Memories of Murder

Film has always involved a certain materiality and a certain immateriality, a certain technology and a certain semiology. And a film festival reflects this on a larger scale: it is a total fact that always involves both quantity and something that cannot be quantified, a matrix into which a conglomerate of films, each with its own specificity and traceable genealogy, is embedded. A film festival thus involves both a quantitative seeing and a more qualitative activity of understanding and feeling. But one should not minimise the importance of what one fails to understand or misunderstands, or of what one fails to even see or discern, and more importantly, one should not minimise the importance of viewing so many films so closely together in such a short time. This quantitative condition produces a qualitative effect, a forceful interaction or dissemination of image and meaning that operates between films at a festival and creates passing affinities that are felt with an undeniable clarity but would never be noted in any other situation. The double-property of a film festival, then, is discovered both in the number of films shown or seen and in the richness of meanings produced.

Up here in Sydney the festival’s venues tend to draw different people. The State Theatre, a plush old picture-palace restored to its former glories smack in the city-centre, draws an older crowd of cinema-goers who give every impression of being steeped in culture and art. These are people who savour the moment when lights dim and curtains slide apart with a barely audible rustling. A second venue, the Dendy Opera Quays, is situated on the harbour, a stone’s throw from the Opera House and the Rocks, and tends to draw younger, more cosmopolitan crowds. Here uni students rub shoulders with old fellas sporting unkempt beards, and in the lobby accents from across the globe mix to form an acoustic cocktail with an almost hypnotic effect. Running to catch a 5pm session I realised for the first time in my life how incredibly the sun sets in this part of Sydney. This is where the Antonioni retrospective screened, as did the left-leaning political documentaries, the films on cult icons like Charles Bukowski and Metallica which always screened to packed houses, and the new Jim Jarmusch film, Coffee and Cigarettes (2003).

“New” may not be the right word here. Coffee and Cigarettes is new, and then again it isn’t. It is a composite made up of eleven shorts threaded like beads on a string, whose cinematic origins go back to 1986. This reiterative structure means that the film has no single inaugural gesture, no single beginning, but rather a repeated sense of return that functions like the initiatory beat of a shaman’s drum. The repetition of a situation with small but significant variations is characteristic of the way Jarmusch establishes his points with a subtlety that’s almost silent. (Aaltra‘s [Benoît Delépine, 2004] black-and-white visual style at first reminded me of early Jarmusch with its laid-back quietly-nuanced anti-dramatic delivery. Then, as I watched, it reminded me more of Kaurismäki. After half and hour it reminded me only of itself. To call this film a black comedy would be to betray it by allotting it a standard classification. It is deeply idiosyncratic and deeply subversive of audience expectations. It breathes a dark Nordic humour and focuses with wry clarity on the comic nature of human obstinacy, idiocy, pettiness and irresponsibility.)

In Coffee and Cigarettes Jarmusch returns the audience again and again to some corner inside some coffee shop. The coffee shops change, but the scenes are always interior, always around a table, and the camera never allows us to stray from this one section of the café. We never see the whole, only the part, the intimate part that establishes a context for Jarmusch to explore his thematic interest in the difficulties and humour of communication, especially communication between friends. All the conversations embedded in Coffee and Cigarettes are built upon the assumption that human communication is filled with misunderstandings and difficulties that are as comic as they are inevitable. At the end of the film, and before the credits roll, we hear a voiceover saying, “and now, for the news”. This penultimate moment (the ultimate moment being filled by Iggy Pop’s Lou e Lou e played over the credits) represents a type of communication which is not only inherently uni-directional, but is based on the fundamentally mistaken belief that meanings can simply be passed from one person to another like cars passing from one side of a bridge to the other.

