In tackling the big questions, Antonioni raised the bar high
How ironic -- yet oddly fitting -- that Michelangelo Antonioni should die in Italy, at 94, the day after Ingmar Bergman died at 89 in Sweden. At the time of their deaths they were arguably Europe’s two most famous great film directors. How very different they were in style, temperament and culture: Bergman grappled with faith and the danger of its loss while Antonioni became the master of alienation. Bergman’s films tended to have a classical formality while Antonioni experimented with very long takes and bravura tracking shots.
Yet in following such different paths they in a sense ended up at the same destination, which was to express what it was to be alive in their times, to explore the forces that shape modern existence and finally to address the eternal questions of love and death and the challenge of finding meaning in life in today’s world.
It’s tempting to say their passing marks the end of an era, but that would be inaccurate. France’s Alain Resnais remains at the height of his powers at 85 and such younger New Wave pioneers as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol remain active. Let’s also not forget that Portugal’s distinguished Manoel de Oliveira is going strong at 98. (And we’re talking here only of European filmmakers.)
Art houses flourished
Nevertheless, Bergman and Antonioni, along with Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa, represent a time when art-film theaters flourished in America, especially from the late 1950s through the ‘70s. The rise of American independent films (which after all required no subtitles), the advent of VHS videos and then DVDs, movies on cable and outsize TV screens have all made serious inroads into the exhibition of foreign films in America. There are still Godard and Chabrol films that have gone unreleased in the U.S., and some late films of Fellini and Antonioni remain unseen in America. One has to wonder if Antonioni and his peers came along today how much of chance would they have to make the sweeping international recognition they achieved.
A director’s influence is hard to pinpoint. Fellini and Kurosawa, with their more accessible and dynamic styles, clearly had their impact on filmmaking in Hollywood and elsewhere. With Bergman and Antonioni, it’s not so much a question of influence as it is of their setting awe-inspiring standards, reminding filmmakers and audiences of just how profound the potential of cinema could be.
It was said that Antonioni could be as difficult as his films. Yet on a drizzling January day -- perfect Antonioni weather -- during production in 1969 on “Zabriskie Point,” his only film shot in the U.S., he proved to be unfailingly gracious, open and friendly, and remained so over the years to me even though a 1985 stroke impaired his speech.
Yet the effect of the tenacity required for his kind of filmmaking was immediate and forceful upon meeting him that day in Culver City, where he was shooting at police headquarters. Five minutes on an Antonioni set was all it took to see that his working conditions would be the envy of every director in Hollywood: Not only did he inspire a protective devotion and an awesome respect from his handpicked crew, but he also had complete artistic freedom and could work at his own pace, taking time to make the most minute adjustments in camera and setting.
On that soggy day in 1969, the slender, patrician Antonioni described in his excellent English what it meant to be an artist.
“Everybody does everything for himself -- because he believes in what he is doing. The biggest responsibility is in front of my conscience. Since I’m a man and living in this time I’m trying to do something not useless. But I’m not really aware of that responsibility -- it works in the subconscious. I never think of the audience. I try to think of what is right for the film. What is right for the film is right for the audience.
“A film is more and more a personal thing, something between you and me. Something should happen. If it does, the film is good. More and more the audience is going to be involved. A film is not just something happening on the screen. It goes and follows you out of the theater.
“Unfortunately,” Antonioni said with the slightest trace of a smile, “we don’t know if a thing is going to happen like that.”
Spirit of contemporary life
The level of Antonioni’s accomplishment was so consistently high, so distinctive and so frequently demanding that it is hard to get a purchase on his oeuvre.
He had an uncanny ability to capture the undercurrents of a particular time and place -- for example, of mod London in the swinging ‘60s in “Blowup,” the American Southwest in the waning hippie era of “Zabriskie Point” or, in his early Italian films, vapid upper-bourgeois existence and its stifling effects on women of the ‘50s. But beyond such specifics Antonioni evokes in his work the spirit of contemporary life as a whole, and he does this through exploration of the camera’s capacity to relate individuals to their environment and thereby through memorably striking images and sequences reveal emotions that lurk beneath and between words.
One of the most revealing shots in his films occurs in “L’Avventura” (1960), the movie that made his international reputation. Gabriele Ferzetti, playing one of Antonioni’s characteristically insecure men, has, through a new love affair (with Antonioni muse Monica Vitti), rekindled his desire to be a serious architect and not just work for the money. But a setback follows, and when he notices a young architect sketching a magnificent ancient building he knocks over the man’s ink bottle, spoiling his drawing. The viewer realizes he did it on purpose, out of jealousy -- no explanation is needed.
With a technical virtuosity and daring arguably equal to that of Hitchcock, Antonioni shows the modern world to be an impersonal, often cold place in which people are made to feel isolated.
There’s a great deal of restlessness and despair in Antonioni films, which are often marked by shots held for a very long time and by scenes of people walking aimlessly, unable to find themselves or anyone else. Some find it difficult to sit through some of his films, but Antonioni generates cumulative, often profound, emotional impact as a reward to the attentive and the patient.