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.
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