Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Michelangelo Antonioni: A Study in Color

Red Desert (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni) 
Red Desert (1964) was Antonioni’s first color film: a bold experiment in tone and design which often borders on the abstract. Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is a young mother recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her emotional insecurity propels the film’s journey through Antonioni’s preferred psychological terrain: the isolation, withdrawal and anxiety associated with life in a society where no one really belongs. With her engineer husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) absent, Giuliana forms an attachment to businessman Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). It’s a relationship conducted against the bleak industrialised landscape of the Ravenna valley, a foggy, empty no-man’s land over which cranes and pylons loom like alien installations. It’s this nightmarish vision of the future that fascinates Antonioni – a landscape that almost deprives his characters of possibility. As the director once said, it was always the people, not the machines, that were broken in his films. Red Desert is the purest articulation of Antonioni’s cinematic vision. It’s a film in which the characters’ alienation is mirrored by an environment which is both forbidding and alluring in its detachment. ‘There’s something terrible in reality,’ says Giuliana at one point. ‘And I don’t know what it is.’ Antonioni’s images exist in a strange realm of their own. At times Red Desert feels like it has more in common with modern art than it does with traditional cinematic narrative. Antonioni once said of a Mark Rothko painting, ‘It’s painted anxiety’ – an apt description of Red Desert’s visual landscape. For all its formal virtuosity Red Desert is a poignant and compelling journey into a woman’s fractured state of mind. Michelangelo Antonioni gave an insight into his cinema and working methods in an interview with Pierre Billard in 1965:

In general, where does the original idea for your films come from? 

It seems to me that no one engaged in creative activity can answer that question in good faith. Lucidity is not one of my outstanding qualities. I look at everything, avidly, and I also think I listen a great deal. One thing is certain: ideas come to me unexpectedly. But I’m not really interested in getting to the bottom of such a question.

What does the writing of the scenario mean for you: clarifying the dramatic line, making the visual aspect of the film more specific, familiarizing yourself with the characters? 

To me, the visual aspect of a film is very closely related to its thematic aspect in the sense that an idea almost always comes to me through images. The problem lies elsewhere. It has to do with restricting the accumulation of these images, with digging into them, with recognizing the ones that coincide with what interests me at the time. It’s work done instinctively, almost automatically, but it involves a great deal of tension. One’s whole being is at stake: it is a precise moral choice. What people ordinarily call the ‘dramatic line’ doesn’t interest me. One device is no better than another, apriori. And I don’t believe that the old laws of drama have validity any more. Today stories are what they are, with neither a beginning nor an end necessarily, without key scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead. Familiarize myself with characters? But the characters are not strangers that I may or may not be on intimate terms with; they emerge out of me, they are my intimate inner life.

What does the fact that you work in collaboration with others on your scenario mean to you?

Every time I have tried to let others write parts of a rough script, the result, even if it was excellent from an objective point of view, was something foreign to me, something close to what I wanted without ever coinciding with it exactly. And that gave me a terrible sense of impotence. Then began the great task of selecting, correcting, even adapting work that was as difficult as it was useless, because it inevitably led to compromise. I can never manage to be objective when I judge the work of my collaborators. The film stands between me and them. So, after trying this a few times, I ended up writing almost all the shooting scripts of my films myself. However, I haven’t ruled out collaborations altogether. I don’t choose my collaborators on the basis of our affinities, but for the opposite reason. I need to have people who are very different from me around me, people with whom there can be animated, lively discussions. We talk, we discuss things for months before the film. We talk about a lot of things. Sometimes we also talk about the film, but not necessarily. What I say ricochets off them, comes back to me in the form of criticism, commentary, suggestions. After a certain time, the film becomes clear. It is only then that I begin to write the rough script. I work many hours a day, often beginning at dawn, until I’m completely exhausted.

What form does your script take in its final phase? 

The shooting script is never definitive for me. It’s notes about the direction, nothing more. There are no technical notations such as used to be made. The placing of the camera, the use of various lenses, the movements of the camera, all concern the phase in which the film is shot, not that in which the script is written. I would say the same thing about dialogue. I have to hear the dialogue in the living voices of the actors, that is to say of the characters, within the scene, to decide whether or not it’s right. And then there’s another factor. I believe in improvisation. None of us has the habit of preparing for a meeting to further business, love, or friendship; one takes these meetings as they come, adapting oneself little by little as they progress, taking advantage of unexpected things that come up. I experience the same things when I’m filming.

Can the choice of locations or actors influence the scenario, and if so, how? 

In general, I decide upon the outdoor locations before writing the shooting script. In order to be able to write, I need to have the surroundings of the film clearly in mind. There are times too when an idea for a film comes to me from a particular place. Or more precisely, when certain locales come to mind because of the themes or characters running through my head. It’s sometimes a rather odd series of coincidences.

What possibilities for improvisation do you allow for while you’re filming? 

Speaking of improvisation, I must add something to what I said before. If I think of the past, it’s possible for me to say that I have always lived minute by minute. It’s the way I live even today. Every moment of the day is important to me, every day is a new experience. And this doesn’t change when I’m shooting. On the contrary, the pull of reality increases during shooting, because you’re in an extremely receptive state, and because you’re making new contacts, you’re establishing often unexpected relationships with the crew, and these relationships are constantly changing. All that has a definite influence on my work, and leads me to improvised decisions, and even to radical changes. This is what I mean by improvisation.

