Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Antonioni -name like a game"

"I can watch the world through Michelangelo Antonioni's eyes forever. He is the greatest stylist of the modern era." - David Thomson

I don't want this blog to turn into "101 Great Dead Directors" but when one of the Giants goes, I feel I have to mark his passing somehow. And Michaelangelo Antonioni was certainly one of the Giants. When I was writing about Bergman yesterday and I came to a short list of his peers in the World Cinema pantheon, I considered adding a bunch of other directors: Godard, Truffaut, Visconti, Tarkovsky and of course Antonioni. But I'd already mentioned Fellini and I didn't want to have two Italians, and Fellini's work is far more accessible and has been absorbed by mainstream popular culture in a way Antonioni's work will always resist.

Antonioni, in contrast, seems to be the definitive "difficult" European director of cliche. His films are studies in nothingness, long, slow, beautifully composed elegies to the emptiness of modern life. On first viewing they can seem maddeningly vague and pretentious. But upon any further inspection, they are full of tiny telling details, of crucial nuance in frame composition and performance that suggest the deeper themes he was working towards. Of course I love him most for his style. He made absolute use of the potential of the cinema screen. Each shot in his films seems perfectly chosen, each cut to devastating effect. He used long shots and slow camera crawls to force the viewer to engage with the thematic concerns of his work, to work out just what he is lingering so long upon in that particular shot, and why? When he first shot in colour, on "Il Deserto Rosso" (1964), he utilised his palette so well it was almost as if nobody had ever shot in colour before. He used colour just as he used every other element in the frame - as a signifier. Of meaning, of emotional state, of character. He directed architecture better than any director ever has. Every building in an Antonioni film has a narrative or thematic meaning, every wall and background is chosen for what it says about a character or a moment. And his films all possess a strange, beautiful dreamlike mood which comes from the juxtaposition of his style and his thematic preoccupations. Has any director ever been at once so modernist and yet made films which are so sensual, so intent on being beautiful? I love the way so much of his work focuses on figures in landscapes, disconnected and alienated from the world in which they live, work, move and love. I love how he always composes these passages, how he uses the soundtrack - wires in the wind, leaves in a breeze, the distant clamour of a city, a car backfiring - and how, if you're attuned to it, it has a pulverising cumulative effect.

Like Bergman, he enjoyed a "high period" when each of a run of films seemed touched with genius. For the decade between "L'Aventurra" in 1960 until "Zabriskie Point" in 1970, he produced a series of awesomely original, almost perfect films unlike anything else in cinema. After "The Passenger" (1973) he worked infrequently, until his recent films, made with the aid of collaborators like Wim Wenders, which have seemed somewhat self-parodic in the absence of that perfectly judged sensibility so obvious in the classic work. Any newcomers to Antonioni should really start with "Blow Up" (1966) and "The Passenger", perhaps his two most audience-friendly films, both in English, both shaded by genre without compromising any on his genius. And a genius he clearly was. For evidence, just observe the long tracking shot in the final scene of "The Passenger". Or any of the studies of Monica Vitti's face, blank with the ennui of her existence, in his early work.
He was a director who helped shape and define the artform, and in many ways he remains unsurpassed.



Blogger Beezer B said...

I didn't like Blow Up. Thought it was vacuous. Should I bother with any others? :-)

12:30 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Its about vacuousness, but not itself vacuous, I think. But so are all of his films. Try The Passenger, maybe. If you don't like the plot or the themes, then hopefully you can't dislike the style, at least.

12:15 am  

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