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Biografía: Michelangelo Antonioni
(Español) - Fuente Los cineastas

Cineasta italiano (Ferrara 1912). Después de sus estudios en Ferrara y Bolonia (ciencias económicas), se dedicó al periodismo. Llegó a Roma en 1939 donde colaboró en la revista Cinema.
 


Fue enviado, como asistente en prácticas, a colaborar con Carné, que estaba realizando Les visiteurs du soir. En 1943 emprendió su primer intento, Gente del Po (documental); como guionista, participó en Caccia tragica ( G. De Santis, 1948) y en El jeque blanco (F Fellini, 1952). Tras una decena de cortometrajes, rodó Cronaca di un amore en 1950, inicio de una filmografía relativamente poco abundante heredera por una parte del neorrealismo en sus testimonios de fracasos sociales ( I vinti , prohibida en Francia hasta 1963, El grito
) y de la interrogación pavesiana sobre la soledad y la incomunicabilidad ( Las amigas , La aventura). Este último título le valió a Antonioni la notoriedad en 1960, en la medida que marcó una ruptura con relación a las motivaciones psicológicas tradicionales y la argumentación dramatúrgica de las películas tradicionales. Con el argumento de la desaparición de una mujer en una isla, que permanece inexplicable--disolución, estallido de la realidad que volvería a encontrarse en Blow up, Zabriskie Point -Antonioni acusa lo indecible que separa a los seres y se aleja del tiempo lógico de la narración. Así, El grito (con Alida Valli, Betsy Blair y Steve Cochran), que puede parecer directamente derivada de Gente del Po por vía del compromiso neorrealista, es al mismo tiempo resultado y transición. Si se exceptúa la escena final, la cámara se aproxima a la libertad de escribir sin tener que justificarse por hacerlo, sin definir arbitrariamente esa parte del ser que permanece secreta, frágil, inmersa en su espacio y soledad. Es en este espacio en el que se esfuerzan por enmarcarse El eclipse , La noche , Desierto rojo: todo está en relación, todo es obstáculo, cerrazón, soledad . . .

El éxito de estas películas se debió en parte a lo que en ellas correspondía a un fenómeno de sensibilidad: la incomunicación, la deshumanización de la vida la agresión del mundo (muy visual en Desierto rojo), que contemplaban impotentes Monica Vitti o Marcello Mastroiani y, hasta el sentimiento punzante de desaparición de lo real, David Hemmings en Blow up . El neorrealismo, paradójicamente, fue caldo de cultivo del nuevo dolor de vivir heredado, tras el derrumbamiento de los valores occidentales, de Sartre o de Pavese, de quien Antonioni adaptó la novela Las amigas. Mientras que en 1967, como en vanguardia de una nueva generación, Marco Bellocchio se enfrenta en Las manos en los bolsillos, a lo que sobrevivía de aquellos valores condenados, Antonioni se orientó -con una incomparable elegancia--hacia la exploración intimista de una quiebra de la civilización que inició Desierto rojo, y que Zabriskie Point, rodada en Estados Unidos para la MGM quiso traducir a través de una aproximación gestual de las actitudes y de las representaciones ingenuas de una juventud en espera de revuelta. Se aprecia así al esteta desencantado salvo quizá, de su propio poema visual, evolucionar de la misteriosa La aventura, a la explosión repetitiva con que concluye Zabriskie Point, y después a la angustia policíaca de Blow up . Son los progresos sucesivos de una desaparición: recordemos que Blow up termina, se desvanece con la repetición de un simulacro: intercambio de balas imaginarias al que responderá el plano-secuencia técnicamente admirable de plano/contra-plano en el Hall del hotel de Venecia ( Identificación de una mujer). Pero parece que, en esta tierra de nadie estetizante a la que hemos llegado, ni el retrato ni su modelo proponen ninguna identificación; la realidad humana de los protagonistas se disipa... Antonioni subraya, en cierto modo, la imposible inocencia que ha perdido Occidente. Pero hay mucha ingenuidad en su aproximación a China (en la película que realizó para la RAI) y excesivos artificios en El reportero.

El "nuevo sentimiento de la realidad" (citando a Alberto Moravia) que sostiene su obra después de El El grito y de La aventura, explora primero un espacio-tiempo donde el individuo en su soledad tiene un lugar preponderante. Esto es lo que hace que la trilogía La aventura, La noche y El eclipse, por la que también pasan los rostros de Jeanne Moreau y de Alain Delon posea un poder de emoción bajo la gelidez nocturna de la imagen, una fascinación (hay quien habla de mistificación) que se mantiene hasta fecha reciente a pesar de los abucheos recibidos, en 1960, en el festival de Cannes. Sin embargo, se adivina un desconcierto en el cineasta, como si, a la disolución de lo real, no lograra oponer una invención creadora ( Identificación de una mujer). Las formas, los seres, ¿habrán quedado vacíos de todo poder, escapando a la descripción poética como la cámara al final de El reportero escapa inexplicablemente de la habitación abandonada por un travelling en el espacio?. Evidentemente, Antonioni es un cineasta de la soledad. Su universo nocturno, desierto, habitado por el silencio donde las palabras inútiles, convencionales e irrisorias no tienen ningún atisbo de cumplirse, ha sabido reflejar un mundo que en cierto modo es también el nuestro. Y nada es vulgar, demagógico, ni dramáticamente exagerado en su obra. Es un cine de la "conversación tácita", al modo en que se define en la novela de Natalie Sarraute. Lo poco que cada uno comunica no se dice... Intelectual y lírico a la vez, Antonioni ocupa, frente a este camino sin salida, un lugar muy particular. La importancia que le concede a la estética es diferente, en su naturaleza misma del refinamiento de Visconti y del barroco irónico de Fellini; su sentido de la realidad pronto tomó distancias respecto al de De Sica, de Lattuada. Y nadie, en la siguiente generación, parece deberle nada.

