Sunday, September 30, 2012

Non Lo So - Antonioni at 100

Saturday was Michelangelo Antonioni’s 100th birthday.  Outside of The Guardian, I didn’t see any public notices of it.  (Translation: if you saw an article somewhere, please forward it to my attention.)  Me, I spent the afternoon and early evening watching L’Eclisse on my computer.  Some thoughts, and a lot of screencaps, below, but a good starting point would be what rgmccorkle, one of the commenters on The Guardian article, says about Red Desert:

I have often said that I could put the film in the player, turn off the sound, blindfold myself, and hit pause, print the frame and hang it on the wall with no regrets. The visual framing is that good.

You can say that about L’Eclisse as well, in my opinion.  In the opening  three minutes alone, you have over a dozen different shots before a single word is spoken, as Monica Vitti wanders around an apartment to the background noise of a blowing fan.  And I’m not talking a dozen shots from one or two set-ups.  I’m talking a dozen shots from 9 different set-ups, one of which is just a view of Vitti’s legs and some table legs as seen from the floor.  The first time I saw the film, it was very disorienting to be conscious of so many different angles; it’s like pick-up shots without a master.  Which is probably a good way to describe what Antonioni does visually.  He doesn’t do the kind of establishing shots that have become the foundation of film grammar.  He does the shots that surround the traditional establishing shot, which is almost always absent--another Antonioni hallmark.

As is the opening sequence when Monica Vitti stares down at something off-screen, gives a little amused harrumph, and then we see her playing Director as she arranges a couple of tchotchkes on a table so that they’re Framed Just Right:

Is this a key to her character?  Is she a surrogate for the film’s director?  Because it’s given just as much weight as everything else we’ve seen--and will see--there’s no transmitted answer to those questions.  Which is yet another Antonioni hallmark: the fact that everything is in focus.  Like this shot of Vitti in a mirror as she looks at her seated boyfriend:

It occurs to me that, because we’re used to the camera telling us what is important by what is in focus, our eyes have been trained to be lazy when we watch a film.  We’re used to being led by the hand.  In a two-shot, for instance, how common is it to see Person A in focus when she’s speaking to slightly-fuzzy Person B, and then out of focus when she’s listening to perfectly-focused Person B speak?  Pretty common, right?  Antonioni doesn’t do that.  In L’Eclisse, everything is in sharp focus.  Everything is the subject.  Everything, to use the two-shot analogy, is speaking at the same time.  So who are we supposed to listen to?

That’s not an easy question to answer.  When everything is in focus, you get to pick and choose what you think is important.  So in a way, because you can see everything, what you choose to see is like a character revelation.  One critic sees Anna and Claudia exchange a blouse in L’Avventura as homoerotic subtext, another sees it as a comment on the male psyche when Anna’s boyfriend Sandro makes a pass at Claudia-in-Anna’s-Blouse, and a third sees it as a symbolic change of roles between the woman who is the center of the film now and the woman who will be the center at the end.  All of which says more about the critic than the film.

As for this film, you can say a great many things about Alain Delon's man-in-a-hurry stockbroker and Monica Vitti's translator whose refrain is "Non lo so" ("I don't know"), but whatever you say will have more to do with you than with them because when nothing is out of focus, everything is a sign.  The flip side of that is that because everything is on the table, the flatness of the table itself becomes a valid response to what you're seeing--sort of like somebody spreading out an entire deck of cards, instead of dealing them out into separate playable hands.  When you can pick up your own hand from whatever you see, what's the game?  What are the rules?  (And if what you play says more about you than it does the layout of that deck of cards, then what the hell is the director trying to say?)

My answer to that (and it's just my answer) is that Antonioni isn't trying to "say" anything as such.  What he's doing ends up being more like whispering than anything else--each shot and each moment has its own message, which may or may not be contradicted by the next one--but the frame itself, the visual composition, is just as important as the characters who inhabit it, or are absent from it.  It's the difference between a snapshot and a photograph--snapshots are records, but photographs are records with meaning.  And a film composed like a set of photographs has as many meanings as each of its parts.  And yes, you have to be alive to what you're seeing, but in that sense, the exactness of precise observation makes everything not just a sound, but an echo.  It’s the perfect example of how the particular can become the universal.  Or at least thematic--as in, for example, all the different ways in which (unlike the picture above) Monica Vitti and Alain Delon are separated when they’re in the same frame: 

Also Antonionian (I love the sound of that) is the fact that the camera is not just representing a character’s point of view, but is, in a way, a character in its own right, hovering just above and behind the head of the person gazing--which, in most cases, would be Monica Vitti.

And Vitti, whatever her talents as an actress, is the perfect embodiment of observation in L’Eclisse.  The old joke about beautiful film stars in the 60’s is that men want to sleep with Brigitte Bardot, kiss Julie Christie, and get stared at by Monica Vitti.  She is an inscrutable engine of attention.  She doesn’t just see things, she notices things--like in the scene where she’s chasing after her friend Marta’s poodle, and hears this odd metallic noise, and finds herself standing in front of a row of flagpoles, watching them as their guy wires ring in the breeze.

