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in Filmmaking
on Jul 31, 2007

The great Michelangelo Antonioni, director of such films as L’Avventura, Red Desert, Blow-Up and The Passenger, died in Italy yesterday. He was 94.

The New York Times in its obituary quotes Jack Nicholson’s remarks on the director when he presented him with a career Oscar:

‘In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”

As they did for Ingmar Bergman, another art-house titan who, stunningly, died just a few hours before Antonioni, The Guardian has set up a special section devoted to the director. From the site is Penelope Houston’s obituary that includes this quote about his 1955 movie L’Amiche but could just as well apply to his body of work as a whole:

Already the elements of this fastidious craftsman’s style were locked in place: the awareness of landscapes, usually melancholy, the sense of people drifting through time and space, but held always under the tightest control, the persistence of vision. “I need to follow my characters beyond the moments conventionally considered important,” he said, “to show them even when everything appears to have been said”.

GreenCine’s coverage is here, and one piece the site has linked to is this Michael Atkinson appreciation of Nuri Bilge Ceylan — proof of the continuing influence of Antonioni on younger filmmakers. Indeed, while Antonioni hailed from an earlier conception of art cinema — his films virtually demand to be seen not on video but on a movie screen, where their deliberate pacing, attention to sound design and precise framing evolve into a hypnotic critique of the modern world — the questions he asked in his films are more relevant than ever.

If I had to name a single favorite film, it would most likely be his The Passenger, in which Jack Nicholson plays a reporter who impulsively assumes the identity of a similarly featured dead man — a gun runner — and allows that man’s appointment book to dictate his drift through North Africa and Europe. The film was re-released last year by Sony Pictures Classics, and I hadn’t seen it in years. My memory of the film was solid, but when I screened it at 20 years old I was compelled by its thinking about the ways in which the Western media represents the third world. The theorist and filmmaker Peter Wollen had co-written the screenplay, and embedded within its story and Antonioni’s compositions was an essay on the ideologies of the narratives we create for ourselves. When I watched it again, so many years later, these ideas were all still there, of course. But I hadn’t remembered how purely beautiful, emotional, and finally devastating the film is, from its carefree moments of abandon with Maria Schneider in a convertible to Nicholson’s concluding, crushing monologue in which, clearly consumed by depression, he recounts the story of a blind man who, after suddenly regaining his sight, becomes disenchanted with the world around him. At the end of this film, Antonioni staged perhaps his most famous shot in which the camera departs the film’s deceased protagonist, melts through a wall and, like our world, lives on.

Although crippled by a stroke and rendered aphasic, Antonioni, who began his career as a reporter, continued to make films throughout his years, sometimes with the help of supporters like Wim Wenders. (Wenders’ book My Time with Antonioni is a curious, at times quite sad, but ultimately illuminating portrait of the filmmaking process.) If, by any chance, you are unfamiliar with his work, please take some time to discover them, starting with the titles I listed above.

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