Greg Gerke

Oh, for Antonioni!

January 31, 2020

I’m sensitive. I have a nerve disorder in my right eye, but also I’m sensitive to language, to people offhandedly saying something because they couldn’t staunch it. At a Q and A between Kent Jones and Noah Baumbach (two motion-picture writer-directors I admire), they spoke of artists who were in direct and oblique competition given their proximity. Fellini and Antonioni came up, with the endpoint being an understanding that, given the choice, people should go with Fellini. In tandem, last year, as Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind hit Netflix, a modish, puckish, and foolish soundbite or legend—hellbent on being fact—sprung up. Welles didn’t like Antonioni—he equated his work with the experience of boredom in a 1967 interview—but too many critics parroted the belief that the movie-within-the movie-section, where a man and woman silently chase each other, closing in and apart before sex, and during—the woman a toro to his matador—was based on Antonionian longueurs. Maybe Welles was more taken with Antonioni than he cared to admit, because that section of the film is the most alive and adventurous of the production. Even if the enterprise was ultimately left in the air and edited by a committee of acolytes, when alive, Welles spent most of his editing time on these scenes, which were largely conceived of by Oja Kodar. The continual ballyhoo about Welles—who struck Antonioni as a very masculine filmmaker—and the continuous diminishing of Antonioni—which may have started with Pauline Kael’s dismissals and Andrew Sarris’s term “Antonioniennui”—took a toll.

Be as it may, something about Antonioni is deeply embedded in my soul, and though the psychical manifestation of his art is a little riven by time, its granite face can still display a proud freckling of mica by my own sun. It is a force that surely resists many people, and though I’ve grown out of taking up a cause to rebuke those I’d label impoverished, I now extol to placate my own glowering, to teach myself the lesson of how, as I get older, much of his work only gets better.

I came to Antonioni just as his star began to rise again in 1994-95, ten years after the stroke that ended his speech, when he was given the Lifetime Achievement Academy Award at the prompting of Martin Scorsese. Beyond the Clouds, his first film since the stroke, had just been shot with Wim Wenders as co-director and would be released in the fall of 1995. It was a time of resurgent interest in cinema, with US film schools drawing many candidates after something vaguely independent occurred in the mid-late eighties and early nineties: Jim Jarmusch, the Coens, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh, topped off by Quentin Tarantino. Whatever the faults of the Clinton Presidency, at least the art of that period was interesting—more chances were being taken, even as violence came to be the dominant and delimiting idea, the strangling source material.

Like Henry James, Antonioni had always been attendant to emotional violence, especially the type that roosts deep under our integuments, waiting for the wrong remark or semblance to dynamite the levee around those insular cravings that would make one’s friends cringe—if given too much slack. His characters have an ardour, but it is lock-jawed and more defined by that word’s second, dubious, sense of “vehemence and fierceness.” During L’Avventura, while in Noto, a town full of Sicilian Baroque architectural wonders, Sandro, the tetchy and pompous architect, can’t help spilling ink on a young man’s drawing because of his jealousy of the former’s talent (he checks the representation against the real thing), his looks, his youth but, more importantly, because Sandro’s wish to see a church had been squelched just minutes before (and right before that, Claudia, the woman he is having an affair with, asked him to tell her that he loved her, which he didn’t). Upon returning to the hotel room following the encounter, he is disturbed and goes out on the porch to smoke; then chucks his cigarette onto the street before the camera violently whips back, so quickly there is a fast motion discernible as in sporting event photography. He is framed with the very grand architecture across the way quietly shaming his remedial efforts. 

He closes the shutters of the hotel room and comes close to raping Claudia—proving the truism that we take out on others what different people have done to us. 

In his Italian tetrology, Antonioni primarily tackled “love-sickness,” a term amplified in his Cannes statement at L’Avventura’s premiere: “Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy”. The English and American characters of his three late English-language films—Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger—wield a more vainglorious and primitive—that is, a more English and American—byproduct of love-sickness than their Italian counterparts in the four and Identification of a Woman. They exude an inability to be in their own skin, let alone love: after the orgy in Blow-Up, Thomas goes right back to his photographs with no endearments post-ejaculation, and The Passenger has Locke’s strangling death drive. Geography makes the man, and nowhere is this more evident than in Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, where one could argue that—ahead of Chung Kuo, Cina, his documentary on China—Antonioni actually documented London’s Swinging Sixties and the radicalisation of American political protests. Regarding the former, he said, “[a] character like Thomas doesn’t really exist in our country…He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s’ revolution in lifestyle, behaviour, and morality…it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy.” For the latter, just before shooting, he went to the infamously bloody 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, causing him to rewrite the screenplay, which would feed into the greatest and most expressionistic emotional violence in his work—Zabriskie Point’s repeated demolitions and explosions of the house and various consumer objects in the imagination of the earth child, Daria.

