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PARIS – Michelangelo Antonioni died this past Monday at 94, less than 24 hours after Ingmar Bergman. The talk from Paris to Rome is of a cosmic joke by the supreme film buff Up There, like a crossover between Persona and L’Avventura staged by Woody Allen. Antonioni was not only the great painter of the cataclysmic 1960s (yes, he had a sensibility like a Renaissance master’s, such as his favorite, Piero della Francesca). He was a painter of the world we now live in.
How would he film the US war on Iraq, a critical case of “incommunication” if ever there was one? The cultural cliche du jour rules that Antonioni was the master of incommunication. That’s ridiculous. Decades before mobile phones connecting with everything except the dry cleaners, Antonioni was rather focused on what is worth being communicated.
Well, on the surface he painted the narcissistic bourgeoisie of the late 20th century in the wealthy North. Deep down he painted the human condition as framed by geography and social life, not only through its silences but through its (sometimes muted) cries of agony. Not accidentally, Il Grido (1957), which dawned on Antonioni as he faced a wall, depicts a man enveloped by his despair as if he were being crushed inside four walls.
Italian critic Aldo Tassone, a very close friend of the maestro, recalls how he loved to laugh about the cliche. Privately, Antonioni was extremely cheerful and had a formidable sense of humor. Monument to film Alain Resnais described him as “ice, but ice that burns.” Antonioni elegantly fire-bombed postwar neo-realism to go one step beyond and dwell on silences and spaces between people. His key subject matter, as Tassone recalls, is cities, airports, hotels – everything that evokes alienation and physical and emotional separation. That is, our world today.
One mythical day – at the set of Il Grido – the maestro found Monica Vitti. And from 1960 to 1962 he created a trilogy of absolute genius – L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse – painted in the most gorgeous black and white in the history of cinema. The late, great American film warrior Samuel Fuller, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou, tells us that “life is in color, but black-and-white is more realistic.” In the first part of the 1960s the elegant, discreet Michelangelo and the flamboyant, ebullient Monica made four films and lived together – on two separate floors in a Roman palazzo linked by an elevator.
L’Avventura was released in 1960, the same year as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce vita (the two directors were very good friends). Apparently the subject matter is the same: the spiritual malaise of the Italian grand bourgeoisie. But in L’Avventura something literally, visually, actually goes missing – and that happens to be none other than the “main” character. Existential dread never had as beautiful a face as Monica Vitti’s.
Well, it had, when Antonioni coupled Monica with an impossibly gorgeous Alain Delon in L’Eclisse (The Eclipse). In the final, sublime, absolutely wordless 10-minute sequence, they are supposed to meet each other in a deserted suburb, but of course they don’t: it’s the camera that caresses us with desperately lonely suburban life breathing like a patient approaching death.
When Antonioni moves to shooting in color (we are in the swirling mid-1960s), he has to depict a world beyond surreal. From tragedy in black and white he roars through psychedelic fatalism. Thus another – international – trilogy of genius: Blow-Up (swingin’ London), Zabriskie Point (California), The Passenger (North Africa-Spain).
In Blow-Up – the definitive image of swinging’ London, based on a novel by Julio Cortazar – fashion-photo icon David Hemmings thinks he has shot a murder in that most English of parks, but then the body (along with the photos) vanishes. Is it too much sex? Too many drugs? Too much rock ‘n’ roll? Is it madness? Is it surrealism? All this plus the bare shoulders of a young Vanessa Redgrave and Jeff Beck destroying a guitar playing live with The Yardbirds.
Zabriskie Point was shot in gorgeous CinemaScope and helped to sink the MGM studios – a poetic metaphor in itself, as Hollywood could never imagine what it was buying: a modern Renaissance master plunging into the corporate destruction of the American west via a 1960s California mix of groovy free love and no-holds-barred progressive politics. Once again the final slow-motion sequence of the exploding desert dream house to the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” not only takes the (psychedelic) cake but still wipes the floor off any critique of the ravages of capitalism.
The Passenger could be seen as a newsman’s dream movie. Jack Nicholson is a roving television correspondent who changes identity with a dead man in their small hotel in North Africa. Hyper-groovy 1970s chick Maria Last Tango in Paris Schneider joins the ride through a turbulent arms-dealing/terrorism-tainted southern Spain. Once again the ending – an eight-minute, no-dialogue, circular traveling shot – tells the whole story of alienation and separation. In silence.
Antonioni was absolutely in love with women – and not only La Vitti. His camera basically filmed – and filmed around – women. The maestro considered them to be the privileged mirror of humankind. One more reason for him to remain absolutely modern, post-modern, post-everything today. Bergman was theater – a descendant of August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen. Antonioni was, is pure cinema: image, landscapes – much more crucial than any dejected characters. Words, for him, were just a detail.
Silences are golden. We still carry on, between silences, to the distant sound of war. Buona notte, Michelangelo.