Michelangelo Antonioni

Start Free Trial

Introduction

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(This entire section contains 1116 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 material problems solved, are faced with the futility of existence, the "difficulté d'être." In a sense Le Amiche can be seen as a first sketch for L'Avventura. The social surroundings are the same and the bored and restless Momina, whose only distraction is in her love affairs, is a draft for the Giulia of L'Avventura. (p. 10)

A view of life, a personality, are defined in the themes Antonioni chooses, but they find their complete expression in the form of his films. His preoccupation with the influence of environment (both social and physical) can be seen from his consistent and exclusive use of natural settings. His characters are always seen against a real background. Yet these natural locations have been chosen, with as much care as any studio set was ever designed, to express the mood of the film and the emotions of the characters. The desolate autumnal wastes of the Po Valley through which Aldo aimlessly circles in Il Grido, the oppressive presence of the horizon, the perspectives which open on to infinity, are the exact reflection of Aldo's state of soul; and, one might add, of Antonioni's. In his best films, one always feels that Antonioni's characters are expressions of himself. And this is what gives his work its unity. (pp. 10-11)

I cannot recall a single instance in which Antonioni uses a real close-up. He never isolates a character entirely from his surroundings. Rather, he prefers to use the two-shot combined with long takes …, action within the shot and a great many tracking and panning movements…. His camera constantly follows his people, literally tracking them down…. [He] makes much use of composition in depth, though the effect he most often achieves is not to link the two or three people in the frame but to separate them, to demonstrate the gulfs existing between them. For the same reason, in his two-shots, the actors seldom look directly at each other. This is especially true of Il Grido, in which the whole drama springs from Aldo's inability to communicate. Every shot is full of diagonal lines which never cross; every character has his own problems and is incapable of helping any of the others. Every man is an island.

In the same way that Antonioni uses composition in depth to isolate his characters from each other, so his use of real exteriors, two-shots, long takes and tracking movements dissociates his characters from their backgrounds. There is an essential dialectic at work here: people are seen against authentic backgrounds which relate directly to their states of mind and feeling, but at the same time they are necessarily alienated from their surroundings, apart, separate and alone….

But there is another element at work in these films: an autonomous and non-functional use of camera movements to create spatial patterns which are satisfying in their own right. There is a scene in Signora senza Camelie which perhaps brings this out best. Clara has come home to find that her husband has taken an overdose of sleeping tablets. As she enters their living room, the camera describes a clockwise elliptical movement. This movement is answered by a corresponding counter-clockwise movement at the end of the sequence as we leave the house. No dramatic point has been made by these two movements: the effect is as gratuitous as when a theme is reversed in a fugue, and it is similarly divorced from any emotional significance. Or so it seems. I would say that Antonioni is the kind of artist who is incapable of doing anything clumsily. Beauty is for him an absolute necessity even in such relatively unimportant matters as getting a camera into a room and out again. He is proposing to us an additional, non-representational element for our pleasure: a formal choreography of movements which accompanies the film, providing a non-conceptual figure in the carpet, an experience in pure form. (p. 11)

Richard Roud, "Films," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1961 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 30, No. 1, Winter, 1960–61, pp. 8-11.

Ian Cameron

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 with their setting. The insolubility of Paola's problem in Cronaca is demonstrated through her unease in Guido's room, which, by the meanness of its furnishings, represents his social class and the level of poverty to which she would have to descend if she went away with him. (pp. 16-17)

La Signora senza camelie is complementary to Cronaca in form/content…. Cronaca is almost an exposition of the Antonioni view of class barriers. Paola and Guido are separated because Paola has crossed the barrier into a higher class and cannot return, while Guido is finally unable to cross. Signora builds on the essentials that have been demonstrated in Cronaca to show the disastrous effects of the status quo on one character, Clara, who, having irrevocably left her original milieu, finds that she is unfitted for survival in the class to which she aspires. Through their form, both plot and treatment, the two films are founded on Antonioni's deeply held belief in the wrongness of a class-based society. He is out to make a fundamental critique of the system rather than to make a superficial attack on the resulting evils. (p. 20)

[Le Amiche] has elements of both the earlier and later films. It combines the pessimism of the early ones (Rosetta) with the glimmers of hope which appear later. It is more comprehensive than any of the others in treating the usual subject matter from three angles. Of the three stories, the only one which progresses smoothly is the one which obeys the corrupt conventions of the society in which it takes place. In Momina, we have the most complete expression of Antonioni's hate of the system. The only leading character in his films who has successfully adjusted to the system, she is also the only one who is utterly detestable (to Clelia and the audience, though not perhaps to Antonioni). (p. 31)

Le Amiche is the transition film between the early and late periods in another way: in its structure. Through successive films up to Il Grido, there is a reduction in plot and its gradual replacement with a different sort of structure, which is common to the last three films. Cronaca is the only one which has a plot in which the external action can be summarized briefly. The minor characters always have a functional place in the plot. Signora reduces the neat dovetailing of plot. Instead the film follows a character through a progression of events which lead him or her to a different position at the end. Paola in Cronaca had not been changed at all by what happened to her in the film. Le Amiche has forsaken plot completely for an interlocking pattern of incidents which is so complex that it is impossible to pick out a story line. All the characters have a significance more important than their contribution to the action. Two, Cesare and Mariella, have no essential effect on what happens to Clelia or to Rosetta. This is a forerunner of the situation in L'Avventura where all the minor characters are significant as an environment for the main action, although they hardly take part in it.

With the plot construction has disappeared the irony which is something essentially derived from the plot. In its final appearance in Le Amiche it has become rather attenuated compared to the earlier films where it was the main theme. Consequently the feeling of futility has disappeared. Its presence in the early films reflected the mood of much of serious Italian cinema at the start of the 'fifties. With the removal of the one thing which linked him with his contemporaries, Antonioni parted company completely with the rest of the Italian cinema. (pp. 31-2)

The defects of Il Grido (The Outcry) get in its way very badly, especially on first viewing. Like Signora and I Vinti and even La Notte, it has a seriously flawed surface.

To begin with, Antonioni has gone outside his usual little world again, and failed again in making his characters convincing. In this he is an extremely limited director. It's said that he made a very thorough study of conditions in the Po Valley before starting on Il Grido. Certainly that's what it looks like: very accurate but external and lacking life, this in spite of the fact that he spent his childhood there. And if he aimed to deal with immediate social problems, he ended by making a film with slighter social implications than any of the others….

Il Grido has an atmosphere which is pursued relentlessly and humorlessly throughout the film: it's not tragic, just ever so glum. And the glumness is reinforced by the surroundings—the Po Valley in winter, all bare and muddy. The sameness of the landscape throughout the film reflects the hero's inability to forget. "The completely open horizon counterpoints the psychology of the central character," as Antonioni has said. But after a couple of hours one finds oneself adding, "Who cares?" (p. 32)

The personal/political linkage which is intended between the destruction of Aldo and the destruction of Goriano's whole way of life seems terribly forced, partly perhaps because the film and its hero have become such a bore that we have lost sympathy….

[There are two main reasons for the difference between L'Avventura and its predecessors:] one personal, one technical.

The personal reason is the appearance of hope in Antonioni's picture of the world. Although he had already lost the obsession with futility which pervades the early films, in Il Grido he is more consistently gloomy than in any of the others. At least Paola and Clara and Rosetta had some good times before things went wrong. In Il Grido these are all over before the picture starts. At the end of L'Avventura there is hope: that Claudia and Sandro will stay together, and that Sandro will, after his moment of truth, be able to work up the strength necessary to drop his degrading but lucrative work for Ettore and practice again as an architect. (p. 34)

La Notte is an attempt to go beyond what was achieved in L'Avventura. In fact, I don't think that anyone who hasn't seen L'Avventura has much chance of understanding it….

[The first scene of La Notte] contains in outline most of the themes that are developed later in the film. The place of the artist in modern society. The crisis in Giovanni's career and in Lidia's marriage with him. The corruption of the benefits of life in a scientific age when they are placed at the service of a capitalist society. Champagne for the dying rich, beautiful nurses to keep up their morale. These images suggest a dying society and culture which are being kept alive artificially. (p. 35)

[The combination of bleakness and hope at the end of La Notte] is that of L'Avventura.

Although the couple have escaped from the corrupt milieu of the Gherardini house, the conclusion is a compromise. Lidia only lets Giovanni make love to her because she hasn't the will to resist: she can't see any other hope for them. But the fact that Giovanni makes love to her indicates a desire on his part to maintain their relationship…. In one way it is a more hopeful film than L'Avventura because it insists on the certainty of social as well as emotional change, and because this time the couple are helped by another character—Valentina. This is the first time in any Antonioni film that we are shown one person able to help others. In the earliest films, such attempts are automatically doomed. Here admittedly, she does not help them by a conscious action, but merely by her existence. Valentina herself is essentially a hopeful character—in spite of her unhappiness—as she is evidence that individuals can overcome the influences on them from a corrupt society….

L'Eclisse can be viewed as the third part of a loosely connected trilogy on personal relationships in postwar society. It is concerned with the same themes as its two predecessors, but it is as a partial reversal of them that it is the completion of the trilogy. Not that it is the opposite of them in the way that L'Avventura is the opposite of Il Grido. There the contrast was between the leading characters: a simple man who could not lose the memory of his past life and a sophisticated man who finds it only too easy to forget. In L'Eclisse the social level and the problems of the characters are very similar to those in L'Avventura and La Notte, but their choices are the reverse. It is this opposition which links the film to its predecessors—just as Il Grido and L'Avventura are connected by the contrast between them. (p. 45)

In the previous two films, a large part was played by money as a corrupting force. Sandro in L'Avventura has abandoned his vocation for the easy money he can make by estimating for a successful architect, Ettore. Gherardini in La Notte is a man whose only noticeable characteristic is his wealth. A measure of Lidia's desperation at the end of that film is her comment that Gherardini's offer of a job for Giovanni is a good opportunity. Whatever salvation the two couples achieve in these films it is partly due to their final escapes from the world of Ettore and Gherardini.

This aspect appears more strongly in L'Eclisse where there is a direct conflict between feelings and money, without the complicating factor of artistic vocations. (p. 47)

The feeling of the final sequence, though, is much stronger than [a feeling of sadness that Piero and Vittoria are about to break up]. At a first viewing I was quite terrified by the ending of L'Eclisse, much more than by most things which are calculated to terrify. I think this comes from the coldness which builds up during the sequence as night falls. The feeling is one of solitude—even the shots of people are of people alone. Antonioni said that at the end of L'Avventura the protagonists had arrived at a mutual sense of pity. "What else is left if we do not at least succeed in achieving this?" Piero and Vittoria have failed to establish a relationship. Although they are fond of each other and physically attracted, their outlooks on life are so different that they cannot find any real understanding. And what is left? Solitude.

The other thing that makes this conclusion frightening is its lack of specificity. The shots could be of the evening after their last meeting in Ercoli's office, when they fail to turn up for their date, but it could equally be any other evening. We are invited to generalize, to conclude with Antonioni that solitude is man's usual state. Although the invitation has never been so clear as in the conclusion of L'Eclisse, we are expected to do so in all three films, to relate the actions not just to the characters themselves, but to put them in their social, political and temporal context. All the small external references in the films point the way to this—diverse examples: unemployment, a rock number, a revolutionary design of motor yacht (L'Avventura), socialism, the replanning of cities, industrial relations (La Notte), the Twist, the color problem, the bomb (L'Eclisse). Very closely tied to the time at which they were made, the films are in no way didactic, that is, they do not set out to make a comment, but only to present the director's view of the world.

This view is consistent throughout the last three pictures. The appearance of L'Eclisse would seem to make superfluous discussions of whether the ending of La Notte is more or less optimistic than the ending of L'Avventura, and indeed whether either is optimistic at all. We see from the contrasting example of Piero and Vittoria that although it is possible to generalize from the problems which face the characters in all the films, the resolutions are specific and depend on the individual psychology of each of the couples. The picture of life and personal relationships in the second half of the twentieth century is too complex to allow a glib summing-up of Antonioni's outlook. The meaning of over six hours of film can hardly be compressed into a few sentences of conclusion. But finally the value of Antonioni lies less in the generalities than in the observation and the manner of presenting behavior. His triumph is the maintenance of spontaneity in the face of the most intricate calculation in the mise-en-scene.

The form of the "trilogy" comes from the parallel between the first two films, particularly in their endings which are countered by L'Eclisse. The first two end at dawn with a renewal of a relationship which had been partly destroyed during the previous night. L'Eclisse starts at dawn with the breaking of a relationship: Vittoria leaves Riccardo's apartment alone, whereas the other couples escape together from the place where they have spent the night. The dawn symbolizes self-knowledge and a fresh beginning. At the end of L'Eclisse, Piero remains in Ercoll's office which is an image of capitalism, like the hotel in L'Avventura and Cherardini's house in La Notte. Vittoria leaves alone again. Consistent with the symbolism of the previous films, L'Eclisse ends with the coming of night. The last sequence of Antonioni's trilogy of change centers on the image of progress which was already to be seen in the opening sequence of its first film: a building site. (pp. 54-5)

Ian Cameron, "Michelangelo Antonioni: A Study by Ian Cameron," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1962 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall, 1962, pp. 2-56.

Penelope Houston

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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….

Far from being a return journey over ground already covered, it takes Antonioni out into new areas, covers a wider range than perhaps any of his films since Le Amiche has attempted. The continuity is one of feeling, never of plot, and the second affair, which contains whatever of plot the film has to offer, only begins when the nature of the heroine has been fully exposed….