Coffee and Cigarettes

Jarmusch’s recurrent overhead shots of the table provide an objective visualisation of the often unspoken connections that exist between siblings, friends and acquaintances. Objects that ordinarily would be considered insignificant become mutely articulate. An image: Roberto Benigni is sitting in a cosily lit corner of a coffee shop. The nervous energy emanating from him seems to belie the fact that all he is doing is sitting. This carefully constructed scene, however, speaks to us not only through the five-or-so half-drunken espresso cups lined-up on the table in front of Benigni and not only through the cigarette he’s avidly drawing on, but also through the cracked paint on the wall behind him. One way to condense Coffee and Cigarettes into a single line might be: worn friends, worn people, worn corners, and insignificant objects and situations that become imbued with significant and living meaning. Somewhere in Coffee and Cigarettes Tom Waits says to Iggy Pop, “we’re the coffee and cigarettes generation”. You could almost say that each type of drug comes with a particular cinematic culture: alcohol can be associated with the film noir of the ’40s, hallucinogens with the New American Cinema of the late ’60s and ’70s, and heroin with a swathe of hard-edged socially-aware techno youth films from the late ’80s and ’90s. However unlike alcohol, which is a depressant, or hallucinogens, which are associated with an awareness of alternate realities, or heroin, which sends a rush up and down the spine that leaves you in a dream-like state close to sleep, coffee and cigarettes are both nerve-stimulating chemicals. Throughout the film Jarmusch’s characters refer to their properties with ironic comments such as “what are you, a fucking moron or something, those things’ll kill you” and with constant variations of “you should have a proper lunch” and “that’s not nourishment”. But you come out of Coffee and Cigarettes feeling that human beings need more than just regular nourishment. Perhaps they need a different kind of nourishment, and coffee and cigarettes are of that kind. They are something like the Tesla coils that are referred to several times, but rather than act as conductors of electrical current, they act as conductors of the semiological resonance that plays through and around these gentle conversations between strangers or friends.

Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles, 2003) is as loud as Coffee and Cigarettes is quiet. Nevertheless, it’s a complex texture of oppositions: a film about the making of a film, a son directing a film in which he plays his father directing a film. It’s about White America and Black America, the record of an unmistakable challenge to the American mainstream that said, “we’re not going to bow down to the man anymore”. And it has a peculiar rhythm, at once casual, like breezily strolling down a street, and intense, like an obsession. I remember it as an amalgam of images – Sweetback’s motorbike, open highways, deserts, cigars, nightclubs and parties – and moods – dreams, obsessions, obstacles, attitude, disappointment, financial difficulties, deteriorating health, racism and violence. Jotting down some quick notes in the cinema at the end of the movie I found the film’s moods and images spiralling inwards and concentrating themselves in a single line stated by the son playing the father, “the man ain’t gonna carry no message for free”. This film records how a film once did create its own vision and carry its own message. And it’s the familiar but peculiar way that Mario Van Peebles’ film reproduces his father’s odyssey in making Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971) that impressed me most: it’s both distant in being a record of the making of a film, and intimate in expressing a son’s connection to his father. In showing that the price of fighting the system is always exacted in more than just dollars, Gettin’ the Man’s Foot Outta Your Baadasssss! is talking not only to us as the immediate audience, but also of and to a specific community, the Black American community, and also of and to a specific person, Melvin Van Peebles. In the end, both the film of the son and the film of the father, despite their differences and divergent aims, seem to reach a point of mutual rapport in believing that sometimes you need your dreams to survive.

