Michelangelo Antonioni 1912 – 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni 1912 - 2007

You ask what you should watch. I ask how I should live. It’s the same thing.
– Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris) in Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964)

Cinephiles have suffered some great losses in recent days with the death of Ingmar Bergman, actor Michel Serrault and now Michelangelo Antonioni. I was really touched by all the great tributes I read to Bergman yesterday but I never became too personally involved with Bergman’s work myself. I admired the man greatly and seriously respected his influence which was obviously enormous, but in all honesty my personal relationship with Bergman could never come close to the long lasting and personal one I share with Michelangelo Antonioni.

My first introduction to Antonioni was on a rainy Sunday afternoon when I was only about 12 years old back in the early 1980s. I was at home watching television when suddenly good old channel 2 in the Bay Area started to run Blow-up. At first I kept watching because I thought actor David Hemmings was incredibly cute, but as the film went on I became more and more drawn into the film’s mysteries and silences. While I enjoyed the swinging London setting and the sudden excitement of hearing the Yardbirds perform “Train Kept A-Rollin”, as well as the colorful and frenetic moments of Hemmings’ character shooting beautiful British models with his camera, it was really the silence and the isolation infusing Antonioni’s Blow-up that truly touched me and fascinated me in ways that few other films previously had. Once the movie had ended I knew I had seen something very special. I can remember trying to explain the film to friends and having trouble finding the words. At the time I was alone in my appreciation for the film but that was okay with me.

As the years passed I would see more of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films and I would also continue to feel more alone and isolated from a world which contained astonishing landscapes and breathtaking beauty while often remaining extremely cold and incomprehensible to me. Antonioni captured the world I saw and experienced with his camera. His films have made me appreciate and understand human loneliness and isolation in ways that few artists have. I’ve been moved and deeply touched by his work, which seemed to grasp at beauty in the most unexpected places and embrace the mystery of life that so many other artists, directors and human beings run away from or try to avoid and fill up with noise.

Appreciating the silence in life is essential to appreciating the work of Antonioni.

I’m often astonished by the amount of talking that characters do in film after film. When I was younger I would watch movies directed by the brilliant Woody Allen, or countless wonderful Howard Hawks’ comedies and be surprised and utterly entranced by the amazing communication and humor shared between characters and the deep feelings openly expressed in countless monologues. And while I appreciate well-written dialogue, the real world around me has always been rather silent. In my experience people rarely communicate. We might chat about life, work and family but it is often just surface nonsense with very little substance to it. Real relationships are hard to foster. True friendships are rare and should be treasured. We seem to be naturally guarded creatures who roam the world alone and finally die alone, no matter how deep our relationships are with friends and family. Michelangelo Antonioni understood this like no other director I’ve ever encountered.

L' Eclisse (1962)
Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in L’ Eclisse (1962)

Antonioni often tossed out convention when he made his films and embraced ambiguity. He knew that real life was full of questions that rarely had answers and he knew human behavior was often unpredictable and motivated by the incomprehensible interior life of every individual. He brought all of this truth to his films and I love him for it. I’m grateful that the world I know was so beautifully captured and shown to me through his camera. Antonioni was able to communicate with me in ways that few other artists and human beings have been able to and I’ll be forever grateful to him for that. Within Antonioni’s silences I heard symphonies.

Unfortunately it hasn’t always been very easy to see Antonioni’s films. In recent years that has changed due to companies like Criterion which have been making Antonioni’s films more accessible to American audiences, but I’ve still only seen L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), Blow Up (1966) and The Passenger (1975) myself. Each of his films has resonated deep within me and I’d have a hard time leaving any of them off a list of “Favorite Films” that I might put together.

With Bergman’s death and now Antonioni’s passing, critics are bemoaning the lack of respect these directors seem to have with modern audiences but I think it’s ridiculous to weigh their incredible achievements against popular opinion. Antonioni’s work is so incredibly modern that it still confounds critics and divides audiences. If that isn’t the mark of an important filmmaker who’s work is still worth exploring and has much to offer current audiences, I don’t know what is. I have no doubt that Antonioni’s films will be appreciated for years to come and new generations of film lovers will find themselves discovering his work and being as deeply moved by it as I have been.

Links to some Michelangelo Antonioni film trailers on YouTube:
L’ Avventura (1960)
L’ Eclisse (1962)
Blow-up (1966)
Zabriskie Point (1970)
The Passenger (1975)

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10 thoughts on “Michelangelo Antonioni 1912 – 2007

  1. AR says:

    Weird. When I heard about his death today, I hoped that you would write about it. I don’t know Antonioni at all, other than his cultural significance. He seemed to influence a lot of films that followed. I’ll have to actually watch Blow-Up one of these days; I’ve heard good things about it.

