I’ve always felt that the people who describe Antonioni’s movies as being about ennui, anomie, and alienation are… not wrong, exactly, but largely missing the point. The point being that Antonioni’s movies, above all, are about seeing and feeling the world, about the look of things — including when those things seem to look back, or when they seem to look through us, to ignore us. There are so many scenes that continue to haunt me, years after I last saw them: some shots of the volcanic islands in L’Avventura, where the woman disappears; the final sequence of that same movie, in which Monica Vitti strokes the male lead’s hair, forgiving him (perhaps), despite the fact that he has been unfaithful to her, and has proved himself to be a worthless cad. There’s the scene of panic at the stock exchange, in L’eclisse, and of course the (justly) famous final sequence of that film, the montage of an entirely deserted city, scenes of the rendezvous to which neither of the troubled lovers managed, or was willing, to show up.
Of course, Antonioni is especially great at endings. There’s also the long travelling shot that ends The Passenger, moving out of Jack Nicholson’s hotel room onto and through a largely deserted square, baking in the hot sun, then eventually back into the hotel room to find Nicholson’s corpse. And above all, perhaps, there’s the ending of Zabriskie Point, with that hideous house in the desert exploding again and again, and all those commodities floating through the sky, slowly floating, to the unworldly music of Pink Floyd, until Daria leaves, and it blends into a pure colorism of the desert.
And so much more. There are scenes that I cannot even place — I will have to watch all those films again: deserted squares with the sun beating down (someplace in the trilogy, as well as in The Passenger). Even in Blow Up, which is sometimes deprecated, because it is Antonioni’s most “pop” movie, as well as his most popular one at the box office, there are astonishing visions, and not necessarily the most obvious ones: like the scene where Jeff Beck is playing in a club, and he wrecks his guitar and throws it into the crowd, and David Hemmings struggles against all the other fans in order to grab it; and finally, after he gets it, he exits the club and throws it down (negligently? disgustedly? I can’t quite remember) into the trash. Or that other scene, near the end, where Hemmings is at a party, he smokes a joint (I think?) with Verushka, in any case he is too stoned, too tired, too worn out to care any more… Not to mention the exploitation scene, in the middle, with the nude cavorting models…
I may not be remembering these scenes quite accurately; it’s too long since I last watched any of them. But even if I have distorted them in my mind, the very fact that I am groping after them like this, that they have the sort of insistence they do in my memory, and that my remembrance of them, however inexact, stirs up all sorts of emotional currents, is a testimony to how visionary a filmmaker Antonioni was — meaning this word in the literal sense of ‘having visions’ as well as in the sense of an obsession with the visual, with the visible (and the invisible), with “the surface of the world” (to quote the subtitle of Seymour Chatman’s 1985 book on Antonioni). Antonioni shows us the world — sometimes the “natural” world, but more often the human-built world, including the human beings who are figures in that world — as we scarcely ever see it: he shows us the world as image, the world retreated into its image, the world “made image” (in precisely the way that the Word is “made flesh”). Which is why one gets the vertiginous sense, watching Antonioni’s films that what we are seeing is not the least bit objective, since everything we see is inflected, affected, by the characters’ catastrophic subjectivity, by their narcissism, their neuroticism, their (yes) ennui and anomie; and yet, at the very same time , that what we are seeing is entirely separate from human subjectivity, that in fact we are seeing inhumanly, from an entirely alien sensibility, as if the camera were a being from another planet, for whom human behavior is as distant and enigmatic as insect behavior is for us. It’s the impossible combination of a subjectivity so excessive as to be sick unto death, and an inhuman distance so great as to defy explication, that makes Antonioni’s films so compellingly enigmatic, so alluring for their surfaces or their look.
Antonioni’s movies are also about time, about how time passes, about the feeling of duration. As Bergson said, you have to wait for the sugar to dissolve in your tea; it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Antonioni’s films are about waiting; the wait can be for something as trivial as sugar dissolving, or for something as momentous as death. But in any case, Antonioni captures this waiting, the way that (as Kant, Bergson, Proust, and Husserl all say) time passing is the very essence of our interiority (or of what we are perhaps too ready and eager to claim as an “inner life”): Antonioni captures this, in its misery and splendor, more accurately and more fully than any other film director (except possibly Chantal Akerman) has ever done. I think that his ability to plumb the depths of time — which like vision, is both deeply subjective and deeply inhuman, in his treatment of it — is why Antonioni has so often been taken to be either boring (which he never is for me) or about boredom and ennui (which I think he is only in a very limited and derivative sense).
Antonioni is also — paradoxical as this may sound — a great poet of the body. As Deleuze says, Antonioni is very largely about “the immense tiredness of the body”, as well as other “attitudes or postures of the body.” In these attitudes or postures, Antonioni portrays “no longer experience, but ‘what remains of past experiences’, ‘what comes afterwards, when everything has been said’.” (Cinema 2, page 189). Antonioni gives us the vision of what is stirring when nothing has yet appeared, and of what remains when everything is gone: and this vision is embedded in the flesh, or at least in a certain sort of flesh, in attitudes and postures which are devoid of consciousness, and perhaps entirely inaccessible to thought. That is to say, Antonioni is a poet of the body, because he shows us what cannot be said, captures on screen what the body feels but does not know. It’s there mostly despairingly, in some of the scenes that I have already mentioned — like the ending of L’Avventura, or the pot-smoking party in Blow-Up; but also — if rarely — ecstatically, like the moment in Zabriskie Point when the protagonists are making love in the desert, and then, in a long shot, they are multiplied, a whole army (?!) of lovers stretching as far as the eye (or the camera) can see.
