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Obituaries

Michelangelo Antonioni, 94; film great directed `Blowup' and `The Passenger'

August 01, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

"Sometimes," Antonioni once said, "you need to force the reality to give the audience the right mood."

Film critic Thomas has described Antonioni as "one of the most rigorous screen poets in the history of film," a director who "communicates as much as possible through the camera rather than by dialogue."

But the work was not everyone's cup of espresso.

"L'Avventura" was famously booed and hissed at when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960 -- members of the audience reportedly even yelled "cut!" when they thought shots lasted too long -- although the film won the Special Jury Prize and went on to become a worldwide box-office hit.

But many moviegoers complained that Antonioni's films were too slow, too intellectual and too vague, thus prompting the term "Antonioniennui."

Former Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Scheuer observed in 1966 that Antonioni's "detractors maintain that he sacrifices content to technique and that he never really departs from his obsession with what might be called the loneliness of the long-distance sleep walker."

"As a reviewer I fall somewhere between the two camps," Scheuer added. "I am alternately aggravated and even bored by the length of footage he consumes in what he has to say (if anything) and electrified by the depth and beauty of the visual effects he composes."

The son of middle-class landowners, Antonioni was born Sept. 29, 1912, in Ferrara, Italy. He demonstrated his creative side at an early age, designing puppets and building sets when he was 10. As a teenager, he began oil painting.

Antonioni graduated from the University of Bologna in 1935. While earning his degree in economics and commerce, he wrote stories and plays, co-founded a student theater company and wrote film reviews for the local newspaper. He also made a failed attempt to film a documentary in a mental institution -- the patients panicked when the bright camera lights were turned on.

After moving to Rome in 1939, Antonioni worked for the film journal Cinema and attended the renowned film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. By 1942, he had collaborated with director Roberto Rossellini on the script for Rossellini's "The Return of a Pilot."

Although drafted into the Italian army in 1942, Antonioni continued working in films in his spare time and served as an assistant director and co-screenwriter on director Enrico Fulchignoni's "The Two Foscari," among other films.

In 1943, he obtained financing to direct a short documentary about the people of the Po River, "Gente del Po," but the German occupation of Italy interrupted his work on the film and he did not complete editing it until 1947.

After the war, Antonioni resumed working as a film critic and making short documentaries, including a study of Rome street cleaners.

He also continued writing screenplays for other directors, including Federico Fellini ("The White Sheik").

His first feature film as a director, "Cronaca di un Amore" ("Story of a Love Affair"), was released in 1950.

Antonioni's breakthrough feature film was "Il Grido" ("The Outcry," 1957), the story of a Po Valley worker (played by American actor Steve Cochran) who is abandoned by his wife. The character's inner despair is reflected by the desolate landscape and empty compositions that became the director's trademark.

During the dubbing of "Il Grido" Antonioni met actress Vitti, with whom he became personally involved. She later co-starred in his landmark trilogy and became known as "the classic Antonioni woman."

A trim, patrician-featured man who dressed impeccably, Antonioni was described by one American interviewer in the 1970s as having "an austere authority that mixes oddly with an Old-World charm."

But with Antonioni's international acclaim as a director came reports of his touchy temperament and unusual working methods.

A 1973 Los Angeles Times story about the making of "The Passenger" noted that Antonioni cleared his sets for 20 minutes before each take to sit behind the camera and "brood" over the shot and the atmosphere. And he'd yell when he saw a stranger on the set, proclaiming, "I will not shoot another foot of film until the offense has been removed!"

Antonioni was considered an intuitive filmmaker who welcomed spontaneity.

"It's only when I press my eye against the camera and begin to move the actors that I get an exact idea of the scene," he once said. "It's only when I hear dialogue from the actor's mouth itself that I realize whether the lines are correct or not.... Screenplays are on the way to becoming actually sheets of notes for those who, at the camera, will write the film themselves."

Antonioni's penchant for keeping communication to a minimum infuriated some actors.

"He gave me no direction; he rarely spoke to me, and he drove us all beyond the point of exhaustion," Jeanne Moreau complained after working with Antonioni on "La Notte."

Hemmings reportedly had a similar experience on "Blowup," saying, "He never talked to me."

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