Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni R.I.P.

I was going to eulogise Laszlo Kovacs, Michel Serrault, and Tom Snyder today, but it seems that yesterday the world lost not one, but two legendary directors. One was Ingmar Bergman. The other was Michelangelo Antonioni, the man who directed such classics as Blowup and L'Avventura. He died yesterday at age 94 in Rome.

Like Bergman, Antonioni had an enormous impact on film. He was best known for his manipulation of film narrative. The perfect example of this is his masterpiece Blowup. Unlike most movies then and now, Blowup is not the least bit linear in structure. Events in the film may, on the surface, seem unrelated. And the film lacks anything in the way of a conventional ending. Antionioni was also a master of the camera, and he used it in ways previous directors probably never considered. Indeed, Antonioni often depended more on imagery than dialogue to communicate what he meant. And even then, what the viewer saw was often open to interpretation. That Antonioni's narratives were always non-traditional and that he used the camera in such a way as to allow the viewer to come to his own conclusions about what he seeing should come as no surprise. His films centred around alienation, isolation, and incompleteness, so his use of narrative and camera work suited his films perfectly. He was quite possibly the first modernist director.

Michelangelo Antonioni was born in Ferrara, Italy on September 29, 1912. He attended the University of Bologna where he majored in business and economics. After graduation he worked at a bank for a time before becoming a film critic for the newspaper Il Corriere Padano in Ferrara. He worked there for five years before getting hired for the official Fascist film magazine Cinema. Not surprisingly, he was fired after only a few months. Antonioni then enrolled in the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia where he studied film. By 1942 he wrote his first screenplay, Un Pilota ritorna (The Pilot Returns), directed by Roberto Rossellini. In 1943 he directed his first film, a documentary short entitled Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley). For the next several years Antonioni was both a screen writer and a maker of often neo-realist documentary shorts.

Despite having worked for years in documentary film making, Antonioni's first feature film, Cronaca di un amore (Chronicle of Love), was a middle class crime drama dealing with alienation. By 1955 Antonioni was getting attention for his films. His movie Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It was in 1960 that the film which would make him a legend was released. L'Avventura, blend of crime drama, mystery, and romance, took the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival. For the next several years Antonioni would do some of his best work: La Notte (a rather dark drama) in 1961, L'Eclisse (a rather tragic love story) in 1962), Il Deserto Rosso in 1964, and Blowup in 1966. Arguably, it was Blowup that was his masterpiece. The film won the Palm d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a slough of other awards. The film focused on a photographer in Swinging London who, among other things, believes his photographed a murder after developing some negatives. Beyond being the best expression of Antonioni's modernism and neo-realism, it may well have captured Swinging London better than any other filmmaker, even those born in Britain.

Antonioni never matched Blowup, although he came close in 1982 with Professione: reporter (better known as The Passenger in the English speaking world). Like Blowup, The Passenger was not one single thing--it was a drama, a mystery, a thriller, and a road movie all rolled into one. Sadly, Antonioni would only make two more feature films: Identificazione di una donna in 1982 and Al di la delle nuvole (co-directed with Wim Wenders) in 1995. Antonioni returned to directing documentary shorts, as he had done in the beginning. His last work was a segment of the anthology film Eros in 2004.

Antonioni was a director whose work was hated nearly as often as it was loved. The fact that most of his films focused on alienation and isolation, that his narratives often lacked a traditional ending, his spare yet masterful use of the camera, may have made him an acquired taste for many. Regardless, Antonioni would have a huge impact on art films, particularly in the wake of Blowup (indeed, there was a point in the late Sixties when every art film seemed to look like Blowup. He would also have a huge impact on modern Italian cinema, surpassed only by Fellini. Antonioni would have a powerful influence on young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mike Nichols, and Quention Tarentino. A man who defined film isolation and angst in the Sixties, he was a true pioneer.

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