Hold That Shot
The languorous, achingly hip films of Michelangelo Antonioni.
Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, who died hours apart on Monday, represented the twin poles of depressive art cinema. Both were pessimistic existentialists, but while Antonioni wrestled with the Big Questions, he never deigned to answer them. His films were as brooding as Bergman's, but they were also more enigmatic, and more glamorous.
While Bergman's status in the pantheon has diminished, his reputation somewhat dented by overexposure and caricature, Antonioni is very much back in vogue. A significant number of today's most acclaimed art-house filmmakers, from Béla Tarr in Hungary to Abbas Kiarostami in Iran to Carlos Reygadas in Mexico to Jia Zhangke in China, owe an enormous debt to the languorous style that critic Andrew Sarris once evocatively termed "Antoniennui." The most recent Antonioni retrospective in New York, last summer at BAM Rose Cinemas, played to packed houses and was the most successful program in that venue's history.
If Bergman was, as Slate's Dana Stevens noted, a master of faces, Antonioni was a poet of landscape. His films are, figuratively and literally, about the spaces between people. He chose his locations for their barren desolation and architectural sterility and practically invented a visual vocabulary for alienation. But his most notable formal innovation was his provocative use of duration. He held his shots for what often seemed an eternity, lingering on the empty spaces that his characters had vacated—the conclusion of L'Eclisse (1962), for example, marks the death of a relationship with a stunning succession of shots that transforms the setting of their courtship to an apocalyptic wasteland. (Some American exhibitors were apparently so perplexed by the ending that they lopped it off.)
Often centered on missing people and epic breakups, Antonioni's is a cinema of absence and frustration. It evolved—as did Federico Fellini's fantasy world—as a reaction against Italian Neo-realism. His breakthrough, L'Avventura (1960), is a mystery (without a solution, naturally) in which the ostensible leading lady wanders off midmovie, never to return. The film was booed and heckled at the Cannes Film Festival. Shouts of "Cut! Cut!" rang out at the press screening. Antonioni and the film's star, Monica Vitti, fled the theater. But the film also won its share of fervent admirers among critics and filmmakers, who signed a petition urging the festival to screen it again (it ultimately won a prize from the jury).
L'Avventura kicked off a remarkable run of films that Antonioni made with Vitti, his lover at the time and a singular screen presence. Never the most expressive of actors, she deployed her beguiling blankness most touchingly in Red Desert, as a woman who's being slowly poisoned by her toxic environment. (Antonioni's first color film, it's a clear influence on Todd Haynes' acclaimed Safe, which starred Julianne Moore in the Vitti role.)
If Antonioni's movies have proved more resistant than Bergman's or Fellini's to the tides of fashion, it's partly because they were often so achingly hip to begin with, so unmistakably adorned with the trappings of their period that they now serve as vintage time capsules. With Blow-Up (1966), his sexy, druggy paean to swinging London (and fashion photography), Antonioni inaugurated a new and surprisingly productive phase of his career: zeitgeist tourist. Of his two American movies, The Passenger (1975), reissued in a longer cut two years ago, is justly celebrated (not least for the astonishing tracking shot and slow zoom at the end), but Zabriskie Point (1970), a violent, head-on entanglement with the counterculture, may be his most underrated film. Its literally explosive climax, a series of screen-filling detonations scored to Pink Floyd, is a feat of both geometry and anarchy, one of the most spectacular movie endings in history.
Like Bergman's, Antonioni's generally humorless style is vulnerable to parody, and unfortunately no one indulged in it more than the older Antonioni. He continued to work even after suffering a stroke, co-directing the faintly embarrassing Beyond the Clouds with Wim Wenders and contributing a short that can best be called trivial to Eros, an omnibus that also featured Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai (whose repressed, rapturous In the Mood for Love certainly counts as an Antonioni homage). Antonioni was 94 when he died—one of the most gratifying things about his longevity is that he was around long enough to appreciate his lasting influence on world cinema, to realize that Antoniennui will long outlive Antonioni.
Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Photograph of Michelangelo Antonioni by STR/AFP/Getty Images.