Antonioni – The Lesson of the “Red Desert” Birds

Posted: October 3, 2011 in On Beauty
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Just a few days ago, after commenting  on Antonioni’s birthday and my love of his film “L’Aaventura”, I decided that I needed to re-watch some of the masters’ other films. I chose to begin with a film that I have not seen for ages – “Red Desert”.

In my humble, amateur opinion, “Red Desert” is to color theory, what “L’Aaventura” is to composition. Remember that I said I felt like “L’Aaventura” consisted of almost perfectly composed images, throughout. Well, “Red Desert” is Antonioni’s first color film and the entire palate is  quite bizarre. It’s unnatural and very, very “painterly”. I imagine that some film student over the years has analyzed the colors used in every scene and has theorized on their relationship to emotion, levels and types of sexual energy, and mental state. I honestly don’t know if this is true, but I’ll bet that there is an entire phenomenological analysis to be done and that it would yield some remarkable things! Personally, I love the use of color in the film. If I could retire and go back for a PhD in film theory, that would probably be my dissertation.

Sadly, I will likely never get to retire. So, someone else will probably need to take on that project. I’ll have to limit myself to simpler thoughts. Here is one…………

Giuliana, the protagonist of the film is going crazy. But why? Many people see the film as a statement about technology and modernity, and Giuliana’s inability to deal with it. Giuliana represents all of us. Factories, smokestacks, and radio telescope farms represent modern technology. Giuliana’s inability to function in a world of radio telescopes and petrochemical plants represents our difficulty in dealing with modernity. Lots of people end there and say that the film is about the evils of technology – It drives Giuliana mad, after all! But I don’t think that’s the end of the story.

The end of the story and, hence, the statement about modernity is much more complex. By the end of the film, Giuliana has made some subtle changes. I won’t give then all away but I will say that some of the concluding images and the final dialog explains a lot. Both at the beginning and the end of the film, Giuliana is walking with her son, through a landscape of industrial garbage. At the beginning of the film we may not be aware of some of the scenes colors. But, at the end of the film it is painfully obvious that some of the smoke coming from the factory smokestacks is pale yellow. Giuliana and Valerio look at the yellow smoke and Valerio asks his mother the question, “Why is that smoke yellow?” Giuliana replies: “Because it’s poisonous”. “‘Then,”  exclaims Valerio, “if a little bird flies through there, it dies!” But here is the amazing thing! Giuliana answers him by saying: “By now the little birds know. They don’t fly through there any more”. The end of the film reiterates the beginning except that Giuliana has now come to terms with a way to live in her modern world. Her transformation is the same transformation that the birds have made. She has learned to avoid that which is most noxious and to come to equilibrium with her surroundings. Giuliana has regained balance between that which is the world of her youth and that which is the radio telescope laden world of modernity. She know what freaks her out and she doesn’t “fly through there anymore”!

Perhaps in our own world of recession, unemployment, and volatility we can all learn something from Giuliana. We can’t let it get the best of us. We need to strive for emotional balance even in a world of turmoil. Most importantly, once we’ve learned that something is emotionally toxic, we too need to learn not to “fly through there anymore”! At least that’s what I need to learn and what the film reminded me to work on.

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