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Antonioni’s Ambiguity: Challenging Realism in the Early 1960s Films
Cinema today should be tied to the truth rather than to logic. And the truth of our daily lives is neither mechanical, conventional nor artificial, as stories generally are, and if films are made that way, they will show it. – Michelangelo Antonioni (Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Roma, 16 March 1961)
This article explores the ways in which Antonioni’s work, homing in on the first four 1960s films,
presents a historically embedded yet today still radical cinema in which the filmmaker’s famous modernism and a highly developed form of realism coexist in provocative and generative ways. Describing what he sees as the central contradiction and exponentially enabling antinomy of modernist works, P. Adams Sitney writes that they ‘stress vision as a privileged mode of perception, even of revelation, while at the same time cultivating opacity and questioning the primacy of the visible world.’ (1992, p. 2) He later quotes a passage from Maurice Blanchot that illustrates well the resulting material, aesthetic, and conceptual reality: ‘[P]resent in its absence, graspable because ungraspable, appearing as disappeared.’ (ibid, p. 102). Such is the properly paradoxical, inherently dialectical enunciation of modernist realism exemplified by Antonioni’s mature cinema. Elsewhere I address the conceptual implications of the director’s special aesthetic innovations, arguing in particular for L’eclisse’s (1962) substantive philosophical impact (Ford, 2012). But this is only possible thanks to a very immanent, far from rarefied reality presented by the films, incorporating a very real Italy of the post-war period and the filmic image itself. More than debates concerning much-discussed metaphysical schemas of religious or secular values, it is ultimately through at once larger yet also inherently more quotidian forces that Antonioni’s cinema mounts its repeated blows. In his book The Inhuman, Jean-François Lyotard suggests: [W]hat is hit first of all, and complains, in our modernity, or our postmodernity, is perhaps space and time. ... The real ‘crisis of foundations’ was doubtless not that of the foundations of reason but of any scientific enterprise bearing on so-called real objects, in other words given in sensory space and time (1991, p. 112). In Antonioni’s cinema, space and time as transformed by post-war modernity are the primary sites within, upon and from which an immeasurable violence is played out. This constitutes the historically specific world presented by the films – the only reality on offer. * * * Describing the director’s remarkable first colour feature, Il deserto rosso (1964), Peter Brunette writes: ‘There is no sense of spirituality here, no redeeming transcendence’ (1999, p. 105). If Antonioni’s cinema is strikingly secular, implicitly disabling or showing as historically anachronistic and now dysfunctional the building blocks of classical or ‘traditional’ modes of both life and filmic convention, it concurrently explores and subtly undermines post-war Italy’s reconstituted discourses of surety. The material and experiential conditions of the modern world are the films’ prime concern as both constituting a singular reality and yet one that is impossible to epistemologically define and understand. ‘Spirituality’ and ‘transcendence’ being out of the picture, the focus clearly set on the question of what constitutes this modern real and its conditions in fact only increases the unavoidable sense of perceptual, ethical, political, and existential confusion and frequent feeling of mystery. Il deserto rosso and the other films do not proselytise present-day technologised reality and its economic-industrial dictates, nor do they morally decry the modernity
no matter how we feel about the worldly ‘facts’ once a human presence enters the frame. environmentally but also conceptually. L’avventura (1960). The uncomfortable fact is that its layered aesthetic incarnation on screen is clearly the source of real fascination and creativity for filmmaker and viewer alike. for the humans who build and administer it. despite the considerable and diverse claims of his other work – demonstrate their immediate modernity’s inherent oppositions and unreconciled problems at the same time as rendering that reality in increasingly ‘stylised’ ways. But perhaps remarkably – for many viewers. (Il deserto rosso.essayed on screen in favour of a different vision – the key reason why Antonioni’s cinema is ultimately not only of no solace when it comes to religious or metaphysical perspectives but also so difficult if we seek to forge clear-cut political analyses. The last film of this cycle famously illustrates the world it portrays as rather uninhabitable. often counter-intuitively – neither Il desert rosso nor its director in contemporaneous interviews suggest clear denunciation of the reality essayed by the film. 1964) 3 . L‘eclisse (1962) and Il deserto rosso (1964) – still the peak of Antonioni’s fundamental remaking of the cinematic image in my view. La notte (1961).
’ (ibid. the four early-‘60s films (sometimes bundled together by critics as a ‘Tetralogy’) chart pressing challenges at the heart of everyday reality through an appropriately unique and ‘advanced’ sound-image incarnation. Coincidentally written on the eve of post-war European cinema’s long-brewing modernist escalation – most famously the troika of L’avventura. mon amour (Alain Resnais. no matter our critical position or thematic interpretation: ‘Man attains his own reality. which is now often understandably seen as a dangerous simplifying cliché by recent commentators such as Laura Rascaroli and John David Rhodes (2011) following Brunette (1998). Brunette argues that the long familiar description of Antonioni’s famous early 1960s cinema as offering vaguely existentialist and ahistorical fables about ‘alienation’ and loss of identity tends to undersell both the importance of the films’ sociohistorical embeddedness and subtly radical commentary. potentially much more critical re-forgings of reality and the human. Volume 1 that (using the gendered language) the products of ‘modern man’ and ‘his works function like beings of nature. I think. dividing himself. rather than a distraction. fragmenting himself (1991. The problem. and thus most critics have this to be what they are about. occurs if we conflate what alienation might mean for the characters on screen on the one hand and the film-viewer relationship on the other (a distinction to which I will return) – in particular the presumption that it inherently leads to despair and cessation of assumed ‘human progress’. La notte’s framing 4 .Increasingly. Just as alienation is often an effect or weapon of money and political power within capitalist modernity.’ (1991. and their precise place within the Italian context. the critical tenor in Antonioni scholarship is to try and avoid or heavily bracket talk of ‘alienation’. p. he has done so only by tearing himself apart. aesthetic form. p. He must objectify himself… [I]f man has humanized himself. Carefully considered in light of the director’s idiosyncratic realism. social critique. In the main text that follows. 170). alienation itself can be one legitimate conceptual means to a historically grounded as well as ‘updated’ understanding of the films. he writes that ‘nothing ever seems to add up in these films … beyond a vague sense of uneasiness and alienation. his alienation: the inhuman. À bout de soufflé (Jean-Luc Godard. In stressing unknowability and incommensurability. within and by means of his opposite. who instead favour (as is the trend in recent academic film studies) detailed historical contextualisation. 1959) – Henri Lefebvre argues in a long 1958 forward to the second edition of his Critique of Everyday Life. the complex aesthetic and spectatorial effects of Antonioni’s realism as experienced by the viewer demonstrate that it can also be harnessed to pursue very different. This ambiguity is a central key to the films’ essaying and critique of the reality on screen by means of a challenging openness that is also enormously generative. from 1947. there are also some more precise historical reasons for its application. p. 71). creates himself through. This filmed modernity is no less ‘real’ – in fact more genuinely so – for appearing in the form of often ‘abstract’ aesthetic patterns: the spatial and temporal impact resulting from L’avventura’s placement of privileged post-war figures within both primordial nature and the historic built environment of Sicilia. In his prescient book. Providing a rigorously secular vision of the world. 3) Yet while treatment of this often misused concept and long-familiar trope as the key to understanding Antonioni’s most influential work can easily have the effect of disavowing the films’ range of thematic suggestion. which thereby becomes only more elusive and unknowable as presented on screen. 1959) and Hiroshima. Lefebvre reads as if directly addressing the disconnect but also the ambiguous possibility charted in Antonioni’s most famous films. affective impact.
