JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Like Balzac, Antonioni exposes contradictions within his country's upper classes.

But as figures of wealth and leisure, his characters, both men and women...

...may embody such a luxurious, if capricious, life style that Antonioni himself seems attracted to la dolce vita.

The 1960s were a time of social dissolution, especially of sociosexual roles and sources of authority.

Why didn't Antonioni make more overtly political films?

Some European critics thought left cinema had sometimes given facile sympathy to a victimized proletariat.

Antonioni: "my only hope is to see the Italian bourgeoisie defeated."

His films are based on an aestheticized formal beauty and a gloomy humanism.

The melancholic characters are not positive role models.

Contemporary sexual relations have meaning in these films only within their social and historical context, which is seen as limiting both men and women's capacity for commitment.

A doomed world in the shadow of its own death?

In Antonioni's films, outer landscapes point to the characters' inner landscapes.

 

In conclusion, rather than dismiss formalism or formal analysis as inherently rear-guard and/or reactionary, I would like to suggest that the political meaning of any work of art is intimately connected to its stylistic syntax. The "ideologemes" of a given work — its basic aesthetic units of political syntax — are homologous to the historical context or society from which the text is derived. Both Lucien Goldmann and Fredric Jameson have concentrated on this ideology of form, that is,

"the symbolic messages transmitted to us by the coexistence of various sign systems which are themselves traces or anticipations of modes of productions."[21] [open notes in new window]

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for instance, were most impressed by the realism of the royalist novelist Honoré de Balzac. Engels' contention was that in spite of Balzac's personal political beliefs, his work laid bare the true contradictions of the French bourgeoisie and aristocracy:

"a constant elegy on the irretrievable decay of good society; his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction."[22]

In a related way, Antonioni is the Balzac of his time. Needless to say, the presence of alienated characters is not prima facie evidence of political commitment. In fact, the depiction of such individuals may well reify them into representative types within a timeless "human condition." To some, these dead-in-life people may even be perceived as "cool" embodiments of late capitalism and become role models for the affluent — as happened in the public reception to Blow-Up (1966). It could also be said that the hermetic difficulties of Antonioni's films may be elitist game-playing, offering intellectual diversion to the cognoscenti but little for the working class.

In addressing such charges, the notion that Antonioni's bourgeois characters are "alienated" needs to be turned on its head. They are not so much alienated from capitalist society as too much involved in it, too willing to compromise their principles and humanity in their efforts to succeed (i.e., L'Avventura's Sandro). In a world that has removed the personal from its center, these characters have trouble relating to each other. It is important to note, however, that these melancholic characters are not intended to be positive role models. Their pain and defeatism may have the progressive effect of encouraging the intelligentsia to think about the causes of their predicaments. Robert Kolker has noted this aspect of modern characterization:

"Characters are not 'alienated' from society but are too much a part of it…too ready and willing to play its hurtful games. In the cruelties visited upon them and that they visit upon each other are the clues as to how these cruelties might be avoided."[23]

Antonioni's humanism is so gloomily qualified that it might more properly be called "defensive humanism."

In this sense, Antonioni's oeuvre might be seen as a retreat from social commitment into a rarified world of personal consciousness. Indeed, his aestheticism and concomitant detachment from overt social reality can help create a distance of reflection, contemplation, and appreciation that militates against an active ideological response in the viewer.

This rationale was, in part, the basis for the Stalinist critique of Russian Formalism and the valorization of socialist realism. That accusation can easily be countered in reference to Antonioni. Although his work does not stand as a call to immediate political action, it does stand as a signal of advancing changes in consciousness. It is a first step, an attempt to counter the mystification of bourgeois cinema's epistemological and ideological claims. In short, his films can be seen as preconditions to larger social practices — and on an admittedly different front of the class struggle, that of the bourgeoisie itself.

His narratives do not teach the classical Hollywood cinema's lessons of adjustment to the current social order. Rather, Antonioni's disruptive plot lines and "open" characters leave ambiguous so many questions that they can hardly be accused of recouping traditional closure. In addition, his systematic formal repudiation of the discredited world of empirical being, reified appearances, and the ideological status quo places him in the Frankfurt School camp. One critic and the director himself support my claim:

"[Antonioni] works on two levels: a critique of the structure of modern society, and an investigation of individual behavior. … Perhaps it's this more sophisticated expression of a Marxist viewpoint that has floored some critics. The overtly left-wing cinema has been restricted for so long to facile and often patronizing statements of sympathy for the victimized proletariat that appreciation of the all-embracing Marxism of Antonioni requires some effort on the part of the audience. … He is out to make a fundamental critique of the system rather than to make a superficial attack on the resulting evils." — Ian Cameron, Antonioni[24]

"Some critics say I'm a communist. Not so at all. But my only hope is to see the Italian bourgeoisie defeated. It is the curse of Italy. It is the worst in the entire world, the most hypocritical. I hate it."
— Michelangelo Antonioni[25]

At Bologna University, Antonioni studied for a degree in political economy and produced plays by Henrik Ibsen and Luigi Pirandello. These two biographical facts epitomize the dichotomy at the heart of his cinematic oeuvre: the attention paid to ideological questions of capitalist exploitation and the modernist aesthetic of formal experimentation. The filmmaker's freedom to reveal both the seams and the semes of his art and his society are in direct opposition to the tyranny of both that superstructural artistic langue and capitalism. As such, the aesthetic act is also an ideological one, and Antonioni's complex formal articulations expose the contradictions of dominant language systems.

Why didn't Antonioni make more overtly political films? Perhaps he believes that consciousness is so reified that foreseeing liberation in the mind is a necessary precondition to achieving it in reality. Or possibly he feels that cinema cannot easily change the world or transform itself into political praxis. Maybe it is enough for him to aid in the struggle by critiquing the bourgeoisie and developing a keener sense of the complexity and ambiguity of the process of cinematic reflection and expression.

In the final analysis, Antonioni may have strived to present current problems — fully aware that the then-prevailing social order offered no immediate solutions — while remaining cognizant that art can only resolve questions of language and meaning. Although his goals are more modest than that of the Marxist revolutionary, Antonioni's cine-linguistic and psychological experiments have sociopolitical reverberations. Any attempt at liberating people from the constraints of a pernicious ideology and from the "prison-house of langue" that supports that system is at least a first step, a "ground-zero" effort, toward instituting a general revolution of meaning.[26] And the bourgeoisie is the first battlefield in that struggle.

Karl Marx once observed that

"petrified social conditions could be forced to dance by singing to them their own melody."[27]

Similarly, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once said,

"Novelists are like vultures. We feed off decaying societies."[28]

In the same way, Antonioni's films are filmic landmarks that celebrate a doomed world in the shadow of its own death. They rehearse and reenact the irreversible process of historical change in that they depict the steady decline of the bourgeoisie. Although his films generally avoid or elide direct support for the progressive forces at work in a society, they do serve a strategic political function. They present a concrete portrayal of morbid individual and class symptoms, thereby exposing the status quo and its unhappy consequences.

Like Thomas Mann, who once said that all his work was an effort to free himself from the middle class, Antonioni can be seen — like Friedrich Engels — as a traitor to his social class. Although his films rarely feature an overtly political figure or theme (Il Grido and Zabriskie Point are the glaring exceptions that "prove the rule"), they nonetheless disclose the profound permeation of politics within contemporary society. Antonioni is less concerned with the machinations of political life than with their consequences on the inner lives of human beings, even those who belong to the discredited bourgeoisie.

As he struggled artistically and morally with the complexities of modern life, however, Antonioni also seemed to be attracted to the "lifestyles of the rich and famous," almost as if the director was both an enemy and an enthusiast of decadence. His films are replete with the symbols of class distinction (furs, jewels, cars, art, mansions) he supposedly abjures, as well as the human failures and foibles of the Italian aristocracy. He was acutely conscious of the slick surfaces and "dolce vita" morals of the contemporary scene but ultimately rejected its values. Indeed, the director's historical importance lies in the transitional contradictions in his work, which existed, for the most part, on the margin of a certain historical age.

Antonioni's "golden age" — the decade of the 1960s — was a time of social dissolution — of sociosexual roles, the mechanisms of control, the sources of authority, and the inauthentic relations between men and women, as well as the "iron laws" of classical cinema — that looked forward to a new age. During that episteme, it was thought to be the final crisis of late capitalism, a time of personal and social liberation when breakdown and hope were inextricably linked.

In that sense, Antonioni's cinema is a dialectical one, full of the contradictions of his life, his society, and his historical moment. His films are both cultural and political attempts at finding new means of expression to reflect and shape the "new consciousness" of his times. The director's emphasis on the social environment as a correlative for his characters' emotions does not preclude that setting from being a concrete socioeconomic reality, especially since the outer landscape is often the direct cause of his characters' inner landscapes and the primary means whereby viewers can gain access to the meaning of a scene.

Antonioni has been criticized for focusing on the indolent rich. This reproach could also be leveled against Karl Marx, whose principal writings analyzed the capitalist system while mainly leaving the specifics of socialism for future theorists and apparatchiks to contemplate. Perhaps the director, like Marx, sees class relations as adversely affecting both the exploited and the exploiters, consigning both groups to being "subjects of history." Like Jean Renoir, Antonioni seems both to pity and to condemn his bourgeois idlers for the dreary and empty lives their class privilege force upon them. Seen in this context, Antonioni's psychologizing of the image is part of his politicizing of the image.

The director's socialist humanism should not, however, be dismissed as mere liberalism. (Nor should it be denigrated as "half Mod and half Marxist," as Andrew Sarris put it.[29]) Although his films protest the reified experience of class society, yet, almost against their will, they remain formally and ideologically locked into their era's limitations. Antonioni's ambiguity decenters the bourgeois subject through mise-en-scène articulations, narrative irresolution, authorial absence/presence, and multiple and shifting points of view.

The autonomy of Antonioni's imaginative cinematic art negates the very culture that produces and commodities it, as it simultaneously finds new forms of expression to both shape and reflect a new multidimensional and relativistic consciousness in the making. As part of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s, Antonioni's complicated films reaffirmed the political power of the perceptual, while simultaneously employing materialist techniques of observation. He seems to fulfill Brecht's sardonic ideal, to "be like Balzac — only up-to-date."[30]

Antonioni's critical realism observes and points to the increasingly quantified and desacralized world that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels abjured in The Communist Manifesto and the lifeless bourgeois people who have become the soulless extensions of that late-capitalist universe. Yet the director's aestheticizing strategies open up a progressive life space within the phenomenology of daily life under capitalist reification — a place of beauty and quality and intensity within the drab and vapid confines of the current social order — and challenge the bourgeois forms of dominant narrative film. They thereby recode the world, its sense-data, and the semi-autonomous domain of perception of that world. As such, Antonioni's art accomplishes no more and no less than other significant art of any era. It shows the world as it is and as it could be, both the earthly Purgatorio in the diegetic portrayals of contemporary bourgeois reality and the utopian Paradiso of imaginative liberation possible only in the aesthetic sensibility of a film artist and his viewers at a particular historical juncture. In that sense, the Antonioni oeuvre is a force in the humanization of human relations. His films explore to the fullest the limits of sensibility of its time and place and are therefore a social possession, part of a dialectical and evolutionary process.

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