Rockefeller's Melancholy

Critic-filmmaker Luc Moullet pens a provocative, previously unpublished take on the difference between the B&W and color work of Antonioni.
Luc Moullet

 In conjunction with La Furia UmanaNotebook is very happy to present Ted Fendt's original English translation of Luc Moullet's "Rockefeller's Melancholy," on Michelangelo Antonioni. Moullet's original French version can be found at La Furia Umana. Our special thanks to Mr. Moullet, La Furia Umana and Ted Fendt for making this possible.

 Above: "John D. Rockefeller" (1917) by John Singer Sargent.

Drifting is the fundamental subject of Antonioni’s films.  They are about beings who don’t know where they are going, who constantly contradict themselves, and are guided by their momentary impulses.  We don’t understand what they feel or why they act as they do.

Psychological cinema could be defined in this way: it is psychological when you don’t understand the motivation of emotions and behaviors.  If you understand, it means it’s easy, immediately, at a very superficial level...  The filmmaker must therefore let it be supposed that there are a pile of mysterious, secret, deep, and unlimited motivations, as much in the characters as in the filmmaker (who maybe doesn’t exist).  You can ramble on at your leisure about them (cf. the bottle of spilled ink in L’avventura, the tennis game in Blow Up).  It’s a way of bluffing the viewer, particularly noticeable throughout L’avventura and La notte, which is very National Enquirer (or Us Weekly, or Star, or People), dignified by an Edward Hopper emulator. 

Drifting reveals two facets, one that is positive, one that is negative.  First, the positive: it directs the film towards an unusual and surprising elsewhere.  It’s the road movie (Zabriskie Point, The Passenger, L’avventura).  The beginning of that last film is centered on the couple of Léa Massari/Ferzetti, and then on the disappearance of Massari who will be looked for in vain, very slowly and boringly, by the new—rather disappointing—couple of Ferzetti/Monica Vitti(1), and then on a semi-documentary and off-topic (but is there even a topic?) stroll through Sicily that, after an hour and a half of yawns, gives us the best (or the least bad) part of the film: the piercing gazes of the men on Monica Vitta alone in a small village square, the flirtation with the maid on the train, the prostitute’s press conference, Vitti imitating the bellboy, suddenly singing and dancing, passages that I am maybe overestimating because they happen after 100 very monotonous minutes.  This kind of drifting film - a backpacker’s, a wanderer’s cinema - will come back later in Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes) and Wenders’ Kings of the Road, with the frequent submission to chance - natural and organized—that is equally present in Blow Up.  This path will also be found in The Passenger, Identification of a Woman, and L’eclisse, objects in that film definitively replacing the protagonists in a revolutionary ending that happily gives a new twist to a film until then filled with drunks and common places (especially about the stock exchange).

The other facet is more negative.  Since drifting is a way of fighting against boredom, it leads to a new form of boredom, inevitably found as soon as the center of the film is lost.  Films about boredom are inevitably annoying.  An inherent problem in filmmakers’ activities, one that is a vicious circle, is that, in order to make films, you have to be rich or, if not, you have to very quickly become rich.  So, filmmakers only know the problems of the well-off, cutting them off from the reality of the masses and diminishing the reach of their oeuvre.  But, after all, Rockefeller’s melancholy is a human reality to which it is only normal to bring attention.  It’s something.  It brings us back to an ancestral conception of art, one that was fundamental until around 1850.  It is the expression of noble souls, men of noble births, excluding the mediocre spiritual life of the proletariat.  Going back to it (Il grido) seems like a displacement of very artificial problems. 

And when one is rich, one has everything—money, work (if one still needs to work in order to live), and love.  What more can one hope for?(2) From this comes the boredom, depression, and melancholy that one looks to fill in by looking at other things, left and right.  A cinema that is foreign to me, that aggravates me—me, who, like the majority of people, had to fight for decades to reach a summit similar to the one that Antonioni’s characters want to forget.  Maybe the height of happiness is to realise one’s ambitions as late as possible, or never, in order to avoid the agony of an earthly beyond.

The filmmaker swallows his tail.  To succeed in painting this boredom, he must go through the viewer’s boredom.  But boredom is an exchange value.  I fell asleep during certain parts of L’avventura.  I quickly fell asleep the first time I saw Le amiche (a melodrama with melodramatic words, but without emotion) and La notte, not waking up until the end.  A dull and flat world equal to that of Fabio Carpi, Jean-Francois Adam, Jack Clayton and, even, Daniel Mann: in what way is Antonioni better than them?  I don’t see how.  Maybe a DVD of La notte allows for huge savings for Social Security: less Ambien and Stilnox have to be distributed.  Michelangelo, or Morpheus’ henchman.  The law could also benefit from Antonioni: a year of mandatory screenings of La notte seems to me to be harder and more dissuasive than life in prison (and less costly than the guillotine).  Actually, I take back what I’ve just written.  Such a punishment seems to me much too cruel. 