the camera itself frequently offers a slightly ‘removed’ perspective on the human events. which is so incremental and stretched out that some time elapses before the viewer realises ‘something’ is happening. as an architecturally commanding space housing an intriguing but impossible-to-comprehend reality. regardless of spatial proximity. When our presumed protagonist. L’eclisse portrays the Borsa. Roma’s stock exchange (subsequently closed). both the fabled centro storico and recently rebuilt EUR periphery (the latter milieu seeming to take over the whole film in its final minutes). quay. Vittoria (Monica Vitti). now in the post-war era the centre for secular prayer to the continuation of Italy’s post-war ‘economic miracle’ – is treated by the camera with fascinated detachment for a full fifteen minutes as if watching an archaic or futuristic ritual about which it offers no inside knowledge. or Il deserto rosso‘s variously manipulated. this locale – previously used for both religious worship (Pagan and later Christian) and a marketplace. against the modernist architectural surfaces and diverse spaces of Milano and surrounds. The architecture and escalating activity of an unattractive yet also fascinating human drama gradually eclipse a sense of narrative.of its world-weary middle-aged couple. her appearance is quite a surprise. charting the graphic attractions of seemingly chaotic movement within an Ancient Roman built environment since renovated for allegedly modern purpose. as the crisis reaches its crescendo. at times literally painted colour palette and depth-flattening camerawork presenting the troubled central character’s experience of Ravenna’s industrial region. 5 . arrives very late in the scene. the intimate exchanges of L’eclisse’s markedly free protagonist with a palimpsestic Roma’s natural and human-made textures and spaces. Confronted with often mysterious situations and irresolvable problems. as often discussed. With the film’s famous stock market crash scene. more documentary-like yet still immaculately composed images take over the film. and town centre. As the slowly percolating action develops into an ‘event’. making us forget the purpose of the scene. together and especially alone. the films’ characters grapple as best they can with their phenomenally undeniable yet conceptually vertiginous reality. Meanwhile.
1962) Antonioni’s project as laid out in the epigraph quote necessitates a remaking of realism. or forge. The most historically important discussion of ambiguity in the cinema is found within André Bazin’s founding account of Italian neorealism. 37). Of particular importance is the concurrent ‘liberating’ of both space and time from the dictates of narrative movement so as to stress. They maintain a hard. technological and environmental change. still enormously influential (to a substantial degree thanks to Bazin) cinema of the immediate post-war years in Italy is in part famous for innovations later expanded by Antonioni. To confront this challenge the director explores everyday reality’s uncanny and even sometimes bizarre appearance as powered by rapid economic. 18). p. which in its ‘classical Hollywood’ narrative. including that of the heavily virtual reality of the moving image. Lefebvre sees ambiguity as ‘a category of everyday life. Far from a rarefied philosophical issue. Bazin argued. documentary. events. famously arguing that the late 1940s films of Roberto Rossellini. from the ambiguity of consciousness and situations spring forth actions. Italian neorealist. a much more ambiguous image the deep focus textures of which. These. without warning. or politically revolutionary forms is no longer realistic both in terms of what it shows and how. and Luchino Visconti ‘transfer to the screen the continuum of reality’ (1967. Vittorio de Sica. in sustained and often surprisingly diverse portrayals of this modern world’s physical and perceptual conditions. at least. This much-heralded. incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity – only to let them rise once again (1991. results. This evokes uncannily well both the post-war reality charted in Antonioni’s peak modernist cinema addressed here and the fundamentally paradoxical lens through which we see it on screen. p. the films demonstrate this confronting yet seductive concept and experience as at the heart of the modern everyday in all its confusion and provocation. have clear-cut outlines.(L’eclisse. allowed the viewer an enhanced perceptual realism and therefore a much more ambiguous image to aesthetically explore and thematically 6 . and perhaps an essential category’ of contemporary modernity. Such rendering of modern appearance and experience via a medium reflexively acknowledging its own crucial role in the re-conceiving of reality is inextricably affected by arguably the central characteristic of this cinema: a radically enhanced ambiguity. continuing with an enormously resonant passage: It never exhausts its reality.
