Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The American (2010) A Film by Anton Corbijn

"Boring is not a critical argument. Slow is not an inherently negative trait." These were two of the touchstone quotes in Harry Tuttle's extended defense of contemplative cinema at his blog Unspoken Cinema this summer. I was hoping I wouldn't have to go reaching for these again anytime soon, but here I am using them as ammunition for Anton's Corbijn's The American. Who would have thought they would come attached to a wide-release film starring George Clooney, directed by a pioneer of frenetic and imaginative music videos, and fastened to a marketing scheme that mislead opening weekend moviegoers into expecting some rehash of the Bourne franchise? Suffice to say, the film with the friendly title has procured a massive ambivalence from national audiences, with responses ranging from unwarranted outrage at the film's supposedly "slow" pacing and simple bafflement, the notion of being struck like a deer in the headlights with little to say. A primer for some of the anti-intellectual banter the film has inspired:

  • "Those who believe they’d be happy watching George Clooney do nothing for two hours can now test that theory...Like a soccer game that ends in a 0-0 tie, the silence is eventually snooze-inducing no matter how many different ways Clooney manages to look pained in his self-inflicted isolation."
        Tricia Olszewski, Washington City Paper

  • "The slow pace gives The American a very European feel to it, but, more often than not, you’ll find yourself bored and wish that at least some kind interesting event will occur or that the pace would pick up a little more---a lengthy sex scene with Jack and Carla, for instance, could have easily been trimmed down. Also, with the exception of a few lines of dialogue from the priest, there’s not enough comic relief to enliven the film."
        Avi Offer, NYC Movie Guru

  • "George Clooney produced and stars in this international spy thriller, which he probably thought of as existential but which registers onscreen as a giant bore."
        J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader

(*I should also point out that two of the three reviews raised the threatening possibility that you might have to check your watch a few times.)

Now I don't particularly find The American to be a masterpiece of its kind or anything, but I do think it's an enormously effective, thought-provoking character study told with an ease of touch and a blistering intelligence that would likely be missing from the type of movie these critics were likely expecting. This is the kind of faux-journalism that strangles worthwhile cultural items, that stresses the pressures of conformity and ultimately contributes to the continuing production of boring, streamlined garbage. Here is a film that deliberately refuses to engage with the standardized techniques of a modern day thriller or action movie, that decidedly has no room for conscious "comic relief", that doesn't desire to obey the rules for how long a sex scene should be shown because it is after a different effect, and for this it is graded on a false curve. It's not a sin for a film involving guns, hitmen (and hitwomen), and international intrigue to adopt the pace of real life, nor is it fundamentally wrong for the suspense and thrills to exist separated from the ostensible action scenes, instead resting squarely in the confines of Mr. Clooney's skull. It's just a different route the film chooses to take.

Not that it should have been entirely unexpected from Anton Corbijn either, the guy who helmed a gritty, throwback tribute to pained Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in 2007 (Control) and regularly shot videos for Depeche Mode, U2, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Consistently, a somber grace exudes from Corbijn. Even within his endless catalog of arresting photographs of rock icons, there is a pensiveness, a general stillness of mind, that foreshadows Clooney's displaced gun-wielder Jack in The American. After its quietly menacing opening scene, in which danger and violence penetrate him and his lady friend unexpectedly in the midst of a peaceful stroll through a snowy field, the film floats in a kind of purgatorial state as Jack negotiates in a quaint Italian village the hole he has dug himself into from a life of secrecy and disturbance. Bearing in mind the fatalistic undertow of the film (one of the telling indicators being Jack's insistence that he's doing "his one last job"; sounds like Fantastic Mr. Fox, huh?), I don't think it's necessarily much of a spoiler to confess that Jack reaches his end at the film's end, and we sense this occurrence early on, right from when he navigates a long black tunnel in his car in the credit sequence, as if gradually approaching death. But the film's rewards are not strictly in the denouement (though the final scene is quite poignant and poetic in its own right); the substance is found in Jack's muted introspection, his subtly accumulating sense of paranoia, and his tensely staged walks through the nighttime alleyways of this European no-man's land.