Filmografía

1950 Cronaca di un amore
1953 I Vinti
1953 La signora senza camelie
1953 Amore in città (Amore in città. Episodio:'Tentato suicidio')
1955 Las amigas (Le amiche)
1957 El grito (Il grido)
1960 La aventura (L'Avventura)
1961 La noche (La notte)
1962 El eclipse (L'eclisse)
1964 El desierto rojo (Il deserto rosso)
1965 I tre volti (I tre volti. Episodio: 'Il provino')
1966 Blow-up (Blow-up)
1970 Zabriskie Point (Zabriskie Point)
1975 El reportero (Professione: reporter)
1980 El misterio de Oberwald (Il misterio d'Oberwald)
1982 Identificación de una mujer (Identificazione di una donna)
1995 Más allá de las nubes (Par delà les nuages/Al di là delle nuvole)
 

Biography: Michelangelo Antonioni - James Brown - 0502 - Fuente Senses of Cinema

b. September 29, 1912, Ferrara, Italy -

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are aesthetically complex – critically stimulating though elusive in meaning. They are ambiguous works that pose difficult questions and resist simple conclusions. Classical narrative causalities are dissolved in favour of expressive abstraction. Displaced dramatic action leads to the creation of a stasis occupied by vague feelings, moods and ideas. Confronted with hesitancy, the spectator is compelled to respond imaginatively and independent of the film. The frustration of this experience reflects that felt in the lives of Antonioni’s characters: unable to solve their own personal mysteries they often disappear, leave, submit or die. The idea of abandonment is central to Antonioni’s formal structuring of people, objects, and ideas. He evades presences and emphasises related absences. His films are as enigmatic as life: they show that the systematic organisation of reality is a process of individual mediation disturbed by a profound inability to act with certainty.

Antonioni was raised in a middle-class environment that he accepts has influenced his creative perspective. His formative interests in art included puppetry and painting. From 1931-1935, he studied at the University of Bologna where he became involved in student theatre. After graduating in economics, he took a job as a bank teller and contributed stories and film criticism to the Ferrara newspaper Corriere Padano. Before he moved to Rome (sometime around 1940), (1) Antonioni attempted to make a documentary at a local insane asylum. When the set was lit, the patients suddenly responded with convulsions and the film was aborted. (2) (This experience prefigures the strong key lighting of Tentato suicidio [1953].)

In Rome he began writing for Cinema, a hotbed of political and social criticism. Since the (neorealist) direction of the journal was contrary to Antonioni’s interests in alternative technical practices and filmmaking styles he stopped contributing after only a few months. (3) He spent a similar amount of time at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, making one, now lost, short film. A stint helping write Un Pilota ritorna (Roberto Rossellini, 1942) led to the signing of a contract with the production company Scalera. While drafted into the army, Antonioni still contrived to work under assignment on I Due Foscari (Enrico Fulchigoni, 1942) and Les Visiteurs du soir (Marcel Carné, 1942).

Antonioni’s first documentary concerned the inhabitants of the Po valley region near Ferrara. Shot in 1943, Gente del Po was not released until after the war in 1947. In the interim, the bulk of the footage was lost through degradation, accident, and, possibly, deliberate tampering. Still, he displayed an early resilience and determination to complete the film, a trait that would resurface on numerous occasions in the future.

In the next few years, Antonioni continued to write criticism and screenplays, translated French literature, and made several more documentaries. N.U. – Nettezza urbana (1948) and L’Amorosa menzogna (1949), in particular, were well received: both won awards from the Italian Guild of Film Journalists and the latter competed at Cannes. On the strength of his documentaries, Antonioni secured financing from Vallani Film to make his first fictional feature in Milan.

The narrational structure of a search with competing urges of desire and death surfaces in Cronaca di un amore (1950). Antonioni will consistently return to this structure in his later works. The film’s protagonists are doomed past lovers who find their romance renewing and repeating itself with the same tragic ends. Their wish for the destruction of an intervening third-party twice comes true but on each occasion something unidentifiable is also lost between them. All that remains is an individual, separated existence. (An immediate, violent, desire-quenching version of the wish-device occurs, imaginarily, at the end of Zabriskie Point [1970].) Cronaca is suggestive of film noir, (4) but Antonioni sidesteps traditional plot conventions to focus on the interior feelings of the lovers. He utilises a mobile camera, composes roomy frames, and follows the performers in deep-focus long takes. Key dialogue is highlighted by centrality, symbolism, frontality, unexpected movement, and cutting: a range of methods that define Antonioni’s precise emphasis of narrative by particulars of style. This approach occupies Antonioni’s formalism until more comprehensive analytical cutting techniques and less character-dependent camera movements arise first in Le Amiche (1955) and then more definitively in his first widescreen film, L’Avventura (1960).

