2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
The bourgeoisie is also a class:
class as character in
Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura
by Frank P. Tomasulo
Interpretation of any artwork — including cinema — carries with it an implicit or an explicit ideology. This is especially true for the Marxist film critic who studies the intersection of cinema, society, and politics within a particular historical conjunction, elevating these ideological issues from background assumptions to the foreground of the critical enterprise. Too often, however, vulgar Marxists and neo-Stalinists have sought the "social equivalent of art" only in the work's manifest content and sociohistorical determinants and not in its "aesthetic dimension." But as Georgi Plekhanov pointed out, "Sociology must not slam the door in the face of aesthetics but rather fling it open wide." Plekhanov reasoned, as Maxim Gorki did, that, "aesthetics is the ethics of the future." Following that line of reasoning, my methodological goal, then, is to historicize the stylistic paradigm by insisting that we not lose sight of the ideological and rhetorical meanings inherent in cinematic form. In particular, I will examine how film director Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1959-60) uses mise-en-scène and other formal articulations to convey both disgust and sympathy for the Italian bourgeoisie during the postwar "boom" years.
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has…left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment." It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies…in the icy water of egotistical calculation.
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
L'Avventura portrays a bourgeois class alienated by an all-consuming prison-house of selfhood. Members of a dying and useless social class, the director's wealthy, narcissistic protagonists are resigned to their fates. Rootless, decadent, and indolent, they have no special social role or function, except to make and spend money. As such, they are abstractions of modern alienated human beings — epitomized by their furnishings, clothing, cars, mansions, and other material possessions. Antonioni obviously has an interest in and a feeling for the sheer phenomenology of class, those tangible signs and indices of wealth, status, and style — the full gamut of private property and its accoutrements. The filmmaker makes extensive use of such metonymic and synecdochic details to convey the class character of his people, settings, and situations. As a materialist filmmaker, Antonioni is committed to depicting a real world of objects and people, but an equally important part of that world is the manmade social order — the class system — in which the director often focuses on a particular kind of character, from a particular class. As Antonioni once remarked in an interview with me:
"I know the bourgeois class better. I grew up with that background, as a tennis champion, [but] the aristocrats or the bourgeoisie are sliding into nothingness. They're disappearing slowly."
L'Avventura documents the riflusso (reflux, ebb) of commitment to social causes during il boom, the years of Gucci, Olivetti, Fiat, Pirelli, and Carlo Ponti. Yet the director's materialist mise-en-scène uses aesthetic distance, spatial distance, and the social milieu (including props and costumes) as correlatives for the internal, empty lives of his upper-middle-class characters. Thus, despite their class privileges, their fate is determined not by their individual choices and actions but by the impersonal laws of the marketplace; they are thus marginalized — even within a world they rule. These one-dimensional Marcusean men and women are the products of a one-dimensional neocapitalist society. In short, their class is their character.
As such, for Antonioni, social class is not an "add-on" to characterization. It is the very foundation and cause of one's character — or the absence thereof. If classical Greek tragedy is defined as "character is destiny," then Antonioni's oeuvre might be said to deal with "character is class." By focusing on the dialectics of decay of the discredited bourgeois class at the supposed precipice of historical obliteration, Antonioni's socialist-humanist films condemn the reified experience of contemporary class society. His oeuvre is thus a counterforce to the despair of the rich-but-estranged people who populate his cinematic landscape. Indeed, the solitude of the individual in bourgeois society is a founding principle of Antonioni's cinema, the modus vivendi of his people. These antiheroes alternately retreat into and away from that all-consuming prison-house of self, and that preoccupation eventually develops into a "cult of the ego." For Antonioni, then, the bourgeois protagonist is a victim of a social order in which he/she belongs to a useless class.
In L'Avventura, the very first relationship depicted on screen is class-determined: a worker on Anna's father's villa calls him "Excellency." The former diplomat resents the encroachment of newly constructed apartment buildings, yet he does not seem to mind the presence of a domed cathedral seen in the background of the shot. Juxtaposed in the deep-focus distance of these shots are the old and the new, the traditional and the modern. Anna's father seems to favor the older morality and class strictures represented by the church, while the restless Anna is associated with the transient architecture of the new buildings. Indeed, the father is positioned on screen right, allied visually with the cathedral, and Anna is placed on screen left, with the new developments behind her. Also in the opening scene, the father brusquely greets Claudia, who remains in the background, and downgrades Sandro — "That man will never marry you." Both attitudes appear to be class-based, since Claudia comes from a poor family and Sandro appears to be one of the nouveau-riches.
