End of Story: Seymour Chatman on Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

By Chatman, Seymour | Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

End of Story: Seymour Chatman on Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)


Chatman, Seymour, Artforum International


MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, who died this past July at the age of ninety-four, will be remembered as one of the greatest visual artists of the cinema, in the company of Sergei Eisenstein, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Josef von Sternberg, and Max Ophuls. Here was a director who was not only a serious student of form, color, and mise-en-scene but perhaps the medium's most visionary practitioner. Antonioni's striking frames and at times astonishingly beautiful shots, however, do not distract from but rather intensify his principal preoccupation--the depiction of the human condition. His art is like Goya's: often sad and unpleasant in content, yet gorgeous in appearance.

His stories--minimal though they may be--turn on the plight of individuals, especially men, caught up in personal dilemmas and bewildering feelings of alienation, of being out of place, of having lost incentive and direction. His protagonists are a failed architect (Sandro [Gabriele Ferzetti]), in L'avventura (1960); a sellout writer (Giovanni [Marcello Mastroianni]), in La notte (1961); a journalist gone stale (Riccardo [Francisco Rabal]) and a confused stockbroker (Piero [Alain Delon]), in L'eclisse (1962); a suicidal housewife (Giuliana [Monica Vitti]) and a distracted engineer (Corrado [Richard Harris]), in Il deserto rosso (1964); a bewildered photographer (Thomas [David Hemmings]), in Blow-Up (1966); a spiritually bankrupt foreign correspondent (David Locke [Jack Nicholson]), in The Passenger (1975); a stymied film director (Niccolo [Tomas Milian]), in Identificazione di una donna (1982). Their problems are existential, not political or psychological. Nowhere in plot or dialogue is there a hint that these distraught people would benefit from the Revolution or from psychoanalysis. Rather, the filmmaker sought to convey their predicament and a precise sense of postwar malaise through an intense concentration on the visible--on their faces, their bodies, and especially their interaction with the surrounding environment. Antonioni courted the senses.

His greatest films appeared just after cinema moved to the wide screen. That was no accident. With the exception of Il grido (The Cry, 1957), which relied heavily on the bleak, broad landscape of the Po valley, his films of the narrow-screened 1950s were too crowded. He needed a larger format to create mise-en-scenes with enough space to evoke the emotional isolation of the characters. In L'avventura, when Anna's friends search for her on the tiny island of Lisca Bianca, they cross the steep terrain, with the endless horizon of the sea always visible behind them. When Lidia wanders around Milan in La notte, she is isolated by the emptiness of the urban background and, in a visual climax, stunningly dwarfed by crowded skyscrapers. In Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), characters emerge singly from the ghostly fog as they watch Giuliana walk away from the car that she has almost driven off a pier. One of Antonioni's favorite painters was Giorgio Morandi, from whom he surely learned the art of grouping. But unlike the painter, the filmmaker found no tranquillity among scattered groups, for his were composed of lonely humans, not pots.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To an unusual degree, Antonioni's art is governed by his keen attention to the ground against which he placed his figures. Like the Abstract Expressionists, Antonioni, with his telephoto lens, flattened things against broad surfaces. Particularly in the '60s, he sought out framing boxes; for instance, to pin Monica Vitti against the wall in L'eclisse and Red Desert. Rothko's signature bisection of the horizontal dimension (and Barnett Newman's of the vertical, and Mondrian's obsession with the whole box) may well have lingered in the filmmaker's mind. (Antonioni once famously compared his work to Rothko's, saying that it is "about nothing ... with precision.") In L'avventura, he revisited de Chirico, showing Sandro and Claudia fleeing a deserted Sicilian town built in the rectilinear Fascist style. …

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