FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 50, December 1999

 


 

David Martin-Jones

Invaginating Antonioni

 


 

 

Peter Brunette

_The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998

ISBN 0-521-38992-5

186 pp.

 

'the very ambiguity of these films causes them to become vast blackboards on which individual critics scrawl their own desires and obsessions, thinking all the while that they are describing the films, and only that. (I do not exclude myself from this self-deluding process.)' (5)

 

Brunette's book is an act of re-framing that falls snugly in line with several of his previous works on deconstruction. The emphasis in this case, however, remains firmly on the selected Antonioni films, leaving the theory itself as an undercurrent that structures the book's rationale, without being obtrusive or all-pervasive. Initially giving the impression of being a rather light read (under 150 pages of text), in actuality the book provides the reader with considerable depth from which to fathom its full philosophical ramifications. Brunette has chosen to concentrate on six of Antonioni's films -- dismissing most of his others as 'secondary efforts' (26) -- devoting a chapter to each of the chosen few. Whilst it is possible, therefore, to read each chapter in isolation, doing so might well give the impression that there is little insight to be gained from what is said therein. When read as a whole, however, the book can be seen to contain several threads of discussion that ultimately vindicate the choice of the six specific films, and the impression that they create of an ongoing stylistic concern.

 

Brunette's project is an attempt to salvage Antonioni's films from the clutches of the critical reception that they received on their original release, during the 1960's and 1970's. This reception tended to focus on the philosophical themes prevalent at the time, with the emphasis placed heavily on, in particular, the topics of 'existential angst', and, the 'alienation' (1) of the subject in the modern world. Brunette provides numerous examples of such critical interpretations, showing a rather exhaustive research background, and quashing a more cynical reader's possible, initial reaction, that this is an over-generalisation, a straw man against which to propose a similarly cabalistic theory. In point of fact, the book wrestles with this problem throughout, making it a rather dynamic, if at times difficult reading process, as the text continually struggles with its own framework.

 

The critical reaction Brunette attempts to re-frame is that which he sees as typical of:

 

'the period's interpretive frame -- at least as posited by critics whose primary interest was aesthetic or formal, rather than political. This focus can be explained historically by the fact that in the late 1950's European existentialist philosophy, as popularised by Jean-Paul Sartre and others after World War II, began to filter down to more popular artistic forms such as the movies.' (1)

 

A reaction that, if not re-examined, would undoubtedly lead to the placing of Antonioni's cinema within a specific historical period; the films being forever seen as merely an expression of the *frame* through which they were initially received. As Brunette is often at pains to point out, this critical interpretation may in fact say more about the critic than the film itself, a rather precarious statement for a film academic/critic to make, and one from which he does not exclude himself (see the opening quote). But, of the complexities of this debate, more later.

 

This re-framing of Antonioni brings to bear much of Brunette's earlier work on deconstruction, and in particular Derrida's work on the relational quality of the frame. [1] The constant need to reframe art (socio-historically, politically, commercially, aesthetically) in order to 'invaginate' the artwork: this process causing a re-examination of the status of the artwork as one amongst many multiple, interacting, textual narratives. As such, the book implicitly challenges film theory to reframe its own position, and in places this becomes an explicit attempt to further a move away from the symbolic interpretation of film, and into a slightly more pragmatic (and often decidedly ambiguous) appreciation of the graphic stylistics of the image, in and for itself.

 

This two-pronged argument works specifically because of Brunette's choice of Antonioni as the focus for his book, his particular style of filmmaking providing scope for post-structuralist theorising where an analysis of some of his contemporaries (such as Visconti, or Pasolini) might not have done so. The most obvious and oft-quoted example of Antonioni's aesthetic concerns, and the one which best illustrates the task in hand, is the action of Vittoria (Vitta) at the beginning of _L'eclisse_ in which she moves a selection of objects around inside a picture frame, re-arranging them to suit her perspective on the obviously relational frame. Antonioni's stylistic foregrounding of the constant need for interpretation and re-interpretation is exactly analogous to that of Brunette's own attempt to reframe not only our appreciation of Antonioni's films, but also of film theory.

 

In order to make Antonioni relevant to film studies in the late 1990's, Brunette reframes his films in reference to several areas that might otherwise be obscured by the existential angst angle. These include: the debate over the value of symbolism and metaphor to the interpretation of film: an historically distanced re-appraisal of the social and political dimensions to the film; the intentions of the critics themselves (the aforementioned critical and historical interpretive frame); and, perhaps most interestingly, the reframing of a work in light of what may have since become dominant theoretical discourses in the decades following the films' release. This exercise in retroactive hermeneutics brings out the changes charted by Antonioni in his films, and 'change', as a topic in and for itself (something that Sam Rohdie [2] has already shown as an aesthetic goal of Antonioni), is illustrative of several contexts that are still relevant today, not the least of which being the debate around gender and sexuality. It is in this way that the book provides greater depths when read in total, than as individual criticisms of specific films.