The Canadian Consul General Richard Kohler introduced the screening of The Far Side of the Moon (Robert Lepage, 2003) by stating that the director’s work is a mixture of “the intimate and the infinite”. I have to admit that the exalted sound of these terms perfectly matched the environment of the State Theatre in which the audience was sitting (as if in some magnificent magnified lounge-room). If Kohler had said this in French, that most philosophical of languages, I might have been convinced, but I wasn’t. William Blake’s poetry intimate and infinite? Yes. Lepage’s film? Perhaps. Lepage’s philosophical leanings, however, are obvious. With quotes such as, “The earth is the cradle of man, but man cannot spend his whole life in a cradle”, who could doubt it? And Lepage does consistently connect familiar small-scale details of everyday life to large-scale, even cosmic, realities. The moon, which is a recurrent image throughout this film, embodies this contrast. The moon, which always shows the same face to the earth as it orbits, represents a familiar reality that has been the subject of representation from the earliest known mythologies to contemporary cinemas. The moon’s far side, however, exists as something unfamiliar, facing the depths, always looking away from the earth, always unknown, and therefore always full of potential. Perhaps this sense of potential, when Lepage mines it, could be said to be close to a sense of the infinite.

The Far Side of the Moon

In The Far Side of the Moon Lepage weaves a narrative about the need to move beyond established boundaries through the story of two very different brothers and the way in which they come to grips with their lives, the world, each other and their recently deceased mother. It is particularly through their talk about their mother, their memories of her, and their discussions about what to do with her possessions, that Lepage establishes the importance of transcending one’s bounds. This concept of boundedness is underlined by the fact that both brothers circulate within a closed economy of meanings. One brother still lives in the house where he was born, and clearly cannot move beyond the context established by his birth. The other, successful and ostensibly happy, circulates within a wider, but equally closed economy of meanings established by the urban lifestyle that his money secures (this stress on boundedness, and on the crossing of boundaries, is not yet a sense of infinity, is it?). Having both brothers played by the same actor leaves us in no doubt that Lepage wishes to make a statement, not just about two idiosyncratic individuals, and not just about sibling relationships, but about human nature in general. Such philosophical undertones are further emphasised via dialogue. Characters say things such as, “space exploration in the 20th century is motivated by narcissism”, a statement which establishes a circular paradox: exploration suggests a desire or need to move into the unknown, to transcend the boundaries established by nature or culture, whereas narcissism suggests that one inevitably stamps the new with the shape of the old, that one inevitably molds the unknown into one’s own image or into the image of one’s society.

The most profound aspect of Lepage’s film, however, lies in the unusual conceptual connections that he makes via images reminiscent of the types of conceptual imagistic connections made by early 20th century Cubist and Surrealist artists. In one sequence he shows us the older brother, Phillippe, waiting in a laundromat. The camera seems to be viewing the laundromat from a position inside a washing machine. Phillippe walks over to the washing machine and peers in, his face framed by the circular window of its door. The image fades to black-and-white and the circular window framing his face pulls back to reveal itself as the window of a space-pod drifting out into the blackness. A similar sequence is shown in flashback: we see Phillippe’s very pregnant mother sitting in a laundromat. The camera moves close to her belly, then cuts to a grainy image that appears to be a foetus slowly floating about its own umbilical cord inside her womb. As this impressionistic image resolves, however, it reveals not a foetus, but an astronaut floating in space.

The film’s final scene: Phillippe is in an airport waiting for a connecting flight. Unexpectedly, some of the objects from his travel bag rise into the air. Eventually, he too, rises weightlessly into the air while other passengers walk past. Their obliviousness to his condition intensifies our own awareness of his weightlessness. This scene distils much of Lepage’s conceptual and stylistic approach. The airport itself provides a locus for connecting flights moving from a known point of departure to a known point of arrival. It is a metaphor of circulation within a limited economy of meanings, and stands in contrast to Lepage’s metaphoric use of space exploration to imply an alternate movement that travels from a known point of departure to an unknown point of arrival. Phillippe’s weightlessness is reminiscent of Surrealist imagery but, within the context of this film, encapsulates a meaning that has nothing to do with the Surrealist attempt to establish the creative existence of a sur-reality. Rather, it represents the expression of the simple and familiar need to cross borders, boundaries, and limits of all kinds, to become something more than one is, and the simple and familiar awareness that the repercussions of the known always echo into the unknown.

