I watched a lot of his films as teenager. I had no idea what I was watching, although I loved the house blowing up at the end of Zabriskie point.
Blow Up? Confusing, but the women were beautiful and David Hemmings sure seemed to be having a good time for a guy who was growing more paranoid by the minute.
La'Ventura, loved the clothes - and I'm a sucker for black and white, sunglasses and smooth hair - but how could these people be so unfeeling and narcissistic to simply not care that their "friend" had virtually disappeared without a trace?
The Passenger, what an idea. A spiritually dead international reporter fakes his own death, takes on the identity of a dead man in his hotel room, and later finds out he's become an arms dealer. Jack Nicholson is the coolest thing on two legs and he's got Maria Schneider along for the ride...But it seems to go nowhere.
Much later, I saw "The Eclipse." Fascinating images, slightly boring, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, what a couple. But again, what the Hell was going on? A series of events that rang flat and uninteresting. This was only a few years ago when I saw The Eclipse for the first time, so I can't blame my non-response to total mental immaturity. But that was it for me. Antonioni...whatever.
And then I ran into Martin Scorcese's "Two Voyages To Italy." At some point he covered Antonioni, and in particular, the ending of Eclipse, that, because of him, has become one of my favorite endings of any work of narrative, along with Fanny and Alexander, I have ever seen or read. I'd also include Tim O'Brian's "The Things They Carried," and Hemingways's "The Sun Also Rises" in that list.
Just some context for the ending of Eclipse: throughout the film we follow the affair between Delon (a stock trader,) and Vitti (who knows what she does?) Their relationship turns the whole concept of Hollywood coupling on its head. Their's is a cold and unfeeling meeting. We long for hot steamy passion, they're so fucking beautiful, like the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie of their time, but we never get it. There's some stuff about Vitti breaking up with her ex-fiance reminscent of Godard's apartment scene in "Contempt," the Italian stock market crashing and Vitti's mother losing a boat load of money, Vitti's ennui at the impossibility of connection (there's an unbelievable scene of her and her two girlfriends playing in her apartment, pretending to be African tribesman, and then Vitti lamenting that when she makes love with a man, most of the time, she feels nothing. The friend I was with, a woman, at hearing this monologue suddenly blurted out, "How does he ((Antonioni)) know so much about women?!)
And, finally, the affair ends, "not with a bang but a whimper." We are left for almost, what(?) ten minutes with shots of landscape, empty of life, stolid, cold and rigid. Beautifully composed yes, but somehow drained of beauty.
And that's it. Fade out. The End.
Then, by pure accident, about a year later, I watched Scorcese analyze the film, and, without him, I don't think I would have understood anything nor ever gone back; this man would have made a great teacher. As he explains, in paraphrase, these shots are of all the places that Vitti and Delon visited, went to, shared together. Now these places are devoid of them and they will never return. They are simply spaces, perhaps a map of the past should they ever choose to look, but lifeless and dead without them. And they will never look. And so those spaces are simply, spaces, beautifully voided; they know no history nor will anyone else, ever.
Take Los Angeles. In spots, especially at night, it is reminiscent of Antonioni's landscapes in its sheer alien emptiness...An urban desert of its own, if you will. On top of that, with the real estate boom, rising rents, etc., over the last eighteen months I've seen so many places closed down, changed, boarded up and demolished. Places that I used to go to with some of the people I've been involved with, whether it was years or days, whether these were fulfilling affairs or not.
But you look around and you see these places, the places you used to go to, and now they are different, changed, gone for forever. For the places that do survive, have you ever tried to go back to these spaces you once loved with someone that you are involved with in the present? It's never worked. It's like trying to re-capture a magic that could only exist once, or, worse, an attempt at re-writing history. To me those places are haunted, never to be the same for the chemistry between you, that one you first shared and discovered that space with and that particular time in your life, created the specific and uncopyable energy of that space in your memory. For me that cannot ever be recreated, and the space cannot ever be resurrected into another no matter what I try.
This is a very specific human emotion we've all experienced or will experience, I think. These haunted feelings in a space of the past, the true ghosts of our lives. Antonioni identifies this quiet longing for the past in space, and, through his poetic gifts, somehow captures this emotion. Perhaps it is age and a little experience (another word for our losses great and small) but gone from his work is the unrelatable and austere landscape and emotion that was inaccessible to me. Now his images are filled with meaning: longing, loss, and passion never to be fully claimed or owned but for a moment in the kaleidoscopic tapestry that is memory. A memory that, as it inevitably grows longer and longer, seems to fade away more and more except in dreams.
And so, because of Scorcese, the door opened into Antononioni's work, and I see more and more truth in it as I get older. This quiet surrender to loneliness in so many of the people he captures; there are the ones who have fought against the loneliness, and the ones who never fought, but they all seem to end in the same psychological/emotional place. A specific type of human being, yes, but one I see all the time...sometimes in the mirror.
Find his work cold, look closely, Antonioni is one of the geatest chroniclers of what it is to be alive, try to connect and fail, we've ever had. The "coldness" in his work is is simply the denial of sentimentality in his observations of our illusions and loneliness. His poetry is the truth his denial of this sentimentality allows for.
His work is by no means pretty in the conventional sense; fashionably existential, perhaps, but pretty, no.
His work is an autopsy of being human in our age, and quietly bloody in its precision. Like the great poets, Antonioni was a surgeon of the soul on his own terms, with his own language.