Happy (almost) 99th Birthday Michelangelo Antonioni!

Posted: September 26, 2011 in On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

The 29th of September is the first day of Rosh Hashanah. On that day I likely will not be posting to my blog. But, in addition to the Jewish Holiday, the 29th of September is also the 99th birthday of the great Italian “Auteur” filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. As we enter the 100th year of Antonioni, I want to tell you why his film “L’Avventura” is one of my two favorite films of all time (The other is Bergman’s “Personna” which deserves it’s own place on this blog; but at another time).

I’m NOT a film historian or scholar so my opinions are mine alone. But, to me, Antonioni is almost the exact opposite of some of his well-known predecessors in Italian cinema. I’m thinking of the neo-realists like Visconti (La Terra Trema) and Rosselini (Rome, Open City). When one thinks of Visconti and Rosselini, and of the neo-realist movement in general, the common characteristics are things like non-professional actors, on-site cinematography, overview descriptions rather than fully formalized scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of events (specifically, the great wars). Conversely, Antonioni’s films often use well-trained professional actors, expensive locations, highly stylizes aesthetics, stories of the upper classes, and the psychological effects of events. So, in a sense, Antonioni is an anti-neo-realist (a humble opinion, remember). But this is not what I like about him. It is one of the major differentiators, but I have to say that I also like some of  the Italian neo-realism.

I realize that not everyone has seen L’Avventura. Since, I’m going to talk about it, you should at least know the plot. Here is what the Criterion Collection says: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” Yes. That’s it. Not much of a plot, you say. That’s the point. The other things you need to know are that the “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. So here is the question you’ll probably ask: “If there isn’t much of a plot, then what makes this one of my favorite films?” Here is my answer:

There are 3 things that make Antonioni my favorite filmmaker and that make L’Avventura my favorite film.

First, I love Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to stylized detail. While I’m not a film scholar, I do have a very strong background in photography. I feel somewhat qualified to speak to images and composition. What I’m going to say is also true of “L’Eclisse” and other of his films, but it is most noticeable in L’Avventura. I propose that if you were to make a print of every single frame in the entirety of L’Avventura, very close to 100% of those prints would be a near-perfectly composed image. That is what comes from the highest level of attention to detail of any filmmaker, ever.

Second, I love how Antonioni uses overt iconographic references in very powerful ways without being trite or silly. Much of the visual allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholocism. Some is subtle; some not so. But the absolute penultimate iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Lovers…. Sexual allegory of tower and womb… get it?

Third, I love the way that Antonioni borrows from an aesthetic that I’ve only seen elsewhere in the form of Japanese literature and abstract expressionist music. He spends more time studying character and the psychological effects of events than he does enacting plot, action, and teleology. This does not make for the most fast paced of films. Japanese novels are often also not very dynamic, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. But, like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a dynamic teleology in L’Avventura does not detract from it’s utter beauty. Instead, the viewer must watch it long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having adapted to it, though, the viewer can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed iconography.  Antonioni explains his philosophy regarding this in an essay called “The Event and the Image”. He states explicitly that what he wants to do is to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the effects of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film where imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to experience it.

On the subject of time…. I am now out of it for today. So let me just say “happy birthday Antonioni”, dispense with this event, and move on to thanking any of you who’ve read this for allowing me to share some images!

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