Aug 6, 2007

Playing Tennis With Mimes... Remembering Michelangelo Antonioni

During the 1995 Oscar ceremony, director Michelangelo Antonioni was presented with an honourary Oscar for his body of work. Before he was given the award, there was a marvelous montage of famous moments from his films, with his trademark striking composition, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful with that Axe Eugene" (used in Zabriskie Point). I had had some wonderful grass while watching the Oscars, and so this moment for me was an even greater sensory pleasure, enhanced with some natural stimulants. And when we look back upon the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, who died last week on the same day as Ingmar Bergman, that is perhaps what we remember most about his work. His striking frame compositions made his work worth seeing, although ultimately the worlds his films depicted were far from flattering.

In her classic essay, "Zeitgeist and Poltergeist: Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (collected in I Lost It At The Movies), Pauline Kael equated Antonioni's La Notte (and other arthouse classics of the day) to a modern-day horror film, with the hostess of the party uttering the line "They're all dead in here". If isolation and de-humanization are the horrors of the postwar industrial age, then Michelangelo Antonioni was its Tod Browning.

During his heyday in the 1960's Antonioni earned the nickname "The Master of Alienation" with almost as much pop-art colloquialism as Hitchcock being named "The Master of Suspense". Although having made a few features in the 1950's, it was the auspicious Cannes debut of L'Avventura that announced his arrival to world cinema. This epic-length fable, in which one of the lead characters disappears on an island without the others noticing, created an uproar while it was being projected, and still managed to take a special prize. In subsequent films, La Notte, Eclipse and Red Desert (his first colour film), similar afflictions of malaise and de-humanization affected his characters, in their inability to have warm relationships with another human being. And with the strategic, almost mathematical framing of his characters amidst the equally cold steel and concrete edifices of the modern world, his subjects would become as architectural as their surroundings.

And as such, when his characters did speak to one another the dialogue was enigmatic as to be otherworldly, as in the famous scene in Red Desert, showing Monica Vitti's conversation with a seaman, and neither understands what the other is talking about. To be certain, these films weren't for everyone- seeing bored-looking people standing around for two hours thusly caused people to christen his work as Antoniennui. (And as such, when one thinks of memorable moments in his work, it is usually those with strikingly composed visuals than when their characters are forced to act. Red Desert opens and closes with these arresting sequences of Monica Vitti walking through an industrial area, made further jarring by a weird electronic score. But in between, not much happens.)


But Blowup cemented his reputation. This 1966 classic, set in the swinging London mod scene, features a photographer (David Hemmings), who realizes that he may have accidentally taken pictures of a murder. The movie is not a "who done it", or perhaps not even a "what was done", as the murder, such as it is, became largely a springboard for him to evaluate what is real or transitory in his own lifestyle. The pop-art excess of the Swinging London mod scene is the backdrop of his world, where sex and drugs are plentiful, but ultimately unrewarding, as he searches for a new level of enlightenment. Leave it to Antonioni to set a film in such a vibrant landscape as these countercultural happenings, and then ultimately show just how soul-destroying it is. The famous scene where The Yardbirds play in a club is notable for how the spectators are as immobile as store mannequins. Thomas the photographer's view of reality is crumbling, where the gun disappears from his frame blowups, yet re-appears later; the body in the park is seen one moment, gone the next.

The ending of Blowup is my favourite moment of all the Antonioni I've seen. Back in the park, the photographer watches the mimes play tennis (with imaginary racqets and balls). At one point, the imaginary ball goes over the fence. The camera stays on Hemmings as he throws the ball back in the court, and then subtly, we hear the sound of a tennis ball being knocked back and forth. The protagonist can no longer discern what is real in his world, but finally learns that reality is what people around him artificially create.

Blowup created some notoriety in its day for its nudity and sexual situations (although very tame today), and was also the rare foreign film of the time to be played in theaters as remote as Smalltown Middle America. (While it is English-language, the film is distinctively European in style).

Antonioni's next assignment, naturally, was in Hollywood, Zabriskie Point (1970) was a huge flop. While today it has a cult following, (and perhaps I'm among them) it is admittedly silly, though far from uninteresting. Its central problem is the two weak leads (Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin) who escape their counterculture radical environment, via a stolen plane, and attempt to create a Dionysian world of their own in the desert. However, the adult world soon catches up to them. Many of the set-pieces in this film are as foolish as they are profound. When the two hippie lovers finally copulate in the desert, we are also privy to a hundred other flower children rolling around in the sand. On another level, Zabriskie Point is one of the finest examples of what happens when Hollywood employs (and otherwise distorts) the talents of someone as distinctive as Michelangelo Antonioni. (Another recent example is Emir Kusturica's unwatchable Arizona Dreams) Instead of making a definitive statement piece about the counterculture, Antonioni's approach is like a Martian making a movie about Earth-- illustrating his subject in a language that is so removed from those who would go to see it. Yet, despite the film's oddball symbolism, it is fascinating for all of these things. And it ends with a bang-- literally. The climactic scene where we see architecture and consumerism of the modern world explode and watch the debris float onscreen in slow motion, set to Pink Floyd's "Careful With that Axe, Eugene", is absolutely mesmerizing.

Jack Nicholson in The Passenger

The Passenger (1975) was perhaps his last great success, as it has all of the earmarks of classic Antonioni- strikingly composed landscapes and a protagonist who escapes one's identity. And it is remembered for an 11-minute unbroken shot in its finale where we realize that the hero summarily becomes trapped in his new realm of existence. This is perhaps the third of an unofficial trilogy, where the heroes face tragedy while searching for a new life. Actor Jack Nicholson held the rights to this picture, and had long kept it out of circulation, until its celebrated release on DVD last fall.

For a man of Antonioni's reputation, surprisingly, subsequent films were not picked up for North American distribution, such as Identification of a Woman (1982), and after a stroke in 1985, which severely affected his speech, his forays behind the camera were even more spotty. Beyond the Clouds (1995) was co-directed by Wim Wenders, and his segment for the omnibus film Eros (2004), was greeted with laughter. (The other two pieces, by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai garnered much more favour.) Perhaps his most telling cinematic swansong was the short film Michelangelo Eye to Eye (2004), where Michelangelo Antonioni himself appears on camera, gazing at the sculptures of Michelangelo. This figurative joining of the two Michelangelo's is slight, but perhaps encapsulates his career-- where the human subjects are engulfed by, and slaves to an overpowering landscape.

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