Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni
was not a wunderkind like Orson Welles, Francois Truffaut or
Terrence Malick, whose first films were instant classics.
Although he began making short films in the early 1940s, it wasn’t until his fifth feature, "L’Avventura" (1960), that Antonioni began making his cinematic mark.
"The Vision that Changed Cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni," BAMcinematek’s career-spanning retrospective (June 7-29), is essential viewing. Here is a director whose major themes and style are unusual, even unique: Antonioni ceaselessly explored how human interaction in the 20th century degenerated into isolation through a trademark visual technique that pitted his characters against imposing landscapes that accentuated their futile struggles against abandonment and loneliness.
Antonioni made some of the greatest films of the post-war era, starting with his so-called "isolation" trilogy of "L’Avventura," "La Notte" and "L’Eclisse." He also directed several fascinating experimental features, innovative shorts and documentaries, many of which will be shown during the BAM series, along with additional features about the director and his continuing cinematic influence.
Born in 1912, Antonioni began writing for film journals in the 1930s and began shooting short films in the ’40s. His initial features - "Chronicle of a Love" (1950), "The Vanquished" (1952), "The Lady without Camillas" (1953), "The Girlfriends" (1955), "Il Grido" (1956) - introduced a director who was forging a new style to go beyond then-prevalent neo-realism in presenting characters trying to make sense of their increasingly hermetic, mechanized environment.
It was the premiere of "L’Avventura" at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival that brought Antonioni worldwide recognition. Ostensibly about the search for a woman who goes missing while on a yachting trip, the film actually develops into how her disappearance affects both her husband and best friend. Utilizing the rocky Mediterranean island landscapes to shattering effect, Antonioni made initial audiences uneasy, unaccustomed as they were to films that don’t tie everything into neat little bows and introduce characters whom one doesn’t empathize with.
Antonioni followed "L’Avventura" with "La Notte" (1961) and "L’Eclisse" (1962), exquisitely wrought studies of ennui among European bourgeoisie. The final sequence of "L’Eclisse" has entered film legend as a purely (and poetically) visual evocation of the emptiness left behind when relationships go awry.
After his trilogy, Antonioni continued his restless experimentation. "Red Desert" (1964) saw him painting grass the right shade of green, for example, to emphasize the color scheme he envisioned for his startlingly visualized exploration of a woman’s neuroses. The result (Antonioni’s first color picture) is among the most ravishing-looking films ever made.
"Blow Up" (1966), Antonioni’s first English-language picture, was as surprising as "L’Avventura." It begins as a murder mystery: a photographer may have inadvertently caught a murder in progress. The crime is never solved, but Antonioni is more interested in juxtaposing his characters with the swinging mod scene of mid-’60s London, which is brilliantly evoked.
Antonioni came to America to direct "Zabriskie Point" (1969), a moody time-capsule piece about two restless hippies’ fatal trek through the Southwest desert. Whatever its other merits, "Zabriskie Point" was notable for its trend-setting use of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic music and a remarkable Death Valley sex scene.
Antonioni returned to the desert - an obvious metaphor for his themes of human loneliness and isolation - for 1975’s "The Passenger," another introspective study: Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, who, upon stealing a dead journalist’s identity, is caught up in events beyond his control. Like "L’Eclisse," "The Passenger" culminates with an astonishing sequence, a circular panning shot showing Locke’s ultimate fate and others’ reactions to this discovery.
Antonioni’s later films include "The Mystery of Oberwald" (1980), a color-coded shot-on-video remake of Jean Cocteau’s play "The Eagle with Two Heads"; 1995’s "Beyond the Clouds," co-directed with Wim Wenders following Antonioni’s stroke; and the short "The Dangerous Thread of Things," Antonioni’s contribution to the 2004 omnibus film "Eros."
The least-seen and underappreciated of these works is 1982’s "Identification of a Woman," another exploration of isolated characters with a series of bravura sequences, including a soft-core sex scene that makes explicit the eroticism that’s always been present in Antonioni’s work.
There are two big stories in this BAMcinematek series. First, many of these films are being shown in brand new prints, which should make every feature, but especially the color films like "Red Desert," look positively amazing.
Second, there will be a screening of Antonioni’s legendary four-hour documentary which he made while on an authorized visit to China in the early 1970s. "Chung Kuo Cina" (1972) was promptly derided and banned by Chinese authorities, because they didn’t get the valentine they assumed they’d receive.
It’s obvious they had never seen any movies by Michelangelo Antonioni.
"The Vision that Changed Cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni" plays June 7-29 at BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene). Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students and seniors. For a complete film schedule, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site, www.bam.org.