Likewise, Anna's patronizing relationship with Claudia is class-determined. For example, Anna has no compunctions about making Claudia wait downstairs while she and Sandro consummate their reunion, with Claudia seen as small and in the background of the frame. Claudia's alienated position in this social scheme is also articulated when she is seen alone through a partially opened doorway, back to the camera, and visually entrapped by the mise-en-scène. When Anna and Sandro begin to copulate off-screen, Antonioni's camera looks down on Claudia, who is again alone, in the background of a cramped shot, alienated from her supposed upper-class "friends." Later, Anna gives Claudia a blouse, in a gesture of aristocratic condescension, not true friendship. When Claudia later takes Anna's place in the social scheme, the repercussions of this class change propel the film forward. Indeed, on the deserted island, Claudia clutches the proffered blouse, her final tangible reminder of Anna's disappearance.
Nonetheless, Claudia's economic class is rather problematical. Although apparently born poor (she refers to her childhood as "without any money"), she mingles with the Roman aristocracy and, at times, seems attracted to the trappings of wealth. For instance, she is shown dressed in an expensive gown, languishing among frills, as she tries on jewelry at the Montaldos. She also tries on a black wig, thereby taking on the identity of a society lady. In this way, she displaces and conceals the "otherness" of her original class and family background. She also takes on a remarkable physical resemblance to Anna, whose place she has taken in Sandro's bed and in the social world in which he travels.
At other times, Claudia's class allegiance seems to be with her working-class roots. While waiting for Anna to return from her sexual rendezvous with Sandro, for example, Claudia wanders into an art gallery. She observes some tourists critiquing the formal elements of an exhibited canvas:
"Very derivative. Frankly, I don't think he knows how to use paint."
"Too much canvas and not enough happening" (a criticism often leveled against Antonioni's oeuvre).
These studied comments are in sharp contrast to the ironic views of two passing workers:
"He slapped it on with a shovel."
"He's got a long way to go."
Claudia smiles at these comments, betraying an affinity for the working class's more realistic opinions about aesthetics. That she would even acknowledge these workmen is in marked contrast to the society people in the film.
Raimondo, for instance, yells "Woman overboard!" to the deckhands when Anna jumps off the yacht but does nothing to assist her himself. After all, the servants are hired to leave their masters free to relax and indulge themselves. When one of the deckhands, straining at the oars of a rowboat, informs Corrado that the work is harder on a pleasure boat, Corrado all but ignores him. The old man on the craggy island tells Sandro that the island's absentee owners live in Australia, then later notes the social distinction between Sandro and himself by asking, "Do you think five [A.M.] is early?" The old man works from dawn to dusk while the vacationers revel; he does not even own the hut he lives in, his only possessions being some family photographs and a crucifix.
The island's geographic location is also of some interest in regard to a class analysis. The Southern question (La Questione Meridionale) — the quasi-separate existence of Italy's southern regions, including Sicily and Sardinia — is a major source of socioeconomic difference in the film. Southern Italy has its own Geist — a different tempo, style of life, and even language. (When the police question some petty smugglers about Anna's disappearance, for instance, Sandro cannot understand the suspects' Sicilian dialects and accosts them.) The South is called the Mezzogiorno because of the brilliance of the noonday sun. It is primarily an agricultural region, economically inferior to the North, although more scenic. Indeed, in L'Avventura, the railroad station at Milazzo is filled with tourist posters advertising "Estate in Sicilia" (Summer in Sicily), yet the overall dinginess and somber mood in the station (particularly for Claudia) contradict this hype. The vista Claudia observes from the train is scenic, but industrial sites and power lines frequently obstruct it. Thus, Antonioni uses the background of his images to foreground the economic dislocations of Southern Italy and the class contradictions between his bourgeois protagonists and the poverty-ridden South.
L'Avventura is the only Antonioni film that takes place in Southern Italy. Indeed, he once said,
"I would feel ill at ease if I had to do any shooting in the South, for the people who live there are too different from me. I can never understand them."
