Michelangelo Antonioni Revisited

A few years ago (2007), headlines were made when two legendary filmmakers died within one day of each other: Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, respectively.  They, including Federico Fellini (who died in 1993), had dominated European filmmaking during the late 1950’s and throughout most of the 1960’s.  Most people, whether cinema lovers or not, were familiar with the names of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, while Antonioni, who had continued to make films into his nineties (he died at the age of 92), was largely forgotten.  I have often asked myself why his name has faded while those of his two illustrious contemporaries have survived.  Sometimes I think the reason is to be found in the fact that none of his films have ever been made into Broadway musicals: Fellini has had two musicals based on his films and Bergman has had one.  I often wonder why someone has not adapted Antonioni’s L’avventura into a musical, although I am sure someone has at least thought of it.  What I am really saying here is that for an average audience, Antonioni was probably the least accessible of the three.  Let us now review Antonioni’s long and distinguished career and his contributions to film as art and “the screenplay as literature.”

Although Antonioni had worked on the fringes of Italian film production for many years, he did not make his first feature film until the age of thirty-eight in 1950.  The plot of his first feature, Cronaca di un amore, a sordid melodrama, is not important for us.  But what are important are the discoveries he was to make in filming it.  For example, his habit of shooting rather long scenes was born spontaneously on the very first day of filming.  Soon he began to follow his characters until he felt the need to move on to another exercise.  For Antonioni this was the best way to be real, to be true:  that is to be inside the scene, exactly as in life.  But it was not just in the use of the camera that Antonioni was to make discoveries in the making of his first film, but in storytelling as well.  After Cronaca di un amore  opened in Paris in 1951, one French critic observed that the film “spins no plot; on the contrary, it draws a discursive tale to which the word ‘End’ is written only after the play of events has dispersed its three characters.”

I vinti  (1952), La signora senza camelie (1953), Le amiche (1955) and Il grido (1957)

In his next four feature films following Cronaca di un amore, Antonioni continued to make important discoveries and develop new techniques.   This was particularly true with regard to the subject of pictorial composition (e.g. the framing of the shot).  In this regard he went far beyond what had been the accepted conventions at the time.  For example, it had long been known in theater, and subsequently recognized in film, that the position of the actor’s body in relation to the audience (e.g. full face and profile) affected the intensity (strong, weak, etc.) of the dialogue delivered by him.   However, Antonioni discovered that   “a line spoken by an actor in profile doesn’t have the same meaning as one given in full-face.  Likewise, a phrase addressed to the camera placed above the actor doesn’t have the same meaning it would if the camera were placed below him.”  Thus, pictorial composition in Antonioni’s films came to serve as a means of conveying meaning—and sometimes meaning not directly expressed in the script—as well as feeling, intensity and mood.

Perhaps the most important discovery about cinema that Antonioni made during this early period was concerned with plot and story construction.  “Thus I have rid myself of much unnecessary technical baggage,” he related, “eliminating all the logical narrative transitions, all those connective links between sequences where one sequence served as the springboard for the one that followed. . . cinema today should be tied to truth rather than to logic.”  And how would Antonioni accomplish this?  By structuring his films according to the rhythm of everyday life, and not according to dramatic conventions—that was what would come to be known as The Cinema of Antonioni.

It was not until 1960, when his sixth feature film, L’avventura , was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, that Antonioni’s cinematic techniques and discoveries were to achieve the world-wide recognition and attention they so rightly deserved (up until that time, Antonioni was little known outside his own country, and none of his previous five features had yet been released in the United States).   Antonioni referred to this peculiar love story as a “mystery in reverse.”  A girl (Anna) vanishes and her friends conduct a search but never find her.   At the end of the film, the remaining characters go off in different directions, apparently forgetting about the lost girl.  What infuriated many of those who first saw this quite remarkable film at Cannes was that they never did find out what became of the girl, Anna.  This is not as illogical as it may seem, critic Pierre Leprohon observes:  “what concerns Antonioni . . . is the characters and their relation to themselves and to events.  Why, then, should he sustain interest in facts that have ceased to interest the heroes of the story he is telling?”  This was indeed a revolutionary concept in 1960: for an author to concern himself with only those things that interest his characters—and not his audience—was akin to giving them a life of their own, something utterly unheard of in cinema at that time.

While L’avventura did deviate significantly from previous theatrical traditions, it still contained one age-old dramatic element—although perhaps unintentionally—suspense.  In Antonioni’s next film, La notte (1961), however, even this element is lacking: we are not so much concerned with whether or not the protagonists find a way out of their predicament, but with the magnitude of their problem and how they go about solving it (or perhaps their lack of concern about finding a solution).