Perhaps Antonioni’s main concessions to the dominance of Italian neorealism are his configurations of class. As in Cronaca, the relatively poor female protagonist of La Signora senza camelie (1953) is thrust into a wealthy environment. From shop assistant to star B-grade actress, she is beset by the demands and advice of men. Her ultimate failure is an inability to control her own life. Antonioni has said that he considered the film to be a mistake because he concentrated on the ‘wrong’ character. (5) Who the preferable character might have been remains a mystery. The film’s style is similar to Cronaca, with an odd, perhaps absurd, reflexive effect: the melodramatic filmmakers within the story, similar to Antonioni, seem to be utilising mobile camera, long take strategies!

I Vinti (1953), a trio of separate stories set in Paris, Rome, and London, was shot before Camelie but released at least seven months later. (6) Troubles that began in pre-production between Antonioni and the film’s producers presumably continued until the film’s premiere. (7) Additionally, the film was censored abroad which may have led to long delays. The reason for all the fuss was Antonioni’s insistence on portraying three murders and investigations without providing any moral, social or other evidence to identify the killers’ motivating reasons. Reconstructing the space evacuated by motive, Antonioni positions characters with respect to their environments, foregrounds landscape and experiments with independent camera movement. This destabilising of character and narrative by formal abstraction continues to be emphasised as Antonioni’s style develops. His next work is a complex example. Tentato suicidio is staged amid artifice but presents a range of stories about attempted suicide that purport to truth. Cesare Zavattini, producer of L’Amore in città, intended its segments to record the daily life of "ordinary" people. Antonioni takes Zavattini’s quotidian premise and, rather than concede to it, investigates its validity. Four of the stories are reconstructed and their non-fictional guises come under threat from the fictional probing of the cinematic stylistic system. Even in the presence of non-actors who tell their own stories, Antonioni is incredulous of a basic "real" dimension.

Another attempted suicide begins Le Amiche, linking two stories that are in medias res. (8) Both concern the immediate traumas of two women: Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago) is returning to a displaced past, while Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) is unable to foresee a romantically successful future. Their lives are influenced – hindered more than assisted – by an ensemble of social friends. The interaction between all players is handled at a deliberate slow pace, with space carefully constructed to suggest what has previously happened and to convey internal group dynamics. The second story is perhaps the most interesting, unravelling in parts that effect change on the first. Clelia’s stable linear progression through the story is counter-pointed by the emotional imbalance of Rosetta’s highs and lows. How Antonioni dramatises the differences in the two stories is largely reinforced by a flux of inclusions and exclusions in his staging. The scene on the beach is an often cited example. (9) Only Rosetta is isolated for the length of a single shot. There are teasing set-ups which briefly single out someone else, but a track or pan finds others. A single insert shot in the scene depicts a drawing of Rosetta by Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), the object of her affections. Clelia, on the other hand, is always framed side-by-side with another. At the pivotal moment of the scene, a cut suddenly reveals the two of them standing together. Antonioni’s arrangement of his cast functions to incorporate and separate ideas and conflicts as required at specific moments. Close observation of placement in the mise en scène is worthwhile because it helps explain the unknown properties of the story: its past, how its characters think and feel, even speculation as to what might happen next. (10)

The complexities of Antonioni’s multi-actor staging style are not as apparent in Il Grido (1957), a bleak portrayal of one factory worker’s journey away from home, through various liaisons, and back again. There is a return to the use of a mobile camera paired with analytical cutting (including some reverse shots) to serve the interests of dialogue. The constant state of Aldo’s (Steve Cochran) agitation is emphasised by this more rapid technique of editing. Even the longer shots (at least three are just over a minute long) concern arguments between Aldo and women. What sets Il Grido apart from Antonioni’s previous films is his stylistic response to a different milieu. Dank, gaslit interiors are tight spaces forced by the staging into a moderate depth. The result is an effect of oppression from which Aldo always tries to escape. But when he surges outside, the land is such a contrast that it too is threatening. Antonioni generally maintains a high horizon line, emphasising the flatness and desolation of the background. The high camera angle also accentuates the smallness of Aldo’s daughter, Rosina (Mirna Girardi), whom Aldo is unwilling, or unable, to properly father. When he sends Rosina home on a bus, the element of pathos generates a strange and rare Antonioni moment. It is an interesting opposition to the awkward attention seeking of Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi) in Il Deserto rosso (1964).

Antonioni’s next four films frame the period of his most intense and, it is generally accepted, productive work. Some consider L’Avventura, La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962) a trilogy (or, with Il Deserto rosso, a tetralogy) of sorts, largely because of a consistency of style, social setting, theme, plot and character (especially the roles played by the ubiquitous Monica Vitti). (11) The usefulness of such a categorisation is questionable. (12) However, at least in the first three, Antonioni demonstrates a formal stability between films that, considering his earlier fluctuations in method, is surprising. Part of what makes L’Avventura so impressive is that Antonioni developed a cohesion of narrative and stylistic devices that had only haphazardly surfaced in his earlier films. It might not be too ridiculous to suggest that analogous to some of his characters, Antonioni was searching for something, a method of communication, which he finally "found" with L’Avventura. That he wouldn’t let go until he had explored the approach a couple of films further, is retrospectively understandable.

