Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) died less than 24 hours after Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), but their press obituaries were printed a day apart, which wreaked havoc with my Observer deadline, which is about as ridiculously self-centered a statement as a harried movie reviewer can make. The point is, however, that when I wrote my time-driven comments on Bergman in last week’s Observer, I had no inkling of Antonioni’s passing. If I had, I would have linked them together as two of the most prestigious, profound, gifted and yet controversial filmmakers of the 20th century.
In his astute appraisal of Antonioni’s career in the arts section of The New York Sun of Aug. 1, 2007, Benjamin Ivry quotes one of Antonioni’s severest critics, Ingmar Bergman, no less, as he accuses Antonioni in 2002 of being “suffocated by his own tediousness. He concentrates on single images, never realizing a film that is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement.” Mr. Ivry then very kindly credits me with coining the term “Antonioniennui.”
Still, the fact remains that I wrote a rave for L’Avventura (1960) when it finally came to America in 1961 after having caused a tumult at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival by its being booed at its evening screening. This well-publicized public reaction, which drove Antonioni and his leading lady/confidante, Monica Vitti, to despair over their destroyed careers, prompted a petition by Roberto Rossellini and other directors hailing the film: “Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their admiration for the maker of this film.”
My own 1961 review in The Village Voice continued in the same vein. “As long as the great foreign films continue to trickle into New York at the present snail’s pace, the enthusiasm of discerning moviegoers will have to be concentrated on one phenomenon at a time. 1959 was the year of Wild Strawberries and The Four Hundred Blows, 1960 belongs to Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Picnic on the Grass. So far this year it has been Breathless, but now it is time for another blast of trumpets. Beginning April 4 at the Beekman Theater, L’Avventura will become the one first-run film to see in New York. The sixth feature film of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Avventura will probably be even more controversial than its French and Swedish predecessors, which have been conveniently misunderstood as problem tracts of old age, childhood, juvenile delinquency, miscegenation, nuclear warfare, or what have you.
“With L’Avventura the issue cannot be muddled, Antonioni’s film is an intellectual adventure, or it is nothing. The plot, such as it is, will infuriate audiences who still demand plotted cinema and potted climaxes. A group of bored Italian socialites disembark from their yacht on a deserted island. After wandering about a while they discover that one of their number, a perverse girl named Anna, is missing. Up to that time, Anna (Lea Massari) has been the protagonist. Not only does she never reappear, the mystery of her disappearance is never solved. Anna’s fiancé (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend (Monica Vitti) continue the search from one town to another, ultimately betraying the object of their search by becoming lovers. The film ends on a note of further betrayal and weary acceptance, with the two lovers facing a blank wall and a distant island, both literally and symbolically.”
So when exactly did I tire of Antonioni to the point of Antonioniennui? I am not sure. It may have been about the time of The Red Desert (1964), which I disliked, and well before Blow-Up (1966), which I liked enormously, unlike the late Pauline Kael, who dismissed it with a yawn.
It must be noted that at the time I waxed rhapsodic about L’Avventura, I had not yet seen any of his five previous films—Cronaca di un Amore (1950), I Vinti (1953), La Signora Senza Camelie (1953), Le Amiche (1955) and Il Grido (1957), as well as “Tentato Suicido,” an episode in Love in the City (1953). Nor had anybody over here. Hence, L’Avventura was received here like a smashing debut film, and from then on it seemed just like more of the same, only less so, with La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and most exasperatingly of all, The Red Desert.
By contrast, David Thomson was aware of Antonioni’s total oeuvre when he postulated that L’Avventura was more the end rather than the beginning of Antonioni’s accomplished accessibility as an artist. After L’Avventura, Mr. Thomson suggests, the director drifts more and more into the humorless, arid deserts of abstraction. Yet Mr. Thomson does not so much denigrate Antonioni as subtly and exhaustively enshrine him as an artist for the ages, or, as Mr. Thomson puts it more eloquently, “I suspect that Antonioni’s best films will continue to grow and shift, like dunes in the centuries of desert. In that process, if there are eyes left to look, he will become a standard for beauty.”
It suddenly strikes me that I have been writing two weeks about Bergman and Antonioni without ever using the word “eroticism.” Antonioni himself once said, “Eroticism is the disease of our time.” He may have meant that even sex was a casualty of the human failure to communicate with one another. Perhaps I have become too aware of all the gratuitous nudity and simulated copulation that masquerades as eroticism these days to embroil Bergman and Antonioni in the contemporary corruption of the term. Still, the men and women in their films crossed many frontiers of eroticism in their own time in search of love and identity and a more profound self-knowledge. They were never the hottest shows in town because of the cool intellects at work both behind and in front of the camera. Hence, the pain and poignancy of the soul was never lost sight of in even the steamiest carnal encounters.
Bergman was far more prolific than Antonioni, but then he enjoyed in Sweden probably the sweetest production deal in the history of the medium. Antonioni, by contrast, always operated on the verge of disaster and permanent unemployment, particularly in the barren interlude right after the freakishly unexpected commercial success of Blow Up was followed by the spectacular flop of the misguided Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni’s foredoomed contemplation of the American materialistic maelstrom of 1968 consuming its young hippie rebellion.
Only Jack Nicholson’s generous intervention and involvement made possible Antonioni’s great comeback film, 1975’s The Passenger, with Mr. Nicholson and Maria Schneider. (In 1996 he received a special Academy Award, again with Mr. Nicholson’s generous participation, but by this time Antonioni was almost completely inarticulate from a stroke, and could only say “grazie” in accepting the award.) His films after The Passenger—The Oberwald Mystery (1981), Identification of a Woman (1982), The Crew (1990), Volcanoes and Carnival (1992), Beyond the Clouds (1995), Il Filo Pericoloso delle Cose (2001), and the terminally ironically named Eros (2004)—attracted very little attention or distribution. Unjustly forgotten is Antonioni’s brilliant documentary on China, Chung Kuo (1972), banned by the Chinese government for his camera’s unwavering gaze at the Chinese peasantry, much like the gaze once levelled at the Italian fishermen of the River Po in his short documentary, Gente del Po (1943-47).