Michelangelo Antonioni Abroad

WEA Sydney Film Society, Sunday 16 April at noon

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni [1912–2007] are aesthetically complex—critically stimulating though elusive in meaning. They are ambiguous works that pose difficult questions and resist simple conclusions. Classical narrative causalities are dissolved in favour of expressive abstraction… Antonioni’s style in Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975) is far removed from (that) earlier invocation of interior moods and feelings. His characters are now positioned as part of a complex network of objects and inter-subjective relationships.

James Brown, Senses of Cinema

Blow-Up

UK 1966 107 minutes Metrocolor
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

DVD source: NFSA. Premier Productions Co., Inc., released by MGM. Producer, Carlo Ponti; story by Michelangelo Antonioni, inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar [“Les babas del diabolo” (The Devil’s Drool)], screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, English dialogue in collaboration with Edward Bond; director of photography, Carlo Di Palma; film editor (uncredited), Frank Clarke; art director, Assheton Gorton; sound editor, Mike Le Mare; music composed by Herbie [billed as Herbert] Hancock; “Stroll On” featured and composed by the Yardbirds. Title in film’s main and end titles: Blowup. Title in accompanying publicity: Blow-Up. Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1, 16:9 enhanced.

Vanessa Redgrave (a young woman, “Jane”), Sarah Miles (Patricia), David Hemmings (the photographer, “Thomas”), John Castle (Bill), Jane Birkin (blonde would-be model), Gillian Hills (brunette would-be model), Peter Bowles (Ron), Verushka [Veruschka von Lehndorff] (a model), Julian Chagrin, Claude Chagrin (the tennis players). With (uncredited) Tsai Chin (photographer’s receptionist), Jill Kennington, Peggy Moffitt, Rosaleen Murray, Ann Norman, Melanie Hampshire (models), Harry Hutchinson (shopkeeper), Susan Brodrick (antique stop owner). Note: The names “Thomas” and “Jane” appear in the cast list in the published screenplay. They are not used in the film.

Cannes Film Festival 1967: Golden Palm awarded to Michelangelo Antonioni. Academy Awards 1967: Michelangelo Antonioni nominated for best director; Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra and Edward Bond nominated for best story and screenplay written directly for the screen. BAFTA Awards 1968: Nominations for best British film, best British art direction, best British cinematography. Golden Globes 1967: Nominated for best English-language foreign film.

A young man carrying something in a paper bag is one of many men leaving a homeless men’s shelter in the morning. Later he arrives at a photographer’s studio where fashion models are waiting to pose. The young man is a photographer who gives his assistant several rolls of film to develop. After his fashion shoot, he idly photographs lovers in an otherwise deserted park, a young woman and an older man. When the young woman sees him and demands his film, he refuses to give it to her. At lunch he shows a friend photographs of homeless men for a book, and tells him he has found “something fab” for the end, photographs he has just taken in a park, “very peaceful, very still.” Back at the studio, the young woman has somehow tracked him down and again demands the photos. She leaves after he gives her a roll of film. Intrigued by the young woman’s determination, the photographer develops the photos from the real roll of film he shot in the park. Blowing the photos up repeatedly, he makes the images ever larger but grainier. By following the young woman’s gaze he sees a face in the bushes, then a hand holding a revolver. He believes his presence has saved the older man’s life. But when he returns to the photos, he spots what may be a body behind a tree. As he now realises, he has photographed a murder.

Antonioni’s first English-speaking film under a three-picture MGM contract negotiated by Carlo Ponti was partly inspired by the short-lived fantasy of “swinging London,” which necessitated a change of pace from his classic Italian period of languid and enigmatic interior experiences. His attitude towards the ephemeral nature of fashion and modern art may be revealed through the action paintings of Thomas’s friend Bill, who can begin to interpret whatever meaning they may contain only after they are finished.

Antonioni has said: “Reality is unattainable as it is submerged by layers of images which are only versions of reality.” In Blow-Up he continued his obsession with the reality that belies perception. The puzzling final mime sequence (like so much else in the film) defies a single definitive interpretation––perhaps the photographer is inventing his own introspective reality, a new reality similar to those Antonioni himself creates. Alternatively, the mime sequence may be only a playful joke from a director noted for his subtle sense of humour. “Sometimes reality is the strangest fantasy of all” was the tagline on a poster for the film.

