Diving beneath the deceptively flat surfaces of Michelangelo Antonioni's masterworks, in a new Belcourt series 

Moods for Moderns

Moods for Moderns

In a unique cosmic coincidence, two giants of 20th century European filmmaking died on the same day, July 30, 2007. Ingmar Bergman, the Swede who virtually exemplified serious cinema throughout the 1960s and '70s, passed away at age 89, while Italian modernist Michelangelo Antonioni, somewhat lesser known to non-cinephile audiences, died at 94. This was more than just a Don McLean-level "day the cinema died." It represented the passing of a European approach to film as a philosophical tool — a way to inquire into the nature of things.

Fate made it virtually impossible not to pair the two filmmakers. But the pairing in fact made more than just topical sense, for Antonioni — sometimes considered a forbidding auteur — is in fact a bit closer to a Bergman than, say, to a Tarkovsky or a Bresson. His films can be hard to access at first, but they yield their mysteries quite freely once we understand how Antonioni wants us to look at them. Over the next few weeks, The Belcourt's Antonioni mini-retrospective offers Nashvillians a great opportunity to explore a filmmaker whose films are often discussed but not as often seen. What viewers will find, I think, is that time has been kind to these works in ways both expected and unexpected.

If Antonioni is not a household name, it has more to do with the fact that like Godard or Fassbinder, he does not have a single consensus masterpiece. The closest is his 1960 film L'Avventura, which kicks off the series this Friday. It is the first in what Antonioni scholar Seymour Chatman has called "the great tetralogy," the others being Antonioni's next three films, La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964). All star Monica Vitti, the actress who would be most firmly associated with Antonioni throughout their careers.

L'Avventura is the story of a bourgeois group that sails to a rocky island, where one of them, Anna (Lea Massari), goes missing. But Anna's boyfriend (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend (Vitti) soon begin acting on an attraction to one another, even as they search for Anna. Disruptions of identity and fidelity ripple throughout the circle of friends. So the ostensible crisis of L'Avventura — a disappearance — actually becomes an instigator for the film's real crisis, the inconstancy and neurosis of the leisure class.

In L'Avventura, Antonioni presents an almost Buñuelian scenario in generally realistic terms. Yet the cinematography has a paradoxical effect. Antonioni flattens out the deep spaces in the frame, so that, for instance, we frequently see an actor's head in the extreme foreground and the receding landscape, ocean, or a hallway in the distance. Since all the planes are in focus, this creates a sense of illusionistic depth. To simply look at the image, though, it is in fact radically "flat," as if the foreground were a decal slapped onto a photographed backdrop.

This formal effect is key to understanding L'Avventura, and much of Antonioni's cinema. We see flatness, but we ascribe depth to the image through cognitive effort. So we are always "working" while we watch, kept in a state of agitation that mirrors the discomfort Antonioni's protagonists experience. (Not for nothing did critic Andrew Sarris jokingly describe the director's trademark ambiance as "Antoniennui.")

The remaining three films in the Belcourt's series are all quite distinct from one another, and from L'Avventura. His first foray into non-Italian filmmaking, 1966's Blow-Up (Aug. 24-25), serves as a time capsule of swinging-'60s London — at times David Hemmings' photographer protagonist seems like a straight-faced Austin Powers — but there's no mistaking Antonioni's jaundiced eye. The film conflates the period's unrest with the effete languor of Carnaby Street stick-figure vogue, taking a 180 when Hemmings, having photographed Vanessa Redgrave and a mystery man in the park, starts to see a kind of "devil" in the details.

Antonioni then came to the U.S. to make one of his very best films. 1970's Zabriskie Point (Aug. 10-11) was widely derided at the time but is absolutely captivating today, an abstract study of the counterculture that from a formal standpoint is a kind of symphony on the theme of collective versus individual identity. Starting out in a chaotic student-movement meeting, a rebel figure (Mark Frechette) removes himself from the fray. We then see disconnected scenes of land developers, campus violence and Southern California. Antonioni eventually winnows Zabriskie down to a twosome, Mark and Daria (Daria Halprin), virtually alone in the hills of Death Valley. The landscape not only becomes their freedom; it almost melds with their bodies, a visual signifier of utopian '60s dreams of sexual liberation.

After a documentary detour in China, Antonioni went to Spain to make his third English feature, 1975's The Passenger (Aug. 17-18), with a genuine star in tow. Jack Nicholson plays David Locke, a war reporter who meets a gunrunner named Robinson with vaguely similar features to his own. In a fit of existential pique, Locke assumes the man's identity upon discovering his dead body in a hotel room. The Passenger may be Antonioni's most fully realized film, but it is difficult to summarize. It is all about drift and motion, the evacuation of self in favor of passively following another's agenda. Locke "occupies" Robinson as if he were getting into a sleek-looking car with the engine running, not knowing or even caring that the path has already been set.

Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, in particular, posit spectatorship as our fundamental human condition, a basic relinquishing of will within the modern world. Camera movements usually signify something tangible in the movies, most often the mobile point of view of a character. But in Antonioni's films, the camera is an independent agent, aligned with nobody, not even the director himself. The final shot of The Passenger is rightly famous: a zoom that crosses a room, penetrates the iron bars of a window, and keeps going into seemingly infinite space. The passenger may have exited the vehicle, but it somehow keeps on driving — the ideal metaphor for an indifferent universe.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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