Rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni's modernism: A conversation between Karl Schoonover and John David Rhodes
Rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni's modernism: A conversation between Karl Schoonover and John David Rhodes
The iconic Italian arthouse auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) would have turned 100 this fall, and here UMP authors John David Rhodes and Karl Schoonover discuss how his complex films have transformed their understanding of the politics of the moving image.
Karl Schoonover: I’m interested in the fact that both of us are rethinking Antonioni’s modernism right now, after writing books about realism in Italian cinema. In different ways, our books, Stupendous, Miserable City and Brutal Vision, interrogate the ways post-WWII Italian fiction films borrowed from the cinema’s documentary capacities. For example, Neorealism’s humanist dramas gain potency by investing in cinema’s technological naturalism and its detailing of a particular place or body. The film image and the contingencies recorded therein are not just a reflection of real events; they exemplify an entire social reality. The screen becomes a venue for the transformation of life's quotidian details into a political message. Traditional histories have told us that Antonioni's filmmaking takes Italian cinema in the opposite direction, with the modernism of his films signaling the waning of arthouse cinema's infatuation with the film image’s indexicality and Antonioni’s disinterest in politics. This conventional perspective sees Antonioni’s dynamic images as always moving away from gritty realism and towards art-for-art’s-sake abstraction. While quotidian details still populate his images, the argument goes, they are there exclusively to serve as the fertile platform for a formal experimentation that aims to leave objects and their particularities in the dust.
Noa Stiematsky’s work on Antonioni’s earlier documentaries (Italian Locations) argues for a much subtler understanding of Antonioni’s modernism. After reading her work, I began to consider what it would mean to revisit Antonioni’s films and consider how his images register a social reality. What if his supposedly abstract formalist landscapes were political? What if we approached his celebrated 1960s arthouse feature films – L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso – with the same attention that Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema demands of us?
Posing these questions feels a bit like playing devil’s advocate with the orthodoxies of film history. From the early 1960s, the critical consensus that developed around his aestheticism had the effect of banishing the political and social textures of his films. When European art cinema fell out of fashion in film theory because it was identified with decadent and narcissistic formalism, Antonioni's relevance further suffered: with the possible exception of Blow-Up, his films were rarely taught and seldom addressed by scholars. Today, his films again feel crucial, especially with the rise of a new generation of global art cinema directors (Tsai, Jia, Apitchatpong) whose works echo Antonioni's aesthetic commitments: they use extended duration, wandering camera movements, and overtly graphic frame compositions to produce counter-narratives against globalization and neoliberalism. When we re-watch Antonioni’s films through the lens of this new generation, something long submerged reappears: we are able to see a persistent attention to the particulars of social reality in his images that lays bare the texture of a rapidly globalizing world.
"Registering social reality"
John David Rhodes: The way you phrase the problem—how to think of Antonioni's cinema as "registering social reality"—is exactly what I've been working to understand. What is funny is how, once I began to look at his films in this way, it all became so obvious.
My work on Pasolini was ignited first by an interest in the form of his early films. I was interested in how they were made, and thinking about their formal awkwardness led me to think about what I was actually looking at in the images. (What I was seeing was the refracted registration of a specific urban, architectural history.) In a sense, despite how different their aesthetics are, my work on Antonioni has followed a similar sequence.
The obliqueness of Antonioni's approach, which is often a literal obliqueness—looking at an object or location from an oblique angle—has meant that critics have been interested, understandably, in celebrating and exploring the so-called abstraction of his work, and have, in a sense, abstracted his abstraction from the world that it pictured. Critics like Seymour Chatman made important gestures towards recognizing Antonioni's historicity, especially in regards to urban form, but there is still so much to see and to know in the films.
I was first turned on to a metonymic reading of Antonioni's films when I realized that I could read the address of Vittoria's apartment building in L'eclisse: 307 Viale dell'Umanesimo. (Other critics have since followed this trail.) The "realism" of this evidence led me to consider the broader, historical and theoretical implications of Antonioni's use of the Roman suburb of EUR (begun under Fascism and developed in the postwar years) as one of the primary locations for this film, something I explore in my article for the book I co-edited with Elena Gorfinkel (Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image). This approach, which attempts to synthesize theory with history in reading Antonioni’s work, is followed by a number of writers (including yourself) whose work appears in the collection that I’ve recently edited with Laura Rascaroli.