It is with these films that Antonioni became a famous, critically esteemed, and even popular filmmaker. Concurrent with a boom period in the Italian industry and a re-vitalisation of European cinema in general, Antonioni was suddenly reflective of a massive change in film culture that he had really been progressing towards for the last decade.

The critical discussion of these films is so extensive that I will forego summarising them here. But it is worth mentioning that a fundamental element of "the trilogy" is Antonioni’s increasing interest in the abstraction of space: for instance, the shot of the church in the deserted village in L’Avventura; the opening shot of La Notte that tracks down the Pirelli building; and the final seven minute montage of L’Eclisse. These kinds of independent, wandering, investigative techniques are dominant traits in Il Deserto rosso, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point and The Passenger (1975). However, there is expansive conjecture regarding their purposes and effects.

For his first colour film, Il Deserto rosso, Antonioni further abstracted reality. Effects trick the eye: the flattening of space by telephoto lenses; the strange scale, placement, and colour of objects; out of focus foregrounds and backgrounds. He implements a faster, sometimes disorienting, cutting style and emphasises the aural qualities of industry. To use André Bazin’s phrase perversely, the dramatic evolution of Antonioni’s revised style is a dialectical step, but not in the direction of realism. (13)

Il Deserto rosso marked a turning point. Antonioni’s shifting directions of interest compelled him to explore international markets, include male protagonists, and vigorously question the nature of photographic reality. In this transitive period, he made another short film, Il Provino (1965), a preface segment for Dino De Laurentiis’ I Tre volti, starring Saroya, a past queen of Iran.

No small account can possibly sum up the ambiguous openness evident in Antonioni’s next film. Aside from being his biggest commercial success, Blow-Up is a highly valued critical commodity that has drawn the interest of an astounding range of commentators. The reasons for such a deluge are somewhat unclear. Other films are, for instance, self-reflexive, conducive to subject theories, or consciously explore how reality and meaning are constructed. Nevertheless, Blow-Up continues to attract various emergent criticism. Rather than add to such a mass of interpretation, and again for reasons of space, I will instead vouch for the usefulness of Peter Brunette’s "post-structuralist," feminist account. (14)

Compared to the troubled Zabriskie Point, the story surrounding the risky production and exhibition of Blow-Up is a relatively happy one. When Antonioni went to make a film in America, he decided to make a film about America. He said, "I see ten thousand people making love across the desert." (15) And the problems began.

Quite unlike the complex ambiguity of Blow-Up, the story of Zabriskie Point has a considerable vagueness located in its simplicity. It clearly constructs a negative image of authority and materialism, but its converse handling of revolutionary students is not especially exciting or engaging. That leaves the most compelling centres of the film as its two fantasy sequences. These in their most reduced forms amount to love (more accurately, mass sex in the desert) and death (expressed via the violent explosion of a houseful of commodities). (16) They’re outright hallucinatory spectacles, practically Hollywood marketing devices, which makes the massive losses the film took at the box office even stranger. (17)

The Passenger is another open text, full of self-reflexive concerns such as perception, reality, identity and truth. Past narrative techniques are further explored: doubling, journeying, constructing an unseen death. While Blow-Up investigates the possible, but redundant, existence of an object, this is a search that turns inward and ultimately finds nothing.

Antonioni’s style in these three films is far removed from that of the ‘50s’ films. The earlier invocation of interior moods and feelings has been discarded in favour of a construction of exterior things in their own various contexts. His characters are now positioned as part of a complex network of objects and inter-subjective relationships. The camera no longer functions to serve the action; it becomes a tool for Antonioni to inscribe meaning. He asks questions that are best resolved by stepping outside the fiction and considering the film’s structure of organisation and cognition. By incorporating the film viewing experience into the story, his formal choices are layered with a political subjectivity: he explains how ideology is working within the film.

The height of such artistry explains the relative disappointment, to most, of the rest of Antonioni’s films. Il Mistero di Oberwald (1980) is an abrupt swing away from epistemological preoccupation. Made on video for television, it provided Antonioni relief from high budget production burdens. Excited by the potential of new filmmaking technologies, he experiments with post-production colour manipulation to produce unusual effects. In other respects the film is less daring, perhaps a signal of Antonioni’s desire to move in a different direction but not quite knowing where.

With Identificazione di una donna (1982), he returns to older concerns. A specific filmmaking problem (the processing of choices available to a director) is merged with devices of searching, uncertainty and sudden abandonment. It is tantalising to put Antonioni in the shoes of the director in the text, opening up a reading that suggests a confusion about what kinds of films he ought to make. But it seems just as sensible to consider Identificazione as a re-focusing on the hesitant, anxious individual, now framed by apparent self-reflexivity. Its formal system is a balance of autonomy and traditional continuity: a complex arrangement, both distancing and engaging. The problem may reside in the mix. At this late stage in his career, Antonioni and the film’s producers may have felt it necessary to appeal to a large, international market. He expected to continue making pictures, but the lack of success here probably assisted in the halting of his progress. In the historical context of a worldwide resurgence in mainstream cinema, the inability to construct a narrational or stylistic pigeon-hole for Identificazione was troublesome.