He's in Italy to meet a Belgian woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) who will propose a special silenced rifle for Jack to build, her mission's purpose unbeknownst to Jack. It is not, however, this slight mystery that compels the film's plodding, insistent apprehension, but rather Jack's uncertainty as to whether she - or anyone he's dealing with for that matter - is actually earnest. Corbijn expertly poses this ambiguous conflict in a long, sunny scene in the woods when they first meet. The scene has a calm, tranquil air to it, emphasized by Reuten and Clooney's composed performances. Mathilde is assured in her interaction, gradually building, as all sexy assassins do, towards an erotic seduction of Jack, but he has almost equally firm footing, teasing her by revealing a wine bottle when she lies down on a blanket only to swiftly pour it all out. Moments before, to test the effectiveness of the gun's location-obscuring silencer, Mathilde asks Jack to shoot a few feet to the right of her, twice. Instantly, Jack's existential dilemma is strikingly posed: to instinctively shoot away his problem when it stands right in front of him could be to relinquish his deficits right then and there, but it's more likely a broadening of his own rabbit hole of violence, both a literal augmenting of enemies and a metaphorical reminder of the kind of man he wants to escape from, the man who murdered said lady friend at the end of the opening scene out of fear that she might leak information about his identity. The tension is nailed down again in a scene late in the film when Jack reunites with Mathilde to deliver the weapon in a vacant, brightly lit diner. When she leaves temporarily to grab something, the fact that the blinds in the room are down only serves to increase Jack's notion that she is up to no good.

Jack wants to be able to trust again, to love again, but it's his stone-cold anxiety and professionalism that prevents him from doing so. He has been conditioned to believe that no one in an unknown land is on his side, and that's precisely why the moments when he's alone, which take up the bulk of the film, are so intimidating. The film utilizes sound to great effect in these sequences, alternating long stretches of spacious diegetic noise with an elegiac piano number and a nearly imperceptible low-frequency drone. Corbijn shoots claustrophobic tracking shots from behind Jack's head, obscuring what's behind him, or narrow point-of-view shots, funneling his vision into some nook in a tight alleyway. There's always a sense that something or someone is suspiciously outside the frame, and the film's visual finesse in this regard, which ably conjures the same mental state as Jack, is admirable. When the film finally picks up its central romance, its narrative selling point, Jack's paranoia is so firmly calculated that it feels doomed from the outset. She's a hooker named Clara, and to some extent she's as flawed and persistent as Jack, but she lacks his pessimism and nervousness. She's comfortable in her own skin and in her surroundings. Because Corbijn allows their first full sex scene to be completely and intimately portrayed, and because Clooney's excellent performance conveys glimpses of emotional truth beneath the severity of his exterior (unexpected enthusiasm in the act, small physical gestures, hints in his post-sex dialogue), their romance is convincing and genuine. But he muffs the opportunity by suspecting her as a spy, ultimately correcting himself when it's too late.

It's true that The American utilizes as superficial checkmarks the narrative cliches of the hitman or spy genre (a mysterious protagonist doing his final job and wanting to run away with his beloved, a beautiful femme fatale with chameleonic hair), but its homage-like tendencies are coupled with a sincere inclination to give the characters who normally inhabit these hackneyed structures some room to breathe. It's amazing how confidently the film spotlights Clooney, who is really pitting himself against the "star" persona, minimizing his performance to a succession of subdued mutations in his eyes, mouth, and cheekbones. His work is quite extraordinary. So while Corbijn's well-intentioned, under-the-rader tributes to the European contemplative thrillers of this sort like Melville's Le Samourai and Antonioni's The Passenger are sometimes thin and fraudulent (the frightening unfamiliarity of the location, repetitious uses of landscape shots that dwarf Jack as he drives through, concentration on the mundane rather than the spectacular), his investment in the psychological predicaments of his characters is distinct. He takes the expected strategy (a frenzied, action-packed thriller set in exotic terrain) and subverts it, revealing the fundamental disconnect between what hyper audiences want and what they've been disregarding for so long: penetrating psychological examination.

Getting back to claims of slowness, The American doesn't feel so much slow as it does lifelike, humbly interested in sustaining a level of verisimilitude. Aside from the patience and completeness with which actions are carried out, it's actually taut and unrelenting from scene to scene, never pausing too long to dilute the apprehension. And this belies the fact that much of the apprehension stems directly from the mundane, from the thick slabs of routine and process that comprise the film. The content of Jack's life has been reduced to the assembling of guns, the occasional business meeting, and the obligatory covering of his own back. He's lived this way so naturally and for so long that he cannot fashion a successful comeback, and in this way the film denounces the militaristic nature of the world, arguing that it squanders the possibility for love and tenderness. Thus his final, almost surreal vision of Clara waiting for him in the woods - an image that is the culmination of a gripping sprawl towards death - is as heart-wrenching as it is a kind of morbid told-you-so moment. It's a real shame that The American has been given such flak, because while it reduces a solid achievement to a caricature, it also suggests an audience that fetishizes the kind of gratuitously violent and demoralizing films it implicitly condemns.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Be Kind Rewind (2008) A Film by Michel Gondry

