Everything Goes on During ‘Alive Time’s’; The Influence of Michelangelo Antonioni on Emotional Representation in Cinema
“I wish for films in which nothing or almost nothing happens […], in which a modest detail indicates the tone of a hidden drama.” –Jean Epstein
In 1960 Michelangelo Antonioni took the Cannes Film Festival by storm with the premier of L’Avventura. The film birthed a new type of cinema in both form and style. Antonioni solidified his place in film history with his landmark film. Since then Antonioni’s films have been analyzed, reviewed, and written about in innumerable books and articles. Not much, however, has been written about how he has influenced modern cinema specifically. Through the careful examination of a diverse array of modern films a pattern of intertextual relationships and temporal similarities can be revealed. The nature of intertextual relationships in film must be understood in this context to be different from homage or general allusions. Intertextuality operates in the creative subconscious when the creator is not directly aware of any effects which a source of inspiration is having on their work. If a creator is aware of the comparison they are making to another work then it is not intertextual, it’s a homage or reference to that work. The power of intertextuality working in the subconscious should not be underestimated, I recently experienced it while I was filming an experimental project. I found that I had a scene very similar to one in Under the Skin (2014), the close up of Scarlett Johansson putting on bright red lipstick. I only realized this influence once I began editing the footage. These findings demonstrate that Antonioni’s radical cinema has influenced modern film-making in a variety of intertextual and stylistic ways.
L’Avventura was not only groundbreaking to the world at the time of its premier, but it marked a new style for Michelangelo Antonioni, a style no one had tackled with, which he would carry on well into the 1980’s. This new cinematic language involved lack of traditional temporality, long takes, stripped-bare narratives, emphasis on toxic environments, and a special focus on communication and emotions. Boiling it to down to its essence, what was so shocking about L’Avventura was its outright disobeying of traditional narrative rules and its use of temporal ‘dead times’. These two factors would become staples of his cinema.
Characters were often separated from each other by structures, objects, or emotional separation was communicated literally by the characters simply looking in any direction except at each other, like the foggy image from Red Desert. Antonioni would often make object of separation play more active roles in the film’s action, like the kiss exchanged between the pane of glass in L’Eclisse.
Antonioni would build on the idea of toxic surroundings in L’Eclisse, the theme would come through most profoundly in Red Desert. In Red Desert the main character’s surroundings are the root cause of her extreme neurosis. Surroundings and locations are always used in Antonioni films to communicate internally about the character’s state of mind, or they work to force the character into an emotional state. Setting, and surroundings, to Antonioni are opportunities to turn inward emotions outward, or to elicit specific emotions in the audience and within character. Using these surroundings, Antonioni would also make his characters appear small in the frame.
His loosely structured narratives became very iconic in that they didn’t seem to make any rules for themselves or follow any pre-established rules. The narratives in his films are fueled by surroundings, emotion, and internal struggles which pertained to communicative issues and relationships. La Notte painfully showed the slow disillusion of a marriage over the course of a whole day, Red Desert reflected on the toxicity of modern life, Identification of a Woman scorned modern love by displaying our extreme lack of communicative abilities, L’Eclisse and L’Avventura showed the painful realities of fleeting love and abandonment. In many ways his narratives are simple, he stripped his films of the confines of traditional narrative structure. This allowed the mind to be liberated, allowing it the freedom to think and ruminate on the images, generating new meanings for them spurred by the audience’s mental states and situations.
Antonioni established a very specific temporality in his films, or more of a lack of temporality. La Notte is only understood to have taken place over the course of a day because the characters make this known through dialogue. With his films Antonioni draws our attention to just how often traditional narrative temporality is unnecessary. This sense of time is not even necessarily created via narrative ques, it’s simply a natural feel of time progressing. It is as natural as the progression of real time. Viewers feel the sensorial effects of time on screen. Duration in film is lived; it is also artificially compressed via editing. Antonioni chooses not to compress his films in the traditional way and/or they are not edited to traditional temporal standards.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s narratives, cinematic style, temporal style, and compositional style have been discussed and written about at length throughout the decades; the importance of his cinematic contributions are unquestionably clear. However, his effects on cinema after his time have not been explored nearly as frequently or with the required depth in regards to their modern application. It is as crucial to examine directors in their time as it is to assess their lasting impacts, Antonioni’s impact on modern cinema needs to be brought into a clearer focus.
Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993) was the first film in the three-part trilogy. Blue’s narrative style could be described as slow, containing many ‘dead times’, and its temporal style is much like Antonioni’s. Kieslowski almost proves more than Antonioni how truly alive these ‘dead times’ actually are; “Because long, lingering shots, by their very leisurely immobility, suggest the overbearing pressure that time exerts upon human emotions” (Cardullo, 118). This type of narrative allows for this lingering, and during these ‘dead times’ the characters are so emotionally alive. Blue is the perfect film to use to examine the effectiveness of this concept because it is all about Julie attempting to emotionally rebuild herself. Kieslowski utilizes this temporal/narrative strategy to its fullest. In that it is a study in character emotion and internal emotional progression.
The temporal style of the film is very similar to Antonioni’s in that time is indeed being condensed, but not condensed only for the sake of moving the story forward or to ‘cut out’ unnecessary bits. These cuts are not sporadic, they simply feel natural within the specific moment in the film. The temporal rhythm of the film, as Julie progresses through her struggles, works to determine the pace of the editing, which is the essence of visual poetry. The length of scenes and editing style works to reinforce the weight of time felt by Julie, the consciousness of time she is feeling is turned outward.
The film’s narrative is stripped down, to a state of almost pure emotion one could argue, that through Julie, the film taps into one of life’s most difficult emotions; “The most fundamental fear and terrifying truth of the human condition is that each of us is alone. The fear of, and, consequently, the anxiety over being (alone)- over alienation- arises from our existence as “discontinuous beings” “(Ott and Keeling, 364). After the loss of her husband and child, Julie is completely alone, this creates sadness and anxiety at the start of the film, but it is Julie’s trajectory of emotional progress that powers the narrative forward. We watch Julie as she overcomes this fear of discontinuity. Antonioni’s characters are almost overly-aware of this discontinuity in their lives, many of Antonioni’s films are about a character’s search for an end to this fear, unlike Julie, his character’s rarely find a cure.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1998) was arguably just as ground breaking as L’Avventura, the film also caused quite a stir at Cannes. It can easily be classified as the modern equivalent to L’Avventura. The film is laser focused on revealing the emotional reality inside its main character. Kiarostami places his character in an empty, seemingly lifeless, environment for nearly the entire film. Kiarostami often uses environment to highlight and/or draw emotions outward in his films. The main character of the film is also unhappy with his life, isolationism plays a key role as well. Kiarostami really gives viewers time with this character, we watch him in deep moments of contemplation, distress, and we sparingly see him interact with others. When he does communicate it is nearly always unsuccessful or it’s a kind of misunderstanding. Each scene acts as a layer, going deeper and deeper into his emotional state. Instead of searching for a remedy to this discontinuity, this character is simply looking for a way to end it all.
There are several important instances where Kiarostami’s compositions carry a striking similarity to Antonioni’s.
This comparison is important not only because of the obvious visual similarities, but because of the similarities of the points in the story where the images are situated in the films. In both of these images the characters are experiencing moments of isolation, there is a great sense of finality, and the characters are made to seem very small in the frame. Their emotions are turned outward, because the characters feel small in the scope of everything, both physically and emotionally, around them.
Wong Kar Wai has spoken about how Antonioni has influenced his filmmaking style, they also worked on a film together with Steven Soderbergh, Eros, released in 2004. In In the Mood for Love (2001) Wai offers an interesting perspective on relationships, he shows us the other side of an unfaithful relationship, by focusing on those who are being cheated on. The film is slow paced, and full of poetic, lingering scenes. The temporal style of the film is deliberate, many events are often repeated; one character buys noodles, and both character’s work schedules. This repetition works to represent the repetitiveness of life, it shows a lived through feeling of time. Wai shows these events more than once to enforce this realistic temporal style.
This intertextual relationship between the two directors primarily exists through temporal style and the types of characters they gravitate towards centering their stories around. The themes of isolation/loneliness are not special to them, however the way they treat these themes on the screen is unique and significant to them. These two images include a mirror to create a unique blocking style, and using this mirror we can simultaneously see the expressions on both character’s faces. Wai further isolates his two characters by composing the shot so it looks as if the two characters are looking away from each other. In the case of Antonioni’s image, it is more clearly translated that the two characters are looking at each other.
