MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI ARCHIVE
ESSAYS/CRITICS
ANTONIONI
by Prof. Sam Rohdie

The presentation by the Hong Kong Arts Centre of a complete retrospective of the films Michelangelo Antonioni is a major cultural event. Antonioni is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century.

It is difficult to put into words films composed principally of images, of colour, of movement, of shape, of design more than they are of story, character and event. The visual, and in the case of Antonioni's films a visual which is beautiful and fine, elegant and exquisite, can only be approximated in words. His images ore constantly shifting. Objects disappear and recompose, lines, structures, colours, tones shimmer and alter. Nothing is fixed in an Antonioni image, nothing secure, nothing clear, at least not for very long. His vision touches things like a caress, glances by them, sensitive to changes in light and shape, and to changes brought about by the act of looking itself. How can you seize hold of such impermanence? How do you grasp and reduce what is unfixed, tentative, fleeting?

The sense of impermanence in his films includes both what is seen and what takes place. Love affairs evaporate, disappear like figures losing outline in a mist. Quests become diverted, forgotten. In L'Avventura, for example, Anna's friends search for her on the island from which she has mysteriously disappeared. But they become interested in other things. She is less forgotten, perhaps, than displaced by the mystery of the island, the composition of horizon and sea, the compulsive beauty of the rocks and the waves. Searching for one thing, they find another. Not only have the characters encountered other things in losing Anna, but the film has also encountered other interests.

Anna is doubly lost to view, in fact and in feelings. Her lover finds a new woman, Anna's best friend, who wears Anna's clothes, almost becomes her. That love will also fade. The insecurity of relations and of things fundamentally is an insecurity of identity and of all the certainties on which identity depends.

The history of the cinema has been largely a history of narrative cinema, of films which tell stories, with characters and plots and emotions which make your heart beat or your body quiver, which take place in an imagery world made to appear as if were real. The images in these films, however startling they may be, are, like the music in them, subordinate to story, to action, to character. Such films provide a security of plot, a security of realistic illusion, an action which can be followed, emotions which can be shared, characters to identify with. Antonioni's films are not like this.

His characters inhabit a world they do not fully understand. Their world is unstable, like their relations They become less characters who act, than characters who watch. The films turn away from action towards contemplation.

His characters do not act the like heroes do, hut regard it, like artists do, The regard does not result in anything as certain as understanding or resolution. The illusion of the narrative cinema has been tied to the certainties it provides through story and emotional resolutions, through final endings. Ultimately, it stabilises and fixes, as if it were taking possession of the world, as if it were possible. The fact that these procedures do not happen in Antonioni's films may mean that the audience is denied the pleasure which narrative illusions and sureties can sometimes give. But the insecurity, the shifting, the lack of identity, the objective-subjective mystery of looking provides another, richer pleasure.

Antonioni's object is not to make the audience insecure, still less to express philosophical and existential banalities. He is not a philosopher, nor a theorist nor a social reformer. He is a filmmaker. He does not construct messages. He makes films. The films are instruments for letting significance proliferate, rather than securing it in some definite and comforting place.

What the instabilities in his films yield are possibilities The fact that images dissolve allow you to watch the mystery and beauty of their dissolution, and also the new images which displace them and which in turn dissolve. The fact that relations in his films are tenuous, that feelings are obscure, allow for new feelings, new relations, a plurality of stories and possibilities not only in the film, but within the audience. Fundamentally, by unfixing and destabilising the world in his films and unfixing and destabilising a secure position for an audience, the films create an area of possibility which is almost infinite, which multiplies and expands. His films open up to things. They are machines of curiosity and experiment. Literally, they create.

Antonioni was horn in 1912. He grew up under Italian fascism. He made his first films after the Second War. He belongs to a film generation in Italy which include the great masters of world cinema: De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini, Rossellini, Visconti. Except for Antonioni these filmmakers have now all died. The Italy of 1945 was predominantly rural, backward, poor, devastated by war, trying to come to terms with 20 years of fascism, At the end of the War there was hope for cultural and political renewal, a promise that Italy would emerge as truly democratic and prosperous, with a democracy not simply liberal and legalistic, but socialist and just. These hopes were not realised. Italy did prosper, hut the coming of prosperity seemed to have shaken rather than reestablished the humanist and social values that had been hoped for. What began to prevail after 1945 were the values of the market: consumerism not civility, economic. development not social justice.

In the films of the greats of the post-war Italian cinema there is a tinge of regret and a turning away from the modern world toward myth, toward the past, toward make believe and the subjective. Antonioni alone among these Italian filmmakers accepted what was in the contemporary world without taking a particular view of it. While Fellini and Pasolini decried television and the vulgarity of modern culture and Visconti recreated and transposed the nineteenth century operatic melodrama to the screen, contemporary culture made Antonioni curious. He wanted to know what possibilities it offered rather than regretting the possibilities it may have closed down. It was an artistic engagement at the level of film making and of images. In his Il Deserto Rosso, out of the wasteland of industrial Ravenna, rather than from the beauties of byzantine Ravenna, Antonioni created mosaics of colour and shape and patterns of emotions equal in grandeur to the grandeur cathedrals of Ravenna. Il Deserto Rosso, is one of the most beautiful colour films ever made.

In Il Mistero di Oberwald, he brought together film and television. He explored the possibilities of altering colour and shape offered by television technology for the cinema which has never been equalled. There has always been this experimental sensibility in Antonioni's films, an opening to the new, to the possible, to the not-yet.

Antonioni made a film in China during the Cultural Revolution in 1972, Chung Kuo Cina. He had been invited to make the film by the Chinese authorities. The film is nearly four hours long and was made for Italian State Television (Rai). The Chinese authorities hated the film. Antonioni was vilified. A propaganda campaign was lunched against him and his film. One billion Chinese were asked to denounce a film they had not seen and a man they had never heard of.

The film is beautiful. The Chinese authorities wanted a film which glorified the Revolution, a film full of certainties. Antonioni gave them instead a film of immense affection, care, and attention, but one as a result at odds with the official, the sure, the conventional, and the false. In doing so, the film suggested a politics of art based on openness, on looking, on wondering, on respect for the specific, the particular, the individual. It was a journey in search of what was hidden and interior in China, not its political public face, but its human one.

Such a film was not bearable to those in power,

It will he an immense pleasure to be able to view again these wonderful Antonioni's films.


The Hong Kong Arts Centre


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