[Changes] between script and screen show Antonioni refining down his conception, giving the film over during its making to a mood which is also an expression of his heroine. What Vittoria is looking for she hardly knows—and her refrain of "I don't know" becomes an accompaniment to both affairs. Her intellectual fiancé, Riccardo, has worn her out; her relationship with Piero … will founder on incompatibility. Piero is a new character for Antonioni, in that about him hang the clouds neither of failure nor of intellectual effort. (p. 90)

[It is the entry] into Piero's world … which gives The Eclipse its extra dimension. The two long stock exchange sequences are not merely brilliantly manoeuvred set-pieces, but confrontations for Vittoria. The Antonioni heroine runs the risk of seeming too self-absorbed, too solitary, too devitalised by her own sensitivity. Here, on the floor of the stock exchange, she encounters a world with other ideas of happiness than the song of the wind in the railings; and it is from her reaching out towards that harder world—towards what it has to offer of confidence, know-how, assertive vitality—that the film acquires its range of references. (pp. 90-1)

Here, more even than in L'Avventura or La Notte, Antonioni uses the books on people's tables, the paintings and photographs on their walls, not merely as short-cuts to describe character but as extensions of personality. This incessant concern with objects, with the furniture of living, the cathedral pillars of the stock exchange, the window flung open upon a water-tower or a church, is integral to his whole way of looking at life. People are not only what they are, but what they live with. Vittoria has escaped from her mother's home to her own flat in a suburb so aggressively modern that it looks like some ground plan for next year's Ideal Home Exhibition, and her new environment has become part of her.

People are so obsessed by the idea of gloom hanging like a thundercloud over Antonioni's films that they can contrive to make all his settings sound depressing. (One critic even described the building on the street corner as 'derelict', whereas it is quite clearly, and in the context inevitably, under construction.) For the director himself this is obviously a world in the process of being built; and there is no indication that he is less than fascinated by it, that he would contemplate with pleasure an existence stripped of plate-glass and concrete. The pull is never back from the "soulless" present towards a kindlier past, and Antonioni is the least nostalgic of filmmakers. Yet the fears that overshadow this world—in the newspaper headlines, in the Kenyan girl's forecast of African uprisings, in the mother's propitiatory offering of salt to the gods of the market—combine the elements of primitive threat and nuclear terror. The final sequence of The Eclipse, that much-discussed abstract succession of shots after the film's characters have left the screen, sums up these intimations of mortality….

[In] this film, everything is a matter of context. It is the force of association which makes these images of a suburban street corner, on a summer evening, come as an echo from the end of the world; as it is the juxtaposition of the mechanics of the stock exchange with an alertness to the tiny details of personality which gives the scenes their density. A man who has suffered a crushing loss on the market sits at a café table in the sunshine gravely doodling flowers on a scrap of paper. Vittoria's mother, who has just made a neat profit, haggles over the price of a kilo of pears. A cheerful drunk, sauntering down a night street, is next seen as a dead hand behind the shattered windscreen of a waterlogged car. "There are days when a chair, a table, a book, a man seem much the same …" Beneath the cool, clean physical landscape of the Roman suburb lies the disordered landscape of the emotions. Antonioni's style has always been founded on a juxtaposition of people and places. In The Eclipse, however, juxtaposition has become fusion: the two landscapes are made one, the visual imagery and the mental imagery effortlessly interlock. (p. 91)

Penelope Houston, "Film Reviews: 'The Eclipse'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1963 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1963, pp. 90-1.

Peter Cowie

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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. Long takes & elaborate panning shots are prolific, and the scene on the bridge, when Paola and her lover nervously decide on the murder of Fontana, runs for almost four minutes. The tension and evasion that are the film's overtones are subtly explored by Antonioni's groupings. For example, as the lovers wait for Fontana so that they can kill him, one sees Paola looking fixedly towards the lower right-hand corner of the frame, while Guido is viewed slightly from above with his back to Paola. The angle of the shot serves to lengthen the woman's stare and to stress the mental strain of the situation. (p. 10)

Apart from certain individual scenes, however, Cronaca di un amore remains very much an apprentice work, clearly indicative of the potentialities of its director (yet they were scarcely noticed at the time). Michel Mayoux' contemporary verdict [in Cahiers du Cinéma] has endured well: "Oscillating between the Latin worship of plastic beauty … and the search for a personal style Cronaca di un amore, an imperfect work on both levels, finds its equilibrium and its meaning in another dimension, that of an exasperated eroticism"…. (p. 11)

Gradually Antonioni's mise-en-scène is becoming more precise and meaningful. He has devoted a great deal of attention [in La signora senza, camelie] to the physical background of the film (weak in Le amiche but impressive again in Il grido, and the cold wintry landscape impinges on the actions and attitudes of the characters themselves. The narrative flow is markedly smooth compared with the perfunctory episode in L'amore in citta, and the number of shots is exceedingly small compared with I vinti. As in Cronaca di un amore, the symbols of class distinction are legion—Clara's lavish fur coat, like the fur coverlet on her bed in the earlier film, the paintings in her room, the plethora of bouquets.

The more immediate background of the film is that of the Italian cinema. It is not a colourless, vaguely self-satisfied industry like the cinema shown in [Luchino] Visconti's Bellissima, but an industry that runs to aesthetic and commercial extremes. On the one side there is the amoral, tawdry world of Cinécittà before it usurped Hollywood as the centre of world production, with its derelict sets, its sagging tents, its bedraggled, peeling buildings, and its miserable extras. On the other side there is the smart entourage of the international Festival with its attendant producers who have their tame intellectuals and a tight grip on their money. For Clara Manni, the distance between these groups is immense. Throughout the film one hears the expression sbagliare (to make a mistake), and it is symptomatic of Clara's inability to choose her own path in life. She is indeed a Woman without a Destiny—the title of one of her own films, ironically a commercial success. (pp. 14-15)

[Le amiche] provides a perfect bridge between Antonioni's early works and the trio of superb films that begins with L'avventura (Il grido seems almost out of place and but for its excellent craftsmanship might have been made after Gente del Po). The interest in the relationship of the social classes in Italy is still very much to the fore. The sophisticated but frivolous world of le amiche is accentuated by the presence of Clelia, who like Claudia in L'avventura is really an outsider. One of the ironies of the film is that her own class-consciousness ruins what promises to be the love affair of her life. Nobody, Antonioni seems to be saying, is free from class prejudice in modern society and in this respect this, with La notte and Cronaca di un amore, is one of his most Marxist films. The relentless quality of his scrutiny is stressed by the camera movements. In the earlier films, he tended to devote most of his attention to the composition of individual images. With Le amiche, however, he introduces his now familiar method of panning and tracking with the characters in order to catch their slightest reaction. (pp. 16-17)

One of the subtleties of Le amiche is that while the fracas in the fashion salon shows Momina as the one responsible for Rosetta's suicide, the implication that arises from Antonioni's handling of the script is that Lorenzo's weakness is to blame. The women are, as usual in Antonioni's work, superior creatures to the men—Nenè has more artistic talent than Lorenzo, Momina is more sophisticated than Cesare, her architect lover, and Clelia is more cultured than her Carlo.

Closely allied to this feeling of depression in Lorenzo is an air of alienation that pervades all the other characters. It is the harbinger of the hopeless encounters of Il grido. None of the women in Le amiche can communicate their feelings adequately; moreover, they are highly inhibited. Rosetta dies because she can convey her thoughts only to Clelia, and Clelia is an outsider. Even her happy conversation with Lorenzo by the river cannot explain articulately the motives for her first attempt at suicide. The chatter in the salon and in Momina's apartment is grotesquely superficial, like that at the party in La notte. Yet this frustration does not become unbearable, for Antonioni tempers it with elegance—the paintings of Lorenzo, the pottery of Nenè, the exquisite gowns of Clelia's collection, the melancholy beauty of the beach sequence. (pp. 17-18)

The technical link with Antonioni's later films lies in the power and economy of the imagery itself. The earlier films often shifted helplessly into long dialogue scenes when an emotional predicament had to be analysed. In Le amiche, words are used sparingly. Key scenes such as Rosetta's suicide and the famous party on the beach, are treated with the utmost economy. The girl's death is shown in two austere shots only—one from above, one from the river, of her body being recovered—immediately after her final break with Lorenzo in the deserted streets of Turin.

The merit of Le amiche is that it signifies Antonioni's break with conventions. Hitherto he has been a competent, meticulous illustrator of themes that might be found in the work of other Italian and French directors. But in Le amiche the plot is sacrificed to the style, a style that is not just formally attractive and supple, but one which respects the duration of real time on the screen and which attempts to catch the reflection of the characters' inner thoughts and feelings without forcing them to explain themselves to the audience through intellectual conversation. No episode is more symptomatic of this method than the excursion to the beach by Clelia and her companions. Separated from the luxurious surroundings to which they are accustomed, the characters become strangely deprived of their gloss; like the miserable layabouts in Fellini's I vitelloni, they are stirred by the solitude and coldness of the seashore to become aware of things they might otherwise ignore. Rosetta, for instance, is deeply hurt by a conversation she overhears in which Momina is implying that Lorenzo is returning to the arms of Nenè…. (pp. 18-19)

Yet Le amiche remains to some extent a flawed film, because in it Antonioni has tried to study no less than eight people in depth…. The diffuse nature of the plot prevents Antonioni from concentrating his attention on any one of the friends. He would be far more penetrating in his analysis of this society if he confined himself to one or two people. It is this major advance that Antonioni is to make in L'avventura and his subsequent films….

Antonioni has always been a student of the couple; in Il grido he studies four such relationships and if the film is short of a masterpiece it is not due to the technique or the construction but to the fact that two of these liaisons are fragmentary and without depth. The film is nonetheless given a hard spine, lacking in Le amiche, by the continuous presence of the man. (p. 19)

The form of Il grido is particularly interesting and, with its gloomy, picaresque background, not unlike Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel (where for Albert, a life of resignation at the end is perhaps even more dreadful than the suicide of Aldo). It proceeds to trace the decline of a man, analysing his movements sympathetically but relentlessly. Fusco's piano refrain remains throughout indicative of this simple form as well as being the plaintive expression of a man in search of his own melancholy truth.

In the manner of many of Antonioni's men, Aldo is discontented. Each of the women he lives with offers him something, not without effort, not without tears. Yet he grows impatient with them all. Irma has evidently satisfied him for seven years and it is only when the crisis occurs at the start of the film that he perceives his ignorance of her real feelings. (p. 20)

The second woman in Il grido, Elvia … is more "respectable" than Irma, and more conventionally romantic….

Elvia is the most attractive personality in the film and Antonioni obviously intends to show that she would make anyone but Aldo a perfect wife. She acts like an affectionate mother towards Rosina and is completely unaware that her sister's eyes have been on Aldo from the start—significantly she gives the ribbons Aldo buys for her in the "Miss Popularity" contest to her sister. Yet, like so many inhabitants of the Antonionian and Bergmanian worlds, she reveals her essential selfishness by complaining to Aldo that he had not bothered about her sufficiently during the years of their separation. (p. 21)

Alain Resnais has commented, "In Antonioni's Il grido where the main character ends by committing suicide, the very intensity of the suffering bears witness to the grandeur of Man". Aldo has emerged ultimately and paradoxically as a strong character, unwilling to compromise with his life. He has done better, Antonioni seems to be saying, in having sought and not found his "peace of mind" than he would have done had he abandoned the struggle earlier….

Antonioni's technique is still not quite as masterly as it is in L'avventura. The misty atmosphere of the Pro Valley is certainly well grasped and Antonioni has himself remarked that "the empty landscape counterpoints the psychology of the leading character in the film"…. (p. 23)

The symbolism is also somewhat pedestrian, particularly at the end, with Irma separated from Aldo by the familiar barred window and then by the wire fence surrounding the refinery. The demonstration by the townsfolk against the appropriation of land for a jet airbase seems incongruous, too, unless the bulldozers, poised to destroy the flimsy houses, symbolise the impending destruction of Aldo's life. More probably though, it represents a further attempt by Antonioni to stress the change in landscape and fashions. Similar allusions, though none so heavy handed, are scattered throughout the film…. All these incidents subtly suggest the vain struggles of the old to keep up with the new, just as Antonioni's films as a whole outline the failure of anachronistic morals and sentiments to keep pace with advances in other spheres of life. But in a sense they are reminiscent of the worse faults of I vinti and some of the documentaries, and it is only in Le amiche, L'avventura and subsequently that Antonioni has found a successful way of dovetailing his social comments into the fabric of the film. For all that, Il grido is an exceptionally good film, uncompromising in the formal rigour of its construction and astonishing in its grasp of a spiritual malaise. (pp. 23-4)

Certainly L'avventura is Antonioni's most important work, for prior to it he had been fumbling his way slowly but surely towards a mode of expression hitherto unknown in the cinema, and he has succeeded since in perfecting that expression at the same time as making it less exciting, less fresh. It is a film like [Resnais's] Hiroshima Mon Amour in which every shot is meticulously composed and designed to establish a mood, a mood of anticipation in which love can shrivel or grow. (pp. 24-5)

When [Claudia and Sandro] travel across Sicily, they are in search less of Anna than of themselves and of their emotions.

In all Antonioni's major works, such a crisis occurs at an early stage…. All these films, too, are about discovery—discovery of an emotional predicament that encircles the characters until they are stifled by it and have to do something hideous and drastic to escape. (pp. 25-6)

There remains the eternal question of why Claudia should be attracted by such a worthless character. Paradoxically, it is thus the weakness of Claudia rather than the weakness of Sandro that makes L'avventura such a fascinating film. (pp. 28-9)

Antonioni's primary contribution to the cinema has been his ability to convey thoughts without having recourse to unrealistic and verbose dialogue. "I think it is much more cinematic to try to grasp the thoughts of a character by showing their reactions such as they are, rather than conveying all that in a reply, having to resort practically to an explanation"…. Yet the method has its limitations, for it exposes ruthlessly the vacuity of so many of the film's characters. Corrado and Giulia, Raimondo and Patrizia, Ettore and Anna's father, are no more than sketches of their types (the lecherous young artist is almost a caricature), who struggle pathetically to occupy the hours "between the last coffee and the first aperitif". (p. 32)

La notte is undoubtedly the most desolate of Antonioni's works to date. Visually it is incredibly satisfying; emotionally it is sterile but realistic. (p. 33)

All the characters (except for the brusque, mundane industrialist) are enmeshed by their own indolence. None of them is as immortal a creation as the Claudia of L'avventura. Only Tommaso, whose shadow falls across the entire film, seems to have been of real worth. Yet he too is exhausted, devoured by a physical malaise as Lidia and Giovanni are devoured by a spiritual one. "My life has been more shadow than substance" he admits in the hospital.

