Modern Life is Rubbish: Antonioni on DVD

Benjamin Strong


When the sun comes out in Michelangelo Antonioni’s world, where it is often past nightfall and raining, it shines pitilessly and in the sickliest colors: smog brown upon L.A., the faintest fluorescent green above a polluted Ravenna mining town, a London summer’s dank idea of grey, or at sea, a tornado rushing by, B&W equivalents to jaundice. At least Antonioni’s men and women, habitually breaking off affairs then starting something about which now they’re not too sure, can find some comfort in this expressionist kind of weather. Storms correspond to their state of mind. Whereas the rare clear day exposes their vanities to mock them—like the humiliatingly cloudless afternoon in L’eclisse (1962) when a stock trader (Alain Delon) watches a crane retrieve his totaled Alfa Romeo from the river inlet where the drunk who stole it—his cadaver is still behind the wheel—deposited it the evening before. That’s why the relentless sun beating down onto The Passenger (1975) feels so invasive. There is no longer anywhere left to hide, this light implies.

To escape is a compulsion for Antonioni’s characters, and just as The Passenger’s restless celebrity journalist (Jack Nicholson) dodges his wife and friends after thieving someone else’s identity, so had this long unavailable classic, until its brief thirtieth anniversary rerelease last October, eluded me ever since I’d noticed an old poster for it hanging in a Beverly Blvd. theater as a teenager. In profile, Maria Schneider—an incredible actress, in the literal sense—faces Nicholson, who was by then (this was the late 1980s) nearing The Two Jakes-Man Trouble-Wolf bend in his career. The Jack in the poster though has been captured in his iconic prime, wearing shades and a gonzo white cap unmistakably reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson.

"Michelangelo thought I was kidding with this hat,” Nicholson recalls on the commentary track for Sony Pictures Classics’s beautiful new extended director’s cut Passenger DVD. Initially the Italian crew sported native headdress, “but pretty soon a lot of them were wearing the same hat, so he accepted it." Nicholson mentions other on-set tussles (“Jack, less twitches”) but seems especially pleased about this victory. Antonioni doted on his mis en scenes, after all, strained to give each piece of clothing and all the props in a set—every door, lamp, automobile, or planted tree that you see in the frame—an ultra modern, painfully cool, but also sort of cold look. “Ostentatiously with-it” is how one critic has identified this element.

I was repelled by the with-it quotient the first time I saw an Antonioni movie, a VHS copy of Blow-Up (1966) I checked out of the Cerritos Public Library when I was seventeen. Unfortunately, because it remains his best-known title, for people who have seen only one Antonioni movie, it’s always Blow-Up that’s responsible. On further viewings I’ve warmed to its place within the oeuvre, as I have Zabriskie Point, a 1970 paean to hippiedom, but Blow-Up cannot help but scan, these days, as Austin Powers source material. There is the requisite mod crash pad, the Yardbirds in concert, a Rolls Royce convertible (equipped, though this was forty years ago, with a mobile phone), ruffle-shirted pretty boys, pencil-skirted girls wearing fashionably caked eyeliner, and a general vibe of complete grooviness. On top of this, Blow-Up is supposed to be a murder mystery, even though, in keeping with the Antonioni aesthetic, the plot abandons its suspense thread rather early. Tedious fucking stuff, as far as I was concerned.

“Antoniennui” quipped Andrew Sarris in his Village Voice rave. He was talking about the malaise of desultoriness afflicting Blow-Up’s characters, but he could as soon have been describing the jeers at Cannes in 1960 when L’avventura premiered. The star, Antonioni’s lover Monica Vitti (my dark horse candidate for most entrancing screen actress ever—more on this below) fled crying. “From the opening titles sequence,” Vitti said in an interview, “the audience was laughing [. . .] at the most tragic sequences, those that we had sweated the most over and we believed in the most.” This is interesting given that L’avventura’s titles are composed of austere white text on black. They are, as much as possible, unobjectionable. What had to have set the crowd off immediately then was the impudent music (surf-rock mandolin) playing over them, a warning of the disdain for conventions, including those of the cinema, which follow. Less static or self-regarding than Blow-Up, L’avventura nevertheless is kin to it, a first-gear anti-thriller. Shot in widescreen, the panorama emphasizes barren spaces, vacant behavior, and the essential triviality of its so-called adventure. With even that arrogant title, which in colloquial Italian also means a fling, L’avventura flaunts its nothingness.

