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"Your paintings are just like my films. About nothing. But with precision." - Michelangelo Antonioni to Mark Rothko
Italy’s much discussed Michelangelo Antonioni is still not deviating from his unusual approach both to themes and filmmaking techniques. For four months he has hidden from the sun. He has sprayed certain streets, fields and walls of Ravenna gray, purple and rose for the filming of “Red Desert” (“Deserto Rosso”), his nearly completed first color film, which is slated to be shown this summer at the Venice Film Festival.
“Why should I work when the sun is out?” the 51 year old, decidedly esthetic director asked. “I would be like a painter who found that half of his canvas already was sky blue. I prefer to work on location in real surroundings,” he continued, “but if a facade should be a different color for the mood of a scene I paint it the way I want it.”
In tackling color, Antonioni has had to come to grips with painters’ problems in cinema context. He has discovered that certain colors call for fast action, others for slow movement. He says that the multi hued film has changed his camera technique. He is so caught up with its possibilities that he sees all challenges in artists’ terms.
Rothko and Painting
The encounter between Antonioni and Rothko does not figure in many studies of the filmmaker’s work, and his keen interest in modern painting has only really been considered by two film historians, Sam Rohdie and Angela Vacche. But Michelangelo Antonioni took away more than an abstract painting from his afternoon studio visit with Mark Rothko. Despite its absence from most histories of European cinema, this meeting of two creative minds was a seeming catalyst for two of Antonioni’s 1960s feature films: Red Desert, and one of the defining movies of the decade, Blow-Up.
Eighteen months after meeting Mark Rothko, Antonioni released his first film in color. Red Desert is very much a painter’s film, color and abstract composition announce themselves constantly. It was also notoriously difficult—and costly—to shoot, because the director insisted on having the exterior locations painted. As he explained:
“In The Red Desert I had to change the very face of reality, the color of the water, the roads, the landscapes, I had to paint them literally. It wasn’t easy. As long as you’re in the studio it’s easy, but when you’re shooting outdoors, violating reality becomes a serious problem…I painted an entire woods grey to make it look the color of cement…”
Hence in Red Desert, the grass lining a roadway before the factory was painted carbon black, scrub on the marsh was painted mauve, a cobblestoned street was painted chalkywhite with even the barrow and produce of a street vendor coated with grey pigments. Especially striking is a very early scene where the main female character, who wears an intensely green coat, wanders through a black and grey polluted wasteland. (At one point painters took several days preparing a location, only to do it again when heavy rain washed away their work.)
The intended purpose of those carefully painted and remodeled exterior locations around Ravenna was to convey the lead character’s state of mind, as he revealed in 1964 when interviewed by the French direc-tor Jean-Luc Godard for Cahiers du Cinéma:
Godard: So the drama is not just psychological, but also plastic?
Antonioni: Well, it’s the same thing.
Antonioni was firm that there is no symbolism behind his chromatic decisions. Instead, his aim was to use what he called “enhanced” or “the hardest and most aggressive colors” to establish mood and psychology.
In the early 1960s Mark Rothko had been steadily painting to a stark pictorial format for a dozen years. How to describe these compositions? Vaporous elds of lambent color ordered vertically in an elementary structure of two or more tiers on an elongated canvas. In technical terms they were demanding to paint, the artist adding veils or washes of carefully mixed thinned color, layering more over many months until they achieved a resonant luminosity. These atmospheric abstractions looked deceptively simple to uninitiated viewers, who assumed their value was largely decorative. Just the thing to cheer up a drab wall.
Rothko saw his work as inseparable from metaphysical questions. He was of a generation which immersing itself in troubled thinkers like Dostoevskyand Kafka, considered art a moral calling that gave one little peace. If there was a re, Rothko would ask, and in the house was a child and a Rembrandt, which would you save? “The child,” he always insisted. “No painting is worth human life.” When invited to give an address on his practice at the Pratt Institute late in 1958, he hadnot ruminated on technicalities or art history. He moved straight to content, stating that his paintings dealt with the certainty of death (he also used the phrase “intimations of mortality”) as well as a need to cling to hope. If mists allude to potential hope and transcendental immanence in Rothko’s art, in Antonioni’s The Red Desert they are polluted, toxic and beget no joy. - When Antonioni met Rothko. Quadrant, 2012. Christopher Heathcote
The Russian Formalists’ concept of “Defamiliarization”, proposed by Viktor Shklovsky in his Art as Technique, refers to the literary device whereby language is used in such a way that ordinary and familiar objects are made to look different. A similar technique deployed in drama was “alienation effect” introduced by Bertolt Brecht in his Epic Theatre as a ‘device for making strange,’ to disrupt the passive complacency of the audience and force them into a critical analysis of art as well as the world.
