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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007


He was a true cinematic artist – even his name suggested the sort of motion picture masterpieces he would eventually create. Yet outside a significant period in the ‘60s, the history of film has more or less abandoned Michelangelo Antonioni. Not his movies, mind you. It’s impossible to dismiss such major contributions to the craft as Blow-Up, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. From an early penchant for supporting the political underdog to a later life in service of his own self-designed ideals, the man born in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna Italy on 29 September, 1912 continuously walked the fine line between brilliant and baffling, intellectual and irritating. It would make up the majority of scholarly consideration of his canon, his lasting legacy, and generally define his cinematic substance.


It was always hard to categorize Antonioni. Growing up, he was a bourgeois young man from a comfortable middle class family. He didn’t start out as a filmmaker – instead, he pursued a career in economics. It was a pair of outside interests – painting, and writing criticism for his local newspaper that swayed him toward the world of film. Indeed, his 1939 hiring by the Fascist government for the journal Cinema did more to steer him toward directing than any inherent love of the medium. Though he followed the peasant perspective shifts in Italian movie making that would come to be known as neo-realism, he could never escape his upper class roots. As a matter of fact, his first film, 1950’s Story of a Love Affair used the genre’s implied authenticity to discuss adultery and love among a wealthy entrepreneur and his beautiful newlywed wife – not exactly the earthy arena explored by his fellow filmmakers.


Il Grido

Il Grido


Still, Antonioni flourished, even if it was in relative obscurity. Taking what he learned during his earliest days as a maker of documentary shorts, he used the next ten years behind the lens to hone his skills. During this time, he made eight films, including the scandalous juvenile murder anthology I Vinti (featuring three tales of murderous youth), a female-ccentric look at the Italian class structure (1955’s The Girlfriends), and the film that would signal the next phase in his career, the ambiguous and calculated Il Grido (The Cry). Each step along the way, Antonioni distinguished himself from the rest of the Mediterranean movement. He could care less about the common man and his woes. He was looking for light at the end of a dirt and dire movie manifesto, and he found it in the oddest of places – the human heart.


The connection between Cry’s multifaceted story of a failed romance and the next three movies in Antonioni’s oeuvre is quite obvious. Representing one of the first real onscreen efforts at representing reject and alienation, Cry comments on how a broken spirit – and the routine of romance – can hollow out a person. As our hero, Aldo (an excellent Steve Cochran) wanders aimlessly in and around the Po region, he tries desperately to reconnect with the reality that’s been lost to him, a world now out of reach after a fruitless seven year affair with a married woman named Irma. This notion of love gone astray, of couplings undone, and the then forward thinking theme of ‘finding oneself’ would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s most creative era. It would form the basis of the trilogy that would skyrocket him to international fame.


It all began with 1960’s L’Avventura, an usually effective psychological character study that achieves its internalized investigation through the use of very little dialogue and even less cinematic standardization. Stripping away all the conventions that create tension, insight, and deception, Antonioni decided to let his camera be his guide. The result is an astonishing work that reveals its casual lovers’ motives in ways unthinkable in similarly styled storylines. In essence, the narrative figures on the missing companion of a puzzled pair, a now absent woman who was the hero’s paramour and the heroine’s best friend. With the inherent intrigue of the missing person, and the mystery surrounding her situation, the director redefined the language of film, forcing imagery and ideas to replace conversation and convention. With its acknowledgment at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, L’Avventura became Antonioni’s calling card. His next two movies would only cement his status.


In 1961’s La Notte, a true sense of doom fills the air. Again, we are dealing with a couple – in this case, a writer and his disconnected spouse. Content to watch the characters basically drift apart as their marriage dissolves, Antonioni was beginning to develop a kind of filmic philosophy about emotion. To quote Annie Hall (Woody Allen was a great admirer of the Italian maverick), “Love fades.” Granted, it’s a fatalistic ideal, but within this brilliantly acted narrative, Antonioni made it appear like a natural condition of the human soul. Since neither entity in the relationship seems ready to work at it, it’s inevitable that ennui would force the sentiment to simply slip away. It’s the same with the final facet of this loose ‘alienation’ trilogy, 1962’s L’Eclisse.


