Michelangelo Antonioni | Il Grido | L'Avventura
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Il Grido (1957) contains ideas and images that will reappear in Antonioni's later works. The look of the film is very close to that of The Red Desert (1964). Both films take place in industrial landscapes. Both have many scenes of canals and waterways. Both take place in or near the Po valley region in Italy's Northeast, also the home of Antonioni's first documentary, Gente del Po (1943 - 1947). Both films' interiors are of ordinary, traditional looking, non-upper class dwellings. Both films concern people who emigrate to far distant lands in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, Patagonia) to perform industrial work. (There is also the man in the shack in L'Avventura, who has just come back from thirty years in Australia.) Both films contain a small child who wanders around lost in these landscapes. Both films have much mist. Both show a flag raised to summon a doctor (Grido) or to declare quarantine (Red Desert). Both show rough shacks used by working class people. In many ways The Red Desert seems like a remake in color of the images in the earlier film.
Antonioni was born in Ferrara, and went to school at the University of Bologna. So this is his home region of Italy. This region, which looks like nothing else on Earth, is a major draw for Antonioni's films. Antonioni likes to film his stories in photogenic areas that are not much explored by other film makers. We have the islands of L'Avventura, the Death Valley landscapes of Zabriskie Point, and the industrial buildings of The Red Desert.
Many of the personal relationships in Il Grido seem to anticipate Antonioni's next film, L'Avventura (1959). Both films open with a woman who rejects her entire current life, who takes off and disappears. Both films show her absolute but somewhat mysterious distaste for everything around her. The remainder of both films show the negative effect of this on the people around her. In both film the hero has a series of affairs. He cannot remain faithful to any woman, and he experiences a personal disintegration, a sense of guilt over his inability to love and be faithful.
The boating scenes here anticipate those of L'Avventura. Antonioni obviously loves this sort of high technology craft - one also recalls the airplane of Zabriskie Point. They represent an interval of joy and excitement in the hero's otherwise pervasive problems.
In both films the hero also takes to the road, constantly shifting from place to place. Both film's heroes are men who make things - they have a constructive role. The working class hero of Il Grido is a mechanic. He is outstanding at his job, and can repair any mechanical device. The much more upper class hero of L'Avventura is an architect. He too is a builder, very good at his job, and very successful. Both men's jobs show them in direct relationship to the world about them. In both films, the hero is someone who helps build the world around him, whether it is houses or machinery. Everywhere he goes, he encounters objects that his profession allows him to relate to, whether they are buildings or machines. Unfortunately, both films hero's suffer a degenerative relationship to their profession. The hero of Il Grido quits his steady job near the beginning of the film, and takes up a series of menial ones, to support himself on his wanderings. The hero of L'Avventura has abandoned his youthful idealistic dreams before the film has opened, and worked on a series of lucrative commercial projects instead.
There are also images in Il Grido that anticipate Zabriskie Point. The scenes of lovemaking in both films are very similar. In Il Grido, the couple makes love in a crevice in a vast sea of mud. They are the only living figures in a vast expanse of dead earth. This anticipates the famous desert love scene of Zabriskie Point, where the couple makes love on the dead sands of Zabriskie Point, the lowest point in the United States, and part of the arid wastelands of Death Valley. Here, too, the couple is in a crevice in the Earth - in both films it looks like an area that is the now dried up path of a water runway. The gas station in Il Grido anticipates the sandwich shop in Zabriskie Point. Similarly, the finale of Il Grido counterpoints its despair laden hero with political activists: a similar balance will be struck in Zabriskie Point. I confess I did not like this finale at all: it ruins what was otherwise a good movie.
The camera movements in Il Grido seem to consist almost entirely of pans. Antonioni uses pans both indoors and without, and in a large proportion of the shots in the film. Often times the pans follow a walking character, a not infrequent use of pans in film history. Occasionally the pans are extended at the end by small movements of the camera, or perhaps a small zoom. The pan in the restaurant adjusts itself in the middle, in order to properly align the second half of the pan. Usually the pans are horizontal, but Antonioni regularly pans diagonally as well if he can get the image he wants. One particular pan in the town square turns through nearly 360 degrees. The pans often disclose a surprising new image at the end, such as a building, bridge or waterway. The viewer rarely knows what is going to happen during a pan. Almost all of the landscape shots are the viewer's first glimpse of the scenery they depict. So every turn of a pan tends to reveal something new.
Occasionally Antonioni tracks backwards. A beautiful shot of this nature occurs under the portico after the boat race. The camera watches two young lovers kiss, then tracks backward to reveal the hero and heroine, also in a romantic mood. It is a clever and joyous shot, one that conveys high spirits and joie de vivre, just like the characters' emotions at this time.
