the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Antonioni (1992 NY Film Society Retrospective)

Antonioni: A Better Truth

The New York Film Society in conjunction with the Italian government is sponsoring an Antonioni retrospective. They have chosen to showcase his work chronologically. It is now the middle of the cycle and his style can be witnessed in its full bloom. Antonioni is, without doubt, a revolutionary. His work, especially this period, challenges the established relationship between the medium and the audience. Traditional conceptions of characterization, storyline, camerawork, settings… are all upset. There have been film journals brimming with interpretations of the significance of the work. But by far his greatest achievement was to force film audiences to rise above being passive spectators. Upsetting the status quo has never won anyone popularity contests. His films are not universally loved, but they are respected. "Alienation" and the "impossibility of love" are not themes which would garner blockbuster status. Antonioni chooses them, not once, but for the bulk of his work. This is especially true during the middle of his career (some would say the apex) 1957-1964 where he made Il Grido (the Cry) L'Avventura (the Adventure), La Notte (the Night), L'Eclisse (the Eclipse) and Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert). Ironically behind the stark images and the isolated protagonists lies a religious sense of optimism about the medium. Antonioni may not have faith in relationships but he believes in film; and by default, the audience at large.

Yesterday, I saw La Notte. What struck me was the enormous sense of hopefulness in this film. Paradoxically it centers around the angst of long term relationships and is crafted within the harshest of stylized realities. There are not many smiles. From the opening sequence in the hospital, where a troubled couple visits a terminally ill friend, to the closing rape on the golf course, there is hardly a laugh. This is true visually as well. During the titles the camera descends down the facade of a modern glass skyscraper which reflects the ant-like world of old Italy. There is a sense that Mussolini's victory could not have constructed something as authoritarian and dehumanizing. The final image, a shot of trees and grass devoid of people, has an eerie edge; even nature in this modern landscape has lost its charm. Yet despite all the gloom there is an unwavering trust in the power of the medium and a strong faith in the audience. He accurately renders his vision of the world and, most importantly, assumes the audience cares. He has created a film which centers around core issues of emotional well being and human interaction. Although this is standard fare for poets, the difficulties of achieving this numerous times in the medium of full length fiction films, cannot go unrecognized. It is the equivalent of raising an army of workers in order to build a highly personal, stylized monument to "the truth", to be visited by anyone who cared to make the trip. Certainly there would be those who would question the sanity of the instigator of such an undertaking, not to mention the sneers regarding the superfluous nature of this "gift". But one would be hard pressed to scoff at the dedication and respect such a builder would have for the general public.

La Notte is one such monument. Over the years the visitors have found the experience an enthralling meditation or a boring waste of time. The varied range of the response can be laid Antonioni's unique sense of design. La Notte abandons the general causal plot structure. The story is seemingly aimless. Nothing happens. A reconstruction of the specifics would read like a series of unrelated random events surrounding a couple experiencing marital difficulties. The two protagonists themselves are equally enigmatic. The husband is a successful writer with a intelligent, beautiful wife, who seems perfectly suited for his moody disposition. He is miserable. There is no reason given for his general unhappiness and, with a disconcerting nonchalance, the film debunks rational explanations for his melancholy. He is interested in nothing and his passion is aroused on a whim. Distraction via sexual encounters seems his central means of escaping his personal hell. His wife has a similar spiritual void, but is more emotionally aware and therefore more sympathetic. She embarks on an ill-defined quest in which she encounters men; young, old, smart, dumb, fighting, playing, drinking, working, carousing… who see her solely as an erotic object. Her reaction is ambivalence, not outright rejection. In the end she reflects on her relationship with her terminally ill friend, another male writer. Here was someone who believed in her, loved her and took her seriously. Unlike a majority of men she encounters he was not primarily motivated by sex. This is in sharp contrast to her spouse, who blends perfectly with the crowd of lechers. She admits to choosing her husband. This is not an epiphany but an underlying truth which she attempts to understand. There are no grandiose conclusions or pat answers.

