Tribute to a Master

The death of the master recedes but the work, blessedly insubstantial, looms forever.

To reduce L’Avventura to its theme – “Why?”/”Because.” – proves an expansion rather than a reduction, informing the entire film but leaving us stymied. One does not understand art; one intuits, then betrays those intuitions in a craven attempt to communicate. A theme is that trap from which art extricates us.

Art is a manifestation of prejudice in which idea, form and content harmonize to produce a compelling air. A man without prejudice will no sooner create art than a pickle will compose a concerto. In L’Avventura the prejudices of the artist are clear. He will disdain truth and beauty. He will suggest rather than state. He will particularize, vitiating all interpretive generalizations in advance, including any found here. He will conflate the present with the past, perceiving the eternal in both. He will hold fire musically until the search on Lisca Bianca and then, in a few bars, elevate that search from the physical to the metaphysical. He will trace the etiology of Eros, revealing its multifarious, anomalous nature. He will demand his creatures dress well, spiting the idiot deity who clothed them in hideous coats and ejected them from his infernal garden. He will strike, in his own good time, at the heart of the matter, evincing an obsolete attribute: conscience. He will flirt with but remain unseduced by mannerism, devising a style that is happily without purpose except, in the words of Debussy, mon plaisir. That pleasure, these prejudices, proclaim an aristocrat.

The film’s equilibrium continues to astonish and distinguishes the artist’s approach, suggesting a sphere at balance on a pin, an azure marble on the edge of a razor, or more: a series of high wires not receding into the distance but ascending from earth to ether, one topping the next, stretched taut between seeming polarities – absence and presence, feminine and masculine, doubt and certainty, sea and stone, convergence and divergence, abstract and concrete, hope and despair, bible and novel, blonde and brunette – that tempt the aerialists with a safety they spurn, preferring the wire to the platform, rising defiantly on one toe, risking the double somersault, only to plummet to another wire, right themselves, start again, fall again, finally to miserable earth, where they clamber up the ladders in shame. Not the film’s creatures – they are a dull, dull lot – but their bright various devious selves, which seek to master the polarities, and do, only to find them intermingling and reforming into disparate combinations – presence and despair, absence and hope – that summon new selves from Anna, Claudia, Sandro, the rest.

Not a mystery, Anna’s disappearance is the logical extension of her conversations with Claudia and Sandro, though one suspects it has more to do with her father than either of her friends. She can manage Sandro, from whose vulgarity her own visage glares back, and Claudia, the dim and docile girlfriend upon whose back she regularly wipes her pumps, but the old man is a handful. Thirty years as a diplomat have taught him to calculate the tactical weight of every pose, glance, gesture, sigh, word, inflection. He bullies with his eyebrow, threatens with his chin. He seems – the first commandment of a diplomat. One moment he seems to seek a rapprochement with his daughter; next he seems aghast at the Realpolitik of her personal relations. He’s old school, style over substance, recognizing his daughter’s blouse at once but remaining roundly flummoxed by her books. But if he is clearly a father en principe, Anna is just as clearly his daughter. She has learned the lessons of diplomacy at his knee: one must formulate then implement, judge then act, entertain the theory of truth then execute the practice of deceit. Crying shark is not so much a pointless fabrication as a bold demarche designed to elicit a revealing response. In this light Anna’s disappearance is not flight, not escape, not accident, not crime, certainly not suicide – she hasn’t the imagination for that – but a deft variation of H. A. Kissinger’s “constructive ambiguity.” Interests not friends; me not you; the self not the heart.

For Claudia the heart is primary. Finding herself in a society where the tender emotions of friendship and love garner only spite and ridicule, she will have none of it. Beware, Claudia: the undormant heart is indiscriminate, diverse, relentless, and once love is afoot a dozen other cats begin to prowl. Loving Sandro is animation, joy, exaltation, but also doubt, anxiety, humiliation. Claudia’s love is naive, personal, possessive; her heart feeds illusions to her mind. “Mine, mine, mine,” she says of Sandro, and later finds it all too easy to validate that feeling with the lyrics of a vapid pop song. Wrong. Sandro belongs to the procession of immediacies he calls life, to his wardrobe, and to Ettore. The measure of Claudia’s love is that she sees the potential in Sandro while remaining blind to the actual. This may ennoble her; it certainly dooms her. Nobility has no place in a society where the treasuries of the mind, soul, heart and body have been razed, and shacks erected in their place.

