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.
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.