An exploration of indecisiveness and angst, Antonioni stripped even more of the remaining pretense he was working with, and simply let the situations and the performers do the dramatizing. He developed a film idiom that included long takes, a static camera, and a crucial use of black and white’s distinct shadow and light byplay. Plot was no longer important. Instead, Antonioni was fixated on mood, atmosphere, ambience, and tone. He wanted to tell everything about a character through the most impressionistic means possible, and avoided outright expressions in favor of implication and inference. Representing the pinnacle of a new voice in Italian cinema, one that evoked the truth inherent in neo-realism within the shifting contemporary social standards in the country, Antonioni became a mirror for modernity. He would then ask the audience to look inside his movies to see if they saw themselves.


Another trip to Cannes, another Special Jury Prize, and the now celebrated director was literally on top of the world. His continued notoriety brought him to the attention of Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who offered him the opportunity to make movies in other countries. Naturally, Antonioni jumped at the chance to translate his peculiar sense of perception into other languages. His first effort in this category became his last universally legitimized masterpiece. Capturing the cosmopolitan cool of Britain’s swinging mod movement (including scenes with rock act The Yardbirds and a score by Herbie Hancock) merged with the growing sexual revolution, Antonioni delivered the dazzling Blow-Up. Featuring full frontal nudity, a peculiar pantomime finale, and a mystery made up out of the possibility of subjective interpretation, this David Hemmings/Vanessa Redgrave stunner proved that there was more to the director than torment and anxiety. Indeed, Blow-Up would explore similar sentiments, but in way that was freer and in some ways more confounding than ever before.


It stands as one of the ‘60s finest artistic achievements, mimicked by filmmakers as divergent as Brian DePalma (his blatant ‘homage’ Blow Out) and Mel Brooks (a seminal sequence in High Anxiety). Like the drug-fueled declarations of Timothy Leary, Antonioni was artist acting as revolutionary, an antagonist telling the audience to be wary of what you see, since your eyes (and by inference, the information presented to them) could fool you. Hemmings’ character, a carnal photographer who typically beds his models, becomes convinced he’s found a murder hidden inside one of his snapshots. As he continuously enlarges the image to get to the truth, his perception is skewed to the point of contradiction. Never quite sure what he sees, and unable to prove if there ever really was a crime, reality folds onto itself, resulting in a questioning of all that came before. In an era which warned against trusting anyone over 30, Antonioni’s Blow-Up argued that even something as secure as 20/20 vision needed testing as well.


Universally acclaimed, his first foray into English would, sadly be his last major success. The follow-up film, a recall of his early ‘60s scenarios set inside the US counterculture, was dismissed at the time as indulgent and dull. Indeed, Zabriske Point had all the trappings of a filmmaker finally believing his own hype. Hiring two non professional actors and working from a script with input from several divergent scribes, the almost 59 year old auteur was decidedly out of step with the dying youth movement eroding around him. Even a commissioned soundtrack featuring original music from Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead couldn’t countermand the public outcry. Flopping famously, Zabriske kept the director away from film for almost five years. He would return with his final US effort, the underappreciated Jack Nicholson vehicle The Passenger.


Less experimental and much more in tune with its times, this look at an idealist reporter’s investigation into guerrilla warfare in the African Sahara and his assumption of a gun runner’s identity played directly toward Antonioni’s strengths. It featured characters desperate to escape their unfulfilled lives and the metaphysical consequences of such self betrayal. Languid in its pace, disturbing in its ambiguity, and infamous for a final slow motion tracking shot that lasts almost eight minutes, it was pronounced pretentious and preeminent by a deeply divided critical community. Audiences, however, stayed away, having dismissed Antonioni as a filmmaker from a former era, unable to compete with the prevalent post-modern 1975 designs of novel newcomers like Coppola, Friedkin, and Scorsese. It would be another five years before the avant-garde medium test The Mystery of Oberwald (shot on video and translated to film), but after 1982’s Identification of a Woman, he wasn’t heard from again for nearly a decade.


It wasn’t inspiration that hindered Antonioni, it was health. A debilitating stroke in 1985 left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. As a result, many projects went unrealized, and he had to have the help of German filmmaker Wim Wenders to complete 1995’s Beyond the Clouds. A year later, the Academy decided to bestow a Lifetime Achievement Oscar on Antonioni (he had only been nominated previously for Blow-Up) and, in an emotional elegy, a deeply moved Jack Nicholson gave the ailing auteur his statue. Fate would continue to be cruel to the once jet-setting director. Thieves would later break into his home and steal the award (it was later replaced), and after a segment for 2004’s anthology film Eros, his physical state wouldn’t let him continue working. His death at age 94 on 30 July, 2007 was seen as a blessing by some who knew just how mightily the man suffered.


