Antonioni on Video
Michelangelo Antonioni is probably best known to the uninitiated for his 1966 film Blow-Up. And Blow-Up is as good a place as any to start talking about Antonioni’s fascination with media—not so much in the way we’ve come to use that word these days, to refer to the different organizations, power structures, patterns of consumption and financial transactions that enable and surround the seemingly simple process of making and consuming entertainment.
Although he addresses these aspects of “media,” Antonioni has always been more preoccupied with the devices that are used to record reality, the ways they subtly change what they are intended to represent and the way this can affect those who put faith in their representations. Blow-Up, for example, is about a fashion photographer who comes to believe that he has accidentally photographed a murder during an outdoor shoot. Antonioni’s later The Passenger (1975), in broadest terms, is about a movie cameraman who makes documentaries about a third-world dictator and comes to lose his sense of self in the objectivity his medium seems to require.
Always, though, Antonioni has worked in feature film, which means that even as he meditates on different media and their effects, he has continually made some presumptions. The easiest way to explain The Mystery of Oberwald is that it is intended to make up for this deficiency in Antonioni’s work when taken as a whole. Oberwald forms a tidy contrast with most of Antonioni’s output—shot on video where his major works are shot on film; tightly paced where Blow-Up and The Passenger are quiet and slow; primarily confined to interiors where most of his films, going all the way back to L’Avventura, indulge a fascination with landscapes and the insignificance of the individuals within them.
Set in 1903, Oberwald is an adaptation of a Jean Cocteau play called The Two-Headed Eagle. The play and subsequent video are both premised on the kind of everyplot that evokes many common narratives at once: a would-be assassin steals into a castle late one night during a thunderstorm, intent on killing the queen. Instead, the queen—trapped in a cycle of grief over the death of her husband, the king, 10 years before—falls in love with the assassin, whose resemblance to the king is uncanny. It’s the sort of yarn that simultaneously conjures tragic Shakespearean romance a la Romeo and Juliet and the ur-gothic theme of stories like Rebecca, wherein grief leads to confusion between the living and the dead.
But the video’s look in its opening moments—grainy shots of a castle interior as thunder and lightning boom theatrically outside and actors gad about in Victorian garb—evokes these stories not so much as the late ‘60s, early ‘70s TV show Dark Shadows. Indeed, Oberwald immediately seems to share much of television’s humble and undiluted desire to entertain. Like Dark Shadows and its ilk, Oberwald is so modest in its means and its aspirations that ten minutes in, you realize that your expectations are going to be dashed. Even though Oberwald is the video creation of one of cinema’s most legendary directors, it isn’t a wild, abstract experiment of the Nam June Paik variety, but a straightforward dramatization of an age-old story.
This isn’t to say that Oberwald doesn’t occasionally tinker with video’s capabilities, so different from those of film. Mainly this experimentation takes the form of color filters that overtake the screen at moments of great import or emotion—a dark red when the queen recounts her husband’s death, for example, or regal blue to connote the arrival of her courtesans. At several points, too, images flicker across the screen for a handful of frames. Barely perceptible, they remind one of subliminal advertisements, but—being merely anticipations of new scenes that occur a moment later—their purpose and meaning are unclear.
These moments are the exception, though, to a video that recounts Cocteau’s play as though Antonioni were simply covering its theatrical performance. In light of his cinematic works of the ‘60s and ‘70s, though, something about this seems oddly appropriate. These films, by and large, adopt seemingly generic narratives but transport them into the service of more open-ended themes. That, for instance, Blow-Up‘s basic premise could serve well in the context of a more conventional thriller was illustrated in no uncertain terms with Brian DePalma’s half-homage, half-reduction, Blow Out, in 1981. The ultimate, baffling irony is that films like Blow-Up and The Passenger expand beyond the limitations of their storyforms because they investigate media and its confining, entrapping effects on consciousness; Oberwald, set in a realist mode that prohibits these kinds of investigations, nevertheless proves, by dint of its enjoyable but ultimately unremarkable nature, how confining these limits can be.