La notte (“The Night”) examines an intellectual crisis that is faced by an Italian writer, Giovanni; his relationship with his wife, Lidia: and the disintegration of his marriage—all three of which are obviously inter-related.  An American film of the same period and with the same subject matter would probably have concentrated on the reasons for the writer’s mental state and the failure of his marriage—a la Freud—relying heavily on the use of flashbacks.  However, Antonioni does no such thing: he does not attempt to analyze the situation—there are no flashbacks; he merely presents the situation as it exists for our examination, which covers approximately eighteen hours   in the life of the protagonists.    This one day (and night) in the life of the protagonists is not, however, just any ordinary day; in fact, it is a very important day, when a great deal of self-knowledge is to be gained (the couple come to the terrible realization that they no longer love each other).

In his next film, L’eclisse (1962), Antonioni continued to expand and perfect the techniques noted in La note and L’avventura.  L’eclisse (“The Eclipse”) is the third and final part of this trilogy examining the phenomenon of love (or lack of it) in our time—a modern love story (ca. 1962).  The film deals primarily with one character, a young career woman, Vittoria, and her new lover, Piero, a stockbroker; there is a strong implication that this relationship, like an “eclipse,” will be short-lived.  New for Antonioni in this film  are a very unusual documentary on the Roman stock exchange  and an Eisensteinian montage at the end that in an abstract manner attempts to tie together all the narrative and thematic threads of the film into one unified statement.  The rationale for this documentary digression into the world of money and banking is to illustrate the prison of investments and speculation that Vittoria’s lover is trapped in, affecting his every aspect, including his love life.  Antonioni’s premise is that the “world today is ruled by money, greed for money, fear of money” and that this “leads to a dangerous passivity towards problems of the spirit;” yet his premise becomes lost in this story where the two protagonists are so vibrantly alive.    The montage at the film’s end, however, is more successful than the aforementioned premise.  Here Antonioni juxtaposes several shots (fifty-eight in all) which show the places where most of the liaisons between the heroine and her lover took place and where they were, for brief moments, so happy, but shots in which the two lovers are conspicuously absent, perhaps a comment on the permanence of things and objects contrasted with the ephemeral nature of human relationships.

Antonioni’s next film, Deserto rosso (1964) is unquestionably his most masterful—the culmination and total perfection of his previous cinematic techniques and discoveries, as well as his first experiment in the use of color.  Deserto rosso (“The Red Desert”) is the story of the mental deterioration of a young, married woman.  Here, Antonioni’s use of color is a completely subjective one: the colors that we see are by and large exactly those that the characters see (Antonioni is reported to have painted a marsh gray for this film because that was the way his characters felt when they looked at it).

After Deserto rosso, Antonioni made three films in English.  I didn’t find any of the three particularly distinguished, but I will recount them for you anyway.  In 1966 Antonioni made Blowup, a mystery about a fashion photographer set in the “swinging” London of the 1960’s.  In 1970, he made Zabriskie Point, a film that dealt with the American “counter-culture” movement of the 1960’s.  Finally in 1975 he made The Passenger, another mystery film.  The first one, Blowup, was the most successful of the three, both critically and financially.  However, as this was essentially a purely entertainment film, it did little to advance the art of film or Antonioni’s reputation, although his mastery of his medium is certainly in evidence.  Zabriske Point was an unmitigated disaster, both critically and financially, although the film was meant to do more than entertain—which it certainly did not.   The Passenger, which starred Jack Nicholson, was, at least for me, the most interesting of the three.  It contained a seven minute scene consisting of one take that is still talked about today.  It is not easy for a filmmaker to transition from one culture and/or another language to a new one:  Antonioni’s experience in this regard demonstrates why.

Antonioni was to make just three more feature films during his lifetime.  They were Il mistera di Oberwald (“The Mystery of Oberwald”), 1981; Identificazione di una donna (“Identification of a Woman”), 1982; and Al di la delle nuvole (“Beyond the Clouds”).  I have to admit that I have seen none of the three, so I cannot comment on them.   Furthermore, none of them received wide distribution in the United States .
Antonioni was very supportive of my work on The Screenplay as Literature and graciously gave me permission to quote extensively from his screenplays.  One year when I was going to the Cannes Film Festival I had learned that Antonioni was also to be in attendance.  I brought with me a copy of my book in which I wrote a dedication and which I intended to give to him.  The dedication reads as follows:

To Michelangelo Antonioni,

The greatest creative talent that the Cinema has ever known and the inspiration for this book.

Regrettably I never met up with him that year, or any time afterwards.  By the way, I do not find that the passage of time has changed the validity of the above dedication.

Michelangelo Antonioni was ahead of his time.  Even today he is still ahead of his time.  Maybe in another fifty years Cinema will finally catch up with him.