The importance of La notte lies not in its protagonists, but in the attitudes to modern life that it discloses. It shows the death of love with uncompromising rigour (although the melodramatics of Cronaca di un amore are no longer required by a director now so assured of his craft), and it hints strongly too that the haute bourgeoisie in Italy (as, presumably, elsewhere) is gradually apprehending its moral bankruptcy. The freedom from work leaves them with little to do except brood and erode emotionally. It is this disquieting situation that Antonioni crystallises in La notte with more insight than in Le amiche and with less sympathy than in L'avventura. (p. 39)

It was clear when La notte appeared that Antonioni's next film would be crucial in his progress. Many believed that he could produce nothing more than a repetition of the pitiless view of the world that dominated La notte. Yet L'eclisse signifies a remarkable development and extension of Antonioni's talent. The literary, elongated dialogue that threatens to paralyse so many of his earlier films has been replaced with an almost wholly successful language of images (significantly, the first and the last seven minutes of L'eclisse are practically bereft of conversation). (pp. 39-40)

[The montage at the end of L'eclisse] seems to epitomise the conclusions to be drawn from Antonioni's films as a whole. It suggests an anguished philosophy, one which was intolerable for a man like Pavese. Obviously Antonioni too would commit suicide if he really felt the sentiments he portrays. He is, rather, an objective observer, frighteningly certain of the future. Indeed, what hope is there in a world where love is so easily betrayed and principles so idly ignored? It is to the credit of L'eclisse that, although much of it borders on the abstract, such a conviction should pervade it so strongly. Metaphysically, the title obviously implies that as far as sentiments are concerned, our epoch corresponds to an eclipse. And, for Antonioni, the bourgeois that he shows to be so smug and the intellectuals that he shows to be so nihilistic are alike condemned.

Antonioni has pared his instruments down to a degree of sharpness and lucidity rarely found in the cinema. Often enough there are moments of superb composition that seem unnecessary to the film, but L'eclisse contains far less expendable material than any of its predecessors…. Never has he succeeded so well in delineating the uselessness and fragility of love in modern society. L'avventura may be more humane, more hopeful, more naturalistic, but L'eclisse is at once the most elegant and pitiless film Antonioni has made. (pp. 45-6)

It is obvious that for Antonioni, as for Bergman, the cinema is a vital means of expression. This accounts in some measure for the lack of compromise in even his humblest films, and for the absolute grasp of the nuances in his various characters. The feelings that disturb these characters are frequently more interesting than they are themselves. Thus Antonioni has brought to the screen the psychological approach normally reserved for the novel, and yet L'eclisse seems to hint more strongly than any of his other films that Antonioni is far from being a novelist manqué and is definitely willing, if a clash is inevitable, to sacrifice dialogue to imagery. (pp. 46-7)

This profound emphasis on characterisation is not the only revolutionary aspect of Antonioni's work. Someone called him "the eternal experimental director", and his attention to technique is meticulous.

But undoubtedly the distinctive flavour of Antonioni's films lies in their ruthless dissection of the characters' emotions, and their tacit ridicule of the pretensions of a moribund society. His opulent apartments, yachts and gardens are filled with a lugubrious air, and as Derek Hill has written [in London Magazine], "in all his films virtually every scene has the sad nostalgia of an act performed for the last time, as if the world had been condemned to die the next day"…. The failure or lack of love is the common denominator to his films, and if he seems unduly preoccupied with eroticism it is because he shares the views of his compatriot and admirer Alberto Moravia, who has said, "My interest in sex depends on sex being a way of relating with reality. It is one of the main ways of getting into touch with another person, one of our best means of connection". Morality has vanished from the world that Antonioni reveals…. In this respect Antonioni takes his position as a contemporary matriarch, for he is desperately concerned with the future as opposed to the fossilised past. (pp. 48-9)

Peter Cowie, "Michelangelo Antonioni," in his Antonioni, Bergman, Resnais (copyright © 1963 by Peter Cowie), The Tantivy Press, London, 1963, Barnes & Co., Inc., New York, 1963, pp. 5-49.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 does seem to have assured himself somehow, through his job or through his relationship with another person, his security is probably (though not necessarily: again Antonioni is not Sartre) an illusion, for which he will have to pay before long.

This sense of fundamental insecurity which affects the more lucid of Antonioni's characters (the stupid ones are generally more or less immune, and probably happier as a result) is no doubt largely subjective. Their particular existentialist inferno is very much of their own making. But in a less acute form the same general malaise can be seen to affect the whole of society, and to be reflected in the physical environment which modern man has created for himself and in which he has chosen to live. The deserted village in L'Avventura is a perfect example. Visually it recalls instantly the vacant surfaces and deranged perspectives of [Giorgio de] Chirico's Pittura metafisica, and it means much the same thing. This civic townscape, devoid of citizens, dehumanised and absurd, in which two people come together and make love, acts in a sense as a symbol, or a parable, for the whole of modern life. Man, it seems to say, has built himself his own world, but he is incapable of living in it. He is excluded from his own creation, and his only refuge lies in fortuitous encounters with another being in the same predicament. In a word, he is "alienated" (p. 17)

The question is primarily one of emphasis. By insisting that each of his films begins with a story, particular people in a particular situation, Antonioni is asking the critic to look more at the particulars and less at the sublime but depressing generalities they supposedly reflect. The point is well taken. Except for La Notte, which still seems to me a deeply pessimistic film, and rather dogmatic in its pessimism into the bargain, 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.

As with all Antonioni's later films, the story of The Eclipse [L'Eclisse] is cast in the form of a sort of spiritual journey towards, ideally, self-discovery and the discovery of the world. The discovery may not be consummated; indeed the journey may end, as with Il Grido and perhaps La Notte, only in destruction. (pp. 17-18)

In Antonioni's intention The Eclipse is a positive film, and if this comes across in effect it is because Vittoria herself is so positive. She is bright, she is honest, she is ravishingly beautiful, she is unquenchably alive, she is even (shock to the critics) happy, or capable of being so. She is also, sometimes, rather tiresome, but that is by the way. The important thing is that in a situation where at times everything seems to conspire to destroy her and all that she stands for, she survives—at least until the next round. The search will go on, and it will have been worth while.

To say that The Eclipse is a film about alienation, therefore, is largely to miss the point. The film is not about alienation, it is about Vittoria. If in the course of the film the spectator is moved to feel, or rather to think, that Vittoria is in fact alienated, that she has an alienated relationship with an alienated world, this is a different matter entirely. But even on this relatively concrete level the word remains a blanket concept, and a wide one, in danger of stifling whatever lies underneath. Throughout the trilogy, and even in the earlier films, there are sequences and shots which reflect a consistent view of the world and of the human situation from which alienation, or some related concept, could be isolated as a key factor. Such, for example, is the Stock Exchange sequence in The Eclipse. Vittoria here is seen as an outsider, a looker-in on a world which has a dynamic of its own, which she cannot share in or even understand. Watching the curious spectacle of finance in action she is both alienated from it and conscious of her alienation. But is it Vittoria here who is alienated, or is it not rather the Exchange and the whole financial game itself—alienated in that its players live in a neurotic world in which scraps of paper have taken the place of the sound material values they are supposed to represent? Either way there is a lack of essential rapport. As in the deserted village sequence, there is something about this world that refused to make sense. Both sequences function artistically by generating an impression of strangeness, lack of connection, and out of the strangeness comes the idea that the world is more than strange: estranged in fact—for which alienated is a synonym. (p. 18)

As should be clear from his films, Antonioni's main concern as an artist is with things and with people, with shapes, light and shade, social facts and human thoughts and emotions. He is not concerned, as far as I can see, with any apparatus of concepts and symbols. His films cannot be fitted easily into any pre-cast conceptual mould, and his way of expressing his ideas is generally speaking direct and literal, and does not require symbols or symbolic interpretations to achieve significance. Each action, each visual detail, has its place in a particular plot. The recurrence of some of these details and of certain themes may suggest that they are meant to have a general as well as a particular validity. This is only reasonable: Antonioni is a very consistent and consistently thoughtful director. But it is not possible to isolate details from their immediate context and attribute to them the value of universal symbols. (p. 19)

[Despite] the air of finality given to the images [at the end of The Eclipse], we don't really know that this is the end at all. It may not even be the end for Piero and Vittoria as a couple; it is certainly not the end of the world. As Antonioni himself has put it (I quote from memory), this is an eclipse not the millenium, and "up to now no eclipse has yet been definitive." One should not forget either that a highly selective and elliptical montage such as Antonioni uses in this sequence is one of the most subjective of all cinema techniques. Uniquely in this sequence he is offering a purely lyrical (and for that reason not literal, but not symbolic either) interpretation of the events shown. 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. The idea of indeterminacy, axiomatic in Antonioni's work, insists that we admit theoretically an alternative possibility, and that further events may yet falsify the picture we have built up of what is happening. At any instant we have only the moment to go on in provisionally interpreting the events, and at this moment it seems to be the end. It feels like the end, and that is what Antonioni is really trying to say.

This final sequence of The Eclipse is unique in Antonioni's work in that it does to a certain limited extent rely on symbols for effect, and in that he does seem for the first time to want to break away from the Flaubertian realism which is his normal vein into a more imaginative and lyrical style. This breakaway is in fact foreshadowed in parts of La Notte, in particular in the long, disturbing sequence of Lidia's solitary walk around Milan. But even in The Eclipse, except at the end, what I would call the Flaubertian note remains dominant—the note of the painstaking and accurate stylist, the careful investigator of behaviour and environment, the ruthless analyst of sentimental and intellectual failure, the essential realist. Antonioni's realism is not naturalism or verismo. It is too finely wrought, pared down too sharply to the essentials of what has to be said. It is also too interior, as much concerned to chart the movements of the mind, however objectively regarded, as it is to observe physical emotions and things. But—and this is why Antonioni, like Flaubert, remains basically a realist—movements below the surface are generally left to be deduced from surface reactions. They are not artificially exteriorised in terms of convenient symbols, as in expressionism, nor are they supposed to inhabit a metaphysical world of their own. (pp. 19-20)

In all Antonioni's films together (except perhaps Cronaca di un Amore) the expressionist details could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand, and even those few dismissed as irrelevant….

When, for example, one has been up all night and is very tired, one's mode of perception (mine at least) is subtly altered; one is more susceptible to resonances in the physical properties of objects than under more normal conditions. It is this feeling that is communicated, very sharply, by the opening sequence of The Eclipse, not only in the tense exhaustion of the characters but in the oppressive presence of objects, in the buzzing of an electric fan that grates persistently on an already exposed aural nerve. The effect is both irritating and, to a spectator not yet attuned, unnatural; but perhaps for that very reason, all the more authentic and true.

Where in this oppressive physical and social environment do the characters find any escape? How can they break out of the labyrinth which nature and other men and their own sensibilities have built up around them? Properly speaking there is no escape, nor should there be. Man is doomed to living in the world—this is to say no more than that he is doomed to exist. But the situation is not hopeless. There are moments of happiness in the films, which come, when they come, from being at peace with the physical environment, or with others, not in withdrawing from them. Claudia in L'Avventura, on the yacht and then on the island, is cut off, mentally, from the other people there, and gives herself over to undiluted enjoyment of her physical surroundings, until with Anna's disappearance even these surroundings seem to turn against her and aggravate rather than alleviate her pain. In The Eclipse Vittoria's happiest moment is during that miraculous scene at Verona when her sudden contentment seems to be distilled out of the simple sights and sounds of the airport: sun, the wind in the grass, the drone of an aeroplane, a juke-box. At such moments other people are only a drag—and yet the need for them exists. The desire to get away from oneself, away from other people, and the satisfaction this gives, arise only from the practical necessity for most of the time of being aware of oneself and of forming casual or durable relationships with other people. And the relationships too can be a source of fulfilment. No single trite or abstract formulation can catch the living essence of Antonioni's version of the human comedy. (p. 20)

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Shape Around a Black Point," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1964 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1963–64, pp. 15-20.