The most distinctive aspect of Antonioni’s cinema is how he positions his actors in the space of the frame and in confluence with earth and architecture, creating a certain force and communicating feelings that may elude most audiences—states that can’t be pressed into existence by any other means. There is a poesis to his cinema. As Andrei Tarkovsky wrote of the medium’s possibilities, “[film] possesses an inner power which is concentrated within the image and comes across to the audience in the form of feelings, inducing tension in direct response to the author’s narrative logic.” In Antonioni: The Poet of Images—the greatest book on the directorWilliam Arrowsmith calls this narrative style “astonishingly elliptical, but an ellipsis wholly characteristic of a director who fastidiously disdains traditional narrative realism, insistently demanding that the visuals, not the script, carry the essentials of the story. As in poetry, whose meaning often lies in the density of the unspoken thing…” Poetry also offers a good correlative to Antonioni’s preoccupation with appearances—mirrors and reflections in glass are frequent and dazzling, as well as time-shifts within the same shot, like in The Passenger, when Locke switches passport photos near the dead man while their first meeting, caught on tape recorder, plays again. Locke looks up from his work to the veranda and the camera meanders over, showing the continuance of that talk there: the two men standing together in the afternoon sun, creating a time-space gap that feeds into the void death has created.

But what is this “inner power…concentrated within the image?” One could be compelled to call it his mise-en-scène, though in Antonioni’s case there is some other element—the outgrowth of his philosophy and psychology, and his readings of the great thinkers and writers, are all over the frame. Fittingly, in “Dear Antonioni,” Roland Barthes speaks of how “…the artist, unlike the thinker, does not evolve; he scans, like a very sensitive instrument, the successive novelty which his own history presents him with,” with Antonioni being an “utopian whose perception is seeking to pinpoint the new world.” As P. Adams Sitney writes, the composition of his frame is his great legacy, noting how “particularly sensitive [Antonioni is] to the compositional power of vertical elements—the corners of buildings, door jambs, and so on—to isolate characters in the larger, horizontally extended form of the widescreen image.” 

These frames—often uncanny when seen in their motion picture movement—are like great Byzantine stone traceries passing before our eyes every few minutes, giving us the feeling we’re sitting not in the controlled air of the theatre, but in the gauge-controlled air of an art museum as various canvases of Vermeer, Caravaggio, Velázquez (and, of course, De Chirico), move past. Technically, these images are photographs, but in the mind’s eye they coagulate and sink into the viewer’s own, personal memory pools, no matter if they’re viewing on a record-thin computer screen or on the wide, gargantuan, silver one. They now dwell above board, feeding streams beyond their artificial light-infected lives, their iconography swarming, then possibly settling, into the highlands of recall after brief periods in the low countries.

The other ballast to Antonioni’s art is in the editing, the fracture made as one shot tests another. Sometimes the cut is deeply ground into the stone of the film; sometimes, it only takes a few grains of sandstone off, but the subduction and uplift, when one gets something seemingly incongruous to what has been given , is glorious. Nathan Dorsky describes an edit in La Notte where the shots are all of the main characters talking in the hospital with their sick friend. The friend’s mother enters the room but sits on the periphery. The talk continues, but the next shot is from behind the mother’s head as she watches. Dorsky notes this “has no particular symbolic meaning but allows us to see the hospital room and the interrelated presence of the characters unexpectedly from the the mother’s perspective.” 

Being so armed with this Antonionian bounty for twenty-five years, where has this magical panopticon led? The man commented on it himself fruitfully: 

Cinema is a mnemonic synthesis, which always presupposes in the memory of the viewer what is not present on the screen, or what happened before, as well as all of the possible developments of the present situation. That is why the best way to watch a film is to have it become a personal experience. At the moment in which we watch a film, we unconsciously evoke what is inside of us, our life, our joys and our pains, our thoughts—our “mental vision of the past and the present,” as Susan Sontag would say.