or impoverished family fighting for external survival. Antonioni’s cinema presents a reality made up of conditions effectively described by Lyotard. This now overtly modern protagonist. non-individuated characters of neorealism. startlingly passive in their wandering and gaze as a result of no longer having an external crisis by which to initiate and virtually centre their search. Yet in the process we can easily overlook that through peak enunciation of the director’s idiosyncratic modernist aesthetics the early-‘60s films also effectively transcend any such ‘grounded’ reality on and beyond the screen. in whatever age it appears. neorealism’s lingering ethicopolitical certainties and aura of commitment – also emphasised by Bazin – seem long past by the time of Antonioni’s early-‘60s films. is arguably outdone by the later Zabriskie Point in 1970 when it comes to a heavily qualified appearance of political engagement. the female protagonists at the heart of these films can be seen as gentrified. cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the “lack of reality” of reality. on the one hand theoretically gifted with genuine agency and choice yet shackled by often debilitating doubt and tenuousness when it comes to exercising and directing such freedom. so is subjectivity both more strongly sensed and essayed yet also portrayed as operating from a position of spiraling uncertainty – a crisis itself fuelled by lack of surety as to what constitutes the objective world. While often challenged by Antonioni’s defenders. The comparably individuated. like the matter of alienation. Just as Antonioni’s cinema constitutes a notably more ‘detached’. is on the one hand much more intimately felt than the often heavily archetypal. There is certainly a lot to be gained from reading the films in the form of precise historical portraits. (His one characteristically abstract contribution to the ‘neorealist’ tradition in terms of aesthetics and featured class. as opposed to the latter’s apparently material facticity in the films. 77) The director’s radical ‘updating‘ of realism has the inevitable effect that physical and human reality looks increasingly strange and ‘stylised’. a seemingly well-educated and notionally single female protagonist like Vittoria in L’eclisse is both a direct result of the country’s post-war resurgence – coming across as much freer and more ‘modern’ than her neorealist forebears yet also riddled with ambivalence. p. 39). When it comes to both subjectivity and mastery of the objective environment. hence his cinema’s historical portrayal by some critics as primarily interested in pictorial effects rather than ‘content’. No longer part of an agrarian. 1957’s Il grido. updated and gender-appropriated versions of neorealism’s wandering male seers: now middle-class figures indicative of Italy’s socioeconomic transformation (infamously concentrated in the country’s north).) Yet at the same time. appearing concurrently intrigued by and fundamentally dissatisfied with such a reality.’ he writes.interpret (ibid. newly ‘liberated’ subject passively moves through and observes the exponentially modern world with no essential purpose. (1978. as much recent Antonioni scholarship seeks to do. ‘Modernity. p. proletariat. Yet the re-figured realism of Antonioni’s early-‘60s films at the very same time entirely fails to support the ontological inscribing of subjectivity and its gaze. this response can also be too quickly dismissed. primarily undermined by the veracity of the opaque phenomenal real charted by the films. unable to conceive definitive action within it. elliptical yet also modulating examination of these questions than we see in neorealism. or indeed the films’ national and historical context – 7 . Co-existent with this ambiguity. however. In this sense they become both heavily ‘mysterious’ and ‘virtual’ texts that for many viewers – both familiar and otherwise with the director’s style.
textures and environments adjacent to or even outside the domain of human drama – most notably in L’eclisse with its final seven minutes – but really from the very first frame and throughout. is the viewer. is ‘thrust down’ (ibid. long-time Italian Antonioni champion and scholar Renzo Renzi argued as early as 1957 that such a gaze ‘is in fact a sign of self-conscious responsibility. in Heidegger’s words.’ (1964. having ‘cut all ties to human beings’ (ibid. pp. Vittoria in L’eclisse. p. in the process collapsing viable distinctions between their formally ‘advanced’ aspects (to which we can apply Heidegger’s rarefied terms above) and those of the historical world they chart. one that seems to stand apart from the rest of the world. in Rohdie. knowing subject. The more ‘abstract’ and apparently ineffable aesthetic-experiential reality and impact of Antonioni’s cinema is not. Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes of perception that it responds ‘to a situation and to an environment which are not the workings of a pure. In these films. but their way of formally presenting the subject. requires significant viewer input to make sense of and ‘feel’. political. Like many subsequent writers (such as Rhodes. quite differently. The films are certainly interested in the great human drama. Neither. and perceptual ambiguities of their respective corners of post-war Italian reality. Pier Paolo Pasolini draws attention to what has become known as an emblematic development in Il deserto rosso whereby the camera seems to lose interest in Corrado’s (Richard Harris) attempts to entice potential employees sitting in a Ravenna warehouse to sign up as workers for his new Patagonian oil venture.). 1990.). the films’ female protagonists as played by Monica Vitti (Claudia in L’avventura.evoke what Martin Heidegger in his famous 1935 essay called the ‘solitary’ work of art (1993. Such an engagement can bring about the sense that. however. all the while skirting it. 2011.’ (qtd. It is. something very new. 4) Fundamentally marked by the moral. its immediate spatial reality and inextricably bound relationship between the two. aware of the shortfalls of moral judgment and clear annunciations about the reality from which the films emanate. Responding to the already familiar description (and frequently. Both are cut down through an always-shifting emphasis on the vagaries of audio-visual perception faced by the viewer. ultimately in contradiction with the fact that it emerges from precise historical conditions and charts a very human reality. ‘the long-familiar’. perhaps even ‘extraordinary’ is ‘thrust to the surface’ while here the conventions of cinema. p. The viewer is then presented with what Pasolini influentially describes as a stupendous close-up of a distressingly “real” Emilian worker followed by an insane pan from the bottom up along an electric blue stripe on the whitewashed wall of the 8 . p. criticism) of Antonioni’s cinema as being characterised by a ‘coldness’. 290). and especially Giuliana in Il deserto rosso) plus Jeanne Moreau (Lidia in La notte) are not ‘knowing subjects’. the camera’s gaze embodies and offers to the viewer an unusual opportunity to seek out details. 191). 92-3) This lack of judgment is both moral and epistemological: not only a refusal to proclaim how things should be but also how they are. rather. who does not confront perceptual problems ‘with’ the characters of these films – even if we sometimes feel ‘closer’ to them than the notional protagonists in most of Antonioni’s later features (as Rohdie argues of the films staring in 1966 with Blow-Up in his important 1990 book on the director). different. the films’ uncommonly developed and rigorous means of presenting the latter that can make them look so strange and ‘cold’.
