In 1966, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, then in his mid-50s and with a substantial body of work behind him, released a film called Blow-Up. Antonioni wasn't entirely unknown in the States -- his L'Avventura had been a critical success, though not without controversy, six years earlier, and the foreign film cognoscenti had been receptive to his three subsequent movies. But Blow-Up was his first popular success, and his last.
There are a number of reasons for Antonioni's temporary breakthrough to a wider audience, not the least being that there was, at the time, a receptive counterculture for what was perceived as his "spacey" point of view. Blow-Up had a central mystery which not only remained unsolved but, after intense scrutiny, was casually abandoned. The discursive quality of the narrative, the inability of the main characters to communicate with each other, and the way that supposedly natural surroundings shaded into ominous abstractions made this the best dope movie to come along until the arrival of Kubrick's 2001 two years later.
So the movie's success was based on one of those odd, confluent blips that occur when an avant-garde sensibility intersects with a burgeoning trend, in this case boomer alienation -- later to be codified, recycled and marketed as teen angst. Antonioni managed to be hip for a season before returning to cineaste obscurity.
This is an unfair fate since Antonioni is one of that handful of innovative, world-class directors whose relevance never dims. Nurtured by the postwar neo-realist movement, he began groping toward a personal style in the '50s, combining in films like Il Grido (1957) a pictorial critique of poverty with an almost mystical sense of organic despair, of human beings wandering through environments not merely hostile but unknowable.
Antonioni's masterpiece, the most fully realized rendering of his vision was 1960's L'Avventura. Like Blow-Up, it's ostensibly a mystery, but again its central conundrum is cast aside as we're asked to contemplate a world where people are dwarfed by landscape and made puzzling objects by the gnostic intentions of city structures. In this film, and the thematically similar follow-ups, La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962) and The Red Desert (1964), the settings, natural and man-made, seem eternal while the people seem like ghosts, their words as vaporous as their tenuous existence. Erotic encounters offer brief connections but no salvation.
Antonioni is the master of ennui and there's nothing hip about it. He offers the eerie beauty of cool spaces, languid vistas and indifferent architecture. It's a bleak vision, serious and meditative, and serenely unsettling. He offers, as his 1960 film title has it, an adventure.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].