I had a pretty unbelievable experience the other night watching the late, great Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962). I’m not sure how to explain this film, for the actual narrative itself is rather empty. Yet, it becomes immediately clear not five minutes into the film that this emptiness is very much at the core of its meaning.
The film begins with a painful break-up between Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and her distraught boyfriend Riccardo (Francisco Rabal). Yet, immediately after this breakup the film becomes a study of landscapes, the built environment, and things. Even before Vittoria leaves her ex-lover’s home, the world around her is visualized as an alien, hostile landscape. Immediately outside of the house is a huge tower shaped like and industrial fungus (phallus?), which looms large in several subsequent frames creating the atmosphere of another planet.
Watching L’eclisse was particularly interesting for me this time around, because it frames a couple of ideas that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Namely, the power of deep attention to surfaces. The surface is often an idea that is easily dismissed, a space that represents something apparent that must be transformed to metaphor for value. Yet, what if the surfaces in L’eclisse don’t necessarily stand-in for anything in particular, but rather tolerate our connections as we attempt to archive and order the surface in an attempt to create relationships and search for any sense of meaning they refract back upon the characters.
The notion of an archive of surfaces that Michel Foucault discusses in the Archaeology of Knowledge is particularly poignant here because it traces the idea that the power of a text has everything to do with its position upon a surface, or placement within the mise-en-scene to remain more filmic. Celluloid film is in many ways the embodiment of our relationship to deep surfaces as they unroll in a long, thin sequential loop through the projector which shines out on a larger than life surface. On the other hand, the cropped surface of the internet opens up these deep connections (without any sequential march) which leads to a complex relationship within a variegated landscape of things that we can often interact with in a variety of ways.
Yet, there is no question in my mind that the power of surfaces and the limits of more traditional narratives is ever more apparent as we spend more and more time both consuming and creating our own surfaces within a peripatetic web of things. The difficulty of beginnings and endings, the crisis of influence and origins, and the rate at which relationships between texts are created and destroyed upon this new surface frames a unique narrative of things that we can’t ever know entirely. There is no way to tell the story fully, and these relationships between things exist both because of our own production, but also outside and in spite of it in some ways.
Take for example Scorsese’s discussion of L’eclisse in the following video that offers a very intelligent examination of innumerable experimentations in film happening in the early 1960s, as well as a more pointed discussion of Antonioni’s focus upon the detachment that characterizes the players, and the means through which the landscape of things in the movie in many ways emphasize their alienation. An excellent reading that I entirely agree with in many regards, and I highly recommend you take a few minutes to watch.
One thing Scorsese focuses on almost too much at the expense of some of the subtler issues, is the fact that the very things and surfaces that are supposed to embody and generalize this condition of detachment, also serve to make these characters’s disaffection seem irrelevant. The surfaces themselves become the focus of the film, and the liberation from the traditional “relationship narrative” comes as a welcome alternative. You can actually stare at the apartment buildings as if you have never seen one before. Or follow the faceless flow of people within the Stock Exchange, tracing large groups of people swarm and school together. The narrative of desire, relationships, and commodities will never compete with the deep attention Antonioni pays to the surface of things in this film. The one is purely a ploy to highlight the other.
One scene in particular that Scorsese doesn’t highlight, but for me is the most powerful example of this idea of surfaces is when Vittoria goes to visit heir friend Marta. Marta’s apartment is a fascinating example of exotic surfaces within this film. She is a white colonial from Kenya, and her apartment is filled with things from her home country. A table made of elephant feet, innumerable spears, jewelry, etc. Additionally, her walls are covered with pictures of her home Kenya, highlighting both the African “natives,” the wildlife (Marta not really distinguishing between the two), as well as the majestic landscape. Antonioni films the things in this apartment, reproducing a world that is as foreign to the one he has fashioned thus far, yet at the same time very much within it. Close-ups of the images on the walls create a textured landscape through surfaces, offering a tremendous amount of detail to a rather bland flat in an equally uninspired building.
Following the scanning of the surfaces of the apartment walls, one of the most troubling and vital scenes in the film unfolds. Monica Vitti puts on a record of African music and dresses up in blackface. She proceeds to dance around the apartment with African regalia and a spear. It is the only moment in the entire film where she is pictured in a state other than determined disaffection. Her animated eyes against her dyed skin marks the a highly charged surface of race, colonialism, and roots of these Western surfaces. Interestingly enough, this scene about Kenya foregrounds the post-colonial independent movements happening at that moment in Africa, a violent legacy that is still very much with us as I write this. The surface of Africa that emerges in this scene in relationship to the quotidian images that constitute the vision of the developed world and it’s fetishized surfaces makes this film something far more than an abstraction — it is a highly charged visual poem. So forgive my attempts to make sense of these surfaces in a very raw and incoherent fashion, and watch this film. You will not be disappointed.
This is a great post. I’ve never really appreciated Antonioni, since the only movie of his I’ve ever actually watched is Blow-Up, which I found interesting but a little underwhelming. It struck me as the kind of thing that actually requires good commentary in order to be accessible to the novice. So, the commentary you’ve provided actually goes a long way in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned.
I really appreciate your comments on the notion of surface and the built environment. I’ve had this odd obsession, myself, for some time now with photographing seemingly mundane details of my own suburban environment, as if I were fingering pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle, mostly by shooting with my cameraphone more or less randomly out the window of my car while driving and then sifting through the results later. (Evidence for this obsession can be seen on Flickr: http://snipr.com/neo-ugly). Anyhow I have nothing intelligent to say on the subject, but I thought you might like to hear some kind of “Widerhall”, as the germans say, to your post.
Very cool, Nathan. In many ways I think Anontioni L’eclisse comes off as a series of beuaiful photographs about a very ugly place. Which seems to be your vision as well, are you secretly Italian? I was amazed at just how much his photographic sequence could seduce me, despite the fact I had little or no interest in the narrative unfolding.
In that regard, this film is a grand experiment and should be a must see for y photographer, but particularly for someone like you who shares his obsession. Glad you dropped that link, I now have another contact who is similarly obsessed. But as you might soon see my Flickr photos are all about my kids, namely because I was th second to last of seven and don;t have n image of myself before the age of 12. Deep wounds I am trying to make up for daily 🙂
Hey, have you seen this guy’s photos?
Yes, a wonderful post, despite the reference to Foucault. 🙂 But I hope you take some satisfaction, Jim, in the fact that I will never be able to dismiss Foucault entirely so long as someone of your intelligence and great-heartedness finds him worthy of attention.
With regard to surfaces, a small observation from someone who’s seen only three Antonioni movies (“Blow-Up,” “The Passenger,” and “Red Desert”): I’d argue that deep, intense, detailed examinations of surfaces turn surfaces into depths, or at least point to the depths in us out of which our surfaces emerge. We’ve long known that the act of observation changes the thing observed. I think that’s true here too. As Robyn Hitchcock says, “A thing is psychedelic if it changes when you look at it closely.”
Antonioni is my own personal god — I am so jazzed to see that someone else appreciates L’Eclisse.
I try to capture the surface of the world myself:
I think that it is hard for us to understand today, in the USA, the wrenching change that parts of Italy were undergoing in the late 1950s and the early 60s. The stark, almost abstract ex-urban scenes in the film take place in the outskirts of Rome that were being rapidly developed, mostly in a rather uninspired manner. People were pouring into the cities from the countryside. The older patterns of urban life were being completely disrupted. Many areas of the beautiful shoreline were being ruined with tacky real estate developments and “resorts” that polluted the water. I think that this is the key element in the background of this film (which I don’t particularly like) and it is important in many others of the time in Italy.