Michelangelo Antonioni was not a young man when he became a modern filmmaker. He was in his late forties when he directed L’Avventura in 1960, and a director of several films that were moving towards a dead time aesthetic, the sense of time no longer attached to narrative but mysteriously dislocated from it. It was an approach to film form burgeoningly evident in his debut The Story of a Love Affair in 1951, and Il Grido and Les Amiche later in the fifties. But it was as if at forty eight Antonioni had renewed the medium, given it a vigour that for all the languorousness of the work, suggested a youthfulness of form. Yet many of the great directors of the sixties, filmmakers who transformed the medium of narrative cinema into one of radical enquiry, were not young. Bunuel was in his mid sixties when he made Belle de Jour, and Bergman was almost fifty when he directed Persona, and yet their work seemed as innovative as the films of Godard, Resnais and Pasolini, of filmmakers ten, fifteen, even thirty years younger than the older filmmakers.
Antonioni was maybe seen as the most modern of them all, ‘younger’ in some ways even than Godard, as he managed to push cinema forward formally, and inquire into society trenchantly. If formally in L’avventura he threw the viewer by the disappearance of his leading character early in the film, and left her absence a mystery for the rest of it, this was less a formalist gimmick than an eschewal of expectation to reveal symptoms of malaise in the fifties and sixties Italian bourgeoisie. The nouveau roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet once noted, in a television interview, that where Hitchcock’s films start out mysteriously and become less mysterious as they go on, with Antonioni it is the reverse. The mysteries get bigger because they are not problems out there in the narrative world, but inside the characters – characters that are mysterious, compulsive and complex.
This no doubt was partly what lead one Italian critic to say that Antonioni ushered in a cinema of behaviour. Before we had silent cinema, then sound film, and with the Italian director’s work we now had behavioural cinema. The critic Seymour Chatman may have called his book on the director The Surface of the World, but Antonioni’s wasn’t a narrow notion of behaviour based on Pavlovian principles; this is behaviour we are expected to probe into rather than assume. For example, Chatman acknowledges when the former architect in L’avventura goes moody at one moment which would ostensibly seem to be about trying to get the other leading character Claudia to make love with him, we are also likely to infer his moodiness is linked to his own frustrated architectural career. As Antonioni says concerning the conclusions to his films, “It needs to stay with the viewer and the viewer should take it away with him. Then, if the film remains inside the viewer, it means that the experience that the viewer had while watching the film was worthwhile.”
Consequently, form doesn’t so much serve content (as it would seem to do in much mainstream cinema), but nor does it ignore it. Instead it asks us to deepen our responses in relationship to the form so that we can find more complex feelings within ourselves through the camera movements, the mise-en-scene, the sound and the actors Antonioni works with. In a very important article in the mid-sixties, A Cinema of Poetry, Pier Paolo Pasolini noticed the originality of Antonioni’s camera movements in The Red Desert, and saw in them a new type of cinema he also saw in Godard and Bertolucci’s work. Antonioni “has finally been able to represent the world seen through his eyes, because he has substituted in toto for the worldview of a neurotic his own delirious view of aesthetics, a wholesale substitution which is justified by the possible analogy of the two views.” Vital to this was a camera that didn’t just tell the story, but somehow alluded to it, and also alluded to the feelings of the characters. Sometimes the camera would drift away from a character as they talked, would create an unusual sense of mise-en-scene, or frame from a distance and make the character small within the image. There is the scene for example in The Red Desert where Monica Vitti follows a newspaper that floats around in the wind. In another film there would be some important detail in the paper; in Antonioni’s work the newspaper can have significance, but no narrative import as we wonder how easily Vitti’s mind can drift as she becomes momentarily fascinated by it. In La notte, Jeanne Moreau is another woman without bearings, as in one long scene she wanders through Milan taking in bits and pieces of information that needn’t remotely concern her. Again, Antonioni’s attention to dead time gives us a sense of the character’s empty time, her inability to fill her life with meaning. In The Eclipse Vitti’s character’s sense of crisis, of not quite finding her place in the world, is reflected in the framing that makes her small and insignificant within it, as she is often seen on the edge of the shot, or lost within the frame as she wanders around Rome.
Antonioni’s sound-scapes were distinctive also, as he emphasised off-screen sound and dialogue that seemed to be overheard rather than heard. There was often a sense of the characters not so much speaking to others as to themselves, or reflecting in their body language feelings they couldn’t quite express. In scenes in Blow-Up it is as if sound becomes hushed as the photographer walks through a London park taking pictures of a couple. In The Passenger, again the cities, especially Barcelona, aren’t the hectic and noisy locales one knows them to be, but places of meditative enquiry.
