Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Though the mysterious quest has formed the basis of many films in the corpus of Michelangelo Antonioni, there's very little talk of him as a fantasy filmmaker. Given the weightiness of his usual themes (alienation in the modern world, the ultimate incompatibility of the sexes) and the seriousness with which they're regarded, one's inclination is to resist putting Antonioni in the same camp as, say, George Lucas.

Your proprietor more often than not takes a literal approach to interpreting Antonioni's films, engaging the images on their own without outside cross-references. And though the more literary-minded of Antonioni's fans may balk, I've found a great deal of meaning and resonance in the man's work through this approach, and the interpretations of the films, or at least where I go naturally within them, always wind up in the realm of the fantastic. The spray-painted sands that surround Monica Vitti in Red Desert suggest an alien landscape to me. The otherworldliness of Irene Jacob (suggested throughout the final story in Beyond the Clouds) is made literal by a throwaway gag in which an oncoming mugger immediately repents and leaves her in peace. And though many see the explosive finale of Zabriskie Point as a manifestation of Daria's emerging revolutionary conscience, I see it as an apocalypse wrought Carrie-style on the straight world that killed her lover; indeed, the final title card suggests not the beginning of her revolutionary struggle but a definite and all-encompassing "END" to everything.

I don't intend to make the case that Antonioni is a great unsung genre filmmaker, but consideration of the fantastic often opens up or intensifies his themes. With this in mind, I recently re-watched Identification of a Woman and was struck to find it as upfront in its use of fantastic elements and themes as I remembered, both in overt uses of special effects and in more subtle fantasy imagery.

The film was made in 1982, a year in which Antonioni's countrymen were also pursuing fantastic agendas. Lucio Fulci had just finished an impressive run of fantastic, dreamlike, and very violent horror films (including City of the Living Dead and House By The Cemetery). More to the point, Dario Argento released his Tenebrae that year, his return to the giallo genre. Though IOAW lacks the overt and colorful violence of these filmmakers, it is no less dreamlike or surreal than their work. The protagonists of the films of all three directors fall into their own worlds, often of madness. Though Antonioni doesn't eschew classical settings in his film the way Argento did in Tenebrae (opting for shooting at modern locations for a science-fiction feel), he is as adept as any genre filmmaker in warping his locations to suggest the darker psyche of his protagonist.

From the beginning of IOAW, Antonioni's protagonist (the delightfully working-class filmmaker Niccolo Farra [Tomas Milian]) is beset by a number of mysterious external forces. His pursuit of the perfect female lead for his current project is mirrored by his amorous pursuit of a lover, and the high society femme Maria (Daniela Silvero) seems to fit the bill. But Niccolo finds himself pursued and threatened by shadowy men who want him to sever ties with Maria.

Just as worrying: what the fuck is that...thing growing on the tree outside his flat?

Niccolo's frustrated search for these mysterious agents (and their escalating actions against him) parallel the growing mystery of Maria (Mavi) herself. The class difference between them is the clearest difficulty, but Niccolo is increasingly restless as Mavi becomes more and more unknowable. Nearly halfway into the film, the two enter a fog-shrouded labyrinth straight out of Fulci:

Spies lurk in this dreamy twilight zone:

And it finally proves too much for Maria, whose resulting breakdown could have been edited in from a contemporaneous giallo:

She leaves the car but shortly returns, weirdly shaken by the ordeal. Possibly not the same person. A pod person (as suggested by the growth on the tree)? Perhaps. But she soon disappears from Niccolo's life, leaving a gap in his life and his film that he continues to try unsuccessfully to cast.

And though shadowy presences lurk on the periphery of his senses (flowers are mockingly sent continuously to his apartment), more positive forces enter his life as well. Specifically his young nephew, who brings a stamp to his uncle's attention with a challenge.

And the soundtrack shifts from John Foxx's original, deliberately flat and ambient electronic music, to the burbling, mysterious, and alive "Sons of Pioneers" by Japan. The insistent pulse of Japan's rhythm section (fretless bassist Mick Karn and drummer Steve Jansen) pushes Niccolo into new territory, and he chases the idea from the comfort of his home office.

