Zabriskie Point (1970)

Zabriskie Point (1970) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 03/18/2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s only American film, Zabriskie Point, is a portrait of a churning, volatile modern dystopia in contrast with the natural beauty of the Arizona desert.  Themes of industrial spoilage of the natural world are evident in other works of Antonioni, most notably to my mind as in Red Desert (1964), maybe because that was the most recent of his films I’ve seen.

But America is wasteland extraordinaire.  With its ubiquitous billboards and signage, industrial build-up, the overflowing metropolis of Los Angeles.  And the people there are in full foment, radicalized against authority, weaponized but still ineffectual.

When a young radical (Mark Frechette) gets into trouble at a student protest, he escapes by stealing a plane and heading east.  He meets up with the free-wheeling assistant (Daria Halprin) of an industrialist bent on converting open space into suburban tracts.  Her research in the outer reaches of civilization have her also questioning her role in the world.  They connect at Zabriskie Point to the sounds of the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd (among others) in a psychedelic freak out of rebellious surrealism and free love.

The film was criticized upon release for Frechette and Halprin’s amateur skills.  Antonioni is drawing on the counter-culture ideals of the time, tapping into youth culture and attitudes that are in step with his own critiques of America and industrialization.

The film is beautifully shot.  One shot in particular struck me so much.  It’s just a view of an old man sitting at a bar, but the camera comes in through the window in a very unusual way, depicting perhaps another side of America and what America is?  I don’t know.  Zabriskie Point may not be my favorite Antonioni film, but it’s very interesting.

Red Desert (1964)

Red Desert (1964) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 06/22/2015

Over the past several years, among many other cinematic tropes, I’ve been working my way through the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.  I guess I’ve attained a certain plateau with his films because an overall sense of his work is forming in my brain, it’s not that every new film brings some truly foreign experience to my mind.  But his 1964 film Red Desert did remain somewhat intimidating, as I recalled folks back in film school commenting on its slow pace, length, and impenetrability.

It was Antonioni’s first color film, and it’s vivid, rich and strangely lurid.  The strangeness comes not from its Technicolor but from the fact that the world of the film is a ruined industrial landscape, shrouded in deep fog, hemmed by giant ships, factories and pipes, cracked cement, and decaying shacks.  Not to mention blackened detritus, poisoned bogs and yellow plume spewing towers.

Antonioni’s ubiquitous female, Monica Vitti, is the alienated protagonist of the film.  Married to an insensate industrialist, attached to a child given to faking illness, and flirting with a cold fish of a lover, she is suffering from some psychological crisis that seems to reflect itself on on of its landscapes.  And these landscapes are indeed flourished with colors.

I don’t know if impenetrability is really the issue.  Antonioni’s films are very sensuous experiences.  While many aspects of narrative are either muted or less extant, pervading feelings do overwhelm and infect.

If anything, even over the years between which I’ve seen his films, a consistency of vision forms.  Though abstracted and full of vagaries, his films share aesthetics and tonalities.

I quite liked Red Desert.  Maybe second only to L’Avventura (1960) so far.  I am feeling it would be good to see them in closer succession that I have managed to so far.

L’eclisse (1962)

L'Eclisse (1962) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 02/23/2014

My continued march through major films that I have never seen includes films of major directors with whose work I am not familiar enough.  A while back (apparently much further back that I remembered) I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), which I really liked.  And for some reason it’s taken me several years to return to his well.  But here I am.

L’eclisse is the third film of what has come to be considered a trilogy of sorts for Antonioni, of which L’Avventura is the first.  I don’t know that chronology is as important with a trilogy of this sort, but even if it was, L’Avventura turns out to have been long enough ago that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

It’s referred to as his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” and that’s fair enough to apprise L’eclisse.  To speak to L’Avventura or La Notte (1961), which I haven’t seen, or to draw any of my own conclusions, well, I’m not equipped for that.

It’s Modernist cinema, though, breaking from narrative of clarity and yet quite formalist in its own ways.  The film stars Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, and is set in Rome and Verona.  Vitti is a young woman falling sort of between things, between an old lover and a new lover, a world in which she doesn’t connect.  It’s set in parts at the Rome Stock Exchange, with perhaps a commentary of finance or capitalism or I don’t know.