In all these ways, Antonioni gives us his own, highly original and unusual, inflection of modernism. The combination of ravishing (if severe) visual beauty and an underlying despair is, of course, very much a familiar modernist stance or trope. But Antonioni gives it a particular inflection, through the ways his characters are absorbed into a landscape (usually not a “natural” one) that changes them even as it reflects them: both expresses them and absorbs and digests them. The relation between human figures, and the spaces they inhabit (or feel uncomfortable in, and in that sense fail to fully inhabit) is a unique one in Antonioni’s films, and I am not sure I have adequate words for it.
But it’s here that I can best raise the question of the politics of Antonioni’s films. The Italian trilogy (or tetralogy, if you include Red Desert — and one might also group with them their later echo in Identification of a Woman) does indeed focus on rich, or at least haut-bourgeois, characters who haven’t a care in the world financially (despite that stock market panic in L’eclisse), but who suffer from loneliness, from an inability to connect with other people except on the most superficial level, and from — not frustration so much as anhedonia, an inability to take pleasure, and also (more deeply) an inability even to have the desires whose unfulfillment might lead to frustration. Often these characters are women; Antonioni treats them with considerable sympathy, even if he objectifies them sexually at the same time.
One common criticism of Antonioni is that any leftist critique of the privileged classes that he might have is subverted by the way he glamorizes these protagonists and their money-fueled lifestyles. But I think this objection is misguided. Antonioni’s films work as critiques of class relations, and of gender relations, precisely because they don’t at all moralize (and also because they don’t portray any working class alternatives to the lives of the bourgeoisie, in the manner of the neorealist films that Antonioni was reacting against). Rather, these films draw us into a paralysis, which we as viewers share with the characters whom we are watching on screen. This paralysis is the absurd consequence of what happens when class domination and gender stratification are pushed to the extreme points that they are in a certain sort of (medium-late) capitalist society. The characters’ neuroticism, their narcissism, their sterility, is the rigorous ‘subjective’ consequence of an ‘objective’ regime of accumulation for its own sake.
But this paralysis, is also, and as it were in spite of itself, a precondition for aesthetic rapture. Paralysis is Kantian “disinterest”; it is also what Deleuze — describing the neorealism that Antonioni is both the heir to and the rebel against — calls “pure optical and sound situations,” in which the sensori-motor linkages of “ordinary” perception are ruptured (see Cinema 2, pages 3-6). Antonioni’s characters don’t experience aesthetic bliss; but their paralysis is the precondition for the bliss that Antonioni, and his films’ spectators, are able to feel. As Deleuze also says, “the old curse which undermines the cinema” is that “time is money,” and that “there is not, and there never will be, equivalence in the mutual camera-money exchange.” (Cinema 2, page 77-78). Unequal exchange, the extraction of a surplus even when there is formal equivalence of the items exchanged: this capitalist logic is at the heart both of the neuroses of Antonioni’s characters, and of the delirious aestheticism that serves as an always-unequal counterpart, or counter-payment for those neuroses.
The situation is a bit different in Antonioni’s English-language films, where the paralyzed voyeur-characters are photographers (Blow-Up) or journalists (The Passenger), or even would-be radicals (Zabriskie Point who try (unsuccessfully) to escape the logic of equivalence/surplus/paralysis that is inscribed into the logic of capitalist society. I’m aware that a lot more needs to be said about Antonioni’s ambiguous treatment, in these films, of what Deleuze and Guattari call “lines of flight” or (when they are not successful, as is generally the case in Antonioni’s films) “lines of abolition.” More needs to be said, as well, about how gender relations (in addition to class relations) factor in here. But I think my general point stands — about how Antonioni’s aestheticism is both consciously inscribed within, and also mobilized against, the unacceptable social relations that remain Antonioni’s starting point.
I still haven’t said anything about my favorite Antonioni film — or at least the one that I have seen most often, and with which I am most familiar: Red Desert (1964). This was Antonioni’s first film in color, and its scenes of belching factory smoke, and overall muted, depressive palette, are unforgettable. These hideous colors are only accented by their contrast with the one fantasy sequence, the story Monica Vitti tells her son about a paradisaical beach: here the lighting and the colors are excessively bright and clear, too much so, with the airbrushed perfection of the most expensive advertising. This is the bourgeois vision of beauty as compensation and escape, as unrealizable ideal: Antonioni shows it to be only the flip side of the industrial pollution that dominates the rest of the film. Antonioni’s own aestheticism resides, rather, in the waste and pollution itself. I think of his use of the color red, as in the scene in the cabin, where Vitti tries (unsuccessfully) to transform herself into orgy mode; and also the scene in the hotel room, her tryst with the engineer, where the wall subtly changes color behind them as they writhe on the bed. Related to that, in turn, though with a different palette, is the scene in the ship yard, at night, where Vitti wandering alone is briefly propositioned by a foreign sailor: not speaking Italian, he tells her, in English, “I’ll love you, I’ll love you,” as she passes by. It’s a scene that could be an epigraph for all of Antonioni’s movies, with their pain and blocked eroticism, and with the force of the disinterest by means of which Antonioni transfigures them.
I will stop here, though I feel I could ramble on indefinitely. But I need to watch these movies again, before I write more about them. I will only add that, for all that Antonioni’s critical reputation declined over the past thirty years, he only became more and more influential among the younger generations of art filmmakers. As David Hudson notes, “now as we head into the late 00’s, the almost standardized “festival film” bears the mark of no other director more than Antonioni’s.” Indeed — where would Tsai Ming-liang, Bela Tarr, early Edward Yang, and Theo Angelopoulos be without Antonioni?