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January 21, 2008
Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)
Michelangelo Antonioni Behind the Camera
Michelangelo Antonioni is probably best known for his films made in the 1960s which explored themes of isolation, alienation and the seeming lack of genuine interpersonal communications between people in the backdrop of the contemporary world. L'Avventura, The Red Desert, Blow Up and Zabriskie Point made in Italy, the UK and The USA respectively all contained these underlying features. With 16 feature films to his credit Antonioni made a respectable number of films over his career although he wasn't by any means the most prolific of the Italian directors.
Michelangelo Antonioni was born into a bourgeois family in Ferrara in 1912. At Bologna University he took a degree in economics. After leaving university he became a film critic fo the Corriere Padano based in Ferrara. He then moved to Rome to become a film critic with the journal Cinema in 1939 . He published an article in 1939 Concerning a film on the River Po. The outcome of this article was the making of his first film a documentary Gente de Po, (People of the Po) (1943). He reviewed the Venice film festival in 1940 revealing a strong degree of scepticism about the rampant commercialism and general superficiality of the mainstream cinema. Antonioni also studied at the Centro Sperimentale. He wrote the script for Rosselini's Un pilota ritorna in 1941. He went to Paris to assist with Marcel Carne's Les visiteurs du soir during 1942. Returning to Italy he reviewed Visconti's Ossessione (1943) in which he praised the portrayal of both the landscape and everyday life.
It was in 1943 that he begun to make his own films. His first film was a documentary which was supported by the Instituto Luce about the people living on the delta of the Po river, Gente del Po (1943). The film focused upon the everyday life of the people making a living there. With the film confiscated by the Fascists Antonioni has been overlooked as a part of the original neorealist film making tendency.
Extract from Gente de Po 1943: Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Later he worked with de Santis on the film Tragic Pursuit (1947) as a co-scriptwriter. Antonioni's next film was another short documentary style film Netteza Urbana (1948). This was about the activities of the sanitation workers in Rome making visible what is largely unseen as the work is done before most people are going to work. It was a neorealist perspective on the contemporary city and its unseen mechanisms.
Both films demonstrated a sensitivity to the hardships faced in daily life by ordinary Italians which would remain central throughout Antonioni's career. (Shiel 2006, p 97)
Shiel (2006) suggests that Antonioni wasn't one to wear his heart on his sleeve when it came to politics and that on the whole he preferred a more subtle approach than the more committed idealogues. Although not didactic Shiel points out that Antonioni's sensitivity to the plight of the poor got him into trouble with the censors in I vinti (1953). By representing the problems of the modern family especially the issue of juvenile deliquency Antonioni fell foul of the dictat which tried to ensure that only a positive view of Italy was represented. On the whole by then Antonioni had started a more abstract approach to his film making.
Extending the Concept of Neorealism
Millicent Marcus (1986) argues that the 1950s represented a crisis for neorealism and was also a time when there was a "proliferation of neorealisms' (Marcus p186). There was discussion of 'Romantic neorealism' from Visconti, 'Phenomenological neorealism' from Fellini and 'interior neorealism' from Antonioni. Marcus comments:
Neorealism is somehow reinvented in retrospect each time it is called upon to justify a new stylistic departure...The return to various aspects of neorealismto legitimize all important subsequent cinematic developments in Italy, even when those developments seem to contradict each other or to negate the neorealist example, is a testimony to the power of this precent and its elasticity. (Marcus 1986 pp 188-187)
Marcus continues by citing Antionioni's own stated perceptions of what he was trying to achieve:
I began as one of the first exponents of neorealism and now by cocnetrating on the internals of character and psychology I do not think I have deserted the movement, but rather have pointed a path towards extending its boundaries. Unlike earlier neorealist filmmakers, I'm not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism. (Antonioni cited Marcus 1986 p 189)
This appears to fly in the face of the original neorealist concept of representing the external world as it 'really' in terms of being a natural or social entity. Marcus suggests that what Antonioni is trying to achieve is a 'transvaluation' of realist concepts of truth by changing from representation of the external world by:
coming to mean fidelity to the nature of the medium or to the artist's subjectivity itself... (Marcus 1986 p190)
By the time of Red Desert Antonioni seems to have moved a considerable distance from the early notions based on ducumentarism in the cinema of Rossellini and de Sica in particular, nevertheless, argues Marcus he still maintains that strong ethical commitment which was a fundamental feature of 'classic' neorealism:
...yet the ethical commitment is still very much alive in him. Zavattini's notion of a "cinema of inquiry" in search of the truth about contemporary Italy has simply beeen transferred from the level of theme to that of visual style, but the impulse to to reexamine and revise the relationship between the observer and the phenomenal world is still as much a concern for Antonioni as for his neorealist predecessors. (Marcus 1986 p 206)
Cronaca di un amore
Cronaca di Amore
Cronaca di amore was Antonioni's first full feature film made in 1950. At this time the worst of the post-war austerity was behind. As the contextual circumstances changed so there was a need to represent other aspects of Italian society which included the rise of the new middle classes who were people benefiiting from the Marshall plan in Europe. Antonioni decided to focus on the emptyness of life for a bored middle-class wife (Paola) of a successful industrialist. Reviving an old romantic liaison with someone who had a drifting lifestyle with no regular income provided excitement and a focus of attention in her life. In many ways the plot was similar to 'A Postman Rings Twice' and Ossessione, itself derivative of A Postman Rings Twice. Other factors in Paola's previous life are gradually unfolded. Eventually they decide the Guido would murder Poala's husband Enrico. But when Guido is waiting to ambush the husband we hear a crash. Enrico has coincidently died in this crash, but in a twist to the tale the murder which might have consummated the relationship. This recognition of failure comes firstly from Guido who comments first "we can't go on", Paola responds "Why not" and Guido enigmatic questioning response "Don't you feel it". It is the enigmatic approach, the seeming inability to communicate in a direct manner which is at the root of Antonioni's vision.
