Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni


Blogs all over have been paying tribute to Ingmar Bergman on his passing - and now the world of cinema has lost another great - Michelangelo Antonioni who died at 94.

There are lots of obituaries online - the Guardian is a good place to start known for Blowup and Zabriskie Point as well as his earlier films like La Notte.

Now as much as Bergman may be a giant of cinema and hugely influential on a wide variety of artistic endeavours, I've always personally preferred Antonioni.

Here's some of what John Berger says about one of his earliest works, (full essay here, from The Shape of a Pocket) - a nine minute documentary film, Gente del Po, made in the 1940's:


Michaelangelo Antonioni comes from Ferrara—in the simple sense that he was born there, but also, in a more complex way, because the city or its spirit is invariably present in his work...

...Whoever says Ferrara, says also the river Po. Other places are more intimate with the river—Cremona, Torino, the little town of Paesana near its source, but Ferrara is its monument, its mortuary headstone. After Ferrara the river begins to negotiate and finally join the beyond. This dimension of the beyond is marvelously held at the end of Antonioni's first nine-minute documentary film, Gente del Po, made between 1943 and 1947...

In Antonioni's film the river is a chief character, defined by her colossal will, but not her impatience, to reach the sea. When she does, the sea, instead of embracing her, gives her a leg up and she clambers into the white bed of the sky.

The other principal characters in Gente del Po are the captain of the tugboat, hauling five barges down the river, the captain's wife and their daughter, who is down below in her bunk for she has been taken ill. The mother goes ashore to buy a remedy for her daughter in the chemist's shop of a poor riverside village. The tugboat is called Milano and the river is constantly reminds the villagers of elsewhere. This was twenty years before Italy's postwar economic miracle...

...This first, brief, black-and-white film without spoken dialogue is prophetic in another way too. In it we today recognize Antonioni's special way of framing his shots—as though the focus of his interests is always beside the event shown, and the protagonist is never centered, because the center is a destiny we do not understand and whose outline is not yet clear.

Essentially his cinematic handwriting hasn't changes since he began making this first film when he was thirty-one years old. An immense evolution is to come—including that of color—but the same vision, the same pair of eyes was already there in 1943...

...Those who admire Antonioni's films often say that he narrates like a novelist. Those who criticize his films often accuse them of being abstract, over-aesthetic,
formalist. It seems to me that if one wants to enter the world of his imagination, one should first think of him as a painter. Human behavior and stories interest him, but he begins with what somebody or somewhere looks like. His most important perceptions are pre-verbal. (This is perhaps why he can use silence so well.) Kieslowski, for example, is a real novelist of the cinema because he thinks about the consequence of actions. Antonioni gazes at the silhouette of an action, with all the painter's desire to find in it something that is timeless. I would often go so far as to suggest that he often forgets the consequence...

...Antonioni's films question the visible until there's not enough light to see anymore. The visible may be Monica Vitti or Marcello Mastroianni or a river bank or a ship's hull or a tree or a tennis court. Unlike a true painter he can't touch their image with his hands; he has to worry it in other ways—by lighting, by movement, by waiting, by a kind of cinematic stealth. His purpose is to make us peer into his films as one peers into the Po as it flows, as Monet peered into the depths of the lily pond, as one walks peering through the fog.

The hope which, I believe, sustained him as he made each film, was that, as we peer, something will come to meet us, something that almost escaped him, something so real it doesn't have a name.

Halfway through Gente del Po a peasant on the river bank sharpens a scythe and a line of women, dressed in black, rake hay. One of the women straightens her back to gaze at the river as the barges pass. She is young. She is like nobody else. She has slightly protruding white teeth when she smiles. And she smiles, because whilst she gazes at the wide river with its colossal will to reach the sea, something comes out to meet her. We can read it on her face. But on the film we can't see it.


1 comment:

Chuck said...

Thank you Tim. It's amazing that two such giants passed away so close together. And it is predictable that Antonioni would receive less attention. I, too, have always preferred Michelangelo's film with his painterly approach, minimalistic use of the soundtrack and incredible feel for color. A true iconoclastic pioneer.