 

Re-addressing Antonioni in the light of the way in which critical thought has changed toward the representation of gender roles since the early 1960's, Brunette begins to refocus our attention on the proliferation of female protagonists in Antonioni's films, and the problematics of their dialogue with the male, authorial gaze. Often ignored (one feels perhaps due to Antonioni's own comments that his preference for female leads in his earlier films was due to the fact that they were somehow 'more instinctive, more sincere' (8) and thereby better filters for reality), Brunette utilises the ambiguity over authorial intent that his reframing allows, to examine the portrayal of female characters regardless (or perhaps even, in spite of) any possible (male) spectatorial/authorial framing:

 

'These films not only document the difficulties that attend any emotional relationship, as most critics have pointed out, but they also offer a specific analysis of the situation of women in contemporary Western society of the 1960's, an analysis that presents a sustained attack on the patriarchy (whether consciously or not is not ultimately relevant here), and this attack is surprisingly, for its time, sympathetic toward women as women' (9)

 

Although at times this revamping of Antonioni as proto-feminist almost verges on the apologetic, it is well reasoned, thorough, and ultimately convincing. This may well be due to the fact that Brunette refrains from too vehement or blinkered a defence, tempering his claims well with the material he uses.

 

In the chapter on _L'avventura_, for instance, the many shots of Claudia (Vitti) from behind are argued to be self-conscious examinations by Antonioni of the depiction of the female form throughout the history of art, his technique working to actually foreground the victimisation of the female form to the male gaze, whilst at the same time attempting to sympathise with the object of its gaze. This sympathy (in contrast to the cinematography of many auteurs of his generation) is shown to exist in a passive camera action, often seen to be withdrawing from the female form, as opposed to asserting its presence, or attempting to probe, as one might perhaps expect from a male director in the 1960s.

 

In this way, Brunette's legitimising of Antonioni continues to palimpsestically re-inscribe that which was missed by the debate around existentialism: that filmic portrayals of attempts by women to break out of the confines of the patriarchal were too often seen by critics at the time as illustrative of angst and alienation, rather than proto-feminist critiques of the said patriarchal. Brunette's point is, once again, that a film's initial critical reception may often tell us more about the critical framework of the time, than about the film itself. Failure to re-interpret a film, therefore, may cause it to be forever positioned in a static, historical frame, as merely an expression of its time, as opposed to ahead of its time.

 

This strand of proto-feministic, self-conscious use of artifice (within the directorial gaze) is charted in each chapter, illustrating its development through the films under discussion. In this way Brunette charts the different ways in which Antonioni foregrounds his underlining of the obsessive nature of the male gaze, and indeed, the way in which this changes. By _Red Desert_ (Chapter 4) not only is the main question being asked of and by Guiliana (Vitta) that of what her position is in relation to the constructing ideologies that she is beginning to identify around her, but a probing has also begun, of the feminising of male identity:

 

'Visually, Corrado's feminised self-questioning, so similar to that of Antonioni's women, can be seen in the way he looks out upon a landscape, with the camera shooting him from behind.' (102)

 

This, in itself suggesting that the offensive nature of many of Antonioni's lead male characters that were to dominate his later works, is not without intent. Whilst female liberation is not figured in the narrative, Brunette is saying, this may not even have been possible at the time. A close analysis of the formal qualities of the film, however, may suggest, if nothing else, a move in that direction through the cinematography. Moreover, in the later works, the objectification of women by the male leads (the prime example being the fashion photographer Thomas (Hemmings) in _Blow Up_) foregrounds the situation, even if it fails to offer up any solution.

 

The problems that arise from the process of critical reframing in which Brunette is involved, however, are not without warning. Reframing, in the light of a now somewhat dominant discourse (in this instance, gender studies), *is* the process of interpretation, yet this itself, or rather, the necessity for this, prophecies the shifts away from said discourse that will eventually happen (in any academic field); perhaps leaving the auteur once more, retrenched within a specific historically interpretative frame that says more about its critics, than the films that they appropriate for their own means. In order to counter this foreseeable problem, Brunette disseminates his discussion through various other discourses that also run as strands throughout the book. As mentioned previously, the socio-historical re-contextualising of these films offers many new insights into what had previously been seen as a body of work devoid of political content.

