Doodad Kind of Town


Antonioni, Netflix, "L’ Eclisse" and Me
April 13, 2009, 9:41 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Michaelangelo Antononi died on July 30, 2007. I joined Netflix on July 31, 2007.

These are not unrelated events.


On the day Antonioni died (which is also the day Ingmar Bergman died, but that’s another post), I realized with a start that I – who called myself a cinephile in general and a lover of foreign films in particular – had never seen a single one of the great Italian director’s films. And a Netflix subscription seemed the fastest way to remedy that. Within minutes, I had added several of his best-known works to my queue and waited in trepidation for the Antonioni oeuvre to start finding its way to my mailbox.

I say “in trepidation” because I’d always been intimidated by Antonioni, certain his films would fly far over my head and expose me for the intellectual fraud I’d always suspected I’d be. My lack of erudition and insight would be laid bare as I wrestled with the director’s fabled imagery, his landscapes of alienation and ennui, I just knew it. (Oh sure, I can write a phrase like “landscapes of alienation and ennui” but what does it really mean?)

“L’Avventura” was the first Netflix rental that ever landed in my mailbox. I won’t pretend it was a riveting romp. I won’t pretend that I didn’t start to nod off once or twice as I watched it. It was challenging and maddening, but every once in a while, there’d be an visual image that was so startling and meaningful to me, I’d have to hit the Pause button to take a closer look at it. And I began to understand what landscapes of alienation and ennui actually looked like. One shot of Monica Vitti, shot from inside a darkened room out onto a very long, blindingly white balcony, at the end of which Vitti stands looking very small and alone, stays with me to this day.

Having overcome my fear of Antonioni, I moved confidently on to “Blow Up”(which I loved) and “The Passenger”(which I didn’t love so much.) But Netflix queues being what they are – frequently shuffled and updated as new recommendations are culled from fellow bloggers and the demands of TOERIFC participation accumulate – the remaining Antonioni films got pushed lower and lower on the list.

So it was almost a surprise when “L’Eclisse” arrived last week, and not an entirely pleasant one.

After so many Antonioni-free months, I wasn’t sure I was up to tackling this one. And I was right to be wary. “L’Eclisse” is the kind of film that, at first glance, gives arthouse films a bad name. It walks right on the edge of pretentiousness and self-parody, and I really had to reign in my tendencies toward smart-assed dismissiveness in order to give it its proper due. In the end, “L’Eclisse” was rewarding, but I had to watch it twice to the get the sense of it. And I’m still not sure I ‘read” it correctly.

Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s frequent leading lady and offscreen paramour, is again the focus of the story (and I use the word “story” very loosely here, since the last thing you’ll ever get from Antonioni is a conventional narrative). That she’s a bit prone to mood swings is telegraphed to us before we even see her, by the music that plays over the opening credits. It starts out with an exuberant jazz number sung by a female vocalist that fades suddenly and is replaced by heavy, ominous orchestral music, suitable for a horror film soundtrack. Likewise, Vitti’s character is given to flights of high-spirited fancy, laughter and playfulness that end abruptly as she morphs into melancholy and despair. It’s as if she’s suddently scampered from a wild party into an existential void and is overcome by the meaningless of human existence even as confetti is swirling around her attractively tousled head. Vitti isn’t a particularly skilled actress, nor a sympathetic presence – she’s too aloof for us to take her to heart – so the effect of these sudden transitions is very nearly risible.

In the opening scenes of the film, Vitti is breaking up with her fiance, for reasons that neither makes clear. Over the course of the film, she drifts into a new affair with a stock market trader (Alain Delon). We’re meant to understand that their relationship is doomed because Delon is materialistic and crass, while Vitti is artistic and spiritual. (Delon’s sporty convertible is stolen by a drunk who drives it into the river and kills himself in the process. After the car is recovered, Delon frets about the repairs he’ll have to make, and Vitti, incredulous, asks “You’re worried about the dents?”)

But if Delon is a self-satisfied prick, Vitti isn’t much of a catch, either. We can see that she has an artistic soul from her constant fascination with objects – she’s forever handling and touching and dragging a finger over things in her home and everyone else’s. And she has a need to frame and arrange things. In about the second shot of the film, she’s holding a empty picture frame in front of objects on her fiance’s desk while reaching through it to rearrange and remove some of the objects. Later, when she first kisses Delon, it’s through some open latticework on a cabinet door, almost as if she needs to make that kiss into a pretty picture rather than just to experience it. In this respect, Vitti’s character is a stand-in for the director himself.

