The Architect of Space and Time

Photo by Floriano Steiner/SonyPictures ClassicsBeginning tonight, Los Angeles will enjoy a superb monthlong retrospective of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. These are movies to which one can apply a lifetime of viewing. There’s a temptation to say that they are films about alienation, love affairs that do not last, and hopes for meaning or purpose that collapse under the steady threat (or ambiguity) of space. Such arguments are not incorrect, but they can be depressing. They help promote the view that Antonioni is gloomy and cerebral — and they do not prepare us for the phenomenal beauty of his work. Yet it is the beauty that endures, and may again fill theaters in an age when the loveliness of film has gone so far out of fashion. So, let us concentrate on space in five examples from this great career. Take L’Avventura (1960), the turning point for Antonioni in that it raised him from being a director of essentially naturalistic yet forlorn Italian love stories to an international figure. L’Avventura premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to widespread booing, and to this day its abdication from purely narrative considerations can puzzle audiences. Claudia (Monica Vitti) agrees to accompany her friend Anna (Lea Massari) on a trip to a deserted island, half-aware that Anna’s love affair with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is coming to an end.The film’s style uses deep focus, long takes and camera movement as it studies characters in a landscape. Then there is a shot of Sandro and Anna that dissolves quickly to a view of the empty place that they just inhabited. We never see Anna again. But what follows is a strange search, aimless yet poignant, in which the failure to locate the missing woman is tinged with a sense of mutual forgetting and of Sandro’s increased, helpless attraction to Claudia. I could describe it, shot by shot, but that would be ponderous compared to your ability to see the film and feel the shift, like a somber change in the weather.The mystery is never resolved. We have time to wonder whether Anna planned her escape, leaving Claudia as her replacement. Yet the film is also a study of the male gaze that prefers always to love someone — anyone — that it can see. For the first time in his work, Antonioni deliberately uses the screen as a metaphor for our own desire: the place we regard with such need or longing, the place we cannot get to.Then go to the next film, La Notte (1961). A married couple, Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), have just visited a friend who is dying in a hospital. Giovanni has not exactly treated the advances of a nymphomaniac patient properly. Nothing is said, but Lidia wants to be alone. So she goes for a walk in the summer streets of Milan and the black-and-white cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo. There is no voice-over; she does not share her disquiet with any passing character. She notices her uncertain hold on passing time; she feels death and energy. She watches young men in a fight. She comes to a place she and her husband knew when they were young. Everything is realistic, and yet the script might say little more than, “The camera observes Lidia walking in different parts of the city.” As narrative, nothing happens, yet to witness the passage is to soak up the loneliness of the city and Lidia’s mounting dismay.Go now to the final film of this trilogy, L’Eclisse (1962). Vittoria (Monica Vitti), an uneasy, intellectual young woman, meets Piero (Alain Delon), a wolfish dealer in the stock market. Their love affair is that of opposites. They agree to meet again. But then the film moves to its final passage — an intersection in Rome, where life passes, for many minutes, without the rendezvous ever occurring. You could call it documentary (Antonioni had his beginnings in that form, and a selection of his nonfiction shorts will be shown on September 10), yet the long coda is like a movement in a symphony that quietly surpasses the love story of the first three movements.Then for Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni went to London — swinging London — and found a gentle, green park asleep in a suburb. It is midweek. We can hear the breeze in the leaves; we can feel the soft hum of the city. Thomas (David Hemmings) is a photographer, prowling for “shots,” as cold and efficient as his camera. He sees lovers arguing in the distance. He spies on them, snapping as he goes, until the flustered woman (Vanessa Redgrave) notices and begs him for the exposed film. Later, as he develops the shots taken in the park, Thomas becomes a thriller writer. Putting the prints on his wall in sequence, he wonders if he was the unknowing spectator of something — something like murder. It is for us to decide whether he is just a melodrama fiend looking for food, or whether the city is a sinister dream.Finally, The Passenger (1975), in which Jack Nicholson is a disillusioned foreign correspondent. In a fly-blown hotel in North Africa, he meets another man — a look-alike. This stranger dies, and without apparent thought or any explanation, Jack takes on his identity. He simply unhooks himself from the vehicle of his own life and transfers to another. This blind journey will take him to Germany, to Barcelona and southern Spain. It will encounter Maria Schneider in a Gaudí building — a passerby, or maybe the angel of death. And in one of the greatest journeys through space ever executed in movies, the spirit of the reporter will rise from his bed, pass through the railings on another hotel window and slip out into the dusty evening courtyard of a place called the Hotel de la Gloria.The return of The Passenger is an occasion. For years, the film that flopped on opening has been owned and protected by Jack Nicholson. Now it is restored and coming to DVD, and on September 15, Antonioni will be in Los Angeles to present it in a gala screening at the Academy. Yet, fate has worked out like an Antonioni film: The director is over 90, mentally present, but the victim of a stroke — and so not quite here, or even there. It is a state to which his art was always aspiring. He is a great filmmaker, but he is an architect, too — the provider of squares, courtyards and enclosures where we long to live, no matter that they may signal our futility. MODERNIST MASTER: MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI | At Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences| Through October 2 | See Film & Video Events for more information.


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