Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Other Ingenious Michelangelo

They're dropping like flies in the world of cinema; the latest to go is Michelangelo Antonioni, probably Seanachie's favourite living director (or living until today that is). As with Bergman, Antonioni, 94, had a good innings and was directing until relatively recently; he made Beyond the Clouds ten years ago and contributed an episode to the film Eros two years back along with Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai, both directed after he suffered a stroke in the 1980s rendering him mute. The son of a banker, he came to international prominence late enough, being already 44 when his seventh feature Il Grido (The Cry) was a success in Europe. Significantly it was influential enough to dissuade Albert Camus from naming his work in progress Le cri (he settled eventually for La chute or The Fall as we know it in English - who knows, if it weren't for Antonioni, Mark E. Smith might be fronting an entirely different group).

It was L'Avventura three years later that broke Antonioni in a big way, and the tale of a woman who reconciles herself suprisingly serenely to the disappearance of her lover on a Mediterranean island is probably the most influential arthouse film of the past fifty years, and I count the films of Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Fellini, Kurosawa, Lynch, Ozu and Kiarostami (all directors I greatly admire) among the competition. Pauline Kael might have repeatedly derided Antonioni's films as 'the sick soul of Europe on parade' but they had a chilly rigidity that perfectly befitted the attempted social pacification of post-war Europe. Watch L'Avventura today, or La Notte, or Il Deserto Rosso with a dubbed Richard Harris starring opposite Antonioni's actrice fétiche Monica Vitti, and you have a jarring sense of modernity that few films made since can provide. The trappings might be classic post-war Italian style and the cinematography lush black and white (except, of course, for Il Deserto Rosso) but they look, feel and sound like they might have been made last week. L'Avventura is also one of the most beautifully lit films in cinema history, which is all the more remarkable as its Director of Photography Aldo Scavarda never worked with Antonioni again and drifted into the staple bread-and-butter of Italian exploitation cinema.

Antonioni moved into English-language cinema with Blow Up in 1966, and though many people claimed he got swinging London all wrong, the film endures as an examination of the boredom and disillusion engendered by the nascent empty consumerism that its characters lived in. Zabriskie Point, his first American film, is, without any doubt bad, but it is beautiful to watch and is testimony to Antonioni's consummate filmmaking skill, allowing oneself to suspend the harshest of judgements until the very end. As for The Passenger, his film about identity theft and escape, made with Jack Nicholson in 1975, I posted on it a year ago, and it remains one of the most amazing films I have ever seen, and bears repeated viewing. Antonioni's icy, distant style is still favoured by the more arty elements in film schools and, in the right hands it can be exhilarating to watch, such as in Gus Van Sant's Gerry and Elephant, Nanook Leopold's Guernsey, Mathias Luthardt's Pingpong, Nobuhiro Suwa's M/Other, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates and the films of Tsai Ming-Liang and Todd Haynes. Few people would say that Ingmar Bergman was the second-greatest filmmaker to die this week, but I would be one. May both of them rest in peace.


alabalanitsa said...

So sad indeed. I love Blow Up!