I still can’t believe that Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died on the same day. Like Bergman, Antonioni, who died Monday at 94, was one of the last living links to a golden era of European cinema in the 1960s, when a whole subculture grew up in America around anticipating the latest releases of the European masters as if waiting for oracular revelations — which their films often were. For a time, Antonioni was the most cryptic of cinematic prophets — and the most cutting-edge. Even today, his films, at once precise and diffuse, hold the power to entrance and mystify. He didn’t just change the way we saw movies; he changed the way we saw.
Antonioni’s exacting images made poetry out of alienation, ennui, sexual frustration, and spiritual malaise. His 1960 breakthrough L’Avventura changed the rules of movie narrative with its unresolved ending (a young woman goes missing early in the picture; she is never found, and her disappearance is never explained). The film was both a parable of human existence and a specific dissection of the society of his day, in which affluence and permissiveness had replaced humane values. (Nonetheless, his visuals made that society look cool and seductive.) His next several films followed the same pattern, as La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964) explored the human void by gazing lovingly at colors, landscapes, and the blank, gorgeous face of Monica Vitti (Antonioni’s on- and off-screen leading lady).
His run peaked with Blow-Up (1966), in which a fashion photographer (David Hemmings) believes he has unwittingly photographed a murder. Poring over a sequence of stills like a conspiracy theorist slowing down the Zapruder film, the shutterbug opens his eyes to a world where truth is elusive and perception is reality. Besides giving film theorists and date-night collegians something they could chew on for years, Blow-Up also captured swinging London at the moment that the city was the world epicenter of hipness (he even caught the Yardbirds onstage during the brief period when both Jeff Beck and a pre-Zeppelin Jimmy Page were the band’s guitarists) and defined the way the ’60s are remembered visually. (I’d guess most viewers of the Austin Powers movies don’t realize that, when they’re watching Austin play photographer during the ’60s segments, they’re seeing an Antonioni homage.)
Antonioni’s moment was strikingly brief; by the time he made the 1970 hippie saga Zabriskie Point, he seemed unable to make sense of the more overtly political counterculture. He tried to catch up, and he almost did with 1975’s The Passenger, a nearly mainstream political thriller starring Jack Nicholson that was underrated at the time but earned some critical love upon its rerelease two years ago. In his final years, impaired by a stroke, he continued to work, collaborating with top international directors (Wim Wenders in 1995’s Beyond the Clouds; Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai in the 2005 trilogy Eros). If his work was no longer as provocative as it once was, its images were as beautiful, and their meaning as ungraspable, as ever.