The economic and cultural differences between that region and the filmmaker's more usual urban milieu accentuate the class barriers and differences between the wealthy Roman characters and their unaccustomed environment. In one image, a farmer is seen pulling cows across the screen just as Claudia arrives at the pharmacy in Troina by chauffeured limousine. This single frame thus enunciates the basic gap between the poor agricultural South and the rich industrial North. When Claudia and Sandro question the druggist in Troina about Anna's whereabouts, one political poster in the background of the shot (right above the pharmacist's head) endorses the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), the Italian Communist Party, complete with a hammer-and-sickle emblem. Another scribbled message on the wall urges voters to "Votate Lista 3," the Communist line on the ballot. Both of these political signs go unnoticed and unheeded by the self-satisfied protagonists.
Later, Claudia experiences what it is like to be viewed as an aristocrat in Noto, a poor southern town. A crowd of predatory pappagalli (literally, parrots; idiomatically, unemployed men) gathers around and ogles her, imagining her to be a society lady. The hotel owner in Noto puts it most bluntly. "Almost all the foreign girls" end up at the youth hostel, she says, assuming that Anna is a foreigner because she is from the North. The woman touches Claudia lightly on the arm; the latter winces noticeably and edges away. Whether this gesture of avoidance represents a class-based response to the plainly dressed owner or an embarrassed reaction because the woman knows her personal business so well remains uncertain.
Although Antonioni is generally perceived to be a chronicler of the decadence and dissolution of the upper classes, he frequently shows the acquisitiveness and materialism of the bourgeoisie trickling down to the lower classes, following Marx and Engels's dictum that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas." In the train compartment scene in L'Avventura, for instance, Sandro and Claudia eavesdrop on a servant boy and girl flirtatiously talking about love. The girl says she prefers music to love because "you can buy a radio," whereas being in love requires an emotional commitment. The boy replies "No…I'm a man and I know how these things are: love first, and then music." These "aesthetic" and sexual values are class-based — the former expressing the bourgeoisie's materialistic preference for commodity fetishization and consumerism over natural desire and personal attachments, the latter testifying to a more natural (albeit chauvinistic) ethos. Yet both are stated by young proletarian workers in the context of a comic scene.
The smarmy journalist Zuria is another example of a working-class individual who is obsessed with the money morality of the upper classes. After observing a riot caused by a slit in the dress of Gloria Perkins, Zuria characterizes Ms. Perkins as "a 50,000 lira proposition," thinks of the riot as a publicity stunt, and asks for payment in return for information that might help Sandro and Claudia locate Anna. His cynical veneer about other people's motives does not excuse his own suspect journalistic "ethics."
It is interesting to notice the similarities in wording between an important principle from Marx's writings and a statement by Antonioni, who studied political economy at Bologna University:
"It is not the consciousness of human beings that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."
— Karl Marx, Critique of Political Economy
"Our acts, our gestures, our words, are nothing more than the consequences of our personal situation to the world around us." — Michelangelo Antonioni
Thus, Antonioni (like Karl Marx before him) sees the inner life of real-life individuals and fictional characters in dialectical relation to their social environments. His films depict this conjuncture as the basis for his social epistemology. In addition, as a corollary to class, the theme of alienation is frequently cited in the Antonioni literature, usually in the context of privatized personal relationships. For example, Italian novelist Alberto Moravia has said that Antonioni is
"a European intellectual of bourgeois origins…a humanistic moralist, psychologist, and sociologist. He refuses to accept the situation of alienation, which to him is profoundly abnormal and hence a source of suffering."
However, there is another dimension to this concept in the director's work: alienation has a class and economic basis. Alienation is therefore nothing more or less than the psychological counterpart of the economic and social domination of capital. The alienation of the worker or artist from the fruits of his/her labor (the product) and from him/herself as the creator of that product derives from the fact that a product is designed primarily for profit and only secondarily for use. Thus, the form of one's work is set by the entrepreneur, not by the worker's imagination and skill. In short, modern individuals — even bourgeois workers or artists — are estranged from themselves because, having no personal interest in the product of their labor, they have no personal relation to their own acts of production.
In L'Avventura, Sandro's occupation as an architect is revealed only after three-quarters of the film. Through this structural device, Sandro is shown to be alienated from his work and the products of his labor. His work is not on his mind or in his heart. For Sandro, a classic case of the Marcusean "one-dimensional man," pleasure and work are antithetical; pleasure is obtained vicariously, on the run. What Freud spoke of as the two criteria for psychological health — "Lieben und Arbeiten" (Love and Work) — are interrelated but equally unproductive for Sandro. Like Freud, Antonioni recognized that the energies and social identity required for alienated modern work conflict with those required for love.
