Saturday, November 29, 2008

Antonioni and Merleau-Ponty

Lately, I have been thinking about the “interior alliance” between the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. There are a number of points of convergence between their respective works. Among them one might note a shared interest in 1) the complex workings of human perception 2) the relation between objectivity and subjectivity (and the way art falsifies the boundary between them) 3) the embodied nature of thought.

I will say more about Merleau-Ponty in a future post. For now, I’ll focus on two films by Antonioni, both of which touch upon the points mentioned above. First, Blow-Up (1966). Early in the work, the protagonist Thomas states, “I am a photographer,” and much of the film can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with the force of this claim. While Thomas seems to pride himself on his objective distance from what he photographs, what he learns through the course of the film – and the spectator alongside him – is the role desire and belief play in the act of looking, and hence in the act of photographing the act of looking. Thomas learns that beyond the realm of empirical facts, there is more to be seen, more to be perceived. (This allows Thomas to understand the relation between his work and that of his neighbor, an abstract painter who only comprehends what he has painted after the fact, when his eye discovers something in the image that he can "hold on to.") In the final scene of the film, Antonioni uses the movements of the camera to make us “see”, along with Thomas, an imaginary tennis ball as it bounces on a tennis court and whizzes through the air.

This is clear enough. But it really gains in complexity and interest when we compare it to the end of another Antonioni work, The Passenger (1975). Here we are given something like the obverse image. In this film, the protagonist David Locke (a journalist and documentary filmmaker this time, but you see his connection to Thomas) is given the opportunity to exchange his identity for another. He does so only to discover that the man whose identity he has assumed is a gunrunner, a man of action (i.e., everything he is not). The film is typically read in terms of the impossibility of leaving the self (one's subjectivity) behind. David Locke cannot escape his own ennui, his own inertia, his distance from life. Yet, a closer inspection of the film reveals something else: despite his ennui, inertia, etc., the protagonist manages not only to replicate the itinerary of the man whose identity he has assumed (David Robertson) but also his fate, which is to die on a bed while in a desert-like landscape which can be seen through the large window adjacent to his bed. (Note, for example, the careful way Antonioni underlines – through images, sounds, lines of dialogue – the parallels between the opening scenes in a hotel in the Chadian desert and the closing ones in a hotel in rural Spain.)

In other words, David Locke shares the same passage from life to death as Robertson, and this passage is made manifest in the tour-de-force seven minute long take in which the camera executes a slow, beautiful dolly across, and through, a hotel room. In this long take we are made to “see” something like the reverse image that concludes Blow-Up. The passage, this time, is from subjectivity to objectivity. Locke truly loses himself, his subjective armature, and this dispersal is communicated through the movements of the camera as it traverses space. Now, one might argue that this kind of objectivity is impossible or unthinkable in that it is connected in the film to death, but let us not forget that this is not merely the theme explored within the work but also the “image” that we (the viewer) are asked to form through its duration, an image that we come to share with David Locke/Robertson, each of us one and the same traveler, each of us one and the same passenger.

But where does embodied thought come into this? Precisely, I would argue, in Antonioni's experimentation, here and elsewhere, with the durative quality of the cinematographic image. It is within the physicality of time that thought occurs. This explains in part Antonioni’s idiosyncratic approach to narrative. In a typical narrative the emphasis is placed on a series of plot points that keep the story in forward movement. In Antonioni, the emphasis shifts. There is a suspension of the cause-effect logic, grounded in character psychology, that drives most films. Antonioni is interested instead in having the character and viewer both inhabit the moments of uncertainty or hesitation between events, the wait between events, or the wait as event. His concern is with the interval between plot points, the interval before something happens – the interval in which (or through which) something begins to take shape, flickers, comes into being. The seven-minute long take that concludes The Passenger is where everything that the film has shown us, everything that it has stimulated us to think and to perceive, culminates in an idea, a thought. The film does not represent this idea or thought for us. It is the spectator who is left to envision it, to actualize it for themselves, within themselves.

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