None would be surprised that I’m invoking an argument based on my own subjectivity.  But this one is incontrovertible.  It is said, very justifiably, that a comedic film is unsuccessful when it doesn’t get people to laugh.  The same thing is said about a horror film that doesn’t elicit any horror in us or a melodrama that doesn’t make us cry.  A drama that puts us to sleep is undeniably an unsuccessful film, especially when I notice that I’m not the only one asleep...

I sometimes think that La notte is the worst film of all time.  The oeuvre of Jean Loubignac, Piédalu député among others, offers serious candidates for this title.  But Loubignac has the excuse of a lack of dough, a bad script, and commercial expectations.  Antonioni can claim no such alibis.  His failure is therefore inexcusable.  The gap between the possibilities at the beginning and the mediocrity of the final product is infinitely greater in Antonioni’s work than in Loubignac’s.

But it is also necessary to take into account the purely photographic quality of La notte, a stealthy quality (opposed to the continuity of the cinematic quality, based on duration).  The identification of a human being standing in front of trees, towers, and signs and columns of the industrial world has an undeniable beauty, in short, but is striking beyond its latent misanthropy and it expresses a precise meaning.  Antonioni is more of a photographer than a director, the proof being Sheba and the Gladiator, where he was happy to collect his check without trying to save the film.

The other negative consequence to add to the results of drifting: drifting is often suicide, generally by drowning.  It is present in The Lady without Camelias, Tentato Suicidio, Le amiche,  Il grido, The Mystery of Oberwald, and maybe also in L’avventura (those constant high-angle shots on the ocean abyss, after three suicide films, seem to explain the disappearance of the heroine) and in Story of a Love Affair (the husband is disturbed as soon as he learns that his wife has a lover, which justifies the car accident).  All of this is situated, mostly, at the beginning of his career.  Afterwards, success seems to have interrupted this suicidal vein.

If it isn’t suicide, it is a mysterious disappearance, with the mutation of the person who has disappeared.  Anna disappears on the island and quickly finds herself replaced in Sandro’s heart by Claudia.  It’s the same for the two heroines in Identification of a Woman.  The journalist in The Passenger makes it look like he died and takes on another person’s identity.  The sun disappears with L’eclisse, which ends with the elimination of the characters, in favor of objects.  Disappearing is implicit in the last sequence in Blow Up: they are playing tennis, but there are no balls.  There is the simulated disappearance of the use of the legs in Red Desert, and the simulated apparition of the shark (L’avventura).  In the fog of Northern Italy (Story, Il grido, Red Desert) the landscape becomes invisible.  There is also the disappearance of the mysterious boat where cholera raged (Red Desert): does it exist?  Have we ever existed?  This systematic disappearance constitutes a facile gimmick that identifies Antonioni, a kind of logo, a trademark, a bit like the fat dames in Fellini’s films.  Antonioni’s major fault is a constant and very gaudy display of signs of his universe (the disappearances, the uncertainties, the incomprehensible contradictions of the characters, the pompous speeches summing up the meaning of the films, the perpetual fog, the boat sirens liberally repeated, the heard, but invisible, propellor in La notte).  Dream or reality, the old, old tune...  There is a systematic and complacent divination of the inexplicable that is as much psychological as it is material and a dilation that replaces—in L’avventura—a novelistic weight, which rests above all on the principle of cutting neither the beginnings or endings of shots.

It’s curious that the cinema’s two suicide specialists are our two oldest filmmakers, De Oliveira and Antonioni, as if its evocation conjured dark ideas and increased the will to live.  There are many points in common between them: they are Catholic members of the upper bourgeoisie, the one almost blind, the other mute (is it somatization in the work of the champion of the incommunicable?), adepts of the sequence-shot with the difference that, in M.A.’s films, suicide is dramatised and in the present (Antonioni practically never films the past), whereas in the master of Porto’s films, it is linked more to the prestige of eventually masked—or in any case seen from a distance—past romanticism.  The resemblance is also situated at the level of the color, essential in the work of both artists, who were not very brilliant in black and white.  They are both enthusiasts of double framings, with the help of French windows in the frame, vertical stripes of color in the Portuguese’s replacing the other’s vertical (La notte) and horizontal (Red Desert) stripes.

Jean Gruault, in his book Ce que dit l’autre (p. 226), relates this discussion, in 1962, between Rossellini and Godard, who was driving the car shortly after having shown Vivre sa vie to the Roman filmmaker, who let his wrath explode, “Jean-Luc, you’re on the edge of Antonionism!”  And Gruault adds, “The insult was such that the unfortunate Godard lost control of his car and nearly drove us off the road.” 