Thirteen years later, after a debilitating stroke left him unable to speak, Antonioni was able to make Al di là delle nuvole (1995), with Wim Wenders providing insurance should the production come into difficulty. For most critics, the return was welcomed even though few admired the film. This time, it may be impossible to reject the alter-ego hypothesis: a lot of the wandering Director’s (John Malkovich) dialogue is culled from Antonioni’s interviews and writings. However, the Director’s presence within the film is largely observational. Even his affair, in the second of four segments, occurs because of a voyeuristic curiosity. His presence bares witness to a nexus of love stories, a collection of events he has been told, or possibly invented. They are lost stories, in the sense of being momentary, transitory, and disconnected in space and time. In an authorial context they are stories Antonioni has told elsewhere, not directly on film. They existed outside of cinema, beyond the clouds of the imaginary. Without the benefit of the cinematic apparatus, without the human capacity, continually stressed in the cinema of Antonioni, to observe and perceive, most of us would never hear or read them.

No one would have seen them.

Endnotes:

1. Different sources give different dates, ranging from 1938 to the early 1940s. 

2. For a full account of this experience, see Antonioni, The Architecture of Vision, pp. 14-15.

3. An excellent account of Antonioni's uneasy relationship with the Cinema journal is found in Rohdie, Antonioni, pp. 8-14.

4. The Italian film noir, or giallo, is contextualised with respect to genre and Hollywood in Chatman, Antonioni, pp. 12-21.

5. Antonioni, p. 31.

6. This could be incorrect. If the Ian Cameron and Robin Wood filmography (which is used verbatim by Seymour Chatman) constitutes an "official" document, I Vinti was first screened at the Venice Film Festival, September 4th, 1953 (after being shot in 1952). La Signora senza camelie (shot in winter 1952-53) premiered in Rome, February, 1953. It would be easy to consider the Venice date a typographical error. But even if this is so, if I Vinti premiered in 1952 as most filmographies claim (without supporting evidence), this at least indicates the insecurity of such published information (and highlights the problem of faithful Chatman-like copying). The other explanation for the discrepancy is a reluctance to temporally distance a film from the time it was made, regardless of its actual release date.

7. The film's production difficulties are touched upon in Chatman, pp. 21-26. Antonioni was more concerned about the lack of criticism regarding his stylistic choices related to unmotivated drama: see Antonioni, pp. 263-268.

8. To me, the third story between Momina and Cesare, suggested in Cameron and Wood, Antonioni, p. 54, is more of a disconnected sub-plot. Its comparative romantic/sexual ease doesn't seem to interest Antonioni as much as foolish tragedy (Rosetta) and its determined avoidance (Clelia). Strangely after identifying 'the Rosetta-Lorenzo-Nene [Valentina Cortese] triangle' as 'the central story' (53), Cameron later asserts that 'it is impossible to pick out a storyline in Le Amiche' (65).

9. Cameron and Wood, pp. 50-53; Chatman, pp. 36-38; Rifkin, Antonioni's Visual Language, pp. 26-27, 71-72.

10. The beach scene contains a shot similar to a previous set-up in the art gallery: Rosetta's (inactive) painting hung between Nene (on the right, reflective) and Lorenzo (dominant in the left foreground) while now she herself is an active presence (left, dominant), Nene is again contemplative (right), and Lorenzo, in the background, is centered and moving but engaging little interest. The second instance reinforces the first and suggests what is still unclear in the narrative: that Lorenzo and Rosetta are about to have an affair and that Nene will be its victim. Only when Rosetta commits suicide (deactivates) are Nene and Lorenzo staged together with no intervening other.

11. Cameron and Wood consider the first three a 'loosely connected trilogy' (93), as does Rohdie, p. 114. Four chapters in Chatman are devoted to an analysis of 'The Great Tetralogy'.

12. See Brunette, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni, pp. 5-6.

13. Andre Bazin, "The Evolution of the Language of Cinema," in What Is Cinema? Volume One, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 35.

14. Brunette, pp. 109-126.

15. Beverly Walker, "Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of Zabriskie Point," in Film Comment, 28, 5 (September 1992): 42. Written by the film's publicist, this account conveys a range of disturbances and oddities that affected its production.

16. A colour-related symbology of such a reading is comprehensively detailed in Rifkin, pp. 109-115. Rohdie is sympathetic to the film, calling it 'one of Antonioni's very best,' (73) but he does not, substantially, say why. Another account stresses a Freudian reading and the theme of individualism; Arrowsmith, Antonioni, pp. 127-145.

17. ...than claims of Zabriskie Point's anti-Americanism. Surely the portrayed sector of disaffected youth cared little for such sentiments. Or did they? Or were they a much smaller target audience than intended? Or not targeted at all? Or did critical backlash ruin the film's chances? Or? Nobody has successfully answered why Zabriskie Point was such an utter commercial failure. It was made for about $7,000,000 and grossed $891,918; Chatman, p. 160.

