Why Antonioni Is Not Boring

Okay. Call me pretentious or whatever. But I adore the work of the late Michelangelo Antonioni.

In fact, I'd even consider him in my top 10 of favorite directors.

Once upon a time Antonioni had the distinction of being "hip". Unfortunately this was circa 1965. Whatever critical and cultural appreciation he'd had dried up after the debacle of Zabriskie Point, and he was never able to hold the esteem of either faction afterwards.

On the surface level, the man made pretty damn boring movies. They are the stereotypical art films in which "nothing ever happens". L'avventura begins with a conceit about a missing woman on an isolated island, and then completely forgets both the woman and the plotline. Blowup is 24 hours in one dude's life, and not a particularly likable dude at that.

This is the man who ended The Passenger with a seven-minute long take that's almost entirely camera movement and nearly devoid of action.

So why the love? Why bother with films so lacking of all the hallmarks of tradition Hollywood: narrative, identifiable characters, predigested thematic material...

Because these boring movies are damn interesting to watch. With the right mindset.

I could praise the compositional virtuosity of Paul Thomas Anderson or Spielberg, but they pale in comparison to the control Antonioni exerts on his mise-en-scene.

Every shot is so graphically stellar, so appropriate for the scenario. You've entered a universe where men and women are lost in the world that surrounds them, where the emotions exuded by a lamp post or the color of a building are as important as the words the characters speak.

You never doubt that Antonioni characters are real people. Sure, most are extremely disaffected and many of them are quite banal. But when you watch them, you never get the sense that they're acting this way "for the movie". They just... are that way. Being able to transcend that inherent falsehood of performance is a feat for any director, regardless of style.

Of course, having actors as talented as Monica Vitti and Jack Nicholson helps.

And what about that absence of (traditional) narrative? Is not Blowup a journey? David Hemmings' exploration of Swinging London reveals less about the sociopolitical geography than it does his own mind: searching for satisfaction, try to make meaning about of noise... Whether he succeeds or not is up for debate-- there's always that frustrating ambiguity.

But isn't it beautiful to look at it. The trees in the wind, the exciting/frightening club, the mimes and their tennis...

For a director so "intellectual", it's startling how many moments in an Antonioni movie are just plain pretty. Grabbing you like a portrait in art gallery. No explanation why, although I'm sure you can intellectualize something.

What is the point of the magical flagpole scene in L'Eclisse? I don't think there is one, other than some phony structuralist rendering of Lacanian blah. Why as humans do we bother assigning a meaning to something so fleeting, so vapid?

Perhaps the answer is in Bill's explanation of painting in Blow Up. He paints abstract expressionist works, and he doesn't understand why he creates the way he does. But afterwards:

"I find something to hang on to."

These films are about the "hangings on" in the world-- their beauty, their mystery, and how we deal with them.

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