Tuesday, July 31, 2007

In Memory of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away at his home yesterday at the age of 94, was once the most fashionable of European directors: notoriously, the director's 1960 masterpiece L'Avventura, the ultimate succès de scandale, was greeted with catcalls at its Cannes premiere, before being awarded a Special Jury Prize that stipulated its invention of a new film language. Two years later, L'Avventura finished number two in the second ever Sight and Sound poll of the "ten best films of all-time," placing behind only Citizen Kane (1941).

Antonioni directed his first feature, the very good Chronicle of a Love Affair (1950), at the tail end of neorealismo's salad days, procuring an aesthetic that featured empty compositions and circling long takes - that is, an aesthetic that immediately enunciated its distance from Rossellini (to whom he nonetheless owed more than a passing debt - Antonioni-ennui, evident in his very best works of the next decade, was the direct descendant of Rossellini's Europa '51 [1952] and especially Voyage in Italy [1953]) and De Sica. Following such an auspicious debut, Antonioni made two of the better woman's pictures of the decade, A Lady Without Camelias (1953) and the underrated Le Amiche (1955). In 1957, Antonioni shifted gears somewhat with his Il Grido, which more than any of his previous works anticipated his great films of the early 1960s.

In 1960, Antonioni made the first of four consecutive films with muse Monica Vitti, L'Avventura, which has come to exemplify a certain strain European modernist filmmaking, distinguished by its use of long shot/long takes, empty frames and the overarching subject of modern alienation. It is one of the singularly defining films of its era. A year later, Antonioni made La Notte (1961), a fine effort that all-the-same may be the director's weakest of the period. However, the next year, Antonioni would direct his finest film, L'Eclisse (1962), which along with Rossellini's Paisan (1946) rates as the most profoundly Italian work that this writer knows - that is, L'Eclisse (aka The Eclipse) highlights the act of living with and among works of art in a manner that I would argue is both unique to an experience of the director's homeland and also rare in works of this national cinema. Likewise, L'Eclisse charts the relationship of sex and money as few films have, to say nothing of the film's concluding montage that further defines the new language evident in L'Avventura. L'Eclisse is a work of extraordinary formal rigor and invention.

In 1964, Antonioni made his first color feature, the exceptional The Red Desert, with a now red-headed Vitti. Two years later, Antonioni again defined the zeitgeist with his English language world-conquering Blow-up (1966), which may at once be the director's most overrated film and nevertheless a very fine work indeed. Antonioni, however, would not be so lauded for his next production, Zabriskie Point, which remains perhaps the one film maudit in his body of work, though in again capturing the spirit of its era, the late 1960s counterculture in its case, it is in many respects just as successful as Blow-up. The director's next fiction feature, 1975's The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, experienced a major reversal in its reputation following its theatrical re-release a couple of years ago - that is, it is now one of the director's acknowledged classics. This essential entry into Antonioni's corpus features one of the director's most inspired moments: the penultimate tracking shot that departs from the living protagonist, tracks through window bars, circles the courtyard and then returns to the same gentleman shot dead in his bed. A new language indeed.

While Antonioni would not attain such a height again in his later corpus, Identification of a Woman (1982) remains an interesting late instantiation of the master's personal universe, and Beyond the Clouds (1995) is a surprisingly buoyant and successful experiment co-directed by Wim Wenders. The director's most recent effort, a segment for the omnibus Eros (2004), has been unfairly vilified given its coherence to the director's preceding body of the work. Even to the end Antonioni was very much his own artist.

For me, Antonioni was one of the most important figures in my own growth as a cineaste. I first encountered the director as a name in the appendix of Roger Ebert's Great Movies volume, where the magical name L'Avventura (once again) was once considered the second best movie of all time. I tracked it down soon after in a suburban Minneapolis video store and would find myself completely mystified after a first viewing. After a second screening, not long after, I would be convinced that it was one of the very greatest films of all-time, a position from which I haven't strayed - that far - in the eight or nine years since.

In fact, I would publicly screen L'Avventura during my junior undergraduate year at Hillsdale College, where it was received better than almost anything else I showed that year. (I remember getting three times the number of spectators for my video tape screening than did the University of Michigan for their 35mm showing, where I was also in attendance. At that time Antonioni was nowhere near as fashionable as he is now; funny how quickly these things change.) For some reason, as difficult as it was, Antonioni still spoke to twenty year-olds at the end of last century as it had to viewers forty years before. For me, Antonioni will always be indispensable to a certain, exceedingly formative time in my life. And less subjectively, he remains one of the very best Italian directors of that cinema's finest moment.


Anonymous said...

Now marvellous how, if you have not seen many of these films, there are clips in Youtube !

Anonymous said...

Excellent, and thank you particularly for your assessment of L'Eclisse.

However, you've made a typo: The title of the film of course is The Passenger, (not The Professional)

Michael J. Anderson said...

Thanks, Anonymous; that was a bad typo!