With the cut between the supposedly human and the inhuman. But the cut between the two is in fact less a shift of perspective and focus than a mark of continuity exemplifying Antonioni’s unique and inextricably entwined modernist rendering of reality. meanwhile. we are reminded again that such a futuristic-meets-historical environment is in fact one and the same confusing reality within which the human figures live. dwarfed by his surroundings. when the film cuts to a space presumably outside the warehouse dominated with bright blue science fiction-looking bottles stacked on straw bedding. only ever very tangentially and hesitantly connected to the film’s loose central story of Giuliana. important narrative information ‘goes missing‘. All this testifies to a deep. The camera’s ‘egalitarian’ gaze treats a decontextualised painted line on a wall and the weather-beaten visage of an ‘authentic’ human being as of equal graphic and ‘objective’ interest. just as when the film lingers on enormous eruptions of steam and gas emanating from an entirely ‘artificial’ landscape as if from a primordial fissure in the earth’s crust – images at the centre of which can again sometimes be 9 . 178-9) Pasolini is very precise in emphasising the shift from the ‘distressingly “real”’ worker’s face to the sheer abstraction of the coloured line. when Corrado wanders into this striking composition from the back of the frame. mysterious. The wonderfully evoked ‘insane pan’. Initially seeming to conclude the remarkable sequence by further enforcing abstraction.warehouse. no matter how ‘artificial’ its appearance and compositional effects – Il deserto rosso’s environment and portrait of then ‘hi-tech’ modernity showing such a distinction as no longer viable – and away from a purported diegesis. thereby apparently concludes with narrative interest and information about Corrado’s work scenario itself overcome by aesthetic detailing of material space. (2005. isn’t the end of what seems like the jolting distraction away from already fragile and contestable narrative shards and human vestiges while in fact the two domains are further intermeshed. pp. realism and modernism dissolve into one image. With this string of images the scene. spatial and graphic reality. and – at times – great intensity in the formal idea that excites the fantasy of Antonioni. In compensation. inclusive of human and non-human elements. With such apparent diversions into physical. the viewer is invited to imbibe and process veritable explosions of aesthetic and conceptual material gleaned from this very precise reality.
Instead. the social and cultural climate of Italy’s post-war resurgence essayed at its powerful northern centre).glimpsed small human figures that are concurrently protagonists of this strange reality and spectators gazing upon it. rather than giving us conventional audio ‘access’ to the car in which Lidia and a young man appear to talk and flirt. during which the tenor of what looks like an extremely amiable conversation can be glimpsed as played out on Lidia’s face. 10 .’ (2011. p. the film offers only the sound of rain. private encounter away from both the high-decadence gathering and the viewer’s own sound-image. the potential opening up of the gaze. One rather unostentatious example is provided by a sequence from La notte. La notte’s notional protagonist and her problems have been so little fleshed out in the preceding film (now nearing its end) that our narrative attention risks badly drifting when denied dialog in this very beautiful scene. 297) Through ‘looking at the wrong things’. In a brief interlude away from the long mansion party sequence that comprises the second half of the film. this never getting a sense of control over what we see. Coming at the considerable cost of its habitual epistemological privilege. (Il deserto rosso) John David Rhodes writes of the Chinese Government’s outraged response to Antonioni’s extraordinary 1972 documentary Cina chung kuo: ‘In a sense. But such looking constitutes his style. distorted by water pouring down the window. paradoxically enables a much clearer and more properly inhabited vision of what modern reality looks and feels like as characterised by opacity and fragmentation. we are given the opportunity to explore the densely textured monochrome gradations and modulating patterns made by the streaks of flowing water on the dark vehicle’s glass and chassis. the Chinese officials – whether they knew it or not – were saying something true about Antonioni’s cinema: it was often looking at what seemed to be the wrong things. We are left to watch the slowly moving vehicle for over a minute. While the viewer can interpret her apparent pleasure at this hermetic. narrative (or ideological) attenuation and what seems like perceptual diversion generates room for so much else: necessarily elliptical and selective detailing of an always elusive reality. today the least discussed of Antonioni’s ‘60s films (despite arguably being more closely tied to historical context.
or the privileged class she represents. are also preceded and arguably overwhelmed when it comes to spectatorial experience by the undeniable cinematic ‘facts’: constantly shifting patterns and transforming shapes brought about by a slowly moving car in the rain. while perhaps revealing and informative. 11 . While different readings of the sequence in the context of this narratively ‘slack’ film can provide genuine pleasure – and likewise fruitful accounts of the reality offered by La notte as a portrayal of modern Italy’s business ‘winners’ alongside the film’s more anguished protagonists from the intellectual sphere – such interpretive and analytical frames. its properly ambiguous reality. But such immediate tweaking of the soundimage into an authored or socio-historically revealing ‘text’ to be read not only involves consciously felt hermeneutic work. 1961) Taking a more ‘auteurist’ line. and the background architecture of a quiet street. we may seek to interpret Antonioni’s refusal to take us inside this protean couple’s temporary adulterous bubble for what it might suggest of Lidia’s individual frustrations. The will-to-interpretation also seems to commit real violence upon the image in all its rich materialism and elusiveness. undulating chiaroscuro effects of a flashing traffic light.(La notte.
