Rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni’s modernism: A conversation between Karl Schoonover and John David Rhodes

Michelangelo Antonioni, 1995.

The iconic Italian arthouse auteur Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) would have turned 100 this fall, and here UMP authors John David Rhodes and Karl Schoonover discuss how his complex films have transformed their understanding of the politics of the moving image.


Karl Schoonover: I’m interested in the fact that both of us are rethinking Antonioni’s modernism right now, after writing books about realism in Italian cinema. In different ways, our books, Stupendous, Miserable City and Brutal Vision, interrogate the ways post-WWII Italian fiction films borrowed from the cinema’s documentary capacities. For example, Neorealism’s humanist dramas gain potency by investing in cinema’s technological naturalism and its detailing of a particular place or body. The film image and the contingencies recorded therein are not just a reflection of real events; they exemplify an entire social reality. The screen becomes a venue for the transformation of life’s quotidian details into a political message. Traditional histories have told us that Antonioni’s filmmaking takes Italian cinema in the opposite direction, with the modernism of his films signaling the waning of arthouse cinema’s infatuation with the film image’s indexicality and Antonioni’s disinterest in politics. This conventional perspective sees Antonioni’s dynamic images as always moving away from gritty realism and towards art-for-art’s-sake abstraction. While quotidian details still populate his images, the argument goes, they are there exclusively to serve as the fertile platform for a formal experimentation that aims to leave objects and their particularities in the dust.

Noa Stiematsky’s work on Antonionio’s earlier documentaries (Italian Locations) argues for a much subtler understanding of Antonioni’s modernism. After reading her work, I began to consider what it would mean to revisit Antonioni’s films and consider how his images register a social reality. What if his supposedly abstract formalist landscapes were political? What if we approached his celebrated 1960s arthouse feature films – L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso – with the same attention that Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema demands of us?

Screen shot from Antonioni’s film Blow-Up.

Posing these questions feels a bit like playing devil’s advocate with the orthodoxies of film history. From the early 1960s, the critical consensus that developed around his aestheticism had the effect of banishing the political and social textures of his films. When European art cinema fell out of fashion in film theory because it was identified with decadent and narcissistic formalism, Antonioni’s relevance further suffered: with the possible exception of Blow-Up, his films were rarely taught and seldom addressed by scholars. Today, his films again feel crucial, especially with the rise of a new generation of global art cinema directors (Tsai, Jia, Apitchatpong) whose work echoes Antonioni’s aesthetic commitments: they use extended duration, wandering camera movements, and overtly graphic frame compositions to produce counter-narratives against globalization and neoliberalism. When we re-watch Antonioni’s films through the lens of this new generation, something long submerged reappears: we are able to see a persistent attention to the particulars of social reality in his images that lays bare the texture of a rapidly globalizing world.

“Registering social reality”

John David Rhodes: The way you phrase the problem—how to think of Antonioni’s cinema as “registering social reality”—is exactly what I’ve been working to understand. What is funny is how, once I began to look at his films in this way, it all became so obvious.

My work on Pasolini was ignited first by an interest in the form of his early films. I was interested in how they were made, and thinking about their formal awkwardness led me to think about what I was actually looking at in the images. (What I was seeing was the refracted registration of a specific urban, architectural history.) In a sense, despite how different their aesthetics are, my work on Antonioni has followed a similar sequence.

The obliqueness of Antonioni’s approach, which is often a literal obliqueness—looking at an object or location from an oblique angle—has meant that critics have been interested, understandably, in celebrating and exploring the so-called abstraction of his work, and have, in a sense, abstracted his abstraction from the world that it pictured. Critics like Seymour Chatman made important gestures towards recognizing Antonioni’s historicity, especially in regards to urban form, but there is still so much to see and to know in the films.

I was first turned on to a metonymic reading of Antonioni’s films when I realized that I could read the address of Vittoria’s apartment building in L’eclisse: 307 Viale dell’Umanesimo. (Other critics have since followed this trail.) The “realism” of this evidence led me to consider the broader, historical and theoretical implications of Antonioni’s use of the Roman suburb of EUR (begun under Fascism and developed in the postwar years) as one of the primary locations for this film, something I explore in my article for the book I co-edited with Elena Gorfinkel (Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image). This approach—which attempts to synthesize theory with history in reading Antonioni’s work—is followed by a number of writers (including yourself) whose work appears in the collection that I’ve recently edited with Laura Rascaroli.

