Thursday, August 9, 2007

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, 1912-2007


BFP became addicted to films early on. Growing up in NYC, there was Million Dollar Movie running one movie 7 days a week two or three times a day. King Kong, Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, Top Hat, were available to be savored. BFP saw Citizen Kane while in the seventh grade and was awe-struck. BFP, of course, did not understand all of it, but the idea of a flashback way of telling a story, and that the viewer knew what Rosebud meant while none of the characters did kept BFP turning it on again and again to try to figure it all out.

While in college BFP realized that to live a subway ride away from Manhattan and to love movies was to be quite fortunate (All that was missing was sex.). BFP hung out at The Bleeker Street Cinema, The Art Theater and The 8th Street Playhouse (all gone now), and although BFP would later realize that he had not lived enough nor was he intelligent enough to fully understand what he was watching, saw the flowering of several great international directors: Bergman, Truffaut, Bunuel, Resnais, Godard, Fellini, and the director BFP memorializes this date on his passing, Michelangelo Antonioni.

First BFP must applaud Antonioni’s marvelous, eloquent, awe-inspiring formal style. His pans and his dollies—slow, long, and occasionally circular—entrance, leaving one spellbound. Antonioni’s camera seems to have a mind of its own. It often behaves the way our eyes do: not under our control and with no director dictating to them. His camera surveys its characters dispassionately: sometimes they are shot from behind, sometimes we only see half their body. Often they are shot from a distance. The decenteredness forces the viewer to watch closely, to notice glances, body language, actions and gestures. Physical motions used to reveal inner emotions. Time and time again Antonioni renders men and women as of no more importance than the material structures that entrap them. The classic final shot from L’Avventura (above) illuminates the feeling. The masters of contemporary film—Abbas Kiarostami, Edward Yang (More on Mr.Yang in the next post.), Hou Shiou Hsien, Tsai Ming Ling (More on Tsai in a later post also), Jia Zhang-ke (Way far from a master to BFP, but considered so by many critics BFP respects.) were as influenced by Antonioni’s visuals, as by his disillusionment with the postwar world.

If there were one word to describe the characters in an Antonioni film, the word would be “lost.” Passive because they are defeated, defeated because they are aware they live without hope, without hope because they are aware of their own emptiness. And then there’s Monica Vitti, the compleat Antonioni actor. Is there a shot of her in any of Antonioni’s films where she does not look completely adrift?

In fact, there is. With Antonioni, it’s the exceptions to the rule that make for genius. In his first masterpiece [BFP hasn’t seen Cronica di un Amore. Its admirers claim this is the first masterpiece.], L’Avventura, Claudia, (Ms. Vitti), significantly, is not from inherited, entrenched wealth. Thus, she can still delight at other people’s behavior as well as feel disgust, enabling her to forgive Sandro at the end of L’Avventura. The movie is actually her journey, her immersion into the jaded aristocracy of wealth.

For Antonioni, the forlorn are often men in creative fields like architecture (Sandro), photography (Thomas in Blow-Up) and journalism (David in The Passenger). Each has the whiff of sell-out about them, and each wallows in self-loathing. But each film ends on a note of possibility. Sandro can still feel if he can cry, and Claudia still believes in redemption if she can forgive. Although Thomas can no longer distinguish reality from illusion (Bordwell and Thompson, in their Film History, astutely point out that Blow-Up “probes the illusory basis of photography and suggests its ability to tell the unvarnished truth is limited” [2nd ed, p.428.]), the final shot of Thomas hearing the bounce of a tennis ball which does not exist is not as tragic as it initially appears. Thomas has come closer than ever in his life to imagine, and thus to create. Yes, David winds up dead, but the absorbing track shot that wraps up The Passenger, paralleling the great, final seven minutes of L’Eclisse, assures life will continue even if without the participation of the protagonists.

So, cinemaniacs, aside from a visual style nothing short of dazzling, what makes this heir to Samuel Beckett great is his hopefulness. Antonioni tells us it’s okay, life will go on, we may pass up our best chance at happiness or die trying to be someone else, but in the continuity, the unpredictability, the play of chance, the passivity, even the superficiality of our lives lies our endurance, our possibility, our life. We don’t know how we’re going to handle that next pitch: will we foul out to the catcher, will we hit a home run? In the words of that great philosopher, Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over until its over.”

2 comments:

angel said...

I have finally caught up with your recent posts. It's always a pleasure to read your writing. Thanks for making these thoughtful entries. I look forward to reading your next piece.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your piece on Edward Yang. Film buffs are familiar with Bergman and Antonioni and their body of work, however Yang died at 59 and only made a few films, and as you have stated some never seen in the US. His films reflect his individuality, humor, and compassion. Glad to know that you think him worthy of mention.