This is my humble interpretation of some the events that occurred. An accurate description of "what happened?" would require a text similar in spirit to James Joyce's Finnegin's Wake. This can be attributed to Antonioni's use of photography, setting and sound to subtlety convey mood. Most filmmaker rely primarily on dialogue to express emotion. When that fails there is always mood music and the last resort of voice-over narration. All these devices are efficient ways of communicating plot and exposition. Clarity and brevity must be incorporated into all forms of art but Antonioni begs the question: at what cost? Once again the James Joyce example holds true - there are more efficient ways of telling the story but that would undercut the merits of what the author intended. The telling of the story holds as much weight as the story itself. A small example of the strength of Antonioni's method can be seen in the opening of the party sequence in La Notte. The gathering takes place at a rich industrialists' mansion. The driveway is strewn with cars. The couple pulls up and adds their Fiat to the pile. The silence contrasts sharply with the clutter of cars. It is almost as if they are in a junkyard after dark. The house is a tasteless hodgepodge of old and new architecture. The arches hint at the charm of antiquity but modern layout suggests a brave new world. As the married couple approaches, crowd noise is heard. They look around and see no one. They walk through the house, its interior matches the facade. The crowd noise increases as they enter the backyard. They look and see a large patio with empty tables and chairs. The juxtaposition of image and sound is jarring. There is no one here. The camera then shifts to the left to reveal the partygoers surrounding a large thoroughbred which the host has trotted out. Not a word of dialogue has been spoken thus far and yet the mood and characterization of the events has been beautifully rendered. When the wife of the industrialist greets the protagonists her words are meaningless. It is social chit-chat which meshes perfectly with the surroundings. Those surroundings and how they were shaped via the choreography, lighting and sound, tell the story. All that "happened" was the couple entered the house and encountered the hostess. A lesser director might have ignored the milieu and cut immediately to the wife of the industrialist and let her words convey the shallowness of the affair. The horse would have been used as a visual gag to buttress her statements. Her manner would have to be a bit "over the top" in order to quickly relate her own personality and the nature of the festivities. Given this small example it is easy to see the party itself becomes far more than the sum of its plot twists. The husband goes off with the industrialist's daughter, the wife discovers her friend has died when she calls the hospital, the industrialist offers a job to her husband, the wife goes off with another man… All these things occur but they are the tip of the iceberg when trying to accurately describe "what happened?".

It would be easy, with hindsight, to pick apart La Notte. Probable its major flaw lies in its lack of levity; although there are moments during the party sequence. Antonioni seems to fall into the sophomoric trap of mistaking the melancholy for the profound. But this error must be overlooked when measured against the admiration he has for his audience. As a veteran movie-goer, it seems contemporary filmmakers (whether Hollywood, European or Independent) share a mistrust of the public. Their goals are to shock, to soothe or to dazzle. Antonioni focuses on telling the truth; or more precisely his vision of it. This sounds bombastic and arrogant but Antonioni avoids this by being genuine. A small example of this can be seen in his portrayal of the industrialist in La Notte. This is a minor part; a small almost incidental figure in the grand scheme of the film. Yet Antonioni avoids making a easy characterture of a nouveau rich businessman. He renders, with care, an elegant portrait of a man who has "made it" in the world of business. It may be unflattering but it is not condescending. It is accurate to a point of being beyond pigeon-holing. The industrialist is past good or bad; he merely is. This is the essence of Antonioni's truth. His truth is not supreme or universal. Not everyone will care to glean the significance from objects or actors conventionally relegated to the role of background. If the current cinema is any measure of popular taste, a majority of people freely accept the notion of an intellectually passive audience. La Notte is not for everyone.

There are few, if any, contemporary film makers who follow Antonioni's tenants with regard to plot, characterization, use of scenery, use of sound… It is therefore not surprising that La Notte is as radical a film now, in 1992, then it was when it premiered in 1960. This does not mean the revolution has failed. Antonioni's films will, like all great works of art, survive the fickleness of fashion. Their integrity places them above the fray. They fall into that rarefied group of works which combine honesty of vision with genius in execution; in short they are classics. Whether one accepts the work it is important to recognize Antonioni's truth. It goes against the grain of most popular fiction filmmaking. It is the antithesis of MTV videos; a use of the medium featuring fast-paced, sound driven editing and the presentation of women, more often than not, as sexual objects void of thought. (Music videos may seem inconsequential but I would argue they have had an tremendous impact in shaping the public's visual expectations. One need only note the decreasing length of television commercials and the more frenetic editing of popular movies). Antonioni's goals may be absurd: to meticulously render fictional films to a point where a stylized vision of reality flaunts notions of simple categorization. He may not have found the truth. But, in examining the status quo, I submit it is a better truth.

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