Society’s thicket of manners and mores leaves Claudia scratched, bloodied and scarred, when she doesn’t find it impenetrable. The artist portrays the latter, atypically, with a touch of high comedy when Claudia arrives at the hotel in Taormina and, failing to avoid Patrizia, instead is cornered by her. Claudia is clearly distraught. Patrizia bestows a look of bland, benign complacency, blithely oblivious to her suffering, to all suffering, the opaque patrician facing the transparent plebian. “You seem well,” she says, despite Claudia’s mounting discomfort. The pleasantry baffles Claudia but forces her to smile. Nothing fazes these people while she is fazed by everything. A slow student, the one perched in the back row, a destitute childhood taught her but one lesson: to be sensible. No more chilling moment in cinema exists than when Claudia turns on Sandro to ask for his love only to find him, though present, absent. But it chills only us; sensible Claudia adapts readily enough. Sensibility, however, is not perception, and trying to get her bearings, Claudia constantly loses them. She is amused by the erotic fumblings of Patrizia and Raimondo, of Giulia and Goffredo, but what amuses her in them shames her in herself, and shame is what singularly sets her apart from the others, who consider it very bad form indeed. Seeking Anna she finds only her surrogate, splayed out on a hotel couch. Sincere to a fault in a society where sincerity gets you brutalized, disquietude, flight and tears define the pattern of Claudia’s life with Sandro.

The price both women pay for Sandro is his dependably undependable tact – the crack to Anna about his boner, to Claudia about a new adventure – but the price Sandro pays for the women is higher: they never shut up. All he can do is listen, shrug, turn away, and hope the other guys aren’t watching him squirm. The pharmacist’s claim that the woman bought a tranquilizer suggests Anna because Sandro knows she damn well needs one. That it is he who vexes Anna, and later Claudia, never crosses his mind. Nothing does. Unfailingly likable, happily compromised, unmolested by ambition, he is loath to surrender the cardinal advantage of leading a meaningless life: to never be disillusioned. Oh, he’s willing enough to pose for Claudia as a beleaguered architect who wants to design buildings but upsetting the ink betrays the pose. In this wanton petty action Sandro reveals himself as threatened by aspiration, by effort, in others as well as himself, and when to compensate for the dust-up with the student he gets a little rough with what’s-her-name, reveals even more. The moment passes. Once again he conceals himself beneath a veneer of manners, within a camouflage of tailored clothes, all that distinguish him from the hounds in the piazza. He kisses the hand of Patrizia; he kowtows to Ettore; he bumps into Ms. Gloria Perkins. Marx was correct: a man who is not conscious of anything will always lack a conscience. Oddly, though we sympathize with Anna and Claudia – that is, despise them – unsympathetic Sandro wins us over. The man is agreeable. Yes, he’s insensitive but the ladies, we propose, are all-too-sensitive, and in his readiness to embrace the absurdity of existence, while the ladies hunt for the meaning of it all, in his willingness to accept himself for what he is, while the ladies yearn to be what they are not, Sandro rates respect.

Betrayal cinches betrothal; the two will marry. Children will arrive, and be made much of, but Sandro and Claudia will find little to palliate their unease. A prisoner in a house of mutinous silences and sudden tears, Sandro will resume his adventures. Claudia will be magnanimous, her way of being despotic. Kisses will become perfunctory, all else obligatory, until their only private moments will be in public. She will never start, let alone finish, Tender is the Night; she will find her children distant; she will suffer from headaches; she will enliven parties with her malice; she will haunt art galleries until they haunt her; she will get religion. Increasingly Sandro will find his desire slaked by disgust – howling, foaming, like an impounded dog – until inappetent old age descends as a blessing. He will become a café character, always at the same table, impeccably turned out, sipping coffee or brandy.

The artist proposes space, not time, as the essence. Not heightened by years into monstrous stilt-walkers, these creatures are diminished by the basilica on the horizon, the piazza beneath their feet, the horizontal insult of the sea, the vertical presumption of the rock, and in turn diminish themselves. Time exists only as victim in killings that both exhaust the energy and test the imagination of the feckless killers. There are no clocks in this world – what would be the point? Claudia checks her watch only when she can’t sleep, and Sandro his only to expose himself as that creature so reviled by his compatriots: a tourist. Later he will coo, caress, kiss, copulate, climax, cuddle, and fork over 50,000 lira as a souvenir.