I guess the biggest upshot of my watching the film was that I didn’t have any clear conclusions.  I listened a bit to the historian on the DVD track speaking about the film and its contexts and found it interesting but realized that I hadn’t gotten to any of those things myself.  It’s one of those films that begs for close reading or analysis.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as L’Avventura, but that may have to do with the tone and intention as much as the intentional diversion of what the viewer is looking for in the film.  It interests me still, but I came away with very little from my viewing.  Yet I can see it’s a complex and interesting film.

That’s all I’ve got right now.  It’ll have to do.

L’Avventura

 

L’Avventura (1960) movie poster

(1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 06/02/10

It took me a long time to get around to seeing any Michaelangelo Antonioni films, but finally a couple of years back, I started with Blow-Up (1966) and then The Passenger (1975), two of his later English language films.  But still, I hadn’t ever seen any of his earlier work in his native Italian, nor really enough to get any kind of real grasp on one of the major names of mid-20th century European cinema.  Which brings me to L’Avventura.

L’Avventura is another of the major works of Antonioni’s career.  In fact, by many it is considered a turning point for the director, who received both negative reaction and ultimately the Jury Prize in Cannes in 1960.  It’s a perplexing and challenging film that starts out seeming like it’s perhaps more conventional, especially in its story.  But as the story plays out, against expectation, against narrative closure, it’s easy to see how this film pushed the avant-garde of the time.

The story follows young woman of a wealthy family, who goes along with a number of other couples and a friend and her boyfriend on a yacht trip near the isle of Sicily.  There is dramatic tension from the beginning because her rootless boyfriend and her are at odds over their non-committal relationship, and she signals ambiguously but no less clearly that she perhaps is in or senses trouble.  Then, landed on a largely desolate volcanic island for a rest, the girl disappears.  Did she commit suicide?  Was she murdered?   Was there an accident?  Did she intentionally disappear and take off on another boat?

Her best friend and her boyfriend, as well as the whole party of somewhat disconnected well-to-do Italians all search for her, pulling in the authorities and her father, making news in the local press.  But she is nowhere to be found.  And for a long while, this disappearance seems to be the heart of the movie.  But then the girl’s boyfriend begins to try to “make love” to her best friend, and the “adventure” of romance, an affair, blossoms among the rocky outrcrops of their fruitless search and her meaningless disappearance gone cold.

There is a considered air of danger around, especially in the form of leering men and masculinity.  Starting with the remorseless boyfriend, but piled on by the busy male denizen of the cities, leering openly, crowding around the young woman, asking after her like wolves around a luscious lamb.  One of the film’s most effective moments is when the young woman is left on her own in the street, then suddenly surrounded by the leering locals.

The whole film though is much more than any one element of its parts.  The cinematography is very controlled and focused, moving the camera around in many shots, also at times using the movement of the boat on the sea to give a seasickened dizziness to the atmosphere.  Antonioni uses the rugged rocky landscape of the island effectively, but even more effectively, he employs the architectural landscapes of the cities and towns, framing and contrasting the characters in their various moments of passion or disconnection.  And perhaps most interestingly is how Antonioni uses doorways, windows, and other aperatures to frame characters in and out of rooms, buildings, looking in, but separated from what is happening.  Sometimes they are eavesdropping or spying, sometimes they are seen through windows or open doors.  I didn’t get a complete handle on the potential significance of these specific visual effects, but it’s clearly complex mise-en-scene.

In that sense, the film is rapturously interesting, strange, loaded, and unsimplified.  At the same time, the film is long and intentionally frustrating in its drift of focus, its lack of closure on many major narrative lines, and is not simple easy viewing.   I can see themes that continue in the later films that I have seen, of disappearance, disconnect, with a tonality of internal seeking among physical landscapes.  I actually really found the film quite intriguing and interesting, perhaps liking it more than the other two films that I’d seen previously.

L’Avventura is the first of three films that critics have come to refer to as a trilogy of alienation (including La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)), which was not in any way an intent of Antonioni’s.  Then again, I think that alienation is a theme in all three of the films that I have seen.  Certainly, these are rich and challenging films, not for the conventional filmgoer.  Which I think is a testament to their value.

The Passenger

The Passenger (1975) movie poster

(1975) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 08/10/07

Until earlier this year, I’d never seen a Michelangelo Antonioni film.  I started with Blow-Up (1966), partially because it was the film of his that I used to see throughout video stores even in the 1980’s, one of the most ubiquitous foreign films, though I had never actually watched it.  There has just been a retrospective of Antonioni, as well, this year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and of course, I managed to see none of them.  But I was intrigued by The Passenger for some reason, knowing that the films of his that I was seeing were his later, English language films, not necessarily representative.  And then he goes and dies.