Sandro's surrender to middle-class security leads him to an emotional wasteland from which he tries to escape through self-indulgence. From a romantic figure, he degenerates into a decadent dandy. Once Sandro "sells out" and becomes an estimator for others' buildings, he essentially turns in the use value of his creative talent for its exchange value. Out of that alienation from his creativity and work comes his alienation from himself and from other forms of human community and solidarity, including love. On the church rooftop in Noto, for example, Sandro notes that the exuberant and beautiful Baroque buildings in the town's medieval square are no longer valued. He pontificates about the state of classical and modern architecture:
"All this was built to last centuries. Today, ten, twenty years at the most."
Right after this bleak declaration about architectural longevity, Sandro weakly proposes marriage to Claudia. Thus, Antonioni crystallizes the connections between modern alienated work and (im)personal relationships for his bourgeois characters. If buildings are impermanent and constructed only for short-term use, how can the vagaries of contemporary personal intimacy stand the test of time?
Shortly after this scene, Sandro, envious of a young architectural student's talent and enthusiasm for his work, spills ink on the young man's sketchpad. Back in the hotel room, Sandro first looks out at the magnificent cathedral the student had been drawing. Then, he quickly closes the shutters. Through this act, he eclipses his view of an architectural achievement — the church—that he was incapable of reproducing. Metaphorically, Sandro has closed the door on his artistic ambitions in order to become an "organization man," one whose mode of existence is to abandon his individuality and conform to a business ethic. His fate, then, becomes less a matter of his own initiative than of the indifferent forces, the "iron laws," of the division of labor under capitalism. As the Marxist film critic, Armando Borrelli, put it, Sandro "is a typical character of the Italy of the economic boom." And the center of gravity in that world lies in the relations between things, not people.
Again, L'Avventura provides several examples of this human-machine dialectic. As Sandro and Claudia enter their hotel room in Taormina, the hotel clerk manifests automaton-like mechanical behavior, gesturing ceremoniously and precisely as he escorts the couple into their suite. First, Claudia mimics the worker's movements; then Sandro and Claudia laugh as he leaves. Finally, Sandro comments, "A robot would do just as well." The irony is that Sandro is no better than the "robot-man" he scorns. He too is a functionary — albeit a wealthy one — a modern technocrat, more concerned with things than with people. He "goes through the motions" just as much as the hotel employee — or any machine.
Machines are also correlated to bourgeois sexuality. Sandro becomes sexually stimulated watching an auto race on television. His first sexual union with Claudia is associated with a passing railroad train. And, in that same scene, his prominent alligator wristwatch band duplicates the theme of mechanization since it represents the conversion of a natural object into a mechanism. Instead of living authentically, Sandro gives himself over to decadent pleasure, since he has at his disposal the "dominion of apparatus" — as C. P. Snow put it — the gadgets and conveniences of the middle class. He lives life on the surface, amid the bourgeois accessories that have become his necessities. By choosing things over people, Sandro indulges himself instead of transcending himself.
As a bourgeois organization man, Sandro has internalized the impersonal and institutional nature of his work and brings it to bear in his personal relations as well. Thus, his affection for Anna is almost immediately transferred to Claudia, since people are just as disposable as the modern buildings he erects. His later betrayal of Claudia with Gloria Perkins marks a similar "repetition compulsion" of substituting lovers. After Claudia catches Sandro in flagrante delicto on a hotel couch with Perkins, the "50,000-lira proposition," he tosses some money at the latter. In Marx and Engel's famous formulation, it is the "cash payment" that "drown[s] the most heavenly ecstasies…in the icy water of egotistical calculation." Even Claudia seems to have a repetition compulsion. Just before surprising Sandro in his unfaithful act, she had searched for him in the corridors of the San Domenico Palace at Taormina. The deep-focus mise-en-scène of repeated doors, chandeliers, and hallways constricts her space and suggests the futility of the repetition complex that drives both her and Sandro to repeat unpleasant situations.
At the very end, Sandro appears to feel some guilt over his shabby treatment of Claudia. He weeps as she hesitantly and provisionally places her hand on his head in an empathetic gesture of apparent forgiveness. But even this moment is subject to multiple readings. Peter Brunette refers to Sandro's sobbing as "crocodile tears of repentance," and attributes them to his basic class-determined vulgarity:
"a weakling, a blatant manipulator, a man enslaved by the egotistical expression of his desire."
