Wednesday, August 01, 2007

On Antonioni (and more)

Yes, I know: I’m ridiculously tardy in getting around to eulogizing Michelangelo Antonioni. My excuses? Well, OK, at the risk of sounding like a real wuss, I was already bummed out by other recent demises – especially by the loss of Ingmar Bergman – to face the grim task of writing yet another obit within so short a time. (That I got the news of Antonioni’s death one day before the first anniversary of my father’s passing certainly didn’t help matters.) And, yes, I’ll also admit that Antonioni always has been an auteur whose work I admired and respected without ever really liking, and that his enormous gift for conveying an almost palpable sense of ennui and alienation, disengagement and discontent, all the while suggesting the dark undercurrent of meaninglessness that seems (for some of us, at least) to lurk just beneath our day-to-day lives…. Well, being someone who’s already given to episodes of blue-funk melancholy, that’s simply not a part of the woods where I care to spend too much time, even while in the company of a demonstrably great artist.

Indeed, the only time I can remember actually having fun at an Antonioni film occurred during the mid ‘60s, when, in the midst of my guilt-tripping Catholic high school education, I managed (like many of my more venturesome classmates) to slip into three or four screenings of Blow-Up at the RKO Orpheum Theatre in downtown New Orleans. It was there, on the big screen, that I got my first glimpse at full-frontal female nudity – and better still, savored the iconic image of a topless Vanessa Redgrave. An image, not incidentally, that was preserved on a very popular poster of Redgrave with her arms strategically crossed over her, er, attributes. And to answer the obvious question: Yes, I had such a poster, and it had a place of honor on my bedroom wall.
Back to Antonioni: Check out GreenCine Daily’s copious coverage to fully appreciate the filmmaker’s influence and accomplishment. Jim Cheng’s appreciation in USA Today also is worth reading, as is Jeff Wells’ passionate tribute and Eric Harrison’s concise tutorial (which covers Bergman as well). I felt a bittersweet shock of recognition while considering Cheng’s observation that “[e]ven for those who were not intimately familiar with his work, Michelangelo Antonioni’s name was synonymous with art-house cinema of the 1960s and ‘70s…” Yes. Quite so. Thinking of Antonioni and Bergman reminds me of a bygone era – a time when I came of age as a lover of film -- when campus film societies programmed subtitled imports out of the Janus Films catalogue, book stores prominently displayed anthologies of serious film criticism (Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris, etc.) and art houses that routinely booked “the new Truffaut” or “the latest by Fellini” served free coffee in the lobby to encourage interaction, conversation and an overall sense of a “film community.” (It also encouraged attempts to pick up girls, though my success rate was tragically low.) And that, too, is part of the reason I’m so late with this Antonioni posting: At 54, going on 55, I don’t need many more reminders that, as Paddy Chayefksy wrote for William Holden to so memorably rant -– at age 58! -- in Sidney Lumet’s Network, “it’s closer to the end than it is to the beginning.”

Speaking of Francois Truffaut: I soon will be three years older than the great French filmmaker was when he died in 1984. This is depressing for any number of reasons, but here’s the worst part of it: Unlike, say, Antonioni (who died at age 94) or Bergman (who was 89 when Death dropped by for a final game of chess), Truffaut was just 52 at the time he went to the Great Screening Room in the Sky. And not for the first time, I find myself wondering: How many Truffaut movies were we denied by this untimely demise?

OK, that’s it: Time to stop writing and start drinking. Well, either that, or dig out that DVD of Airplane! to lift my spirits.

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