John Russell Taylor

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 with the street-cleaners, who do a job of work just like anyone else and no doubt lead perfectly ordinary family lives, the emphasis is placed rather on their aspect as 'forgotten men', moving unnoticed about the city streets, doing the most squalid work for a populace which asks only to remain unconscious of their existence. To match this view of life the style of photography adopted is correspondingly bare and unadorned, avoiding strong contrasts and concentrating on the middle range of greys to evoke the misty banks of the Po, the cheerless Marshes, the empty streets of Rome at dawn and nightfall. Already, without being more than a little wise after the event, we can see the hand of the mature Antonioni at work in these small but very characteristic works. (pp. 55-6)

[In 1950] Cronaca di un Amore went into production, in the proper neo-realist manner, in the streets of Milan. But that is about all of neo-realism it had in it; otherwise, right from the first, Antonioni showed his independence of the style then dominant in the Italian cinema, and in which as a documentarist he had been nurtured. Most obviously, he forsook the working-class milieux which were almost a sine qua non of the neo-realist film, and turned his attention instead to the prosperous middle classes which had been more or less taboo as a subject of serious film-making in Italy since the dominance of the much-despised 'white telephone' school of the 1930s. They were, however, the class that Antonioni knew best, and in a way the film could be regarded as a logical extension of neo-realist principles to hitherto more or less unexplored territory. But in other respects the film deviated markedly from the neo-realist norm. It used professional actors, for one thing; its social criticism, if there at all, was present only very indirectly, by implication, the story concentrating with almost Racinian intensity and single-mindedness on the relationships of the three central characters, whose social situation is only a small, relatively insignificant element in the plot; and above all the film is made in a highly conscious, rigorously disciplined style about as far distant as can be imagined from neo-realism's preoccupation at the time with making feature films look as much as possible like newsreels. Even in this first full-length film it was clear at once that a major new talent had arrived, already mature and highly personal in his means of self-expression. (pp. 56-7)

The type of cinema which resulted from all this has been labelled 'anti-cinema', on the model of the 'anti-play' and the 'anti-novel'. And in a sense this is true; Antonioni's approach to film-making contradicts a lot which at the time of his appearance was taken as axiomatic. It is against the neo-realistic concept of cinema, certainly, but it is also against, for example, Eisenstein's earlier concept of a cinema built on dynamic montage (to which, despite a general unwillingness to practise it, cinema intellectuals continue to pay a sort of lip-service) and equally against his later concept based on histrionic performance. It is against, too, the concept of the cinema as a bag of tricks, most influentially put about by the cinema's archmagician Orson Welles and seldom without powerful advocates, from Ingmar Bergman to Akira Kurosawa. Instead, what we are given is a quietist, interior cinema such as few have attempted in the past—most notably Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson: it is a concept of cinema very similar to the concept of theatre put forward by [Maurice] Maeterlinck, who like Antonioni was not interested in external action but only in soul-states. (p. 57)

In the films which come after Le Amiche Antonioni progressively cuts down plot in the normal sense of the term to the absolute minimum represented by L'Eclisse, and as he does so the critic, deprived of any possible assistance from the films' literary values, is thrown back increasingly and (for most critics it seems) disconcertingly on his response to the films as cinema and his intuitive sympathy with Antonioni's approach and subject-matter.

I am not saying that this sort of sympathy is a sine qua non for appreciating Antonioni's later work (though there is no denying that with him as with any artist it helps), but simply that when the subject-matter is left, literarily speaking, so naked it becomes very easy for the viewer insensitive or hostile to Antonioni's strictly cinematic art to isolate the necessarily very thin plot-content (thin, again, in its purely literary aspect, what can be put down on paper) and then say: 'If that's all he's using this great battery of cinematic know-how to say, is it really worth the trouble?' The answer to that is that, if the solid literary values of a traditional 'well-written script' are what you are looking for in the cinema it is probably not worth the trouble: Antonioni's films (any of them, but particularly from Le Amiche on) are not for you. By the time we come to Le Amiche there is no doubt that Antonioni has passed decisively beyond the stage at which a writer-director's work can be compartmentalized: this much is scripting, and then the director sets out to realize on the screen what the writer has put on paper. Indeed, he had passed this stage already with Cronaca di un Amore, but in Le Amiche the fact that he has done so becomes inescapable. From here on the scripts come to have virtually no meaning in themselves: though they have all been published it would be impossible to gain any adequate idea of the films from them; they are at best the scant aidemémoire of someone who already has something very like the finished film complete in his mind before he starts work. (pp. 67-8)

In many ways Antonioni still remains one of the least predictable of the great figures in the modern cinema: a great innovator, not so much in the details of technique (bare compositions with solitary figures lost in great vistas of modern architecture and scenes between two characters who talk mainly with their backs to each other, to 'express alienation', were a fad of 1961–2, but that has little to do with real technical advances and their assimilation) as in his whole approach to story-continuity in the cinema, Antonioni has pursued a consistent and fairly solitary road. And yet the achievement of his films has been by no means consistent: he could not now, certainly, make a film as crude as the French and Italian episodes of I Vinti, but the peaks of Le Amiche, L'Avventura and L'Eclisse have alternated with the relative failures of Il Grido and La Notte. The distinction between triumph and disaster in his work seems to be more finely drawn than in the work of any other director of comparable stature, and every film he makes is liable to elicit in advance almost as much dread as eagerness from even his most fervent admirers—a feeling intensified by the knowledge that his years as the height of fashion are bound to be paid for in the not too distant future by a violent reaction against his work. (p. 81)

John Russell Taylor, "Michelangelo Antonioni," in his Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-Makers of the Sixties (reprinted with the permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1964 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1964, pp. 52-81.

Penelope Houston

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 Antonioni made the ordinary look remote and ominous. Here he takes a step back, as it were, towards the more alien surroundings of L'Avventura or Il Grido, where the characters not only felt lost, but were lost.

In this countryside around Ravenna, ships sail through the mist, as in the Norfolk Broads, so that they appear to have invaded the land. At the end of what critics seem to have agreed, on rather slender evidence, to describe as the "orgy sequence", the group of Sunday afternoon idlers precipitately abandon their harbour shack when a ship which has docked alongside hoists a yellow quarantine flag. Giuliana stares at her four friends, each standing isolated in the gathering fog, looking towards her, as stationary and remote as the group poised on the gravel walk of the formal garden in [Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad]. The faces are held in turn in a series of misty, questioning close-ups; then another shot of the group, still frozen in their attitudes; and then the fog comes between, blurring everything. This idea of actual fog becoming one with mental fog sounds elementary to the point of naïveté. But by taking the scene out of any realistic context, by giving the figures that formal remoteness, and by contriving to hint at a suspension of time, Antonioni makes the stylisation work as a powerful element in his sense of dislocation. Giuliana has gone beyond reason, and the film has followed her.

And this is how he handles colour, using it to dissolve order and confound expectation, to strike a series of dissonant chords or to construct a momentary visual harmony. (pp. 80-1)

It is overwhelming, it unbalances the film; it allows the aesthetic experience to get dangerously the upper hand. But if The Red Desert seems to me in the long run a magnificent failure (magnificent, that is, in its courage and its ambitions), this is not because there is too much landscape, but because Antonioni has peopled it too sparsely, and has put too much faith in his own truism: that the emotions are lingering behind the technological advances, and that we are bringing nineteenth century nervous systems into twentieth century situations. (p. 81)

In this world of walking wounded, the mind is the first casualty; and The Red Desert presents a study of a mind rocking on its foundations, shaken by fears as nameless and inexplicable as that cry out of the fog heard and forgotten during the arid Sunday roistering in the red-walled shack on the docks. But the dislocated mind cannot quite so automatically be related to the dislocated landscape, where the glittering radio towers and the man-made islands rise from the industrial sludge, and the birds no longer fly through the lethal fumes from the refineries.

In The Eclipse Antonioni held all the forces at his disposal in a fine, precarious equilibrium: characters and setting interlocked, as in the child's demonstration in The Red Desert that two drops of coloured liquid, coalescing on a microscope slide, add up to not two but one. This time, the effect ought to be similar, but the forces are pulling in different directions, and the centre fails to hold. Part of the problem, perhaps, arises from the central split in Antonioni's own mind: he senses the technological change as a vague threat, which he cannot pin down or isolate, and against which he can only utter the muffled warnings of a hesitant Cassandra. But he reacts positively and directly to the calm geometrical promise it holds out, and to its alien fascinations….

Antonioni is a complex artist who can be extraordinarily naïve. He is also, and to his finger-tips, a film-maker, catching his dissolving world through images of space and light and time. The Red Desert is a film of unresolved tensions, of gaping fissures between what appears on the screen and the elusive mental image not of a brave but a timorous new world. But its power is in the act of seeing, in those haunting images of a desperate beauty, threatening or threatened. (p. 103)

Penelope Houston, "'The Red Desert': The Landscape of the Desert," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 34, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 80-1, 103.

Richard Schickel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 effortless, wonderfully intelligent control of his medium, the feeling he conveys of knowing precisely what he wants to say, and the sense that his perfection of style grows organically out of his awareness, not out of a desire to show off cinematic technique—these are indeed novelties in a day when febrile frenzy is often mistaken for mature motion picture art. (pp. 91-2)

But if the central symbolic mystery—like that of the disappearance of the girl in Antonioni's earlier L'Avventura—remains insoluble, the quality of daily life as it is experienced by his characters has that brilliant hard-edged clarity that we most often associate with the dream state. In particular, the contrast between the almost sexual passion the photographer works up when doing fashion work and the essentially trivial and vapid nature of his subject is a superbly realized comment on the values of our time, as well as a remarkably realistic study of the mood of such sessions and of a style of conducting them that is quite common. (pp. 92-3)

That [Antonioni] sees at the motivating center of our noisy desperation an existential mystery of the most profound sort—and has no pat answer for it either—is further evidence of the personal restraint, the lack of self-indulgence, the emotional control with which he—uniquely among the great new directors—tempers and informs all his excursions to the heart of our contemporary darkness. (p. 93)

Richard Schickel, "'Blow-Up'" (originally published in a slightly different form in Life, Vol. 62, No. 3, January 20, 1967), in his Second Sight: Notes on Some Movies 1965–1970 (copyright © 1972 by Richard Schickel; reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster. a Division of Gulf & Western Corporation), Simon & Schuster, 1972, pp. 91-3.

Pauline Kael

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 and astonishing speed in their rejections of older values; he sees only the emptiness of pop culture.

Those who enjoy seeing this turned-on city of youth, those who say of Blow-Up that it's the trip, it's where we are now in consciousness and that Antonioni is in it, part of it, ahead of it like Warhol, may have a better sense of what Antonioni is about than the laudatory critics. Despite Antonioni's negativism, the world he presents looks harmless, and for many in the audience, and not just the youthful ones, sex without "connecting" doesn't really seem so bad—naughty, maybe, but nice. Even the smoke at the pot party is enough to turn on some of the audience. And there's all that pretty color which delights the critics, though it undercuts their reasons for praising the movie because it's that bright, cleaned-up big-city color of I-have-seen-the-future-and-it's-fun. Antonioni, like his fashion-photographer hero, is more interested in getting pretty pictures than in what they mean. But for reasons I can't quite fathom, what is taken to be shallow in his hero is taken to be profound in him. Maybe it's because of the symbols: do pretty pictures plus symbols equal art? (p. 32)

The best part of Blow-Up is a well-conceived and ingeniously edited sequence in which the hero blows up a series of photographs and discovers that he has inadvertently photographed a murder. It's a good murder mystery sequence. But does it symbolize (as one reviewer says) "the futility of seeking the hidden meanings of life through purely technological means"? I thought the hero did rather well in uncovering the murder. But this kind of symbolic interpretation is not irrelevant to the appeal of the picture: Antonioni loads his atmosphere with so much confused symbolism and such a heavy sense of importance that the viewers use the movie as a Disposall for intellectual refuse. (p. 33)

Just as [Resnais's] Marienbad was said to be about "time" and/or "memory," Blow-Up is said (by Antonioni and the critics following his lead) to be about "illusion and reality." They seem to think they are really saying something, and something impressive at that, though the same thing can be said about almost any movie. In what sense is a movie "about" an abstract concept? Probably what Antonioni and the approving critics mean is that high fashion, mod celebrity, rock and roll, and drugs are part of a sterile or frenetic existence, and they take this to mean that the life represented in the film is not "real" but illusory. What seems to be implicit in the prattle about illusion and reality is the notion that the photographer's life is based on "illusion" and that when he discovers the murder, he is somehow face to face with "reality." Of course this notion that murder is more real than, say, driving in a Rolls-Royce convertible, is nonsensical (it's more shocking, though, and when combined with a Rolls-Royce it gives a movie a bit of box office—it's practical). They're not talking about a concept of reality but what used to be called "the real things in life," the solid values they approve of versus the "false values" of "the young people today."

Antonioni is the kind of thinker who can say that there are "no social or moral judgments in the picture": he is merely showing us the people who have discarded "all discipline," for whom freedom means "marijuana, sexual perversion, anything," and who live in "decadence without any visible future." I'd hate to be around when he's making judgments. Yet in some sense Antonioni is right: because he doesn't connect what he's showing to judgment. And that dislocation of sensibility is probably why kids don't notice the moralizing, why they say Blow-Up is hip.

The cultural ambience of a film like this becomes mixed with the experience of the film: one critic says Antonioni's "vision" is that "the further we draw away from reality, the closer we get to the truth," another that Antonioni means "we must learn to live with the invisible." All this can sound great to those who don't mind not knowing what it's about, for whom the ineffable seems most important…. Blow-Up is the perfect movie for the kind of people who say, "now that films have become an art form …" and don't expect to understand art.

Because the hero is a photographer and the blow-up sequence tells a story in pictures, the movie is also said to be about Antonioni's view of himself as an artist (though even his worst enemies could hardly accuse him of "telling stories" in pictures). Possibly it is, but those who see Blow-Up as Antonioni's version of [Fellini's] 8—as making a movie about making a movie—seem to value that much more than just making a movie, probably because it puts the film in a class with the self-conscious autobiographical material so many young novelists struggle with (the story that ends with their becoming writers …) and is thus easy to mistake for the highest point of the artistic process. (pp. 35-6)

When journalistic details are used symbolically—and that is how Antonioni uses "swinging" London—the artist does not create a frame of reference that gives meaning to the details; he simply exploits the ready-made symbolic meanings people attach to certain details and leaves us in a profound mess. (The middlebrow moralists think it's profound and the hippies enjoy the mess.) And when he tosses in a theatrical convention like a mimed tennis game without a ball—which connects with the journalistic data only in that it, too, is symbolic—he throws the movie game away. It becomes ah-sweet-mystery-of-life we-are-all-fools, which, pitched too high for human ears, might seem like great music beyond our grasp. (p. 37)

Pauline Kael, "Tourist in the City of Youth: 'Blow-Up'" (originally published as "Tourist in the City of Youth," in The New Republic, Vol. 156, No. 6, February 11, 1967), in her Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (© 1967 by Pauline Kael: reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1968, pp. 31-7.

