Poet of Malaise - Michelangelo Antonioni
Antonioni once named modesty as his greatest fault, but there are some who might laugh and call it obscurity instead. MGM, for instance, after the coup of Blow-Up (1966), they invited Antonioni to America and invited him to make what was supposed to be a prestigious blockbuster about student revolt - significant, violent, sexy and profitable. It proved to be a study of space and colour, with the incidental anger of the age dissolving into the ochre desert and the reverie of a perpetual explosion. No one got its point, or realized that the film was a rhapsody.
But, for Michelangelo Antonioni, the ending of Zabriskie Point (1970) was a heartfelt statement about the eclipse of love and human values. He made the film he wanted, no matter how little he seemed to grasp the American language and movie idioms. Zabriskie Point is about a land marred by garish constructions and development plans. But its harsh and enigmatic purity is restored at the end by an act of cinematic will: the slow-motion disruption of all the ingredients of an advertiser's dream domestic interior. The disintegration of things attains a lyrical anguish in which the song subdues the pain without drifting into travesty. This world has already given up its soul, and so objects, space and the creep of time are all that remain.
Antonioni's career seems to show a drastic alteration in the middle Sixties. He had worked in Italy on a series of pained, psychological stories of love-affairs in which the dread of failure became more universal and somehow less circumstantial. Then he left his native country and began to travel - to England, to America, to China and to the several countries that comprise the existential scene shifts of Professione: Reporter (1975, The Passenger).
But the change was less than it seemed. His movies have always been about the gaps between people and the relations between exterior and interior. Blow-Up has an odd insight in the real 'swinging' London, but it is much more fascinated by the way a photographer believes that his pictures have found truth at the far end of a magical park. Similarly, The Passenger is about the possibility of entering and leaving buildings - virtually the entire action can be expressed in those terms. Vagaries of place and time fade away as it works towards the sublime resolution in which the camera transcends one lethal room, wanders across a courtyard and then turns to look back at where it has been - like a spirit risen from the grave.
The Passenger is a spiritual film, and it reminds us of how in a 1957 interview, when asked what was the problem closest to his heart, Antonioni replied 'Can there exist a saint without God?' Religious authority never has a foothold in his films. Social institutions are regarded as prisons. But with his camera, Antonioni has tried to detect holiness, and gradually he has taught audiences his own reverence for desolation.
His characters are wistful dreamers, torn between the search for satisfaction and encroaching decline, and sometimes unable to look at one another because of the pain attendant upon seeing and being seen. In the early Sixties, especially, he was treated as the studiously forlorn poet of pessimism and dismay, dissecting the wan and nervously restricted romanticism of actress Monica Vitti, who features in five of his works.
But that overlooks the real significans of detachment in Antonioni's films, and the way it has grown into something more like mystical exhilaration. The Passenger, for instance, is his most resigned, calm and delighted film. It has found the world of space which people have done so much to confuse, and it has discovered beauty there. No other film-maker can invest place with such mystery and resonance, or make characters seem like pilgrims on a metaphysical threshold.
Born in Ferrara, in 1922, Antonioni recalled it as 'a marvellous little city on the Paduan plain, antique and silent.' Already he had an intuition of the décor of his films; reality becoming an evocative model, like the deserted city in L'Avventura (1960, The Adventure).
The film's dilemma - the puzzle of a missing girl - begins to seem insoluble, but can be felt... like the scarred surface of the wall in La Notte (1961, The Night), when Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) pulls away a flake of rust, suggesting that the history of human time is being handled.
As a child, Antonioni played games that seem relevant to his films. He had a fascination for buildings, and he would draw plans, make facades and even construct three-dimensional models. He would add human figures to these ideal buildings, and begin to make up stories about what they were doing there. Thus the emblematic significance of an environment or a space: the lift-shaft in his first feature, Cronaca di un Amore (1950, Chronicle of a Love/Story of a Love Affair); the sense of fraud that hangs over the film-set in La Signora Senza Camelie (1953, Woman Without Camelias); the frontier of the beach in Le Amiche (1955, The Girl Friends); the grey wasteland of Il Grido (1957, The Cry)... and so on, to the tumult of the stock exchange in L'Eclisse (1962, The Eclipse), the cramped orgy room with boats looming up in the mist outside in Deserto Rosso (1964, Red Desert), the photographer's studio in Blow-Up. Finally, the African hotel, the London house, the Gaudi buildings and the impassive but glowingly sentient Hotel de la Gloria in The Passenger, a film in which Jack Nicholson learns that he can be still and let himself be carried along by the sweet flow of change, time and fiction.
Just as he was intensely fashionable in the late Fifties and early Sixties, so today Antonioni is not too far from neglect. The early films are not easy to see, and thus no one could easily appreciate the Renoir-like fluency of camera movement and spatial link in Cronaca di un Amore, La Signora Senza Camelie and Le Amiche. Perhaps love has wings so that it may fly away, but in The Passenger the images of flight suggest escape and transcendance more than loss, and in Zabriskie Point the stolen aircraft is like a mythical bird.
The series of films that began with L'Avventura are sometimes perilously close to self-pity and intellectual pretension. Red Desert is a failure of nearly unbearable and uncommunicated distress, despite the first bold use of colour and the story of the island - the first imaginary location in an Antonioni film, and the clearest sign that none of the places has been merely real. L'Avventura has an ending that unduly wraps up the melodrama of sexual betrayal, but when it is just an expression of its central loss - the disappearance of Anna (Lea Massari) - then it is a model of abstract cinema.
L'Eclisse goes much further, and it is the most seriously overlooked of his films to date. Its long coda - of city sights and moments, the site of an appointment not kept, and of a street light coming on as an eclipse occurs - is a wondrous departure from the cold passion that existed briefly between Piero (Alain Delon) and Vittoria (Monica Vitti). It is as if a film-maker had managed to escape plot and character without denying humanism - and that is not far from Antonioni's total achievement.
Blow-Up never loses its beauty or its humour, never slackens its sense of the noble folly of preoccupation. More than most of Antonioni's pictures, it owes something to its source: the story by Julio Cortazar. Its people are photographs only, bewildered and hurt that they have no more substance. Nevertheless, the darkroom scenes and the reconstruction of the 'event' through pictures is a nostalgic tribute to narrative and suspense, just as Vanessa Redgrave gives and uncanny rendering of presence without explanation.
A time will come when Zabriskie Point and The Passenger will be reclaimed from indifference. It may then become apparent that no one has ever used the wide-screen better or more hopefully than Antonioni in Zabriskie Point, a history of the universe that makes the desert the centre of civilisation. As for The Passenger, it is a grave and lovely bow to Romanticism, purpose and social significance - all too aware that the movement of the camera and the passage of time are more profound.