Friday, August 17, 2007

If, as I wrote Monday, the formal advantage of cinema as a narrative art is that you can see the story, the obvious implicit challenge, the one that would occur to an ambitious filmmaker, would have to do with cinema’s ability (or inability) to speak of that which is not visible, not present, what cannot be directly seen. One obvious realm would be that of the psychological – dreamlife, memory, the repressed. In The Bourne Ultimatum, for example, you can tell which sequences – barely more than a second or two in length – are Matt Damon’s character’s memories surfacing, his identity coming back, by virtue of stylistically blurry film, letting in, as it were, too much light.

What then of a more complicated question of absence? How would your closest companions respond if you were suddenly to disappear? How calculate or project the arc of their despair? It’s the question of death seen in its most social light – how will the kids react? Will your spouse marry your worst enemy? This, in one sense, is the thought experiment that is the basis for Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the first of his trilogy of films on the subject of eros (a quartet if you consider The Red Desert to be of the same set, which many reasonably do). Seven or eight of the idle rich head off for a cruise around the Aeolian islands, including Anna (portrayed by Lea Massari), her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) & Anna’s fiancĂ© Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). These islands are hardly idyllic – they’re basically volcanic rocks pushed up above sea level – a contrast Antonioni uses to good effect in this most painterly of black-&-white films.

Claudia doesn’t really know Sandro at the start of the picture. She & Anna head to where they’re supposed to meet ahead of the cruise & Anna makes Claudia cool her heals while she & Sandro have sex upstairs. But on the boat itself, Anna appears moody & quarrels with Sandro. When everyone is swimming, she screams that she sees a shark, which puts an end to that pleasure, but only after tells Claudia that she was lying. When they’re on a tiny island, Anna stalks off by herself. Up to this moment, every scene has been filmed as tho the movie were about Anna & Massari was the star.

Later when the boaters are ready to leave, however, Anna is nowhere to be found. Searching everywhere turns up nothing. Sandro, Claudia & Corrado – the oldest male in the group – stay behind on the island to keep looking while the others head off to the nearest inhabited island to call for the Coast Guard. It rains & they take shelter in a little shack owned by a hermit (who speaks English and claims to have spent 30 years in Australia, one of the stranger, more delightful twists in this deliberately spare tale). Soon boats and divers and helicopters are everywhere, looking for Anna.

Then the question is posed, what if she swam to another island – some are only a few hundred yards away – and the search spreads further. And then another question, what if she got a ride back to land? This eventually leads to stories in the media up & down the coast, trips to hostels and much casting about looking for Anna.

During all this, Sandro continues thinking – as he does from his first scene – with his penis, which now targets Claudia as the next most warm & inviting home. Before too terribly long, the search for Anna has given way to another love story, this time between Claudia & Sandro. A certain amount of guilt is involved, at least on Claudia’s part, but that just seems to give everything more flavor.

That Antonioni knows exactly what he is doing here is demonstrated best perhaps by a scene in one of the coastal towns in which a beautiful single woman – who may be married or may be a prostitute (or both), both alternatives are offered – causes a near riot just by walking down the street. Later in another scene, Claudia decides not to accompany Sandro into an interview with the police and soon finds herself surrounded by young single men in very much the same way. Antonioni uses men here exactly as Hitchcock does the birds in his films by that name, as tho it were a predatory supernatural force.

I saw this film initially when I was a teenager on the “big screen” of one of Pauline Kael’s Studio Guild theaters on Telegraph in Berkeley. This pair of tiny art-house theaters seated maybe 50 people each, and was later replaced by a rather small restaurant. The “big screen” was smaller than some of the projection systems you find today at Best Buy. I only saw the film again this past week, prompted by the hoopla surrounding Antonioni’s death.

It’s a somber, slow – I like slow, as I’ve noted before – visually stunning experience. You can see Antonioni paint his canvases with great care, even though the DVD that is available in America is (idiotically) not letterboxed. The scene above, the very last shot of the film, is not atypical in its use of composition. Envision it now as a square and that’s what you get with the Netflix version.

But this film also is a particularly tricky & complex narrative. I’m certain that I didn’t “get it” when I first viewed L’Avventura, probably because at 19 or thereabouts I didn’t have enough distance myself from Sandro’s own agenda. It’s also interesting to realize that Antonioni’s use of absence here is not unlike – may even be the reason for – the ways in which abstraction is used in other films made since then. An example would be Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty in which Liv Tyler’s virginity is treated by the other characters as so objectified it could have been given a line in the credits. Is Bertolucci conscious of that as an homage to his countryman? Seeing L’Avventura, I felt certain the answer was yes. But one of the aspects of this is that a film viewer today has been prepared to see this dimension of Antonioni’s film, not unlike the way a reader of books like The Color Purple will discover that the “difficult” works of Faulkner don’t seem difficult at all because we’ve all learned how to read those devices in the 78 years since The Sound and the Fury first was published. It’s impossible now to recreate the “innocence” of the viewer when Antonioni’s film was first released.

L’Avventura is also a surprisingly feminist film in its critique of gender, especially coming from Italy in 1960. Were it released today, I think it would primarily be seen in those terms, whereas originally this was only one of several interlocking layers. Sadly, the world the film portrays hasn’t changed all that much. Both Vitti and Massari had major careers that ended, whether they wanted them to end or not, around the age of 50. Ferzetti, who is roughly ten years older than the two women, is still acting today in his eighties.