As you can imagine, it became a measure of cred for a young cineaste to cheer this salvo aimed at the neo-realist tradition from which Antonioni, former apprentice of Luchino Visconti, was breaking. Four years later, however, when his first color effort, Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert) came out, not a few of L’Avventura’s reluctant supporters had had enough of this arch approach to tedium. His “aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance” Manny Farber complained. “If I’ve got to be driven up a wall,” Pauline Kael wrote, “I’d rather do it at my own pace—which is considerably faster than Antonioni’s." But you have to be terribly shallow—you know, like me at seventeen, when I first saw Blow-Up—to have never felt exhausted at the conditions of modern life, to find the predicament of boredom at all boring. We may think of boredom as numbing but it can also feel like a rash, itchy. Exasperation accumulates in its throes, as a lump does until it metastasizes. By the time of The Passenger, modernity’s cancer—Antonioni’s principle subject—has spread across the globe.

Nicholson’s telejournalist David Locke finds the dead body of an acquaintance in the Algerian hotel where he’s staying. Since white men all look the same in North Africa, it’s not difficult for someone sick of being himself—this is 1975, remember—to steal a dead man’s passport and with a razorblade and some glue make it appear that David Locke, respected expert on guerilla war factions, educated in America but Englishman by birth (Nicholson, to his credit, doesn’t risk the accent) has expired. And this is where, The Passenger, continuing to amble, gets really exciting. Retrieving a portfolio from a German airport locker, Locke discovers that the Mr. Robertson whose name he has assumed is an international arms dealer who supplied the rebels in the war he had been covering. After accepting a cash payment while posing as Robertson, Locke feels obligated to fulfill the remaining appointments in his calendar. He’s happy to have a cause to believe in. Faith is not something that comes easily to Antonioni’s skeptics. “What does one believe in?” Richard Harris asks in Red Desert. ”In humanity? In a certain sense. In justice? A little less. In progress? A little more.”

The original Italian title, Professione: Reporter, must have struck the marketing department at distributor MGM as not evocatively vague enough for the target arthouse audience. It may also have sounded, as it does now in the wake of Judy Miller, a bit pointed. Small wonder that the Ford era audience was more receptive, a year later, to the crusading newspapermen portrayed in All the President’s Men. Or that’s my explanation anyway for why, beyond the typical Antonioni gripes people have, The Passenger had an unsuccessful run here, despite featuring one of the period’s genuine superstars.

Antonioni had previously employed renowned European actors (Delon, Harris, Marcello Mastroianni), and, in 1957’s Il Grido, even worked with an American leading man (hunky Steve Cochran). Nicholson, however, was the only genuine-article Hollywood superstar he ever cast. (Vitti, an articulate interpreter of the Antonioni ethos, called the foreign actors who found the director exacting “spoiled.”) Twitchier maybe than the players the Maestro was used to orchestrating, Nicholson all the same embraces the joie de Antoniennui. This is a man we’re used to seeing tell off waitresses and dictatorial mental ward nurses in his trademark Jersey Italian drawl, and here he’s just a frustrated cuckold. His somnolent voice—“there’s no soap?” he asks in that desert hotel—is that of a civilization sensing its imminent demise.

Indeed, the ambivalence about modernity, palpable in the earlier pictures, is replaced in The Passenger by an older man’s anxiety over impotence. Antonioni, an artistic late bloomer who turns 94 in September, suffered a stroke in 1985 that left him partly paralyzed, but he was already declining before that. Since his last dance with Vitti, the gothic 1980 video experiment Il Mistero di Oberwald, he has completed only two subpar feature-length movies (Identificazione di una donna and, with Wim Wenders’s unprofitable help, Al di là delle nuvole) in addition to a handful of forgettable shorts, and the lugubriously slight third segment of the 2004 anthology Eros.