And in that telescope he sees one of the most otherworldly and fantastic images in Antonioni's oeuvre:

Life continues. Though Niccolo's work on the film continues to hinge on the ever-elusive lead, a bevy of would-be lovers enter his orbit. The stand-out is Ida (Christine Boisson), an actress (not right for the part it seems, but a fellow creative/kindred spirit). And though Ida's centered enough to help Niccolo track down the people involved in the conspiracy around Maria, she ultimately possesses a secret that drives a wedge between her and Niccolo. As their affair nears its undoing, they're increasingly separated by windows, frames, and (in a solidly fantasistic touch) mirrors:

Niccolo is alone in his own world. He's free of the conspiracy, and of any ties to anyone, but his burning questions, and his loneliness, still linger. Compelled to enter his office/studio, he reboards the vehicle offered by his festering sci-fi opus, and, looking straight into the sun, he lights out for new territories:

Though Star Wars was firmly entrenched in the public consciousness by now, Niccolo's sci-fi film is as removed from it as Antonioni's. Like other filmmakers before him, he embraces an out-and-out genre film to directly address the questions that plague him most. Though looking directly into the sun, it's as unknowable as Navi. But Niccolo's ship orbits it ever closer. Offscreen his nephew asks, "Why towards the sun?"

"To study it. If man one day can discover how matter is distributed in the sun and its dynamics, he'll know how the universe is made, and the cause of many things."

"And then?" the nephew asks.

There is no answer. Once again Niccolo is consumed by his quest, and the ship vanishes in the sun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A Tarantino favorite, this film chronicles the efforts of a cheerleading squad to thwart the plot of a real estate combine to tear down their high school. Sounds innocent enough, but this thing's the sequel to The Cheerleaders, itself a remarkable T+A sojourn by experimental filmmakers Nathaniel Dorsky and Richard Lerner. And Dorsky and Lerner pack the thing with plotless, out-of-nowhere moments that go beyond abstraction and realize the whole thing with a wildly contagious enthusiasm.

There are a number of professional actors in the thing (though only one of them went on to bigger things), but they're given little direction in terms of building credible characters. But credibility is the last thing Dorsky and Lerner are going for: none of the kids have parents, Aloha High School is a veritable Xanadu of joyous sex and debauchery, and a golf course's sand trap leads directly to the main office of the villainous developers' lair (the labyrinthine final reel shares Kubrick's sense of architecture).

The thing feels...well, like a horny high schooler's sex fantasy, moreso than any movie I think I've ever seen. A teenage daydream, with abundant free association: ineffectual authority figures are easily subverted (including one old lady from the school board who wipes out gorgeously on a textbook left in the hall); a food fight that turns directly into a soap-bubble orgy in the gym showers; students breaking out repeatedly in barely choreographed but exuberant dance numbers brimming with real joy. The amateur but ready for anything cast includes a young David Hasselhoff, whose performance as Boner perfectly exemplifies the dim-witted horniness and antic joy of the movie as a whole (and who appeared in this film to get his SAG card). But everyone in the cast is a little more charming than they need to be, and are all of a piece with the tone of the film.

It would be too easy to view this through a veil of irony and dismiss its apparent shortcomings. Engaging this thing on its own terms yields insane rewards, and a real joy that "better" movies are too programmed, too safe, too unspontaneous to capture. I wish all dumb teen movies were half this smart.

(An archival review from three years ago. Fresh content imminent.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


The second film in the Millennium Trilogy, which began so viscerally with THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, is not as ambitious or far-reaching as its predecessor. The wide political focus of the first film is forsaken for more attention to character details, and the plot is more familiar, with a couple of twists that betray the paperback thriller origin of its story.

None of this matters, because I love Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. These characters have earned all kinds of loyalty, and watching their investigations move, intersect, and dance across Sweden is just glorious. I'm told that the third and final story, THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST, is about level with FIRE, and I can't wait.