But ultimately the character has neither the energy and discipline to be a real artist, nor the ability to form lasting connections and bonds with other people, and therefore, she seems to me every bit as empty and shallow as Delon’s trader. She floats restlessly from experience to experience, and initiates, then flees from, intimacy and closeness with Delon and others, over and over again. Take the scene in which she accompanies friends on a flight to Verona. She’s reasonably chatty on the plane, but once they arrive, she wanders around the small airport alone. An American man tries to talk to her in a perfectly friendly, not unsavory, way, but she just backs away smiling vacantly. Later she tells her friend, “It’s so nice here!” but it rings false. The people she’s encountered at the airport aren’t people to her so much as objects to be admired from a comfortable distance. If Antonioni intends any self-criticism here, it isn’t apparent.

“L’Eclisse” ends with a series of shots of buses, apartment buildings and other mundane objects taken during a solar eclipse in 1961 (hence the title, which is Italian for “The Eclipse.”) The main characters have disappeared at this point, apparently never to meet again, and all we’re left with is these images which seem to belong to another film entirely. It was a puzzling and frustrating ending to me. But I’m not done with Antonioni just yet: “La Notte” is hanging tough at Number 4 in my Netflix queue. Let’s hope I don’t have to watch it twice to figure it out.

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9 Comments so far
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Hardy har har.”Smart assed dismissiveness”? *Raises hand* Here…Sounds suspiciously like me. Seriously, Pat, you are NO intellectual fraud. You write with great depth, passion and intelligence. (I may have fabulous charm. But I’m no false flatterer. Haven’t got the time or the patience. So this will definitely stick to the proverbial wall.) We agree on film and artistic expression almost 90% of the time. Even when we’re not on the same page, I always enjoy visiting at DOODAD just to get your perspective – which is always fresh and compelling. So there. You’re an awesome writer with plenty of soul and wondrous taste. Guess you’re just going to have to live with it…I must confess that my relationship to the celebrated foreign film masters is rather spotty. Doesn’t worry me at all. I’ve seen plenty of European films that were made by so called genuises that left me very, very cold. One word: pretentiousness. And there’s nothing more annoying than ass aching old world pseudointellectualism and symbolism. I can understand most of these films. But I don’t like a lot of them in spite of the fact that they’ve been widely praised (to the skies). Many of them don’t grab me. So I’ll get around to them when I’m meant to.For me, the holy trinity is Allen, Lean and Kubrick. Those are the three dudes that I idolize beyond compare. Probably the only other directors that come close to that level in my world are Scorsese, Minghella and Coppola. I worship the Brits and the French. (Also dig the Aussies. Not to mention Neil Jordan.) The rest of the Europeans…not so much. The only Antonioni I’ve ever seen is BLOW UP. Watched it for the first time on the tube as a teenager. See it almost every time it’s on TV. So many layers of hidden meaning…and I take something new away from it every single time I re-enter that world.I’ll get around to THE PASSENGER and ZABRISKIE POINT one day. But I did love your review of L’ECLISSE. Well done, honey!!!

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Alienation and ennui? I eat ’em for breakfast. Seriously — that’s the name of my cereal: “Kellogg’s Alienation and Ennui: Now with Iron!”Does everyone who blogs have self-esteem problems? I know that if I didn’t have them I would have admitted by now that I’ve never seen an Antonioni.