This analysis, however, should be mistrusted. It is certainly jostling in an all-too-narrow festival passageway where incompatible meanings are crushed together. In my mind Lepage’s film is contaminated with the experience of Bukowski: Born into This (John Dullaghan, 2003), a revealing unsentimentalised portrait of a hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-writing Beat poet. In explanation of his lifestyle, and perhaps also of his anti-poetic posture, he throws out a gruff “we don’t want poets, we want hard-living fuck-machines”. The public laps up Bukowski because of the boundaries he breaks. Wildness and danger are the essence of his appeal – and what he wants to give the world, what he wants to spread, isn’t poetry, but a way of living and I guess a way of dying. A way, if you want, of breaking through boundaries. When we finally arrived at the point of Bukowski’s death the woman next to me was crying. As the lights came up she was still crying. A tear dropped onto the armrest. I watched as it was slowly absorbed into the fabric of the chair and, quite literally, into the fabric of the cinema. Another boundary crossed: I had watched Bukowski’s pain translated from the unreality of cinematic images to something as concrete and real as a chair.

A profoundly thoughtful film, a real-time meditation on reality, and the film that surely scored the most walk-outs of any film I attended at the festival was Good Bye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003). This film takes place in and around a crumbling movie-house and parallels our viewing the film with the characters viewing of the Taiwanese martial arts classic, Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967). The use of real-time is readily associated with the commercially slick television series 24, but the difference of approach between 24 and Good Bye, Dragon Inn couldn’t be greater and seems to reflect a traditional East-West cultural divide. Whereas 24 is so full of activity that it creates the paradoxical effect of making a single day seem like a month, the use of real-time in Good Bye, Dragon Inn is characterised by emptiness. This emptiness, however, is not always an absolute absence of human beings, but rather the presentation of a space whose opaqueness (you could even call it “mystery”) is accentuated by the fewness of the people present. In constant interplay with this opaqueness and mystery is an interest in communication expressed through a sombre mannered style that verges on that of silent film, and through the physical placement of actors. Tsai activates a sense of austerity that restricts communication to a closeness of bodies: in an almost empty cinema strangers sit side-by-side, in an almost empty urinal strangers stand side-by-side. The film has a homoerotic subtext, but it not only makes you aware of the proximity of the male bodies in the film itself, but also generates an awareness of proximity of the actual bodies of viewers around you. Further, the duplication that results from being positioned in a cinema watching characters in a cinema deployed in real-time results in an acute awareness of being involved in the activity of watching a film. At some moments it seemed that what was happening in Tsai’s film was real. And like the story that Chuang-tse is said to have told of a man who, upon waking, could not determine whether he was a man who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man, I found it possible to wonder whether Tsai’s characters were real people in real-time watching a film like me or, whether I was in their world watching a film like them.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003) radiates outwards from a single unsettling thought: that all the mechanisms erected by society to protect its citizens are sometimes wholly inadequate to stop a single killer. Its narrative revolves around the sex crimes of an actual serial killer who was never caught and was active in South Korea sometime in the ’80s. Three impressions have stayed with me: the sound of the rain, a field of tall grass undulating in the wind beneath an overcast sky, and the opening image of a young boy gazing directly into the lens of the camera which is linked to a closing image of one of the police investigators gazing into the camera in a similar way, a visual link that connects innocence to the knowledge of evil. These three things – a sound, an image, and a gaze – sum up the desolation tinged with sadness that seeps from the narrative and the mood of this film. Bong Joon-ho effectively utilises a sense of the evil lying beneath the most ordinary facade to generate an undercurrent of anticipation, an anticipation that tends to displace the more overt use of suspense that characterises many Western thrillers. Despite the film’s brutality (intensified by its juxtaposition with a comic sensitivity on one side, and with a series of almost poetic visual images on the other), its expressive modality is pervasively understated. In Memories of Murder‘s closing scene, an ex-policeman involved in the unsuccessful investigation of the serial killings drives past a field in which the first body was found. He stops his car, gets out, and crouches to peer into the pipe where the body was dumped. A curious young girl asks what he is doing. She tells him that another man had visited that very spot a few months before, and when she had asked him why he was staring into the pipe he replied vaguely that he had done something there a long time ago. When the ex-policeman asks “do you remember what he looked like?” she replies only that, “he was very ordinary…” Bong Joon-ho’s equation between evil and ordinariness is all the more powerful for being so simple.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

