Welcome to the moral unknown: a video essay

September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.

In this statement, which also contains his famous  ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.

Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.

Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.

So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.

On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.

Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative,  and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.

 

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The horror…: “The Entity”

March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

‘The attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue.’

So state the final words of the texted epilogue that brings Sidney J. Furie’s 1982 film to a somewhat lumpy-throated close. The movie’s last real ‘beat’ (screenplay terminology for a moment of emotional, thematic or narrative significance) arrives seconds before the aforementioned coda and shows single mother Carla Moran (played excellently and with force and commitment by the admittedly always forceful-looking Barbara Hershey) being told by the spectral malevolence that has been tormenting her and her children, ‘welcome home, cunt’. She responds to this obviously male-sounding guttural utterance with a resolute but pained smile, as though she has prepared herself for a future in which she will always and indefinitely be at risk of being violated but is determined to lives as normal and happy a life as she possibly can in spite of it all. Paired with the previously quoted sentence, “The Entity” could probably be read in several ways: as a lament for the reality that male-against-female sexism and violence is still alive and kicking (as much in 1982 as is depressingly the case in 2015); that sexual exploitation can still hide in plain sight; or it could be an expression of the fact that an art form that has for so long seemed to take perverse pleasure in subjecting female characters to the physical and emotional wringer will continue to do so if only for the fact that art reflects human experience and that this kind of human experience shows little sign of becoming ancient history. Of course, it could also be reminder of the fact that there are individuals and families out there – wherever ‘there’ is – who have been and may still continue to be victimised by forces that few can corroborate, fewer can explain and from which nobody can truly protect them at present, as may be the case with Doris Bither and her family, wherever they are. All three readings are dire, either in themselves or by implication, and it would take a pathologically glass-half-full kind of person to find any satisfying element of positivity in this final statement, that ‘the attacks, though decreased in both frequency and intensity…continue’

Carla Moran is the fictionalised version of the aforementioned Doris Bither, a single mother and resident of mid-seventies Culver City, California, who was the main focus of relentless emotional and sexual violence at the hands of unseen forces (poltergeists?) and whose life and home were at one time subject to the gadgets and psychobabble of paranormal investigations before she upped and moved to Texas where, as the coda states, the occurrences failed to cease if they did abate to some extent. Hershey’s Moran is doing what she can to move up in the world, ‘up’ being a better job and the ability to make rent on time, for example. She is a character of will, with a decent store of pride and a sense of self. There is also significance to the fact that she is attractive because this informs the way in which her interaction with the men in her life comes across on screen, which is to say somewhat seedily and furtively sexualised, from her boyfriend Jerry to her paternalistic, potentially boundary-crossing psychiatrist Sneiderman. Unfortunately and out-of-the-blue, as is the case with Doris, Carla finds herself being held down and raped in the supposed safety of her own bedroom, in her bathroom, in her living room and in the presence of her children who themselves are not off bounds as is certainly not the house, the windows and everything in it. The most frightening thing about the events depicted in this film is the force of the violence and the strange sense that this force, this entity, wants Carla to suffer, to be scared, to be ever uncertain of her safety.  Her ghostly assailant evokes the same eerily oppressive male rage that emanates from drunken football hooligans out for opponents’ blood or inarticulate mobs of men who seem to be out to destroy simply because they must, a phenomenon explored chillingly in a masterpiece like “Wake in Fright.” In fact, for a certain portion of this film, “The Entity,” the possibility of the perpetrator actually being human, or that Carla is suffering post-traumatic symptoms from previous or ongoing acts of violation, still looms. Maybe director Furie and Co had decided to adopt an expressionistic approach in order to suggest that sexual violence is more about the violence than the sexual contact between two people, more about the horrific impact on the victim than the mechanics of the act. There is also the fact that these atrocities could just as easily be committed by an individual or group of individuals who decide to break into her house for one purpose only. In this sense, the film is most effective as a communicator of horror in its earlier moments when the focus is on Carla’s violation, confusion and fear as opposed to its subsequent fascination with electrical discharges, demonic apparitions and micro-gales that explode through homes; the horror is most potent when its basis is in the reality that any woman, any child, maybe even any man, could find themselves violated in the place that they naturally feel most safe. It’s the same reason “Psycho” hit such a nerve back in 1960, preventing travellers from checking into lonely motels or utilising said motels’ showers. As with most films from the genre, the ever present desire of filmmakers to eternalise the source of danger and the root of fear only works to diminish the significance of these things.

