Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Antonioni: Eight Disciples

Just as the career of Brian Eno is often overlooked as completely altering the modern music landscape, the films of Antonioni are undervalued in how influential they have been. It would be impossible to even began to list the number of filmmakers who have name checked, copied and paid tribute to Antonioni in the past forty years but here are eight whose films would not have been the same without the master's work. I chose eight who are all very different from one another, who span five different countries, several different generations and many different genres.

With the exception of Mario Bava, no director has had more of an impact on the films of Dario Argento than Antonioni. His first feature THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1969) immediately springs to mind as a work that owes much to Antonioni's astonishing composition and color schemes but it is Argento's DEEP RED (1975) that plays as an almost valentine to Antonioni's works, specifically BLOW-UP (1966). Argento's obsessive and penetrating study of misplaced memories and fractured personalities seem to spring directly from Antonioni's towering works on alienation such as L'AVVENTURA (1960) and RED DESERT (1964).

The handful of films that Jack Nicholson has directed since his striking and hard to see debut DRIVE HE SAID (1971) have all be indebted to Antonioni's work. Nicholson, who would give one of his great performances in Antonioni's THE PASSENGER (1975), has been one of the master's biggest vocal supporters and presented him with his honorary Oscar over a decade ago. All of Nicholson's films, perhaps none more so than the carefully designed THE TWO JAKES (1990), share Antonioni's very specific ability of presenting a past that is deliberately and regretfully being disintegrated. The final moment in the THE TWO JAKES where Meg Tilly screams at Nicholson's defeated Jake Gittes, "Does The past ever really go away?" to which he responds with a broken, "It Never Does" could have been lifted from any number of Antonioni's greatest works.

Polish director Walerian Borowczyk might be one of the only filmmakers in history who managed to match the painterly and always awe inspiring compositional skill of Antonioni. They also both knew how to use music to often devastating effect. Pink Floyd has been used in a lot of films but watch the endings of Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT (1970) and Borowczyk's LA MARGE (1975) to see two of the bands most famous songs transformed into purely cinematic works for two of the great masters to manipulate and add unquestionable dimension to.

Would Travis Bickle have been possible without the films of Antonioni? I'm not sure but I am willing to bet that the despairing alienation that Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader were able to bring TAXI DRIVER (1976) would have been a lot less without Antonioni's early black and white work. Everything from the film's striking one sheet to the many shots of De Niro's fragmenting psyche recall many moments in Antonioni's canon, specifically Monica Vitti's astonishing turn in RED DESERT.

Like Argento's DEEP RED, Brian De Palma's masterful BLOW-OUT (1982) plays like a love letter to BLOW-UP. Perhaps more noteworthy is De Palma's acceptance of cinema as an art form where extremes are not only at times welcome, but necessary. Match up the final explosion in ZABRISKIE POINT or the final ten minute tracking shot in THE PASSENGER to some of De Palma's more elaborate and breathtaking set pieces, the ending of THE FURY (1978) and the Cannes sequence of FEMME FATALE (2002) come to mind, and suddenly it isn't the ghost of Hitchcock who most often occupies De Palma's films.

When he was preparing one of his final films, BEYOND THE CLOUDS (1995), Antonioni called in German born Wim Wender's to assistant him as a stroke had taken most of his ability to speak away. All of Wender's films are clearly directly descended from Antonioni. From the loneliness of ALICE IN THE CITIES (1974) to the simultaneously searching and running away Travis in PARIS TEXAS (1984), Wender's lonely variations on the road film are unthinkable without Antonioni.

Egyptian born Atom Egoyan's characters often seem trapped in a world they feel they can't inhabit while at the same time being indebted to the convenience of it. Outside of the obvious compositional comparisons to Antonioni's films, Egoyan's fascinating look at the strife and deceptions between family members seems more than just cinematically connected to the failing marriage in RED DESERT or the doomed affair in L'ECLISSE (1962). Egoyan's best films, such as EXOTICA (1994) and THE SWEET HEREAFTER (1997) possess Antonioni's ability to connect a seemingly simple gesture with a world threatening to fall apart.

When Sofia Coppola won her much deserved Oscar for her screenplay to LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) she went out of her way to thank Antonioni. Watching her three features, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999), LOST IN TRANSLATION and MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006) it seems clear that the thoughtful and powerful works of Antonioni are not going to disappear any time soon. LOST IN TRANSLATION'S final moments play like a promise that Antonioni's often ambiguous art house dreams aren't as dead as so many film goers and critics like to believe.

There are many others I could have singled out but these eight all seem particularly indebted and worth mentioning as I begin my tribute to Michelangelo. I can imagine if asked what they would say to him, they would all offer the one word he had for The Academy the night he won his honorary Oscar..."Grazie."


cinebeats said...

This was beautiful to read Jeremy and really touched me. I couldn't agree with anything you wrote more.

Antonioni's influence is incredible and very far reaching, but I'm still often astonished when I come across a review of Argento's Deep Red or even De Palma's Blow-Out that doesn't mention Antonioni's Blow-up and sadly, there are many.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kimberly,
That is really lovely of you to say and I appreciate it greatly.

I am always amazed by how much his work isn't mentioned especially when talking about films like "Deep Red" and "Blow-Out"...two great films that I think really stand as total testamants to his towering achievments...

Thanks again for the nice words and I hope you keep finding my tribute interesting.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

Jeremy, this is a beautiful tribute. It really touched me as well. I could definitely tell how much he meant to you. He was a brilliant filmmaker. I knew he was influential, but I never know how much so. He inspired everyone from Argento to Nicholson. There's not many people you can say that. He did so some magnificent work. I definitely want to see more of his films.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
I really like hearing your continuing comments and I greatly appreciate it...