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.

 

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.

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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