The 100 Essential Directors Part 1

Chantal Akerman - Bernardo Bertolucci

by PopMatters Staff

1 August 2011


Michaelangelo Antonioni

Michaelangelo Antonioni
(1912 - 2007)

Three Key Films: L’Avventura (1960), Blow-Up (1966), The Passenger (1975)

Underrated: Zabriskie Point (1970): Legend has it that when Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni came to America to make his second English language film (after the monster success of Blow-Up), he was shocked by the backlash his production received. There was never any doubting of his ideals—the filmmaker was as left leaning as the turbulent times allowed—and his planned film was to take on all aspects of the debauched Western (read: US) culture. But with local law enforcement accusing Antonioni of everything from inciting riots to corrupting the morals of youth, the counterculture’s latest auteur was heading for a faceoff with the most conservative of stateside Establishments—and it really wasn’t a fair fight. As a result, many consider Zabriskie Point to be a failure. They see it as a kind of compromise, a version of Antonioni’s philosophies foiled by a time when the ‘60s was dying and no one was around to eulogize the corpse. Antonioni wanted his ethereal encapsulation of the entire Peace Generation to be a strong and unswerving statement. What he got instead was a tantalizing tone poem, a masterpiece that makes its point in symbols so obvious and complaints so calculated that one just can’t imagine his message would be so simple.

Unforgettable: Thomas the photographer discovers a crime… or does he? Though director Brian DePalma would rip it off (and then refine it) for his narrative copycat Blow Out, the moment when David Hemmings discovers that he may have captured a murder in his otherwise giddy glamour shots of London remains Blow-Up‘s most powerful statement. Along with the openness toward sex and the final bit of mime madness, Antonioni’s desire to push perspective (and perception) to the forefront of his narrative turns an otherwise story of casual pop cool into a study in angst and personal sanity. Thomas takes the discovery in his pictures to obsessive ends, leading the entire narrative to question what it real, what is fake, and where the fine line between both concepts end—or merge.


Blow-Up (1966)

The Legend: As with many Italian filmmakers of his era, Michelangelo Antonioni got his start in journalism. After a childhood of privilege and precocious talents (it is said he was a marvelous violinist by age nine), he fell in love with cinema. Indulged by his overprotective parents, he has free reign to explore all aspects of his impending muse. It was during his time at the University of Bologna when he first developed an affinity for the “lower” classes. He found them more alive and vibrant than the staid and stiff members of the pre-War bourgeoisie. After graduation he struggled as a film journalist, went back to school to study the artform, and eventually found a job with the official fascist publication of the subject (run by dictator Benito Mussolini’s son, Vittorio). After a stint in the army (where he helped other future filmmakers with their efforts), he fell back in to his favorite form, using his time in the military to create documentary style neo-realistic takes on everyday Italian life.

For his first feature film, however, he avoided such “truth” to experiment with form and style. Cronaca di un amore (1950) and efforts like Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957) would balance a working class mentality with his newfound obsession—social alienation. It was this socio-psychological malady that made up most of Antonioni’s seminal work. From L’avventura (1960), and through the rest of the so-called “trilogy” it begat—La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962)—he attempted to match his directing approach to the subject matter he was exploring. Long takes—soon to be an Antonioni trademark—and compositional complexities took over, as did a desire to allow character and situation determine pace and the needs of the production. After switching over to color with Red Desert (1964), he made the great leap to English with the classic ‘60s statement Blowup (1966). In the West, the rise in respect for foreign filmmaking turned Antonioni into an instant icon.

From there, the rest of his output was spotty, if still sensational. Zabriskie Point (1970) was dismissed as a ode to hippy hedonism (wrongfully, one might add) while his work with post-modern method superstar Jack Nicholson The Passenger (1975) was equally critiqued (again, unfairly). By the time the ‘80s rolled around, Antonioni was playing around with the technical aspects of the medium, making movies in collaboration with new formats (video, as in The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981) and other filmmakers (Wim Wenders, Steven Soderbergh). While his output was severely diminished, his importance to the artform continued to grow. Today, many look at Antonioni as the artist who lifted Italian cinema out of the poverty and decay of Di Sica and early Rossellini and toward a more open and aesthetically complex conceit. With his openness to try anything and his experiences on both sides of the social structure, Antonioni became a filmmaker for everyone—and the ages. Bill Gibron




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