It’s 1948 France, that Alexandre Astruc, a film theorist, coined the term caméra-stylo (camera pen). Astruc expressed that as a poet uses his pen, an auteur uses his camera. What makes a successful auteur, is the expression of a personal vision, and reflecting that vision to the screen.
Michelangelo Antonioni was not only an auteur but a disrupter in the film industry. A director whose films went against the grain. Antonioni played by no critics’ rules. He shot instinctively, and with rhythm, to give his film a sense of structure.
Antonioni did come from a fortunate family that owned some land, with Catholic roots, and a supportive community. But the times were far from rainbows and roses. Postwar effects made it difficult for everyone in the world to heal. From World War II to American presidential assassinations, the Watergate scandal, and diminishing trust in the government created a dark landscape. This is partly the reason why there’s such success in the newly formed neo-noir genre. Antonioni lived all these harsh realities, and it’s why his paranoia transferred so easily to the big screens.
He started his career by creating neorealist documentaries in Italy. Films such as Gente del Po (1943), which highlighted the struggles, and hard condition the poor fisherman families had to endure. He was recognized by Italian National Syndicate awards numerous times for his documentaries, short films, and feature-length films from Story of a Love Affair (1951), L’ Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), to his masterpiece Blowup (1966).
Genre and Themes
Antonioni wanted to understand the world he lived in but always had his moral conscious fogging his quest to revealing a bigger truth. These personal hardships that Antonioni experiences throughout his life reflected in his offerings on screen. In his most critically acclaimed film, Blowup (1966), there’s an eerie understanding of the world around the characters. The stories narrative has no sense of direction. Yet the environment around the protagonist tells us unconventional truths of reality.
Thomas (the protagonist in Blowup) moves nervously with the world. He doesn’t seem to have a grip on his reality or his emotions. Instead, he desperately uses his camera as a means of understanding reality. However, in the end, Thomas seems to never find what he was initially looking for. Were the shots he took at the London park at the beginning of the film any more important than the mime tennis game at the end of the film? Which image is the truest reality? Are any of them? These questions aren’t directly answered in the film through dialogue. And that was Antonioni’s way. He forced his audience to pay closer attention to the world around them, rather than its dialogue.
You won’t see traditional narrative development in most of his film. When creating films, he doesn’t want his viewers to be fixated by a single entity, or character. Rather, he wants his audience to focus on the bigger actions of the world around. Critics of Michelangelo Antonioni’s work constantly search for meaning in his characters when they should view his characters as a flash in the pan. Pawns of a larger game that create personal experiences for the audience. They are not the focus.
L’Avventura (1960), for example, tends to focus much more on composition, odd pacing of the camera (much like we see in Blowup) and emotion. This film gives us the impression it will mainly focus on the search of a woman that goes missing. This missing woman’s lover Sandro and best friend Claudia go search for her. The visual composition builds on the casual interest between Sandro and Claudia. The emotion is increasingly emphasized as the film progresses.
Though the character’s development is important in L’Avventura (1960), it is not what’s most important. Watching the film at a macro level, Antonioni’s camera shots and rhythm point to a larger meaning. Love is found, rather than lost. The camera tells us more than the narrative.
The auteur theory not only applies to Michelangelo Antonioni but revolutionized the way a filmmaker can express their vision. Antonioni was so great at taking a personal experience and creating a unique story that wasn’t previously told. Telling the story and the motif around the lenses, rather than the scripture. And lasting the test of time.
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