Antonioni’s vision is, in fact, abstract and abstracting. But it is the abstract (oblique, formally belabored, defamiliarizing) mode of looking that makes us really see these things, people and places in the first place. The abstracting gaze is already competing and coming to terms with a landscape that has become, itself, increasingly abstract. We, with and through Antonioni, apprehend one abstraction through the other and vice versa. The point, though, is not that the world is abstract—universally so—and so can be written off or explained in one fell swoop. Abstraction for Antonioni is—and this perhaps strikes the note of a truism or a cliché—a method of mediating a universal and a particular. He practices a kind of abstract realism, in which both terms have to be entertained simultaneously. Become enthralled with the abstraction, we lose the social reality he is documenting (and often criticizing); become obsessed with the reality (the information indexically inscribed in the image) and we lose the power of his art to make the world seem worthy and in need of criticism.

KS: The end of L’eclisse forces the viewer to feel and to confront this precise tension. It suggests why Antonioni works to maintain the awkward cohabitation of document and abstraction within his images. Here an already loose narrative gives way to a poetic sequence that abandons the main characters of the narrative, who are never seen again. This 7-minute sequence of uneventfulness feels like a meditation on what constitutes the objective world: its temporalities, surfaces, textures. Those final minutes of the film ask how, if at all, that world matters to the narrative we have just watched for the previous two hours.

In the film’s opening scene, a heterosexual couple faces the disintegration of their relationship. But this discord is haunted by the obtuse compositional and aural presence of inanimate objects in this domestic setting’s interior. This scene epitomizes the obliqueness you’ve mentioned. But in the unexpected ending, the stubbornness of inanimate objects takes over. What was once approached from a sideways angle is now coming at us head-on. Empty streets, abandoned construction sites, broken fences, a forgotten pile of cement bricks. Humans sometimes appear but they are not personages or characters. More often the film gives us unpopulated shots: the uneven surface of worn pavement, insects scurrying across cracks in tree bark, sediment draining away like trailing smoke.

A screen shot from Antonioni’s film L’eclisse.

From a convent-
ional viewpoint this is one of the most modernist passages in Antonioni’s films, and it could certainly stand alone as a short experimental film. For me, it is important to reassert the physical properties on display here because this sequence interrogates precisely that threshold between abstraction and documentation that you just described. Some of the most powerful shots are those registering what is the seemingly least eventful action: water leaks from the bottom of a corroded waste barrel. These shots record a very simple set of transformations: the polluted rainwater trickles out and gently erodes the fallowed city dirt in furrows. Yet, as the camera follows this small action, we feel like we’re witnessing something remarkable. This leakage proposes cinema as a kind of alchemy, illustrating its most basic features as a medium: indexical and abstract, quiet and animated, quotidian and exceptional, corroborating and transformative.



Karl Schoonover is assistant professor of film and television studies at the University of Warwick. He is author of Brutal Vision: The Neorealist Body in Postwar Italian Cinema and co-editor of the anthology Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories.

“If there were ever any doubts about neorealism’s enduring power to generate fine scholarship, Karl Schoonover’s book should lay them to rest. To this most exhaustively studied body of films, the author brings a doubly original perspective-both geopolitically oriented and ethically charged. The result is a theory of spectatorship that goes far toward accounting for neorealism’s pivotal role in the history of film.”—Millicent Marcus, author of After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age

John David Rhodes is reader in literature and visual culture at the University of Sussex. He is co-editor with Elena Gorfinkel of Taking Place: Location and the Moving Image and author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome.

“Taking Place turns critical attention to the ingredients of place in film, allowing us to regard a given film as a virtual archive of places. This emphasis is all the more welcome in the postmodern world, in which the massive reality of non-place and the hegemony of global space have become predominant. The book is a pioneering venture carried out with notable success.”—Edward S. Casey, Distinguished Professor, SUNY at Stony Brook

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