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Michelangelo Antonioni, whose long overdue, must-see retrospective opens this week at BAM, is not just a great movie director but, still with us at 93, a major European artist—one of the very few filmmakers ever recognized as such.
If his contemporary Federico Fellini lived to become the world’s most famous movie director, Antonioni established himself as the most glamorous of cine-modernists. During the decade between L’Avventura (1960) and Zabriskie Point (1970), his name was the equivalent of a chic designer label or a certain soigné state of mind—what, writing in the Voice, Andrew Sarris liked to call “Antoniennui.” Antonioni was the maestro of impeccable angst and elegant alienation, the poet of sterile architecture and bad breakups. His noncommunicative characters did not have personalities so much as drives. In Italy, he was a giant. Philosophers contributed admiring blurbs to the ads for his movies; an academic conference was held on L’Eclisse the day after it opened. His early supporters included Italo Calvino and Alberto Moravia. In America, Antonioni was naturally bracketed with those trend-setting postwar authors—Beckett, Pinter, Robbe-Grillet—first published by Grove Press. Naturally, the Grove catalog included mass-market paperback editions of Antonioni scripts, although beginning with L’Avventura, his movies assigned language an increasingly less important role.
A card-carrying intellectual, a critic with a strong theoretical bias before he turned to filmmaking, Antonioni flirted with superficiality. On a visit to Mark Rothko’s studio, he coolly opined that they both made “work about nothing . . . but with precision.” Antonioni’s most substantial movies feature, as the embodiment of spiritual anguish, the stunning (and at times, stunningly inexpressive) ’60s girl Monica Vitti. His modernism was provocatively mod. Perhaps we should call him a now-ist. Antonioni made industrial pollution ravishingly beautiful in Red Desert (1964). He did as much as anyone to elevate the fashion photographer to artist with Blow-Up, the 1966 art-house blockbuster which opens the BAM retro with a weeklong run.
Antonioni, like Fellini, emerged from and reacted against Italian neorealism; although less extravagant than Fellini’s, his mode was hardly more naturalistic. Made in 1950, Antonioni’s first feature, Chronicle of a Love, is a detached tale of adulterous passion in which a jealous husband’s investigation produces ex- actly the result he feared. Even with this circular twist, narrative is subsumed in mise-en-scéne. Antonioni’s affinity for heedless affluence and fond eye for the pop landscape are already in evidence— as is his habit of ignoring generic conventions. If Chronicle is a thriller, it’s one where, as Seymour Chatman observed, suspense is replaced by “Sartrean nausea.”
The 1957 Il Grido was the first Antonioni film to use a specific location, here the semi-industrial Po Valley, as the stylized stage set for a stripped-down existential drama. Jilted by his lover and his hometown about to disappear, an angry working man wanders impulsively through a world that has no place for him. Pervasive mist, fluid compositions, and melancholy piano doodling add to the disorientation. But it was Antonioni’s next film, the spectacular widescreen L’Avventura, which—lavishing neorealist attention on the rich and the bored—brought his style to maturity.
A mystery that casually abandons its ostensible premise midway through, L’Avventura was the scandal of the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Booing, which began before the movie’s midway point, gave way to jeers with infuriated members of the international press hooting, “Cut! Cut!” during the lengthy silent scenes or odd, yet purposeful, camera maneuvers. Nevertheless, L’Avventura did receive a jury award and 35 critics signed a petition in its support. Cinema as temporal sculpture, L’Avventura would be among the most influential of ’60s movies (anticipating, in some respects, the more radical use of “real time” in Andy Warhol and structural film).
Less monumental in its purity and more subtle in its radicalism than L’Avventura, Antonioni’s 1962 masterpiece L’Eclisse showcases Monica Vitti as his moodiest, most evasive heroine, drifting out of one affair and into another with Alain Delon’s mercurial stockbroker. (The film’s manic stock market scenes represent Antonioni’s most explicit venture into the Theater of the Absurd.) Love, of course, is impossible. Both of these beautiful creatures are overshadowed by the blandly futuristic architecture of the film’s setting—everyone seems to live in Mussolini’s model city, site for the never realized 1942 Rome World’s Fair.
As L’Eclisse anticipates Godard’s
Alphaville in its use of a “found” Flash Gordon landscape, Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert, is almost pure science fiction. Everything exudes a chemical glow. Nature has been supplanted; Antonioni painted the grass to make it even more voluptuously poisonous. A factory worthy of Metropolis spews out toxic clouds of yellow vapor, driving the movie’s tragic, agitated heroine (Vitti), who is married to its manager, well past distraction into madness. “There’s something terrible about reality, and I don’t know what,” she whimpers. Positing a protagonist who is allergic to the world, this gorgeous movie is the prototype for Todd Haynes’s Safe.
Following Red Desert, Antonioni became a tourist. After making Blow-Up in swinging London, he crossed the Atlantic for Zabriskie Point and, like the protagonists of Easy Rider, went in search of America. The trip turned out to be a bummer. The production was harassed by the federal government, then greeted with incredibly hostile and dismissive reviews, from both the straight and hip press. Rather than a paean to youthful activism, Zabriskie Point was a violent anecdote enacted by a cast of attractive androids over the course of a single golden afternoon. This was a sumptuously new form of alienation: Antonioni in America.
Perhaps because so many of his movies are nominal thrillers, including his 1975 Jack Nicholson vehicle The Passenger, Antonioni is sometimes seen as an anti-Hitchcock. The two filmmakers could hardly be more different and yet they have their points of contact. Released the same year, Psycho and L’Avventura both confounded audiences by doing away, mid-movie, with their leading ladies. L’Avventura also shares with Vertigo a mesmerizing pace, an overwhelming sense of immanence, and a purposefully enigmatic causality. L’Eclisse rivals The Birds as an absurdist disaster film; Blow-Up elaborates on Rear Window; The Passenger could be a deadpan travesty of North by Northwest.
Antonioni employs pointless plot elements as Hitchcock did macguffins—albeit not to establish but to destabilize narrative. Given his fascination with stories of missing objects (which is to say openly metaphysical versions of The Bicycle Thief), Antonioni orchestrated some of the most memorable endings in movie history. The pantomimed tennis game that concludes Blow-Up was the great head-scratcher of 1966, but it pales beside the slo-mo Pop Art explosion capping Zabriskie Point or the seven-minute track-and-zoom extravaganza that winds up The Passenger.
My favorite is the 58-shot coda to L’Eclisse. Antonioni’s principals have simultaneously jilted each other; the filmmaker subjects the neighborhood where they were to have met to an apocalyptic neutron bomb effect. The stars are gone and so is the story. Humanity has left the building. All that remains is the arena wherein we can contemplate the impression of that absence.