Let it be known: Be Kind Rewind marks the first instance on this blog of me so thoroughly doubling back on an old post, deleting it, and rewriting my evaluation. Rarely have I found a first assessment so off base after a second viewing. My instincts usually land me somewhere in the ballpark, but what seemed like an uninspired trifle that was too cute and contrived in its dewy cultural critiques the first time around (and salvaged only sometimes by flashes of humor) stood out as an enormously heartfelt celebration of folk culture wrapped up in nearly flawless, well-paced entertainment the second time. Also, as pure comedy, Gondry's fifth feature is a gem, hysterically held together by the perfectly cast duo of Jack Black and Mos Def. Black, bumbling and discursive as ever, plays the self-congratulatory Jerry Gerber, the "star" of a series of abbreviated fan-produced blockbusters made at a modest little New Jersey video store, and Def is his dramatic foil Mike, a hesitant, proper employee at the store who is all too fearful of corrupting his reputation with Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), the store's veteran owner who is on a business trip in an attempt to pillage the airtight wisdom of a corporate video store. Jerry and Mike are forced to "remake" the numerous Hollywood movies in the store when a robbery-gone-wrong at the local power plant finds Jerry literally magnetized (a playful, absurdist touch), thus unintentionally erasing the VHS tapes that still comprise the entire catalog.

In terms of general narrative sweep, this is a relatively straightforward, by-the-numbers feel-good movie; that is, one in which the underdogs (Mr. Fletcher, Mike, and Jerry) combat a series of misadventures to stick it to the big guns of the media industry (Sigourney Weaver arrives as an uppity enforcer) that threaten to punish them for copyright infringement. It's ultimately only a humble, tentative triumph, nothing that would get their names in the news as cunning revolutionaries against corporate oppression, but a triumph nonetheless. All of their homemade movies, which gradually become the talk of the town, are instantly steamrolled by Weaver's comrades, forcing them to make their most audacious leap of faith. They devise the plan to produce - with the assistance of the various townies who have become regulars at the store - their own original short film based on the life and times of Fats Waller, a legend of the uptown Jazz movement of the roaring twenties who maintains nostalgic value for Mr. Fletcher. In doing so, they're making a small, if substantial, effort towards swimming upstream against the inexorable, often tyrannical flow of mass media, and making a case for the individual over the machine. What reeks of predictability and didacticism is more than redeemed by the tremendous amount of heart and tongue-in-cheek charm throughout. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and doesn't pin itself down to one all-encompassing, negative view of mass culture.

In fact, while on the one hand Gondry is lambasting the impersonal nature of mass media and the ways in which it often cultivates a passive audience, he is also celebrating the lasting spark that such films can and frequently do induce. Jerry and Mike know these movies so well that they can fire through a faithful, albeit superficially ridiculous, interpretation of them in under a day and with boundless enthusiasm. What's more, their customers can rent these movies, notice the boorish discrepancies from the original, and still come back for more, enraptured and unexpectedly impressed by the scrappy layman's versions, stirring up as they do fond memories of the source movies themselves. Beneath this is a reassuring statement from Gondry that whatever the box-office profits of a big-budget feature, whatever the high-falutin' intentions of a major production studio, that it is ultimately the audience who owns the movies in the long run, the vast majority who form potent mental imprints of their individualized experiences of the media. It's an uplifting view of culture, antithetical to the widespread pessimism regarding the "death of movies and art", and nowhere is it more evident than in Gondry's beautifully rendered climax. For all the film's silly, nonchalant humor, the final scene is pure pathos. As the destruction crew waits impatiently outside, the town gathers together in the video store to screen their finished Fats Waller film. The projector's flicker (partly produced by the machine itself and partly a result of Mike and Jerry's foolhardy aesthetic decision to place a household fan in front of the lens to conjure the look of an old-fashioned film) dances across the faces of the rapt audience, alternately laughing and crying at the various roles they played in the film. Gondry's utterly aware of how cheesily meta the scene is, but it's genuinely moving anyway.