If Heraclitus is to be believed, “there is harmony in opposing movements”. Certainly one of the highlights of a film festival is not only the screening of new films but the screening of old films. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972) is an old Shaw Bros film with a timeless title. It is lurid, shifts from the brutal to the sentimental in a matter of seconds, and is melodramatic to the point of being humorous. Further, it has everything that anyone could ever confess. Freud would have loved it. Tarantino does love it. This is Hong Kong style lowbrow popular entertainment. But a movie like this is also an artefact from a particular time, and indicative of a whole strain of Hong Kong cinema that’s been endlessly parodied and referenced. The print that the festival screened was an un-restored original negative complete with missing frames, grain, and general degradation. Viewing an older film isn’t like viewing a new one. The degradation of the film stock continually asserts itself, and given a now common aesthetic attitude whose genealogy can be traced in a branching line from the Dadaists of the 1920s onwards, it is easy to see in such degradation something worn and beautiful. You are aware not only of looking at a film, but of looking at an artefact, of looking back in time as it were. And you are aware not only of the film’s narrative and formal shortcomings, but equally of its place as a forerunner of today’s postmodernist action films, and of the huge distance that exists between the time of the making of this film and contemporary cinema, a distance constituted not only by changed cultural sensibilities but by a changed set of audience expectations and an enriched audience sophistication. Time itself conspires with this film to render it in the eyes of a contemporary audience comic and banal and crude and beautiful all at once.

Amongst this year’s screenings of older titles the central attraction was the near-complete Michelangelo Antonioni retrospective (one notable exception being The Passenger [1975]: Jack Nicholson owns the copyright and for reasons that I have been unable to ascertain has refused to give permission for the film to be screened). Rolando Caputo of the Cinema Studies Program at Melbourne’s LaTrobe University spoke to audiences about each film before and after the screenings. I caught up with Rolando on the second last day of the festival. We managed to find a quiet corner in the Menzies Premier Hotel at the far end of the Canberra Suite to discuss Antonioni.

Saul Symonds: The first thing I wanted to ask you wasn’t actually a question, it was more a point I wanted to clarify. I was reading about Zabriskie Point (1970) and this website said that the final scene was originally of a plane skywriting the words, “Fuck you America”, and of course it said that the studio made him delete that. I was curious if you’re able to verify this.

Rolando Caputo: I’m not sure about the skywriting, but I have heard people say that there was some variation regarding the ending. I believe that the issue was about the female character getting back into the car after the explosion. There was talk that Antonioni wanted to end with the explosion and leave it somewhat ambiguous whether it was a projection of her imagination or whether it had a real status to it. The shot of her getting back into the car makes it appear that it could only have been a fantasy projection of hers. The ambiguity has been removed. But this is pure speculation, I’ve seen no definitive evidence about alternative endings to the film.

SS: One of the things that struck me at yesterday’s screening of The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) is that if you look at the Carlo Ponti trilogy (Blow-Up [1966], Zabriskie Point and The Passenger) you see over the course of these three films Antonioni moving his established themes into new areas, and I guess The Passenger is sort of a culmination of everything that he’s been developing. Now when he returns to Italy and makes this film with Monica Vitti again he almost seems to pick up thematically where Red Desert (1964) left off, and presents her as the same “suffering female” that she played in many of his earlier films. It seems to me that this, what I’ll call “suffering female” for lack of a better word, is a recurrent character in Antonioni’s Italian films and in Italian cinema in general – whether you’re looking at the way Federico Fellini used Giulietta Masina in La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957) or the way that Roberto Rossellini used Ingrid Bergman. Do you feel that this is a particularly Italian way of presenting women, or is there something idiosyncratic about the way Antonioni presents them?