 

Sandro (Ferzetti) in _L'avventura_, for instance, seen by the existentialist as a character who has failed spiritually, is re-viewed by Brunette as one of many figures Antonioni uses to show the changes on personality brought about by Italy's post-war economic recovery (Il boom). Rather than losing his spiritual depth, Sandro is seen as having sold his creativity, in exchange for financial gain. A theory that sits just as easily with his jealousy of the younger student of architecture. In this way, Antonioni's works become extremely political in orientation. Rather than being merely illustrative of a vacuous bourgeoisie, afflicted by existential despair, they are examinations of the confrontation of a newly emergent cultural elite, with the changing face of the world of the new economic miracle. What Antonioni was attempting to show was the inability of this class to cope with the changes in morality that should accompany this economic change.

 

This is, in fact, *all* political comment. After all, Brunette points out, Antonioni's earlier works dealt specifically with certain elements of class, and class distinction. Therefore, as it is unlikely that he was ignorant of such social concerns, the critic should perhaps look at the material that he did choose for its political content, rather than what was left out. He may not be a filmmaker with a definite political stance (in the sense of left vs right) but his very refusal to fix meaning is in itself a political act. Brunette quotes Barthes:

 

'as soon as meaning is fixed and imposed, as soon as it loses its subtlety, it becomes an instrument of power. To make meaning more subtle, then, is a political activity, as is any effort that aims to harass, to trouble, to defeat the fanaticism of meaning.' (13)

 

What Brunette directs our attention towards in Antonioni, is that his charting of social change, and its effect on the individual, is a political act in itself. The filming of change, in and for itself, as a radical political alternative to the fixing of meaning, the positioning of narrative content within any one particular stance or ideology. By Chapter 6 (_The Passenger_) this strand is seen to have become explicit. Locke (Nicholson) is the journalist attempting to frame the African situation, who, unable to do so, takes on the identity of a gunrunner, altering his passport (the governmental, bureaucratic fixing of identity) and travelling through various contrasting first and third-world landscapes. The same reticence to fix meaning (identity) is a political goal in this film, once more justifying Brunette's attempt to reframe Antonioni, to un-fix him from the now seemingly rather near-sighted existentialist argument. The political is itself a process of continuous re-interpretation, of framing and reframing.

 

The aspect of Brunette's work that perhaps brings Antonioni the most up-to-date, is the move towards an appreciation of his films as graphic expressions, as purely visual. Concentrating on the way in which Antonioni visualised interior emotional states externally, Brunette reframes the existentialist emphasis on character and narrative within an exploration of Antonioni's use of line and colour in such a way that makes character merely another effect in a complex, formal composition. Brunette compares Antonioni's works to those of the artist James MacNeil Whistler, who painted everyday objects, but who entitled them in such a way as to foreground their compositional nature. The obvious example is Whistler's portrait of his mother, which, although universally known as 'Whistler's Mother', is actually entitled 'Arrangement in Grey and Black'. In a very similar way, Brunette contends:

 

'Antonioni's films are much more formal graphic expressions, say &endash; almost like animated paintings with characters and narratives &endash; than they are typical film stories to which the viewer responds by identifying with the characters in the conventionally 'human' ways' (11).

 

The self-conscious foregrounding of style destroys the centrality of narrative concern, much as the self-reflexive toying with our expectations did concerning the female form (_L'avventura_ onwards). This argument is not so difficult to fathom in the late 1990s. Having myself recently watched documentaries on the digital image -- and especially the special effects of _Star Wars: The Phantom Menace_ and _The Matrix_ -- the discrepancies between the sight of actors working against a blue screen backdrop, and the contrasting finished product, ensured that it was not too large a stretch of the intellect to grasp that characters in films are merely another concern of the overall formal composition of the visual aesthetics.

 

The emphasis on narrative content that helped spawn the angst debate is, when seen in this way, somewhat mistaken. The characters are part of something much bigger than the narrative; Antonioni's evolution out of neorealism being to show that reality is always *more* than what can be seen. The use of equal focus on background and foreground, the painting of the buildings in the London streets of _Blow Up_, and of the trees in _Red Desert_ (etc.). Once again, Brunette engages with a theoretical debate (realism), but without limiting himself to an oppositional stance that is just as likely to become lost to history as the debate itself may, and in this way, manages to keep both alive.

