Tuesday, July 31, 2007

DANCE OF DEATH, 2

When I wrote yesterday's blog in tribute to Ingmar Bergman, I compared him to Antonioni without realizing as I wrote that Michelangelo Antonioni, the great Italian filmmaker, had also just died, at the age of 94. So that dance of death moving over the hill into the distance can boast two of the most remarkable figures of the great era of European auteur filmmakers among its number.

L'Avventura (1960), the film that audiences hissed at Cannes, is the definitive Antonioni experience. The remarkable composition of shots will be reason enough to stay riveted to the screen, or if not, you might find yourself, like the Cannes audience, wondering why the film doesn't seem concerned to resolve the mystery of Anna's disappearance. For me, watching this film is almost purely a visual experience so I can't say I ever cared greatly about "the plot." But if you're concerned with that, there is a story unfolding, it's just that it's ignoring all the usual cues about how we're supposed to read important moments, how we're supposed to "add it up."

It's that kind of indifference to what other filmmakers consider to be the storytelling value of films that made me a fan of Antonioni. I'll admit that L'Eclisse (1962) is too static even for me, but La Notte (1961) and especially Red Desert (1964) and The Passenger (1975) are movies I can watch again and again because knowing "what's going to happen" has little to do with the process of watching them.

If I had to describe one quality of Antonioni's use of character that sets him apart, it's the way in which ambiguities of motive and of response, of thought and feeling, are maintained -- against all the conventional ways in which screen-acting broadcasts feelings in broad strokes so that we're never in much doubt as to who is bad, and good, and sympathetic, and hurting, and so on. In the films L'Avventura, Red Desert, The Passenger -- my three favorites (which I've seen between three times -- Red Desert -- and countless times -- The Passenger) the audience is left to "figure people out" without being privy to how we're supposed to feel about them. It's a true test of whatever one deems one's "moral sense" to be, and that seems to me a significant challenge for any art form, particularly a popular one.

That aspect may be a bit less true in Red Desert (1964), where Antonioni famously used color as an expressive element (and which I wrote about in an earlier blog): the dramatic situations feel at times a bit heavy-handed, but that's offset by the pleasures of watching a meticulous film craftsman, having mastered the art of composition long since, work with a new language of color composition.

About Antonioni's best-know film, Blow Up (1966), apart from what I said yesterday in comparing it to Bergman's Persona, I'll simply say that the film has never lived up to my expectations, that it has always "let me down." But, oddly, I have great admiration and even affection for it. And I know that I will watch it again hoping that this time it will be different, that this time something that didn't click for me finally will and I'll see -- like David Hemmings studying those blow-ups -- something I missed before. It's that possibility -- that all the movie contains has not been exhausted by one or even several viewings -- that keeps me going back to Antonioni, and keeps me disturbed by him because, more than any of the other auteur figures of my youth -- Truffaut, Fellini, Kubrick, Altman, Bergman, Godard (all but the latter dead now) -- Antonioni alienates even me.

I recall that when I finally saw Andrei Tarkovsky's final film The Sacrifice (1986) a few years ago, it struck me as Bergman meets Antonioni. I was moved, and very happy.

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