The Aesthetic Question

As I have indicated elsewhere in this blog, when my book The Screenplay as Literature was first published, it was not well-received by critics in the United States.  For the most part, I felt that the early critics of my book had not actually read it; thus they could not fully grasp its purpose and central tenets.  However, one rather scathing review at the time did indicate that the reviewer had indeed read the book and did grasp the arguments that I put forth—although, he was quick to dismiss them.

This review, which appeared in The Journal of Modern Literature, begins by stating that “Indeed, the book [The Screenplay as Literature] would not even be worthy of reviewing were it not so symptomatic of the pabulum put forth by most studies which compare film with literature, the former almost inevitably bleached by the latter.”  And he wastes no time in getting to one of the core tenets of the book, quoting me as follows:

 Lastly, our study must be more aesthetic than technical: the quality and validity of a particular writer’s or filmmaker’s thoughts and ideas must take precedence over his particular mode of expression.  Although  the dictum  “The variations of a theme are more important than the theme itself” may be acceptable for music, it could never be acceptable in film, which as we shall see, must deal with reality and not abstraction.

Very much related, this reviewer also quotes another central tenet of my book:

“it must always be borne in mind that a film can be no better than the idea from which it has sprung. . . .”

The reviewer, an ardent adherent of the so-called AuteurTheory, takes me to task for purportedly dismissing cinematic techniques for “ideas,” something that the above quotes from my book may suggest, but not entirely accurately.  For him (the late William F. Van Wert, by the way), along with many of the critics of today, aesthetic questions should have little or no place in modern cinema.  He even extols American“Auteur” directors (e.g. von Sternberg and Hitchcock) who deliberately chose badly written scripts and transformed them into good films—if such a thing is actually possible. Why are these central tenets?  For the same reason we would make them the central tenets in any discussion of great novels.  Would anyone include a novel with a trite story or developed from a faulty idea in any canon of great Literature, even though the author demonstrates superior writing skills?  I think not. Nor should they in any canon of great films.

What then is the aesthetic question?  Well, if a film has a Lajos Egri-stlye premise, we might ask if the filmmaker did indeed prove or demonstrate his proposition.  But for most films the question is far more subtle; yet in almost every instance we have to ask:  “What exactly did the writer or filmmaker intend to do, and did he succeed in doing it”?  In this regard the films of Federico Fellini are highly illustrative.

Federico Fellini was one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his day (mid-1950’s until his death in 1993).  Many of his films were. and are still , considered masterpieces (e.g. La Strada and 8 ½, 1954 and 1963, respectively).  Fellini, who usually collaborated on the writing of his screenplays, was one of the very first filmmakers to completely master his medium.  Such mastery was often discernible in his extensive use of the moving camera, music, color and the precision in his casting.  Nothing in a Fellini film was arbitrary; every element was meant to dazzle the viewer.  And the fact that you were watching a Fellini film was unmistakable.  Yet many of his films were neither critical nor financial successes.  A case in point would be his Juliette of the Spirits (1965).

Derisively called, by some critics, a female companion piece to his previous hugely successful    8 ½, Juliette of the Spirits is the story of the wife of an unfaithful middle-aged public relations director who seeks to find her own individuality.  This is made all the more difficult as she struggles to be freed from the oppressive influence of her husband, family, “friends,” and, very central to the story, terrifying hallucinations.  However, the film, despite its cinematic pyrotechnics, didn’t work.  In my The Screenplay as Literature I pointed out that the there was little credibility in the miraculous transformation of the heroine of Juliette of the Spirits at the end of the film  “for a character that for all her life has passively let herself be acted upon and dominated by others.”  Where did Fellini go wrong?   Frankly, I don’t think that I know the answer.  Perhaps it was in his avowed purpose “to restore to woman her true independence, her indisputable and inalienable dignity,” even though he openly admitted that “to undertake to speak calmly and clearly about a woman is almost impossible for a man.”  Or perhaps it was Fellini’s over- use and over- simplification of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques that worked so well for him in 8 ½.   What is important, though, is that in this instance Fellini failed:  the questionable validity of his concept could not be masked by his brilliant mode of expression.

Today in America, and other countries as well, we have several filmmakers, who, like Fellini before them, also have mastered their medium.  When you see one of their films, even if you are not totally overwhelmed by its cinematic pyrotechnics, you certainly won’t be bored.  But often after seeing one these films you may come away with the feeling that you have just partaken of a sumptuous meal yet are still hungry.  This begs “the aesthetic question.”  Critics need to address it instead of just effusing praise for the filmmaker’s enormous talents– because when audiences  leave the theater, they most assuredly will.