Sofia Coppola’s breakout film Lost in Translation (2003) deals with two lonely and listless characters, both at very different, but very critical points of decision, in their lives. They are also in a strange environment which causes them to feel even more isolated. Already we have two critical points of comparison; isolated characters and oppressive surroundings. These characters are searching for something in their lives, they bond over their respective searches for wholeness. They are seeking a cure for their loneliness, a cure for their respective discontinuity. Coppola takes the concept of the listless male and female pairing so classic to Antonioni’s cinema, and reinvents it in a more modern way with Charlotte and Bob.
Coppola denies viewers a clear temporal timeline in that the film moves listlessly through what we could assume to be a period of several days to several weeks or more. Many creative decisions in the film, like the lack of a clear timeline, work to create an overall mood of directionless movement and dislocation of emotions. Antonioni’s films never really provide any kind of timeline either. To a certain degree a recognizable line of events is not necessary in a film, most films have one however. The lack of something draws attention to its absence; this has the potential to serve a dual purpose in film, it can show us that certain aspects of film which we thought were integral are not really needed, and it can show within the narrative what is lacking in the story or in the characters.
It’s troubling that we have yet to come up with a better term for so called cinematic ‘dead times’, because, as has been demonstrated, it is during these ‘dead times’ that the films become most alive and emotionally reflective. Countless time in Lost in Translation we see Charlotte simply wandering around her hotel room or walking the halls of the hotel, and we see Bob doing often menial things like taking a shower and receiving faxes from his wife. Nothing is really going on during these scenes in the traditional sense, but everything is going on emotionally within the characters. Their listlessness signals that they are in a constant state of thinking about their lives. More often than not, there is more going on during these moments versus when the characters are actually engaged and doing something on screen. These moments are more alive because we are watching the characters themselves reflecting internally about their situations.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2011), boiled down to its essence, is a study in relationships and communication. In an essay written about the film Godfrey Cheshire writes that Kiarostami, “Revives the conventions of a certain kind of European art cinema” (Cheshire, 2010). The film itself is the perfect example of how far modern art cinema has come since filmmakers began breaking conventions in the 1960’s. It is the most potent example of art cinema in its purest form that we have today. Kiarostami strips the film bare, forcing the audience to focus only on these two characters and everything they say to each other. His takes are often long and full of pauses, and ‘dead times’, this reinforces that specific kind of realism which all of these films have worked to achieve, a kind of realism which Kiarostami has clearly mastered.
The location of the film plays an important role in the narrative as well, set in Lucignano Italy, a site famous for weddings, several of which we see throughout the film. James very quickly grows to despise seeing all the wedding parties in the area, even going as far as refusing to take a picture with a newly married couple. While Binoche’s character takes a lot of joy in seeing all the newly married couples. The environment becomes toxic for him, and it eventually becomes another point of argument for the film’s ‘couple’. In this image we see James waiting for Binoche outside a church, looking very small within the frame.
This image occurs in the film after a heated argument between the ‘couple’, it’s mirroring James’ state of mind post-argument. He waits for her outside the church, we know he is contemplating what he has said to her in the previous scene. When she emerges from the church, both characters seemed to have made peace with it, that is not saying it has been forgotten however.
The dialogue exchanged between the ‘couple’ in the film is very natural, nothing is dramatized in any way. This lack of dramatization is important to note because if these interactions were dramatized, the audience would lose the important connection that the film is tailored to create. The paired down narrative forces our attention and the emotional realism displayed by the characters is all that’s left to drive the film, which is what gives it its power. There is great power in simplicity.
Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love (2013) is another film that revolves around two lonely souls. This is a much more modern film in that we see more of a use of technology by the characters and the very modern streets of Tokyo where the film is set. The relationship in the film is more unconventional than in any of the other films discussed, however there still is a very strong emotional relationship present. We have a clash between the old and the new translated to us through the age difference between the characters. This clash of old and new is a theme often expressed by Antonioni in his films as well. This idea of the modern world being shown as an overly complicated reality, which creates new communication difficulties, and lacks emotional connections, is a common Antonionian thread. We see examples of this in Like Someone in Love when Akiko listens to all the missed calls from her grandmother, and when Takashi keeps getting calls on his home telephone. This technology works to create anxiety within the characters.
This film also has a very similar temporal style to Antonioni’s films, there is not much of a sense of time expressed, and the events of the film just simply unfold with the same kind of naturalness and cinematic grace as in an Antonioni film. Using the example with Akiko and the messages from her grandmother, this serves as a very precise example of lived time through film. These two shots both play with the visual flexibility of glass and reflections.