Be Kind Rewind's films-within-a-film ultimately owe more to Gondry's faux-DIY visual style than the commonplace look of the film itself, but I can take this small compromise as a necessary move from an indie eccentric attempting to make a message movie about mass culture products from within Hollywood. That's not to say there's an unforgivable shortage of imagination at work here; the shoddy special effects that Jerry and Mike employ to their adaptions, like pizzas behind people's heads to suggest blood, night vision to appropriate evening fight scenes, or numerous cardboard miniatures, are priceless. And Jack Black's performance is one of his most memorable, as it usually is when he's this unhinged. Stumbling around the sets like there is serious cash at stake, his larger-than-life swagger and sense of stray filmmaking knowledge ("you know, you gotta wet the ground!") is hilariously measured. The film is further proof that Gondry is not entirely impotent when reduced to his own material, still capable of crafting charming, emotional works.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Repulsion (1965) A Film by Roman Polanski

Roman Polanski's Repulsion begins and ends on an image of its main character Carol's eye, unblinking and nearly abstracted by the chiaroscuro lighting. In the first instance it's Catherine Deneuve as she sits in a trance at her job as a London manicurist, and the second time it's the worn photographic version of Carol as a young girl, standing with a haunted look in the background of a family portrait. But physical proximity, the film reveals, is no measure for emotional understanding, and as a result both shots remain singularly unsettling, the camera's extreme intimacy doing nothing to illuminate the complicated inner workings of the pathological Carol, who dwells in every scene of the film without ever communicating a graspable level of psychological continuity. She's blank, inexpressive, and aloof, but, like a troubled Hitchockian heroine, she's also physically angelic, clad in a white dress and regularly seen brushing her expertly balanced blond hair. For what reason, we don't know, because she harbors an extreme aversion to the male race, silently interpreting often earnest attempts at communication as vaguely aggressive, hormonal attacks. Like in Un Chien Andalou by Luis Bunuel (whom Deneuve would later work with on Belle du Jour, a film with thematic parallels to Repulsion), Polanski makes the eye a key image only to subvert its familiarity with startling psychosexual ambiguities elsewhere.

It takes approximately 35 minutes for Polanski's film to really click, but when it does, and the horrific madness sets in, one understands the film's sometimes ponderous, disengaging set-up as a basis of normalcy on which to shatter expectations. Polanski saves his most inventive visual and aural motifs for when Carol's sister and husband finally leave the London apartment they're sharing for a vacation in Paris, stranding Carol, much to her dismay, in the quiet, claustrophobic domestic space. Before this, the film nurtures a relative sense of realism, systematically establishing Carol's relationship, or lack thereof, with those around her. She is deeply dependent on her sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux), even insisting she not go to Paris, while shunning Helen's methodically macho husband Michael (Ian Hendry), who writes Carol's eccentricities off as mere social clumsiness. The persevering Colin (John Fraser) is less apathetic, as he fruitlessly tries time and time again to woo Carol with his cool charm. At work, she is emotionally absent to all but her lovely female co-worker, who elicits rare amusement out of her through the recounting of a famous scene in Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush. This unexpected moment of laughing and communion (and comparative aesthetic convention, as Polanski shoots it in a casual two-shot) throws the film off balance and posits Carol as a potential repressed homosexual.

Any psychological suspicion such as this though tends to find a paradox a scene or two down the road, collapsing into the wash of ambiguity that makes up Carol's enigma. And it is this ambivalence towards pat character explanation, this sidestepping of easily identifiable pathology (a pitfall of its frequent critical bedfellow Psycho), that allows Repulsion to remain the uncannily terrifying film it was 45 years ago. It's after greater, more universal mysteries, like that which aligns it obliquely with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman: the speculation as to whether Carol's feeling of male sexual oppression and antagonism points to a larger truth about femininity. As Carol spends her first few nights alone, her entire world transforms rapidly into the domain of her itchiest nightmares, such as men invading her privacy and virginity in the wee hours, the barriers around her (walls, cement ground) cracking, and the nagging intrusion of the outside world, constantly attempting to make contact with her through telephones and doorbells. Polanski shoots these surrealistic sequences with claustrophobic dread, alternating between intense close-ups of Carol's distressed facial orientation and wider shots that dwarf her, usually from an oblique angle like the floor or the ceiling. He also will pan into total darkness, filling the screen with black before emerging again to another episode. This particular tactic, as well as the inclusion of a skinned rabbit carcass that Carol leaves out for fear of cooking it, seem like peculiar augurs for the macabre techniques David Lynch would use to elicit disorientation and discomfort in his Eraserhead.

