Modernist Master REVISITED: Michelangelo Antonioni -
Film Retrospective/ LACMA
Revised from a 2006 article.
Crowds were lined up around the corner to the Calder fountain side of the Bing Theater for the September 17 (2006) screening of LA NOTTE, a highlight of a month-long retrospective, Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni, produced by the Film Department of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Though the nominal focus of the event was Antonioni’s 1961 masterpiece, LA NOTTE, the sold-out house was also due to the fact that this unique evening included appearances by Antonioni himself, and his wife. Enrica Fico Antonioni. Also on this substantial program were two short films, a documentary, BEING WITH ANTONIONI, directed by Signora Antonioni, and Antonioni’s own ten-minute THE GAZE OF MICHELANGELO, both screened prior to LA NOTTE.
For me personally the era in which Italian masters such as Antonioni, Fellini, and Visconti came into prominence with the “foreign film” renaissance of the late 1950s and 60s is an integral part of my cinematic past and consciousness. These Antonioni films particularly made an indelible impression on me, with their beautiful but bored women in impossibly chic little black dresses, and their brooding males torn between intellectual angst and exhausted ambition. And especially the unique black and white cinematography that captures in glowing chiaroscuro the paradoxical modernity and antiquity of Italian cityscapes. Never had malaise, ennui, and contemporary Italy seemed so seductive.
Watching one of Antonioni’s masterpieces, LA NOTTE (1961) on Friday brought all those feelings back, with the added frisson of knowing the maestro himself, one of the last remaining titans of modern cinema, was sitting in the row in front of me. LA NOTTE records one night in the life of a smart and of course conflicted Milan couple, a writer (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife, (Jeanne Moreau in one of her most unforgettable performances). After the pair visit a dying friend in a hospital Moreau flees and, in a haunting and purely visual sequence, takes a walk on the wild side of Milan, cruising a seamy section of the city where she has an ambiguously erotic encounter with a group of young males, one of which would have driven Pasolini crazy. After reuniting (and after a visit to a nightclub where they witness an incredible contortionist act by a striking black woman who looks like Sade) the couple attends a genteelly decadent party at the home of a rich, culturally inclined industrialist, and reach a kind of reconciliation at dawn on a misty, deserted golf course.
The film is quintessential Antonioni, beautiful, vaguely disenchanted people adrift in a Milan that at times looks like something out of a science fiction movie. But the recent short films that preceded LA NOTTE were equally hypnotic. Antonioni suffered a stroke in 1985 but continued making films while also concentrating on painting. One of these films, THE GAZE OF MICHELANGELO, opened the evening. The 10-minute film is a purely visual study of Antonioni’s encounter with recently restored Michelangelo sculptures in an Italian church, and intimately probes both the details of the various statues and the still handsome face of the 95-year old maestro.
There is not a word of dialogue and no music until the last few minutes of the film, but one comes away with a more intimate impression of the two Michelangelos in ten minutes -the lines and details of the first Michelangelo’s work contrasting the aged hands of Antonioni with the ageless marble - than most filmmakers could achieve in a feature Especially haunting is the use of sound, or rather of Cage-like silence, the soundtrack being mostly ambient stereophony, the sound of distant creaking doors, echoes, and church bells, all the noises one would peripherally hear (or not quite hear) in the (not quite) silence of an Italian church. When music is finally heard, an a cappella Palestrina choral Magnificent, it’s a virtual epiphany.
Enrica Antonioni later commented that the film took one and a half years, but really a lifetime to make.
The second film, BEING WITH ANTONIONI, is an impressionistic study of just that: a record of a journey around Italy with the maestro as he works on his Matisse-like paintings (rendered by various obviously adoring young assistants) and is fed (this being Italy) and feted in Venice, Assisi, and other cities. There is no narration and no translation, but the film features a surprisingly hip and eclectic musical soundtrack. The climax of the film showcases the various art works the audience has seen in progress throughout the film.
Enrica Fico Antonioni appeared after the short films for a Q&A with moderator Ian Birnie, director of the LACMA film department. Ironically, Signora Antonioni reminded me a bit of Giulietta Masina and seems to possess the same ironic gamin quality. She also spoke for Antonioni who is verbally incapacitated by his stroke, and when the maestro himself finally appeared on stage in a wheelchair he had to silence the endless standing ovation with a gesture rather than a word. During the discussion Enrica had affectionately noted how much Antonioni still enjoys seeing his own films - when asked about his watching the films of others she gave a sort of wry, noncommittal shrug.
And just before the screening of LA NOTTE Birnie commented with a note of ingenuous surprise “He wants to see it…..” and the maestro was carried off the stage to a position on the extreme right of theater to view one of his masterpieces with his adoring public.
The series concluded with screenings of L’ECLISSE (THE ECLIPSE) (1962) and the 1995 BEYOND THE CLOUDS on Sept. 24. Antonioni’s greatest hit, BLOWUP (1966) and ZABRISKIE POINT (1970), both in English, were seen on Sept. 30.
MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI 1912-2007