To the surprise of many, Blow-Up was a considerable critical and internationally popular success, costing a modest $US1.8 million and grossing $US20 million worldwide. Antonioni’s visual flair was as remarkable as ever, and perhaps for the first time he created a continuity that non-arthouse audiences could accept as a storyline plus a sort of murder mystery as well, while still employing broken narratives and characters with enigmatic motivation. Reports of Vanessa Redgrave’s bare chest and David Hemmings’ playful wrestle with a couple of naked and willing teenage girls provided breathless tabloid fodder. In Australia, carefully leaked complaints of censorship cuts would have helped the local box office no end.

Playboy magazine had eagerly quizzed the urbane Antonioni about alleged glimpses of (gasp!) the young would-be models’ pubic hair. “I didn’t notice,” deadpanned the director. “If you can tell me where, I’ll go and look.”

Zabriskie Point

USA 1970 110 minutes Metrocolor
directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

DVD source: NFSA. A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release. Executive producer, Harrison Starr; producer, Carlo Ponti; screenwriters, Michelangelo Antonioni, Franco Rossetti (as Fred Gardiner), Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe, from a story by Antonioni; cinematographer, Alfio Cortini; film editor, Franco Arcalli; production designer, Dean Tavoularis; set decoration, George R. Nelson; costume design, Ray Summers; special effects, Earl McCoy; original music, Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia. Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1, 16:9 enhanced.

Mark Frechette (Mark), Daria Halprin (Daria), Rod Taylor (Lee Allen), G.D. Spradlin (Lee’s associate), Paul Fix (café owner), Bill Garroway (Morty), Kathleen Cleaver (Kathleen), The Death Valley love-in sequence features members of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre.

Mark, a gun-carrying Los Angeles student activist involved in protest demonstrations, is forced to flee a campus riot to avoid suspicion after a policeman is shot. He steals a small private plane and heads east. Sighting a young woman, Daria, driving through the desert below, he playfully buzzes her and then lands the plane. Together they drive towards Zabriskie Point, which overlooks the spectacular terrain and vivid colours of Death Valley. He learns that she is an apolitical carefree hippie on her way to a secretarial job with a property developer at a confidential business meeting in the desert. After playing like children in the dunes, smoking a little pot and making love in the sand, Daria hallucinates (to the music of the Grateful Dead) that they are part of a love-in with hundreds of naked couples sharing their passion for freedom. Mark tries to return the plane and is shot by the police. Daria is grief-stricken when she hears of his death on her car radio, but eventually resumes her journey to the luxury mountainside villa, where her employer and other cynical investors are planning an environmentally destructive development. Repelled by the lavish ostentation and what she knows about the negotiations she returns to her car and turns her intense avenging gaze towards the house and all it stands for.

After the success of Blow-Up, MGM had given Antonioni complete freedom to make a film set in the USA. In 1967 he crisscrossed the continent twice before he discovered the grandeur of Death Valley. “I see ten thousand people making love across the desert,” he told the startled MGM location manager. He decided he had to make a personal and provocative statement on what he had been observing in American society: political injustice—the student anti-war riots, brutal police retaliation, tear gassing of political radicals—wasteful over-consumption, ugly urban commercialisation and small-town stagnation. Alarm bells began to ring when it was realised that Antonioni was not just making a film in America, he was making a film about America that could easily be interpreted as anti-American.

Filming was delayed for months while Antonioni searched for two leads matching the prototypes he had imagined. For the male lead he chose Mark Frechette, an unemployed carpenter and active commune member—and during the auditions rejected another unknown carpenter, Harrison Ford, who ended up as a student extra. Unknown to Antonioni, Frechette had a history of mental instability and would later resent the director’s treating him as an archetype rather than an individual. To play opposite Frechette, Antonioni found the equally inexperienced Daria Halprin, an anthropology student. Their own names were given to their characters to help them more easily settle into their roles, but as inexperienced blank canvases they proved unable to suggest the subtle interior emotions that added texture and meaning to typical Antonioni characters and relationships. He commissioned urgent script revisions and was forced to rely less on his actors and more than usual on images to suggest emotion and mood, from the colourful L.A. commercial signage to the beauty of Death Valley and the mind-blowing catharsis of the final scene. Rod Taylor, the only well-known name in the cast, later revealed that he had had no idea what was going on, he just did what Antonioni told him to do.

Antagonism broke out between Antonioni’s half-dozen aloof Italian craftsmen and the American crew, experts in their fields but generally racially intolerant, politically conservative and uncomprehending of Antonioni’s creative working processes. Acts of minor disruption and even sabotage were frequent.

