Michelangelo Antonioni: Man vs. Manmade

“I have never drawn, even as a child, either puppets or silhouettes but rather facades of houses and gates. One of my favourite games consisted of organising towns. Ignorant in architecture, I constructed buildings and streets crammed with little figures. I invented stories for them. These childhood happenings – I was eleven years old – were like little films.” – Michelangelo Antonioni

The 4th anniversary of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s death was a few days ago on July 30th. If you have followed my posts, it may be clear by now that I am in love with Antonioni’s work, especially the “trilogy” of the early 60s (L’avventura, La Notte, L’eclisse). These black and white films were incredibly dark, isolated, rich and yet lost, just like the characters inhabiting them. There is a haunting kind of romanticism about all three.

The above quote by Antonioni himself describes perfectly an essential running theme in all of his films: his unique emphasis on architecture, portrayed as always overpowering the people. The director made a point to frame the characters with huge, modern buildings looming over them – maybe menacingly, maybe without any intention whatsoever.

It was meant to illustrate how lost and vulnerable the characters were – man vs. manmade. At some point, each of them appears dwarfed by large structures that are often not beautiful nor remarkable, but overwhelmingly immense and stable. These composed shots reveal the dreadful truth about humans, how small and fluttering we are.

Celebrating Bertolucci

I think that I used to love Hollywood movies. I remember great phases and moments. But, unfortunately, now is not the moment.

Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci turns 70 today, with 45+ years of masterful contributions to cinema. As the above quote suggests, Bertolucci has spent his career fighting Hollywood cliches and hackneyed plots. He strongly resists any kind of censorship, and he refuses to play it safe. This is what makes Bertolucci worth studying in film classes, worth admiring above the rest.

One of the visually stunning shots in "The Conformist" (1970)

My two favorite films of his are The Conformist (1970) and The Dreamers (2003) – both films that are simultaneously unnerving and magnificent. The former is a political drama revolving around Fascism, and the latter is an art film about sexual and political revolution of youth in Paris, 1968.

Still from "The Dreamers" (2003), in a scene referencing French New Wave film "Band of Outsiders" (1964, Godard)

Though very sexually graphic and at times disturbing, The Dreamers is especially amazing to watch given its numerous references to famous art films before and of the time of the 1960s. (Credit is of course also due to Gilbert Adair, writer of the novel the movie was based on and the screenplay itself.)

All great filmmakers remain film students throughout their entire careers. They never stop learning, and they move forward while looking back. Bertolucci is a prime example of a filmmaker who has never ceased to be a student of film, and because of his adoration for the craft, he is among the most adored.

‘Who Wrote That?’ A Writer’s Reminder in Antonioni’s ‘La Notte’

I first saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s film La Notte my senior year of high school, at an Italian restaurant in Dallas. They were playing it on mute on two small TVs at the bar, but with the subtitles on. Acting as a sort of last addition of a “trilogy” (following L’avventura and L’eclisse), La Notte is about a middle-aged married couple – Giovanni, a successful writer, and his wife, Lidia – who go to visit their dying friend. Along this journey, they simultaneously try to escape and mend their bored, broken marriage. The final scene is what stands out most in my memory, what really caught my attention. After a night of partying and flirting with other people, Giovanni and Lidia take a walk. They struggle to come to terms with the state of their relationship and how they feel for one another. Lidia takes out an old love letter from her purse and reads it aloud:

“When I awoke this morning, you were still asleep. As I awoke I heard your gentle breathing. I saw your closed eyes beneath wisps of stray hair and I was deeply moved. I wanted to cry out, to wake you, but you slept so deeply, so soundly. In the half light your skin glowed with life so warm and sweet. I wanted to kiss it, but I was afraid to wake you. I was afraid of you awake in my arms again. Instead, I wanted something no one could take from me, mine alone…this eternal image of you. Beyond your face I saw a pure, beautiful vision showing us in the perspective of my whole life…all the years to come, even all the years past. That was the most miraculous thing: to feel for the first time that you had always been mine, that this night would go on forever, united with your warmth, your thought, your will. At that moment I realized how much I loved you, Lidia. I wept with the intensity of the emotion, for I felt that this must never end, we would remain like this forever, not only close, but belonging to each other in a way that nothing ever destroy, except the apathy of habit, the only threat. Then you wakened and, smiling you put your arms around me, kissed me, and I felt there was nothing to fear. We would always be as we were at that moment, bound by stronger ties than time and habit.”

Giovanni sits and listens thoughtfully, and when she finishes reading, he asks: “Who wrote that?” She replies after a moment, “You did.”

I think about this scene whenever I’m having a particularly long period of writer’s block or self-doubt. Giovanni did not remember writing such a poetically beautiful and heartfelt letter to Lidia, nor did he remember that he had ever loved her in such a way. When he asks, “Who wrote that?”, to me it symbolizes both a man who’s lost his way in his marriage, as well as a writer who’s lost his passion. But Lidia read the letter aloud and reminded him. And like Giovanni, I am reminded of deep-rooted sentiments and the capabilities of a past self, and I start to believe that maybe this lapse was only temporary, that it can all be restored once again.

Retrospective Admiration for Monica Vitti

It’s not hard to become fascinated with actresses in older, black-and-white films – especially when you’re viewing them for the first time in your college years decades later. There’s something about the mystique of this glamor of the not-so-ancient past: the cigarette smoking before it was publicly deemed life-threatening; the delicate implication of sex instead of, well, what we have now; the classic but on-the-brink-of-modern flirtatiousness; the early 60s. Some glamorize Jean Seberg. For me, it’s Monica Vitti.

The late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni really knew what he was doing by casting the uniquely captivating Italian actress in all three of his “trilogy” films (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).  I say “uniquely captivating” because – aside from the tousled blonde sex hair and the big, pensive eyes – you can’t exactly place your finger on what else draws you to Vitti, though you know it’s a culmination of things.

Vitti in 'L'Avventura'

In Antonioni’s films, she often plays the role of “the lost woman,” in a state of limbo in romance and in life. And she plays it well. Though the audience knows she is unsure and she admits it herself at times, she always somehow retains a sense of self-assurance, striking in its tenacity. While her roles in Antonioni’s films often require copious amounts of staring off deep in thought, Vitti accomplishes this by refusing to bore the audience. Simply put: You just can’t stop looking at her. Beauty helps, I’m sure. But I like to think it’s more of what she can produce with her eyes alone. It’s a look of profoundness masked with boredom.

Overall, she is effortless – walking or running in strappy heels, leading on a suitor, or putting on an outrageous show. There’s a scene in L’Eclisse that happens to be one of my favorite examples of Monica Vitti as an actor. Though – I must warn – this clip is drenched in racism, it’s one of the rare opportunities where we get to see Vitti break out of her more somber role. Vitti’s character, Vittoria, is over at a friend’s apartment – a white woman with a family-owned plantation in Kenya who also expresses blatant notions of racism towards Africans. In this scene, Vittoria and another friend put on a crudely offensive show and dance, mocking the Kenyan women who appear in numerous photos around the friend’s apartment.

I’ve always believed that this scene is meant to caricaturize the white Kenyan’s unabashed racism (and presumably the more suppressed racism of the other two), while also pointing to the desperately sad states of these bored, well-off Italian women cut off from the reality of the rest of the world. And here, Vitti is the obvious “star” – the ultimate vessel of upper-class boredom and yet provocative introspection.

While Monica Vitti is 78 years old now, she feels indefinitely suspended in the first few years of the 60s – placed in an Antonioni black-and-white film, playing the beautiful and charismatic “lost” woman with the intense, preoccupied eyes.