Thursday, 30 October 2008

'Antonioni: Extreme Aesthete of the Real'

A quiet month at Directing Cinema draws to a close (quiet here at the blog at least; noisier with the book, thankfully). But I wanted mark a chilly, damp beginning to Autumn in East Sussex with a warm and sunny recommendation for an article by a friend and former colleague of mine: James S. Williams, Professor of Modern French Literature and Film at Royal Holloway, University of London. James Williams has written on major authors and filmmakers such as Marguerite Duras, Albert Camus, Jean-Luc Godard, Roland Barthes, Jean Cocteau, Cyril Collard and Claire Denis.

Williams has just had an article on a non-francophone director published in the 50th anniversary issue of the journal Film Quarterly (Fall Issue 2008, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 46-57). It's available online if you have a subscription or JSTOR (etc) access. The article is entitled 'The Rhythms of Life: An Appreciation of Michelangelo Antonioni, Extreme Aesthete of the Real'. The abstract reads as follows:
This essay assesses Antonioni’s oeuvre in its totality, focusing in particular on its constant negotiation of two extremes: documentary and melodrama. The essay argues that Antonioni’s is a visionary project which, by achieving a genuine encounter between art and technology, extends an earlier tradition of the European avant-garde. [hyperlinks added]

What I think is especially valuable about this essay is that it treats Antonioni's film techniques, across all of his work, in much more detail than most other studies (and, certainly, than all other studies I have read of academic article length). It manages to make, as many other works do, plenty of interesting observations about Antonioni's themes, but it does not subordinate an exploration of formal aesthetics in the process: its focus remains assuredly and insightfully on how Antonioni’s techniques 'resensitize us to the world' [p. 53]

Williams notes that Antonioni's 'highly ambivalent aesthetic attitude to documentary reality was already visible at the beginning of his career':

Despite Antonioni’s deep concerns about scientific logic and any objective representation of reality, in purely formal terms his work is always defined by a clear tension between what I would call on the one hand a documentary impulse, and on the other a drive towards fiction pushed at times to the level of melodrama.

[...] however hollowed-out and experimental Antonioni’s works become, they always constitute fictions since they present characters in artificial situations. As Antonioni himself put it, his primary interest lies in the moment when the context or environment suddenly takes on “relief.” Which is to say, his hybrid narratives marked by temporal disjunction, disorientation, black holes, ellipses, and a lack of resolution serve to provide just enough justification for human figuration, however “unnaturally” heightened and stylized, to take hold. This recourse to melodrama, broadly defined, offered Antonioni a means of shortcircuiting and sculpting the Real in slowed-down, distended form in order to capture it as a series of tableaux vivants. [p. 50]

Williams' article is especially good, I feel, on Antonioni's deployment of melodrama in the interests of 'an exploration of the processes of human perception and modern subjectivity':

Alert to the tensions in the spatiotemporal relations between people, objects, and events, the director must, according to Antonioni, engage with a “special reality” and be “committed morally in some way.” What this means in practice is dedramatizing the narrative event in order to focus attention on the physical context that both makes it possible but also eludes it. Antonioni propels his protagonists into new or alien environments, and we follow them almost ethnographically as they develop new perceptual powers in order to negotiate their changed conditions'. [p. 52]

In a section of the article entitled 'A New Techno-Aesthetic?', an insightful connection is made between Antonioni's melodramatic techniques and what fellow Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his famous essay, 'Cinema of Poetry', called Antonioni's free indirect subjective [p. 55 - see Patrick Keating's useful article online HERE for a good discussion of Pasolini's essay).

I'm not teaching about Antonioni's films to students at the moment, but, if I were, Williams' beautifully written and gloriously illustrated essay would be top of the class-reading list. Please don't just take my inevitably biased word for it: take a proper look at it yourselves.

Other online resources I have used previously in teaching about this Italian director are given below.

HERE's a link to the excellent bibliography of materials on Michelangelo Antonioni provided by the UC Berkeley Library.

And below are some links to other, good, online articles:

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Mike Figgis blogging

I am very much enjoying following British film director Mike Figgis's guest blog for Film in Focus (the Faber & Faber film site). Catch it while you can.

Figgis's company website - - is also worth a visit. And while we're in the linking business, here's Figgis's commercial showreel (via QuickTime). Boy oh boy, can you can read his signature there...

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Mamet on directing film

Short but good Bloomberg interview with David Mamet (Night Talk, July 2006)

On of my favourite writers on film directing is film director David Mamet. He's not my favourite film director, but his short, insightful and peppery book On Directing Film is a very good read and, along the way, argues for the 'objectivity' of film directing; it's a kind of self-help guide cum film-school-degree-zero.

Here are some of the key snippets from that book on what Mamet thinks that film directors (should) do:

‘The main questions a director must answer are:

  • “where do I put the camera?”and “what do I tell the actors?; and a subsequent question, “what’s the scene about?”'
  • (On Directing Film, p. 1)
  • ‘The work of the director is the work of constructing the shot list from the script.
  • The work on the set is nothing. All you have to do on set is stay awake, follow your plans, help the actors be simple, and keep your sense of humour. The film is directed in the making of the shot list.
  • The work on the set is simply to record what has been chosen to be recorded. It is the plan that makes the movie.’
  • (On Directing Film, p. 5)
  • ‘It is always up to you to decide whether you are going to tell the story through a juxtaposition of shots or whether you are not.
  • It’s not always up to you to decide whether or not that process is going to be interesting.
  • Any real technique is going to be based on things within your control. Anything that is not based on things within your control is not a real technique.'
  • (On Directing Film, p. 103)

Mamet has also made a film about filmmaking: the wonderful State and Main (USA, 2000). Here's the trailer:

Posted on YouTube (link HERE) by lidiablogspot on May 8, 2008

[See also Matt Zoller Seitz, 'From the short stack: David Mamet on the Steadicam', on the great The House Next Door blog]