Marsha Kinder

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 offer an easy answer to the problem of the conflict between the two value systems. He seems to accept the new world as inevitable although it means a sacrifice of important values from the past. The only hope seems to be understanding and a sympathetic acceptance of whatever human contact is possible. Understanding alone won't suffice—as Anna, Valentina and Guiliana demonstrate. Nor will an unthinking acceptance—as in the case of Sandro, Giovanni, Piero and Giuliana's husband. The most positive characters must achieve both, as Claudia and Vittoria ultimately do.

Although these four films focus on how changes in the modern world affect human relationships, they also imply that a similar change is taking place in art. For example, both central male characters in L'Avventura and La Notte—Sandro and Giovanni—are artists who sold out; and in both cases the loss in artistic power is linked to their failure in a love relationship….

I think we can best examine the change in art and its relationship to the theme of emotional loss by focusing on L'Avventura. (p. 133)

[An] abstract, dehumanised quality comes out in the scene where Claudia visits the art gallery, while Anna and Sandro are making love. She is more intrigued and delighted by the reactions of the people than by the paintings, which have no relation to human beings. The lack of permanence is also suggested in the scene where they discover the ancient vase on the island. It has lasted for centuries, but as soon as someone from the modern world touches it, it is destroyed. There is also a suggestion that art has become a source of exploitation, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. For example, Goffredo uses his paintings merely to express his sexual desire and as a means of gratifying that desire by seducing his models. In their momentary passion he and Giulia knock over his easel and carelessly destroy the 'art'. Similarly, Gloria (the prostitute who takes Claudia's and Anna's place with Sandro) claims that she is a writer who communicates with the spirits of Tolstoi and Shakespeare. She reduces art to a cheap publicity trick and exploits it just as she exploits sex: she is a cheap substitute both for art and love. Thus, in this film Antonioni implies that art has undergone three main changes: it is no longer permanent, it is no longer related to human subjects or to the individual, and it has become a source of economic exploitation.

The implications of these changes are developed much further in Blow-Up. In this film contemporary art not only lacks permanence, but actually values the moment. This helps to explain why the central character is a photographer rather than an architect, for photography is concerned with capturing the moment. Moreover, contemporary art places a value on something in a particular context. One of the basic justifications of pop art, for example, is that it takes familiar objects and puts them into a new context that gives them a new value. In other words, the value lies not in the object itself, but in its relationship with a specific context. This notion is mocked in the scene where Thomas goes to hear the Yardbirds and gets away with part of the smashed guitar. The fragment, which was so highly valued in that particular situation, is merely a worthless piece of junk once he gets outside into a new context….

Secondly, contemporary art not only is abstract and detached from human involvement, but it actually becomes a substitute for such involvements. This is brought out in the comic scene when shooting his model with his camera becomes a substitute for sexual intercourse. Although Thomas claims he would prefer to shoot pictures of real people rather than beautiful models, he shows no greater understanding of the human significance of these photographs. In fact, he uses exactly the same language to describe them that he uses for his fashion photos….

Thirdly, the economic exploitation of art is practised not only by the amateur (like Goffredo) or the complete phoney (like Gloria), but by the most competent artists, which implies it has become an accepted part of contemporary art. The commercial photographer and the rock and roll star who are really 'good' are expected to succeed—to make money, to be well received. The stereotype of the artist is no longer an undiscovered genius starving in the garret. Artistic talent and success have become compatible and almost synonymous.

The expanded treatment of these changes leads to two other important implications about contemporary art. It implies that the creative process depends on accident and spontaneity and is really not carefully controlled. (p. 134)

Another characteristic of contemporary art is the confusion between the artist (the creator) and his instrument of creation. This is another example of ambiguity and is linked to the minimising of control that the artist has during the act of creation. This idea is suggested in the mob's reaction to the guitar, and also in the relationship between Thomas and his camera. At one point he contradicts himself by saying he 'saw' the murder, when what he really means is that his camera saw it.

I do not mean to imply that Blow-Up is solely about art, but rather that it is the main focus. As in the earlier films, there is a very strong relationship between art and life—and it is not at all clear which imitates which….

Ambiguity is perhaps the most obvious quality in the film. We find it in the dress of the people on the street, which makes it very difficult to tell the boys from the girls…. And perhaps most obviously, in the neon sign over the park, which Antonioni had constructed to be intentionally ambiguous and which is only momentarily in focus. Thus, as in his earlier films, Antonioni is suggesting that there is a new style of behaviour which is in marked contrast to a more traditional body of values, but his emphasis is on the changes in art rather than in human relationships. (p. 135)

In Blow-Up there is a radical change in pace as compared with the earlier films. The only similarity is that it has an important expressive function in both. The pace in the earlier films is generally very slow, and this has the significant function of taking the emphasis away from the action and focusing it instead on the mood or inner feelings of the characters…. [Lidia in La Notte is typical of those characters that] are all looking for something that is missing, but they are not sure what it is or where to find it. The visual images are charged with emotional effects that take time to work on the viewer.

The most effective use of pacing in the four films occurs in L'Eclisse, where it is absolutely essential to the film's meaning. The centre of interest is the relationship between Vittoria and Piero, who represent two worlds that move at entirely different speeds; and this difference in pace helps to define each world and its values…. Their relationship is like an eclipse, which implies two things. First, an eclipse suggests a loss, or a dimming of power; and their relationship is certainly limited. Secondly, an eclipse also implies a temporary period when the paths of two heavenly bodies are in conjunction. This is exactly what human relationships have become—brief moments of togetherness between longer periods of emotional isolation, the temporary conjunction of two human bodies moving in different orbits at different speeds. The difference in pace is an indication that their relationship cannot last. (pp. 135-36)

The rapid pace of Blow-Up is well suited to a character who is constantly on the move and concerned with capturing the moment. The pace of the film helps to express Thomas's conception of art and experience. He constantly moves from one context to another and is incapable of focusing his attention on a subject for very long, and this is partially expressed by the rapid succession of visual images. (p. 136)

If we turn to the structure of Blow-Up, we find that it shares similarities with that of the earlier films, but they are used for different functions. The basic structure of all five films is a cyclical pattern comprised of episodes which contain a certain amount of repetition and leave a number of questions unanswered. One way of achieving the cyclical quality is by having every picture begin and end in the morning. In the earlier films the repetitious cycle implies the interchangeability of persons…. The absence of a conventional dramatic structure also helps to suggest that in these films action is not the main focus and that the central meaning must be found elsewhere.

This is not at all the case in Blow-Up. Here, the absence of a conventional dramatic plot and the unanswered questions help to reveal Thomas's fragmented view of experience, which is comprised of separate moments. No episode reaches a climax or resolution; no human relationship builds or develops. This structure also implies that Thomas doesn't really care about finding the answers. In L'Avventura Claudia at first thought she cared about what happened to Anna, then only pretended to care, and finally had to admit she really didn't and to accept what that implied. But in Blow-Up there is no pretence: motives, causes, people simply don't matter to Thomas. This lack of a conventional plot also helps to express Thomas's conception of art. If an artist assumes that accident and spontaneity play an important role in art and if he values ambiguity, then he is unlikely to have a tightly controlled plot with a resolution that neatly ties together all the loose ends; for such a structure implies that the artist has carefully planned out everything in advance. He avoids the conventional mystery plot.

Yet there is an irony in the structure of Blow-Up. Although on first view it seems to be episodic and rather random in order, a closer examination reveals that it does have a rather artificial order. Many of the encounters that Thomas has in the first half of the film (before he meets Jane) are repeated in reverse order in the second half, which makes a neat circular pattern after all…. The structure, then, is not haphazard, which implies a distance between Thomas's and Antonioni's view of art. I think this distinction can be clarified by a closer examination of the mime troupe, which frames the film.

The art of the mime troupe in the final scene suggests an important contrast with the other examples of art in the film. For one thing, it is not temporary; pantomime is a traditional art form linked to the past, and the imaginary tennis game is a sustained creation that does build. Secondly, it is an art which requires engagement—not only from the performers, but also from the audience looking on who contribute to the illusion. It also requires the involvement of the camera, which follows the path of the imaginary ball; and finally succeeds in winning the active participation of Thomas, who has been detached throughout the film. He actually retrieves the imaginary ball for them, and has to put down his camera to do it. This act recalls the first interaction between Thomas and the troupe in the opening scene when he contributes money to their cause. Thirdly, the artists in this instance are in control of what they are creating: the illusion of the spontaneous or accidental (that is, when the ball goes over the fence) is obviously controlled; there is no instrument (like a guitar or camera) other than the creators themselves; the ambiguity between illusion and reality is carefully controlled and is based upon a wilful act of imagination that is totally missing from Thomas's conception of art. This is the kind of art that is being replaced in the contemporary world, and its position at the end of the film helps to stress its significance.

I am suggesting, then, that Antonioni is critical of the style he employs in Blow-Up. It is not that the style is inherently 'bad', but that it can be used to imply a conception of experience that threatens to destroy values of the past. Yet he demonstrates that he can use it as effectively as his contemporaries. In this film he seems to allude to the styles of others, which was not characteristic of his earlier films—the fast pace of Lester, the Hitchcock-like treatment of the murder in the park, the mime troupe which seems to belong in a Fellini film, and even the allusiveness which is so characteristic of Godard. Yet he uses the allusions quite differently by making the borrowed elements peculiarly his own, by making them essential to the meaning of his own film, by putting them in a new context while still retaining and exploiting the context from which they are derived. This is the essence of artistic control, which is so antithetical to Thomas's conception. (pp. 136-37)

Marsha Kinder, "Antonioni in Transit," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1967 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 36, No. 3, Summer, 1967, pp. 132-37.

Charles Thomas Samuels

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 characters, he has no sense of life's purpose. Thus, when faced with a challenge, he cannot decisively act. Unable to transcend himself, except through ultimate confrontation with his soul, he represents modern paralysis. (p. 124)

[He] is part of his world. Hiding behind a tree, like the murderer, he shot with a camera what the latter shot with a gun; and he did not save the older man. He is blond, and so is the murderer. For all his aloof contempt, he is as frivolous as the mod clowns who frame his experience. In the last scene, when he hears their "tennis ball," he effectively actualizes the charade existence that they share in common. His final gesture of resignation—like Sandro's tears, Giovanni's loveless copulation, or Piero's and Vittoria's failure to meet—shows clearly that the photographer cannot change. (p. 126)

The modern world, however, seems bent on destroying its traditions. On the wall of the photographer's apartment, an old Roman tablet is overwhelmed by the hallucinatory violence of the modern painting at its side. More important, traditional human pursuits are being drained of their force. Politics is now playacting; a pacifist parade marches by with signs bearing inscriptions like "No," or "On. On. On." or "Go away." Pleasure is narcotizing, whether at the "pot" party or in the rock 'n roll club. Love is unabsorbing, as the photographer learns from his friend's marriage. Art has lost its validity. Murder is ignored.

These last implications are forcefully portrayed in the film's main scenes of human interaction….

Through turning sparse, functional dialogue into a system of verbal echoes, Antonioni achieves the economy of tight verse. Yet he does not sacrifice naturalness. (p. 127)

[An example of Antonioni's economical use of dialogue to establish meaning occurs when the painter's wife] hears the photographer's confession of failure and declares her own. Bill's art is no alternative to the destruction symbolized by the murder; his art is another version of it. They can no more deal with their marriage than the photographer can deal with the crime. She can only slink away in compassion for their mutual impotence, leaving him to futile pursuit, marijuana, and his depressing moment of truth….

The incredible greenness of a park that was the ironic setting for murder suggests another of Antonioni's means. When the photographer discovers the body's loss, he looks up at the tree, whose leaves now rattle angrily, and sees the leaves as black against a white sky. Like the sound analogies and the verbal cross-references, the color in Blow-Up aids comprehension….

Colorful though it is, Blow-Up seems to be moving toward colorlessness, black and white—almost as if Antonioni were trying to make us face the skull beneath the painted flesh. (p. 128)

Charles Thomas Samuels, "The Blow-Up: Sorting Things Out," in The American Scholar, (copyright by the Estate of Charles Thomas Samuels; reprinted by permission), Vol. 37, No. 1, Winter, 1967–68, pp. 120-31.

Robin Wood

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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….

Like so much else in the film, [Corrado's] behaviour … is extremely ambiguous. Antonioni … sees him merely as 'taking advantage of [Giuliana] and of her state of mind' ('… it is her own world which betrays her …'); but it is at least as valid (and the two views, though seemingly contradictory, are not incompatible) to see his actions as motivated by an extreme protective tenderness which is as much concern for his own vulnerability as for hers. He is drawn to her because she expresses in an extreme form his own innermost tendencies; she represents for him also the temptation of defeat, as a means of evading the need to struggle. (p. 111)

Corrado's function in the film, then, is roughly analogous to that of Marion Crane in [Hitchcock's] Psycho: he represents a reflection, within a recognisable normality, of the central figure's psychotic traits. We find similar reflections in some of the minor characters. We recall, for example, that the workman whom Corrado and Giuliana visited at the radar installations had been in 'hospital' with her. We recall also the workman's wife who, in her husband's absence, expresses her opposition to his going to Patagonia. Her unnatural fear of being alone (even for a day, she says) relates clearly to Giuliana's alienation. We are to see Giuliana, then, not merely as a neurotic woman, but as an extreme extension of a general contemporary condition. Virtually the whole film is devoted to the detailed study of her alienation which is offered as the study of the human predicament in an industrialised society….