It’s hardly unreasonable then to read The Passenger as his de facto swan song. The movie he finished prior to it, Chung Kuo Cina (1972), a four-hour documentary for Italian television, was the result of an invitation by Mao to be the first Western filmmaker to document the Cultural Revolution. Defuse and politically conflicted, Chung Kuo Cina, in an honest attempt to see the undeveloped Third World in all its complexity, wears the same colonial blinders as The Passenger. Twice, Antonioni, who narrates, remarks that the Chinese people move without “haste and anxiety,” an assertion contradicted repeatedly by the silent evidence he films, against government orders, of the censorship and repression Mao enacted. As one of Locke’s interview subjects tells him, “Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answers will be about me."

And surely the clichéd charges of anomie that continue to get leveled at Antonioni tell us more about the limited moral vision of movie journalists than they do about these uncommonly romantic films. La Notte (1961), the second part of a trilogy that also includes L’avventura and L’eclisse, opens in a sleek hospital whose futurist architecture reminds a dying Marxist patient of a nightclub. But his room’s large windows are open. A breeze is coming in. His guests have been invited to smoke while they sip their champagne. In other words, this building, modern for its time, is nothing like the sterile infirmaries we now visit. And more importantly, neither does it resemble the crusty rest of 1960s Rome, symbolized in L’eclisse by the abstruse, overdecorated apartment Delon’s parents inhabit, which looks positively calcified in antiquity next to Vitti’s bright unadorned minimalist walkup on the city’s outskirts. The postwar generation was eager to distance itself from obvious reminders of Italy’s history, and you’ve got to admit these kids are alright in scorning their parents’ obsolete styles. During another fight about a hat, at the start of L’avventura, a father asks his daughter, Anna, who is departing on a boat trip, whether it isn’t “customary to wear a sailor’s cap with the yacht’s name on it?” No papa, she replies in disgust, that isn’t any longer done.

Anna’s correct in more ways than one. The jaded youths populating the movies of Olivier Assayas and Zhang Ke Jia—the two contemporary filmmakers as concerned as Antonioni once was with industrialization’s discontents—no longer possess the energy for petulance. They’ve grown resigned, as we have, to an architecture that, in Antonioni’s movies, promises to sever us from our past. Now these eyesores, our stale hospitals, corporate offices, and prefab homes—which, like white men in the desert, all look the same—threaten to cut us off from each other as well. David Locke, still entertaining hope for the future—why else would he feel the need to run?—is the last in an extinct line of optimists.

The spiritual toll of maintaining hope finally catches up with Locke in The Passenger, which is the reason innately cool Nicholson was better suited to the movie than, say, Monica Vitti, whose women shoulder modernity’s psychological burdens as if they were relieving Atlas. The weight of the world makes her women weary at the same time that it makes them strong, and Vitti’s almost extraterrestrial face personifies this irony. “Not that Vitti isn’t beautiful,” Gilberto Perez says, “but her presence is less commanding than that of Gish, Dietrich, or Karina, her beauty more tentative, which is in keeping with the unsettled, questioning beauty of Antonioni’s visual style.” Usually, Perez is an incisive Antonioni commentator, but I take umbrage at this nonsense. Vitti’s eyes sit an ocean apart, and yes her nose protrudes from her face like the bow of a capsized luxury liner. But somehow, she renders these awkward features regal. Her beauty is the very opposite of “unsettled.” As much as any actress ever thrown onto a silver screen, she has substance, even when others are too stupid to recognize it—a problem, it’s worth noting, dogging the career of Lucia Bosé’s exploited ingénue actress in Antonioni’s La Signora senza camelie (1953). If Vitti’s women appear “questioning” and “tentative” it’s because they defiantly embody the natural indeterminacy of living things as opposed to inanimate objects. In the gaze of her lover’s camera, Vitti’s figure stands lustily apart from those cold with-it sets and their whiff of artifice.

No other director ever extracted from Vitti anything approaching the vulnerability of her Giulia in Red Desert, who is going clinically bonkers as the only compassionate human being left in the dystopian company town where her neglectful husband is the plant manager. Giulia’s son, in the final scene, points to a smokestack emitting a poisonous yellow cloud, and asks whether any birds flying through it won’t get killed. She tells him not to worry, they’ve learned to stay away. The difference between the industrializing world depicted in Antonioni’s movies and ours is that we do not share Vitti’s romantic illusions. We know those birds are doomed.