    I just finished a quick blog commemorating Bergman and the effect his films have had on me. There are a good number of his films that I haven’t seen, but his work has affected me on a personal level. Which of his films have you seen?

  2. Clarence Pruitt says:

    Great tribute to Antonioni. I sort of had the same reaction you had toward the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni. While I admire and appreciate Bergman’s work, Antonioni’s films have had a much greater impact on me.

  3. Dennis Cozzalio says:

    God, Vitti and Delon look, in that still, like the two most beautiful people on the planet, and they know it!

    I think I’m more worried about the reputations of these filmmakers (specifically Bergman’s) not in terms of their popular appeal or mass audience awareness, but among those who count themselves as film buffs, film critics even. I think you’re right– as long as directors look for ways to find audiences in new ways, they will look to films from directors like Antonioni, and in that way his influence, his films, will stay alive. But Bergman, I fear, is just too out of fashion and looked upon as less stylistically interesting or relevant.

    Excellent article, K, as always! Thanks!

  4. Jeremy says:

    This is an incredibly moving tribute Kimberly and possibly my favorite that you have written here. Perhaps because we share similiar feelings towards the man and his work. I was around 14 or so when I first saw “Blow-Up” and it was one of just a handful of films, “Le Mepris” and “400 Blows” are the other two that spring to mind, that totally re-altered my feelings towards not just cinema but life in general.
    I was really moved by this piece, thank you for posting such a lovely and personal response…like the man and work you are paying tribute to, it will resonate.

  5. cinebeats says:

    AR – It’s hard to measure the influence that both Antonioni and Bergman have both had on modern filmmakers since their impact was so huge. Blow-up is very good, but I might prefer L’ Eclisse as well as L’ Avventura just a little bit. It’s really impossible to rate his films, but I do love Antonioni’s informal trilogy a lot. Your Bergman tribute is really lovely and I hope other Bergman fans will stop by and give it a read. My own knowledge of Bergman has been limited to The Seventh Seal, The Magic Flute, The Serpent’s Egg and Fanny and Alexander. I really love the imagery he conjures up and I have a lot of respect for him, but I haven’t been as touched by his work as I have been by Antonioni’s work. I still need to see many of his films and Persona, Cries and Whispers and The Virgin Spring have all been on my “must see” list forever. Hopefully I’ll get around to seeing them soon.

    Clarence – Thanks for the feedback! It’s fascinating how different art effects different people. I think it has a lot to do with our personal experiences and Antonioni’s work just instantly managed to speak to me in a way that Bergman’s did not, but I don’t think he’s a lessor artist or filmmaker. Thanks again!

    Dennis – Indeed! Vitti & Delon do look totally amazing in that photo and rather pissed off at the world. I really think the work of both Antonioni and Bergman will have no problems finding new audiences that will enjoy and appreciate it. There’s definitely a dumbing down of popular culture going on, but good art will always survive. I can’t possibly take a film buff or critic seriously if they can’t give serious thought to the work of Antonioni and Bergman, but I’m often amazed by critics and so-called film buffs who have no knowledge of either filmmaker’s work or influence. It must be the film studies nerd in me.

  6. cinebeats says:

    Jeremy – I must have posted my previous comment right after you posted yours!

    Many thanks for the kind words. Antonioni is easily one of my favorite filmmakers and his work has had a huge impact on me and deeply effected the way I view cinema as well as life too. I’m really grateful that I was introduced to his work so early in life since it made a huge impact on me and I later went in search of his other films on video.

    Thanks again and I’m grateful for the nice comments! I hope other Antonioni fans or those interested in his work will stop by your blog this week. Jeremy is planning a week long tribute to Antonioni and he has some great stuff posted in his blog now.

  7. Keith says:

    I was saddened to hear of the loss of Michelangelo Antonioni. I’ve actually only seen two of his films, Blowup and L’ Eclisse. I enjoyed both of them. You did a fabulous tribute to a legend. It made me respect and admire him and his work that much more. I definitely want to see more of his films. He was a fine filmmaker. He will sorely be missed. I wanted to say too that the pic of Monica Vitti and Alain Delon is stunning. They make such a beautiful couple. Great job you did here.

  8. Anna says:

    I’m sorry to only learn of Antonioni upon his death. Your very nice tribute is a wonderful way to assure his lasting legacy.

  9. esco65 says:

    Just started reading your blog a couple of days ago. Quite wonderful and refreshing. Your post on Antonioni was fabulous–moving and profound. Reading your entry made me realize just how much this great director cuts right through one’s heart and soul,and how penetratingly and accurately he perceives our modern malaise. He’ll be watched and he’ll be moving viewers as long as there are people who appreciate movies.

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