[When the hut interior is smashed for firewood it] is one of the moments in the film when Antonioni seems to be groping beyond any concern with the 'modern condition' as such towards more fundamental and permanent metaphysical issues, Giuliana's alienation making her hypersensitive to existence, to time and flux. Antonioni thinks here in the movement and rhythms of film as a great poet thinks in the movement and rhythms of verse, 'thinking' here being indistinguishable from feeling. (p. 112)

The use of effects or incidents whose interpretation is complex or very uncertain is one of the film's chief characteristics, and partly accounts for its unsettling quality. There is the mysterious scream, for instance (if that is what it is), heard while the party are in the hut. Giuliana and Linda hear it, and we hear it, though, at a first viewing, we are very unsure at the point where it is discussed whether we have or not—characteristically, we are put in the position of sharing Giuliana's uncertainty…. For Giuliana the mysterious cry becomes an expression of vulnerability and desolation, it insidiously suggests the vague, inexplicable 'something terrible about reality' that she talks of to Corrado later. (pp. 113-14)

The striking thing about Giuliana's escape world is that it is devoid not merely of industry but of human beings. The mysterious ship that 'braves the seas and storms of this world, and, who knows?, of other worlds' is utterly empty. It somehow fulfils a desire in Giuliana that makes possible a sense of universal harmony, so that 'Everything was singing'; out it is a harmony that depends on the exclusion of humanity and all the complexities of human interchange….

[Antonioni would like the viewer] to see Il Deserto Rosso as being about Giuliana's failure to adjust to the society in which she lives—unexceptionable in itself…. [However] the film precisely reverses its creator's expressed intentions. It is also, in its 'instinctive ambiguity', a far richer and more complex work than Antonioni's statements about it would lead one to expect. Apart from Giuliana and Corrado, the characters are all too peripheral for us to get to know very much about them; one gets the feeling that Antonioni is reluctant to examine them closely or in detail. Consequently, we never discover clearly just what their 'adjustment' entails: it seems to amount to little more than an ability to handle machinery and be impervious to noise. Beyond this, the chief characteristic the minor characters reveal is a singular ineffectuality in relationships, an inability, indeed, to form relationships on any but the most superficial level. (p. 115)

The scene of the abortive little would-be orgy in the hut reveals the film's true moral position unequivocally. The cheaply promiscuous pawing and sniggering talk of aphrodisiacs—pornography on the most infantile level—illustrates the trivialising of sex and of human relationships that marks the 'adjusted' characters (Corrado, initially at least, finds it distasteful). After it, Giuliana's straightforward request to her husband to make love comes across as representing a healthy normality, a desire for true intimacy and depth of relationship. Whatever Antonioni may say, it is Giuliana in whom all the film's true positive values are embodied…. In the world Antonioni creates in Il Deserto Rosso it is the neurotic and incapable woman who is closest to anything that could be defended as a tenable 'normality'. (pp. 116-18)

The ending of the film, where Giuliana tells Valerio that birds don't get killed flying through the poisonous yellow factory-smoke because they learn to avoid it, can scarcely be taken as a simple statement of the need to adjust. It is rather the summing-up of her final position of total defeat: she will henceforth try to get along, not by coming to terms with her abnormal condition or with her environment …, but simply by blocking them out—by systematically deadening her own responses. Unlike the birds, she can't fly away: she has to live among the objects and sights that are poisonous to her. We see her walking away against a background of factories and yellow containers that is again an out-of-focus blur. The very last shot of the film, which immediately follows, shows us the same factories in focus. The intention, presumably, was to convey to the spectator a sense of release not shared by the protagonist (like the last shot of Psycho). The effect is converted into one of bitter despair, by the loathing of industrialism on human grounds that the film has by now defined; this is scarcely mitigated by the feeling for the aesthetic beauty of factories. In the background rises the poisoned yellow smoke, and the sense of the parable is surely clear: to avoid it is to live a life of spiritual paralysis, to accept it is to die. (pp. 119-20)

In Il Deserto Rosso we never really accept industrialism as sufficient explanation of Giuliana's condition, and are left wondering whether she would be able to adjust to any milieu. Whereupon the whole ostensible subject of the film crumbles away, and we are left asking ourselves, 'Why a neurotic for protagonist?'. (pp. 122-23)

The somewhat enervating effect of much of Antonioni's recent work seems to be intimately connected with the split between conscious and unconscious intentions. In Il Deserto Rosso the complex of tendencies analysable in the films from L'Avventura on reaches its culmination in some respects and begins to be transcended in others. Here the enervating effect of self-conscious insistence on style is offset by the constant fertility of invention and the readiness to leave things relatively open (in details if not in overall sense)…. [To] center a statement about the contemporary condition on a highly, perhaps incurably neurotic woman who is unable even to begin coping with her situation, unable to draw upon any insight or awareness, and to reduce the other characters to ciphers, is again to make things too easy. What Penelope Houston called 'unresolved tensions' in the film amount to spiritual deadlock, and, given the director's ambivalent (or confused?) attitude to his subject-matter, Giuliana was perhaps the only kind of protagonist possible. One of the consequences is a singular lack of development within the film. The ending makes it clear that Giuliana hasn't made any significant progress, a point emphasized by the fact that she is dressed as she was at the beginning.

If not the greatest, Blow Up seems to me easily the most likeable of Antonioni's later films; and its freshness and vivacity make one look forward to his future work with an eagerness one would scarcely have anticipated in the days of La Notte and L'Eclisse.

Il Deserto Rosso marked a break with the past in comparatively peripheral ways; Blow Up makes the break more extreme and decisive. (pp. 123-25)

What one first notices about Blow Up is its tempo, its effect of spontaneity, its lack of mannerisms. Where La Notte, for example, seems much longer than it really is, Blow Up seems shorter. The preoccupation with beauty of style as an end in itself that characterized the preceding films is largely absent. The cleanness and directness of expression in Blow Up suggests a much more immediate (hence for Antonioni healthier, because less self-conscious) involvement with the subject matter. (p. 125)

The spirit of enquiry and exploration foreshadowed in certain aspects of the previous film is a much stronger determinant in Blow Up, and this is surely closely connected with the new hero-figure. Antonioni here sets out to examine how a man can try to live in the more 'advanced' environments of modern civilisation, instead of starting from the assumption that he can't. Or that, at least, is about half the truth….

Antonioni's later films are built not so much on plots as on cumulative episodes, linked by a common theme or principle of composition. In Blow Up he uses a classic mystery-thriller plot, but uses it only as one element—albeit a central one—in the whole. The form of the film can be compared to a Theme-and-Variations, bearing in mind that all the best sets of variations are not merely strung together like beads, but have a cumulative effect. (p. 126)

Ambiguity, uncertainty, the blurring of distinctions, inform every episode in the film. Far from attempting a documentary examination of London, Antonioni selects only what is relevant to this central compositional principle, so that even the most incidental details fall naturally into place in the total picture. Nothing is definitively identifiable: outside the junkshop Thomas sees two feminine-looking men walking poodles, and shortly after, in the park, a masculine-looking woman in male uniform picking up litter with a pointed stick. Nothing is quite what it looks like: the façade of Thomas's house/studio seems to have no relation to the world behind it, the restaurant where he goes for lunch is indistinguishable from a private house. Objects are separated from their functions, or become wildly incongruous with the environments in which they are placed or the human behaviour around them…. No one has any sense of positive purpose: even the posters in the protest march with which Thomas, driving from the restaurant, gets tangentially involved, are exclusively negative. Most of them simply say 'NO'; some are upside down ('ON'), therefore meaningless or contradictory. And doubts that Giuliana's vision of existence in Il Deserto Rosso was essentially shared by her creator should be decisively removed by Blow Up, which is singlemindedly concerned with life on quicksand. (pp. 126-28)

Relationships in the world of Blow Up are unstable, enigmatic or deceptive, [Patricia] lives with Thomas's artist friend yet seems on intimate terms with Thomas, who fondles her in front of her lover. When Thomas sees the artist making love to her, she is making no response whatever—she seems to be merely allowing him to use her to work himself off. The relationship gives her no sense of identity, or of belonging. The relationship between [Jane] and the man in the park is almost (but not quite) certainly not what it looks like. And what of her relationship with Thomas? When she finds she can't get the photos he has taken of her in any other way, she begins to take off her clothes. He stops her, and gives her a roll of film she thinks is the one she wants (it isn't); whereupon she continues her attempt to seduce him. So where does her interest in getting the film end and her interest in having Thomas make love to her begin? Clearly, there is no answer.

In a life of quicksands, purpose falters, deviates, collapses. (pp. 128-31)

One of the first things [Jane] says to Thomas in the park is 'No, we haven't met—you've never seen me.' The invitation to deliberate prevarication or suppression takes on far more sinister overtones as the film progresses. The main drift of Blow Up seems to me very clear: we are shown a young man inhabiting a world in which everything combines to undermine the firmness of his hold on reality. The mystery surrounding the murder comes as a test: he is subjected to a deliberate undermining of his confidence in his own perceptions, and he crumbles. The cumulative effect of the episodes (or variations), both on Thomas and on the spectator, should also be clear, with various points quite unconnected with the mystery-thriller narrative (Thomas's failure to answer Ron's 'Free like him?'; his joining in the battle for the guitar) acting as landmarks in the protagonist's development. The murder is, nonetheless, at the core of the film. (p. 131)

Moral distinctions in the quicksand world of Blow Up are as blurred as any others, and definitions such as 'Good' and 'Wicked' cease to have validity or even meaning. Legal proceedings would categorize [Jane] very precisely as 'Murderer's Accomplice', while we see, with Thomas, an evidently very complicated and bewildered, and highly sensitive and vulnerable, human being.

The notorious episode with the teenage girls is relevant here. No one wants to admit to being shocked by it, but lots of people profess to be shocked that Antonioni should try so hard to shock us. Surely the shocking thing about the scene is that it isn't presented as shocking? In fact, it is very funny and charming. (p. 137)

What becomes of first importance to Thomas is not abstract justice but something very concrete and personal. With his hold on reality weakening, he must get a picture of the corpse; in other words, he must know that he has seen what he has seen. Alternatively (or, better still, as well) he must share his knowledge with another consciousness. The importance these aims assume is the index of the weakening of Thomas's own confidence. The drug orgy amid which he finds Ron and into which he himself (we presume) is finally drawn, is not a bit of cheap sensationalism nor a bit of spurious local colour in the 'Swinging London' scene. It is the logical culmination of a film, constructed like a poem of thematically related images, about the way in which perceptions can be tampered with, undermined, and finally broken down. Thomas emerges from it at dawn with his camera, but it is too late—the corpse, and with it Thomas's last chance to prove to himself the reality of what he has seen, has gone. (p. 138)

Although a slight figure (whose slightness accounts for that of the film of which he is the dominating consciousness), Thomas is a far more active and positive figure than most of Antonioni's male protagonists, and his defeat accordingly seems at first to carry that much more weight. At the same time his very activeness is to some extent at odds with the drift of the film as a whole: we are not at the end really convinced that so chirpy and resilient a man would be so decisively undermined by the experiences we are shown him undergoing. Isn't Antonioni manipulating the character against its nature, in order, once again, to bring the film round to a final and too easy defeat? There remains some conflict between the traditional plot-and-character narrative at the core of the film and the more typically Antonionian 'poetic' form of thematically related episodes and images. The latter is, as usual, contrived to express a predetermined defeat, and plot and character are forced to submit, even though they seem to want to develop more 'openly'. The artist's description in the film of how his paintings develop, spontaneously and subconsciously, so that it is only later, by finding a clue and following it, that he understands them, is probably intended as a 'testament' description of how Antonioni makes his films, and one can see that their 'variation' form of related episodes supports this. But this doesn't really contradict the 'predetermined' effect of his films—predetermination can as easily work subconsciously as deliberately, more easily, perhaps, when it remains unchecked by fully conscious recognition. Antonioni has found a more 'open' hero, but he is still incapable of making a truly 'open' film—as one sees immediately if one sets Blow Up beside another film about contemporary bewilderment and confusion, Godard's Une Femme Mariée….

Like Il Deserto Rosso, Blow Up tries to make a clear distinction between objective reality and its protagonist's failure to maintain his grasp of it. The last shots of the two films are closely parallel: Giuliana walks past out-of-focus factories and stockyards, which Antonioni slides into focus for us to contemplate as they really are; Thomas's confidence in his perceptions of reality have collapsed, but we are left to contemplate the real grass. Yet in both films the characters' breakdown carries weight disproportionate to the 'placing' of that breakdown: there remains grave doubt whether the encouragement to share the central figures' disturbed vision doesn't greatly outweigh any attempts to detach us from its distortions and limitations. During Blow Up's final tennis-match, the camera-movements follow the imaginary ball's trajectory as to place the audience subjectively in the hallucinated position of Thomas and the mime group, just as in Il Deserto Rosso, through the use of soft-focus and colour distortions, the audience participates in Giuliana's alienation. This in itself can be readily enough defended as honesty on Antonioni's part—Giuliana and Thomas, if extreme cases, are to be taken as to some extent representative modern consciousnesses, not clearly distinguishable from ourselves and the director, and the films derive their force from this. It is less defensible when placed in the context of Antonioni's tendency to manipulate his films towards a pre-ordained defeat. The overall effect of Antonioni's films is still to limit rather than extend the spectator's sense of the possibilities of life. (pp. 138, 140)

Robin Wood, "Part II: Colour Films," in Antonioni by Ian Cameron and Robin Wood (© 1968 by Movie Magazine Limited; reprinted by permission of Movie), Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers, 1968, pp. 106-40.

Stephen Handzo

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 was the only way out. Or perhaps that is where Antonioni has been all along, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by modernity, doomed forever to mix Marcusean heavythink, Tom Wolfe switched-on sociology, and Vogue photography. (p. 15)

Having, perhaps, bored even himself with boring accounts of the bored Italian bourgeoisie, Antonioni now casts his lot with the Marcusean young who dare to paint obscenities on the impersonal walls of Late International Style campus architecture, urinate in corridors color-coordinated in Industrial Psychologist Modern, and copulate in computer centers. Indeed, what more apt locus than the American multiversity could Antonioni have chosen to illustrate the crises of post-industrial society?

