31 July, 2007

The Outcry of Michelangelo Antonioni

A few thoughts about the passing of Michelangelo Antonioni. I remember being at a New York City screening of his 1975 film, THE PASSENGER. During the famous shot which slowly moves away from Jack Nicholson's body, through a hotel window, finally turning in a geometrical pattern to reframe the scene from an exterior viewpoint, an elderly man in the theater starting shouting, "It's too SLOW, the photography's good, the acting is good... but it's too damn SLOW!!!!" Antonioni's pacing had caused the Outcry. I was fascinated, the other patron was bored. All of Antonioni's films look great and some have provoked great controversy. His masterwork L'AVVENTURA was roundly booed at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

Edvard Munch's famous 1885 painting, IL GRIDO, could perhaps be considered as the structuring absence behind the Antonioni aesthetic. He also made a film with that title in 1957, which is perhaps his most underrated feature in a career that spanned six decades. All of his major works culminate in a kind of horrific, silent Outcry. It's no coincidence that this image can also be recognized as evoking the oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman, who also passed away yesterday. Like Munch, Antonioni was a painter. He used cameras instead of brushes and put his light and tints onto film.

Antonioni had a very tough time with many critics and still does with audiences unprepared for what the does with time and space. He gives us all the time in the world to consider Time and Space. For some that's probably Not Cool when they may be in a great hurry to get to where they want to go. But it's always been that way. Antonioni's camera seems to always want to crawl past his characters, or figures, toward.... let's just say something else. We don't want Steve Cochran to climb up that tower in the last scene of IL GRIDO. You want to shout, "Don't do it!" But he does. The preceding film has been a contemplation of a downward spiral leading to his final act. Suicide is a major taboo in our culture and not generally considered a viable option. Antonioni's film perhaps allows us to consider the act in a different light.

The image above is of Riccardo Freda (1909-1999) who, along with Antonioni, is my favorite Italian director. Freda hated the work of Antonioni, and Bergman, but especially Antonioni, whom he probably saw as representing everything which frustrated him about the post WWII Neo-Realist dominated Italian cinema: deliberation, intellectual pretension and Art Cinema over Genre Cinema. But in 1958 the two titans actually worked {as directors} on the same film, in one of Italy's most notorious genres, NEL SEGNO DI ROMA. Produced in 1958 by Italian, French and German companies, it was an Anita Ekberg-starring Peplum. Helmed by the ailing veteran Guido Brignone, who died the next year, Antonioni was called in to pick up some scenes, along with other directors, including Sergio Leone, who also worked on the script. Freda was second unit director for the action scenes, which are spectacular, possibly the best thing he ever did. NEL SEGNO... is set up as a series of Neo-classical paintings which burst into life from first to last shot. The fact that Antonioni and Freda were involved comes as no surprise, even though this is not a well-known collaboration, and considering that it is dramatically void and only intended to showcase Anita Ekberg's virtues, perhaps that's understandable. But it sure looks great.

IL GRIDO (1957) Kino Video DVD

Both of the above DVD's are highly recommended and good places to start in a survey of Antonioni's essential oeuvre.

(C) Robert Monell, 2007


cinebeats said...

I really need to see IL GRIDO. It's one of Antonioni's films that I've managed to miss and now you've got me very excited to see it.

Wonderful post!

Robert Monell said...

I only have IL GRIDO and BLOW UP on DVD, so I have a lot of catching up to do. I especially want to get the CRITERION DVD of THE ECLIPSE and last year's disc of THE PASSENGER, which I haven't seen since it came out thirty years ago. Thanks for the feedback, Cinebeats.

Pappy said...

Just want to add that I too think IL GRIDO is Antonioni's most underrated film. I would nominate as one of the most underrated films in world cinema - period. I saw it for the first time only a few years ago and was stunned by it's haunting qualities. BLOW UP was my first 'Art' film which I saw theatrically at age 15. That was it for me - a confirmed Antonioni fan for life. When I finally saw IL GRIDO I couldn't believe how powerful and accomplished it was and yet the critical line always seemed to be that it predates The Maestro's 'mature' period - wrong!

Pappy said...

Forgot to mention - when IL GRIDO had it's American debut at the first International Film Festival in San Francisco in 1957 it was reported that a drunken Steve Cochran showed up demanding that the film not be screened. Apparently, he was afraid that Antonioni had filmed some 'dirty' scenes behind his back! :)

Robert Monell said...

Welcome to the Franco blog, Pappy. There are some who actually prefer his B&W early films to his color films. IL DESERTO ROSSO is certainly his most impressive color film, in my view. Also, his films don't translate to the small screen or smaller screens even on very good DVDs. L'AVVENTURA has to be seen and heard in 35mm to get the full impact. He's a filmmaker of the Future. Thanks for the Steve Cochran story. I always enjoy watching his portrayal of the gangster in THE CHASE.

Robert Monell said...

Correction: I just realized that I had originally typed that L'AVVENTURA was booed at the 1969 Cannes Fest. It was actually in 1960. But if it showed in 1969 it might have still been ridiculed. His 1970 ZABRESKIE POINT was very poorly reviewed in the US. That last scene with the endlessly exploding house really was a hypnotic experience for me. Maybe his most impressive scene ever. It's the closest thing in Cinema to a Jackson Pollock canvas.