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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 5, 2013 3:12 PM
15 Comments
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Blowup” (1966)
Hot off the arthouse success of “Red Desert,” Antonioni was contracted by producer Carlo Ponti to make three English-language pictures for MGM. The first was this tale, adapted from the short story “The Devil’s Drool” by Julio Cortázar and also inspired by the life of London photographer David Bailey. The day-in-the-life of a swinging '60s photographer, played with perfect brash braggadocio by David Hemmings as the straightfaced forerunner of Austin Powers (you kind of expect him to say “and I’m spent” after each photo session), takes a turn for the psychological once he realizes he may have witnessed and photographed a murder. He goes from photo shoot to photo shoot, scores with a few young ladies hoping to make it as models, then comes to realize as he develops the pictures he shot at a park that he may have evidence of the deed. Those looking for clear answers will not get them, but the mystery and the world depicted is exciting and leaves you wanting more with every scene (not least of which the brilliant finale, in which Hemmings participates in a mimed game of tennis). Other cool era signifiers include Herbie Hancock’s exotic jazzy score, an appearance by Jimmy Page’s pre-Led Zeppelin band The Yardbirds, and the fact that this was considered quite racy for its time, helping put an end to the production code and thus spawning the MPAA. Its surprising success in the U.S., helped no doubt by its reputation for featuring onscreen nudity, ensured that Antonioni would have more freedom to continue on his weird, idiosyncratic path. And if nothing else, we can thank this movie for what has come in its wake. No doubt we wouldn’t have other masterworks like Francis Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Brian De Palma’s “Blow-Out” without it.

The Passenger” (1975)
It is Antonioni’s specialty: his deep interest in exploring estrangement in modern life. Though some of his work may at times feel dated, if only because this is such a centrally opposite concern today, there are many aspects that still retain relevance today. “The Passenger,” the third of the Italian director’s English-language films, sees him teaming up with Jack Nicholson at the height of the actor’s early career. Playing a reporter making a documentary in Africa who is frustrated by his inability to get any interviews with the Chadian rebels waging civil war, he strikes up a friendship with another man staying in his hotel. The man then turns up dead, and Nicholson decides to take on his identity, essentially killing off his former persona and life. The ruse is a success, until his wife asks someone to find out more and Nicholson comes to realize the man whose identity he nabbed was running guns for the very rebels he was trying to interview for his documentary. He successfully makes the deal and gets some cash, heads to Spain and meets a girl who he begins an affair with (played by Maria Schneider), but things catch up to him. “The Passenger” is a brilliant look at wanting to ditch the past and reinvent yourself: Nicholson’s character is basically bored with his life, family and job, so he sees the opportunity for a new start and goes for it. This theme is at once a powerful metaphor for why we watch movies (to live vicariously through other people for at least a brief glimpse into another life) but also serves as backdrop for one of Nicholson’s most underrated and infrequently mentioned ‘70s films. His performance as the identity-switching reporter is another great reminder of just how damn good he was in those days, able to underplay a character to devastating effect. And the famous penultimate shot, a near seven-minute-long unbroken take, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Antonioni For Advanced Learners
The rest of Antonioni’s output can be fairly spotty. No observation of his career can be made without mention of 1970’s infamous “Zabriskie Point,” his second English-language film set during the counter-cultural youth movement in the U.S. (which we’ve written about several times, including in this feature about great directors who lost the plot). Like “L’Avventura,” it purports to be a mystery initially—did a young-hippie-cum-student-radical shoot a cop? But, as usual, “Zabriskie Point” was more consumed with exploring the aimlessness of its two characters via a trademark directionless eroticism. The picture was a huge flop in the U.S. and critically derided during its day. It's subsequently been praised as a misunderstood classic, but as is usual in the age of revisionism and excitable rediscovery, that’s overstating the case. “Zabriskie Point” is not a flat-out disaster, but it’s not a hidden masterpiece either. Instead, it’s a problematic and uneven but fascinating slice of ‘70s cinema that all cinephile historians and Antonioni connoisseurs should track down.

The early half of Antonioni’s career is peppered with interesting, but largely unremarkable, post Neo-realist works that are never as affecting or as fully realized as the works of De Sica or Fellini (though his debut, “The Story of a Love Affair” is essentially a film noir). “Le Amiche,” is notable for its use of women as its central characters—a characteristic at the forefront of most Antonioni films—but was perhaps too talky and overcrowded in its mise en scene to be emblematic of his later, more powerful works. It’s 1957’s “Il Grido” (The Cry)—a type of emotionally internalized neorealism—the film before “L’Avventura,” that hints most at what’s to come. Featuring American actors Steve Cochran and Betsy Blair (dubbed into Italian) along with Alida Valli and Dorian Gray, the film featured a rare male lead for Antonioni, distraught and disillusioned, wandering the Italian countryside in search of purpose after his wife leaves him. While it’s perhaps not quite “essential,” it’s a critical step in the evolution of Antonioni’s sparse and austere style and a must-see for any Antonioni-ite. The Criterion Collection-minted “Identification of a Woman” from 1982 is about a self-absorbed film director in search of love and a girl who has vanished from his life—it’s a little shallow and short on the kind of substance that made Antonioni best films such beguiling and bewitching experiences. Later in life Antonioni suffered a debilitating stroke that would sideline his career for a decade, and make watching those subsequent films, like his “Eros” short and “Beyond the Clouds” (co-directed by Wim Wenders) nearly unbearable (sadly they feel like parodies of his work, bereft of the nuance and precision of which he was once a master). 1981’s “The Mystery of Oberwald” was his last true collaboration with Monica Vitti (though most assume it’s “Red Desert”), but poor notices have quickly made it a forgotten one that no studio has bothered to address on DVD. All of which is to say that if you’re curious and looking for somewhere to start, you could do worse than selecting one of our six essentials before wading in any deeper.  - Rodrigo Perez, Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang

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15 Comments

  • jervaise brooke hamster | November 11, 2013 6:57 PMReply

    I want to bugger Gillian Hills (as the bird was in 1962 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • jervaise brooke hamster | November 11, 2013 6:55 PMReply

    I want to bugger Jane Birkin (as the bird was in 1964 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • Mediafiend | November 6, 2013 8:50 PMReply

    Thanks for including THE PASSENGER. It's my personal favorite, and I always seem to run in to people who haven't seen it. Fan of Antonionni and/or Nicholson, it's a must see.

  • jon | November 5, 2013 10:04 PMReply

    Identification of a Woman is vastly underrated. Totally bizarre and compelling movie with some bravura sequences.

  • Bill S. | November 5, 2013 8:53 PMReply

    Zabriskie Point and Blowup are two of my favorite movies (in my top 20 anyway), and I don't know why. The article helped me understand a little better as to why that is. I must find a copy of The Passenger.

  • Eh | November 5, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    No mention of The Mystery of Oberwald being one of the first narrative films shot on video? And it has been released on DVD, just not in the USA

  • tristan eldritch | November 5, 2013 6:54 PMReply

    Great work!

  • RP | November 8, 2013 2:32 PM

    Thanks, sir.

  • DUDDI | November 5, 2013 6:08 PMReply

    IMO, "Il Grido" deserves a spot on the list. For Antonioni, it's something like "All About La Grande Antonioni", it's there where he created his identity, and you can find that vision in every single movie that he made after this one. Anyway good list, and i hope more people will watch his work.

  • Rodrigo | November 5, 2013 10:51 PM

    Yeah, I definitely considering putting it in here and gave it props in the intro and outro (where it got a kind of mini write up). I think it's a very good film, better than IOAW, in my opinion.

  • DG | November 5, 2013 5:27 PMReply

    I like Antonioni cause his cinematography makes normal life look like science fiction

  • El Hanso | November 5, 2013 4:25 PMReply

    Thanks for this. I mostly agree with these statements, particular with the "kind of fascinating but not really working" on Zabriskie Point. I haven't seen many of his earlier films despite "Il Grido", but I really like exactly those films you singled out. I would go so far and say I actually love "La Notte" and "Red Desert," while "L'Avventure" is more in the area of admiration.

    I get why Antonioni puts some people off, why those people get bored. It's hard to argue that his films are slow and often seem rather low on action (action meaning anything substantional happening), but Antonioni fascinates me. Intellectually but often enough also emotionally.
    That's more than can be said about some other "slow" or "intellectual" auteur filmmakers. For example, besides Balthazar I've yet to find a Bresson film I actually like.

  • Rodrigo | November 8, 2013 5:49 PM

    Ah, well, that's the problem. Lancelot du Lac is easily his least successful film (read: probably his worst). A terrible place to start. That movie is for Besson-ites only.

    What you loved about Balthazar is in, Mouchette at the very least (Pickpocket, and A Man Escaped are equally good, but pretty different).

    I invite you to look through our Bresson feature and give his films another go. Especially if you like Antonioni. Totally different filmmakers, but the fact that you have the patience for his style makes me think you can appreciate Bresson.


    http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/the-films-of-robert-bresson-a-retrospective-20120418

  • El Hanso | November 6, 2013 8:23 AM

    I've been thinking about giving some of his films another chance. In some cases it's been a while since I've seen them. There are even films I haven't seen yet. "Diary of a Country Priest" for example. I feel rather conflicted about him, mostly because "Balthazar" worked rather well (very well) and most other films of his I've seen didn't really get to me. Hell, I mostly blame "Lancelot du Lac," a film that annoyed me to no end.

  • Rodrigo | November 5, 2013 10:40 PM

    Damn, as a big Antonioni fan and big Bresson fan, please give Bresson another chance. He is masterful. Though I do think Balthazar is his best film (which is overflowing with emotion IMO). A Man Escaped is probably the best prison break film ever. Pickpocket is terrific, Mouchette is superb, Diary of a Country Priest is a hard and austere, but rewarding watch and L'argent is brutally good.

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