Shiel (2006, p 101) usefully notes the compositional dominance in Antonioni's camerawork of the primacy of long and medium shots. These are shots which combined with a moving camera which "emphasise the alienation of the human subject by his or her physical environment." This 'detached mode' of using the camera also works very effectively in interior shots in which the use of long takes emphasise:
...the forms, surfaces and texturesof the physical habitatand its effects upon his characters'. internal psychology.
These are formalist devices which many people, more familiar with Antonioni's 1960s films such as L'avventura and Red Desert and even Blow Up, will recognise. It is interesting to note that Robbe-Grillet was very interested in the work of Antonioni and has been interviewed about his work which features in an old BBC documentary on Antonioni which hopefully will be made available again somewhere.
Monica Vitti in L'avventura
This provides some links between the French avante-garde of the Nouveau Roman (New writing)of those later to be known as of the Left-Bank such Marguerite Duras. Arguably Antonioni is perhaps the earliest exponent of cinematic ecriture or writing, a term used by Astruc who argued for the camera-stylo. Antonioni's use of things and his contruction of cinematic space isolate the bouregois subjects who inhabit his films in the 1950s and 1960s. His use of colour later in the Red Desert (1964) emphasises this tendency even more. In a recently published book Reading the French New Wave by Dorota Ostrowska she argues that it was the French writers and then directors of the Left Bank who reinvented the aims of 1920's modernism. Ostrowka examines the arguments of Andre Gide and also Jean Epstein. She points out that Gide:
...wanted to replace the artifice of plot with an arrangement of the events issuing from themselves and the reality of which they are a part and not from the order imposed by the narrator. (Ostrowka 2008 p 26)
Epstein she notes had similar intentions which seem to have much in common with Antonioni's approach to both his developments in form as well as in terms of the lack of strongly coherent narrative:
There are no stories. There never have been any stories. There are only situations, without the head or the tail, without the beginning, middle and end... with no limits imposed by the past or the future. These stories are present. (Epstein cited Ostrowka 2008 p 26)
Shiel notes Antonioni's filming of the city of Milan which is not only wet and industrial but is:
...predominantly characterised by an unnerving emptiness and anonymity and a lackof social energy and human warmth especially in the depopulated marginal spaces where Guido and Paola
secretly meet. (Shiel 2006 p 100)
It is an aesthetic of the city which is bleak and represents the growth of individualism accompanied by individualism and a move away from the scenes of social solidarity expressed in the classics of neorealism. It is a society in which spiritual poverty is replacing the material poverty represented by neorealism. In the clip below it is certainly bleak and wet and watch for the framing of Paola and Guido at the park gates where the bars come between them an echo of the mise en scene of classic film noirs:
Shiel points out that Antonioni saw neorealism as evolving and that the representation by cinematic means of interiority wasn't a rejection of external reality. In the extract above the obvious wealth of Paola who appears in a luxurious fur coat and with expensive diamonds serves to heighten the contradiction between crass materialism and its concommittant lack of human spirit. A left wing reading could have seen these symbols of wealth and status as a direct loss of rather than goals to be aimed for. The coldness of the relationship becomes a facet of the diamonds themselves signifying cold hard interiority.
Rossellini's Voyage to Italy (1953) follows Antonioni's lead as Shiel points out, however, the reconciliation through the warmth of the Neopolitan religious festival at the end reasserts a warmth of spiritual solidarity with people. In the film wealth doesn't make the characters happy and even a trip to Capri (repeated by Godard in Le Mepris 10 years later) fails to provide any spiritual relief. Rossellini's film does allow for hope, whilst Cronaca di un amore is more modernist in the ways outlined above and with its bleak ending signifies increasing alienation under capitalism. The fact that fate through a car crash removes the sense agency which had driven the film seems to signify that 'fate' here symbolic of a wider social structure. Again this is a theme returned to by Godard in Le Mepris. Indeed cars seem to signify a materialism that leads nowhere but crashes.
