Media reality being as daunting as it is at the moment, let us transfer a few of its perplexities to a science fiction story. The premise, scary but marvelous: The planet of cinema has exploded. Left behind are rock-like chunks of significance (films, filmmakers, etc.: each like a Web site) and a fleet of rusty, not always reliable spaceships (film critics, reviews: like links on the Net) that serve to connect those chunks, suggesting and memorializing their past coherence. In this week's installment of the ongoing sci-fi epic, the chunks include: Michelangelo Antonioni, Wim Wenders, Beyond the Clouds, John Malkovich, Being John Malkovich.
Malkovich?and I do mean Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!?appears in both of the films just named, but our first glimpse of him here, by way of a prologue, is in the production of True West that made him famous. In Sam Shepard's play, Malkovich and Gary Sinise played brothers who are in the midst of a vicious, murderous fraternal squabble when their mother suddenly appears and announces that someone important has just come to town: Picasso! Sinise's character groans that Picasso is dead. But mom chirpily insists, "No, he's not dead. He's visiting the museum. I read it on the bus. We have to go down there and see him."
Mom no doubt imagines that the great artist's appearance?let us not say apparition?might quell her squalling, latter-day Cain and Abel. This is a common, forgivable mistake, one that I couldn't help but recall two weeks ago when I saw Michelangelo at the museum.
No, really: Antonioni was at MOMA, in both senses. He was there in the form of his 1964 masterpiece Red Desert, a beautifully restored print which is part of a 10-film bequest to the museum by the Italian company Mediaset. (MOMA will begin screening these gifts next June.) And Antonioni was there in person. Prior to a scheduled evening appearance introduced by Martin Scorsese, the Italian maestro, still mute from a stroke several years ago, attended a morning press conference where he sat in dignified, alert silence as the Mediaset project was announced and described.
Obviously, "both" Antonionis-at-the-museum are significant. In 1935, when MOMA founded its film archive, the idea of film as an art wasn't exactly radical; narrative movies had been around for three decades, long enough for the likes of Intolerance and The Gold Rush to begin looking like the varnished work of Old Masters. But the MOMA film collection's establishment was still a milestone (the New York Film Critics Circle was founded the same year). And this year, as partly symbolized by that Mediaset gift, constitutes another milestone: our first real glimpse of the time when films-on-celluloid will be seeable only in museums.
Indeed, an Antonioni soon will be more comparable than ever to a Michelangelo. (Toy Story 2's opening in November at L.A.'s digital El Capitan theater marked the first commercial display of a feature-length movie that doesn't involve film at any stage.) The main question is whether the techniques necessary to preserve 20th-century celluloid will survive as those that preserve cinquecento oils do. The Mediaset press conference included a short film that focused on Vincenzo Verzini, an affable old film technician who recalled working with Antonioni, Rossellini, Fellini, et al., on the creation of many of their masterworks. Mediaset lured the retiree away from his grandkids to supervise their restoration effort, and the film showed him handling strips of wet celluloid like some earlier artisan mixing pigments for Da Vinci's Last Supper.
What happens when there are no more Verzinis? Surely, prints like that one of Red Desert (which MOMA won't be sharing with other institutions, incidentally) will become that much more valuable and prized. And after that, who knows? On the large industrial scale that they've existed on for nearly a century, film labs are about to go the way of the Dodo. Conceivably, 50 years from now it will be harder to see an Antonioni than a Buonarroti in its original state.
For now, somewhat ironically, Antonioni himself seems to be embracing his institutional apotheosis. He arrived in New York only a couple of weeks before his most recent feature, 1995's Beyond the Clouds, was to make its belated theatrical debut here (it opens Weds., Dec. 1, at The Screening Room). But when I asked the publicist handling the MOMA event if Beyond the Clouds would be discussed at the press conference, she replied hastily and firmly in the negative. Meanwhile, the folks at Cowboy Booking, the company releasing the newer film, didn't even know that Antonioni was coming to town. Of course, Cowboy is a small distributor dedicated to current work; MOMA and Mediaset are giant entities well equipped to launch an auteur, even one still living, toward posthumous eminence. Antonioni, who's establishing his own museum in Ferrara, isn't the first artist to butter his bread on the side of eternity.
As I say, the man's physical presence at MOMA had its own significance. As Antonioni watched the Mediaset presentation, a film critic who'd positioned himself two chairs away sat with a palm-sized camcorder pointed at the filmmaker's head. Eventually Antonioni stopped him with one of those inimitable Italian hand gestures that said, unmistakably, "Okay, asshole, basta."
You can understand the annoyance. Here he was being treated not as the visiting luminary but as his own funerary bust, chiseled and oblivious. Indeed, the way some admirers literally idolize artists reminds us how much of 20th-century art is constituted of displaced religious feeling; at century's end, it is this transfer that most speaks to art's energy, elevation and enfeeblement. Joyce, who envisioned the artist taking on the priest's role, could not have foreseen the vacuous cult of personality that would follow. The artist becomes priest becomes saint becomes shrine?and ends up at the museum with some jerk eyeballing him through a camcorder.
