As quarantine enters its fifth month (at least here in Los Angeles), I remember too well our last public gathering at the Family Theater Productions offices on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, California.
Father. Aaron Michka, C.S.C., a fellow Holy Cross priest and a doctoral candidate finishing up his dissertation at the University of Michigan, presented a lecture on the intersection of Italian film and anthropology, his field of expertise.
The Thing About Antonioni
He spoke about famed director Michelangelo Antonioni and his notable trilogy: L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Ecclise. Before flying in, Father Aaron emailed me his premise for the evening:
While Antonioni wasn’t himself religious, his films grapple in profound ways with the effects of modernity and the collapse of difference, both in terms of history and in terms of culture, via commodification and mass consumption. He doesn’t provide an answer to how people of faith should deal with modernity, but he does ask the right questions.
Over the course of the lecture and subsequent video interview, Father Aaron cited the film industry as an institution preserving local cultures. Even fictional films serve as visual and aural document, as a view into how a particular group of people thought and lived.
For better or worse, the COVID-19 virus provided me the time and opportunity to complement Father Aaron’s lecture by exploring the films of Antonioni.
Antonioni's Choice of Color
My most prized streaming service is the Criterion Channel. Antonioni’s films, like many revered foreign directors, count some of their masterworks among the Criterion Collection. While I enjoyed the aforementioned trilogy immensely, it was the standalone film Red Desert that left me with the greatest impression, especially with the flattening of cultures Father Aaron spoke of.
From a filmmaking perspective, it was no coincidence that Antonioni chose to capture his images in color for the first time. He helmed previous films in black and white, the trilogy included. Monica Vitti, a former model turned international movie star, appears in all four films. Through black-and-white celluloid, she appears almost otherworldly. In color, she’s still well represented, but of a more domestic and familiar quality
I think the director makes a point with hue choice. Film is no longer a culture to itself. Once gray-scale masterpieces best taken in by chain-smoking cinephiles, it's now a commercial product whose very visual look now exacts what we already see in the natural world.
Production design and set dressing complete Antonioni’s belief of cultural flattening with technological advancement. The arrival of industry blights the Italian landscape. Red Desert was filmed on location in Italy, but any Rust-Belt American city could have done the trick. From what I can hear, even the dialogue sounds purposely terse and muted, a departure from the passionate and elevated written word one might stereotypically expect from an Italian classic.
Coffee and Other Upsides of Technology
If this all sounds, bleak and dismal, don’t despair, fair reader. The very act of clicking on a laptop button and bringing up an old film from a country halfway across the globe stands as a nice byproduct of the march of progress and globalization that brings us closer together.
The very vehicle that initially gave some directors cautionary pause currently serves to preserve the very cultures they depicted. Culture flattens at the same time as it’s distributed and may work as a window into our relating to others as shelter-in-place passes.
Our parish’s recent reopening of our corner coffeeshop, Holy Grounds, reminded me of this. It’s a place I meet friends, one of whom is a retired chemist from Romania. We’re served warmly by a mostly Latin-American staff.
Upgrades in transportation, the supply line of coffee-bean cultivation and delivery undoubtedly bring us together. We affirm that, certainly. But in parable fashion, we never forget the admonition to also challenge technological trends, and ourselves, the beneficiaries of those very trends, to always do better.
Here's a bit of Father Michka on Italian film:
And discussing the interesting origins of a language used in Star Wars:
And lastly, the Criterion Collection trailer for Red Desert:
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.