#58 - Il Deserto Rosso
1912 - 2007
All right, there are tons of new movies out that I have yet to address. And I will get to them next week, I promise. But this week, I want to talk about Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away last week, astonishingly just one day after the death of last week’s dedicatee, Ingmar Bergman. I won’t even get into my irritation over how little attention the mainstream media has paid to the passing of these two giants. But Antonioni had a profound impact on the way I think and, more importantly to this column, the way I write about movies, and not in the way you might expect.
My first exposure to Antonioni’s work was his 1966 film Blowup. I loved the film, as do most people who see it. It’s a true classic that everyone who loves movies should see. But that’s not what I’m thinking about when I consider the effect he had on me. I graduated from the University of Iowa in the mid-90s and took a wide range of useless but interesting liberal arts classes. I majored in English, having dropped out of a film program several years earlier in Montana. But the love of celluloid ran deep in my veins and whenever a class was offered that focused on film, I signed up for it.
In one of these classes (I don’t remember what the name or point of it was exactly), we screened a film a week and were supposed to write a mini-paper on each one. Essentially they were slightly more academic versions of what I’m doing here every week. One of those films was Antonioni’s 1964 film The Red Desert starring Richard Harris and Monica Vitti. This was the second Antonioni film I’d seen and based on my enjoyment of Blowup, I was looking forward to it. Much to my surprise, I despised it. I found it oblique, unsatisfying and as boring as watching grass grow. Since we were supposed to be giving our opinions and analyses of these films, I said as much in the paper I wrote. When I got it back, I was stunned to discover that I’d been given a C-. The professor (actually, the grad student who was actually running the course for the tenured prof who was far too important to be bothered to come to class) wrote a note at the bottom saying, “I’m sorry you didn’t understand the film.”
Now I have never cared one iota about grades but the note pissed me off more than if the guy had come to my house and insulted everything I own. It wasn’t that I didn’t get The Red Desert. I just didn’t appreciate it. I’d disagreed with people about movies before but this was the first time that someone had suggested that I wasn’t capable of understanding one. This really got on my nerves and it weighed heavily on my mind for quite some time. Was I really too stupid to figure out a movie that I was supposed to love? After all, this guy was teaching the class and I was just some jerk in the back row, so what did I know? Eventually it got to the point that I actually went back and re-watched The Red Desert on my own time. And I still hated it.
This was a turning point for me. The Red Desert is the film that gave me the courage of my convictions. Before this, I probably would have backed down in an argument like this and allowed Mr. High & Mighty Grad Student to persuade me that he was right and I was wrong. But this experience convinced me that there is no right and wrong when it comes to matters like this. My opinion of the movie was every bit as valid as his. More importantly, I decided then and there that I would never accuse someone whose opinion differed from mine of not “understanding” the movie and I hope I’ve lived up to that vow in my reviews here and over at The Digital Bits. If you loved Transformers and I didn’t, that doesn’t necessarily make you a moron. Likewise, if I hated The English Patient (and I kind of do) and you thought it was a masterpiece, that doesn’t necessarily make you smarter than me. There are probably a lot of other reasons that you’re smarter than me, but our differing opinions on movies isn’t one of them.
Since then, I have given Antonioni several other chances to knock my socks off and more often than not, he did just that. L’Avventura is an extraordinary film by any measure and even something like Zabriskie Point, a movie that actually grates on my nerves from time to time, has stayed with me long after I watched it. I even find myself thinking about The Red Desert now and then and that’s perhaps the measure of a truly great filmmaker. Anybody can make a movie. Hell, I co-wrote a whole book proving just that. But it takes a real artist to make something you remember for years afterward, whether you enjoyed the experience of actually watching it or not.
And so, I offer my deepest and most heartfelt thanks to Michelangelo Antonioni, both for the films I enjoyed and those I did not. Many filmmakers have given me great works of art. Antonioni most certainly did that but he also helped give me a voice. Whether you like it or not is up to you but at least you know that it’s mine.
Next week, new movies. Pinky swear.