Antonioni's vision is, in fact, abstract and abstracting. But it is the abstract (oblique, formally belabored, defamiliarizing) mode of looking that makes us really see these things, people and places in the first place. The abstracting gaze is already competing and coming to terms with a landscape that has become, itself, increasingly abstract. We, with and through Antonioni, apprehend one abstraction through the other and vice versa. The point, though, is not that the world is abstract—universally so—and so can be written off or explained in one fell swoop. Abstraction for Antonioni is—and this perhaps strikes the note of a truism or a cliché—a method of mediating a universal and a particular. He practices a kind of abstract realism, in which both terms have to be entertained simultaneously. Become enthralled with the abstraction, we lose the social reality he is documenting (and often criticizing); become obsessed with the reality (the information indexically inscribed in the image) and we lose the power of his art to make the world seem worthy and in need of criticism.
KS: The end of L’eclisse forces the viewer to feel and to confront this precise tension. It suggests why Antonioni works to maintain the awkward cohabitation of document and abstraction within his images. Here an already loose narrative gives way to a poetic sequence that abandons the main characters of the narrative, who are never seen again. This 7-minute sequence of uneventfulness feels like a meditation on what constitutes the objective world: its temporalities, surfaces, textures. Those final minutes of the film ask how, if at all, that world matters to the narrative we have just watched for the previous two hours.
In the film’s opening scene, a heterosexual couple faces the disintegration of their relationship. But this discord is haunted by the obtuse compositional and aural presence of inanimate objects in this domestic setting’s interior. This scene epitomizes the obliqueness you’ve mentioned. But in the unexpected ending, the stubbornness of inanimate objects takes over. What was once approached from a sideways angle is now coming at us head-on. Empty streets, abandoned construction sites, broken fences, a forgotten pile of cement bricks. Humans sometimes appear but they are not personages or characters. More often the film gives us unpopulated shots: the uneven surface of worn pavement, insects scurrying across cracks in tree bark, sediment draining away like trailing smoke.
From a conventional viewpoint this is one of the most modernist passages in Antonioni’s films, and it could certainly stand alone as a short experimental film. For me, it is important to reassert the physical properties on display here because this sequence interrogates precisely that threshold between abstraction and documentation that you just described. Some of the most powerful shots are those registering what is the seemingly least eventful action: water leaks from the bottom of a corroded waste barrel. These shots record a very simple set of transformations: the polluted rainwater trickles out and gently erodes the fallowed city dirt in furrows. Yet, as the camera follows this small action, we feel like we’re witnessing something remarkable. This leakage proposes cinema as a kind of alchemy, illustrating its most basic features as a medium: indexical and abstract, quiet and animated, quotidian and exceptional, corroborating and transformative.
As with many similar passages in Antonioni’s films, it is detritus that stands as the threshold between documentation and formalism. Elsewhere it might be a marred surface, a garage heap, a forgotten fallowed space of a city that provide similar passageways between otherwise incommensurate pictorial impulses. Il deserto rosso stands as Antonioni’s magnum opus in this respect. Early in the film, the camera fixates on the blackened pits of petrol-drenched sludge. This terrain’s monochromatic density stands out in the film’s famously vibrant use of color and a palette of diffused grays.
At this juncture in our discussion, one could easily point out that the history of modernism is littered with artists who recognize pollution as a formal opportunity, who see modernity’s refuse as the site in the concrete world most open to abstraction (e.g., in very different ways: Impressionism, Dada collage, Graham Sutherland, Arte Povera, John Cage). But I think we should be careful to avoid thinking of Antonioni’s interest in detritus as simply an excuse to find abstraction in the concrete world. Waste interests him more than as urban modernity’s gift to compositional experimentation.
The toxic grants Antonioni a venue through which to draw our attention to the radical shifts that late capitalism brings to determinism. Post-industrialization can be seen not only to mystify agency and divorce it from human community and work, but also violently encouraging a naïve species-centric definition of nature. As toxic overspill moves in the image, it carries an energy with it that is all its own. Waste manifests a different world in its polluting path, and when studied under the close eye of Antonioni’s camera, its transformations offer a lesson to the viewer. Here we witness how waste not only takes up too much space, but also makes things happen. It doesn’t just haunt modernity’s smooth surfaces and hygienic spaces; it changes the world’s structuring, warping our world’s materiality. Is this a new alchemy? A form of fetid fecundity? Could these images offer an anti-developmental account of change? A refusal of progress’s violent vectors?