Both Antonioni and Kiarostami often utilized this technique to create striking visuals, another example would be the first scenes in the car in Certified Copy, where we see the reflections of the city on the car’s front windshield.
In one of his articles on Antonioni, Bert Cardullo wrote that, “He was also re-shaping time itself in his films: taking it out of its customary synoptic form and wringing intensity out if its distention; daring to ask his audience to; live through’ experiences” (Cardullo, 117). This scene when Akiko is in the taxi cab and she’s listening to the messages is a perfect example of Cardullo’s words in action. Kiarostami does not spare the audience one second of those messages on her cell phone, we are left to listen to each one as the taxi drives Akiko helplessly around. This is played for maximum emotional impact because none of it is condensed.
Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, like many of the films discussed, also made quite a splash at Cannes the year of its premier. The film itself is very French in that it’s all about youth, love, and coming of age, however upon closer examination the film mirrors aspects of Antonioni in surprising ways, more specifically with Identification of a Woman. Identification of a Woman might have been released in the 1982, but its commentary on the modern psyche still remains fully applicable today. Both films are famous in part for their graphic sex scenes, but both directors utilize these scenes to communicate things about modern love in a modern, emotionally bruised, world. Identification of a Woman used its sex scenes to show aspects of the inner personalities of the main characters girlfriends. One is shown to be very selfish in bed, pulling herself towards a mirror to see her own face. While the other woman acts nearly the opposite, not forcing any attention onto herself.
Blue is the Warmest Color utilizes its sex scenes to display great passion on-screen, the likes of which many argue, have never been seen before in the cinema. The scenes serve as a display of the most intimate moments in life. They show truly raw emotion and anything short of being as explicit as they are would not do the story justice, for it would not have the same effect. The camera being so intimate with the characters is critical for later developments in the film, the eventual break up would not have the heart breaking impact that it does without the audience having experience that deep love that existed between them. Antonioni’s characters rarely, if ever, find success in love. There is always some kind of painful, gradual, process of falling out of love, or infidelity is involved. When the end of a relationship is sudden, like in Blue is the Warmest Color or in L’Avventura, it is more painful if the audience is show just how much the characters mean to each other.
The film also is very long, totaling three hours, so with this length the director does a lot more than just tell the story of a tragic and passionate romance between two women. Kechiche shows each of their emotional trajectories through this relationship in great detail, we also get to watch younger Adele grow into herself as a woman and as a person. By telling their stories in such detail, and in this way, the director exercises that power a stripped down narrative can have when it only has a few critical aspects to focus on. Those aspects being Adele, Emma, and their relationship to each other.
The film is yet another example of ‘dead times’, Kechiche films several long scenes of just conversational dialogue, it seems unimportant but this is only because it’s so natural and simple, which is the point of such scenes. We are living through those conversations from start to end in realistic, uncondensed, time. Communication is always more than simply communicating after all. It is understood that, “Spectator responses to visual aesthetic devices are neither purely cognitive (learned) nor instinctual (natural), but intertextual; they arise from the structured interplay of signifiers” (Ott and Keeling, 369). Meaning audience responses to something on screen is often constructed by their own lives and experiences. In the case of this film, the countless emotions that one goes though in a relationship are the signifiers. The film is made emotional because the emotions on screen are ones people go through all the time in life.
The Great Beauty (2013) directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is more often compared to the films of Federico Fellini, rightly so, however there several undeniable aspects of Antonioni’s cinema worth examining in the film. This image could easily be compared to the massive set structure in Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), it very well might be referring to that exactly, however it also represents a bigger emotional idea in the film. It represents modern life with all its largess and, in this case, brokenness, a waste tainting nature with its presence. The overarching theme of the film being old versus new, a theme Antonioni dealt with in a great deal of his films. Jep’s main emotional conflict is that he feels time is moving fast ahead of him, his novel is being forgotten, and that he himself is starting to feel old amidst the see of rowdy youths he surrounds himself with at parties. His affluent friends are all also in a similar situation of feelings. Their social milieu is falling away to the ages, and they are restless and bored with the fact that this is all that’s left for their lives. This is nearly the same exact conflict that plagues Antonioni’s city-dwelling, upper class, listless souls that are the center of his films.