Filmography

Dramas directed by Antonioni:

Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair) (1950)

La Signora senza camelie (The Lady without Camelias) (1953)

I Vinti (The Vanquished) (1953)

Tentato suicidio (Suicide Attempt) (1953);
episode of L’Amore in Città (Love in the City)

Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) (1955)

Il Grido (The Cry) (1957)

L’Avventura (The Adventure) (1960)

La Notte (The Night) (1961)

L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962)

Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert) (1964)

Prefazione: Il Provino (Preface: The Screen Test) (1965);
episode of I Tre volti (The Three Faces)

Blow-Up (1966)

Zabriskie Point (1970)

The Passenger (Professione: Reporter) (1975)

Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Oberwald Mystery) (1980)

Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman) (1982)

Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds) (1995), Co-directed by Wim Wenders

segment in Eros omnibus film (2004)

Documentaries directed by Antonioni:

Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley) (1947)

N.U. – Nettezza urbana (Sanitation Department) (1948)

Superstizione – Non ci credo! (Superstitions) (1948)

L’Amorosam menzogna (Lies of Love) (1949)

Sette canne, un vestito (Seven Reeds, One Suit) (1949)

La Villa dei mostri (The Villa of the Monsters) (1950)

La Funivia del Faloria (The Funicular of Mount Faloria) (1950)

Chung Kuo Cina (Chung Kuo China) (1972)

Ritorno a Lisca Bianca (Return to Lisca Bianca) (1983); segment of Falsi Ritorni (Fake Returns)

Kumbha Mela (1989)

Roma (1990); segment of 12 Autori per 12 Città (12 Authors for 12 Cities)

Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, Carnevale (1992)

I am unable to verify the productions of Roma – Montevideo, Oltre l’Oblio, Bomarzo, and Ragazze in Bianco. Presumably short documentaries made between 1948-1950, they are not listed in most filmographies.

OTHER CREDITS

Un Pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns) (1942) Dir: Roberto Rossellini (Co-scriptwriter)

I Due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) (1942) Dir: Enrico Fulchigoni (Assistant director and co-scriptwriter)

Les Visiteurs du soir (1942) Dir: Marcel Carné (Assistant director)

Caccia tragica (Tragic Pursuit) (1947) Dir: Giuseppe De Santis (Co-scriptwriter)

Le Sceicco bianco (The White Sheik) (1952) Dir: Federico Fellini (Co-scriptwriter)

Uomini in più (1955) Short film directed by Nicolò Ferrari (Producer)

La Tempesta (1958) Dir: Alberto Lattuada (Second unit director)

Nel segno di Roma (1958) Dir: Guido Brignone (Director of reshoot)

More extensive filmography details are included in the books by Ian Cameron and Robin Wood, Seymour Chatman, and Peter Brunette (see below).

Select Bibliography

Antonioni, Michelangelo, The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, ed. Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi, American edition ed. Marga Cottino-Jones. New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1996

Arrowsmith, William, Antonioni: The Poet of Images, ed. Ted Perry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995

Brunette, Peter, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

Cameron, Ian and Robin Wood, Antonioni. London: Studio Vista, 1968

Chatman, Seymour, Antonioni: Or, the Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985

Rifkin, Lee Edwin, Antonioni’s Visual Language. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982

Rohdie, Sam, Antonioni. London: British Film Institute, 1990

Comprehensive bibliographies are available in both Chatman and Rohdie. In Italian, highly regarded and often cited works include: Lorenzo Cuccu, Le Visione Come Problema: Forme e Svolgimento del Cinema di Antonioni, Rome: Bulzoni, 1973; and Giorgio Tinazzi, Michelangelo Antonioni, Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1974.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Here Comes the Sun: Zabriskie Point by Fiona A. Villella

L’Avventura by Gregory Solman

Blowup by Jonathan Dawson

Antonioni's Modernist Language - Glen Norton - gnorton@yorku.ca

Much has been said about the advent of the new style of artistic production in the early part of the twentieth century, a movement labelled "modernism". The artists of this period were reacting against the conventions that preceded them, yet modernism was much more than this. It was a way of expressing a new, fragmented, unclear way of life, a chaotic world view brought on by such devastating factors as the Industrial Revolution and World War I. Life could no longer be understood through traditional means of expression. What people such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Pablo Picasso invented was a new and challenging modern language, one that could better depict the chaos of modern life. It was also around this time that the new invention of cinema was evolving, and people such as Dali, Léger and Deren were creating their own languages in this cinema. Yet it was not until the late 1950's that the language of modernism would be inscribed fully into narrative film, with the arrival of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. In his work, Antonioni creates a language out of silence, a language based on images and not on words. The difficulty of communication, a subject dealt with in detail throughout his career, mirrors the difficulty the viewer has in comprehending Antonioni's own cinematic language, a language which communicates the alienation and fragmentation of modern life. Since his language mirrors modern life, it is fraught with ambiguity, confusion, inconsistency and incompleteness -- form and content become part of the same language system.

The modernist movement is a search for meaning within things that cannot be understood. This might seem to be a lost cause, a cause that admits defeat before it even begins. Yet, even though our surroundings and our inner lives cannot be understood, the language of modernism (with some work) can -- and it is here where the exhilaration of modernism emerges. Two things must be taken into consideration when dealing with modernist texts:

First, a sensibility that understands and accepts the condition of psychological chaos and of the chaotic uncertainty in the external world that generates such internal confusion and dissonance. Second, and equally important, . . . modernism assumes that this first condition can be and has been captured and transformed into a viable system of communication. (Malamud 26)

This viable system of communication is the language of modernism, a language that may seem unintelligible without some knowledge of how it works. The difficulty some have with modern texts is due to the fact that "comprehension of a system underlying . . . idiosyncratic art is necessary if the audience is to understand and appreciate the art itself" (Malamud 11). Modernism is a language that must explain itself to itself; its defining elements are contained within the text, not prescribed from without. With modernist texts, understanding (if it ever comes at all) arrives only from close study of the language system defined within the text (or a particular body of work) itself, not from an already-defined, easily understandable language template that can be thrown over the work in order to effortlessly interpret it. The use of a new modernist language system is not arbitrary -- it is not just form without content, nor is it "art for art's sake". Modernist language systems "must communicate to and through a world of alienation, confusion, distortion, acceleration -- a world turned upside down" (Malamud 12).