The interior scenes in this film concentrate on kitchens. Only rarely do we get into other rooms of the house. Each kitchen is decorated completely differently, and the varied decor seems to express the personality of each of the four women with whom the hero is involved. The first kitchen is seen completely in the round, with all four walls displayed. It is easy to reconstruct its spatial coordinates, especially on a second viewing of the film. Antonioni almost never stages two scenes in it at exactly the same camera angle. Each shot shows the interior at a slightly different angle or point of view from anything that has gone before. The idea seems to be an attempt to avoid monotony. Also, to find an angle which subtly suggests the "right" emotion for the scene. The angles, while varied, tend to be at recognizable variations on each other. We are remote here from Fritz Lang, who attacks each new set-up in his interiors from a startlingly new angle, and who often makes it difficult for the audience to deduce the precise spatial coordinates of his shot. The fact that Lang's camera tends to be fixed in static composition for each shot, while Antonioni's is nearly always panning, also causes key differences in effect. For one thing, it is much easier in Antonioni to regard a current shot as a variation of the preceding.
Although this is an Italian film, its cast incorporates such American actors as Steve Cochran and Betsy Drake, both of whom are excellent. Steve Cochran looks remarkably like the contemporary actor Matt LeBlanc. The resemblance is heightened by the naiveté of his character, which reminds one of LeBlanc's character on Friends. One might compare Cochran's performance here with those in two American noir films: Felix E. Feist's Tomorrow is Another Day (1951) and Don Siegel's Private Hell 36 (1953). Cochran was noted for his passionate, emotional performances. He often played men whose romantic relationships to women were all important. This makes him an ideal choice for the hero here, whose life is entirely wrapped up in his female loves. Two other aspects of Cochran's persona are relevant here. He often played men who were extremely impulsive, who followed their instincts blindly. And his characters tend to be working class, vulnerable men without any sort of middle class support network. Both aspects of his character play a major role in Il Grido.
The opening scenes of L'Avventura continue the traditions of Il Grido. The interiors tend to start with people entering doors. We see people approaching from outside, going in the building, cuts to entrance halls, entry into the building, going in to other rooms. It is a whole process, designed to show as much of the architecture of the buildings as possible, and also to allow Antonioni to create many interesting compositions. Once inside the buildings, Antonioni shows as much as possible of the landscape outside through the windows as possible. Characters sometimes appear through these windows, as well. We also see shots from the outside of buildings, looking in through the windows; these anticipate the scene in L'Eclisse, where the heroine is going home at night, and we see into her apartment. Later, there are shots of the characters going down long, narrow corridors to the artist's room. When they return later, after the scene in the room, we see these corridors from outside the building, through the windows. Both within and without, these corridors seem like unusual architectural features. Antonioni loves this inside/outside dual perspective; it will be found again in L'Eclisse.
Outside, Antonioni favors scenes where the characters are standing in front of a hill. This allows the landscape to rise up behind the characters, and form their background. There are often buildings or other features at the top the hill, which appear over the characters' heads. Antonioni also uses canals and other human structures to form a "landscape" background for his performers.
Antonioni has a favorite camera angle for his boat scenes. It is slightly sloping down, and shows a long expanse of waterscape behind the characters' His yacht scenes try to show as much water behind the actors as possible. Unlike some directors, who would tightly close up his performers after some establishing shots, Antonioni tries to include the waterscape at all times. There is a "Psychological" aspect to this. If the landscapes of the film represent emotional moods, then adding water to them greatly increases the complexity of those moods. Humans respond intensively to water; the water adds a whole new dimension of feeling to the landscapes.
Antonioni organizes his pictures of the island into different series. When the people first land on the island, most of the scenes show the cliffs, with the water lapping below. The cliffs tower over the characters' head, and the island looks quite inhospitable. There is a sense that the characters have not penetrated very far inland. Most of these shots are face on to the island, or even looking up a little bit.
After Anna disappears, we see scenes showing the interior and top of the island for the first time. The texture changes - instead of volcanic rock walls, the landscape now looks like sand with boulders and small rocks. The characters are now entirely engulfed in the island. Many of these shots have no water at all - they simply show the island's interior.
There are also shots beginning here, which show the coast, but from the point of view of some one on the top of the island, looking down. The most spectacular of these shots shows a channel between two rock cliffs, from above. After we have panned to the right along the channel, we see Sandro enter the frame from the right. Then the camera pans slowly up, till we see the top of the island, and the sea in the background. It is one of the most complex pans in the film. The final view is typical of the "top of the island" shots we have been seeing. But the shot as a whole shows the complexity of the island, and what has been underlying it.
After all this, we begin to see shots with more water in the background.There is also a shot of the hill, with the shack on top. Another shot shows an island as a whole. One wonders if this is the island we have been on - it always looks this way to me when I watch the film. But no - it is simply another island. The camera begins panning, and we see the top of our own island, and familiar characters on it.