This objectification of the artist reminds us of which recent movie? You guessed it. When I first saw Being John Malkovich I wondered why its stars, John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, both sported the wild, flyaway hairdos of the early 70s. I later decided this was a clue to a substitution that is crucial to the movie but that no critic, to my knowledge, has pointed out. The movie shows us people who are avid to look through the eyes of a famous actor. But in cinema, viewers are never in the position of looking through an actor's eyes. They look through the director's eyes; and in fact, an avid awareness of that process is the key to the auteur theory, which arguably reached the peak of its influence in the early 70s.
Looking through a director's eyes cuts in two directions, so to speak: it allows us to share the privileged vision of the artist, which transforms the world and its meanings, while also suggesting a "God's-eye view," which claims provenance over that world. As an allegory of cinema, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's film bears a secret title, perhaps unknown even to the filmmakers: Being Michelangelo Antonioni. You could put another director's name there, but you won't find one that's more appropriate. In the period of cinema's high-modernist peak, 1960-'75, Antonioni and Godard were the art's most essential avatars, and Antonioni was the one more cognizant of mystery and the hieophantic properties of vision.
L'Avventura (1960), more than any film of its era, gives us the director's eye as an autonomous intelligence, a space probe aimed at an Earth of secret significances, a hovering God. Does the director recognize it as such? In mulling over this part of Antonioni's career in his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, David Thomson says this: "There is nothing more challenging in L'Avventura than the notion that a mystery does not need solving, that the young woman has gone away. A hole has formed in 'story' so that life's formless air may seep in. Equally, in La Notte and L'Eclisse, we feel that there is some gentle force in the city and the world ready to wash over the characters, freeing us from the arid preoccupations of small, private stories. It isn't faith?Antonioni is an anxious unbeliever. Call it light, or continuity."
Or call it faith that the critic simply hasn't yet designated as such. Two paragraphs on, Thomson does just that: "The desert is a philosophy in The Passenger, one of the great films of the seventies. Melodrama and regret are replaced by the serene faith in a world of light, space, and providence. The steady attempt of the camera to move away from people seems a truly mystical claim. The Passenger leaves no doubt about Antonioni's mastery, and radically advances on the earlier disquiet. The final sequence at the Hotel de la Gloria is the affirmation toward which Antonioni was always traveling."
Actually, what happens in the Hotel de la Gloria is a de facto suicide accomplished with the complicity of another person, a dramatic crux the film shares with Bresson's The Devil, Probably and Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry. I would say that the real "affirmation toward which Antonioni was always traveling" is the final of four stories that (along with an interstitial narrative) comprise Beyond the Clouds. But here I must throw on the brakes and wonder: whose affirmation is this exactly?
When Beyond the Clouds was shown at the 1996 New York Film Festival, Anthony Lane wrote a silly review in The New Yorker that waxed lyrical at the "uncluttered" and "evocative" qualities of Antonioni's style in a scene in which Malkovich sits on a beach with the sand swirling around him. Problem is, Antonioni didn't direct the scene; according to the credits, it and the film's other "entre'actes" were directed by Wim Wenders. In fact, Beyond the Clouds was a collaboration between the two directors, and Wenders (whose work abounds in problematic relationships with father figures: see Nicholas Ray in Lightning Over Water) may well have exercised a sway over other parts of the film. The same is also possible of Antonioni's wife Enrica, who now seems in control of much that the speechless director does. In this film, was Antonioni a de facto puppet?a la Being John Malkovich?of other creators?
The question is worth asking on a couple of levels. Beyond the Clouds is hardly an unmixed success. A couple of its tales are ponderous and stilted; one, in which Malkovich is particularly unappealing, reduces a previously printed story by Antonioni ("The girl, the crime..." from That Bowling Alley on the Tiber) from poetic allusiveness to blunt prosaic stolidity. The film also has an aura of Christian mysticism, yet it is Wenders who is known to have found God and rediscovered his Catholic roots (note the presence on the soundtrack of his Irish pals U2 and Van Morrison).
Still, I'm willing to grant that the mystical gist of Beyond the Clouds could well mark a conjunction of Wenders' thought and Antonioni's. From my review of the film's appearance at the '96 NYFF: "[S]ome of its dialogue does suck; there are clinkers that would be right at home in any SNL parody of 'art' films. But the movie's visual language is so refined and imaginative as to make any thoughtful viewer pause at the sophistication that has been lost since Antonioni was in his prime; and the film's final chapter, in which a young man pursues a mysterious girl through Aix-en-Provence to the church of St. John of Malta (echoing an earlier chapter's citation of Joyce?), is one of the few moments of pure, hypnotic sublimity I've encountered in a film this year?regardless of whether it results from Antonioni's autumnal sagacity or Wenders' midlife religiosity."
However, I continued: "When I saw the film, a portion of the audience had evidently decided that any dubious dialogue merited gales of laughter. Refusing to take the movie on its terms, to allow the images to speak and a career's worth of thematic associations to build, these idiots howled in smug, self-congratulatory superiority at the least provocation. Do other cities harbor this breed of noxious pseudo-sophisticate or is its existence a bane peculiar to New York?"
In that 1996 review I unconsciously anticipated an argument in my recent "Death of Film" piece in advising prospective viewers to "wait and see the film on tape or laser-disc at home, away from the howling hyenas and jackasses with PhDs likely to appear at any public showings." That doesn't necessarily mean to avoid Beyond the Clouds at The Screening Room, but do go forewarned. Remember: the planet of cinema has exploded. Many people today don't know how to react when they encounter fragments of mastery in a present-tense movie theater; Antonioni already belongs to the museums.