This of course leads to the question ‘what is there to be gained in witnessing the silly and exploitative sight of Carla Moran’s prosthetic breasts being fondled by invisible hands, especially once the rapes have already been so powerfully represented with much less explicitness?’ One can probably understand the filmmakers’ desire to prove to an audience, as well as to Carla’s flaky boyfriend Jerry, that these acts are in fact the result of a supernatural presence, and to show off their effects chops which may or may not have been lacking even by 1982 standards. Maybe if the effects were themselves less obviously fake it wouldn’t seem as though the film were making light of something that is inherently heavy. To give credit where credit is due though, on the whole, each incident does bear some sense of significance, narrative or otherwise, and it can’t really be said that the depictions of these are generally gratuitous (it’s always sad when the quality of something is based more on the absence of demerit than on the presence of merit.) As for the men in the film, the range of portrayals is not as caricatured as some might make out. While the supernatural and initially unprovable nature of Carla’s attacks is a nifty way to acknowledge the culture of denial and victim-blame that exists where violence against women is concerned, there are men in the film who seem to be on Carla’s side even if their interests range from scientific conquest to establishing the superiority of their supposedly rational understanding of the world. Dr Sneiderman, the psychiatrist who loses Carla’s trust as the film progresses, is of particular interest. When he first appears on the scene in a hospital consulting room after Carla is nearly murdered in her own car, there is a slimy awkwardness to his very doctorly matter-of-fact questioning. It’s a first impression the character cannot overcome and it simply creates the sense that, belying his obsession with helping Carla and ensuring that her ‘delusions’ are not fed into by the parapsychological researchers that set up shop in her home, he is somehow attracted to her or at least to the fact that he knows so much about her sexual experiences. He quickly becomes the face of chauvinism, a man whose good intentions hardly conceal his desire to dominate emotionally and psychologically, one of which he himself may not be completely aware. To risk being sensationalist, Sneiderman could be seen as the titular entity’s human co-perpetrator, only that he is more focused on exerting emotional power though much less successful at it than his phantom counterpart.

In general “The Entity” is a pretty good film, maybe even a touch underrated, but it has some nagging problems, the most disappointing aspect of all being Furie’s decision to go ‘big’ towards the end such that ‘the entity’ comes across more and more as some sort of hulking gargoylish demon, which in a strange way negates the gender elements or at least files them down to a small pile of dust which can nonetheless get into one’s eyes and cause fits of coughing and sneezing. While one might blame this Michael Bay move on a culture that began – from only a few years prior to this film’s production – to overvalue flashing lights, big noises and mayhem over subtle thrills, there is the creeping sense that the ‘demonisation’ of the entity was a conscious effort to prevent the movie from seeming like a feminist or anti-male statement or at least to steer away from as much of a political reading as possible, which ironically makes the film seem only more exploitative: ‘woman fondled and raped…by cantankerous fantastical fiend!’ when the fact is that violence of a sexual bent is much more likely to be perpetrated by a woman’s father, her partner, a workmate, or the guy she thought was a friend. It’s simply disingenuous for a film to take as its premise the real-life story of Doris Bither, only to decide halfway that it is unwilling to tread the inevitable political minefield. Funnily, in attempting to run away, Furie and friends end up stepping on a whole lot of mines.

Brief impression: “L’avventura”

December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.

The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.

But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.

So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.

 

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