Each shot in L’eclisse.The image’s material-aesthetic ‘autonomy’ is a crucial part of this cinema’s distinct realism. including some shots featuring human figures that as filmed from the back could be our protagonists but upon turning around are revealed as ‘strangers’. all the while intimating an unstable flux between the clarity and vaporous ambiguity Lefebvre describes as comprising post-war modernity’s experiential real. In the wake of the earlier barrel and water tracking shots. an extravagant tracking shot shows water leaking out from the barrel along the ground. we are confronted with the most famous loss of fullness. has an undeniable solidity in rendering a particular material reality within Roma’s various inner and outer regions (plus the small Verona airport where Vittoria enjoys a lyrical interlude). in which the viewer is denied its protagonists. the camera looks into a rusty barrel within which floats debris including what looks like a piece of wood that Vittoria had earlier tossed in at an awkward moment of indecision and stasis with potential boyfriend Piero (Alain Delon). for example. Highlighting just one brief moment from L’eclisse’s aesthetically and conceptually unprecedented and still unmatched final minutes. With the film’s final minutes. made up of increasingly abstract shapes both gleaned from within a very real environment yet escaping it. The viewer is left to pursue other interests that while seeming ‘new’ are in fact comprised of the same environment that dominated much of the film but now taking on an explicitly ‘starring’ foreground role. Another interior shot of the barrel is then followed by two exponentially decontextualised close shots. 12 . the vain young stockbroker. Following a cut. presumably showing the leakage on the ground as it forms a slick. Other images of the immediate surrounds follow. at the now familiar EUR intersection alongside a battened-down building site. character and drama or ‘fiction’ in Antonioni’s cinema. this miniature sublime double-image in many ways crystallises the way the whole sequence replaces narrative and thematic development – shaky from the very start – with a descriptive and inherently ambiguous detailing of the immediate world.
The familiar street corner and milieu now emerge as an ever modulating set of material facts the contours and nature of which are changing beyond recognition before our eyes. to wash away our memories of the recognisably human through looking directly upon the phenomenal world by means of the camera’s ‘documentary’ or ‘experimental’ rendering of material space as transforming through time. apparently ‘post-human’ yet entirely immanent. Like an enormously elongated incarnation of Pasolini’s ‘insane pan’. cosmic yet absolutely quotidian. confronting and revelatory. Yet it merely makes explicit what is present throughout: the reality of the filmed world as very consistent yet epistemologically destabilising ground upon which a genuinely modern realism is forged. 13 . this physical reality is appropriately presented as always in flux and beyond our grasp. effectively thereby ‘killing’ narrative purpose and movement – L’eclisse’s ending is likely Antonioni’s ‘boldest’ sequence. or chance. Concurrently unremarkable. typically at the end of a scene that continues despite events pertaining to the central story having apparently concluded. In other words.(L’eclisse) The images of this seven-minute ‘coda’ together comprise a freshly dripping canvas offering up the challenge. or what others have often called temps mort or ‘dead time’ – those moments where time is most strongly felt. the only home we have.
to see if another ‘opportunity’ can be grasped through such loss. There is. and by implication the situation of the viewer: ‘To lose perspective. to lose identity. after petitioning by Rossellini.) Yet things are also. which may have taken one of their number. 2) He immediately follows with a crucial distinction between the dramatic dictates of the purported diegesis and the aesthetic compositions on screen. 14 . dwarfed by the overwhelming environment of the Aeolian sea. not so clear. subjects which they permit. Janine Bazin and many other European cinema luminaries. one only available to the viewer. who has already disappeared from the film – and enters into a realm of increasingly abstract and de-narrativised yet also potentially suggestive thematic essaying. a more ‘modern’ and logical yet perhaps also in a way equally unnerving and ambiguous answer to the mystery of Anna’s disappearance. sublime space – made even more obviously so by way of a genuinely threatening tornado and storm – comprised of volcanic rock can generate enormous resonance for the viewer watching these privileged figures of post-war Italian modernity (also clearly marked by the continuity of historically inherited wealth and power) dragging weary and cynically maintained human investments across primordial volcanic ground. resulted in the film being awarded a custom-made Jury prize ‘for the beauty of its images and for seeking to invent a new cinematic language’). In L’eclisse’s final minutes and throughout L’avventura’s second half it is the viewer who is challenged to overcome the ‘tragedy’ of protagonists being evicted from the film.’ (1990. however. she has simply left the film. as ever. and for countless viewers over subsequent years. are opportunities for the films.’ (ibid. the new. which are often open “tragedies” for Antonioni’s characters. Like Vittoria and Piero in the final minutes of L’eclisse. the island sequence clearly outlives its stay in narrative terms – the search for Anna. For the May 1960 Cannes festival audience first confronted with L’avventura. the new stories. which caused initial scandal before remarkably quick canonisation (being voted second best film ever made after Citizen Kane in 1962’s Sight and Sound poll of international critics) for the same essential reason. infamously jeering at its premiere (a second screening. or more precisely still. the temporary. it has left her.Sam Rohdie argues that the true productivity of Antonioni’s films lies in ‘the new shapes. This risky film-viewer relationship is inaugurated with L’avventura. The framing and choreography of bodies within this particular. p.
55) such as L’avventura’s volcanic edifice that so looms over the human presence. at times seemingly ‘3D’ or ‘virtual’ images are per se beyond reality. texture. 1960) From La notte’s renowned credit-sequence tracking shot down the then-new Pirelli tower. Yet the director’s unique modernist appropriation of realism. showing central Milano reflected in endless glass. formal play with line. (La notte) 15 . dominates Il deserto rosso. focus. they present the various ‘shocks’ and radical modifications of familiar experience within this technologised world. In a more overtly reflexive fashion. Sicilia’s crumbling architecture). means that none of these rather tactile.(L’avventura. or vice versa. the striking modernity of this built environment takes the place of L’avventura’s island (and later. The ultra-modern world of Italy’s northern metropolis is no more comprehensible or reassuring than what William Arrowsmith calls nature’s ‘deep primordial time’ in reference to Antonioni’s ‘nature’ indexes (1995. bodies – human and otherwise – and above all colour. p. closely felt yet never truly accessible protagonist. and then throughout the film’s first half. irrespective of how different we feel our gaze to be from that of the film’s troubled. Rather. and with the latter film the absolute flattening of distinctions between historical and filmic realities.