Unlike his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, who believed in imbuing his movies with as much life as possible, Antonioni was often quoted as believing all existence was meaningless and human interaction a futile joke. For him, the greatest journey was inward, toward a greater understanding of spirit and soul. The extrovert was someone to by shunned or scoffed at, while the introvert was examining the most important element, and should be celebrated for same. Many found his abstractions more demanding than delightful, and in a new millennial dialectic where all expression – good, bad, naïve, ill-conceived – is outwardly championed, it’s easy to see how Antonioni would be ignored. He wasn’t flamboyant or foolish. Instead, he was fastidious and arcane – personality quirks often associated with philosophers and fools. And true to his all-encompassing aesthetic, Michelangelo Antonioni was often both.


Trailer for Blow-Up


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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007


It is, without a doubt, the hardest bit of analysis a film critic must consider. Lists are always a little loopy, suffering from a lack of personal perspective and decidedly one sided context. As a result, trying to boil a life’s worth of fandom (or professionalism) into a single set of ten titles is next to impossible. You always forget something along the way, regret not having room for favorites you feel fall right outside the glorified Decalogue, and anger some overly aggressive aficionado who can’t believe you left off their obvious film/director/decade obsession. For those preparing to complain once the final tally is presented, simply remember this – all determinations are made by actual human beings. We may play know-it-alls for the sake of our writing, but we fall within the same categories of fun/fascination factors as anyone else.


So what does this Top Ten List of All Time represent for readers of Short Ends and Leader? Clearly, it’s the guiding dynamic of the blog’s editor and chief, a roadmap if you will to the films that made a significant impact either as entertainment, extravaganza, or both. Clearly certain calling card entries – The Godfather films, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita – are missing from the ultimate countdown, and with good reason. In the case of at least two of these movies, constant repetition within the digital cable era has diluted their dimensions, making them ‘feel’ smaller than they actually are. In addition, other offerings – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria – didn’t quite make the grade either. It’s not because of their lack of inherent worth (all three are indeed amazing motion pictures). No, the problem is more personal, meaning that their recognized limited appeal prevents a kind of universal appraisal. 


In the end then, how does one find their final ten? A lot of guess work, some faith, and a mind full of celluloid memories. Think of it this way - these symbolize SE&L’s desert island titles, the kind of classic films you can imagine watching over and over again without ever having to worry that they’ll grow dull or derivative. They would stand the test of time, and then please someone who happened upon them long after you were gone. You may not have to agree with all the choices, but you definitely have to respect them. Movies may be a personal preference, but certain examples of the medium mandate a consideration of abject timelessness. In our opinion, these sure do, beginning with:


10 - Fight Club (1999)

If ever a movie clearly defined its era, this David Fincher deconstruction of Chuck Palahnuik’s punch drunk novel sums up the ‘90s quite nicely, thank you. Through the dueling personalities of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s rough trade icon Tyler Durden, the baffling and bifurcated state of men in America is brilliantly and unabashedly deciphered, resulting in the darkest of black comedies and the coolest of sociological dramatics. At the heart of this fascinating film remains a message about the corrosion of conformity and the instability of individuality. Together, they help define what’s very, very wrong, and very, very right, about the whole of humanity.


9 - GoodFellas (1990)

More energetic than Coppola’s monumental Godfather saga (and less overexposed) this remains Martin Scorsese’s definitive take on the mob myth. Set up like a symphony with different “acts” mandating varying directorial styles, each movement here is a masterpiece of crime as an elitist urban calling card – and a one way ticket to self-destruction. With amazing performances from a stellar cast, and a storyline soaked in the kind of racketeering Chianti we’ve come to expect from the genre, the results are electric, dynamic, and fabulously profane. While others will taut the original mafia movies as the place where bad guys became baroque, this is the truest example of its operatic powers. 


