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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Blindspot: “Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic”

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

If anyone has ever wondered how on earth one constructs an igloo, they should be directed to Robert J. Flaherty’s 1927 proto-documentary, a film which will rectify this knowledge gap while magnifying the sense of wonder that this level of craftsmanship deserves. Watching the titular Nanook, the patriarch of a small Inuit family living in the Ungava peninsula of Quebec, Canada, gracefully slicing bricks of snow until they fall into place to create a marvellous snow dome (which he crowns with an ice window, almost showing off by this point) feels surprisingly revelatory; especially considering this film is an 80-year old bona fide landmark of silent cinema whose impact should surely diminish with age, surely. “Nanook of the North” is – to recycle the word once again – wondrous on various levels, not least for the industriousness displayed by Nanook, his family and the few others who have honed (perhaps without choice) the kind of skill and resilience required to survive year-round sub-zero temperatures, single-handedly slay polar bears and finding a version of ‘home’ in the midst of unforgiving desolation. In fact, Flaherty’s picture may be enough to convince some short-sighted fool that living in the arctic isn’t so bad (or, at least, not so hard) and this is partly because of how warm-hearted, sincere and genuinely happy Nanook, Aye his wife (or one of two, it sometimes seems) and their fellow Itivimuits appear to be as they go about their business of hunting, trading pelts and being generally nomadic. In fact, the film’s main conflict (apart from that which exists between man and his natural surroundings) occurs when two dogs in Nanook’s sled pack become quite snappy with each other.  As for Flaherty as a filmmaker, the practicalities of shooting this picture with early (which is to say, not particularly compact) film technology in a relatively uncontrolled environment (apart from the handful of scenes shot within the igloo which look suspiciously more spacious than one would expect i.e. shot in some sort of studio) is technically impressive, and would be in any instance let alone a feature debut.

The term ‘verite’ is often bandied about when “Nanook of the North” is mentioned in the context of the documentary lineage and this film’s place within it. While “Nanook” very deftly eliminates – whether inadvertently or with intent – the confected veneer of commercial studio films from the period, it’s not a Frederick Wiseman film void of narration or extra-diegetic interferences other than editing. Flaherty himself is present in the film in the form of title cards, as an omnipresent observer and guide, and he constructs something of a loose, schematic narrative within which to frame the lives of Nanook and his clan. In addition, the simplistic beauty of Flaherty’s photography, while being staged and artful in a mythical, John Ford kind of way, only serves to highlight the subject of the image and not just the poetry of the image itself. But even more impressive, perhaps, is the light touch with which Flaherty handles ethnography: the relative absence of western condescension or exoticism for the sake of commercial draw. For a film made in a period during which casual racism was somewhat more openly institutionalised than it is now, Flaherty displays a seemingly unprecedented degree of respect for the Inuit way of life and there is little evidence of him making a case for the ‘otherness’ of Nanook and his kin, despite the (now)outdated use of the term ‘eskimo’ and the instance in which Nanook – and by association, his fellow Inuit – is characterised as ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘simple.’ Despite these regrettable inclusions, “Nanook of the North” remains impressible progressive in its sociocultural outlook. Besides, after witnessing Nanook and Co at work and at play, making a case for their inferiority would take a little more effort than the word ‘simple’.

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