Filming took nine months of gruelling work, not helped by telephone threats and relentless adverse propaganda from patriotic groups whose influence caused locations to become suddenly unavailable. Executive producer Harrison Starr believed the production’s phone lines had been tapped from the time the first script was circulated. It took some time to find a college willing to be a background for the student protest scenes, as all such institutions were understandably dedicated to discouraging activism. When extras were brought to the location from Las Vegas for the love-in, a ludicrous attempt was made to prosecute the production under the venerable federal Mann Act, which made it an offence to transport people across a state border for immoral purposes. Several reactionary crew members gave evidence but the charge did not progress further.

Zabriskie Point was finally released in May 1970 to almost universal critical hostility and accusations of political naivety. Not even the publicity bait of a love-in could entice the general public. Although student unrest was still current (the massacre of Kent State University students was yet to come) the film was stuck with its un-American image despite the red, white and blue title design on the poster. Its financial result (budget US$7 million, domestic gross less than US$900,000) was almost the reverse of Blow-Up.

Today the film can be viewed more objectively and be better appreciated for its superb visual qualities, haunting soundtrack of contemporary music, abstract sound design and prescient political warnings. Stan Czarmecki at DVDBeaver.com wrote: “Zabriskie Point is a film of great complexity, something we should all expect from Antonioni. It is packed with wonders and marvels in every corner of the frame and reveals profound truths about where we were and where we’re going that resonate more deeply than anything we may find in Easy Rider. Don’t let the challenging and unconventional style of Antonioni throw you off balance. Just let his vision of man wash over you with its dazzling array of imagery and sound. And then see it again. And think about it.”

References

Antonioni, Michelangelo. Blow-Up: A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971. The illustrated screenplay for Blow-Up. Also includes interviews and essays.

Brunette, Peter. The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 109–126 (Blow-Up).

Cardullo, Bert (editor). Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1988, pp 70–78 (Marsha Kinder: “Zabriskie Point). The Kinder interview is reprinted from Sight and Sound, vol. 38, no. 1 (Winter 1968–1969). Other references to Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point are in interviews throughout the book.

Film Comment, vol. 28, no. 5 (September–October 1992), pp 36–49 (Beverly Walker: “Michelangelo and the Leviathan: The Making of Zabriskie Point”).

Nation: 4 November 1967. Silvia Lawson: “Fun with Antonioni.”

Sight and Sound: vol. 36, no. 3 (Summer 1967). Marsha Kinder: “Antonioni in Transit.” DVD Beaver website. Stan Czarmecki: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews37/zabriskie_point.htm (accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

littlerabbit.com. Sam Rohdie: “Michelangelo Antonioni.” http://www.littlerabbit.com/antonioni/masamrohdie.html (accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

pHinnWeb.org. Deborah Koons Garcia: “Zabriskie Point.” http://www.phinnweb.org/links/cinema/directors/antonioni/zabriskie (Accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

Senses of Cinema. Issue 20. James Brown: “Michelangelo Antonioni.” http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/antonioni (accessed 10 Apr. 2011). Issue 34. Jonathan Dawson: “Blowup.” http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/blowup (accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

February 2000. Fiona A. Villalella: “Here Comes the Sun: New Ways of Seeing in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.” http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/cteq/00/4/zabriskie.html (accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, a website by Tony Reeves. Locations for Antonioni’s Blow-Up. http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/b/blowup.html (accessed 10 Apr. 2011). Reeves records that the studio scenes in Blow-Up were shot in the studio of Vogue photographer John Cowan in Notting Hill. The website also has a page on Zabriskie Point.

BBC: “Photography’s impact on the 60s.” A story about fashion photography in the 1960s. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2178366.stm (accessed 10 Apr.2011). The story states that “photographer John Cowan established his own adventurous style with model Jill Kennington, even taking a series of photographs of her parachuting.” Jill Kennington is one of the models who appears in Blow-Up (although the featured model is Verushka). The story is in connection with a BBC2 TV documentary The Real Blow-Up: Fame, Fashion and Photography in the ’60s (produced and directed by Elaine Shepherd and Martina Hall) that screened on BBC Two in August 2002, immediately preceding a screening of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. A press release for the documentary can be found at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2002/07_july/16/blow_up.shtml (accessed 10 Apr. 2011). A portfolio of 1960s photographs connected with the documentary is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/multimedia/sixties/index.shtml (accessed 10 Apr. 2011).

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