The result is that while the films offer loosely character-based narratives.(Il deserto rosso) Brought to life by viewer engagement. (1992. Antonioni’s early-‘60s films each offer a distinct ‘reality’ comprised of a doubled vision that becomes flattened into one ambiguous modernist-realist image comprised of the on-screen world closely tied to ‘real’ contemporary Italy in its distinct regions and cities in context of which the notional characters live and move. p. the tentative presence of ‘feeling’ and meaning as construed and gleaned by the viewer is ultimately tethered less to the characters and their drama and rather more to the nexus famously stressed by Walter Benjamin in his ‘Work of Art’ essay: the camera. and the often ‘abstract’ framing of all this before the viewer. 672) We sense this more strongly than usual with Antonioni’s most famous films. 16 . perhaps because their images seem to have at least a partial stake in the human drama but as a frequently detached onlooker also equally – or sometimes much more so – drawn to other potential interests.
Vittoria or Giuliana ‘within reach’ (or at least the performative embodiments of Vitti and Moreau). but only through a very broad sketching of the couple as representing a formerly idealistic intelligentsia. this is often thanks to the camera seeming to skirt the personal space of the favoured body – albeit typically in unusual and tentative ways that allow her to negate the viewer’s gaze by turning away from us – while denying clear and sustained ‘identification’. one of the shots greeted at Cannes by shouts of ‘Cut. whose potential ‘return’ we may also come to fear along with Claudia late in the film when she awakes at dawn and runs down the corridor of a Taormina hotel. despite this usually being an on-screen subject privileged over all others. however. inprogress rejuvenated EUR is strongly felt. placement of this body within the surrounding world. In La notte the frustration and jaded ‘ennui’ of Lidia and her husband Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is palpable from the start. ideals or intentions throughout. on the island following Anna’s disappearance and later on the Sicilian mainland. Lidia. sometimes up close but more usually at a kind of ‘respectful distance’. No matter how much time we spend with these figures. Whatever the shot’s precise formal characteristics. this includes Anna. or even discover basic biographical information. and the viewer may feel more for her than anyone else (including perhaps throughout Antonioni’s entire work). But we never really comprehend our eventual protagonist’s actions. In terms of proximity.There are moments where the viewer can feel Claudia. Yet we understand hardly anything of her desires. In L’eclisse. Disturbingly. cut!’ from the frustrated audience. 17 . be it nature or built environment. is crucial. In L’avventura we are able to perceive Claudia’s anguish. the dialectical fascination-meetsdissatisfaction exhibited by Vittoria when confronted with historic Roma and the modern. they remain out of reach as subjects. despite becoming incrementally more invested in her fate than that of any other character.
not from a clearly ‘subjective’ perspective. with Il deserto rosso a heightened sense of the subjective seems both more palpable and dysfunctional. we observe her predicaments from a not disinterested but also not entirely committed distance as played out within evocative yet always recognisable and ‘real’ post-war space. this also plays out within unhomely. ‘identification’ in part because there is no entirely convincing subject on screen with whom we can relate. biography and ‘development’ typically required of more ‘classical’ types). Through what can appear a kind of neo-expressionist aesthetics. and compositions mixing high-tech industry and polluted nature. often decidedly sterile ultra-modern interiors the frequently science fiction-like appearance of which crosses various work and domestic spaces. 10) that can appear to offer. p. The camera travels along nearby the favoured human figures observing them. 18 . but rather from ‘deep-not-quite-subjective-shots’ (1968. protagonistic subjectivity is here at a dual apogee and crisis point from which it will not recover.(L’avventura) Rather than sharing the protagonist’s perspective. out-of-focus and deepfocus shots. but never totally allow. flattened depth-of-field. In addition to exaggerated and denuded colour. If up until L’eclisse a ‘mid-way’ camera position makes the viewer work at gleaning a sense of character on screen (even if she generally seems lacking the kind of depth. Ian Cameron suggests.
the film’s mute narrator. indeed. Emphasising this unique reflexive foregrounding. space and intentional graphic detailing. p. the viewer. Even where we might seek to order and explain the filmic reality in front of us as ‘accessing’ our protagonist’s psyche. or to both concurrently’ (1985. both enormously challenges and energises perspective. Merleau-Ponty describes the capacity for ‘objectively observable behaviour’ as a site for meaning to an extent no less than within the realm of subjective experience. (1989. Il deserto rosso and the other films make perceivable the actuality of such a moment as generated for the viewer through special and distinct cinematic procedures. Antonioni’s films never equate the gaze with measurability. Their dissolution of distinctions between objective and subjective gazes. there is another point of view. drama and abstract ‘documentary’ interests. Pascal Bonitzer writes of the importance in what seems like a non-human perspective shared between the camera and viewer with L’avventura: Beyond the basically human point of view incarnated in the protagonists. Giuliana’s subjectivity is more an “object” observed than a subjectivity to identify with. a neutral space filled with any movement whatsoever within which the flow of Antonioni’s film comes to rest. objectivity for these films is itself an always-ambiguous domain of lived experience. provided that ‘objectivity is not confused with what is measurable. p.’ (1964. 217) 19 . 24) No matter how seemingly ’objective’ they become.’ (1990. That abstract point of view is picked up in a nonhuman way by the camera in random movements – explosions. or to that of the camera. 185) Regardless of how ‘objective’ or ‘subjective’ the gaze or doubling thereof can appear in a given instant. spots.(Il deserto rosso) If such aesthetic form might initially be seen – or ‘justified’ – by way of ‘expressing’ Giuliana’s experiential reality as the most apparently ‘neurotic’ of Antonioni’s protagonists. Brownian motions. p. Rohdie argues that ‘though the camera is often subjective’ – even as what this means is never truly clear – ‘that subjectivity and subjective look is in turn “objectively” regarded. Like the heavily qualified enactment and skirting of subjectivity. Seymour Chatman asks of this film: ‘But who is the subject? Subjective can refer to the psyche of the character. p. clouds. 131) – to which I would add. she is concurrently never more in doubt or felt as so directly borne of the film’s distinct formal construction. realism and modernism.