How are your relations with the crew? 

Excellent. I try to create a cordial atmosphere. I like to have people laughing and joking around me. People who seem to have no problems. It’s quite enough that I have problems. I admit, however, that I am very demanding. I don’t allow anybody around me to show that he doesn’t know his business. Or that he’s unwilling to work. There is a certain laziness about crews, it’s natural, inevitable. But it’s what I dislike most. When I happen to scream at someone (as all directors do, it seems), I’m railing against this sort of indifference.

What are your relations with the actors? 

I’ve always had excellent relations with actors sometimes too good. Hearing me say that may seem odd, but it’s true. Even with Jeanne Moreau, who claims the opposite, I have never I repeat never had arguments during filming. I know, however, that actors feel somewhat uncomfortable with me; they have the feeling that they’ve been excluded from my work. And as a matter of fact they have been. But it is precisely: this form of collaboration, and no other, that I ask of them. Only one person has the film clearly in mind, insofar as that is possible: the director. Only one person fuses in his mind the various elements involved in a film, only one person is in a position to predict the result of this fusion: the director. The actor is one of these elements, and sometimes not even the most important. There is one thing the actor can’t do, and that is to see himself in the view-finder; if he could, he’d come up with a number of suggestions regarding his acting. This privilege is reserved to the director, however, who will thus limit himself to manipulating ‘the actor element’ according to criteria and exigencies known to him alone. There are various ways of getting certain expressions from actors, and it is of no interest to know whether or not there is a corresponding mood behind these expressions. I have often resorted to foreign actors for practical reasons: agreements with distributors, unavailability of Italian actors, and so forth. But sometimes it was because I thought actors were better suited to the roles than those at my disposal here.

Do you prefer to record the sound on the set or to dub it afterwards? 

When I can, I prefer recording on the set. The sounds, the noises, and the natural voices as picked up by microphones have a power of suggestion that can’t be obtained with dubbing. Moreover, most professional microphones are much more sensitive than the human ear, and a great many unexpected noises and sounds often enrich a soundtrack that’s been made on the set. Unfortunately, we are still not advanced enough technically to be able to use this system all the time. Shooting indoors it’s hard to get good sound. And dubbing also has its advantages. Sometimes I find that the transformation of a noise or of a sound becomes indispensable for certain special effects. Thus in certain cases it is necessary to change the human voice.

Who decides on the exact framing and the camera movements? 

I can’t imagine a director who would leave that up to other people. Excluding or including a detail, even an apparently secondary one, in the film image, choosing the angle of the shot, the lenses, the camera movements, are all decisions essential to the success of a film. Technique is not something that can be applied from outside by just anybody. Practically speaking, technical problems don’t exist. If style is there, it permeates technique. If style is missing, the problem disappears.

Do you shoot any sequences from several angles so as to have greater freedom when you edit? 

Until Red Desert, I always filmed with a single camera, and thus from a single angle. But from Red Desert on, I began using several cameras with different lenses, but always from the same angle. I did so because the story demanded shots of a reality that had become abstract, of a subject that had become color, and those shots had to be obtained with a long­ focus lens. Obviously I have the editing of the film clearly in mind during shooting. And it is only when I am led by circumstances to improvise, and consequently to shoot quickly, that I try to accumulate protection takes.

How much do you have to do with the cutting of your films? 

I have always had an editor at my side on all my films. Except for Story of a Love Affair, this editor has been Eraldo da Roma. He is an extremely able technician with vast experience, and a man who loves his work. We cut the films together. I tell him what I want as clearly and precisely as possible, and he does the cutting. He knows me, he understands immediately, we have the same sense of proportion, the same sensibility concerning the duration of a shot.

What is the role of music and the soundtrack in your films? 

I have always opposed the traditional musical commentary, the soporific function ordinarily assigned to it. It’s this idea of ‘setting images to music,’ as if it were a question of an opera libretto, that I don’t like. What I reject is this refusal to let silence have its place, this need to fill supposed voids. The only way to accept music in films is for it to disappear as an autonomous expression in order to assume its role as one element in a general sensorial impression. And with color films today this is even more necessary.

Do you concern yourself with the public and its possible reactions at any stage of making your films? 

I never think of the public. I think of the film. Obviously, you’re always speaking to someone, but this partner in the conversation is always an ideal one (perhaps another self). If this weren’t true, I wouldn’t know what to base my work on, since there are at least as many publics as there are continents or human races not to mention nations.

What phase of making a film presents the most difficulty, requires the most effort?  

Each film has its own history. One will demand inhuman efforts during shooting, another intellectual tension at the scripting stage, another an iron will during the cutting or the dubbing, when you’d swear that the material you have on hand is completely different from what you wanted. And then we each have our private lives which are not broken off during filming; on the contrary, they acquire new point and bite, giving our work a function that is sometimes stimulating, sometimes debilitating, sometimes calming, and so forth.

Do you feel that the language of film has evolved, and to what extent do you think you have contributed to this evolution? 

My contribution to the formation of a new cinematic language is a matter that concerns critics. And not even today’s critics, but rather those of tomorrow, if film endures as an art and if my films resist the ravages of time.

– PIERRE BILLARD From Cinema 65 100, November 1965. Originally translated in L’avventura. A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969. 

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