[26 June 2014]
According to the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962) is the 73rd greatest film of all time, ranking higher than fan favorites like Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) at number 84 and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) at number 127.
On the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) top 250, however, Pulp Fiction is voted the 5th greatest film of all time, and Casablanca is the 28th. Meanwhile, L’eclisse is nowhere to be found.
This discrepancy is telling, and it shows that any “best of” ranking that aims to establish a canon is flawed and reveals more about the group in charge of voting than the given quality of a particular film. Sight & Sound is elite and prestigious, which explains the high ranking of L’eclisse, whereas the IMDB top 250 is open to the public, which explains the high ranking of Pulp Fiction. The former favors European art films and silent classics, whereas the latter is more appreciative of popular contemporary fare.
L’eclisse, like most of the Sight & Sound list, is a highly regarded work of European modernism that is pretty to look at, interesting to think about, and grueling to watch unfold. The Criterion Collection’s recently released high definition digital restoration on Blu-ray doesn’t disguise the fact that this is the kind of film students are forced to sit through in college introductory courses, and are left wondering how filmgoers back in the ‘60s admired such slow, monotonous storytelling.
Then again, the stagnation seems to be the point, as Antonioni uses the doomed romantic relationship between Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon) to investigate ennui and alienation in the modern world. Could the viewer’s lack of emotional connection with the film mirror Vittoria and Piero’s inability to communicate and be intimate with each other? Perhaps, and those who’ve seen other Antonioni films like L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), Blow Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975) will notice that the Italian filmmaker is interested in making meandering movies about characters that wander around aimlessly, searching for meaning that they’ll never find.
Given the revered status of Antonioni’s oeuvre in general and L’eclisse in particular (especially by Martin Scorsese, who cites Antonioni as a key influence), some may attribute my failure to engage with the film to generational differences.
I came of age in the early ‘00s, when the films being released were fast-paced masterpieces like City of God (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Children of Men (2006). As a result, my generation’s exposure to rapidly moving digital images has led to an inability to appreciate stillness, or so Camille Paglia claims in Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. L’eclisse isn’t exactly like watching paint dry, but the pace is so deliberately slow that it might as well be.
However, I don’t think my dislike of L’eclisse is simply a symptom of contemporary digital culture. After all, I do admire the work of Alfred Hitchcock, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder, in addition to the playful exuberance of Jean-Luc Godard and the emotional intensity of Ingmar Bergman.
Rather, my problem with Antonioni, and many other art-house filmmakers like him (past or present), is that his work is strictly intellectual. There’s no attempt to appeal to the viewer’s emotions, which means that you have to treat his films as you would a homework assignment. This is problematic, as Roger Ebert so eloquently explained in his essay, “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” (1991), because “the cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That’s what it does best. Cinema is not very good, on the other hand, at intellectual, philosophical or political argument.”
The best films, I believe, successfully bridge the gap between art and entertainment. Whether they’re by Chaplin, Scorsese, or Pixar, they are created with a general audience in mind, and they try to make the viewer feel something. If a viewer wants to, she can analyze the formal and thematic elements too, but this isn’t required.
This view directly counters the elite literati of Sight & Sound, who value Europe’s pretentious austerity over Hollywood’s joyful extravagance, and who believe that “real” art can’t be fun and entertaining, and can’t be anything mass produced. For them, art is something you think about and analyze, as opposed to something you feel on a sensual, emotional, and even spiritual level.
Of course their view is misguided and outmoded (filmgoers today, I would argue, share my view), and Antonioni’s L’eclisse doesn’t connect precisely because it lacks entertainment value, and it abandons emotional impact for the sake of intellectual stimulation. The result is a film that is beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell.
Having said that, one of the main reasons to see the film is to marvel at Vitti and Delon, two iconic stars of world cinema that epitomize glamour and cool. Vitti was Antonioni’s muse from 1960-1964, and she’s at her most alluring and mysterious in this film. She embodies a specific type of performance that is seldom seen today, but that has become synonymous with Hollywood’s glamorous golden age. It was a time when movie stars showcased their natural beauty in every film in which they appeared, as opposed to on the red carpet, and there was little room for disguise.
Unlike today, when naturally beautiful stars like Charlize Theron or Cate Blanchett often change their appearances for each role, and aren’t afraid to make themselves look less attractive in the process, Vitti’s natural beauty is always prominent, immortalized in each film appearance for future generations to admire.
Delon, as well, represents a kind of male star that no longer exists. He’s mostly recognized for his appearances in such films as Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Le Samouraï (1967), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and is known for playing charismatic bad guys that the audience can’t help but adore. Those who listen to pop music might recall that Madonna pays homage to Delon in her song “Beautiful Killer”, in which she sings, “You’re a beautiful killer but you’ll never be Alain Delon”. This line applies to the many movie star anti-heroes who have since followed in Delon’s footsteps, but can’t seem to recapture his gangster charm.
Since watching L’eclisse feels like hard labor, the supplements on the Criterion DVD are incredibly useful for viewers like me, who don’t necessarily like the film but who want to understand its significance. The commentary by scholar Richard Peña puts the film into perspective, and the documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye that Changed Cinema explores the director’s life and career in an informative manner. Elements of Landscape, a 22-minute discussion of the film by Adriano Aprà and Carlo di Carlo, similarly underscores the film’s importance, as do the booklet essays by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gilberto Perez.
It’s fair to say that those who study cinema should be aware of Antonioni’s films, but at what cost? If, as I suggest, most of them are boring and dated, then how can we get students to watch and understand them? If we screen L’eclisse in the classroom, most students won’t be able to pay attention, and if we have them view it on their own time, they’ll turn it off after 20 minutes.
What I want to suggest with this review is that we be honest about the film’s inability to engage. Before we assign the film in class or even recommend it to curious friends interested in expanding their cinematic horizons, we should say, “You probably won’t enjoy watching this, and that’s okay. Watch as much as you can to get a sense of it, and then read about it afterword to fill in the gaps.”
This way, viewers won’t think something is wrong with them for not connecting with the film, because they’ll know in advance that they’re not supposed to. At the very least, though, they will appreciate it as an artifact, and learn about its place within the history of cinema, art, and culture.
However, to pretend, as some continue to do, that L’eclisse is a greater cinematic experience than Pulp Fiction or Casablanca is dishonest and misleading to most 21st century filmgoers who are more influenced by Disney, Tarantino, and Spielberg than Brakhage, Resnais, and Antonioni. Therefore, it’s time to revise the canon and make room for the films that have the audacity to entertain.