While strongly marked by a sense of autonomy and non-anthropocentric concerns. including the most seemingly ‘inhuman’ or ‘objective’ images. But the film goes on to enact reality’s more challenging. Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier writes of L’avventura at the time of release: ‘In Antonioni’s work the world is never merely a setting or a symbol. ‘I feel the need to express reality in terms that are not completely realistic’. Here objectivity becomes internalised. 194) Instead. the scene concluding with the palpable sense of an eerie gaze or presence evoked by a slow tracking shot down an exterior corridor towards the couple as they get in the car and drive away. spaces and forms of a physical reality in front of the camera as transformed by its inherently artificial gaze – a ‘new’ but now essential component of modern reality and how we see it. p. human and otherwise. and in many respects everyday. offer what he calls an ‘invisible subjectivity’. so that it is ‘formed through becoming mental. Deleuze writes. in the process internalising objectivity – including its most ‘alien’. the world is rendered through a focus on the objects. In each of the early-‘60s films. and going into a strange. and are internalised in everyone. Throughout the films specific environments in all their objective power and genuinely mysterious resonance seem to overwhelm the characters.’ (1989. p. so as to ‘see’ this reality for all its oscillation of clarity and ambiguity. places. 20 . nihilistic effect. it begins with their visit to the modern Fascist-built but never occupied workers’ village when looking for Noto. subject-challenging elements – just as subjective desire transforms our understanding of the material world. For Gilles Deleuze.’ (1989. If there is a central moment of this extraordinary development. this ‘other point of view’ in which the films ‘come to rest’ is still ultimately ‘human’ but in an often very unfamiliar sense. all Antonioni’s shots. gradually coming to a full stop after the human presence has completely left the frame. often human-derived power as the architectural and topographical spaces of Sicilia somehow come to overwhelm the original purpose of Claudio and Sandro’s road trip – to search for Anna – with creeping. Ground zero in terms of nature is L’avventura’s island search. Antonioni says of Il deserto rosso’s technical and aesthetic innovations (1996. p. the ineffable presence and confronting ambiguity of space and time takes over. dwarfing the human drama and subjective frame. 28). 8) The films allow us to gaze upon bodies in and of the world. invisible subjectivity … of feelings which go from the objective to the subjective.
to borrow Merleau-Ponty’s description of experience. the deserted village and the stretched tracking shot through its stark. p.A very surprising. genuinely radical cut then ushers in their first embrace shot from a low angle against blank sky then from above and side-on as the new lovers lie on a grassy knoll and kiss. can be read as ‘forging’ this morally confronting event. as seen in the still at the top of this article. reality as viewed becomes more imposing and ineffable than ever. A consistently modern source of filmed reality’s uncanny power can be strongly sensed throughout L’eclisse. this 21 . ‘”already there” before reflection begins – as an inalienable presence’ (1989. because the filmed reality of Sicilia. not only during its famous conclusion but also in a small moment such as when Vittoria seeks out the source of strange sounds made by flagpoles in the nocturnal breeze of a deserted EUR boulevard. p. and modern time. but even for the viewer watching images that give an unprecedented role to the power of ‘primordial’. centuries-old. vii). extraordinary adjoining sequences – more precisely the enormous lacuna between them – perhaps best explains Deleuze’s description of Antonioni’s cinema as uniquely taking up ‘the Nietzschean project of a real critique of morality’.’ (1990. and equally ambiguous and tenuous. its historically located modernity and intimations of ‘deep time’ prior to. (L’avventura) For this cinema’s protagonists. ‘By tying perception to the actual shape and status of the external world. 8) Any such philosophical account can only come about. On the contrary. Featuring a series of quite abstract chiaroscuro compositions placing Vittoria/Vitti’s body. never-used contours. along with ‘natural’ and human-made space – all such distinctions voided by the technology of film – the world seems. 72) This joining makes neither any less impactful. The combination of these brief. against the concrete and steel of this built environment (again dating from the Fascist era). and particularly after the humans have played out their drama. Antonioni’s films suggest this in the prominence given to the world in all its quotidian imminence and ubiquitous sublimity. (1989. during.’ Rohdie writes. p. followed by a spatially and temporally indeterminate ellipsis into surprising untrammelled euphoria and eros. Antonioni ‘made them both equally subject of his films. their bodies fragmented by abstractly framed close-ups often showing mainly skin and hair. frequently seen from behind. however.
a fragment of the matter of the world’ (1960. space. p. books.’ (Ibid. p. The subsequent pan then reveals part of the object-mass of this everyday yet somehow strange-looking reality to be the shirt sleeve-covered arm of a male body. and the world of objects. 45) and pointing out the potential in rendering ‘real life complexes which the conventional figure-ground patterns usually conceal from view. 22 . In Theory of Film Siegfried Kracauer characteristically describes ‘the tremendous importance of objects’. (L’eclisse) The presence and primacy of the physical world is emphasised in these films through the unusual prominence of location. and cluttered objects flattened against a textured wall covering in paintings. 53) The first image of L’eclisse strikingly evokes this effect with a very surprising but entirely appropriate ‘establishing shot’: a graphically dense composition showing a desk lamp. writing that ‘the actor too is no more than a detail.short playing out of a modern human-derived scenario against the imposing ‘cosmic’ opacity of a jet-black sky concludes with a shot of our protagonist gazing out from a vantage point at the graffiti-marked base of an oversized statue and its inky shadows. which we now see staring off screen right yet in remaining immobile retains the appearance of an object. time.
