ANTONIONI The Poet of Images. By William Arrowsmith. Edited by Ted Perry. 195 pp. New York: Oxford University Press. $25.
AT the time of his death in 1992, William Arrowsmith, a distinguished translator and professor of classics, left an unfinished manuscript on the films of the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose work Arrowsmith had championed for three decades. Several years earlier, Arrowsmith had asked his friend and fellow film critic Ted Perry to complete and edit his long-cherished project in the event of his death. The result is “Antonioni: The Poet of Images,” a passionate apologia for the director that is both unusually ambitious and intelligent as well as highly uneven in quality.
From the outset, Arrowsmith makes no secret of his unqualified admiration for Mr. Antonioni, comparing his work to that of “the greatest modern masters: Valery and Eliot in poetry, Joyce in the novel, Beckett in the theater, Picasso in painting.” While not everyone will share that assessment, it is a genuine pleasure to read a book by someone who cares about a film maker so much and has thought about him so acutely. Arrowsmith writes with such feeling and force that it is difficult to come away without a deepened appreciation for Mr. Anto nioni’s films.
However, Arrowsmith’s “Antonioni” has its problems, caused, in large part, by its unfinished condition. Six of the book’s eight chapters were reconstructed from the first draft of a manuscript that was probably based on lectures Arrowsmith delivered at the Museum of Modern Art after screenings of the films. Consequently, these chapters make no effort to orient the reader, and the writing in them is sometimes choppy and repetitive. Mr. Perry, a professor of theater and art at Middlebury College, has gallantly tried to compensate for these problems by providing an excellent introduction and useful plot summaries of the films. Yet only the chapters on “Red Desert” (1964) and “The Passenger” (1975), which were published during Arrowsmith’s lifetime, give us an idea of what the book might have been had the author had the opportunity to complete it himself.
Despite these shortcomings, this volume provides a coherent vision of Mr. Antonioni’s films and a different way of reading them. Many critics have made the error, Arrowsmith argues, of seeing Mr. Antonioni as coming out of the tradition of Italian Neorealism, which was in full swing when the director began his career in the 1950’s. As a result, they have faulted his films for their lack of plot and naturalism. Arrowsmith insists, quite convincingly, that from the beginning Mr. Antonioni was trying to do something very different and more original, working like a Symbolist poet rather than a conventional realistic novelist.
Most movies focus almost entirely on the words and actions of the characters in the foreground, employing the rest of the frame merely as prop or setting. Mr. Antonioni uses the entire screen as his canvas, often telling his story indirectly through the objects, sounds and colors of the background. Arrowsmith does an excellent job of showing the organic unity between the backgrounds of Mr. Antonioni’s films and the characters. In “L’Avventura” (1960), the savage and barren landscape of Sicily is inextricably part of the story of emotional sterility and cruelty.
With his attention to setting and detail, Mr. Antonioni forces us to slow down and look closely, as his camera invests inanimate objects with what Arrowsmith calls the “mystery looming in the nature of things.” This has often made Mr. Anto nioni a difficult film maker for audiences drugged on the nonstop action of recent Hollywood movies. There is not a single word spoken in the first several minutes of “Eclipse” (1962) or at the end of “The Passenger,” but they are among the most absorbing sequences of the two films. In “Eclipse,” Mr. Antonioni describes a couple on the verge of a breakup by watching them move silently around an apartment: the use of odd camera angles and jumps creates a feeling of discomfort in the viewer that matches that of the characters.
In Mr. Antonioni’s best films — masterpieces like “L’Avventura,” “Blow-Up” (1966) and perhaps even “Eclipse” and “The Passenger” — he has indeed achieved a kind of visual poetry, what Arrowsmith eloquently calls “a tissue of continuous feeling and seeing, understanding as perceiving.”
Arrowsmith’s passionate advocacy has, however, blinded him to any defects in Mr. Antonioni’s work. Even after reading this book, I still have a hard time thinking of “Red Desert” and “Zabriskie Point” (1970) as great movies. Sometimes Mr. Antonioni’s use of symbol is obvious and heavy-handed; Jungian archetype can turn into stereotype. The industrial smokestack spewing poison into the air that begins and ends “Red Desert” seems like an easy cliche employed to explain the aimless angst of the characters rather than an eloquent way of making their inchoate feelings visible.
ARROWSMITH tries to see virtues even in what he admits are obvious flaws. The script of “Zabriskie Point,” he writes, “is often clumsy and wooden, but the very banality, I suggest, is at least partly intentional.” Still, by doggedly defending virtually every frame of every film by Mr. Antonioni, Arrowsmith does force us to reconsider films that have been widely dismissed. He is right to look beyond the surface of “Zabriskie Point” — a naive and simplistic portrayal of 1960’s youth culture in California — and to focus on its visual and symbolic elements. There are, in fact, several stunning sequences in the film. But Arrowsmith refuses to see that its schematic story of innocent flower children and evil developers affects its overall quality. The fact that Arrow smith is reduced to using the word “Faustian” at least 20 times in the chapter on “Zabriskie Point” reflects the thematic monotony of the movie.
Yet all of Mr. Antonioni’s films, even the least successful ones, contain moments that most directors cannot even imagine, let alone execute — moments that change the way we see films and even life itself. To William Arrowsmith’s credit, he has written a book that helps us see those films with new eyes.
– March 26, 1995
As published in The New York Times