Written by: Goodtime Charlie, Special to CC2K
Eminent film historian and haver of good times Goodtime Charlie was kind enough to bestow on CC2K his guide to one of the all-time greats, Michelangelo Antonioni. Enjoy!
Michelangelo Antonioni ranks right up there with Eric Rohmer in the pantheon of directors who are reviled by many moviegoers for being boring.
Despite this similarity in mainstream audience response, Rohmer toiled in obscurity while Antonioni was an internationally-renowned auteur who spent his free time in bed with internationally-renowned beauties and made exactly the sort of movies he wanted. Antonioni was even courted by both the Brits and the Yanks, back when Americans still thought Europeans were cool.
The strangest thing about this drastic difference in fortune compared to that of Rohmer is that Antonioni’s movies are even slower than those of Rohmer. To give you an example, one of my favorite Antonioni scenes involves three characters who hardly say a word to each other–and one of them is an oscillating fan.
Well, I guess that is why you are either in his court or you aren’t. Some people would be bored, longing for the simplicity of Martin Lawrence or maybe Woody Allen’s fusillade of dialogue, while others see the beauty in that scene, in slowly discovering the human emotions laid bare on the faces of the actors, in the minutiae of their movements, in the unspoken words hanging menacingly from their lips, in the brilliance of the lighting/framing/editing, in the screams filling the silence.
Love him or hate him, there is no doubt Antonioni was an artist with a keen eye for style who painted vivid pictures. Delightfully, these pictures did more than tell a story–they were also loaded with politics, social observations, and philosophy. But although he plumbed the depths of humanity, it is important to note that Antonioni rarely took a stand on any issue–like a good documentary filmmaker, he documented, he explored, but he did not judge.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, that Antonioni began his career as a documentary filmmaker. After three years of making popular short documentaries about overlooked corners of Italy–one was about a street cleaner in Rome, one about the people of the Po valley, one about a cable-car ride through the Dolomites, and many more!–Antonioni finally made his feature film debut in 1950, with Story of a Love Affair, which was distributed in both the UK and US (not too shabby), as well as back home in Italy.
With all that in mind, please enjoy this tour of the art of Michelangelo Antonioni. I have tried my best to provide a window into those movies of his I think you will enjoy most, so please keep in mind it is a selected filmography…
The Early Years
Cronaca di un amore (1950) [aka Story of a Love Affair]
A rich man suspects his wife of cheating and hires a detective to dig around in her past, which ironically results in the reunion of his wife and one of her former lovers, who is an impoverished used car salesman. They plot to kill her husband, but–in classic Antonioni form–the murder never happens, since that is not the point–the point is seeing what drives these people to think murder is a good idea, to see that money more often buys mischievous boredom instead of happiness. Not quite a neorealist film, not quite a noir, this movie involves many elements of both, but is ultimately a movie about money, as Antonioni himself once said. This classic is not as rewarding as his later works, but is an enjoyable deep cut for those who have already seen those movies and want more.
Le amiche (1955) [aka The Girlfriends]
This movie is a bit dated and slow to develop, but really improves on the home stretch. Essentially, it is a fictionalized documentary about the changing roles of women in the 1950s. They were working, they were accumulating money, they were having one-night stands, affairs–they were flexing their muscles and exerting control in situations where they were historically passive. All that aside, the story is told by men and seemed a bit sexist to me at first blush, but when I tried to break down what it was saying and compared it to my experiences with women, with the situations even modern women find themselves in…I think it is pretty accurate to what women went through. The best thing I can compare it to is a 1950’s Italian version of the relationships explored in Sex and the City, except this is much better than that. The story centers on four women, some of whom let their feelings for men dominate their lives, some of whom toy with men, and some who are conflicted. Nobody is smarter than the others, the story is just a slice of their complicated lives and, more than any other movie of Antonioni’s, this one betrays his documentary roots. Much like Cronica di un amore, I would save this for after you have viewed his later movies.
Il grido (1957) [aka The Cry]
This one is my favorite of Antonioni’s early dramatic efforts. He moved one step closer to the great artist he became, as this is the first movie he made that utilized silence to great effect (his earlier efforts had much more dialogue). After finding out that the legitimate husband of his lover of seven years has died in Australia, the hero, Aldo (played–oddly–by American actor Steve Cochran), is excited about the chance to legitimize their affair, but is instead cast aside in favor of another man. An emotional wreck, Aldo decides to leave his job and wander around the Po Valley with his daughter, trying to fill the hole in his heart with a series of other women who never measure up–a former lover, a gas station owner, and an impoverished prostitute. While certainly rife with depressing scenes, Il grido is a beautiful exploration of the psychology of a spurned lover.