All those stone traceries of despondency, but also mystery and unresolvedness, are not wasted. They do not contribute to a low red-blood cell count, making me sallow, choosing to live in cooling darkness with shades drawn while others enjoy the heat of life in the big city of archetypal and mocking splendour. The movable stone traceries are parabolic, loaded with wisdom and ideation we will take more easily because it is indirect, visual (unbound by dialogue) and, seemingly, impersonal—unless we make it so. Take this shot from L’Eclisse. 

It is the penultimate shot of the film, and the last of the main character before the ending seven-and-a-half-minute montage of objects and strangers. It comes after showing what Victoria does instead of continue on the road to a lustful relationship. She leaves the man’s office and walks the street briefly, bumps into someone, and then looks in a shop window before turning around, her head tilting up to the large, dense trees on the other side of the street above a brick wall. Then, there is a low-angle shot of her so all the city is wiped out, except for its sound. No smile, but she’s taken refuge in something more abundant. The poetry of film but also, the poetry of streetsmarts. Sitney writes:

The proper viewing of a film requires the spectator to organize its disparate elements by intuiting the poetic linkages of its construction, guided by the fundamental metonymy of cinematic imagery. The tension raised by this activity releases feelings of pleasure in the recognition of the associated links.

Images like this are not for entertainment’s sake, they’re white-hot shards I cannot shake. They keep me seeing the world unassumingly but, in the light of Antonioni’s remarks, they are also a part of my history, a deeply private attic I more often than not don’t share, unless circumstance puts me in touch with some aesthete I recognise by the subtle flame wavering above her head. So potent is Antonioni that even though I haven’t been to Africa, I have been to his version of Africa in The Passenger, and to a far greater extent than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, as (with the exception of Brief Encounter) Lean didn’t make many films that coruscate one’s dark and desert places, where muddied and pained emotions threaten to sow too much tillage. Rather, Lean entertains and ennobles as the Edmund Hilary of cinema, an ethos that works for many but not for me and those I love, those I look up to. Triumph overcoming tragedy? For Antonioni, cinema itself is the arrival of and relishing in enigma. 

On a visual level, my viewpoint has strongly taken on the Antonionian mise-en-scène. We see with even greater depth of field than a film camera, though Antonioni often stretches his to its deep focus lengths. 

I move about the world with this scanning sense wholly cognizant of the Bresson nugget that “life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We’re unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause.” I explore the world so glazed, in this invisible armour. I never go searching for beauty but can arrive at it—per Antonioni’s manner of creating, his method:

My films are always works of research. I do not consider myself a director who has already mastered his profession, but one who is continuing his search and studying his contemporaries. I’m looking…for the traces of sentiment in men and of course in women, too, in a world where these traces have been buried to make way for sentiments of convenience and of appearance: a world where sentiments have been “public-relationized.”

Little things. The overarching ache of the world and its political corruption is always lessened for me by witnessing those slight accommodations, those mere adjustments when someone thinks of themselves second, or when people skirt the flatlining public order through grand displays of romance, joy or sadness—how else can we be human except by being what people don’t expect? So Antonioni aptly reflects the careworn world—there aren’t too many traces of sentiment, but here and there they pop out, often in the climaxes, as with Blow-Up, where Thomas begins to use his imagination to hear the pantomimed tennis rally, or in the aforesaid imaginative explosions in Zabriskie Point, which many people might not admit to wishing for. But often they are solemn finales, as the grasping one in L’Avventura, where Claudia comforts Sandro, even though he just cheated on her, and they stand and sit in perhaps the most willed stone tracery. 

Here Sitney believes, “the elegant composition contributes to the distancing effect which encourages us to ponder and analyze the affective gesture rather than empathize with it.” This is good advice for many scenes in Antonioni, because empathy, which might be an outgrowth of sentimentality—the rubric of Oscar bait—can be said to be a compote of the two. This is probably why Antonioni was and is still blasted as cold, something Sontag easily refuted years before when saying that “to call a work of art ‘cold’ means nothing more or less than to compare it (often unconsciously) to a work that is ‘hot.’ And not all art is—or could be—hot, any more than all persons have the same temperament.” Pondered otherwise, Antonioni’s method has a good deal of cross-over with something poetry critic Charles Williams wrote: “the chief impulse of the poet is not to communicate a thing to others, but to shape a thing, to make an immortality for its own sake.”