The formalists endorse defamiliarization affected by novelty in the usage of formal linguistic devices in poetry, such as rhyme, metre, metaphor, image and symbol. Thus literary language is ordinary language deformed and made strange. Literature, by forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, refreshes our habitual perceptions and renders objects more perceptible.
Antonioni’s silences are not dramaturgical pregnant pauses, those emotionally coded (and emotionally loaded) moments that interrupt the free flow of chatter so common to Western theatrical traditions; indeed, speech in Antonioni acts as the interruption of the free flow of quiet. If his people are not completely silent, they nonetheless exist in a state that psychoanalysis characterizes as parole vide (empty speech), whose function is to express the relation that its lack of significance elides—that is, to contribute to an aural vacuum, a void that must be filled by gesture, music, and sound effects, as well as the spectator’s own perusal of the images and scenes.
Thus, the solitude of Antonioni’s characters, rather than their interactions, is foregrounded. A case in point is the relatively wordless sequence on the dock in Red Desert. Here, the evanescent fog and the general immobility of the characters (especially Giuliana) convey their interior states of mind, along with the aforementioned lack of conversation among the principals. As Balázs averred, “The act of keeping silent is often an intentional, dramatically expressive act, and always an indication of some quite definite state of mind…Speaking much or little is a difference in characterization.” For example, the fog sequence, with almost no dialogue, suggests Giuliana’s neurosis and the lack of communication among the three principal characters.
Although a somewhat clichéd element in Antonioni criticism, these images (and the minimalist performances that accompany them) convey both the filmmaker’s recurring thematic emphasis on “alienation” and the neurotic anxiety that Andrew Sarris dubbed “Antoniennui.” The fog sequence is thus emblematic of Antonioni’s redirection of traditional acting paradigms. As described in both classical writing manuals and “Methodist” performance primers, actors need to have enough information to establish a “backstory,” a life history, of their characters that they can use in developing the delivery of their lines. This is not found in Red Desert; instead, the character stands before the world (and her friends and lovers) as sui generis.
In the eyes of hecklers and impatient optimists, the world of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni is one of bleak boredom and self-indulgent despair. Stillness, silence, and long, long shots are composed to deliver an ongoing meditation, an expression of a pervasive attitude embedded in the sediment of 1960s culture. Antonioni was one of a few film directors to uniquely capture the feeling of living in this era, and his success was due in large part to the living, breathing embodiment of this indefinable mood—his partner, his muse, the actress, Monica Vitti.
Vitti’s characters exist in a perpetual in-between, the empty space left from the absence of something else, the dash that interrupts lines of Emily Dickinson with their infinite possibility instead of offering one more solid word with a definition we can understand. Vitti is authentic and almost unreadable at times, like the best and worst of us and like the film world she helped Antonioni create. Her face effortlessly shifts from playful instants of childish joy in games and goofing around to sudden distrust in everything around her; in her signature move, Vitti transforms her expression from delighted to disturbed in less than a heartbeat, almost comically quickly. In high fashion, elegant Italian costumes, she always appears to have evolved and disguised herself flawlessly to convince others she is a part of their world, but her sham reveals itself as often as we fear our own shams will. Vitti embodies Simone de Beauvoir’s “second sex,” always portrayed as “other” even among her fellow females—she is an alien force, ideal for carrying the narratives of alienated characters.
The gendered specificity of these characters and their conflicts (with themselves and others) is not insignificant; although Vitti’s characters depict a general crisis felt by the generation of conscious adults in the 1960s era, Antonioni undoubtedly chose to focus on female protagonists for a reason. “Perhaps because I understand them better?” he is quoted as saying in 1990 by the British Film Institute. “I was born amongst women, and raised in the midst of female cousins, aunts, relatives…Through the psychology of women, everything becomes more poignant. They express themselves better and more precisely. They are a filter that allows us to see more clearly and to distinguish things.”
“There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is,” Giuliana admits by the end of "Red Desert." “No one will tell me.” Vitti may as well be speaking for all her previous characters, both in this line and in the film’s final words, when Giuliana’s son asks if the poisonous yellow smoke from Ravenna factories kill the birds that fly through it. Having come to terms with the fact that her life, and all lives, are separate and inherently isolated, she calmly tells him that the birds know by now that the smoke is poison: “They don’t fly there anymore.”
