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PRINT November 2007

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Michelangelo Antonioni

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, who died this past July at the age of ninety-four, will be remembered as one of the greatest visual artists of the cinema, in the company of Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Josef von Sternberg, and Max Ophüls. Here was a director who was not only a serious student of form, color, and mise-en-scène but perhaps the medium’s most visionary practitioner. Antonioni’s striking frames and at times astonishingly beautiful shots, however, do not distract from but rather intensify his principal preoccupation—the depiction of the human condition. His art is like Goya’s: often sad and unpleasant in content, yet gorgeous in appearance.

His stories—minimal though they may be—turn on the plight of individuals, especially men, caught up in personal dilemmas and bewildering feelings of alienation, of being out of place, of having lost incentive and direction. His protagonists are a failed architect (Sandro [Gabriele Ferzetti]), in L’avventura (1960); a sellout writer (Giovanni [Marcello Mastroianni]), in La notte (1961); a journalist gone stale (Riccardo [Francisco Rabal]) and a confused stockbroker (Piero [Alain Delon]), in L’eclisse (1962); a suicidal housewife (Giuliana [Monica Vitti]) and a distracted engineer (Corrado [Richard Harris]), in Il deserto rosso (1964); a bewildered photographer (Thomas [David Hemmings]), in Blow-Up (1966); a spiritually bankrupt foreign correspondent (David Locke [Jack Nicholson]), in The Passenger (1975); a stymied film director (Niccolò [Tomas Miliàn]), in Identificazione di una donna (1982). Their problems are existential, not political or psychological. Nowhere in plot or dialogue is there a hint that these distraught people would benefit from the Revolution or from psychoanalysis. Rather, the filmmaker sought to convey their predicament and a precise sense of postwar malaise through an intense concentration on the visible—on their faces, their bodies, and especially their interaction with the surrounding environment. Antonioni courted the senses.

His greatest films appeared just after cinema moved to the wide screen. That was no accident. With the exception of Il grido (The Cry, 1957), which relied heavily on the bleak, broad landscape of the Po valley, his films of the narrow-screened 1950s were too crowded. He needed a larger format to create mise-en-scènes with enough space to evoke the emotional isolation of the characters. In L’avventura, when Anna’s friends search for her on the tiny island of Lisca Bianca, they cross the steep terrain, with the endless horizon of the sea always visible behind them. When Lidia wanders around Milan in La notte, she is isolated by the emptiness of the urban background and, in a visual climax, stunningly dwarfed by crowded skyscrapers. In Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), characters emerge singly from the ghostly fog as they watch Giuliana walk away from the car that she has almost driven off a pier. One of Antonioni’s favorite painters was Giorgio Morandi, from whom he surely learned the art of grouping. But unlike the painter, the filmmaker found no tranquillity among scattered groups, for his were composed of lonely humans, not pots.

To an unusual degree, Antonioni’s art is governed by his keen attention to the ground against which he placed his figures. Like the Abstract Expressionists, Antonioni, with his telephoto lens, flattened things against broad surfaces. Particularly in the ’60s, he sought out framing boxes; for instance, to pin Monica Vitti against the wall in L’eclisse and Red Desert. Rothko’s signature bisection of the horizontal dimension (and Barnett Newman’s of the vertical, and Mondrian’s obsession with the whole box) may well have lingered in the filmmaker’s mind. (Antonioni once famously compared his work to Rothko’s, saying that it is “about nothing . . . with precision.”) In L’avventura, he revisited de Chirico, showing Sandro and Claudia fleeing a deserted Sicilian town built in the rectilinear Fascist style. In Red Desert, and again in Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1980), he experimented with background space by introducing a subtle movement in texture—a kind of crawling of the colors on walls; for example, the wall in Corrado’s hotel room after he and Giuliana make love. Like Rothko, Antonioni manipulated saturation, tone, and hue to suggest emotional turbulence.

For the cinema, Antonioni’s use of color was revolutionary. Unlike Hollywood directors, who got rushed into Technicolor by their studios, Antonioni thought long and hard about it. As early as 1947, he published an article in Film Rivista in which he argued for a very different use of color than that favored in American films, whose saturated hues were accented by the sharp edging of characters and objects. In the spirit of Chagall, he felt that color should range as freely in intensity, arbitrariness, and changeability as a director wished. In a make-believe letter to Samuel Goldwyn, he asked why Veronica Lake’s face shouldn’t be the color of cabbages and Alan Ladd’s that of artichokes. He fantasized reshooting the scene in Double Indemnity in which Fred MacMurray meditates his crime: MacMurray’s cheeks should have been green, and, as he retreats to the shadows, a Gauguinian red should emerge on the wall behind him.

