Of the reappraisals of Michaelangelo Antonioni that have appeared since his recent death, this one by Seymore Chatman at Artforum is one of the most incisive:
His greatest films appeared just after cinema moved to the wide screen. That was no accident. With the exception of Il grido (The Cry, 1957), which relied heavily on the bleak, broad landscape of the Po valley, his films of the narrow-screened 1950s were too crowded. He needed a larger format to create mise-en-scènes with enough space to evoke the emotional isolation of the characters. In L’avventura, when Anna’s friends search for her on the tiny island of Lisca Bianca, they cross the steep terrain, with the endless horizon of the sea always visible behind them. When Lidia wanders around Milan in La notte, she is isolated by the emptiness of the urban background and, in a visual climax, stunningly dwarfed by crowded skyscrapers. In Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), characters emerge singly from the ghostly fog as they watch Giuliana walk away from the car that she has almost driven off a pier. One of Antonioni’s favorite painters was Giorgio Morandi, from whom he surely learned the art of grouping. But unlike the painter, the filmmaker found no tranquillity among scattered groups, for his were composed of lonely humans, not pots.
To an unusual degree, Antonioni’s art is governed by his keen attention to the ground against which he placed his figures. Like the Abstract Expressionists, Antonioni, with his telephoto lens, flattened things against broad surfaces. Particularly in the ’60s, he sought out framing boxes; for instance, to pin Monica Vitti against the wall in L’eclisse and Red Desert. Rothko’s signature bisection of the horizontal dimension (and Barnett Newman’s of the vertical, and Mondrian’s obsession with the whole box) may well have lingered in the filmmaker’s mind. (Antonioni once famously compared his work to Rothko’s, saying that it is “about nothing . . . with precision.”) In L’avventura, he revisited de Chirico, showing Sandro and Claudia fleeing a deserted Sicilian town built in the rectilinear Fascist style. In Red Desert, and again in Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1980), he experimented with background space by introducing a subtle movement in texture—a kind of crawling of the colors on walls; for example, the wall in Corrado’s hotel room after he and Giuliana make love. Like Rothko, Antonioni manipulated saturation, tone, and hue to suggest emotional turbulence. . .
Beyond brilliantly meshing visual form with theme—empty canvases with empty lives—Antonioni contributed early to cinema’s migration from Victorian narrative modes, as necessary and welcome a move as was that from Great Expectations to Mrs. Dalloway for literature. Beginning with L’avventura, his films are firmly liberated from Hollywood’s obsessive insistence on the conclusive denouement, on tying things up, whether for better (Mildred Pierce; Stagecoach) or worse (Sunset Boulevard). This was not easy or profitable for the director. The sophisticated audience at Cannes in 1960 was no more prepared than the general public to watch a film whose ostensible heroine not only disappears but is forgotten by the other characters. Probably expecting another film noir, where the body would be found and the mystery solved, the Cannes crowd booed vigorously. But, as Antonioni explained, L’avventura was a noir in reverse. Fortunately, the audience’s disapproval was quickly rejected by great cineastes and critics alike. Antonioni’s later films were no less rigorously open-ended: La notte’s tormented couple lie loveless after sex in a golf-course sand trap; L’eclisse’s couple vow to meet again and again but never do, leaving us on a dismally empty street corner in a Roman suburb; Red Desert’s neurotic heroine fails to communicate her despair to a Turkish sailor who speaks no Italian; Blow-Up’s photographer protagonist is literally erased after playing an imaginary tennis game with mimes; The Passenger’s burned-out hero, after a fruitless attempt to change his identity, lies dead in a provincial hotel room, without even the sound of the assassin’s pistol shot to mark his passing.
It is undeniably true that, whatever one thinks of individual films made by the great "art film" directors of the 1950s and 60s such as Antonioni, they did bring modern film closer to modern art and literature in their innovations with cinematic form and style. Indeed, one of the reasons the films of Antonioni and Bergman and even Robert Altman might now seem dated, quaint, out of synch with current cinematic practices is that Hollywood films since the late 70s (with exceptions, always exceptions) have essentially returned us to the days of conventional framing and Victorian narrative modes (although probably not back to the predominance of "invisible editing"--American films in particular have become increasingly hyperkinetic). If the films of Antonioni and Bergman and Bresson seem self-consciously "arty" it's partly because current films have again become so utterly formulaic.
The influence of art and literature on a filmmaker like Antonioni was not to move him to, say, adapt literary works in order to bring us filmed versions of fiction, to borrow the presitge of literature in order to convey a ready-made "quality" on the adaptation. Instead it moved to him to further explore the unrealized potential of his own medium; in Antonioni's films (as in Bergman's and Altman's), there is an effort to elevate film to the status of the other major art forms by implicitly asserting that its powers of aesthetic representation go well beyond its beginnings as "moving pictures" and "screen plays." Antonioni's films are "serious" because they take seriously the formal and stylistic possibilities filmmakers had yet to exploit in the relatively brief history of cinema. Paradoxically, the inspiration of modernist art and literature in Antonioni's case served to help him reveal more of the latent properties of film itself.