Others find allegory and symbolism in the imagery of L’eclisse’s final sequence (baby carriages, mushroom-cloud shaped towers). But at many moments, its images are masterfully unencumbered by hermeneutic expectation. Here states like drifting, inattention, and deterioration become powerful agents of change. And there is something robust in this micronarrative of corroding surfaces and distractedness, an experiential registration of a world that contrasts to the frailty of relations that the film’s more conventional narrative arc depicts (heterosexual bonds, the stock market, neo-colonial travel).
On waste and toxicity
JDR: Everything you say about the ending of L'eclisse makes me think of another (in)famous ending: that of Zabriskie Point. Here, Antonioni explodes the set, which is, of course, yet another building site, this time a kind of late modernist, John Lautner-manqué desert villa. The set is exploded once, but recorded by numerous cameras. We are talking about a kind of pictorial/technological sublime here. This explosion--this profligate waste of materials and resources--is intercut with and then eventually gives way to the insertion of second unit footage of other explosions of domestic objects and appliances. At one point, a refrigerator appears to be exploded--maybe a whole kitchen. A loaf of Wonder Bread, a whole uncooked chicken, and a box of Special K are just some of the commodities that hurtle towards us in slow motion and then careen, slowly, into offscreen space.
So here the film does not collect indices of waste that are then indexed again on film and reassembled and offered to us, as is more the case in L'eclisse. Rather, the ending of Zabriskie Point makes waste, adds to the trash of the world, and to the toxicity of this trash.
This ending has often been abused—as absurd, excessive, embarrassing, too literal, too metaphoric. Of course, it is all of these things. It's a trashy ending, we might say, which is probably a trashy way of putting it. My point is not simply to reclaim these terms via their trans-valorization (that excess, for instance is, ipso facto, good). But critics (at least up until recently, and I would point readers to Angelo Restivo's wonderful revaluation of the film in Laura’s and my anthology) have perhaps missed out on the fact that here excess is a strategy. These explosions are also putatively or formally (in terms of the grammar of point of view editing) offered to us as the impossible experience of a subject, the character Daria, who would seem to be bearing witness to them before driving off, literally, into the sunset.
There are lots of ways of reading this ending. We can use the terms we've established (I mean the tension between abstraction and documentary) and, following Antonioni, put them under duress. By blowing up the world (or a part of it) and documenting that explosion so carefully, Antonioni encourages us to find the point where one term becomes the other, where both collapse into some other, as yet unnamed third term. Or we could read the ending as a homeopathic instantiation of the film's own wasteful material excesses (the production was famously overbudget), which are, of course mimetic of and predicated on the larger context of waste produced by advanced capitalism. Yet another way in, one which you suggest, is to consider that the film is asking us not just to lament the fact of toxicity, of waste, of wastefulness, but rather to think through and past the ready-made ethical vocabulary that we've inherited for talking about these things. This makes Antonioni—as Karen Pinkus has argued and as your work also suggests—a figure who anticipates some of the most challenging thinking about climate change.
We are compelled to live in a world of waste, and the challenge of new ecological thinking is its recognition that there is not something called nature (or “the environment”) on one side that needs to be protected from something called “pollution” on the other side. The division is false, perhaps as misleading as the distinction between abstraction and realism. And the division perpetuates the damage that it is meant to draw our attention to. Antonioni explodes the distinction and asks us to live through it, to endure its spectacle. The generic ending that the film offers immediately afterwards—as if we actually could drive off into the sunset—is yet another provocation. It could be read as tongue in cheek or as nihilistic. The sunset is wonderful, natural, an instance, like an eclipse, of a kind of planetary, astronomical sublime. But on what or on whom is the sun setting? Is this gorgeous image—as image—of its setting also another part of the world's trash—so compelling, so pointless, so unavoidable?
In these terms, I think it's fair to say that part of Zabriskie Point's embarrassment was its historicity: it is so drenched in its countercultural moment. Americans liked to say that Antonioni didn't “get” the American scene. But really, he was after so much more than siphoning off the energy reserves of a cultural moment. The film's excessive periodization—its commitment to taking its own moment as a period—means that, in a sense, it could only be properly viewed and understood after this moment itself had succumbed to the condition of waste, had become garbage.
Karl Schoonover is assistant professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema and co-editor of the anthology Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories.
John David Rhodes is reader in literature and visual culture at the University of Sussex. He is co-editor with Elena Gorfinkel of Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image and author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome.