With the deaths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman coming on the same day, the sense of an era of film forcefully, violently coming to a close (if it hadn’t already ended) is only heightened. No discussion about the “Golden Age” of art cinema, and especially art cinema in this country, is complete without mentioning Antonioni, one of the foremost directors of that much-idealized moment which found Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa jostling for screen space. Not nearly as prolific as Bergman, but equally as important in his efforts to tie the images employed in narrative filmmaking to a new symbolic order, Antonioni remains perhaps the most stubbornly “difficult” of the bunch, or at least the one whose films consistently defy the satisfaction of successful interpretation; one can imagine the firestorm of dinner conversation sparked by the mimed tennis match that closed Blow-Up. That sequence may now be considered somewhat passé, even pretentious, but when was the last time a film has sparked widespread debate about “meaning”? (Debating the identity of Kaiser Soze doesn’t count.)
His major works, almost willfully obtuse and given to frustrating narrative lapses, detours into dead space, and flirtations with the overtly surreal probably had about as much impact on me as those of Bergman did on my compatriot Michael. Red Desert seemed a transmission from another planet, full of unfamiliar languages and vistas; L’avventura was unmistakably earthbound, yet proffered a vision of our world gone musty with rot. I first caught glimpses of Zabriskie Point via a highlight reel which accompanied the presentation of his lifetime achievement Academy Award and was immediately curious as to what turn of events might prompt its famous hillside explosion. I couldn’t have been more surprised to discover that the film made answers to this query far from obvious, and that the same vision also held room for hundreds of naked bodies writhing in desert sand. (Most surprising of all may have been finding the echoes of a filmmaker so unfashionable today fully enmeshed in enfant terrible Bruno Dumont’s terrific Twentynine Palms.)
Antonioni’s cinema remained a doggedly pessimistic animal almost throughout. The only glimpses of positivity around human interaction in his films that I can readily recall comes in the mushy, wistful, late-period, Beyond the Clouds–Sophie Marceau fresh from bedding John Malkovich(!), shares a smile with herself as she walks back from the window where her mysterious lover recently bade her adieu. More typical was the architectural apocalypse of L’eclisse, which inexorably ground its characters into minority positions in forbidding landscapes until the film’s closing montage found humanity eradicated entirely.
Michelangelo Antonioni began his career as a documentary filmmaker in the aftermath of World War II, producing short commissioned works about the mundane—street cleaning in Rome, superstitions held among rural folk in Southern Italy. Who knows how much of this material survives, or if it will ever be made readily available, but it’d be fascinating to dissect in search of elements of his mature style. For all the ellipses in his narratives and baroque play with colors, his camera always seemed interested in catching events as they unfolded, by The Passenger’s landmark final shot providing direct documentary evidence of the filmmaker’s intensely choreographed cinematography. And there may be no filmmaker more attuned to the complexities of architectural space, except, perhaps, Tati who exhibited a similar, if more whimsical nervousness in the face of the explosion of modernist structures in the post-War period. Antonioni’s sixties films exist as a virtual catalogue of the physical changes Italy underwent as it repaired wartime destruction.
Unlike some of his compatriots of sixties art cinema, Antonioni turned his success in Italy into a ticket abroad, spending the decade following Red Desert making films, probably his wildest, most controversial, and most problematic outside of Italy. The idea of a filmmaker like Antonioni being pitched as a globetrotting “hot” filmmaking property seems almost quaint these days, but in 1970 no one probably batted an eyelash when MGM signed on for Zabriskie and stepped up again five years later for The Passenger. The trajectory from The Story of a Love Affair and The Lady Without Camellias to these later films isn’t direct, but even in his more “neo-realist” early films, there’s still a strangeness, a distance between the camera and his actors, that interest in plumbing grand landscapes. The turning point would be Il Grido, and after that, his famous trilogy fully staked out his focus on playing with narrative so as to obliquely capture the state of humanity, relationships, and Italy.
His last filmed work was his entry in the omnibus erotic film Eros, and it, for a brief few moments, conjures up the sense of mystery that marked his best films. He was hobbled by a paralyzing stroke in 1985, and it’s simply amazing he was able to keep working at all, much less produce a feature and a few shorts. Quibble with Beyond the Clouds all you like, but I’m as grateful for its existence as I am for all of Antonioni’s films. Perhaps more than any other, he’s the filmmaker who taught me not to fear the unknown in my viewing, demanding (successfully in my case), that expectations be left beyond the bounds of the frame, and that satisfaction be found not in conclusions or answers, but via ever-compounding and multiplying questions and ambiguities.