Aug 2, 2007

Me and Michaelangelo Antonioni and Blackness

Oh Antonioni, you made me an adult. I was in an office full of people who worked in the media, nary a one responding to the the gasp and bold announcement ("Antonioni is dead!?") I let out when I saw the email concerning the maestro's death from Variety updates, their lives too busy selling hip-hop culture to the middle and upper middle classes as authentic expression of post civil rights era BLACK identity, via streaming video feeds of mediocre rappers and the brands they support of course, but regardless of their lack of perspective, it was like an Antonioni scene itself, or perhaps like one by any number of his Asian progeny, the material world moving faster in its evolution that the emotional lives of the human beings residing within it.

Sadly, the first Antonioni movie I saw on the big screen was his last, his segment in the omnibus film "Eros". The short film is "Il filo pericoloso delle cose" and it is an utter embarassment, a sad whimper on the way out, the depiction of a long, poorly dubbed argument between a naked woman and her cold man, its setting and milieu falling neatly within Antonioni's career long concerns with landscape and the bored bourgeoise of Europe, but its complete lack of resonance and control, the sense that we are being invited to camp upon its iconic maker making the project all the more contemptuous. It surely must have been after that disaster that the rumblings about a new Antonioni feature must have stopped. Better to live out one's final years with dignity than attempt another "Beyond The Clouds" with a lesser European auteur in tow to try and sort out the maestro's wishes.

Still, his achievement is staggering. The eight film run from "Il Grido" (1957) to "The Passenger" (1975) is one of the most accomplished in cinema history, the auteur, well entrenched in middle age, coming to artistic fruition amidst the bold cultural changes occuring everywhere around him and, in the process, creating a cinematic grammar of loneliness and ennui that was so new as to complete reshape the face of modernist cinema.

Oh, god bless the esoterists out there. I spent long afternoons and longer nights debating the merits of Antonioni in dorm rooms and Brooklyn lofts, cigarette smoke (and perhaps other kinds) wafting through the air, the glamour and aestheticism of the Antonioni oeuvre rubbing my colleague and fellow Italian cinephile Nick D'Agostino the wrong way, his corrective being the oeuvre of Roberto Rossellini. Perhaps Mr. Antonioni cared not to show the deadening effects of post-modern culture on the Italian working classes, but we have Ermanno Olmi for these tasks. His risk taking, be it his career long obsession with dead time ("temps mort"), his experimentation with color ("Il Deserto Russo"), his prophetic interests in the emptiness of image making ("Blow Up", "The Passenger") or revolution, ("Zabriskie Point"), is undeniable and perhaps his most laudable contribution. Stephen Holden was correct when he observed that Mr. Antonioni was a moralist of sorts and, although his contemporary Federico Fellini is thought of as a warm and humanistic auteur, it seems to me that Antonioni's reputation for clinical coldness is a bit overstated; Antonioni desperately wants to find evidence of genuine human connection and feeling everywhere in his filmic worlds. if he can't find any, its not of his own design, but that of the textures and inadequate modern landscapes he finds his heroines (often the inimitable Monica Vitti) trapped in.

A singular anomaly in the American and Italian cinemas, "Zabriskie Point", Antonioni's first and last American film, is a radical departure from the director’s previous work, a deeply imperfect film that nonetheless brilliantly highlights, both in its thematic incoherence and aesthetic indecisiveness, the still irresolvable ideological conflicts that arose on American streets, university campuses, Capitol Hill and suburban living rooms during the 1960s, that place where all the 20th centuries founding myths went to die. It was a vast critical and commercial disappoint because of its aesthetic risk taking; the protagonists of Antonioni films find themselves unable to connect with their lovers, the spaces they inhabit, or a greater set of principles upon which they can erect a reasonable way of approaching the world. These characters frequently make decisions that scream Sartrean “bad faith”, before, in the optimistic films such as "Blow Up" and "L’Eclisse", finding some sort of solace and perhaps the first stirring of MORALITY, in nature. In the less optimistic films, such as "La Notte" or "Il Deserto Rosso", the characters find no way out of the empty Eros, the self delusion and incessant neediness that defines their lonely lives. In this context, the expectant late 60s viewer of such films would find "Zabriskie Point" a great disappointment, the film being explicitly political and less interested in its characters interpersonal lives.