Mystery of Oberwald

RC: Firstly, just about Mystery of Oberwald and the Monica Vitti character. I don’t think that her character in that film has any real link to the Vitti films from the ’60s. Her performance is radically different and she looks radically different. In other words, Antonioni’s not trying to evoke the former Vitti in that at all. As for the suffering women, I don’t really think that Antonioni belongs in that vein. Principally because they’re not women who suffer in any overtly melodramatic way, it’s an existential suffering that we all share. It’s not just the women, I think the men equally so. Antonioni’s not somebody who presents women as victims of anything.

SS: But if you compare Antonioni’s female characters to his male characters, you see that it’s not so much existential angst or suffering the men endure, but more of a disassociation from the world around them.

RC: You’re right about the men being much more disassociated than the women in relation to reality, but that may go back to Antonioni’s famous statement about why he uses women in his films as focal points. And I’m paraphrasing, but the quote had something to do with women providing him with a better or subtler filter of reality. In one sense I think he believes that women have a greater attachment to reality and men possibly retreat from it. And you get that sense in the Ponti trilogy definitely, where there’s a certain dissociation between the male characters and the world. But there’s still an existential quality about that disassociation.

SS: I wanted to ask you about the disappearance of characters. The most famous example is in L’avventura (1960), but in a large proportion of Antonioni’s films characters disappear without explanation, almost as if they’re swallowed up by the environment. How do you understand the significance of this disappearance of characters in his films?

RC: One aspect of it is just the relation between narrative and non-narrative. Antonioni’s films are narrative films, but the narrative may not necessarily dominate and provide the solutions that spectators are used to. There is the possibility that the story may come to a termination but there is still something left. So in L’eclisse (1962) what effectively happens, narratively speaking, is that the two characters, Alain Delon and Monica Vitti, make an agreement to meet that evening – the famous last words, “same time, same place”. Neither of them turn up to the appointed location, and we don’t know why they don’t turn up. But what does happen in an extraordinary way is that the camera turns up. And even though the narrative has lost its characters it continues in some form which is not specifically narrative. It is the camera which has been liberated from the story elements. So in essence, the disappearance of character or story isn’t going to derail any of the films.

SS: You mentioned at the forum that all of Antonioni’s films are weighted in a psychological direction. Yet it’s definitely not the psychological realism of, say, Dostoyevsky. Although Antonioni does seem interested in the inner lives of his characters, he time and time again renders their actions and motivations opaque. How would you explain this seemingly paradoxical strategy?

RC: With a film like his first feature, Chronicle of a Love Affair (1950), it seemed to critics no longer possible to just talk about neo-realism in terms of a social neo-realism, and the term that arose was psychological neo-realism. Somehow a shift had taken place between the neo-realism of Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or Bicycle Thief (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) and what is occurring in a film like Chronicle of a Love Affair. It seems to me, and the parallel has been drawn by others and I guess Antonioni himself in certain interviews, that the kind of psychological realism he’s dealing with in effect is similar to Flaubert’s. We ultimately don’t know the motivations of Madame Bovary. Flaubert will describe the world, will depict the characters, and we think we’re getting insights into their motivations, but there is something that remains unexplained. And I think if we want to talk about the psychological realism of Antonioni we could refer back to a writer like Flaubert, even though, finally, the worlds they’re describing are radically different.

SS: It’s interesting that you broached psychological neo-realism, because when you presented Chronicle you spoke of how it wasn’t considered neorealist because of Antonioni’s favouring of psychology over social problems, even though it had properties of that movement. Do you think it would be instructive to place this film within neo-realism and analyse it in terms of that context, or do you think it needs to be looked at separately?

