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Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

 

Italian film director, a master visual stylist, who consolidated in the 1960s his fame as a quintessential representative of the art cinema with such works as L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L'eclisse (1962), Il deserto rosso (1962), and Blow-Up (1966). Michelangelo Antonioni's films are marked by long camera shots, innovative editing techniques, and almost plotless narrative; his isolated figures, wandering in the wilderness or in urban and industrial landscapes, lack a clearcut identity, and often their stories are left without a resolution.

"I believe in improvisation. It is not my habit to prepare myself for a business encounter, a love encounter, or a friendship encounter." (from Michelangelo Antonioni: The Complete Films by Seymour Chatman and Paul Duncan, 2004)

Michelangelo Antonioni was born in Ferrara, the son of Ismaela and Elisabetta Roncagli Antonioni. He studied at the University of Bologna, where he received the degree of Dottore in Economics and Commerce. While at the university, he started with his friends a theatre group, wrote an unpublished play, Il vento (1935), and contributed film reviews to a Ferrara newspaper. In 1940 he moved to Rome, where worked as a bank teller and joined the editorial staff of Cinema, the film magazine of the Fascist party. Although it was edited by Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio, it published apolitical and even antifascist articles. Antonioni refused to do film work with Mussolini's Republic of Salò. During this period he translated into Italian André Gide's La porte étroite, Paul Morand's Monsieur Zéro, and François-René de Chateaubriand's Atala.

For a short period, Antonioni attended the Centro Sperimente di Cinematografica, before being drafted into the Italian army. Antonioni served in the signal corps, but he also wrote screenplays, was an assistant director on Enrico Fulchignoni's I due Foscari, and worked in France on Marcel Carné´s romance Les visiteurs du soir (1942), a French-Italian co-production. In 1942 he married Letizia Belboni, a Centro student of editing who acted in his short films. The marriage was dissolved in 1954.

Antonioni's first film was Gente del Po, a documentary about Po River fishermen, which was shot in 1943, but not released until 1947. After the war, Antonioni made series of documentaries, including L'amorosa menzoga, a pseudo-documentry about making fumetti (photonovel), a form of comics mostly read by women. Antonioni's treatment Cher Ivan inspired Federico Fellini's film Lo seicco bianco (1952), a satire on fumetti.

Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni's first feature film, was about adultery and murder, an existential version of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. Miss Italy 1947, Lucia Bosé, starred as a young wife, who conspires with her lover to murder her welthy husband.

In 1955 Antonioni's Le amiche received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Monica Vitti, with whom Antonioni lived, was the female lead in several of his movies, starting from L'avventura. Together with La Notte, concentrating on 24 hours in the life of a novelist (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife (Jeanne Moreau), and L'eclisse, about "how feelings stop," the films formed a trilogy about alienation and avoidance of emotional attachment in the modern world, where love is an impossibility. In L'eclisse, there is no traditional conclusion. In the enigmatic final sequence, dusk comes to a street corner in a nondecript Roman suburb.

The audience whistled when L'avventura was screened at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, but it became a cultural phenomenon, a must-see picture, although first critics were not kind. Time magazine labelled it as a "nightmarish masterpice of tedium, and Ellen Fitzpatrick wrote in Films in Review (May 1961), that Antonioni had "produced a quantity of meaningless footage".

In Il deserto rosso photographed by Carlo di Palma, objects and sets were painted in uniform hues to suggest "states of mind." Instead of commentative music, Antonioni used commentative colour. When Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a disturbed housewife, wakes up in a hotel room in an euphoric state, the walls are pink, not white as in several scenes earlier. "I am personally very reluctant to use music in my films," Antonioni said in 1961, "for the simple reason that I prefer to work in a dry manner, to say things with the least means possible."

After the short film 'Il provino', a contribution to I tre volti (1965), starring the Soraya, the wife of the last shah of Iran, Reza Pahlevi, Antonioni filmed outside Italy. Blow-Up, starring David Hemmings as a photographer and Vanessa Redgrave as a mysterrious woman, was adapted from the short story 'Las babas del diablo' by Julio Cortázar. Within the frame of the fashion world, Antonioni explored the relationship between illusion and reality. Some film historians have claimed, that Blow-Up provided probably the first instance, in which pubic hair was seen in British cinemas. In one of the most famous scenes, Hemmigs hovers over the body of Verushka with his camera clicking. Herbie Hancock's cool-jazz score for the film had little to do with Beatles-era London. After working several weeks with British musicians Hancock went to New York recorded the score with such players as Jimmy Smith, Joe Henderson, Phil Woods, Billy Mitchell, Jim Hall, Bob Cranshaw, and Freddie Hubbard. The Yardbirds, featuring both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, got three minutes of screen time – in the club scene, Beck trashes a cardboard guitar. 