The concrete vanquishes the abstract, and logic, philosophy. The artist finds solace in the interplay of point and line, plane and solid, foreground and background, light and dark, and in the laws of perspective. Perspective is appearance distorted by distance. What we call “life” is the succession of those distortions; what we call “consciousness” is their repository. The mordant drama of diminishment that L’Avventura portrays resides in man’s attempt to master those distortions; to flee the comic threnody of perche, perche, perche; to accept, in a world liberated from philosophy, the bracing logic of the master: where morality is trumped by circumstance, where the provisional is permanent, humans must give, take.

The sentimentality of acute and morbid preoccupations, so pervasive in the “depth” psychology of the jejune twentieth century, so familiar from the homilies of Ingmar Bergman, is absent here and psychology assumes its proper position as mere variable in a human equation the sum of which is always zero. Sandro’s variables include architecture, automobiles, biology, career, chance, circumstance, fashion, history, leisure, money, and much, much more – not the least of which is the lack of a compelling road rally or soccer match on television. These creatures reveal, conceal, but neither revelation nor concealment is to be trusted. In this, and this only, they be gods.

That these creatures are portrayed by mediocre actors is a blessing. The assertion is not facile. The castle is the king, the cathedral is the bishop, the theater is the actor. Subtract the author – Sophocles, Shakespeare, Chekhov, that bunch – and theater does just fine. Subtract the actor and poof – it vanishes! Onstage the actor is crucial – a prodigious being. On a film set he is trivial – a squat fellow solemnly deferred to not out of respect but out of blatant scorn. The mediocre actor accepts the humiliation along with his paycheck and the easy access to some flashy tail. The superior actor does not. He carps, wheedles, rebels, calls his agent, demands a rewrite, gets ideas. Seeking to portray character, which does not exist, he fails to discover the creature, which does, and from his perpetual and preposterous confusions fashions a performance, rather like a monkey sculpting its dung and demanding applause from its dumbfounded, derisive keepers. No; the artist is resolute: better actors make for lesser films. The so-called art of interpretation is larceny – sometimes petit, sometimes grand – but larceny nonetheless, and the artist brooks no sanction.

For he, too, must dance the wire, a lone one with nothing beneath, and faces a constant challenge: he is incompetent. This is not uncommon; competence is the business card of a hack. But in L’Avventura a rare artistic alchemy occurs: seeking refuge from incompetence in his very weaknesses – affectation, pretense, mystification – the artist, astonishingly, transmutes them into strengths. The constant tension of concealing, skirting, defying, vanquishing, transforming and disguising his shortcomings produces a cogent style that intrigues, irritates, ravishes, and passes show. Rather than flee, moments are seized by the artist’s vigilant eye and the commonplace – tossing a newspaper overboard, waiting for a train, scraping the ground with a shoe, flapping the pockets of a housecoat, picking at the bark of a tree – becomes revelatory. A sense of proportion, of delicate perception, of distillation, fixes forever a man shunning his own reflection after a stolen kiss, a woman donning a wig, a helicopter lighting, a dolphin scending. Images unviolated by ideas invite but prove impervious to penetration, offer a grace-bestowing poise, and suggest at times that nullity in which Joyce claimed to see un bellissimo niente. Within this style the artist secretes himself and the personal film, which all men of reason abhor, is most eloquently articulated. Much has been made of this style – something the artist himself never does. It has been called mannered when it is fastidious, vague when it is ambiguous, furtive when it is tacit, cold when it is temperate. The confusion is symptomatic. Style is contagion: it infects us, and our immune system, habit, retaliates.

There’s a weepy bit at the end (the artist is Italian) and the compunctions of the heart are laid bare, forcing Sandro and Claudia to face what passes for truth: not only is there no abyss, there is no precipice. It moves but fails to convince us. Sandro’s tears are puerile, Claudia’s neurotic, and the artist himself is reduced to an insipid final shot that shows him at one with his creatures: he knows how to commence, to continue, but not how to conclude.

No matter. Viewing L’Avventura we will measure ourselves against the master’s imperfections, and proffer the paltry shame we feel as tribute to his genius.

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Michelangelo Antonioni, the film director, died in Rome on July 30, 2007.

Joe Carlson, a screenwriter, lives in Chicago, and is reachable at joecarlson@gmx.us.


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