The rabbit, in particular, is one of the film's most interesting perversities. There's something especially penetrating about the way Polanski scrutinizes its slimy, rotting flesh, as if he's anticipating it to all of a sudden come alive like in a monster movie. Furthermore, why Carol does not make an effort to remove it from her kitchen and living room is an even greater curiosity, because it comes to almost signify her grotesque visions, bearing the weight of her traumas. She can't seem to escape them, no matter how simple it might be to do so. This is clarified by a scene when the decapitated head of it is found, shockingly, in her purse at work. But what adds another layer of mystery to it all is how Carol in some instances almost seems to invite her hallucinations. The most unsettling moment in Repulsion reminds me of the sole occurrence of movement in La Jetee, and it comes when Carol applies lipstick before going to bed. In a close-up from above, Deneuve meets eyes with the lens, appearing to grin for just a second. It's as if she's asking Polanski to insert another one of his harrowing rape sequences, and of course, he does. Carol is simultaneously desperate from sexual repression and frightened of sexual contact, which insures she will involve herself in an ourobouric loop of horror.

Sonically, this is just as much of a teasing, dense work. One could say Polanski luxuriates in a tension between "indoor" and "outdoor" sounds, emphasizing how they are infiltrating one another as if through the cracks Carol fantasizes about. On her trance-like strolls through London, jaunty street jazz and eventually a mildly comical banjo-percussion trio permeate the soundtrack. (Later, the same trio is seen out of Carol's window.) Brash, discordant drum solos accompany her in moments of severe panic, like when Colin makes a move on her in the car and she runs inside to wash her mouth of impurity. In its quieter moments the sound of a piano player practicing scales haunts her dreams, and then, the repetition of church bells nearby becomes the only sound during the nightmarish defilement. In fact, the linking of religion and sex is a constant, if superbly understated, motif; Carol herself, in her white nightgown, resembles the group of nuns in the churchyard seen from her window, and her relentless drive for ascetic sexual purity is the exaggerated practice of a devout Christian. This makes her eventual murders all the more chilling, the notion of a woman rising to a heinous act for fear of violating her own code of purity. In the final shot, we see the younger Carol arguably staring uncomfortably at her father, perhaps suggesting a backstory of incestuous abuse that would inspire her abysmal fear of men, but frankly this inquiry suffocates the tensions the film expertly creates, lumping it all into a blunt case study. Carol's tale acquires an iconic weight even as it elides easy interpretation, making Repulsion a disquieting odyssey of a mind out of sync with itself.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

My Summer in Movies

Though I haven't quite lived up to my desired count, summer is the time when I try to watch more films than any other part of the year. This has been a particularly busy season for me, so I haven't nearly written as much as last year, or even as much as I'd like to. Regardless, I've seen some great stuff, and, for the most part, I've been able to relax and digest all of it slowly. So here's the ten best films I've seen this summer (only first-time viewings apply), with links to their respective reviews.

1. Cria Cuervos... A Film by Carlos Saura

2. Paris, Texas A Film by Wim Wenders

3. Ossos (Bones) A Film by Pedro Costa

4. Claire's Knee A Film by Eric Rohmer

5. Revanche A Film by Gotz Spielmann

6. Last of the Mohicans A Film by Michael Mann

7. The Vanishing (Spoorloos) A Film by George Sluizer

8. Flight of the Red Balloon A Film by Hou Hsiao-Hsein

9. The Insider A Film by Michael Mann

10. The Wrestler A Film by Darren Aronofsky

For now, it's back to class for another semester, back to cramming films into tight schedules.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Red Desert (Deserto Rosso) A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)

When Monica Vitti first appears in frame in Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert, her figure looks surreal against the pale, corroded industrial landscape she traverses. She's beautiful, as usual, with a green wool coat and voluminous red locks of hair. On the same waterside dock as her is a mass of striking workers in homogeneous gray and brown uniforms, their appropriately herd-like behavior set against Vitti's cautious mother figure, navigating the acres of factories and steamships with her little boy to meet up with her husband Udo (Carlo Chionetti), the manager of this misty compound in Ravenna, Italy. It's a world of vapid technological progress, of muscle and science, and Vitti's elegant, delicate Guiliana instantly feels out of place. For all of the surface similarities between Red Desert and Antonioni's previous three films (his "alienation trilogy" made up of L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse), the outsider quality of Vitti's main character, her casual exoticism in her own habitat, vastly separates Antonioni's project. We now have a woman who is not isolated from her familiar, though somewhat evolving bourgeois dwellings, but rather a bourgeois woman permanently housed within an alien environment, the pressure point of modern materialism. The film is the slow-burning dramatization of her misplacement.

