although the mod scene appears to be hip and sexy, it represents a condition of spiritual malaise in which people live only for the sensations of the moment? Is he a foolish old hypocrite or is he, despite his tiresome moralizing, a man who knows he's hooked?

It's obvious that there's a new kind of noninvolvement among youth, but we can't get at what that's all about by Antonioni's terms. He is apparently unable to respond to or to convey the new sense of community among youth, or the humor and fervor...

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Marsha Kinder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse, and Il Deserto Rosso, Antonioni] does not imply that the new world is totally negative, but recognises it has many important values—the power necessary for man to master his environment; an efficiency which may improve his lot by wiping out hunger, poverty and physical pain; and the creation of a pure, abstract beauty. Yet despite these values, he also suggests that this world poses a real threat because it implies the loss of other values—of long-term personal relationships, of the uniqueness of the individual. Thus, he presents us with a clash between two incompatible value systems, which is essentially a tragic view….

Antonioni does not...

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Charles Thomas Samuels

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like L'Avventura, Blow-Up concerns the search for something that is never found. As in La Notte, the peripatetic hero fails to accomplish anything. Like the other protagonists, the photographer is the embodiment of a role, although here he is so fully defined by his function that he is not even named. As in Antonioni's other films, the climax is reached when the protagonist comes to face his own impotence….

The events in Blow-Up dramatize the same theme one finds in Antonioni's other films. The photographer, a creature of work and pleasure but of no inner force or loyalty, is unable to involve himself in life. He watches it, manipulates it; but, like all of Antonioni's male...

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Robin Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In essential characteristics as in theme, Il Deserto Rosso belongs with its three immediate predecessors, in some respects carrying their tendencies to new extremes. Here for the first time the protagonist is overtly presented as neurotic, and therefore explicitly incapable of fulfilling her inner needs. At the same time, certain aspects of the film mark a new phase in Antonioni's development. In obvious ways he was breaking new ground, working in a milieu remote from the intellectual-socialite world of the preceding films, and shooting for the first time in colour. These factors may be partly responsible for the comparatively open and exploratory nature of Il Deserto Rosso….


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Stephen Handzo

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zabriskie Point is Antonioni's clearest statement on a world that has perhaps already ended without realizing it, leaving us all hanging on by flywheel effect waiting for the desensitized apocalypse (like the Nathanael West who haunted airports hoping for planes to crash only-they-never-crash)….

Thematically, Zabriskie Point is something of a step backwards for Antonioni. Whereas in Red Desert he seemed to be working toward a rapprochement of "science" and "feeling," he has opted here for a mindless hippie-New Left and anti-technology, anti-rational, anti-organizational expiation…. Perhaps Los Angeles convinced Antonioni that it was already too late and that blowing-it-all-up...

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Roy Huss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Whether or not one agrees that Blow-Up deserves to be called a film classic is perhaps ultimately unimportant. What is clear is that it will continue to fascinate serious moviegoers. This is probably because it rests firmly on what I call the three keystones of film art—three ingredients that have been intrinsic to it from the beginning. These are the ease and gracefulness with which it treats the real world as malleable, while seeming to faithfully document it; the success with which it spatializes time and abstract thought; and the degree to which it is able to enlist the detached-but-involved interest of the eavesdropper and the voyeur. (pp. 2-3)

Antonioni has always avoided a...

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John Francis Lane

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Antonioni] doesn't try to push any political message [in Chung Kwo]—and indeed it seems a pity that in Shanghai for example we get a tourist view of the city looking much as one has always seen it, even if the Red Light district shines with a different kind of red today, rather than any glimpse into what happened during the Cultural Revolution. When a group of peasants take their 'elevenses' and sit round the table to discuss a point in Mao's Thought that has to do with their work, we are not told in the commentary what they are saying. But Antonioni leaves one to draw one's own conclusions: indeed, one can see from the faces that they are intensely concerned with what they are discussing and that it...