54). the historical palimpsest of post-war Italy is photographed in a way that brings out both the startling modern beauty and flattening power of its interconnected spaces. demonstrate the central tenets of Antonioni’s re-conceived realism as both challenging and genuinely ‘liberating’ in the sense Bazin described of deep focus and time’s entry into the filmic image. do not in fact show something strange per se. One brief example is the moment in La notte when Lidia/Jeanne Moreau is transformed into a tiny figure barely visible in a far bottom-left slither of the frame. reveal ‘configurations of semi-abstract phenomena’ (160. The majority of Antonioni’s ‘semi-abstract phenomena’. narration and reflexive thematising. Rather. no matter their origins or intended purpose.(L’eclisse) The lack of distinctions in such an image between form and content. to borrow Kracauer’s advocacy of cinema as objective realism irrespective of any purported fictional or dramatic content. fiction and documentary. including his most painterly or abstract looking images. almost evicted by a giant 23 . This results in aesthetic juxtapositions that. subject and object. p. figure and ground.
p. xvii) The viewer also collates these images into a whole ‘state of things’. To indulge the visual in all its confronting and enabling ambiguity is at the core both of this modernist cinema’s re-configured realism and its enormous seduction. the ambiguous combination of these two images demonstrates again the true proximity of – or indeed impossible-to-delineate – human and ‘object’ worlds. however. (1989. 24 . What prevails is the space and time of the world in all its ambiguity as manifest both on and as film. If the angle of Giovanni’s subsequent gaze out the window suggests the preceding image is probably not easily understood as his ‘point-of-view’ shot. (La notte) * * * As viewers of Antonioni’s films. our engagement with the world as presented on screen is one in which – to once more utilise Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological language. driven by still challenging ambiguity and freedom. modernism and realism thereby achieve the richest and most historically appropriate union. More than usual.’ (qtd. in the process we also realise that such a manoeuvre remains both tenuous and viable only for an audience of one. Roland Barthes saw in these films a ‘discernment’ that never confuses ‘meaning with truth’. 209. pp. 166). Antonioni says that his visual technique is ‘in moving from a series of images up to a state of things. In his famous ‘Dear Antonioni’ open letter celebrating the director’s ‘fragility’. 210) With Antonioni’s cinema of the early 1960s. so suggestive of cinema’s virtual power – ‘the mind goes out through the eyes to wander among objects’ (1964. while also putting a distinct protagonist or ‘subject’ per se further into doubt. in Tinazzi.expanse of stark concrete wall as seen from many floors above – a possible vantage point that may or may not be the apartment in which her husband lies listlessly. 1996. Each of us brings not only customised order but also heavily qualified meaning to the reality of this film-world. p.
Wide Angle. Jean-François (1978) ‘Acinema’. 139-212. in Rascaroli. reprinted in Mast. Chatman. ----. Berkeley: University of California Press. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan. Carlo di & Tinazzi. Washington. 276-300. 169-80. Evanston. Lyotard. Ian & Wood. London: Studio Vista. Deleuze.(1991) The Inhuman (trans. No. in Chatman. pp. Brunette. Ropars-Wuilleumier. 23-40.) Film Theory and Criticism (4th edition). Illinois: Northwestern University Press. Rascaroli. Seymour & Fink. & trans. London: Oxford University Press. 665-681. in Antonioni. 215-18. 1992. New York: Oxford University Press. Carlo. Kracauer. Gavriel & Chatman. pp. Michelangelo. Colin Smith). Renee) in Chatman. Dead: Antonioni at 100’ from Antonioni: Centenary Essays. Routledge: London. Seymour & Fink. Guido (eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ----.) L’avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni. 25 . Benjamin. Laura & Rhodes.) L’avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta). Seymour (1985) Antonioni. Rohdie. 3-15. London: BFI Publishing. André (1967) ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’. Moses. John David (2011) ‘Interstitial. Carlo. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich). Albert Hofstadter). ----. Marie-Claire (1989) ‘L’avventura’ (trans.(1989) ‘All the Adventures’. Peter (1998) The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. New York: Oxford University Press. Seymour & Morel.) Antonioni: Centenary Essays. The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema (eds. Guido (eds. Hamish (2012) Post-War Modernist Cinema and Philosophy: Confronting Negativity and Time. DC: New Academia Publishing. Director: New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press.(1989) The Phenomenology of Perception (trans. Seymour) in Chatman. Cohen. Perry. Seymour & Fink. Director: New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press. 209-214. Maurice (1964) The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays (trans. Laura & Rhodes. David Farrell). Robin (1968) Antonioni. Gerald. 1-17. Seymour & Fink.). pp. Vol. Rhodes. pp. Bazin. Roland (1989) ‘Dear Antonioni’ (trans. Pier Paolo (2005) ‘The “Cinema of Poetry”’ from Heretical Empiricism (trans.) What is Cinema?: Volume I. pp. Sam (1990) Antonioni. Chatman. Berkeley: University of California Press. Guido (eds. pp. or The Surface of the World. Siegfried (1960) Theory of Film: The Redemption of Reality. London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan. Leo (eds. Ben & Barnett. William Cobb). Pretentious. Krell. London: Routledge. Nora Hope). Walter (1992) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (trans. in Hugh Gray (ed. Michelangelo (1996) The Architecture of Vision: Writings and interviews on Cinema (eds. John David (eds. Gilles (1989) Cinema 2: The Time-Image (trans. Tinazzi. Heidegger. Lawton. New York: Cambridge University Press. Alienated. pp.Works Cited Antonioni. Ford. Bonitzer. Marshall and Braudy. Pasolini. Arrowsmith.) L’avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni. Giorgio (1996) ’The Gaze and the Story’. pp. Cameron. Carlo di & Tinazzi. Ted). New York: Marsilio. 191-5. Chris. Guido (eds. Stanford: Polity Press. 3. John David (2011) ‘Antonioni and the Development of Style’. William (1995) Antonioni: Poet of Images (ed. pp. 1989. Merleau-Ponty. Martin (1993) ’The Origin of the Work of Art’ (trans. Giorgio). Louise K. in Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger (ed. Beyer. Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby). Pascal (1989) ‘The Disappearance (on Antonioni)’ (trans. pp. 167-186.) L’avventura: Michelangelo Antonioni. London & New York: Palgrave Macmillan. re-printed in Chatman. pp. Director: New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press. Director: New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press. Giorgio) New York: Marsilio. Barthes. 2.
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