Depth of Field

Another look behind the chilly surfaces of Michelangelo Antonioni's films reveals not the King of Pain so much as a well-informed sensualist

In an exhibit mounted a few years ago by the Walker Art Center, spectators could see a progression--a kind of ascension, really--in the paintings of Willem de Kooning, as the old master succumbed to the big wipeout of Alzheimer's disease. As one walked from room to room, the giant, gnarled slash-and-scribbles of de Kooning's famous work gave way to bigger, purer, smoother canvases--clear skies emptied of tension, their placidity interrupted only by a series of Cy Twombly-like squiggles. One couldn't help noting that as de Kooning faded to black, a new tranquillity, which had the look of transcendence, blanketed his old-age work.

As the capper to a monster retrospective of the work of another master in late old age, Oak Street Cinema will soon be screening Beyond the Clouds by director Michelangelo Antonioni. Eighty-three years old when the film was shot in 1994, Antonioni was hobbled by a stroke that left him unable to write, shaky in getting around, and reduced to a tiny directorial vocabulary: "No!" "Littler!" "Me!" "Mine!" The basics, in other words, of any filmmaker's communication.

Wim Wenders, who was brought in by the moneymen to oversee the project, act as a sort of high-class assistant director, and step in if Antonioni was unable to perform, recently completed a memoir of the making of Beyond the Clouds called My Time With Antonioni. Watching it, one feels Wenders's frustration, his self-discipline, and his altruistic love for Antonioni--the person and the work. Enduring Antonioni's inarticulate harrumphs (and sometimes his blows), Wenders stuck it out for a reason he's rather shy about: the opportunity to get inside the head one of the world's greatest living film artists.

How they learned to stop worrying and love the bomb: Richard Harris and Monica Vitti in Red Desert
How they learned to stop worrying and love the bomb: Richard Harris and Monica Vitti in Red Desert

Unfortunately, Wenders's account takes us far deeper into Antonioni's mind than Beyond the Clouds does. The movie may not be Antonioni's last (it's reported that an adaptation of Jack Finney's Destination Verna is in the works--with Naomi Campbell and Sophia Loren!), but it feels posthumous. A series of four rather basic anecdotes about sex, most of them light on dialogue and heavy on posturing against scenic architecture, Clouds (screening for a week at Oak Street beginning Friday, September 15) rather naturally gives evidence of a director who seems physically unable to bring together the materials of a movie, even one as rudimentary as this. The film chugs ahead most smoothly in the frankly pornographic sequences that have interested Antonioni more and more in his old age. It's one of the few times he's able to let the camera run on and on, feeling certain that we're compelled by what's on the other side.

Antonioni has a very particular reputation in the United States: as a frigid, composition-minded, angst-o-centric King of Pain, the master of Isolated Modern Figures icily set against Unyielding Manmade Landscapes. But allow me to make a personal confession. In my green youth, something always excited me in Antonioni's movies that was absent in that other trinity of highbrow art-film makers--Bergman, Fellini, and Tarkovsky. And, reexamining the work today, in the context of the Oak Street retrospective, I'm reminded of why Antonioni stood out so strongly to me in my naiveté. It's because there's a whole world of communication going on beneath the rather obvious theses of his high-minded pictures. The closest analogy is to French filmmaker Robert Bresson--a secret sensualist wrapped in the image of a hair-shirted monk.

What Antonioni's pictures "have to say" is almost risibly blatant. In film after film, highly educated but inarticulately suffering and lonely figures go through loveless sex and meaningless conversation while framed against landscapes that don't give 'em an inch. It could be Monica Vitti looking awestruck at a surreally color-coordinated row of electrical towers glowing blue in Red Desert (Tuesday at 9:45 p.m.); or it could be the short-lived non-actor Mark Frechette driving a pickup truck through creepy "Americana" billboards of strutting, dancing piggie people in Zabriskie Point (Friday and Saturday at 9:45 p.m.). Or it could be the prototypical Antonioni image, ripped off by everything from Hitchcock's Psycho to The Fly: a waifish, stick-limbed woman, arms protectively crossed over her sternum, standing against a gelid white-on-white wall that fairly screams, "We're all in the big nuthouse."

Antonioni's films propose no alternative, no way out of this koyaanisqatsi. "Man," out of balance with nature and "himself," can only strike lonely, Rodin-like poses. One sometimes senses a misanthropic, Kubrickian wish to bring it all tumbling down. In the most viscerally exciting sequence in all of Antonioni, Zabriskie's Daria Halperin stares at the Orange County house of her daddylike bourgeois lover and, to the tune of Pink Floyd's indelible "Careful with That Ax, Eugene!" watches a five-minute slo-mo rhapsody: The house explodes, its contents swirling and evaporating in an ecstasy of apocalyptic devastation. Truly, you have no idea how thrilling it is to watch milk cartons spin and rip apart in slow motion to a squalling Pink Floyd song until you've seen this movie. But, finally, Halperin drives away; the house remains intact; and the end of the world is just a fantasy.

Like Kubrick eternally fixating on the movements of machinery in 2001, Antonioni often feels happiest when his actors have gone home. The sequence generally cited as his most virtuosic concludes his 1974 film The Passenger (Friday and Saturday at 7:15 p.m.): After a major character's death, the camera slides out of his room through a window, surveys the nearby goings-on at a distance of 200 feet, then returns through the window to unveil a very different scene--a trick made all the more dazzling when you realize that the scene is all about an empty room. And audiences were shocked by the climax of Antonioni's 1962 L'eclisse (Wednesday and Thursday, September 13 and 14 at 7:15 p.m.), in which, after the central love affair has come to resolution, the film goes on for several minutes to survey all the locations in which the story has taken place--utterly devoid of characters. For Antonioni, the concept of the neutron bomb has a nostalgic, heartwarming quality.

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