When Antonioni was first able to make a film in Technicolor, he put only some of his principles to work. There are no green faces in Red Desert. On the contrary, the opening scenes feature a terrified Monica Vitti picking her way through an industrial wasteland, in a coat whose green is so muted as to be difficult to discern. Of course, when they need to be, Antonioni’s colors are no less intense than Vincente Minnelli’s or Stanley Donen’s. His representation of the inside of Giuliana’s husband’s factory, for example, might hang in the Léger museum. The colors are as strong as any mod industrial designer could wish. The metals shine and reflect, and the lines of pipes and tubes and ladders bind the colors in a brilliant way.

Still, oddly colored faces persisted in Antonioni’s imagination. In 1980 he made The Mystery of Oberwald, a television film based on a play by Jean Cocteau. The assignment (for that’s what it was) allowed him a chromatic freedom he’d never had in film production. He was able to sit at a console and literally mix the colors that his cameramen sent to the monitor in front of him. The result was not a memorable movie, but at least he got to paint the villain’s face lavender. Television color, however, could not match the gorgeous effects of Red Desert and later films.

Almost as extraordinary as Antonioni’s use of color was his brilliant deployment of silence. The absence of commentative music even at key moments in his films—reflecting the director’s preference for what he called a “dry” style—only intensifies the relevance of the smallest natural sound. Remember how much the rustling trees in Blow-Up add to the mystery of the park, whose sounds Thomas and the audience so vividly recall as he unearths the crime in his darkroom? (Rothko once remarked: “Silence is so accurate.”) Indeed, Antonioni is at his most eloquent in his use of silence, his severe curtailment of dialogue and his elimination of that Hollywood style of background music that aims to intensify emotion but often only calls attention to its own histrionics.

The problem for silent film was how to convey a full illusion of human experience without technical access to the voice or to environmental sounds. Fine solutions can be found in masterpieces like F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), in which Emil Jannings’s bulk negotiates a subtle range of tragic effects, or in the films of Buster Keaton, whose body has been aptly compared to a coiled spring ever ready to defend itself. Unfortunately, once sound arrived most filmmakers simply assumed the problem had gone away. Since the public was so enthralled with the new sound track, silence seemed no longer of interest. Only a few venturesome directors have rediscovered its aesthetic power—Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson come immediately to mind—but Antonioni is chief among them.

His reticence, it might be said, extended to narrative itself. Beyond brilliantly meshing visual form with theme—empty canvases with empty lives—Antonioni contributed early to cinema’s migration from Victorian narrative modes, as necessary and welcome a move as was that from Great Expectations to Mrs. Dalloway for literature. Beginning with L’avventura, his films are firmly liberated from Hollywood’s obsessive insistence on the conclusive denouement, on tying things up, whether for better (Mildred Pierce; Stagecoach) or worse (Sunset Boulevard). This was not easy or profitable for the director. The sophisticated audience at Cannes in 1960 was no more prepared than the general public to watch a film whose ostensible heroine not only disappears but is forgotten by the other characters. Probably expecting another film noir, where the body would be found and the mystery solved, the Cannes crowd booed vigorously. But, as Antonioni explained, L’avventura was a noir in reverse. Fortunately, the audience’s disapproval was quickly rejected by great cineastes and critics alike. Antonioni’s later films were no less rigorously open-ended: La notte’s tormented couple lie loveless after sex in a golf-course sand trap; L’eclisse’s couple vow to meet again and again but never do, leaving us on a dismally empty street corner in a Roman suburb; Red Desert’s neurotic heroine fails to communicate her despair to a Turkish sailor who speaks no Italian; Blow-Up’s photographer protagonist is literally erased after playing an imaginary tennis game with mimes; The Passenger’s burned-out hero, after a fruitless attempt to change his identity, lies dead in a provincial hotel room, without even the sound of the assassin’s pistol shot to mark his passing.

When shooting a film, Antonioni always said that he liked to approach the day’s location without preconceptions—in a “virginal” state, to use his word. He would arrive alone to find inspiration—and his aesthetic problems—in what he saw before him. Then he would populate the set with his actors, whom he expected to be no less virginal, to see themselves simply as moving aesthetic bits in the frame. Only then would the narrativizing begin. The product was what the world learned to call Antonionian.

Seymour Chatman, emeritus professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World (University of California Press, 1985).