Zabriskie Point finds America at an impasse, torn by the contradictory values of the [Mr. Allens] who want to erect houses on its mountaintops (mountains, erection, phallus, construction, achievement, aspiration, activity, accomplishment, ambition, houses, offices, institutions, masculinity, business, competition, acquisition, stability, machinations, technics, skyscrapers, guns) and the Darias who would rather make love in its valleys (valley, vagina, vulnerability, passivity, sensitivity, sensuality, fellatio, femininity, sharing, spontaneity, appreciation, indifference, improvisation, humanism, mobility, nature.) (p. 16)

Mark and Daria are implicated in [Allen's] world even though they may think it is a world they never made. They benefit from its technology—reverting to innocence and open spaces in a plane and car respectively—and from whence did they derive their own values if not from the mass higher education subsidized by the tax dollars of the [Allens]?

Ironically, if technology and nature are ever to be reconciled, it will be through the kind of balanced design suggested by [Allen's] houses, which, in fact, harmonize rather successfully with the landscape. Daria feels "at home" in the desert; [Allen] would make the desert a home…. For [Allen], instead of temporary escape and isolated forays of short-lived, self-serving gratification, the desert could be made to support an alternative life. The risk, of course, is that however fine the original plans, the infections of smog, neon, and billboards would inevitably follow, humans being as regrettably imperfect as they are. (But wouldn't the likes of Mark and Daria litter the sandscape with half-eaten tacos and used prophylactics, or paint peace symbols and clenched fists on the Grand Canyon?) (pp. 16-17)

In many ways, the United States stands poised at the juncture of critical decisions concerning its future, but Antonioni is an infirm counselor. His characteristic attitude is ambivalence. Antonioni knows history, he knows that any course of action has unforeseeable ramifications, that post-Freudian man is aware of his own neurotic motivations, that action itself is ambiguous. (pp. 17-18)

What American youth perhaps wanted Zabriskie Point to be was a scathing indictment of the status quo culminating in an affirmative, self-righteous, implied call-to-arms for a mass Woodstockian uprising. What it got was Mark and Daria: two-against-the-world who would much rather be making love in the desert if only the mean world would stop invading their lives. (p. 19)

Antonioni finds American youth achieving consciousness of its unique historical destiny as the American ethos has sunk to its nadir. (The conjunction of Mark and Daria, and their discovery of each other, takes place at the lowest point, geographically, in the United States.) Whether a new society can arise from the ashes of the old is dubious. (To continue exploration of Zabriskie's symbolic subtext: Daria is headed for Phoenix but never gets there; the mythic bird, Mark, is fatally wounded as he touches ground.) Antonioni may be able to see the forest of the tranquil future through the trees of the troubled present, but he also implies that even if the revolutionary youth culture succeeds, it will inherit a society that has spent its force. The Revolution may be inevitable, but is only slightly less obsolescent than the Establishment as the West dims to twilight. (pp. 19, 22)

[Audiences] come away from Zabriskie Point feeling that something is missing or that this is "not America." Zabriskie Point is America but it is also Antonioniland and which is paradoxically nowhere and anywhere that the West has loosed the ambiguous gift of technology, shattering and detribalizing traditional cultures into remnants devoid of content and leaving behind a broken landscape of jetports and rice paddies. (pp. 22-3)

Cinema is rife with Good-Bad movies; in Zabriskie Point, Antonioni may have created the first Brilliant-Godawful movie, simultaneously sophisticated, puerile, gratifying, maddening, elegantly simple and pretentiously naive. (p. 24)

Stephen Handzo, "Michelangelo in Disneyland," in Film Heritage (copyright 1970 by F. A. Macklin), Vol. 6, No. 1, Fall, 1970, pp. 7-24.

Roy Huss

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 self-conscious display of his mastery of the medium, but in Blow-Up he enters a new dimension. By transforming Cortazar's amateur photographer into a professional one, a would-be transcriber of life as well as an artificer of fashion, he makes the aesthetics of documentary filmmaking itself one of the key themes of the film. Whether the photographer's camera has created, distorted, or merely recorded reality becomes a question of technique as well as one of psychology and epistemology.

[The] second keystone of cinematic art [is] the way in which the film medium best reveals time and emotion through the dynamics of space-play…. [Drama] for the film medium meant movement—not movement bound by the exigencies of limited setting or by the range of gestures of performers, as in the theatre, but movement born of the constant shifting of spaces and planes, of light and shadow. When involving actors, a filmed sequence made the most dynamic use of space when the threat of a confrontation exploded into a frantic pursuit, as it did in the great locomotive chase in Keaton's The General. (p. 3)

In Blow-Up, as in [Resnais's Last Year at Marienbad] and [Bergman's] The Seventh Seal, we see it as a very cerebral, but nevertheless spatially oriented, kind of pursuit—a pursuit of a moment in time that epitomizes some crisis of identification or of self-awareness, and that takes us through endless corridors (Marienbad) or over medieval landscapes (The Seventh Seal). In Blow-Up, as in these other films, the search for self rightly takes the form of a physical quest, in which the protagonist moves successively through a park, in and out of a jungle of photographic equipment, among crowds of hostile and indifferent people. However, here too Antonioni enriches an artistic element by actually making it a subject for study: he not only dramatizes the photographer's quest by choreographing his position with relation to people, objects, and background, but he also allows him, as artist-creator, to "spatialize" dramas of his own…. (pp. 3-4)

The third keystone upon which film art makes a bid for our involvement—that of appealing to the voyeur and eavesdropper in all of us—also goes back to its origins, to the lure of the peep show…. Antonioni's camera allows us to witness an orgy and several abortive seductions, and, as one critic remarks, lasciviously watches with us from a low angle as the two teenagers, their behinds straining the material of their tight mini-skirts, climb the stairs to the photographer's studio. Yet as before. Antonioni carries his convention a step further: he not only makes us voyeurs but he also studies the act of voyeurism itself. (p. 4)

Blow-Up is Antonioni's contribution to the subject of the artist's involvement with his medium. In fact, in many ways, it is a filmmaker's film: Antonioni's fascination with the art and craft of still photography—a sister art to cinematography—shines through at every point….

The filmmaker's involvement with his own craft is revealed in Blow-Up in one of the most spell-binding sequences of cinematic art—the one in which the photographer enlarges the series of photographs of the man and woman in the park. In a tour de force of artistic transcendence, Antonioni uses his own camera to compel the still-photographer to create a motion picture of the crime—a parallel to the photo-animation that occurs in the mind of the amateur photographer in Cortázar's story…. But it is only when Antonioni begins to pan his own camera over the series of photos—sometimes dollying in on one of them for a "close-up"; once following [the photographer] behind a translucent enlargement hanging on the drying-line for a "reverse angle shot" of the photographed park scene—that he begins to activate the series of stills into a kind of motion picture. By finally erasing the image of the photographer himself from the screen, Antonioni reveals even more decisively his directorial presence and control. (p. 5)

Roy Huss, in his introduction to Focus on "Blow-Up," edited by Roy Huss (© 1971 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1971, pp. 1-6.

John Francis Lane

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 is important to them.

At other times, the Italian commentary … will intellectualise, as when during a visit to the Great Wall (a Sunday excursion for the Chinese family) it quotes Brecht, reminding us that great monuments were not built 'by' emperors or kings but 'by' the slaves who often sacrificed their lives. Antonioni takes a political attitude more subtly in showing us the happiness on the faces of the Chinese people….

[Chung Kwo] is a notable achievement as a documentary. But I suspect that it will be remembered not so much for what it shows us about China …, but for what it could represent as a personal experience to an artist such as Antonioni, finally exploring a country where there is no such thing as alienation, 'no sense of anxiety or haste,' as the commentary says in the opening sequence. (p. 87)

John Francis Lane, "Antonioni Discovers China," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1973 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 42, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 86-7.

Roy Armes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 memories of Marlene Dietrich as Shanghai Lily. Antonioni presents his material in long, uninterrupted sequences without humorous or explanatory detail so that we are driven to reach our own conclusions about the significance of, say, these Chinese sipping tea or simply wandering around amid the relics of an imperial past. The tension comes from the relation of camera and subject. Though we never see Antonioni or his crew at work, the reactions of the Chinese make us continually aware of the camera. The citizens filmed in a Peking square stare back at Antonioni as intently as he examines them. The most remarkable sequence in the whole film comes when a visit is made to a town far off the beaten track which at first seems deserted (echoes of the abandoned village in L'avventura). When the inhabitants appear, drawn by the unaccustomed presence of Westerners, the unseen camera seems to hunt them down, so that they turn away and hide—out of fear? timidity? politeness? Following the same journey pattern as so many of Antonioni's films, Chung Kuo too comes back finally to what had been its starting point in Peking: the enigma of the Chinese people. (p. 122)

Roy Armes, "Red Deserts," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), Vol. 13, No. 5, December, 1973–January, 1974, pp. 118, 120-22.

Pauline Kael

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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) worse than most.

But the dislocation is crucial: Zabriskie Point is a disaster, but, as one might guess, Antonioni does not make an ordinary sort of disaster. This is a huge, jerry-built, crumbling ruin of a movie. At the opening, he tries briefly to capture the ambience of revolutionary youth, but he soon returns to his own kind of apparently aimless scenes in his own kind of barren landscape…. It's as if he were baffled by America and it all got away from him, and so he, like other filmmakers, picked up the youth mythology so popular in the mass media; but he uses it as a rigid, schematic political point of view, and it doesn't fit his deliberately open-ended, sprawling style. (p. 114)

Zabriskie Point is pitched to youth—that is, to the interests and values of the rebellious sons and daughters of the professional and upper middle classes—the way the old Hollywood movies used to be pitched to lower-middle-class values. The good guys (youth) and the bad guys (older white Americans) are as stiffly stereotyped as in any third-rate melodrama, and the evil police have been cast from the same mold as the old Hollywood Nazis. Antonioni has dehumanized them, so that they can be hated as pigs, but since he has failed to humanize the youth, it's dummies against dummies. (pp. 114-15)

It's a dumb movie, unconsciously snobbish, as if America should be destroyed because of its vulgarity. We're embarrassed for Antonioni not because he insults America—everybody does that, and we're used to it—but because he insults our intelligence. (p. 116)

[He is] saying that America is nothing but garden furniture and books and the contents of our freezers—that we are a nation not of people but of objects…. Are we nothing but material objects, or is it that Antonioni can't connect with us and so, like his alienated protagonists in earlier films, turns us into objects? I think the deadness of Zabriskie Point comes from his own inability to respond to America and his falling back on treating everyone in it as an object in a demonstration. In the ending, when Antonioni makes extraordinarily pretty pictures of chaos, isn't he doing just what he attacked the "decadent," "irresponsible" photographer in Blow-Up for doing? (He used the title Blow-Up on the wrong movie.) I doubt if he's much interested in his theme of revolutionary action; I think it's the other way around—politics provides the excuse for photogenic explosions. (p. 117)

Pauline Kael, "The Beauty of Destruction" (originally published in a slightly different form in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVI, No. 1, February 21, 1970), in her Deeper into Movies (© 1970 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 113-19.∗

Lee Atwell

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 infused their own personal visions and cinematic vitality into the thriller format with A Bout de souffle and Tirez sur le pianiste. Antonioni, on the other hand, has never demonstrated any genuine interest in this sort of material. Even in Blow Up, where the "who-done-it?" framework seems most relevant, our attention is constantly deflected toward the values implicit in the photographer's behavior and his problem of grasping an objective view of reality. Here, the conventional suspense elements are perfectly in accord with Antonioni's subject and method, but in The Passenger this is not always the case….

Rather than produce a fast-paced thriller with existential undertones, Antonioni gives the story a languid, leisurely ambience, dwelling on existential motifs exteriorized through psychological behavior. Jack Nicholson's world-weary journalist is seen as symptomatic of the modern man who reaches a point of no return and "feels the need for a personal revolution." (p. 57)

When speaking of his character's need for a "personal revolution," Antonioni cannot, I think, be implying that he acts out of a change in political perspective. The film's evidence simply does not support this view. Locke does not assume Robertson's identity for any other reason than to escape his past, and in doing so he acts out of "bad faith," refusing to accept responsibility for the situation in which he finds himself. Furthermore, he acts out of ignorance of the dead man's existential situation. All this seems to complicate matters for the sake of narrative intrigue, but Antonioni seeks to put matters into perspective through the introduction of a young girl Locke meets casually in Barcelona…. Her main function … is that of a catalyst, a positive force moving David forward from the impasse in which he finds himself. (p. 59)

Antonioni has always stated that because of his intuitive, evolving conception of working, he is unable to understand a particular work fully until he has finished it. Here, discrepancies appear because he has begun with a finished story and rationalized himself into it rather than letting his expressive needs grow out of the material. Altering it to suit his own nature, he has succeeded in creating some memorable sequences that are in themselves noteworthy but do not contribute to the underlying conventions of the story in an effective manner….

Beginning with L'Eclisse, Antonioni has exhibited a strong predilection for indirect, symbolic finales of a virtuoso order, and although experimental and poetic in structure, related directly to the theme or underlying premise of the film. This explains why the director imposes a similar ending on The Passenger. (p. 60)

If we compare this sequence with the mimed tennis game which concludes Blow Up, and so movingly suggests the photographer's impoverished values, or the apocalyptic fantasy of the heroine, expressing her ultimate disillusion with American capitalist society, in Zabriskie Point, the virtuosity of this extended take appears like "The Emperor's New Clothes." If we are to assume that the central character's death has any significance, why does Antonioni go to such pains to avoid it? Because he wants to create an aura of suspense—very much in the manner of Hitchcock in Rope—to enliven the final moments of a story, and a character, which do not particularly interest him. As a result, Locke's death does not acquire any existential meaning and the final shot suggesting the continuity of life is merely an added afterthought rather than a meaningful gesture. Its resignation is that of a master film poet who has just completed an assignment full of beautifully conceived moments that fail to cohere into a satisfying artistic whole. (p. 61)

Lee Atwell, "'The Passenger'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1975 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Summer, 1975, pp. 56-61.

John Simon

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 recognized, whose obsessions or despair we could understand, especially as they were surrounded by vistas or artifacts that objectified their malaise.

