Still from Red Desert
The Criterion Collection recently published a series of stills selected from four iconic films by Michelangelo Antonioni, L'Avventura (1960), L'Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), and Identification of a Woman (1982). Entitled Environments, the gallery reveals Antonioni's intelligent reading of natural and manufactured landscapes and the skillful manner in which they are transposed to the logic of film. In Antonioni's modernist cinema, the material artifacts of the built world--cooling towers, cranes, rigs, scaffolding, blank walls--are sutured to now-barren land, the transformation of the "natural" world after it has been irrevocably hybridized by industry. Scenes are compressed between the oppressive monotony of the grey sky and the similarly massive and indifferent ground plane to the point of rupture. The world seen through Antonioni's lens, then, becomes completely absorbed in a singular material substance.
At first, the landscapes appear hostile to the characters and events which play out before them. But rather than staging a tired critique of global industrialization and the dehumanizing effects it inheres, Antonioni instead renders his scenery in much more ambiguous terms. As The Funambulist points out, Antonioni alternates between visions of "disgust and fascination," producing a strange atmospheric condition that hangs over the filmmaker's protagonists--in most cases women, best epitomized by Monica Vitti.
The empty streets and layered tableaux of Antonioni's urbanscapes are as seductive as they are fraught with anxiety. Materials such as concrete and asphalt are softened by light and plant life. Tall walls imprison inhabitants while conveying a coherent picture of order to the outsider. Scale, which Antonioni masterfully captures through high-angle and establishing shots, is integral to his urban vision, one steeped in textural varieties.
Identification of a Woman
As he once noted in an interview, the success of the shot is contingent on the "collision" between two incompatible states. The material landscape, like the rocky island in L'Avventura or the ironyard in Red Desert, is encountered by the human form, such the aforementioned heroine Monica Vitti, in a confrontation whose resultant forces reverberate across the screen.