RC: Well, that’s a complex question because it depends how you define neo-realism. It’s not so much the films but the issue is: what did critics believe neo-realism to be. If you take certain more conventional definitions, I guess Antonioni differentiates himself from it – that’s certainly what he’s doing in Chronicle. So if you take it from simple things to do with content, depiction of content, depiction of the world, yeah, there’s a slant towards some sort of gritty social realism that is about the conditions of Italian society in the later war years and the immediate post-war years. Somebody like Rossellini would say that all neo-realism is, is a moral vision of the world. That’s almost a philosophical definition of neo-realism and has very little to do with what’s being depicted in the films. And if you go into film theory you’ll get somebody like Gilles Deleuze, and to him neo-realism is about the emergence of a new relation between time in narrative work, and as far as he’s concerned there is therefore a link between all these filmmakers, between Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. For him there is a common element which could be initially called a formal element and which then becomes a philosophical element, and he continues to see the nucleus of the work within the term neo-realism. So Deleuze has broadened the whole notion of what neo-realism is: for him it’s a movement that has to do with fundamentally revolutionising the cinema’s relationship to time, and with the shift from what he would call the movement-image to the time-image. So to tie Antonioni to neo-realism, the real question you would have to ask is: what definition of neo-realism are you looking for?

SS: On a less profound note I want to speak about cars, which feature prominently in Antonioni’s films. The scene I am thinking of at the moment is in La notte (1961) where after the party Jeanne Moreau goes for a drive with the man she meets. The way Antonioni uses cars often reminds me of the way Paul Schrader uses cars in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976), American Gigolo (1980) and Light Sleeper (1991), where they’re objects that allow people to drift through the world and avoid connecting with it. What are your views on this?

RC: The cars are there but I don’t think he’s stressing anything in particular about them. In the scene in La notte with the car, the car becomes an element of design for the composition. I don’t think it’s particularly the car itself which is important, but the kind of space that a car could contain. But Antonioni’s equally fascinated by all means of transport. Planes are very important. Even in films where planes don’t appear you get references to them, like the propeller in Blow-Up. But the planes are there in L’eclisse, they’re there in Beyond the Clouds (co-directed with Wim Wenders, 1995), they’re there in Zabriskie Point.

SS: Often Antonioni’s characters are unable to escape from their cycle of alienation and existential angst. Do you feel that Antonioni presents some form of escape from these predicaments and psychological states, or are human relationships merely a wasteland whose disintegration he can only chart?

RC: I don’t think he necessarily charts just disintegration. If disintegration is happening, he’s fascinated by the new patterns and forms that will emerge out of that disintegration. If our cities disintegrate then something new will come out of that disintegration. When he made his famous statement at the Cannes Film Festival about the emergence of a new man, what he meant was a kind of new psychological frame of reference for humanity. He’s partly looking at what is dead, but also what is to emerge.

SS: Ennui has become a kind of definitive term used to define Antonioni’s body of work, particularly in reference to L’avventura. If you had to choose a word or constellation of words to sum up his work, what would they be?

RC: Ennui and alienation don’t register with me for one reason or another. I’m not saying that they’re not there in Antonioni’s films, but they’re not as overwhelming as people believe them to be. They are part of our lives, they have a role to play in the 20th century. Antonioni isn’t the only filmmaker who’s touched upon ideas of existential angst and ennui and boredom and so forth and so on. But people often forget that there is optimism in Antonioni – there’s the optimism that comes from facing the world and not making any excuses for it.

SS: So where would you find optimism in Red Desert or L’eclisse?

RC: The optimism in Red Desert is the final words of the character Giuliana, when the boy asks her about the poisonous smoke and says “the birds will die”, to which she replies, “no, the birds have now learnt, they fly around it”. In other words they adapt, as she has. And a lot of the messages of Antonioni’s films are about showing whether we’re capable of adapting and transforming ourselves, of moving out of a kind of static way of experiencing things and the world.