Nature, an absence of religion, and alienation are also common themes of Antonioni that The Great Beauty addresses. We see Jep finding peace many times when he is in nature. The orange trees, the flamingoes on his patio, when he’s resting on his hammock, and admiring the imaginary ocean on his bedroom ceiling. Religion is much more prominent in this film than in Antonioni’s films, and it always eludes Jep. It remains out of his grasp as it does for Antonioni’s characters. Jep tries to talk to a priest at a wedding, but is unable to communicate his problems. Jep watches the nuns at a distance pick oranges and the young girls at the convent, but he watches them, almost mystified, unable to connect in any way aside from admiration. When Saint Maria is at Jep’s home for dinner, a massive flock of flamingos appears on his patio. Maria tells him that she knows the Christian names of all of the flamingos, he asks why, what use is that he says. Jep is unable to make that connection, take that leap to attain faith.
Sorrentino states best his aim for the mood of alienation in the film, “I wanted to emphasize the sense of emptiness to which we are irremediably attracted. Parties are the epitome of this void, they’re beautiful but senseless”. He shows that people are putting more importance onto the physical and material aspects of life, which in the end are unfulfilling. We see Antonioni’s characters doing the same thing, with much more subtlety, but they still are seeking that fulfillment in all the wrong places. They attach themselves to things which will give them instant gratification, expecting them to last, and expecting to be fulfilled by them.
The city in The Great Beauty becomes a toxic environment for one character, Romano, who leaves Rome, claiming he has to get out of the city. Jep struggles with the new overtaking the old in Rome, however he seems to take it all in as a way of life, because in the end he stays. We are even led to believe he found some form of inner peace, because he started writing a new novel. So maybe, unlike Antonioni’s characters, Jep found a type kind of wholeness in this discontinuous world. Deep down it is always this search for wholeness that either destroys a character or allows them to be re-born.
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014) might seem like an odd choice for a comparison study about the films of Antonioni, but Glazer’s sci-fi film has a lot to say about human communication, and what it means to be human both emotionally and physically. The film itself is very paired down, the main character never even talks. It is structured in a way that, as a viewer, you are simply thrown into this character’s life without any explanation. These artistic choices free the film, allowing it to become almost stream of conscious in style and mood. This film serves as one of the best examples within modern cinema of the power of cinematic simplicity paired with emotional intensity. The audience is shown her reactions and the emotions associated with those reactions (or lack of reaction in the case of the beach scene), and we are left to interpret them. This falls very much in line with Antonioni’s shown but not tell style.
Glazer also takes a familiar setting and turns it on its head, making it unfamiliar for the main character, Earth and the people who inhabit it are alien to her, but everything is normal for the audience. We expect and understand certain things about our world, this film turns those expectations around completely. This serves as one of the first levels of alienation this character experiences, she is in unfamiliar surroundings. She does not speak, she cannot eat human food, and later we learn that she does not have a vagina. This film takes all of these characteristics and aspects that we, as an audience consider normal and human, and denies them to its main character. This works to create an extremely isolated character. Towards the end of the film her surroundings become a very scary and confusing place for her, as she runs through the dense woods from her attacker.
The emotional connection exists because the audience ultimately creates a kind of associative relationship with a main character in a film. Alex Marlowe-Mann explains the audience-character relationships and it boundaries best, “Alignment is the cognitive process through which viewers are spatially and temporarily attached to characters and/or granted subjective access to their thoughts and feelings. Allegiance, on the other hand, is an emotionally process […] that depends in part on the moral values and personality traits associated with a particular character and the extent to which these are compatible with those of the spectator. […] Allegiance is therefore, something that the filmmaker deliberately elicits, or not, as the case may be” (Kliemann, 6). Applying this definition to Under the Skin it is easy to see that Glazer was not seeking allegiance. Alignment is given to the character, not in the traditional sense, however it is there, especially by the end of the films when she is violently assaulted and killed. One could even argue that because of what happens at the end of the film the character achieved both alignment and allegiance.
In a conversation with John David Rohodes, Karl Schoonover said that, “Today, his films feel crucial again, especially with the rise of a new generation of global art cinema directors whose works echo Antonioni’s aesthetic commitments” (Schoonover and Rohodes). Antonioni’s films are becoming crucial again through the revival of his style within modern films. Few critics have spelled out the exact nature of Antonioni’s modern influence on film. In my view, this question of intertextual influence should be understood in more direct terms. His impact on film in the 1960’s is unquestionable. His influences on modern film deserves equal attention and analysis.
“ We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see.” -Michelangelo Antonioni
Emily E Laird: 12/12/2016.
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