The Director of the Moment
It's an appropriate image, don't you think?
Not that he was any more at home in the treacherous expanse of Death Valley than Erich von Stroheim had been forty-five years earlier. Nor would I say that he emerged from that red-gold desert with a film anyone would call a triumph in the art of the motion picture (it was, in fact, the worst of his films; though not without its moments). No, I merely make this observation to point out that Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away last week at the age of 94, could find more in empty spaces and relative silences than any filmmaker in history. "I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible." he once said, "I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."
It was Antonioni's limning of that social context, his greater or lesser understanding of it, that enabled these realizations, gave them breath. Unlike Federico Fellini, the director he was so often and so foolishly pitted against by movie reviewers in the early 1960s, Antonioni had little interest in cramming his frames to their edges with human bric-a-brac (beauties, grotesques, endless, endless talkers) and a filming style unhinged yet, at its core, severely disciplined. He instead stripped the universe his narratives dwelled in of everything they (and, by extension, we) didn't need, making all he left in that much more stark and forbidding. With its awful history and abundant life-force, Italy is a country whose arts were never easily dispassionate, and no medium practiced there was ever more manic than its cinema (it's the one crucial, unbreakable link between that country's commercial filmmaking and its so-called Art cinema), yet Antonioni's work, at first glance, seemed oddly cold-blooded in comparison with . . . just about everyone's. But that was only their surface. His films were, in fact, intensely dramatic at their best, though totally bereft of the thousand manipulations of melodrama; and they could be excruciating in the utter persistence with which the background, as he put it, of his characters made itself known to us.
Michelangelo Antonioni was, if nothing else, a director of moments. This is not to say that he excelled at individual sequences at the expense of the whole, or even that he had an abiding gift for dramatic, carefully constructed epiphanies. His unique gift, his genius (to use a word pressed into backbreaking service this week) lay in depicting with immense precision the most agonizing hours of inner torment, documenting on film that which cannot be documented so directly: The moment when an artist begins to know the limits of art; the moment when a marriage can no longer go on; the moment when a man's inanition of will finally reduces every personal illusion to dust; the moment when a revolutionary impulse dies; the moment when loss becomes irretrievable. It was something no other filmmaker, then or now, was capable of. It was literally like photographing heartbreak.
In New York magazine earlier this week, Bilge Ebiri squeezed out the standard, reflexive teardrop; lamenting the passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, placing these doubly sad events in contrast to the foul success of someone like Brett Ratner, then reading into it all the usual, sinister implications. Doesn't bode well for us, does it? Well, who knows. I won't go the Cassandra route (not this time) and foretell a dour and detestable future for those of us who are hopelessly obsessed with cinema. Frankly, I'm of the opinion (sometimes) that we cinephiles only rarely deserve to have artists like Antonioni . . . or Bergman . . . or whatever giant falls next (Godard? Rivette? Kenneth Anger??) walk among us and bring forth their works.
Let's just be thankful we have them for as long as they're around.