Rudolf Arnheim on Perception / Gestalt / Interstice
For decades, films have been acknowledged as carriers of narrative and iconic values in a faded black-and-white world; Rudolf Arnheim insisted in the homogeneity and harmony of black-and-white pictures, whereas in color films ‘the possibility of discord arises.’
In 1930 in an essay titled “The Sad Future of Film,” Arnheim wrote critically of the rapid technological progress in cinema to more easily represent reality. Arnheim argued for distance from reality as foundational to art:
Even if it should be possible to perfect the technology of coloured film so that the colour no longer controls the director, but the director the colour – something that will take a long time, dragging out the production of more or less watchable sound films for another number of years – even then, nothing will have been gained. Rather, one of those qualities of the camera that makes film art possible will be lost again, since every artistic creation demands that distance from reality which Progress is trying to remove.
While he updated his ideas around film to include gestalt theory in a book titled Film as Art, he was still deeply skeptical of the medium. He held that film, like photography, has more limits than other arts. Tied to recording, film and photography can never achieve the range of expressive form we find in painting. I don’t believe this for a moment, but Arnheim clung to this opinion, I suspect, because of his deep love for creative freedom he found in other visual arts. And I sometimes think that for him, a painting harbored enough pushes, pulls, twists and torques. Movies just made explicit what was tactfully implied in still images.
Yet, in a 1972 lecture at the University of Iowa, he made an exception:
Films should be in black and white, the better to stylize reality.
A question from the audience: Are there no worthwhile color films?
Pause. Red Desert, perhaps.
Arnheim made another contribution to our thinking about art, one that I think is rarely recognized. In a bold stroke, he extended the Gestalt conception of form beyond its concern with geometrical qualities and argued that form was inherently expressive. A triangle resting on its base wasn’t just balanced; it was weighty. We see the weeping willow as not just curved but sad; a skyscraper isn’t just tall, it’s aggressively thrusting upward. Every shape or movement we apprehend has a distinctive flavor and feeling. Indeed, he writes, “expression can be described as the primary content of vision”!
We have been trained to think of perception as the recording of shapes, distances, hues, motions. The awareness of these measurable characteristics is really a fairly late accomplishment of the human mind. Even in the Western man of the twentieth century it presupposes special conditions. It is the attitude of the scientist and the engineer or of the salesman who estimates the size of a customer’s waist, the shade of a lipstick, the weight of a suitcase. But if I sit in front of a fireplace and watch the flames, I do not normally register certain shades of red, various degrees of brightness, geometrically defined shapes moving at such and such a speed. I see the graceful play of aggressive tongues, flexible striving, lively color. The face of a person is more readily perceived and remembered as being alert, tense, concentrated rather than being triangularly shaped, having slanted eyebrows, straight lips, and so on. Arnheim found feeling in his forms.
In Art and Visual Perception, Arnheim writes of shape, and of perception:
How does the sense of sight take hold of shape? No person blessed with a healthy nervous system apprehends shape by patching it together through the tracing of its parts. Visual agnosia, to which I referred earlier, is a pathological incapacity to grasp a pattern as a whole. Someone suffering from this condition can follow an outline with head or finger motions and then conclude from the sum of his explorations that the whole must be, say, a triangle. But he is unable to see a triangle. He can do no better than the tourist who, by reconstructing his meandering path through the maze of an unfamiliar town, concludes that he has walked in a kind of circle.
The normal sense of sight does nothing of the sort. Most of the time it grasps shape immediately. It seizes an overall pattern. But how is this pattern determined ? At the meeting of the stimulus projected on the retinas and the nervous system processing that projection, what makes for the shape that appears in consciousness? When we look at a simple outline figure, there seems to be no problem, not much of a choice. And yet, why do we tend to see the four dots of Figure 26 as a square like Figure 27a, but hardly as a leaning diamond or a profile face (Figures 27b, c), even though the latter shapes contain the four points as well?
If four more dots are added to Figure 26, the square disappears from the now octagonal or even circular pattern (Figure 28). White circles or-for some observers-squares appear in the centers of the crosses shown in Figure 29, even though there is no trace of a circular or square-shaped contour. Why circles and squares rather than any other shape?
Phenomena of this kind find their explanation in what gestalt psychologists describe as the basic law of visual perception: Any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions permit.
