Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), Part 1

Two weeks ago, on July 30, we lost not one but two of our great modern filmmakers. I had just finished watching L'Eclisse by Michelangelo Antioni a day or so earlier, and was preparing to write about it when I read the news about Ingmar Bergman. I immediately put my Antonioni article aside to remember Bergman through one of my favorite films “Persona.” And upon publishing it, I learn that Antonioni, too, passed away on the same day. Of course, life happens, and it is only two weeks later that I am finally getting around to completing the first of two articles remembering the work of Antonioni through his early 1960s “trilogy” of masterpieces: L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse.

Perhaps an interesting place to start is with this reflection on Antonioni by Ryan Walker Knight at The House Next Door:

For a long time I thought I didn?t get Antonioni. I rejected what I saw?a cool, detached intellectualism?as stuffy pretentiousness. I knew something was happening in L?avventura but I couldn?t articulate my anxious distaste. Also, I was bored. So I let it sit, somewhere behind something else in the recesses I don?t dip into every day and went on enjoying Godard…

Indeed it was shortly after seeing a few of Godard's early 1960's films that I saw L'Avventura for the first time – a phenomenon may be fairly common in the age of Netflix, as suggested by the blog 64 and Broadway, Barcelona. I recall watching Monica Vitti's performance as Claudia and then writing, “I have collected so many examples of mid-century European womanhood, what am I going to do with them?”

Of course, the appeal of L'Avventura was not just Monica Vitti's angst-ridden beauty, but it “cool, detached intellectualism”, mixture of confusion and boredom, the total “WTF” nature of the storyline, and all in the context of Antonioni's incredibly crisp, clean and geometric imagery.

The interesting thing about the settings in L'Avventura is that they are in contrast to the modern characters, the ancient volcanic islands in the first part of the film, the old “Roman” estates/mansions and the crumbly villages and town squares of Sicily. In the later films, the settings would be more modern as well. The stark contrast of old and new worked in L'Avventura, but so did the modern urban/industrial settings of La Notte and L'Eclisse. This paper by Yuri Sengalli (University of Toronti) compares and contrasts the settings in Antonioni's “tetrology” of films (Red Desert is sometimes considered the “fourth” in the series):

The four films reveal Antonioni's mastery and firm control over every detail of the visual arrangement of his images: the representation of and the relation between 'inside and outside', which is to say between a protagonist's intimate state and the dehumanized setting, is a matter of striking prominence with this director. In fact, the interiorization of the contemporary landscape and, likewise, the exteriorization of a character's inner life is the key issue of the works themselves…Significantly, the camera movements point to a deceivingly quasi-documentary recording and understanding of the characters and their precarious ties to their 'habitat'; more precisely they are used to indicate the problematic psychic states of the individual in the contemporary environment. Ultimately, a sort of subjective, psychological realism seems to surface.

I think one of the reasons films like L'Avventura (and Persona in the case of Bergman) appeal to me so readily instead of having to “grow on me” as many others have commented, is that I really feel I am a modernist in the sense that people used the term in the 1960s. I absolutely love the architecture, art and ideals of this period, the complete detachment and coolness of it all. And the settings and characters of these films fully integrate into that world.

In contrast to the more abstract and wonderfully perplexing character of L'Avventura, La Notte seemed very down-to-earth, with an easy-to-understand story. We spend 24 hours will a couple who seem to be on the verge of falling apart yet not quite managing to do so.

I have to say, I am happy that the Clintons did not choose to remake the finale from La Notte, as suggested by Glenn Kenny and discussed on this site back in June. In general, I did not get quite the same sense from this film as I did from L'Avventura It was more of the classic anti-love story, but one that was very well done, again with that clean, modern style in both its people and settings. And I do have to acknowledge the seemingly unrelated opening credits as brilliant: a rising elevator in a construction site (or that's what it appeared like to me, at least) with a very experimental piece by Giorgio Gaslini. La Notte is probably the most “musical” of the films in the trilogy (or tetrology), with Gaslini's score. But even here, the music is sparing. There are lots of silent moments, and this is something I appreciate as a musician with a deep interest in silence and soundscapes without deliberate music.

In part 2, which I hope to present in the near future (i.e., sooner than another two weeks), we will move on to L'Eclisse and perhaps beyond…

One thought on “Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), Part 1

  1. You did a lot of work on this. I'm sorry to say that I have not watched any of the movies. Perhaps I'll catch them on TV the next time they show them.

    Thanks for the info.

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