Zabriskie Point (1970), a counterculture movie made for MGM in the United Sates, was a commercial disaster. Contributors to the soundtrack included Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, Patti Page, John Fahey, Kaleidoscope, and Roscoe Holmcomb. When his project based on a story by Italo Calvino and starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider was abandoned, Antonioni accepted the invitation of the Chinese goverment to shoot a documentary about their country. Antonioni was sympathetic to the Chinese government but the finished product, Chung Kuo - Cina (1972), was reproached for "forcibly taking shots against people's wishes". The Foreign Language Press in Beijing published in 1974 an unsigned, eighteen-page pamphlet entitled A Vicious Motive-Despicable Tricks-A Criticism of Antonioni's China Film "China".

Nicholson, who felt he owed a film to Antonioni, played in The Passenger (1974) a rootless television documentarian, David Locke. "All right, I don't care," he shouts in the North African desert in the turning point of his life. Impulsively he assumes the identity of another person, an arms dealer, who was involved in running guns to leftist guerrillas in Africa. A reporter dedicated to neutrality, the commonly accepted principle of his profession, Locke had detached himself from the political issues he covered, but in his new life, he becomes an activist. However, Antonioni seems to argue that both of these alternatives are hopeless.

On the set, Nicholson got frustrated on Antonioni's uncommunicativeness. "Don't act, just say the lines and make the movements," was the director's instruction to the actors. The film closes with a 7-minute continous slow glide. In his last stop, the Hotel de la Gloria, Locke lies in bed. During the famous camera movement from a bedroom through a window into the courtyard and back Locke is murdered.

Il mistero di Oberwald (1980), made for the Italian state television network RAI, was a costume drama based on Jean Cocteau's play The Eagle with Two Heads (1946). Originally it was shot on video, and then transferred to 35mm film and released as a feature. For Antonioni this experiment meant "a new way of finally using color as a narrative, poetic, medium," as he said at the time.

In 1985, Antonioni suffered a stroke, which left him virtually speechless and partly paralyzed. Unable to continue making films, he learned to draw and paint with his left hand - he had started painting in his youth. "Whoever was born, as I was, in a town on the plain," he once said, "knows how imagination and thought can spread out over these flat horizons." In 1986 he married Enrica Fico, who had played Nadia in Identificazione di una donna (1982). More than any other of his films, Antonioni he used flashbacks to explain the personal past of his chatacters. By Antonionian standards, the film was very talky. Reacting to the criticism of the dialogue, which some critics found unnatural, the director said: "I have used an everyday parlance that anyone can hear in the street. The sceenplays of certains films are laughable: they propose a language that does not exist on heaven or earth . . . And in any case words can never be separated from images when pronouncing judgment on a film."  Antonioni edited the film himself.

Antonioni's next projected film, The Crew (La ciurme), to be shot in English off the coast of Florida, was not realized. His first full-lenght feature since his stroke was Beyond the Clouds (1995), co-directed by Wim Wenders and starring Jeanne Moreau. Wenders noted in his diary, My Time With Antonioni (2000), that Antonioni was used to shoot with two cameras at once, "It's purely Michelangelo's point of view; he's standing alonside the characters, not identifying with them at all."

Antonioni's Tanto per stare insieme (Just to Be Together), based on his short story 'Two Telegrams' (1973) and starring Robin Wright Penn, Sam Shepard, Winona Ryder, Andy Garcia, and Johnny Depp, was abandoned in production. With Steven Soderberg and Wong Kar-wai Antonioni collaborated in the compilation film Eros (2004). His episode was about a man who desires two women. Antonioni died on 30 July, 2007, at his home in Rome. He was 94.

For further reading: Michelangelo Antonioni's Neo-Realism: A World View by Robert Joseph Lyons (1976); Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World by Seymour Chatman (1985); The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni by Peter Brunette (1998); My Time With Antonioni: The Diary of an Extraordinary Experience by Wim Wenders and Michael Hofmann (2000); Michelangelo Antonioni: The Complete Films by Seymour Chatman and Paul Duncan (2004); The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema by Michelangelo Antonioni, Carlo di Carlo, Giorgio Tinazzi, and Marga Cottina-Jones (2007); Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo (2008)

Films:

  • Gente del Po / People of the Po Valley, 1943-47 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Roma-Montevideo, 1948 (documentary short)
  • Oltre l'oblio, 1948 (documentary short)
  • N.U. / Nettezza Urbana -Sanitation Department, 1948 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • L'amorosa menzoga / Lies of Love, 1949 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Superstizione / Superstitions, 1949 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Sette canne, un vestito / Seven Reeds, One Suit, 1949 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Ragazze in bianco, 1949 (documentary short)
  • La villa dei mostri / The Villa of the Monsters, 1950 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Bomarzo, 1949 (documentary)
  • La funivia del Faloria / The Funicular of Mount Faloria, 1950 (documentary short; also sc.)
  • Cronaca di un amore / Story of a Love Affair, 1950 (also story, co-sc.)
  • I vinti / The Vanquished, 1953 (also co-story, co-sc.)
  • La signora senza camelie / The Lady without Camellias, 1953 (also story, co-sc.)
  • L'amore in città, 1953 (with Federico Fellini and others; episode  Tentato Suicidio / Suicide Attempt; also co-sc.)
  • Le amiche / The Girlfriends, 1955 (also co-sc., based on Cesare Pavese's novella Tra donne sole)
  • Il grido / The Cry, 1957 (also story, co-sc.)
  • L'avventura / The Adventure, 1960 (also story, co-sc.)
  • La notte / The Night, 1961 (also story, co-sc.)
  • L'eclisse / The Eclipse, 1962 (also co-story, co-sc.)
  • Il deserto rosso / Red Desert, 1964 (also co-story, co-sc.)
  • I tre volti / The Three Faces, 1965 (with Mauro Bolognini and Franco Iddovina; episode  Il provino / The Screen Test; also sc.)
  • Blow-Up, 1966 (also story, co-sc., based on Julio Cortázar's story 'Las babas del diablo')
  • Zabriskie Point, 1970 (also story, co-sc.)
  • Chung Kuo - Cina, 1972 (full length doc.; also co-sc.)
  • The Passenger / Professione: reporter, 1974 (also co-sc.)
  • Il mistero di Oberwald / The Oberwald Mystery, 1980 (also co-sc., based on Jean Cocteau's play The Eagle Has Two Heads)
  • Identificazione di una donna / Identification of a Woman, 1982 (also co-sc.)
  • Renault 9, 1983 (advertisement for a car)
  • Ritorno a Lisca Bianca / Return to Lisca Bianca, 1983 (TV documentary, episode Falsi Ritorni / Fake Returns; also sc.)
  • Fotoromanza, 1984 (music video)
  • Kumbha Mela, 1989 (documentary short)
  • 12 registi per 12 città / 12 Authors for 12 Cities, 1990 (with Bernardo Bertolucci and others; episode Roma)
  • Noto, Mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, carnevale, 1992 (documentary short; co-dir. by Enrica Antonioni)
  • Al di là delle nuvole / 'Par-delà les nuages' / Beyond the Clods, 1995 (co-sc., co-directed by Wim Wenders)
  • Sicilia, 1998
  • Eros, 2004 (with Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar Wai; episode Il filo pericoloso delle cose / The Dangerous Thread; also story and sc.)
  • Lo sguardo di Michelangelo / Michelangelo Eye to Eye , 2004 

Books by Michelangelo Antonioni:

  • Il grido, 1957 (edited by Elio Bartolini)
  • L'avventura, 1960 (2nd ed., 1977, edited by Tommaso Chiaretti)
  • La Notte, 1961 (with Tonino Guerra and E. Flaiano) - La Nuit (includes essays by Bernard Pingaud and Jean Queval; translated  by Michele Causse, 1961)
  • L'eclisse, 1962 (with Tonino Guerra and E. Bartolini)
  • The Screenplays by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1963 (includes Il grido, L'avventura, La notte, and L'eclisse; translated by Rober Moore and Louis Brigante)
  • Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964
  • Il deserto rosso, 1964 (edited by Carlo di Carlo)
  • Blow-Up, 1968 (with Tonino Guerra) - Blow-Up (edited by Sandra Wake, 1971)
  • L'avventura, 1969 (with E. Bartolini) - L'avventura (edited by David Denby, George Amberg, Robert Hughes, 1969)
  • Zabriskie Point, 1970
  • Il Primo Antonioni, 1973 (includes Gente del Po, N.U., L'amorosa menzogna, Superstizione, Cronaca di un amore; edited by Carlo di Carlo)
  • Sei film, 1974  
  • The Passenger, 1975
  • Professione: Reporter, 1975
  • Tecnicamente dolce, 1976 (edited by Aldo Tassone)
  • Il mistero di Oberwald, 1981 (edited by Gianni Massironi)
  • Chung Kuo Cina, 1981 (edited by Lorenzo Cuccu)
  • L'acquilone, 1982 (with Tonino Guerra)
  • Identificazione di una donna, 1983 (edited by Aldo Tassone)
  • Quel bowling sul Tevere, 1983 - That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director (translated and edited by William Arrowshith, 1986)
  • Écrits 1936/1985, 1991 (edited by Giorgio Tinazzi)
  • A volte si fissa un punt, 1992
  • Le montagne incantate ed altre opere, 1993
  • Fare un film per me è vivere, 1995 (edited by Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi) - The Architecture of Vision (edited by Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi, 1996) 
  • Unfinished Business: Screenplays, Scenarios, and Ideas by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1998 (with Carlo Di Carlo, Giorgio Tinazzi, and Andrew Taylor)
  • Comincio a capire, 1999
  • The Passenger: The Complete Script, 2000
  • L'albero della vita, 2003
  • Sul cinema, 2004 (edited by Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi)
  • Il silenzio a colori = Silence in color, 2006 (edited by Enrica Antonioni)
  • Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews, 2008 (edited by Bert Cardullo)


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