Another important aspect of the language of modernism is its difficulty, due to the ambiguousness of its signifying practice. Again, there are two reasons for this:

Simplicity in language seems insincere, naïve, irreverent to those trapped in the midst of the dizzying modernist vortex, and generally irrelevant to the sense of external complexity that pervades the modern age. Second, . . . logic and reason, which follow from simple and straight forward language, can be obstacles to valid kinds of experience and imagination. (Malamud 8)

What modernist texts deal with is the incapability of humans to clearly understand their own lives, so the language used in these texts mirrors this. "The modernists themselves professed to believe that their writing, while difficult, must necessarily be so -- that only such difficulty adequately portrayed modern life" (Malamud 7). The difficulty, then, of "reading" a modernist text mirrors the difficulty of "reading" daily life, in all its contradictions and ambiguities.

There is certainly a difficulty in understanding any particular Antonioni text, in that he defines within them a cinematic language all his own, a language that lies only within the bounds of the text. The difficulty in interpreting the text formally becomes a significant part of the content of Antonioni's films as well, for it is exactly this problem of communication that he endeavours to address. There is little dialogue in his films, and, as Chatman points out, "even when there is dialogue in Antonioni's films, there is no guarantee that it will ensure communication" (89). Zabriskie Point opens with a meeting of student radicals which eventually dissolves due to a breakdown in communication between the different factions. In L'avventura, Claudia watches a young couple on a train, engaged in what seems to be simple, innocent flirting. She laughs at them, realising the "surfaceness" and the banality of their discourse, yet when they start to talk of love, she becomes sullen, realising that the emotion of love can never be communicated through verbal language. In Il Deserto Rosso, Giuliana has a conversation with a foreign sailor; the fact that neither of them understand each other's language seems irrelevant to them. It would seem that vagueness of communication, whether it is in a tongue we understand or not, passes unnoticed through our daily lives.

Antonioni's cinematic language, then, relies not on words to communicate meaning to the viewer, but on images. Blow-Up provides the perfect analogy for the way Antonioni wishes images to function in his films. The sequence in which Thomas, the fashion photographer protagonist of the film, increasingly "blows up" a series of photographs, has no dialogue whatsoever. The photographic images are, in effect, cinematic images; Antonioni wishes the audience to pay attention to the language of the image, and not the language of words. The images say much more than any words could. However, just like the humans in his films that can never say what they mean (or vice versa), images are not definitive and precise either. Does Thomas really capture a murder on film? Is there really a gun-holding hand sticking out of the bushes, or is it just shadow-play, a trick of photography? The final sequence of the film plays off this unstable nature of communicable "truth" within the photographic image: a band of "hippies" plays tennis with an imaginary ball, a ball which Thomas is invited to toss back to the players when it is shot over the fence. "Placing his camera, his source of communication with the real, on the grass, Thomas throws the imaginary tennis ball back onto the court. At this moment the sound of the ball joins the illusion" (Lyons 170). The audience may not see a ball, but the characters seem to, and the soundtrack seems to verify its presence. Does it really matter if the ball is there or not? The point, then, is that images are just as open to interpretation, just as fallible and unreliable as words are when it comes to their communicative powers.

Antonioni's trepidation when it comes to relying on verbal language is a direct result of his modernist tendencies, tendencies born from the modernist mistrust of an intelligible and comprehensive surface depiction of reality. Mistrust of an outside, understandable world results in an alienation from this reality, an alienation Antonioni's characters have exhibited throughout his career. Modern life has become much too oppressive for Antonioni. Man-made landscapes are foreign, lacking any empathy for the humans who happen to inhabit them; they are spiritually and physically empty. Think of the cold, oppressive and vacant buildings of L'avventura; the polluted factory "desert" in Il Deserto Rosso, with its dead colours and desolate decay; the commodified city of Zabriskie Point, choked in its own urban clutter of billboard signs and endless freeways. The city of London in Blow-Up serves to stand for all cities, in their most oppressive modern state:

As [Antonioni] said at the time he was filming, "I don't want to make a film about London. The same events could happen in New York, maybe Stockholm, and certainly in Paris." In other words, it is the ambience of the "modern city" and not the particular one that is crucial. In addition to depicting war protesters, mimes and derelicts which represent certain social elements of the international urban population, Antonioni conveys a sense of the anonymity which the city breeds. (Rifkin 31)

Antonioni heightens the oppressive nature of these landscapes through the use of the temps mort, a device linked to the nouveau roman movement in its modernist use of "microrealism". The temps mort defines and lingers upon postdiegetic cinematic space; it rests upon a scene after the "main" action has finished or has moved on:

This place at which the narrative dies, at which the camera becomes distracted, is often a place in which another, non-narrative interest develops . . . These are places which are openly non-narrativised, of a pictorial and visual interest which suddenly takes hold, causes the narrative to err, to wander, momentarily to dissolve. They are among the most interesting places in Antonioni's films, at which everything and nothing takes place. (Rohdie 51)

The temps mort shot, by heightening the importance of "background" landscape, gives it a life all its own, one that threatens to overpower the inconsequential humans which previously inhabited its space. What had previously been "setting" for the characters suddenly becomes the protagonist itself. The final shot in Blow-Up is a perfect example of this: Thomas, depicted from above, standing on a field of green grass, suddenly dissolves from the frame, leaving only the background to be contemplated and studied. The character becomes insignificant when weighed against the oppressive landscape, so insignificant that he literally disappears from view.