A classic shot shows Sandro searching the island's coast from a boat. This is one of the few tracking shots in the film - most of the camera movement consists of pans. We get a more detailed shot of the hill with the shack, but this time with some of the shore line included - so we are pulling back a bit. These shots show the coast walls head on, so they are somewhat similar to the opening series of shots of the coast line, when people first came to the island. The shot suggests that Sandro is retreating from the island, and becoming more distant from the search. This is perhaps not fair - using the boat to search is a good idea. But still it suggests a perhaps subconscious withdrawal on his part. The camera moves past a channel leading into the island, between two cliffs. The boat eventually moves into position so that we can see the channel head on, receding from the front to the back of the screen. This is a common function of camera movement in L'Avventura. A similar shot in a square with move the camera so that we get a direct look up a narrow street next to a basilica. The camera in that shot will in fact move so that we see both the receding street, and later the building along the right hand side of the street. Similarly, the shot of Anna' father near the beginning of the film shows an old road receding directly back from the viewer. Antonioni loves such perspective views.
Whatever Antonioni thinks about Capitalism, he is clearly fascinated by businessmen. He also makes business look like intense fun. Whether it is Alain Delon trading on the Rome Stock Exchange in L'Eclisse, or Rod Taylor wheeling and dealing in Zabriskie Point, the films suggest that it is very enjoyable. His businessmen are always dressed to the teeth, in good suits, and are figures of romance and glamour. They might not make good husbands or life partners, but they clearly are attractive. They also work in glamorous places: the dramatic looking Stock Exchange, or the chrome and glass office building in Los Angeles that is Taylor's corporate headquarters. The Gabriele Ferzetti character in L'Avventura is related to these men. He too has a financially lucrative job and a glamorous life style. However, he seems much more dissatisfied, and sees himself as a failed architect, not as a pure businessman, unlike the Delon and Taylor characters. We never see him at work, also unlike the other two men. There are suggestions that the encounter with his boss at the end depresses him, triggering the final Gloria Perkins episode of the film.
The mystery plot of L'Avventura resembles in some ways that of a now largely mystery forgotten novel, The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937) by Clifford Knight. Knight was an American author, whose mystery books took place against a variety of exotic settings. The Affair of the Scarlet Crab transpires during a scientific expedition to the Galapagos Islands. The expedition is funded by a wealthy philanthropist, and takes place aboard his luxury yacht. Knight's book at one time was quite popular; it appeared in paperback during the 1940's.
The main similarities are as follows: Both works open aboard a luxurious yacht trip; both then visit frighteningly barren desert islands. Both contain an eerie disappearance. Both contain an elaborate search through a rocky, deserted island for a missing person. After the mysterious events occur in both works, the yacht moves to another island in the chain to report the events to the authorities.
There are some differences, as well. There are three murders in The Affair of the Scarlet Crab. The first is the disappearance (Chapter 6). This takes place on board the yacht, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. One of the characters simply vanishes in the middle of the night, and is never seen again. The next morning the other members of the party notice his absence, search the boat for him unsuccessfully, and gradually come to the conclusion that he must have fallen overboard. This whole experience is disturbing to the reader. Nothing conclusive gets established, and no direct evidence of what happens is discovered. The character might just as well have evaporated into space. The disappearance resembles in its frustrating inconclusiveness the one in L'Avventura. The desire of the other characters to forget about it, to blank it out of their emotional memories, also recalls the film. Although the disappearance is eventually explained at the end of the book, this explanation comes many weeks later for the characters, and hundreds of pages later for the reader. The whole thing has some of the inconclusiveness of Antonioni's film. Also, the events sneak up on the reader, just as they do in the film. There is no clear line of demarcation. Ordinary story events just begin to include a character who is not present. Eventually worry begins to snowball, and people gradually realize something is wrong.
The second murder in the book is the one that takes place on the island (Chapters 16 - 18). This too starts out as a mysterious disappearance. It triggers an elaborate search of the island, just as in the movie. The searchers call out the victim's name, just as everyone cries out "Anna!" in the film. Unlike the film, this search culminates in the discovery of a body. However, before this, the second crime also has the appearance of a mysterious disappearance, just like the first. Knight's mise-en-scène of exploring a volcanic island is not dissimilar to Antonioni's. There is a shore line approached by small boats, flat places, hills and peaks.
The film's plot is more compact. There is only one event, the disappearance on the island. It is like a combination of the two first murders in the novel. Knight gives a complete resolution of all his mysteries at the end of the book; there is no modernist refusal to explain, which was such an innovative feature of the film. Also, there is no sense in the book that either victim might be still alive, as there is in the film.
The rich people aboard Knight's yacht live in Los Angeles; many have ties to Hollywood. They also have many romantic entanglements. They are not quite as modern and decadent as Antonioni's jaded socialites, but they have something of the same feel. They have a languid, sun-soaked quality, and a sense of erotic pre-occupation. Some of the characters are rich people whose lives involve both scientific research and being a member of Society. They are not conflicted about this as is Antonioni's architect turned businessman, but they do have a dual role in their careers.