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In Memoriam



Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind


The Poet Of Alienation


Thursday, August 2--------Michelangelo Antonioni, the Italian director whose chilly depictions of alienation were among the most cherished artistic breakthrough of international cinema, died earlier this week in his home in Rome. He was 94. In 1985, Antonioni suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partly paralyzed, but he continued to make films for two more decades. Along with his fellow auteur Ingmar Bergman (who died less than 24 hours earlier), this poet of alienation is one of the idiosyncratic film giants whose works will remain forever relevant, continuously open to discussion and interpretation.  

Antonioni rose to international fame and prominence in the early 1960s, as the Italian neo-realist cinema of fellow Italian directors Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica was waning and the international influence of Italian cinema was not as acute (these were the years when the French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut, Resnais and Rohmer was in bloom). Antonioni reclaimed world attention to Italian cinema, this time producing purposefully arty films rather than the documentary-style that categories post-war neo-realism. 

Michelangelo Antonioni was born on Sept. 29, 1912, into a well-to-do family of landowners in Ferrara, in northern Italy. He was a born pictorialist, with an interest in oil painting traced back to his teenage years. At the University of Bologna, he began to write stories and plays and to direct some of them. By then, he was also a film fantatic, writing reviews of his favorite American and Italian genre films for the local newspaper. 

He moved in 1940 to Rome, when he eventually joined the staff of Cinema Magazine, edited by Vittorio Mussolini, Il Duce’s son. In 1943, during World War II, he was able to bankroll his first film, a documentary called GENTE DEL PO (People of the Po Valley), about the difficult lives of local fishermen. The German occupying forces destroyed much of the footage (although it was seen as a short film at the 1946 Venice Film Festival). After the war, Antonioni wrote more film criticism and made more short documentaries. But he became skeptical of the neo-realist movement that dominated Italian filmmaking and yearned for a more aesthetic and poetic approach to filmmaking.  

His first fiction film STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR (1950) was a genre film about a man and a woman plotting to kill her husband, that focused on the psychological aspects of the lovers’ emotions. In 1955, after a period of deep depression when his first marriage was falling apart, he had his first important artistic triumph, LE AMICHE (The Girlfriends), about the loveless lives of a group of middle-class women in Turin. It won a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. His follow up, IL GRIDO (The Cry, 1957), starred a young Monica Vitti, an actress who would become his major muse in a trio of films for which the director is still best known. 

It was with his next trio of films that the director made his most lasting impression. Beginning with L’AVVENTURA (1960), and continuing with LA NOTTE (1961) and L’ECLISSE (1962), Antonioni introduced a stylish poetry of alienation…..a contemporary vision of how people had become emotionally unglued from one another in the uncertainty of the Cold War era. It was a vision expressed near the end of LA NOTTE, when Monica Vitti observes, “Each time I have tried to communicate with someone, love has disappeared.” These films, which had intentionally murky plots and ill-defined characters, threw out the typical convention of plot, pacing and clarity. He raised questions and never answered them, had his characters act in self-destructive ways and failed to explain why, and sometimes kept the camera rolling after a take in the hope of catching the actors in an unscripted but revealing moment. These qualities were not immediately applauded. When L’AVVENTURA was first screened at the 1960 Cannes International Film Festival, many in the audience walked out or stayed to boo at the end. The director and his leading actress thought their careers were over. However, the film went on to win the Festival’s Special Jury Prize and forever made being booed at Cannes a kind of badge of honor. In fact, in the next decades, the influential British film magazine Sight And Sound chose it as the second greatest film ever made, just behind CITIZEN KANE.

In 1964, Antonioni made his first color film, THE RED DESERT, with the English actor Richard Harris. It, too, starred Monica Vitti, as a woman coming unhinged. Mr. Antonioni used color to mirror her mental state, having houses and even trees painted bright colors and then changing those colors from scene to scene. By the mid-’60s, he was one of the most famous and controversial film directors in the world, and eventually Hollywood came calling. He signed a three picture deal with MGM, which was then struggling and trying to remain current in a much changed film landscape.  

His first effort for the studio actually became his biggest hit. BLOWUP (1966), an ambiguous thriller set in the hip milieu of the swinging London fashion scene, was filmed in English, and starred David Hemmings as an amoral photographer and Vanessa Redgrave as a mysterious woman possibly involved in a murder. The film became an international sensation, and more than any other, captured the zeitgeist of the post-Beatles era when London was indeed the center of the cultural universe. On the heels of that success, Antonioni came to America to make his first big-budget film, a poetic take on the mood of student rebellion coalescing around the protest to the Vietnam War. Shooting in the California desert and using a cast of mainly unknowns, ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) went way over budget and totally confounded the studio brass. It was a major flop and became one of the biggest financial failures of its day, threatening to dismantle the once-might MGM into bankruptcy. 

That debacle nearly destroyed his confidence. After making six films in the 1960s, many regarded as masterpieces, he create only four more films over the final three decades of his life. The most successful of these (and nowhere near the success of the earlier ones) was THE PASSENGER (1975), which starred the then-hot Jack Nicholson as a reporter in North Africa who assumes the identity of a dead gun-runner. It closes with a famous, 10-minute tracking shot in which Mr. Nicholson is seen in his hotel room, waiting to be killed. The camera pulls out of the room and meanders through the courtyard. People and objects move in and out of the frame before the shot comes full circle and re-enters the room to find Nicholson dead. In 1980, Antonioni made a television film called THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD. Shot on video and transferred to film, it received an award for visual effects at the 1980 Venice Film Festival, but made little international impact. His next project IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN (1982), about a film director who has affairs with two women following the death of his wife was not widely embraced either. He suffered a crippling stroke in 1985 and it seemed that his productive career was over.  

However, after a ten year recuperation, he was lured out of retirement in 1995 to make BEYOND THE CLOUDS, based on a book of stories he had written. The film starred John Malkovich and Jeanne Moreau, and was respected by film critics, but did not win him any new audiences. Because of his infirmity, the German director Wim Wenders was assigned to shadow him, and is officially listed as co-director. That same year, Antonioni received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, which seemed to signal the end of his career. He then astonished the film world by agreeing to return to narrative filmmaking while well into his 90s. He directed a segment of a film trilogy called EROS, with two other short pieces by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai, which received a limited United States release in 2005. His final project was a 15-minute documentary about art called MICHAELANGELO EYE TO EYE, which was added as an extra to the EROS dvd. For his continued staying power and the film aesthetic that he established, Antonioni has entered the pantheon of great filmmakers.

Sandy Mandelberger, In Memoriam Editor


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Mandelberger Sandy
(International Media Resources)




Obituary Profiles of Entertainment Industry Figures And The Legacies They Leave Behind

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