Antonioni's Films of the 1960s
Restivo suggests that Antonioni's films of the 1960s: (L'Avventura, 1960;La Notte, 1961; L'Eclisse, (The Eclipse), 1962; Il Deserto Rosso, (Red Desert), 1964; Blow Up, 1966; Zabriskie Point, 1968); can be seen in the context of two large intellectual currents:
...one, an interrogation of the phenomenological model of perception (within both psychoanalysis and philosophy generally; but also in relation to an invention -the cinema- that itself affected the dimension of this question in this century); and two, the rethinking of a specifically national cinematic tradition in light of pressing historical circumstances. (Restivo 2002, p107/08)
Zabriskie Point at the end where the arch-capitalist's house in the desert is blown up to the sounds of Pink Floyd
Antonioni Post the 1960s
After this period Antonioni went to China having been invited to make a documentary and filmed China Kuo Cina (1972) which was aired on TV. However the Chinese denounced it strongly arguing it grossly distorted what was happening in China. This was followed by The Passenger (1975) which was in the vein of Blow Up. Here antonioni follows the work of a TV journalist and manages to create a hybrid combining aspects of documentarism with a suspense-thriller.
In 1982 Antonioni returned to work in Italy after many years of working abroad making Identification of a Woman (1982). Although the style was the same as those of the early sixties Bondanella notes a shift in perspective where the woman is being observed rather than the man, as in L'avventura.
Antonioni's last film was made in collaboration with Wim Wenders who greatly admired Antonioni's work. antonioni had suffered a serious stroke during the early 1980s and wasn't expecting or expected to work again. This was Beyond the Clouds a portmanteau adapted from his short fiction. Wenders 'agreed to back-stop the production, to direct some linking sequences and to assist Antonioni on the shoot'.
I vinti (The Vanquished), 1952
Cronaca di un amore, (Chronicle of a Love Affair), 1950: (Colour , 100 minutes)
La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady without Camellias), 1953: (B & W 100 minutes)
Le amiche (The Girl Friends), 1955
Il grido (The Outcry), 1957
L'Avventura, 1960 : (B & W 145 minutes)
La Notte, 1961: (B & W , 121 mins)
L'Eclisse, (The Eclipse) , 1962: (B & W 125 minutes) [Sorry not yet open for viewing]
Il Deserto Rosso, (Red Desert), 1964: ( Colour 116 minutes)
Blow Up, 1966: (Colour
Zabriskie Point, 1968: (Colour, 110 minutes)
Professione: reporter (The Passenger), 1975)
Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981)
Identification of a Woman, 1982: (Colour 131)
Beyond the Clouds, 1995: (Colour, 109 minutes)
People of the Po, 1943
Sanitation Department, 1948
Senses of Cinema on L'Avventura
Senses of Cinema on Zabriskie Point
This is a useful discussion about sound and the construction of film based on an analysis of Il Grido from Yale
David Thompson on Antonioni a short reflection: The Desparate and the Beautiful
Poem for Antonioni by Wim Wenders: friend collaborator and director
Interview with Antonioni July 1969 from Euroscreenwriters
Interview between Antonioni and Cahiers du Cinema 1960 from Euroscreenwriter
Bondanella, Peter. 2002 3rd Ed. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York / London: Continuum.
Marcus, Millicent. 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. There is a complete chapter on Antonioni's Red Desert here dicussing the links to and shifts away from neorealism.
Ostrowska, Dorota. 2008. Reading the French New Wave. London Wallflower Press
Restivo, A. 2002. The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernisation in the Italian Art Film. Durham and London: Duke University Press
Shiel, Mark. 2006. Italian Neo Realism: Rebuilding the Cinematic City. London: Wallflower Press
Wenders, Wim. 2000. My Time With Antonioni. London: Faber & Faber
Availability of Films
Despite the outpouring of obituaries for Antonioni in 2007 very few of his films were available on DVD, certainly in the UK, despite many of them being considered as canonical not only in terms of Italian national cinema but as markers of modernist / art cinema in general. One must repeatedly make the point that this would be like having works of Shakespeare or Goethe out of print - quite unthinkable!!! This points again to the need for a European independent institution which has far more control rather than leaving things to the vagaries of the market-place. as soon as Antonioni died it was predictable that some films would start to become available again. The key point here is that crucial aspects of Eurpean cultural heritage that are cinematically based do not carry the same cultural weight as books and fine art.
Below are his available films which are strictly Italian ones.
La Notte was released by Eureka in March 2008