Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Red Dessert

Like R. Knight, I too have a thing for Monica Vitti and the surreal and alienating wonders that Antonioni has managed to slip into the culture, unseen and now inoperable. Criterion is releasing "The Red Desert" (Il deserto rosso (1964)) in blu-ray and it seems too little too late, especially when we read that sales of DVDs are down 30% more this year from last year's already alarming 30%.

People aren't buying catalog titles anymore, and they're barely buying the new stuff ("Avatar" is an exception and an outlier, and should be discounted for more than one reason. What are you people thinking?). What does a 45-year old art-house avant-garde visual tone-poem, Antonioni's first color film that so aggressively fucks with the palette to make it seem more finger-painted than choreographed, corrupted rather than blooming, have to offer a generation raised on perfect and digital hi-def hi-res imagery?

"Rosso" is poised between the hip and minimalist "Blowup" (1966) and the stoic and elitist (and to my mind perfect) "L'eclisse" (1962). Circling around a popular mode of film-making after overly existential narratives influenced but never embracing the populism (or socialism) of neo-realism, Antonioni seemed genuinely hurt by "L'avventura"'s critical drubbing in 1960 at Cannes. It's a tough movie. Not of this time, and I'm not sure of any time. Conceptually more fun to talk about than to watch, I think very few people have given it a chance, really, at least until the (seemingly) only camera move in the whole film, that slow push-in on the empty street showing us... nothing. It's indulgent, arrogant, yet transcendent. It opens up the film ontologically as well as metaphysically. Yet it happens a good hour in, and trying to explain that to anyone is a fool's errand, like telling someone to hang with Warhol's "Empire" - a bird flies by in hour 6.

Ergo, "Rosso." Antonioni seemed insistent in making an art piece. That looked and felt like art-capital-A. Reportedly set decorators painted walls red and leaves green to give the film a palette more impressionistic than realist. The acting, as was the speed of prevailing traffic in Europe at the time, is conveyed mostly with words spoken to the table rather than at the people in the room, looks out windows and walking across the industrial sets to strike a pose, framed within and sometimes dwarfed by the manipulated (if intentionally) ugly sets.

It displays the best things about Antonioni, as well as the worst. It's too much and yet not enough, a recipe of elements that don't quite bake together. The existential ennui drowns the narrative momentum in a manner that points ultimately to the explosive and resonant failures of "Zabriskie Point" (1970). Vitti, game if done, finally becomes what had never happened before, a decorative detail, a directorial flourish, just an undigested element in the set design, caught between existential malaise and the director's obsessive blindness.

I can't wait. "Rosso" had a sub-standard DVD release in 1999 that didn't properly master or balance the color or aspect ratio. I'm guessing the Criterion DVD blu-ray will, at the least, go back to original reference materials to make it look as close to the original release as possible, regardless of how out-of-date and stale it might be to current audiences. It's the missing link in Antonioni's 1960s oeuvre. It's like a cake that's a little too dry to go down, but you can't stop nibbling at.

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