Films and art that tell people what to feel tend not to have a long shelf life. Like fairweather friends, they aren’t the sort of art that will speak to our multiplicity of moods and the stranger hours we keep. They are the quick fix, the entertainment after the repast or prior to coddled sleep; a pot of plastic flowers unspoiled because they hold no life, no vital breath. 

Yes, I took Antonioni into my life and he affected how I saw the world, but such a statement requires a well-hewed explanation—there is nothing in Antonioni’s nature that is toss-off, nor should there be for his acolytes. I was a virgin when I affixed to Antonioni and Bergman. The women who starred in many of their films—Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, and Monica Vitti—would come to form my ideal squeeze. Unconsciously then, I pursued women moulded from these cinematic representations; they would be austere, unbedecked with scent or makeup, terse, willowy, but not necessarily fair and hardly ever blonde; they would be troubled, with enough despair to keep us mainly focused on their issues, so I could recede and, beholden to the paranoia of my own desires, destroy our intimacy, retaliating against eddies I set in motion because I couldn’t know my own needs, only the morass of a self-preservationist pique. It’s easy to stomach what I couldn’t belly up to back then, but I had only begun finger-cutting the stone that makes one relationship-functional. Still, I held no tool to grout the layer of inevitable dysfunction, the carapace that indulges the fantasy of falling in love, which is simply a requisite chimera needed on the resumé before getting to know people who will have a much greater effect because of their ability to seem like nothing special. Because La Notte was next to impossible to come by in the nineties—everything fell squarely on Monica Vitti—and more for her roles in L’Avventura and L’Eclisse. Maria Schneider makes an interesting case for inclusion as well (and some of her blank looks in The Passenger are incomparable, never have I seen another actor look so natural in their silence). 

But Vitti, who would often remain sullen until a youthful playfulness appears like steam from a once-thought dormant volcano, is the driving force.

I was granted my perverse wish and hooked into the perfect foil, the ultimate Antonioni heroine, wrapping her birthday presents at the moment I found out he died. I knew I was deep in Antonioni country when she told me she would sometimes sit in a room and stare at a wall for hours. I watched her, as I viewed Vitti, and later Jeanne Moreau in La Notte (perhaps the most extreme of Antonioni’s women, and certainly the most assured and dour). I recorded this woman raise her arms in joy, as Vitti does when dancing in L’Aventura and L’Eclisse, or make a funny face unexpectedly, as she also does in each film. She also slumped and slouched in despair as many a heroine, walking into nature to touch trees, soil, and stone with child-like innocence and docility, though a minute later her face might be scarred by circumstance or memory. I didn’t recognise this transformation as part of the allure then. The whiplash emotions often tormenting Vitti or Moreau were too close to our holt, with my lady’s emotional states passing us in frenzied ellipses; and from one crest to pit, I didn’t know whether to don pity or pride, whether to live vicariously or thank god it wasn’t me when, on many levels, it was. Did I love her or the unconscious Antonionian swerves inside her, the way she squirreled through the world? Any answer will poison the surface tension in the other possibility. As critic Sam Rohdie writes, “[t]he films pose a subject (only to compromise it), constitute objects (only to dissolve them), propose stories (only to lose them) but, equally, they turn those compromises and losses back towards another solidity: […] a wandering away from narrative to the surface into which it was dissolved, but in such a way that the surface takes on fascination, becomes a ‘subject’ of its own.” This diagnosis seems to be a perfect evocation of love in all its splendorous and dour crenellations, in its eternal vulnerability. And if “love’s not love that’s not vulnerable,” I was surely ready to give my life to star in our own L’Eclisse

Our twelve seasons are well-established in my memory loop, as is the city of our imprimatur and destruction, Buffalo—all contained in a quasi-Antonionian-grade B-movie, because of the lonely unpeopled arcades and the barren, dismal, rotting buildings of that dying Rust Belt city I had to convince myself to endure until I’d been forgotten by what had loved me. Up and down those lonesome streets, we frequently cavorted and then snapped into diffidence, feeding and starving our own love-sickness—something cold-blooded but vital, “as the motion of a snake’s body goes through all parts at once, and its violation acts at the same instant in coils that go contrary ways,” per John Ruskin. The few locals who watched our charade displayed faces wrought perplexed in the extreme, as if they were shown Antonioni when they asked for Spielberg. I could now play the controlling, constipated, egotistical elder Italian, full of braggadocio, bringing up the words of Robert Musil: “The tenderer feelings of male passion are something like the snarling of a jaguar over fresh meat—he doesn’t like to be disturbed.” But to reference the other towering novelist of the early 20th Century who isn’t Irish, the typical Antonioni male, bent on satisfaction, is also working at cross-purposes, channelling the congeries he calls feelings, as Proust describes Swann:   