Or the moment when she’s walking across the street with Delon, sees something off-screen, and just peels off to give it a closer look--"it" being a hunky guy striding down the street.  "Hai visto che bella faccia?" she says to Delon, after staring at his ass for half a minute.  "Did you see what a beautiful face?"

I mean, she even KISSES with her eyes open . . .


And yes, she’s kissing Delon through the glass window of a bureau door that she’s swung between them.  If that isn’t sexy, I don’t know what is.  Which, yeah, says more about me than it does about the movie.

So let’s keep it movie-oriented and talk about the justly-famous end of this film.  As with L’Avventura, there’s a vanishing.  In that film, it was the character of Anna who disappeared, which was then trumped, as one critic put it, by the much more blasphemous disappearance of the disappearance from the film.  Sort of like Psycho if Vera Miles had just gone off with Janet Leigh’s boyfriend instead of trying to find out how she died.  (Oddly enough?  The two films are only a year apart.)

In L’Eclisse, it’s the absence of the two main characters.  They swear undying love, they say they’ll see each other the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, and then agree to meet at 8PM at their usual place, and then you see this shot of the two of them:

I don’t know about you, but to me there is no way in hell or heaven that these two people at this exact moment with those looks on their faces are thinking anything but “What the fuck have I just committed myself to?”

So they say goodbye.  And Vitti leaves.  And Delon stays, replacing all the phones in their cradles because the two of them have been canoodling at his office (which reminds me I haven’t even mentioned all the crazy Stock Market stuff). And this is the last time we see Delon, though we don’t know it yet --

-- and this is the last time we see Vitti, though we don’t know it yet --

-- because the camera keeps the 8PM rendezvous, but the characters don’t.  That’s the last seven minutes of the movie, and if you’ve succumbed to the mood of this film, it’s beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time.  And because it’s so precise to this story and these people and this city and that time, it’s the ultimate absence.  It’s life going on after the death of something.  It’s the world, spinning on, oblivious to what was lost.

I love this movie.  I love the fact of it, too.  The fact that there’s nothing like it--just like there’s nothing like Red Desert, or L’Avventura, or The Passenger.  They’re all the kind of unique that, if Antonioni hadn’t been been born, people would say is impossible.  “Nobody could make a movie like that,” they would say.  "Or end a movie that way.  It wouldn’t work.”

But it does, and he did it.

Happy 100th birthday, Michelangelo.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Theatre, Musical Comedy, Film and Opera

This is the old I Miller shoe store building at the southeast corner of 46th and Broadway, whose façade was (until recently) hidden by billboards.  

The statues date from 1929.  The story goes that Israel Miller, the owner of the store and the building, handed out ballots to his customers to pick their favorite actresses in drama, musical comedy, film, and opera.  When the results came in, Miller commissioned sculptor Alexander Calder to make statues of the winners.

The most recognizable, at least as far as name goes, is probably Ethel Barrymore, who played Ophelia opposite Walter Hampden as Hamlet in the fall of 1925 at the Hampden’s Theatre on Broadway and 62nd, and the National Theatre on 41st and Seventh, which is now the Nederlander.

When Marilyn Miller was the star of Sunny in 1925, at the New Amsterdam, she was the highest-paid performer on Broadway.  She came to fame in the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies, when she impersonated Ziegfeld’s wife Billie Burke (aka Glinda the Good Witch of the North) in the number, “Mine Was a Marriage of Convenience.”  A rumored affair with Ziegfeld followed, after which she starred in 1920’s Sally, in which she debuted the song “Look For The Silver Lining,” and inspired a poem by Dorothy Parker (reprinted in the recent Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker collection).  Both Sally and Sunny were made into films, and are available from Warner Archives.

Co-founder of both United Artists and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, married to Douglas Fairbanks, and known for most of her long life as “America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford was born Gladys Marie Smith in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which makes the America in her title continental rather than national.  She starred as Little Lord Fauntleroy in 1921, which made $900,000, or about $12 million bucks in current Cash Lite.  She also made The Taming Of The Shrew with Fairbanks in 1929, which is famous in film and theatrical circles for the legendary credit: “‘Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” 

"The greatest singer of us all."  "The Queen of Queens in all of singing." These are the verdicts of Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti on coloratura soprano Rosa Ponselle. “Discovered” by Enrico Caruso, who heard her sing with her sister Carmela and arranged for her to get an audition with the Metropolitan Opera, Ponselle signed  a contract for the 1918-1919 season and never looked back.   Four days after World War I ended, she made her debut opposite Caruso in Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino; she played the title role in Bellini’s Norma, the role that many considered her greatest achievement, in 1927.