Barthes and the Interstice
In 1980, the town of Bologna awarded Michelangelo Antonioni the Archiginnasio d’Oro for his artistic contributions to the world of cinema. In support of the award, culture critic and writer Roland Barthes wrote a letter entitled “Cher Antonioni,” exalting the director as a true artist.
Within the letter Barthes identifies the three philosophical values of vigilance, wisdom, and fragility for the filmmaker, but anchors the letter on the ideas of the interstice. The interstice, as defined by Barthes is “the object to be represented at the precise moment when the fullness of its identity suddenly slips into a new space, that of the interstice.”The tension of new spaces between mediums, and of the ever-changing landscape allow for Antonioni to explore these new spaces. These new spaces for Antonioni establish direct relationships as not necessarily a film director, but a visual stylist in which the aesthetic mode of presenting a story far outweighs that of its narrative. The visual effect is exploratory, both within the frame of the camera and within the audience. The interstice allows for this exploration, because without these new spaces nothing is noted beyond the surface of the world that Antonioni creates.
Within the letter, Barthes makes other references to truth or meaning within a work, which ultimately leads to his interstitial position. And as much as interstices individually can act as truth or give a subject meaning, they form an alliance according to Deleuze. The “between things, interbeing intermezzo—it is the alliance.” The rhizomatic structure is incomplete by design picking up and leaving lines, ceaselessly establishing. It never stops, the rhizome is eternal in this way because there is no set beginning and end point, continually allowing new interstitial spaces to be created and subsequently destroyed. So with this exploration of new space comes a paradigmatic shift in tone and filmmaking practice.
Red Desert is a testament to this attitude; the film never seems finished. The audience enters the world of Red Desert with no real beginning and exits the space with Giuliana with no sense of closure or conclusions. The lack of plot, instead focusing on character interiority only serves as a glimpse, a partiality into the cinematic world. As Gilberto Perez writes, “An Antonioni film weaves a texture of incompleteness, partial views of arresting partiality; empty spaces, narrative pauses, spaces between.” Red Desert is filled with these kinds of moments, partial looks that are used in an aggregate to piece together the film. The narrative pauses, the lingering camera movements scattered through the film give an uncomfortable pacing and feel. The empty frame is a hallmark and Perez sees these storytelling and filmic aspects as building upon each other to create these interstitial spaces.
From a technical point of view, Antonioni shot Red Desert differently from his previous films, giving the film a flat abstract style. As Antonioni explained, “Until Red Desert, I always filmed with a single camera, and thus from a single angle. But from Red Desert on, I began using several cameras with different lenses, but always from the same angle.” One of those lenses used was the telephoto lens, which reduces depth and diminishes distance between figures and backgrounds. By stripping away depth of field, the lens rejects a naturalistic tendency, and instead is replaced by the pictorial modernist tradition.
For example, in Giuliana’s shop where the Rothko paint swatches are referenced on the wall, there is a shot of her up against the corner of the wall. This lens flattening allows the wall to absorb Giuliana and make her part of the setting. Chatman notes on the almost two-dimensional nature of the shots, that “implicates the sense of touch,” and “Giuliana clings to the walls.” By using pictorial aesthetics to compose frames, Antonioni further drives a sense of alienation in his characters by taking away the contours of familiarity. The lack of depth abstracts from a sense of place.
Antonioni claims, “that black-and-white cinema is to color cinema as drawing is to painting.” The director saw the introduction of color into his work as an evolutionary artistic choice. He was aware of the artistic avenues that came before and then how he could use and then expand them to dissect the current world. A world, in which as he notes, “almost everything is colored. The pipe running from the basement to the twelfth floor is green because it carries steam. The one carrying electricity is red.” The world is changing, so why would the director also not change the ways in which to express it. In this modernist moment, color is the only choice.
Giuliana asks a worker, “Are you afraid to fall?” The question is two-fold. On its face, it is the literal idea that the worker could fall off his high position working the machinery. But in a more Barthesian reading of interstices in conjunction with the creeping modernity into more suburban and rural spaces, the implicit question is, “Fall into what?” The space exists in the tension between industry, nature, and characterization. It is the central tenet of Red Desert, and this triangulation reinforces Barthes’ conclusions about interstitial space within Antonioni’s landscapes. - Wesley Michael Jackson, New Spaces in the Desert: Antonioni’s Interstitial Relationships in Red Desert