Such an approach requires acting that is subdued, tentative, without ready purpose. Talking of one actor he worked with who was given to over-expression, Antonioni said, “I mainly limited myself to controlling him, in order to even out his acting.” Some actors seem naturally to give Antonioni a minimalist emotional reaction – Vitti in L’avventura, La notte and The Eclipse, David Hemmings in Blow Up. Others, who are ostensibly much better actors, like Moreau, and Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, would not appear to be ‘natural’ Antonioni performers, and concerning the latter Antonioni said he was looking for an “imploded” performance. “Jack is a great actor, though I tried to control him.” Nicholson wanted to do his usual, expressive acting. Antonioni “didn’t want that”.
In such an approach Antonioni fulfils his own dictum: “in my opinion, every filmmaker has to try (as all of the great filmmakers have done) to reinvent the cinematic discourse in his own way.” Sometimes this will require virtuoso camera movements, evident in the penultimate shot in The Passenger where a camera passes through the bars of a window, out into a courtyard and slowly turns round and looks back into the window from whence the camera came. Sometimes it will be in the original use of colour, as we see in the grey fruit in The Red Desert, in the garishly oversized billboards in Zabriskie Point. It can also be through the rejection of narrative norms: the apparently central character who goes missing from L’avventura becomes increasingly ignored as the film goes on; her disappearance finally less a mystery to be unravelled than an opportunity to inquire into the feelings of the characters that are ostensibly looking for her. Antonioni is great chiefly because he is a thinker in images, someone who requires cinema to find a form to explore various emotional, psychological and even philosophical problems. As he says, “technique is not something that can be applied from outside by just anybody. Practically speaking, technical problems don’t exist. If style is there, it permeates technique. If style is missing the problem disappears.”
There has to be a deeper problem than the technical, or for that matter the readily narrational, that motivates the film. Though Antonioni is clearly an innovator, what theorist David Bordwell would call “a strong precursor”, this need to create the new comes out of one of Antonioni’s most famous comments. “Man is quick to rid himself of his technological and scientific mistakes and misconceptions. Indeed, science has never been more humble and less dogmatic than it is today.” He then adds, “Whereas our moral attitudes are governed by an absolute sense of stultification. In recent years, we have examined those moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analyzed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones.” It is not Antonioni’s purpose to create new ones as such, but central to great art is the capacity to create, however temporarily, a new ethos, a new way of looking at, and behaving in, the world.
When Antonioni says “I don’t believe what an authors say about his own work would help to make sense of his work”, he exaggerates his point but it is an important one to make. The meaning lies within the work, the most meaningful way an artist can make a point at all. But is there not still a point within it, and can it be extracted partly through the strength of the acceptance or rejection the films demand? When he says he has a problem with many political films he does so because he thinks they are too defined by their “moments of strength”, by the heroic actions, where Antonioni’s films we might insist are based on moments of weakness, or what he calls “transitional moments” – “the most authentic part of human experience”. From The Story of a Love Affair to Beyond the Clouds, Antonioni’s point and purpose, which is not at all the same as saying he has a message, has been to explore and expand these moments of weakness, to find within them the subtle, often indecisive possibilities within human behaviour, rather than working from its narrow, purposeful range. He wants to find a complex ethos.
From this perspective Antonioni’s films are much more adventurous than many an action film; they attend to the adventurousness of thought and feeling rather than action, and herein lies both their youthfulness and their optimism. It is not a narrow optimism of narrative event, of hopeful resolutions and happy endings, but instead of creating complex feelings instead of overly simplifying the old ones. As for the youthfulness, what can me more renewable than creating fresh images, new ways of thinking through the form? As Godard once said in relation to his own work: “Among certain people, I’m sometimes considered the father of European cinema. I don’t understand that, since I consider myself much younger, especially with Americans…even if it’s a young boy in America making his first film, I consider him to be a father or a mother, and I try to revolt against him. I’m older than he is, but my cinema is younger just because there are no rules…I have a feeling rules have to be discovered.” In this sense, Bunuel, Bergman and Antonioni were great directors of youth, no matter the fact of their advancing years when they become internationally significant filmmakers. And strangely central to this youthfulness is those transitional moments of weakness that makes Antonioni’s cinema distinctively his own, whilst also allowing him to function undeniably as a strong precursor. Aptly, his influence on the new generation is manifold: Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Carlos Reygadas, Bruno Dumont, Kelly Reichardt, Jose Luis Guerin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and numerous others have all picked up on the possibilities in the transitional moments over those of dramatic expectations. Antonioni’s youthfulness is still evident, even if the filmmaker himself, of course, passed away several years ago.