If I should cast off this tattered coat,
And go free into the mighty sky;
If I should find nothing there
But a vast blue,
The recent deaths of Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, on the same day no less, highlighted two realizations for me: 1) I am, in many ways, a “high modernist” in my aesthetic tastes and passions, and 2) the prevalent and particular questioning of the concepts of truth and hope found in high modernism seems to have disappeared as a noble pursuit. In other words, I long for the days (which were before my time) when artists and filmmakers saw the modern, industrialized, nuclear world as harsh and bleak, but believed that art could truly change that world for the better – even if only by asking the tough questions. (Of course we all imagine the past as we wish.) Today, artmaking is too often viewed cynically, that is, there is no point in tackling the grander themes, rather art is merely about what is only personal and private, and therefore essentially non-transferable, and therefore merely kitsch. That filmmaking can no longer change the world seems to be the prevailing perspective.
There was a kind of hopelessness in both Bergman and Antonioni, but there was also a sense that at least art and human creativity meant something, and therefore it was worth giving it a try anyway. It was also true that each of them, in their own ways, saw that the big questions of life – is there a god? what does it mean to be human? is there a viable salvation for humankind? etc. – were worth asking and pondering and turning inside out. I believe those are still live questions. I am inclined to think, however, that for the most part, filmmakers (except maybe some at the fringes) today do not see those questions as worth being asked.
Maybe no other filmmaker captured the alienation of humanity in (and to) the modern world as well as Antonioni. He cut to the heart of the difficulty of people loving each other, and finding authentic love, within the world that humanity had created for itself. According to Stephen Holden:
He was a visionary whose portrayal of the failure of Eros in a hypereroticized climate addressed the modern world and its discontents in a new, intensely poetic cinematic language. Here was depicted for the first time on screen a world in which attention deficit disorder, and the uneasy sense of impermanence that goes with it, were already epidemic.
This condition has not left us. In many ways we are still profoundly alienated from this world and from each other. The alienation may even be greater now than when Antonioni first portrayed it on screen. And although he did not give us an outright solution, the response should not be to throw up one’s hands, exclaim life is just absurd and devoid of answers, and then fall into hedonism, consumerism, narcissism, or suburban apathy.
When Anotnioni won the Golden Lion award at the 1964 Venice Film Festival for The Red Desert (1964), the crowd had mixed feelings.
What is great about such contrasting responses is that it signals that people cared about the outcome, that what Antonioni was creating had meaning, that he was saying things that required a response – love them or hate them. Four years earlier he was also booed at Cannes for L’Avventura. But that was then.
Rosenbaum, in his piece on L’eclisse for the Criterion Collection release of that film, states:
This was a time when intellectual activity about the zeitgeist could be debated, if not always welcomed, with Godard and Antonioni the two most commanding figureheads. L’eclisse (1962) appeared the year after Chronicle of a Summer, Last Year in Marienbad, and Paris Belongs to Us, the same year as The Exterminating Angel and Vivre sa vie, and the year before Contempt and Muriel—a period, in short, when large statements and narrative innovations often came together.
That is my understanding (of course not my experience) of the late Fifties and Sixties. The zeitgeist was critical. Mankind was in a giant philosophical flux, and big issues, existential issues were on the table and debated. Film was seen as important, and film departments were started at universities and colleges. Film festivals were important for political reasons and not merely for the glam. Bergman and Antonioni, among many others, were hotly debated, loved and despised, revered and condemned. And then it seemed like none of that really mattered so much. The mid-1970s arrived and the pursuit of these higher goals began to wane. The great leaders had been shot, Vietnam had “ended”, the counterculture became more and more of a drug culture, humans had already walked on the moon and that wasn’t so exciting anymore, the Beatles broke up, Nixon brought even more shame to government, and a self-absorbed “me” generation began to create a new zeitgeist of cynical pleasure. People didn’t go to the theater to find god anymore, they went to the theater to find a thrill. They didn’t go seeking truth, they went seeking a shark, or a spaceship, or the next escape from reality. I know I did.
I, of course, am over-simplifying and romanticising a bit. People have always sought the thrill and the escape. Truth has always been debated. And some films still stir the soul-searching imagination and foster debate. Plus the 1970s were also an age that started many great things: personal computers, the environmental movement, the slow-food movement, to name just a few. But we are living in an age where the struggle after god and truth are essentially passé. The assumption is that there is no Truth (with a capital “T”), there are no true ethics, there is no God, there are only situations and opinions, and so, for the most part, nobody really cares anymore. The death of Bergman and Antonioni remind us of of a time when cinema was a medium for these pursuits to play themselves out, and people went to the theater to see them played out, and later, over coffee and cigarettes, or walking across campus after the student union showing of a Godard, or later still in bed with one’s lover, debated the meaning of those films and of ourselves.
No need to despair, though. The big questions of our existence are still with us, and if we are brave enough we can still talk about them. And film is still of of the great mediums with which to explore who we are.
As for Antonioni, much has been said by those more intelligent than I about his genius. But what is important to separate is the ennui of his characters and his own personal hope – I say this only from watching his films, not studying the man himself.
In fact, I think it is important to consider that Anotnioni was no true pessimist. He saw people as being trapped in the world that they have created. But he does not say there is nothing they can do, or that there is no other world. Consider this little scene from L’eclisse:
Vittoria (Monica Vitti) has left her lover. The relationship has been empty and she feels the ennui of living in the modern age. Although her feelings may not be entirely clear to herself. She walks back to her apartment.
Here she watches her ex-lover walk away as she stands at the entrance of her apartment building. She is visually framed by elements of that building which seems to dominate the scene. There is a kind of hopeless emptiness in her eyes and posture. She does not yet know that it was not that she was trapped in an empty relationship from which she is now free, rather she is still trapped in herself in the modern world. Antonioni uses modern architecture to symbolize the prison of modern society.
Then Vittoria goes through the glass doors. The camera tracks left to follow her movements.
In the foreground the corner pillar of the building comes into the frame.
Vittoria walks through the foyer as the camera continues to track left. But then the camera stops so that we see only a sliver of the stairwell.
Vittoria walks up the stairwell and disappears around the corner.
It is as though she has been swallowed by the building.
Then we see her at her apartment door. Again she is visually framed by the building’s architecture.
As she enters her apartment the camera is placed outside her windows in such a way as to emphasize that she is inside the building. And again, the architecture dominates, framing her “within” its space.
It should be noted as well that her apartment is chic and modern. She is a beautiful, rich woman living in a beautiful, richly furnished apartment which surrounds her with the bounty of wealth. She has it good, one could say.
She then walks through her apartment and goes to the window. Outside the wind is blowing the trees.
The only thing we hear is the wind in the trees. Here we have the modern world set against the timeless natural world. One world is visceral the other is sterile. One world is dead the other is alive.
This final shot of this sequence is critical, and one of the most important shots of the film. Antonioni is setting up a contrast, one that Vittoria sees but does not see. The truth is she is not lost, she is choosing her life.
Every pessimist is an optimist, and so was Anotnioni. When Vittoria looks out that window at the trees, she is trapped by her own choosing, but she can still choose. The walls of her chic apartment are a barrier to the life beyond those walls, but the apartment has a door. The question is whether she has the eyes to see that she has a choice.
And what is truly important anyway is that we can see, and we can choose. Ennui is a challenge to us, but it is also a door through which we discover ourselves and to understand that we must choose. Antonioni helps us see, and his films are but one doorway to that choice.