The Critics and Antonioni

Max Goldberg March 29, 2007

Fifty years after Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Il Grido” splashed at the premier San Francisco International Film Festival, the Bay Area again plays host to the maestro’s moody chronicles of bourgeoisie malcontent through April with a major retrospective at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive and San Francisco’s own Castro Theatre. The despairing classics which first vaulted Antonioni into the international spotlight (“L’Avventura,” “L’Eclisse,” “La Notte”) are all here of course, as are his more contested late-‘60s freak-outs (“Blow-Up,” “Zabriskie Point”) and lesser known later work (“Identification of a Woman,” “Beyond the Clouds,” “Chung Kuo China”). And whether one loves or loathes the director’s style, I imagine we can all agree that Antonioni’s work demands the big screen, his widescreen ennui specifically composed to stretch across and reverberate through the colossally lonely cinema space.

Whether one loves or loathes the director’s style. It’s difficult to avoid these kinds of stipulations discussing Antonioni. The director certainly isn’t lonely as a contested ’60s deities, but with Antonioni, it never seemed as much about dialog as partisanship (Stanley Kubrick would take up a similar post a few years later). His prime work induced summersaults from both admirers and detractors; the fewer the lines of dialog in the film, the more the critics had to say. It’s startling how much good writing came from these films; one can remain incredulous of Antonioni’s vision without necessarily doubting that he was good for film culture. As the PFA program notes make clear, the maestro’s great modernist themes of alienation and disaffection are still very much with us, but what’s most striking to this young filmgoers is the fervor which surrounded the films, the extent to which they rode a cultural zeitgeist and became the kind of artworks recognized and fought over in popular culture. By way of contrast, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s recent “Climates” tread Antonioni-esque ground with a worthy muted style, and it quietly slipped away from Bay Area theatres a couple of weeks ago.

So, the big screen is a must, but to fully appreciate Antonioni’s legacy one must spend some time in his wake, riding the swells of an engaged critical discourse. Here one sees the early critics struggling to define (and celebrate) Antonioni in terms of what his films are not, and then the inevitable backlash (capped by a hyper-lucid Manny Farber passage in which the critic laces Antonioni’s own “white elephant art”). Decades later, critics like Stephen Holden and Phillip Lopate chase after Antonioni with reflection rather than polemic — whatever the angle, it’s clear that with these films, there’s still plenty to talk about.

Sam Rohdie
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 it 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.

Roger Ebert
…And she is never seen again. If ‘L’Avventura’ were a conventional movie, you would furious with me for revealing this information, because you would assume the movie was about the search for Anna. It is not. It is about the sense in which all of the characters are on the brink of disappearance; their lives are so unreal and their relationships so tenuous they can barely be said to exist. They are like bookmarks in life: holding places, but not involved in the story…‘L’Avventura’ becomes a place in our imagination — a melancholy moral desert.
Chicago Sun Times

Pauline Kael
The characters are active only in trying to discharge their anxiety: sex is their sole means of contact. Too shallow to be truly lonely, they are people trying to escape their boredom by reaching out to one another and finding only boredom once again. Because the film is subtle and ascetic, yet laborious about revealing its meanings, it suggests Henry James when he ‘chewed more than he bit off.’ Visually, it’s extraordinary: a calm hangs over everything — Antonioni’s space is a vacuum in which people are aimlessly moving. Searchers and lost are all the same: disparate, without goals or joy. This is upper-class neo-realism — the poetry of moral and spiritual poverty. There had been nothing like it before, and it isn’t fair to blame this movie for all the elegant sleepwalking that followed. There’s something great here — a new mood, a new emotional rhythm — even with all the affectation.
republished in I Lost It at the Movies

Andrew O’Hehir
In the case of ‘L’Avventura’ (1960) or ‘Red Desert’ (1964) stylishness really is all there is, and those movies left an impact, first and foremost, on the world of fashion photography.

J. Hoberman
During the decade between ‘L’Avventura’ (1960) and ‘Zabriskie Point’ (1970), his name was the equivalent of a chic designer label or a certain soign