Others, such as the film’s star, non-actor and former political activist Mark Frechette, who clashed with Antonioni frequently in attempt to make the picture a Marxist diatribe, came to it as a polemical film that was supposed to provide easy answers to the pressing socio-political questions of the moment. In making a film that deliberately jettisoned any notion of fulfilling its audiences’ expectations, Antonioni doomed his projects commercial and critical prospects, while leaving a film that merits much greater attention than anyone, including Mr. Antonioni’s fiercest supporters, has been willing to give it.

Zabriskie Point is ostensibly about the highly ambiguous road toward liberative struggle. Its climax, one in which Daria Halprin’s character appears to blow up a beautiful cliff bound home, one in which her boss and his partners are discussing their plans for developing the area, before the curtain is pulled back and we understand that she has only imagined the destruction, is both a self-reflexive nod to the crassness of American popular cinema and an earnest indictment of its culture. Mrs. Halprin gets back in her car and drives off into the sunset mourning an ephemeral cause that she never truly grasped, much like almost every baby boomer I know. Yet in witnessing the bomb’s destruction, the burned clothing racks and floating loafs of Wonder Bread, a bizarre and intoxicating fantasy, not altogether more fantastic and ungrounded in reality as the countless empty discussions of liberative struggle that takes place in the film, Antonioni is starring right back at his audience with a rather cynical gaze.

The liberative struggle in this film is like the empty talk of progress and psychology in "La Notte", in which characters speak endlessly about themselves and others as if they have important insights, when in fact they have none. Since this liberative struggle is something that real life new left groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground could never fully articulate into a coherent ideology and subsequent post Civil Rights films like "The Spook Who Sat by The Door" or "The Final Comedown", both earnest and flawed films made by Black Americans that failed to give much credence to revolutionary action or depict such an uprising with some semblance of verisimilitude, its no surprise that "Zabriskie Point" fails, both in the conversations between committed, poorly dubbed young people or the larger, highly ambiguous thematic mission of the picture, to sell its vision of a truly radicalized American youth scene to the audience.

Yet in the cracks of its loosely constructed post Civil Rights reality, one that in its flat, one dimensional depictions of revolution hungry black students, thuggish police officers and land developers (American force and capital) is not so far from the blaxploitation cycle of the same period, their lurks the ever skeptical eye of a master director in a foreign land, flailing about in a vain attempt to understand the denigrating culture of excess he had newly found himself in and yet, despite the prevalent confusion, retain a modernist vision in which human progress (spiritual and emotional) could still take place.

“White radicalism is nothing but bullshit and jive” says the black militant running the meeting, his shades hiding his eyes. His comment is met with hisses, jeers and liberal sermonizing before he responds, “Black people are dying… We’ve earned this leadership in blood jack, we’re not going to give it up.” The ironic yet lightly pejorative exoticism which greets Antonioni’s marginalized black characters (or shall we say manifestations of “the other”) in "La Notte" and "L’Eclisse", where blackness is represented as containing a vitality and closeness with nature that the stilted white bourgeois types of Antonioni’s films seemingly lack, continues here, sort of. The blacks are so committed and earnest, where as the first white student to speak draws an unintentional laugh, the first of many in the film (“what if you want to end sociology…”). The notion of comfortable white college students as revolutionaries might be called into question by the black characters’ open contempt for their complacent whiteness, but the only means they express this through is an empty rhetoric of victimization and politically under thought revolutionary agenda; Antonioni never seems to give the black student union leaders’ struggle any weight other than depersonalized oppression. Although the “struggle” is positioned as a black one that whites might join (or not. Frechette remarks at the end of the scene “I’m willing to die… of boredom” before walking out), only marginal white characters such as the imprisoned college professor are given any larger human characteristics. The blacks, before they and their struggle disappear from the movie completely, are just running mouths or meaningless victims, such as the faceless armed protester who is shot exiting the administration building, setting our protagonist on his journey of reinvention.

What is so ironic about this is that "Zabriskie Point" became a grand failure commercially and critically at a cultural moment when middle class Americans, entering a new decade that would be rife with scandal and national malaise, had tired of liberative struggle, were moving to the suburbs (Sunnydunes!) in droves and taking up arms, not to rid the country of Nixon or Hoover, but for personal protection from barely perceived, media generated threats (urban crime). Perhaps, Antonioni's greatest "failure" was his most prescient film.