 

Without explicitly attacking psychoanalysis, Brunette also argues against interpretations that stress the symbolic nature of what is seen:

 

'Despite all the 'blatant' symbols, in other words, we are seldom directed toward a specific, preferred meaning. Rather, once again meaning is made affective, through line, shape, and form.' (60)

 

Seemingly 'blatant' symbols, to Brunette, are yet more examples of critical frames of reference imposing themselves upon the film. The toy robot that walks itself mechanically into walls (_Red Desert_) is given as a classic example. Too easily seen as another example of automation and alienation, if it is a symbol at all, does it have to have a negative connotation? Antonioni is quoted as saying that it was actually intended as a more positive image (98). The child playing with the toy is already more aware of the automated world that he emerges with than the adults around him, who are having difficulty with the changes that confront them in everyday life.

 

Rather than viewing the narrative content of Antonioni's films as symbolic, as representations of an absent meaning, Brunette calls for an appreciation of the visual in and for itself, as meaning 'is made affective, through line, shape, and form' (60). Meaning emerges from the image, it is 'made affective'. Searching for authorial intent behind seemingly obvious symbols -- Brunette shows through the discrepancy between Antonioni's own suggestions and the contrasting critical reception of his films -- will inevitably say more about the critical frame employed, than the film itself. What Brunette is claiming is the loss of referent for the sign, the loss of signification. This links nicely to his deconstructive concern, which is itself indicative of the flaws in the existentialist debate. The absences that characteristically mark Antonioni's films (witness the vanishing Anna (Massari) in _L'avventura_) points not to a transcendental absence, but rather indicates the way out of the Platonic illusion of the coexisting Ideal and (vs) real.

 

'The sense of 'mystery' that arises as a result of this suggestive absence as well as from the oddness of Antonioni's narrative seems to be a completely nonspiritual one that speaks to the deep ambiguity of the relation of human beings to reality, rather than a hankering after the other-worldly.' (31)

 

The without-end of interpretation in deconstruction being based on the fluidity of binaries (absence/presence), the differential origin, rather than an interpretation of the symbolic. A theory of graphic expression similarly sees meaning as within the image, not the image as representative of something else.

 

Throughout the book, Brunette treads a rather precarious line between a denial of the validity of early critical views of author intentionality (despite the fact that it was Antonioni's own comments that his films showed a world in which Eros was sick that spawned much of the existential angst debate), and the legitimacy of his own reframing of Antonioni's intentions. Indeed, to some it might seem inherently contradictory to write a book about an auteur's works that treats as ultimately irrelevant the auteur's own intentions. [3] Even the seemingly commonsensical claim that statements of critics say more about them than the films which they criticise, could itself seem to be slightly askew from a critic who himself is denying the legitimacy of the sign.

 

These seeming ambiguities, however, are part and parcel of the deconstructive method; as Brunette himself makes clear in his introduction, he is also guilty of this 'self-deluding process' -- the book perhaps saying more about his own critical stance than the films which he examines with it. The influence of deconstruction, although always apparent, is never overbearing, in particular in the way in which his argument oscillates around the ambiguity over intentionality. Never quite contradicting itself and always justifying the otherness within itself, it is an act of continual reframing, always in-between, fluid, and never merely stationery.

 

I feel that this is a long-overdue review of an auteur too often dismissed or ignored, that stands up alongside Rohdie's text as a serious, theoretical treatment which, in an Ideal world, would cause several of the dominant discourses in film theory to rethink themselves. This is in itself a statement that undoubtedly says more about my own views on film theory than film theory itself, just as my identification of the Derridian influence on the book does, a theme that might be completely missed by the enthusiastic Antonioni scholar. In the words of another: 'I am, of course, not excluding myself, from this self-deluding process.'

 

University of Glasgow, Scotland

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. See in particular, Brunette, Peter and Wills, David _Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) pp. 101-118.

 

2. See Rohdie's 1990 book, _Antonioni_.

 

3. See the quote made earlier in this review, from p. 9 of Brunette, in which he states that the images created by the auteur are illustrative of a proto-feminist view of society, whether he meant them to be so: 'consciously or not is not ultimately relevant here'.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Armes, Roy, _The Ambiguous Image_ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

 

Brunette, Peter, _Roberto Rossellini_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

 

Brunette, Peter and David Wills, _Screen/Play: Derrida and Film Theory_ (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989).

 

Brunette, Peter and David Wills, eds, _Deconstruction and the Visual Arts: Art, Media, Architecture_ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

 

Rohdie, Sam, _Antonioni_ (London: British Film Institute, 1990).

 

 

Filmography

 

_L'avventura_ (_The Adventure_), Michelangelo Antonioni, 1959.

 

_Blow Up_, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.

 

_L'eclisse_ (The Eclipse_), Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962.

 

_The Passenger_ (_Professione: Reporter_), Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966.

 

_Red Desert_ (_Il deserto rosso_), Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964.

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

 

David Martin-Jones, 'Invaginating Antonioni',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 50, December 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n50martin-jones>.

 

  

 

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