SS: But if you look at this within the context of the themes of knowledge and innocence in Antonioni’s films, it seems as if she’s telling her son that the birds fly around the poisonous smoke because she doesn’t want to tell him the truth. Her answer seems ridiculous in a way – the birds are going to fly through the smoke and get killed, and there is no escape, and the boy will find out about it eventually, but at the moment he’s young enough for her to still lie to him.

RC: Yeah, but Antonioni’s referring to revolutionary ideas. He’s analysing a fragment of the course of humanity across this planet. The cosmos is a real thing for Antonioni. At the end of Zabriskie Point the blowing up of the house is not just the blowing-up of a material thing – as you watch it you realise he’s showing you the cosmos and the galaxy – all those bits of waste have now become a kind of Milky Way of planets that are spinning around one another and floating in space – and Beyond the Clouds, that reference of getting above the Earth, the Earth is just one part of a bigger kind of cosmos.

La notte

I walked away from my discussion with Rolando pondering Antonioni’s films in the light of the relationship between meaning and film in general. Meaning attaches itself to the surface of a film. Film itself, any film, can be viewed as a flowing imagistic surface where one image emerges from another creating a spreading layer of meaning that eventually, pushing up against an invisible boundary (perhaps this boundary is culture, perhaps convention, perhaps ourselves), begins to fold back on itself. More than once during a break between screenings I returned to the thought of film as a bounded surface marked by infinite folds of meaning. I have often felt that Antonioni presents his own filmic images as an endless peeling back of layers. But while the viewer is peeling back, the film itself is continually augmented by folds of new meaning. And the Antonioni retrospective proved at least this: that this augmentation of meaning, this over-laying, this intricate folding continues with every re-viewing. The task of understanding then, is an impossible one, or at least, is one that involves an engagement with a certain kind of semiological infinity and excess. And thus Antonioni’s secret, the secret about which each of his films, and about which his entire cinematic oeuvre, seems to orbit, remains intact, shining, forever distant and mysterious, because the imagistic flowing surface of his films and their meanings are always in transit, always in motion, always in the process of still being developed.

Heraclitus could have been advising film critics, theorists, and festival reporters when he said, “You can never step into the same river twice”. Which raises the question of legitimacy, and therefore, of illegitimacy. How legitimate is a report such as this, written as it were, in a post-festival haste for something in words? Is not such a report the illegitimate child of two wild weeks, born before the over-stimulated over-tired powers of consciousness are fully recuperated? Can a report such as this, in any real sense, represent the cinematic cascade of a film festival? Can it, in any real sense, do justice to the festival’s double-property of quantitative number of films and qualitative richness of meaning? The answer is as simple as it is unavoidable: it can’t. Too much slips through or slips by the structure of its analysis. From a quantitative viewpoint, I have not even mentioned the screening of a restored print of the Australian classic The Sentimental Bloke (Raymond Longford, 1919), complete with live musical accompaniment. Nor the twenty-odd documentaries that I watched as a junior-juror on the FIPRESCI jury, including The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, 2003), Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003) and Addicted to Acting (Andres Veiel, 2004). From a qualitative viewpoint, this report accepts openly that these films have often become bound too closely together to be always successfully separated. But if they are a set of mutually contaminated meanings, then so be it. I accept them as Derrida accepts what he calls “the anguish of writing” and which he describes as “the necessarily restricted passageway … against which all possible meanings push against one another, preventing each other’s emergence. Preventing, but calling upon each other, provoking each other too…” (1). In the case of a film festival, however, this “restricted passageway” through which meanings push and provoke each other, functions not as “anguish”, but as the fascination that a film festival exerts.


  1. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1978.

About The Author

Saul Symonds runs the online film journal Light Sleeper: Late Night Writings on Cinema.

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