I was very surprised, two years later, to find Godard enthusiastically interviewing Antonioni the day after Red Desert premiered. The change in Godard’s attitude explains itself by Antonioni’s passage to color.  If the sets and landscapes are, in his films, more important than human beings, they need to be even more fully emphasized.  They can only really exist if their diverse characteristics—including color—are called upon, whereas man does not suffer too much from black and white (the proof is in all the masterpieces of the first sixty years of cinema).  As much as the preceding Antonionis look like the work of someone indecisive, with Red Desert (1963), one has the impression of full maturity.

Above: Red Desert and Antonioni's signature fog.

It is funny to note how Antonioni—who denounces in his writings as well as in his images the inhuman side of a world invaded by industry and the industrial landscape—succeeds in evoking all the plastic beauty—unknown until then - of the world of factories.  He’s always the filmmaker who swallows his own tail.  Through the image that he gives of the modern world, Antonioni glorifies it.  It is the same thing for Buñuel and Fuller, who say they are attacking religion and violence, but, as filmmakers, live only by them.  Could Buñuel exist without Catholicism?  I don’t think so.

Red Desert takes advantage of the fact that its heroine is defined as a psychopath.  The inexplicable actions that Antonioni cherishes so much thus find their justification.  The film clearly shows that Antonioni’s art is not neo-realist (in a sophist gesture, one has tried to define interior neo-realism), but rather expressionist, since, in Red Desert, the settings, landscape and their colors express the mental ambiance in which Monica Vitti lives.  Antonioni knows how to establish a shattering succession, revealed in an ascending movement, of variations of tones (the Portofino episode of Beyond the Clouds): the metallic blue of the pool water, the dense blue of the sea, defined by contradictory diagonals that give the supreme illusion of an organization due to chance, and finally the sky with clouds announcing a storm.  In another sketch in the same film, Paris looks like a game of windows and infinite reflections, giant picture windows, clear, exterior elevators, interior mirrors, and various plastics linked by dissolves.  Even the high-angle shot of the only apartment floor was shot from outside a window.  There is the impression, confirmed by the glass and plastic in Eros, that human beings, seen through these obstacles, have an uncertain and hazy status—very different from that of naturalism—rising, sometimes from illusion, sometimes from distortion, from deformation, the imaginary, and the figurative.  At the same time, this sad and cold city acquires a poetic force, a beauty, a fullness, and an unexpected conceptual identity, especially since Antonioni starts off with scripts totally lacking anything interesting.  Antonioni lowers man as much as he magnifies objects.  When, in the same film, the couple moves along the road or in the house in Aix-en-Provence, even if they pass for only a second in front of a door or a window, they will be lit with a not very realistic golden yellow or soft white or a third tone according to a learned distribution. 

The primacy of objects over man is somewhat corrupt.  To perfect the victory of the still life, M.A. prefers to choose mediocre actors (Steve Cochran, Sophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Gabriele Ferzetti, Betsy Elair, Jacques Sernas, Soraya) or passive ones (Richard Harris, Rod Taylor, Thomas Milian, Maria Schneider, Georges Marshal), Miss Nationals (Lucia Bose, Anita Ekberg), or beautiful models (Veruschka, Ines Sastre, Kim Rossi Stuart).  He never makes recourse to his country’s great actors, Magnani and Gassman, Sordi and Toto.  If he hires Jeanne Moreau (La notte), he almost never makes use of her skills as an actress.

Above: Blow Up.

Human beings are so uninteresting in his films that, to not get bored, he relays between protagonists, thanks to the sketch films he feels more at ease with (Beyond the Clouds, The Vanquished), the short films (Provino, Eros, Tentato suicidio), and the episodic features (Le amiche, L’avventura, Il grido). 

A film like Identification of a Woman, going against Antonionian perspective, owes its superiority to the display of the most intimate, the most subtle and unexpected human reactions.  It is the triumph of a considerable ambition.  This result isn’t reached on the first try, or on the tenth, just as a pole vaulter doesn’t make six metres on the first try.  This is what explains Antonioni’s really late success, after multiple drafts and sketches in the first decade.  Does Antonioni’s inhumanity only exist because it was easier for him to film objects than humans?

1. Antonioni does everything he can to frustrate, to trick the viewer.  He leaves behind the very seductive Léa Massari to spend more time with the less interesting Monica Vitti and he spends an eternity on a detective story that is never resolved and that he forgets, while we were trembling at the beginning: is the sublime Léa going to be found?  What happened to her?  L’Avventura, or the anti-Laura.  In the Preminger film, the beautiful woman shows up at the end, after making us be patient for a long time.  In the Antonioni film, she disappears at the beginning.

2. Don’t be surprised if this Telefono Bianco filmmaker gained the favor of the neo-realists since the movement comes from film critics (of which Antonioni was an eminent member), and of the nobility (Visconti, De Sica, De Santis, De Seta) and rich families (Rossellini, idle until he was over thirty years old).


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