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


The Oak Street retrospective gives a pretty encyclopedic picture of Antonioni, from his early, more Harlequin-romance-style works (like the embryonic Story of a Love Affair, screening Wednesday at 9:50 p.m.) through the later films. But if you want to see the essence of Antonioni, the work that pierces beyond the caricatured perception of the auteur as Angst Man, I recommend in particular his two masterpieces: Red Desert (1965) and The Mystery of Oberwald (1982).

Part of the greatness of these two works comes from the fact that, more than in any of Antonioni's other films, the director spends time focusing on the face of his feminine alter ego, Monica Vitti. The great moments in Antonioni (and Desert and Oberwald are full of them from beginning to end) come when the thesis--it's a soulless iceberg, our Organization Man world!--evaporates, leaving a delight in the material world exercised by one of the planet's first-rate aesthetes. In the case of these two movies, that frisson of pleasure boils down to two things: beautiful female faces and Antonioni-generated fields of color.

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

In The Mystery of Oberwald (Wednesday, September 13 at 9:45 p.m.), Antonioni staged a video experiment that predates by an entire generation both the genius artifacts of Bill Viola and the "conceptual" shite of Blair Witch. Staging Cocteau's creaky camp melodrama L'aigle a deux têtes, Antonioni didn't leave this endlessly shifting, Genet-like power play between an Embattled Queen (Monica Vitti) and her Potential Assassin (Franco Branciaroli) as a boxed-in, made-for-TV stage play. He tweaked the contrast knobs of a now far-outdated technology called the "video toaster" to turn this work into the height of expressionistic color. So, when a malevolent courtier enters the queen's chambers, the central third of the frame goes wavy gray and blue, as if it had experienced a spinal tap. Or when Queen and Assassin find potential love in a green glade, Antonioni manufactures his own cymbal-crashing efflorescence: The whole world of springtime seems to burst before them like the opening of a symphony. The effect--and I mean not to hyperbolize--is hallucinogenic.

Red Desert (Tuesday at 9:45 p.m.) achieves some similar effects with a different bonus: a richer texture. Shot on film, Desert is a fairly simple account of a bourgeois sleepwalker (Vitti) and her ever more freaked-out bumble through the glass labyrinth that is the modern world. (The conceit and style of the film were stolen outright--and beautifully so--by Todd Haynes in Safe.) As the Vitti character wanders through a working-class orgy on a dingy cot full of bundled-up, freezing libertines, or gets lost on the waterfront in a sudden deluge of fog, the viewer is reminded of an aphorism delivered by the Antonioni-like director (John Malkovich) in Beyond the Clouds: "I spent my life photographing the surfaces of things, and enlarging them. I tried to find out what was behind them. In my entire career I have done nothing else."

Or has he? In Red Desert and The Mystery of Oberwald, one doesn't sense a metaphysician butting his head against the hardness of objects, as one does in the alternately sumptuous and self-flagellating films of Robert Bresson. One senses...well, to be honest, a rich, unapologetic, and very well-informed sensualist, a man with the greatest, most diverse and exuberant taste imaginable. This may explain the clunky editing rhythms of Antonioni's movies: When he fixates on Monica Vitti standing before a cobalt-blue wall, he has no desire to get kinetic, or even to make a further "idea" out of the image. He just wants to groove on it--and he wants us to groove on it as well. These two movies are orgies for film lovers who need no ennobling theses to justify their pleasures.

Furthermore, I am not convinced by Antonioni--nor by most of the other great filmmakers of ideas--that the job of movie director and the job of deep thinker have many traits in common. The picture of Alienated Modern Man in movies such as L'eclisse and Blowup (Friday, September 15 through Sunday, September 17 at 7:00 p.m.) have a weird, hypocritical double life. One senses that as much as Antonioni feels pity or scorn for these detached orphans of the 20th Century, he also--somewhat obliquely--finds them deeply groovy. The dumb, self-satisfied stockbroker played by Alain Delon in L'eclisse, the smirking fashion photographer (a proto-Austin Powers) played by David Hemmings in Blowup, the intellectual Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (Monday at 7:30 p.m.), bestriding the human tangle of an orgy in his beautiful black suit, hands in his beautiful black pockets--are we really meant to think Antonioni is tsk-tsking these guys? He clearly gets off on them, and their aura of don't-touch-me cool.

Which inevitably adds to making these movies fun--if not, perhaps, in the way the maestro intended them. Anyone who doesn't get a kick out of Hemmings's frenzied, pseudo-erotic directions to the fashion models in Blowup must be a bit of a prig. In brief: Bask in all the glamorous disconnect, savor all the fine young cannibals, and say a prayer for the cinema we have inherited, for if most of these movies were made today, you wouldn't get to see them in a month of Sundays.


"Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni" runs through Thursday, September 21; (612) 331-3134.

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