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Roy Armes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Chung Kuo, in many ways a reaction to [the interiority of Antonioni's previous films], presents a surface view of people and settings. Aside from a couple of references to Marco Polo, there is no awareness of history and nowhere does Antonioni attempt any sort of analysis of, say, the meaning of the cultural revolution. We are left with the material gathered by the camera—bland figures in an unspectacular landscape. We see a society without hunger, cities without anxiety, people without poverty or pain…. [Antonioni] resists the idea of examining the inevitable cultural paradoxes—there are no clips from Sternberg movies of the 1930s to stress the incongruity of Mao's China and our imaginations, coloured by...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Pauline Kael

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It was possible for people who got caught in the Mod alienation and the mystery of Blow-Up to ignore or misunderstand Antonioni's moralism. In Zabriskie Point, it saps his style. He has rigged an America that is nothing but a justification for violent destruction, and the only distraction—love in the desert sands—is inane. It is a very odd sensation to watch a message movie by a famous artist telling us what is wrong with America while showing us something both naïve and decrepit; if it weren't for this peculiar sense of dislocation and the embarrassment one feels for Antonioni, Zabriskie Point would be just one more "irreverent" pandering-to-youth movie, and (except photographically)...

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Lee Atwell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Antonioni is certainly due recognition as a master film-maker, but in the case of The Passenger, it is misplaced and tends to ignore the weaknesses of a work that exhibits an uneasy blend of commercialism and art, ultimately satisfying the demands of neither….

The Passenger nevertheless remains, if only in part, a meditative exercise that deliberately avoids the mechanics of suspense so masterfully deployed in Blow Up. [Claire] Peploe's original story, entitled Fatal Exit, resembles the early stories of Sartre and Camus that utilize melodramatic fiction to convey existential concepts. Its closest filmic counterpart is perhaps in Godard and Truffaut, who successfully...

(The entire section is 728 words.)

John Simon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If vacuity had any weight, you could kill an ox by dropping on it Michelangelo Antonioni's latest film, The Passenger. Emptiness is everywhere: in landscapes and townscapes, churches and hotel rooms, and most of all in the script. Never was dialogue more portentously vacuous, plot more rudimentary yet preposterous, action more haphazard and spasmodic, characterization more tenuous and uninvolving, film making more devoid of all but postures and pretensions. In his great films (L'Avventura, The Eclipse), Antonioni managed to show real people gnawed on by aimlessness, boredom, self-hate, against backgrounds of gorgeous isolation or bustling indifference. They were people whose words and gestures we...

(The entire section is 704 words.)

Gordon Gow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zabriskie Point is the most intricate of all [Antonioni's] films to date. If there is a political point to be dredged from the student phase at the beginning, it is incidental to the major theme of individuality at bay. Both Mark and Daria are opposed to the regimented society that hems them in. He lunges out against it with the clumsiness of the proverbial bull in a china shop, while she is comparatively adjusted and cool….

[The] visual stress in the opening phase of the film, set in Los Angeles, implies a brain-washed society. And this is echoed in the ideas of Daria's current employer, the property developer Mr Allen…. What he had in mind is an environment for a mindless community,...

(The entire section is 1035 words.)

Bernard F. Dick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Superficially, The Passenger is an assumed-identity film that observes the conventions of the genre as if they were rubrics for an ancient liturgy. The genre works according to a formula that admits of some variation depending on whether the masquerade is a comic ruse (Wilder's The Major and the Minor and Some Like It Hot), a means of saving face (Capra's Lady for a Day), or a matter of survival (Paul Henreid's Dead Ringer). In its more serious form, the assumed identity film has the following features: (1) the masquerade ends in failure, often in death; (2) the pretender becomes a fugitive from society, forsaking even his wife and friends; (3) if he takes on the identity of someone...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)

Harlan Kennedy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Il Mistero di Oberwald] begins like a horror extravaganza, with Gothic-lettered credits leaping out from a blood-red mountain-scape. Soon Antonioni turns all the notorious vices of video—the soft definition, the shimmer of parallel lines, the tendency of colors to trail—into expressionist virtues. Cocteau's talky period piece [L'Aigle a deux têtes, on which the film is based], about a widowed queen … and the young rebel with whom she falls in love, becomes a playground for a ghostly, ectoplasmic dance. Antonioni washes color in and out to match mood or character, and he deploys video's supreme facility for trick photography to riveting trompe l'oeil effect. The result, instead of apologizing for...

(The entire section is 182 words.)