…he was like a man into whose life a woman he has glimpsed for only a moment as she passed by has introduced the image of a new sort of a beauty that increases the value of his own sensibility, without his even knowing if he will ever see this woman again whom he loves already and of whom he knows nothing, not even her name.

This happens to some Antonioni male in every film from Il Grido to Beyond the Clouds. I knew my lines, or the movement I needed to make, to fit in. Perhaps one shouldn’t let art even barely dictate one’s love life because, with the precision of an expert forger, we nearly duplicated that exquisitely shot twelve-minute breakup scene at the beginning of L’Eclisse—with every excruciating movement and each sentence being accompanied by many minutes of silence before someone had the temerity to utter a response. 

This sequence regurgitates many of my break-ups—those silences, moving from one piece of furniture to the other, whilst appearing stunned and, seemingly seeing but not, exemplified by the boyfriend sitting frozen in the chair.

It may be an homage to Francis Bacon’s screaming Popes, but the emotion is all interior, land-locked and ironclad—the shattering of something inside that can’t move while docking in a new world of great pain. If life imitates art, it inevitably mimics the white space and noise art avoids in order to be interlocking, not phlegmatic. There is no self-help in art—it doesn’t give answers, but dramatises the questions as it prescribes them, framing their parables in ogives and fleurs-de-lis to appeal no matter their base rebuke within our ruck. I had an inkling of this ten years ago, but I couldn’t pull myself free of our latter-day reenactment to find the right measure so as not to land us in a bedevilled conceit. And maybe I should have been thankful for how we could so aptly embody the love-sickness, tracing and colouring it in with vivid and unsentimental lustre. Maybe we should have just been grateful to be alive.

And so the years pass like a flutter of calendar pages in a Golden Age Hollywood film. The year is 2019 and Antonioni’s reputation is half in the ditch. Ingmar Bergman said Antonioni gave us two masterpieces, La Notte and Blow-Up—he didn’t like Monica Vitti’s acting. For me, the most compelling and eerie shots in Blow-Up come when Thomas walks into the park at night and the next day to find the dead body. The first time, the camera tilts up to the glaring sign, that may be lettering but is indecipherable, as he passes out of the frame. 

He then returns in the morning to find no body, and when he stands up after kneeling on the ground where it once was, there again is the sign in the background, still lit, though a few seconds later, it goes out, after which he turns to look at it.

But what proceeded this? After finding the body at night, he goes to a Yardbird’s concert and races to take the head stock of the guitar from the one Jeff Beck smashes. Everyone else wants it, but he runs away. Yet, when he is safely on the street, he tosses it away like a piece of junk. More than a few times over the years I have pondered the import of this because what we value tells a great deal about how we live. Things, objects and emotions (approval) are so important to us, even if fleeting, though once we’ve secured them, they deflate in interest. I dwelt on the odyssey of events that night, how Thomas thinks he needs a friend to go see the body with him, saying, “We’ve got to get a shot of it,” to which the friend replies, “I’m not a photographer.” “I am,” Thomas answers, but he doesn’t go that night, and when he finally does, it’s gone. I believe this is the greatest mystery film in the history of cinema because Thomas keeps returning to the park and every time, it changes, but not in a surreal way: there are no special effects, no Lynchian jittering of camera or itchy-bewitching sound, no moldywarps coming out of the ground to rescue people. Yes, Thomas does dissolve into the green grass at the end, but that is an afterthought. He has failed, but the crowd is there, carrying on, and soon, he is touched by their act and uses his imagination to give sound to the pantomimed tennis game. It is the easiest lesson to state, the hardest to live—“open your eyes and see what is before your face,” Jesus instructs in the Gospel of Thomas. Go with vitality, live all you can—the admonishments as clichés are paltry, but in Antonioni, the image is all:

Greg Gerke is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, were both published by Splice in the Autumn of 2019.

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