Possibly the greatest defining motif in modernist art is its incompleteness. No narrative is ever neatly wrapped up in a bow and presented as a complete package for the viewer, and the "meaning" of cinematic form can never be definitively interpreted in Antonioni's films. "The language of modernism may often seem to be fraught with incompleteness" because "completion, the presentation that is objective and convincing for the senses, may no longer be considered necessary or even sufficient" (Malamud 19- 20). Incompleteness furnishes modernism with a unique sense of urgency and presence:

Incompleteness augments the effect of temporal immediacy . . . The language is unfinished because that which it describes is still unfolding. This is a triumph of the language of modernism: it can capture more clearly the sensibility of external life. Whereas the old language could depict only that which was dead (that is, completed), the new language expands its boundaries to include and affirm the incomplete. (Malamud 20)

Antonioni's narratives are best described as modernist, incomplete and open texts, along the lines of writers such as Woolf, Joyce and Proust:

A common but mistaken view is that these writers simply give up plot -- or, to use the common phrase, that "nothing happens" in their novels. This simply means however that nothing significant happens. There are no "important" events by the ordinary standards of life. (Chatman 74)

There is no classical linear causality in the Antonioni narrative. Actions and their consequences do not seem to match in the classical sense. "Later events are not self- evidently the consequences of earlier. We may sense a relationship, but it is attenuated, indirect, and it suggests less a particular development of events than a general state of affairs" (Chatman 75). Characters wander around, seeming to do nothing, waiting for something to happen. In Blow-Up, Thomas sees the woman he has photographed earlier in the park, now window shopping. It seems that she is a major character in the film, yet she runs off, and it is the last we see of her. In L'avventura, the search for Anna just seems to fade out as the narrative goes along, forgotten, replaced by trivial action such as trying on wigs, making faces in the mirror, counting at random, or engaging in meaningless affairs. It is a search which seems random at best.

Along with the incompleteness of narrative is the incompleteness of image. The two are related, but it is here that Antonioni displays his mastery over the relation between the shot and the narrative information it reveals. The perfect example of this mastery is the seven minute long final sequence in The Passenger.

The shot starts as a painfully slow track from inside a hotel room toward a window facing the square jut outside. The protagonist (Locke) lies on the bed. The shot moves to the bars on the exterior side of the window, passes right through them, and then pans 180 degrees around the square until it returns to the window, now looking inside from the outside. Is Locke now dead? Was he murdered during the camera's incredible circular journey?

Each figure the camera identifies during this long take is given equal emphasis: a car, an old man, a dog, a boy throwing stones, the unnamed female protagonist of the film, two black men, a police car which rushes up, the exit of the black men. Each figure or event is presented in an "objective" fashion; that is to say, the events and figures that would seem to be most important to the narrative are not emphasised any more than the dog or the boy. In this way, then, the shot is "incomplete" -- it does not clarify all the action going on for its duration. It is up to the viewer to make the causal connections and piece together the narrative. Is it the two black men who kill Locke, or is it the anonymous girl? Why are all these people here? What are their off-screen actions? These questions cannot fully be answered, a testament to the incompleteness of narrative that is directly related to an "incompleteness" of form.

Modernism has a language all its own, a language translated into film by Antonioni. Many before him used the medium of film to express their own particular world views, yet only Antonioni created a whole new language in film based on modernist alienation and incompleteness. It is a language that owes more to silence than it does to verbal language, more to stasis than it does to action. As with all modern texts, it requires a concentrated effort on the part of the spectator if it is to be understood at all, a concentrated effort to decipher the embedded codes and motifs of the language. Yet, even when we do know the codes, recognise the patterns and the order that seems to be born out of his chaos, we are still never quite sure what Antonioni "means" in his films. There is no one-to-one relationship of signifier and signified. Every moment in his films generates emotions in the viewer, emotions at once simple yet contradictory, ranging from boredom to exhilaration, and stopping everywhere in between. Antonioni's films are not just artefacts -- they are texts, in the true sense of the word. They interact with us long after their running time is finished. They are incomplete in both form and content because they are incomplete within us as well. They never finished working on us, through us, and in us.

Works Cited

Chatman, Seymour
. Antonioni; or, The Surface of the World. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 19
Lyons, Robert
. Michelangelo Antonioni's Neo-realism: A World View. New York: Arno Press, 1973.
Malamud, Randy
. The Language of Modernism. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1989.
Rifkin, Ned
. Antonioni's Visual Language. Ann Arbour, Michigan: UMI, 1982.
Rohdie, Sam
.
Antonioni. London: BFI, 1990.


 

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