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The Essentials: Michelangelo Antonioni

Indiewire By The Playlist Staff | Indiewire November 5, 2013 at 3:12PM

While he had made five previous movies, 1957’s “Il Grido” being the most essential of the bunch, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s career didn’t really begin in earnest until a May 1960 evening at the Cannes Film Festival where his latest film, “L'Avventura” was met with boos, exaggerated yawns, loud jeers, even derisive laughter. Antonioni had made a mysterious, sparse and opaque film that would define the rest of his career — an unusual movie, like many others that would follow, where “nothing happens,” at least in the estimation of his harshest critics.
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Blow-Up

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, Antonioni, Nicholson

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.

Zabriskie Point

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

This article is related to: Michelangelo Antonioni, The Criterion Collection, The Essentials, Features, Feature, Monica Vitti, Jack Nicholson

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