Comment by Rick Olson

Miranda -Thanks, sweetie. You crack me up! Good for you on knowing what you like and don’t like and refusing to be intimidated! I understand exactly what you mean by “ass aching old pseduointellectualism and symbolism.” But I also like to challenge myself once in awhile, and stick with some well-known film, even while it’s driving me nuts, just trying to grapple with it and understand why it’s respected or hated or controversial. It just feels like a valuable, mind-stretching thing to do now and then. Rick -MMM! Kellogg’s Alienation and Ennui! Maybe if had that for breakfast, I’d be up to the challenge of decoding Antonioni’s films. (Is there a picture of a gloomy, disaffected-looking Monica Vitti on the front of the box? In black and white?)I don’t know that we have self-esteem problems so much as a realistic appreciation of the fact that there are “too many movies, not enough time.” There are lots of other directors I’ve never gotten around to. (I slept all the way through the only Godard film I ever went to see, way back in college.) I’m also well aware that I don’t have the grounding in philosophy, literature, or history that some other bloggers/critic possess and I’m sure that hampers my proper appreciation of some films. I just try to be honest about my limitations and take it from there.I take comfort that I’m not the only film blogger out there who’s not up to speed on Antonioni. But, Rick, you’re the man when it comes to Renoir, Truffaut, Tarkovsky or Asian films! So I guess we all have our niche. (I just haven’t figured out what mine is yet.)And if bloggers had serious self-esteem problems, would we even blog in the first place? Why would we think we had anything to say or that anyone would read it?

Comment by Pat

So glad to discover your blog. You write with such depth and understanding of the films you view.The only two films I’ve viewed by Antonioni is BLOW-UP (which I unlike you, didn’t respond to) and L’ECLISSE (which touched me on so many levels – loved the mood, imagery and alienation of the characters). Your review of L’ECLISSE really made me re-think about the its many layers – need to re-watch it soon. As with a lot of these type of films, they need to be viewed more than once :)Best wishes,Sebina

Comment by Sebina

I have L’Eclisse in my DVR waiting to be seen, so I only skimmed your review. I’ve seen Le Notte, and it’s engaging but not without its problems. There’s a review of it on my blog.Antonioni is an acquired taste, for sure, but I’ve acquired it. He’s not hard to love, or to criticize, and he deserves both.

Comment by Marilyn

Sebina -Welcome and thanks for the kind comments. There certainly is a lot take in with “L’Eclisse” and I’m glad I watched it a second time. Antonioni’s films seem to me to defy all conventional expectations – you really have to adjust your attitude in order to appreciate them properly. I can understand why he’s both loved and reviled.Marilyn -I will be interested to see your thought on “L’Eclisse” once you have watched it. I find Antonioni both brilliant and exasperating. His films are a bit of chore to get through, but the imagery is often fascinating. He really creates a kind of visual poetry for loneliness and isolation, at least in this film and in “L’Avventura.”

Comment by Pat

You’ve done a marvelous job here Pat, deciphering Antonioni’s L’ECLISSE. My favorite of the three of the alienation trilogy is LA NOTTE, but there’s no denying that this film does reward with multiple viewings. When I first saw this in a film class many years ago (ah, where did all the time go?!) I was as hopelessly lost as the characters and the seemingly static narrative. But I subsequently saw it again at an Antonioni festival in Manhattan, and then there’s the Criterion DVD that you received on netflix, which I own and have watched several times. I agree that the Italian master is an acquired taste, and he will never be ‘loved’ to the extent of a Fellini or DeSica or perhaps even a Visconti or Pasolini, but his work is infinitely more philosophically complex and challenging than all of them. (not that I am implying he is in the same league as Fellini or DeSica) but it’s a different kind of cinema here, and it certainly doesn’t revel in humanistic underpinnings, that’s for sure. I will never forget that day when cinema was handed it’s most substantial loss (true Antonioni was almost 96, Bergman was 89) a day Woodly Allen rightly called ‘truly terrible’ and they will be eternally connected to each other not just for the morbid coincidence, but for the simkilarities and hopelessness of their themes. There is little question that Antonioni must be watched multiple times, and few have ever attested to grasping is work on initial exposure. The great Stanley Kauffmann always favored him above all others and his reviews of the Big Three and the others are models in Antonioni study (beginning with his first volume of criticism “A World on Film.” I greatly look forward to your review of LA NOTTE when it comes through. Again, exceedingly excellent review here of this most dire appraisal of humanity from this peerless master of alienation.

Comment by Sam Juliano

Thank you, Sam. Always lovely to hear from you, and glad you enjoyed the post.”La Notte” is on its way from netflix to my mailbox now. Based on recommendation, I will look forward to watching it.

Comment by Pat

Thanks very much for that Pat!I definitely will be checking in with you after you see LA NOTTE.

Comment by Sam Juliano




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