The Passenger is actually, like Blow-Up, surprising in the way that it unfolds, the sense of what the film is about emanates so much more heavily than the actual narrative itself.  In some ways, both films have a traditional sort of plot in synopsis, but they play out so differently, so clear that it’s not so much the story, but more the ideas and mood that pervade the film that resonate and strike at the viewer.

I have read somewhere that the original title for this film, Professione: reporter, seemed much more apt, and it certainly does.  Jack Nicholson plays a reporter, austensibly of English descent, who is trying to make a film about an uprising in an unnamed African nation.  While he interviews the leaders of the country, he fails to get them to admit the truth, acknowledge that there is an uprising, and also fails to meet with the anti-government group altogether.  When an acquaintence dies of a heart attack back at their hotel, Nicholson takes the opportunity to usurp his name, swapping out their possessions and their passports.  He makes it look as if he has died and takes off with the businessman’s belongings to see what he can acquire.

When it turns out that the businessman is involved in gun-running to the very same opposition group that Nicholson had tried and failed to interview, the escapism that his character has sought somehow reflects his prior lack of commitment and understanding of the things that he tried to report on.  His detachment, while not criticized professionally (he is actually highly thought of in his field), is part of his inability to connect to the world, including his failed marriage and his failure to care or fully understand things.

In one of his interviews with a tribal chief, the man turns the camera on Nicholson, telling him quite clearly that his questions say more about himself than they do of understanding the conflict that they seek to comprehend.  There is a clear critique of the nature of reporting, not simply the character himself.  And as Nicholson wanders Europe, trying to play the role of his assumed persona, he moves into stranger and stranger environs.

Especially interesting are the Antonio Gaudi buildings, their strange alien forms, a landscape that he doesn’t comprehend.  The shots among those buildings are quite striking.

But the most striking is the masterful final shot, or penultimate shot, I can’t recall.  From his hotel room, ushering his lover away, the view through the bars of the window is an amazing movement of forms across the screen.  The woman, crossing the street, the cars racing in, the slow encroachment of the camera through the window itself, crossing the street, then looking back on the hotel as Nicholson is discovered dead, killed silently, off-screen, by the Africans.  It’s an amazing tone poem of movement, of his isolation and his disconnect, finally, fatally, completed.  It does reckon, in a sense, with Blow-Up‘s final shot, the man in the frame who suddenly disappears.  There is a continued theme of disconnect and dissolution.

As to Antonioni, I’ll have to seek out some films from other periods.  Certainly, these films have been interesting.  I think I liked this one more than the other.  I’m still thinking about it.

Blow-Up

Blow-Up (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 02/15/07

Before now, I had never seen an Antonioni film, even though he’s one of those big names in cinema, and this film, which I think was his biggest cross-over hit and was available readily on VHS even in the piddliest video stores in the 1980’s, I never saw it.  I thought about it a lot of times, but never did.  But I often note that nobody has seen everything there is to see, unless they are pure film-geek extraordinaire…and there are those people out there.  Anyways…

What struck me about this film really was the cinematography and framing of shots, which were aesthetically beautiful, but so formalized that they draw a lot of attention to the view, the image.  Also, the use of music and of silence was striking, setting pacing and punctuating the narrative, again focusing on the visual, the images, so much so that it distances the viewer from the narrative in a connective way.

There is a lot going on about vision, image-making, the camera, all assumingly highly self-reflexive.  I can’t say that I’ve made it all out, really.  In one sequence, the act of photographing a model is highly sexualized, rather explicitly sexual.  Then there is the whole aspect of the “blow-up”, the images that the photographer makes and enlarges to look for the mystery that was accidentally captured.  Does the capture create the scene?  Did it exist before?  What happened when it all disappeared?  Because the photographer notably disappears at the end of the film in the final shot.  Is the commentary about the potential of illusion (optical or otherwise) in the act of photography?

The other thing that struck me was the modernity captured in the film.  Antonioni seems obsessed with the modern aspects of architecture, fashion, music.  The camera looks at all of this style, occasionally in stark contrast to the actual city or town aspects of London, which are old and provincial-looking.  The use of the Yardbirds and Herbie Hancock on the soundtrack really lock the period perspective.  It must have seen very modern in its day, 1966.

Now, it’s an interesting and aesthetically fascinating film that I consider provocative in terms of ideas.  It also surprised me because, in reality, I had no sense of how Antonioni films really were.  I liked it.