Like Bergman, the commentary that surrounds the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, itself substantial enough to fill a library, often threatens to smother the fact that there’s a subject even to be discussed in the first place. Coming to grips with Antonioni’s art is often an exercise in dialing down a lot of white noise, as opposed to (in the case of a less frequently attended artist) discerning shapes from obscurity.
Let it be acknowledged that Antonioni foretold many contours of our modern and post-modern condition, our obsession with tech and gadgets, the dominance of superficiality in fashion and architecture, and our general malaise, brought on by a tech-mediated disconnect, overcome only fleetingly in moments of fragile, often unsatisfying intimacy.
That’s the official version, which holds true, more or less, and if any other director were to build a film directly from those tenets, you’d probably end up with some cumbersome and edifying and unpleasant – something in the neighborhood of the infamous “Europudding.” What the official version omits, however, is Antonioni’s dry-martini humor, and his affection for the foolish things and superficial pleasures he was supposed to have exposed as decadent and corrosive. A fresh look at the then-critically-dismissed Zabriskie Point (the middle part of his three-picture deal with Carlo Ponti) reveals pleasures that roundly contradict its received status as a kind of ascetic tut-tut aimed at decrying American spiritual-cultural-political decay.
Even his famous “alienated” landscapes, images of mystification (and mists) that stand as totems of the European arthouse, bind multiple layers of, for lack of a better word, interpretation. Throughout the body of work, his protagonists are galvanized by a kind of wanderlust, but this condition isn’t exclusively the result of Disaffection or Alienation, but, even in the apparently two-sizes-too-small hearts of his capitalist heroes and heroines, a not-extinguished grain of youthful wonderment. The enduring power of Antonioni to enchant and provoke lies not simply in his images (potent and mesmerizing as they often are) but also in his ambivalence regarding the very attitudes to which his critics often reduce his work.
Off the beaten path of the Big Titles (Blow-Up, L’avventura, The Passenger, etc), those with some experience with Antonioni might also check out: I vinti, a three-part anthology of murder stories, each set in a different country. The first two segments are weak, but the third, set in the UK, looks forward to Blow-Up in many ways, and is among the most potent of his early salvos, compelling in its still-forming Antonioni-ness. The Story of a Love Affair connects the terse, intellectual turmoil of his major period – where he’d still be preoccupied with well-to-do bourgeois Italians – with the lurid melodrama that persisted through the popularity of Neorealism. Zabriskie Point was famously raked over the coals by 1970 critics, but you’d be hard-pressed to name another of his films that’s as funny, free-wheeling, and sexually charged – and the music is terrific.
What to see?
- The Passenger (1975) aka Professione: reporter [DVD]
- Zabriskie Point (1970) [DVD]
- Blow-Up (1966) [DVD] [Amazon Instant Video]
- Red Desert (1964) [Hulu] [Blu-ray]
- L’eclisse (1962) [Hulu] [DVD]
- La notte (1961)
- L’avventura (1960) [DVD] [Hulu]
- Il Grido (1957) [DVD] [Amazon Instant Video]
- Story of a Love Affair (1950) [Netflix] [Amazon Instant Video]