8 - The Adventures of Baron Muchausen (1988)

When critics champion Terry Gilliam, they usually pick Brazil or 12 Monkey as his best effort. But if you’re looking for a movie manipulating each and every element of cinema into a pure flight of fancy, this amazing tall tale is your ticket to another wondrous world. Styled by the ex-pat Python as the final phase in his loosely formed “Ageism” trilogy (with Time Bandits and the aforementioned future shocker), this story of a fabled German liar and his exaggerated yarns of superhuman escapades uses every trick in the moviemaker’s handbook – and then Gilliam invents a few more, just to keep us interested. A truly timeless work of celluloid art.


7 - Mulholland Dr. (2001)

How David Lynch managed to salvage a failed television pilot and turn it into his ultimate night terror masterpiece remains a question for film scholars to decipher – especially in light of other startling accomplishments like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Yet by taking on the very entity – Hollywood – that’s refused to embrace him for all these years, and perverting the 42nd Street formula (small town gal makes good) into same sex surrealism with a sinister undercurrent, he fashioned his own demented Day of the Locusts. Even mainstream cynics who’ve dismissed the man as difficult and problematic embraced this fascinating parable.


6 - 3 Women (1977)

With its basis in a dream, and its lack of inherent interpretation, Robert Altman proves that storylines don’t need self-imposed arcs to have solid dramatic resonance. As much a feminist manifesto written in reverse as a calculatedly crazy character study, the amazing American maestro uses his title trio to manifest the seminal stages in a gal’s ungainly life. And when you consider that this is the same man who rocked the film world with his work in M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, to call this his best must mean its something very, very special. Indeed it is.


5 - The Rules of the Game (1939)

As important to the formation of true modern moviemaking as any other movie from its era, Jean Renoir’s tragicomedy of manners remains a stellar work of celluloid sumptuousness. Like Jules et Jim 23 years later, the son of famous painter Pierre Auguste used every possible trick in the reel to reel routine to realize his perceptibly allegorical denouncement of the French upper crust, who Renoir blamed for the onset of World War II. From its narrative complexity and optical richness, to the last act party which places everything – both spoken and unsaid – into perspective, this complete motion picture master really did determine the way post-silent cinema would work.


4 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may today be the punchline to an Indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s a geek dweeb dimension to his homages, the kind of insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out. 


3 - Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinsel Town’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods – they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.


2 - Citizen Kane (1941)

Just try to ignore or marginalize this benchmark in Hollywood’s formative stage, an experimental epiphany that forged the standards for decades of craftsmen to come. Sure, it’s gimmicky and overloaded with stylistic stunts, but when dealing with a story this sensational, this grandiose in scope and speculation, the size is more than warranted. Wunderkind Orson Welles may have ended up a wine shilling joke, but his feature film debut remains a motion picture monument. If you really want to understand its impact on the artform, just ask yourself the following question – what would today’s cinema be like without his inventive, evocative ‘vanity project’? Case closed.


1 - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues – and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.


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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007

Jazz legend Charles Mingus is still recognized today as one of the great jazz composers and performers. In 1956, Mingus released Pithecanthropus Erectus, his breakthrough album. Since then, he continued to release album after album until his death in 1979. Although he has been dead for 43 years, Blue Note recently released Cornell 1964.


The Charles Mingus Sextet, Live in Norway in 1964 (Partial):


Flowers for a Lady in 1975:



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Monday, Jul 30, 2007


This is a socially-conscious country. Maybe not as much as many, but more so than others. Without naming any names . . . (we all know who we are). 


The most obvious sign is the bikes—which as I arrived were just being debuted. I doubt it was for my benefit, but still it made for a fine (and as a reporter, inescapable) coincidence. So here goes . . .


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Monday, Jul 30, 2007


If you didn’t already know it by now, Short Ends and Leader is one year old this week. So in celebration of such a monumental achievement, we’ll be forgoing some of the standard blog entries – at least for today – in order to offer up some perspective on the aesthetic behind this daily film discussion. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing but worthless digital dung being released at the local brick and mortar. In fact, two of 2007’s best movies are making their debut on DVD, and they’re well worth your cash consideration. While SE&L will not be reviewing them separately, here are links to our previous theatrical reviews. They more than make our feelings known. Yes, we really loved these films, and with the prospect of commentaries, interviews and other added content, you know our copies will be in the cart come 31 July:



Short Ends and Leader’s 300 Review



Short Ends and Leader’s Hot Fuzz Review


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