In The Passenger, however, everything must be taken on the say-so of the film makers, on the slender evidence of a pained expression or a painfully written line or two. (p. 16)

The symbolic superstructure had better rest on a little basic believability before reaching for the higher metaphysics; but The Passenger is using its pseudo-Hitchcockian framework without any of Hitchcock's ability to couch his machinations in ostensible reality….

Motivation is as scant as probability. One quasi-stenographic scene is supposed to convey what went wrong between David and Rachel…. [Human] behavior is reduced to mere uncompelling idiograms….

But there is another layer here, the Antonioni-autobiography layer, where the director unconvincingly superimposes his own problems on those of his characters…. Antonioni's self-pity preempts the chance of genuine pity evolving for the characters….

But what about dialogue? When David first accosts The Girl at the Palacio Güell, here is their initial exchange: "I was trying to remember something." "Is it important?" "No—what is it, do you know? I came in by accident." "The man who built it was hit by a bus." "Who was he?" "Gaudí." "Was he crazy?" I cannot say whether the scenarist who has two people meet like this is crazy, but he might easily have suffered a concussion when hit by a bus. When the dialogue isn't being coyly lunatic, it is dismally platitudinous….

And then there is the pretentiousness, as when The Girl walks up to the window of the ultimate hotel room. "What do you see?" David asks from the bed on which he sprawls. "A little boy and an old woman. They are having an argument about which way to go." A bit later he asks again: "What can you see now?" "A man scratching his shoulder. A kid throwing stones. And dust." Compare this with John Peale Bishop's poem, Perspectives Are Precipices, from which it may derive, and you'll see the difference between genuine symbolism and mere attitudinizing….

What, then, are the film's contributions? It plays around fairly effectively with video tape and the tape recorder, but this sort of thing was handled better in Blow-Up with still photography. The film's vistas are beautiful enough, as always in Antonioni, and are well chosen to evoke moods. But without any human beings we can feel for, these sights, including some interesting interiors, remain no more than the interior and exterior decorator's art. There are some bravura shots [especially the seven minute take at the end of the film.]…

Now [this take] is all very ingenious, involving a crane and a special camera that can dangle perfectly horizontally, and some fancy choreography. But what does it mean? That time passes and brings with it equally trivia and tragedy? That life tramples indiscriminately big and small events? But this could be done much better (as it was at the end of The Eclipse) if we were not obliged to wonder, "How in hell did he get that shot?" or to exclaim, "My, isn't that clever!" It is directing that calls attention to itself for its own sake, and, among other things, serves to obscure from us the killing and wrap it in adventitious mystery. The sequence, with all its cleverness, is ostentatious and obfuscatory. Technique is to be admired only when it submerges itself in dramatic necessity. (p. 20)

John Simon, "Antonioni: 'The Passenger' Will Please Refrain …" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1975 by John Simon), in Esquire, Vol. 84, No. 1, July, 1975, pp. 16, 20, 39.

Gordon Gow

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, seemingly offered a carefree holiday-orientated existence, but in conditions so thoroughly preordained as to obliterate the need to think. (p. 33)

[Our] dislike of the conformity that Mr Allen represents, albeit with benignity, is channelled through our sympathy for Daria's calm and reasoning attitude to life. This girl is no sluggard. She isn't keen on work, yet she does it—'for the bread'—and if her emotional involvements are apt to be thin, we are shown in the key sequence at Death Valley that she can share with Mark an impulse which is both sexual and spiritual. Their time together on the sun-parched lake bed is indeed a time of love. And the most essential of the intermingled themes in Zabriskie Point is the importance of love, and the difficulty of sustaining it, within a conformist and materialistic society.

The film introduces tangential themes in the somewhat rambling style Antonioni favours. The first is sparked off by Mark's determination to assert his solidarity with the rebels but to do it in an individual way, which we have been given to understand is against the policy of the student group. (pp. 33-4)

If this first tangent underlines the prevalence of violence, and of a self-righteous readiness to retaliate, the second tangent suggests that a retreat which embodies an attempt at reform cannot be easy to attain. This we glean when Daria takes a little time out during her drive towards the Arizona house of Mr Allen, and goes to the small town called Ballister where she seeks but does not find James Patterson—a character destined never to be seen in the film. (p. 34)

[Patterson] might be taken as a wish-projection of Mark's unfocused quest. Here is a loner, wanting to be socially beneficial, doing something about it, and evidently putting up with the grumblings of the Ballister townsfolk who consider him a 'do-gooder'—which in their book is an uncomplimentary term.

But of course Mark will never reach even this amount of fulfilment. His self-destruction is not a simple thing, not inevitable. He might have acquired with time the staying power of a James Patterson. But his youngish impulsive drive, and his entanglement of rebellion and a certain basic honesty that relates to moral convention, combine to bring about his death.

First, however, there is his love for Daria, fleeting and elegiac. This is the very core of the film. Their meeting is a jeu d'esprit, an exceptionally light conceit for Antonioni and one that works beautifully. It lifts the film out of reality and into an ambiance of discreet fantasy. (pp. 34-5)

In Death Valley they provide an affirmation of life. The dried-up lake bed, the fierce sun, the relentless dust—none of these can deter their mutual rejoicing. On the contrary, within that gently fantasised environment, the irritants of nature are transmuted into a vision of beauty.

Viewed now, retrospectively, as a testament to the hope that was implicit in flower power, the development of the Zabriskie Point 'love-in' assumes a sad irony. (p. 35)

Mark's flight out of Los Angeles, as well as having a realistic plot motivation, is symbolic of his discontent with earthly restraints: 'I needed,' he says, 'to get off the ground.' And no doubt it is for this same reason that he takes dangerously to the air again…. (pp. 35-6)

The difficulty confronting an individualist in modern society is a problem known to many of the male characters of Antonioni: not least of course to Locke …, assuming the identity of another man, in the latest Antonioni film The Passenger. But for Mark it culminates with a tragically abrupt punctuation mark, which Mark has virtually wished upon himself, but which nevertheless, we cannot help but feel, he could without too much effort have avoided. Maybe Daria thinks to herself during the closing sequence that she ought to have made a greater effort to help Mark. But her sexuality is of a casual nature in keeping with the wishful freedom of her era, and love is likewise transient. This element of dissatisfaction with herself is combined with a resentment of diehard established values, and of the increase of social conformity. Such is her state of mind as envisaged by Antonioni in his now famous explosion sequence. (pp. 36-7)

What reverberates and repeats for Daria is hatred. She wants a fate more violent than Mark's to overtake the signs of conformity that he resisted in his own insufficient way. Perhaps Daria's personal resistance will be stronger. Certainly the upsurge of music and the gold-flooded sky as she drives on again, to no known destination, would imply a measure of optimism. But what the entire explosion sequence also implies, with hindsight, is a division between the peaceful ethos of flower power, with which Daria has not been absolutely identified, and the more practical strain in this girl: a strain that might well turn into the abrasive demeanour that one finds among malcontents in these mid-1970s. Because the peaceful ways, being extreme, were impractical, they have given place here and there to a certain bitterness, not unrelated of course to the increase in crime and to the more heated conflict between individualism and technology.

Zabriskie Point has a significance that endures, gathering strength as the passing years help so heartlessly to reinforce its observations of life. (p. 37)

Gordon Gow, "A Michelangelo Antonioni Film: 'Zabriskie Point'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1975; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 21, No. 10, July, 1975, pp. 33-7.

Bernard F. Dick

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 with underworld connections, he will run afoul of the syndicate because of his inability to deliver what it expects of him; (4) the pretender then becomes a man on the run, and his odyssey will, for the moment, transform the film into a road movie with its own conventions including the travelling companion with whom the fugitive has a short-lived but blissful affair, and the fortuitous event (e.g., car trouble) that brings the journey to a close; (5) the key figures in the deception assemble in the same place for the dénouement.

What distinguishes The Passenger from other films of this type is Antonioni's approach to the genre. In one sense, it is impossible to take the film literally because Jack Nicholson does not play both Locke and Robertson…. Clearly Robertson and Locke are twin aspects of the same person, like Elisabet and Alma in Bergman's Persona. Locke is theoretical man, an interviewer to whom Third World revolutionaries are material for a documentary; Robertson is practical man, a gunrunner to whom they are a source of income. (pp. 66-7)

Antonioni takes the conventions of the assumed identity film and pushes them to their epistemological and existential conclusions. Any serious film or work of literature that centers about masquerade, deception, or the discrepancy between illusion and reality ([Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote, Luigi Pirandello's] Six Characters in Search of an Author, [Jean] Anouilh's Traveller without Luggage, [Jean] Genet's The Balcony) is, at least implicitly, epistemological….

Furthermore, if a writer really intends to explore the consequences of exchanging one life or one mode of being for another, he will inevitably move into the realm of the existential. Why would one man switch places with another unless his own life were purposeless, unless he wanted to become something and not merely be? It is the philosophical core of the film, along with the literary analogues it evokes, that makes The Passenger unique in its genre. (p. 67)

The same charge that has been levelled against Sartre has been levelled against Antonioni, namely that his works are static. This is hardly the occasion to place Sartre and Antonioni within the context of the static that extends all the way back to Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound. Still it should be noted that Antonioni expresses visually what Sartre expresses verbally: the state of being trapped in the glue of existence. When fluidity has congealed, when freedom has ossified, there can be no movement.

David Locke is a man whose freedom has ossified. He has no being-for-others, only being-for-itself, which is mere nothingness. He will remain in that state until he frees himself of David Locke and becomes David Robertson, who, despite his shady (or is it?) profession, was at least committed to something….

It is impossible to watch the opening scenes of The Passenger without thinking of Camus' The Stranger, where the Algerian sun melts a freshly tarred road into a sheet of adhesive and dyes the golden sand red. It is an indifferent landscape, as unfeeling as Mersault, who responds to his mother's death, an Arab's murder, and his own execution with the same virile silence….

While Locke is a kinsman of Mersault, he is the brother of Roquentin, the narrator of Sartre's Nausea, who finds recording his thoughts in a diary as agonizing as Locke finds interviewing uncommunicative subjects for a documentary. Both suffer from mauvaise foi (self-deception), for neither is free. Roquentin is a slave to his diary and the book he is writing about the Marquis de Robellon; Locke is trapped in a job that holds no more surprises and a marriage that has turned sour. Both are moral sleepwalkers, acted upon rather than acting, influenced not by freedom of choice but by the presence of objects. (p. 68)

Roquentin's past was his diary, Locke's is his documentary, which Antonioni intercuts with the force of a flashback, although within the context of the film it is being viewed by Mrs. Locke and television producer Martin Knight. We learn much about Locke from the documentary. While he had the interviewer's knack of asking the right questions, he received answers that were so politically cautious that they meant nothing. In one instance, a witch doctor, annoyed at Locke's perfectly appropriate question about the disparity between his education and his current profession, walks off camera. The documentary form restricts Locke to the role of dispassionate recorder, limiting him to a life of fact, not fancy. Clearly Locke wants not only to change lives but also to change films; as David Locke he is the faceless creator of a documentary, but as David Robertson he can be the star of a road flick or a cloak-and-dagger movie….

The Passenger moves between the two poles of the absurd and the existential; between Camus' incongruous universe where Sisyphus pushes his rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down, and Sartre's where men must struggle to achieve an essence even if it means keeping a rendezvous with death. Because the existentialist is more aware of the incongruous than the rationalist, he can see as basic truths what a more parochial mind would see as paradoxes. To ask if Locke's parable is Antonioni's indictment of self-knowledge is to ask if The Stranger is Camus' criticism of the absurd. Even Sartre did not know if Camus were writing for or against the absurd in the novel. Obviously he was doing both, for The Stranger shows the glory of absurd man in maintaining his stony silence even to the end and the tragedy of absurd man who never says all he might have said.

What we learn from the film is more important than what Locke learns. The spectator's knowledge is always greater than the protagonist's because the spectator can relate the protagonist's knowledge to something beyond fiction—to some school of philosophy or religious thought, even to the problem of evil….

[In the final scene] of The Passenger, Antonioni combines the existential and the absurd into an aesthetic. It is no longer a question of what Locke knows or even what we know, but what the camera knows. (p. 71)

The camera is free, and we are also. But free for what? To speculate on what is happening (or has happened) in the hotel room? Ironically, the frustration of not being out in the square has changed to the frustration of being in the square when we would rather be back in the room. (p. 72)

This incredible sequence is Antonioni's answer to the question that haunted Roquentin: Can one ever record what he sees or experiences with total accuracy? Certainly not with words which make an adventure of the present an exploit of the past, but perhaps with the camera whose eye is more exact than man's. Yet Antonioni would deny this, for cinematic knowledge is also limited. Life conceals its secrets even from the scrutiny of the camera. In his folly, man thinks that the closer he gets to an object, the better he can discern its nature. Yet the closer he gets to the object, the more ambiguous it becomes….

In The Psychology of the Imagination, Sartre writes: "There is accordingly something overflowing about the world of 'things.' There is always, at each moment, intimately more than we can see." Antonioni has respected the privacy of things and has not robbed existence of its mysteries. But he has taken life in all of its contingent sloppiness and by his genius stamped it with the seal of the necessary. Antonioni has also kept his appointment—with art. (p. 73)

Bernard F. Dick, "'The Passenger' and Literary Existentialism," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1977 Salisbury State College), Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 66-74.

Harlan Kennedy

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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 video, exults in it, and some of the images—the blood-red prelude, a yellow cornfield as biliously beautiful as a van Gogh—remind one that Antonioni can be the cinema's boldest painter. (p. 18)

Harlan Kennedy, "Venice: From 'Basta' to Bravo," in American Film (reprinted with permission from the January-February issue of American Film magazine; © 1981, The American Film Institute, J. F. Kennedy Center, Washington, DC 20566), Vol. VI, No. 4, January-February, 1981, pp. 18-21.∗

Previous

Antonioni, Michelangelo (Vol. 144)