Giorgio Tinazzi has suggested that the ending is "a sanction for ambiguity." And, the director has offered slightly contradictory explanations for Claudia's seeming capitulation: "She will stay with him and forgive him."
"What they finally arrive at is a sense of mutual pity."
The mise-en-scène and spatial economy of the film's final image is striking in its abstract, semiotically charged perspective. It seems to equate the bourgeois Sandro with the crumbling façade of the wall on screen right and Claudia with the potentially active volcano, Mt. Etna, on screen left. Thus, screen right is associated with the fixed, closed, and decaying tenets of the bourgeoisie (and the patriarchy). The deep-focus screen left side of the frame can be likened to the openness and possibly explosive fervor of the emerging masses (and women as a social class) during il boom years.
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."
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."
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."
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
"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
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. 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."
Similarly, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa once said,
"Novelists are like vultures. We feed off decaying societies."
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.) 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."
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.
1. Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, trans. by the author and Erica Sherover (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978).
2. Georgi Plekhanov, qtd. in Henri Arvon, Marxist Aesthetics, trans. Helen Lane (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), ix-x.
3. Maxim Gorki, qtd. in Arvon, Marxist Aesthetics, 2.
4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Arthur P. Mendel, ed., Essential Works of Marxism (New York: Bantam, 1965), 15.
5. Frank P. Tomasulo, "'Life Is Inconclusive': A Conversation with Michelangelo Antonioni," On Film 13 (Fall 1984): 62.
6. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964).
7. For more on the Southern Question, see Antonio Gramsci, The Southern Question, trans. Pasquale Verdicchio (West Lafayette, Ind.: Bordighera, 1995).
8. Pierre Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni, trans. Scott Sullivan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 60-61.
9. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 89.
10. Karl Marx, "Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy," in On Historical Materialism (New York: International Publishers, 1974), 137.
11. Michelangelo Antonioni, "A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work," in L'Avventura: A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 215.
12. Alberto Moravia, qtd. in Leprohon, Michelangelo Antonioni, 164.
13. In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud wrote: "The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love." Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 48. Erik H. Erikson apparently shortened this formulation into "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." Erikson, Childhood and Society (W. W. Norton, 1986), chap. 7.
14. William H. Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956).
15. Armando Borrelli, Neorealismo e Marxismo (Avellino: Edizioni di Cinemasud, 1966), 148. My translation.
16. In a UCLA seminar on Film and Social Reality (1978), Michael Renov referred to this scene as "locomotis interruptus." It is an especially apt phrase, when one considers that the train's prominent chugging sounds overlap the heartbeats of the sexually aroused couple, Sandro and Claudia.
17. Freud's concept of Wiederholungzwang (repetition compulsion) is at the center of his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920). Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 29-30.
18. Peter Brunette, The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 49.
19. Giorgio Tinazzi, Michelangelo Antonioni (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1974), 83.
20. Antonioni, "A Talk with Michelangelo Antonioni on His Work," in L'Avventura, 223; and Antonioni, "The Cannes Statement," in Seymour Chatman and Guido Fink, eds., L'Avventura (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 178. My translation.
21. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 76.
22. Friedrich Engels, Letter to Margaret Harkness, April 1888, in Lee Baxandall and Stefan Morawski, eds., Marx and Engels on Literature and Art (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1973), 115.
23. Robert Philip Kolker, The Altering Eye: Contemporary International Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 343.
24. Ian Cameron and Robin Wood, Antonioni (New York: Praeger, 1971), 102.
25. Michelangelo Antonioni, qtd. in Frank P. Tomasulo, The Rhetoric of Ambiguity: Michelangelo Antonioni and the Modernist Discourse, Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1986, 547.
26. My pun — "prison-house of langue" — uses both Fredric Jameson's book title, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), and Ferdinand de Saussure's distinction between langue (language system) and parole (speech). Cf. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskins (New York: Philosophical Library, 1959).
27. Karl Marx, cited in Herbert Marcuse, "Art as Form of Reality," New Left Review 1.74 (July-August 1972): 53.
28. Mario Vargas Llosa, qtd. in Samuel G. Freedman, "Can Tranquil Times Yield Great Works?" New York Times, August 25, 1985, AL1.
29. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 146.
30. Bertolt Brecht, "Against Georg Lukács," New Left Review 1.84 (March-April 1974): 6.
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