Guiliana's problem goes deeper than a simple case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time however. The industrial habitat is a nucleus, a predictor of how the outside world will evolve, and not just a rare exception. It is clear that the unpredictable, enigmatic neurosis that Antonioni superbly conveys in Guiliana cannot be cured in any systematic manner. Instead, it is the result of a woman being out of step with the movement of society around her, unprepared to adapt psychologically and physiologically to her surroundings. Udo stubbornly attributes her emotional turmoil to a vaguely defined "accident" some half a year before that put her in a hospital for months, but from the first time Antonioni reveals one of her chilling midnight haunts, the implication is that something far more all-encompassing, more undefinable, is at the root of her world-weary exhaustion. She twitches, forgets things, caresses her body in a panic fit as if to make sure it's still there, and shies away from all physical contact. Yet when she's not having such convulsions, she's acting comparatively normal, maintaining an air of adult complacence and even engaging in a bit of horseplay in the film's drawn-out centerpiece, an impromptu gathering between a group of industrialists and their wives at an abandoned fishing hut. This sequence, a languid choreography of laughing and sometimes writhing adults chatting circuitously about aphrodisiacs and other insignificant topics, illuminates the seeming calmness and comfort level of the majority of the group, and cements Guiliana's status as a fundamental outcast, prone to certain behavioral changes that come across as hasty and unmotivated.

Only a mild and arbitrary interjection of the external world - say, the presence of a color (intentionally calculated by Antonioni) or a particular spoken word that doesn't sit right - can disturb Guiliana back to her angst. In the case of this particular sequence, a quarantine flag raised by a neighboring ship sends her into a panic. This occurs after an aphrodisiac compels her to make an offhand, celebratory comment about her desire to make love. She then reiterates privately to her husband, "I meant it, I do want to make love." His response is at once practical and backhanded: "How can we?" Though he's referring to the social incorrectness of indulging in desire before the group of people around the two of them, he might as well be speaking broadly. How are two people to make love in Antonioni's grim world, a place where "it's never still", as Vitti pronounces, where thick fog and industrial horns perpetually interrupt the stasis. A sensual pleasure such as that which Guiliana requests, which is potentially enough to remind her of a reason to live, seems impossible and unthinkable. As with many of Antonioni's films, Red Desert's general narrative action can be brusquely reduced to "people talk and talk and never quite connect", and one gets the sense that it's a fatal misfortune, that the searing emotional divide between people is partly what's preventing Guiliana from properly engaging with the world.

One character, Richard Harris' Corrado Zeller, a friend and coworker of Udo, gestures towards personal, enlightening connection with Guilana. He arrives with both a calculated sense of lust towards her and his own particular breed of sorrow. Listening and ogling more than he does engage in conversation, he nonetheless represents a somewhat continuous source of support and empathy for Guiliana, who reveals to him a story of her past suicide attempt. But when he proves to be equally out of sync with the world, affirmed by his eventual taking advantage of Guiliana in her climactic moment of distress, Antonioni's point becomes clear as ever: that there's no easy escape, no shoulder to cry on in regards to this kind of moral discomfort, that only approximate adaptions made over time can approach anything near alleviation. This is the undertow of the quiet, poetic final scene, in which Guiliana once again walks through the industrial maze, answering an innocent question from her son about a bird's ability to evolve in such a way that it knows to avoid the gushing poisonous smog from the silos. Guiliana's small feat of acknowledging this instinctual maturation, of becoming the authority on it, implies that she is prepared to at least tolerate the world, if not cope with it.

All of this is, for the most part, more alienation from Antonioni, a thematic concern that was in danger of becoming simplistic shtick at this point in his career. But too much of Red Desert hints towards newer ideas and points towards the refreshing experiments of Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point. One sequence in particular stands out, and it comes at roughly the beginning of the final act. Guiliana is comforting her son with a story, but at his request it's not a preexisting story, something pre-fabricated to elicit a streamlined response. Therefore, she is forced to pull from within, from her ideals, experiences, and memories. As she narrates an iconic tale of a curious little girl and her secret private beach, Antonioni provides luminous, nostalgic images that feel like estimations of Guiliana's own thought process. The girl is confronted three times with unsettling mysteries - a floating empty boat, an unidentified operatic voice, the startlingly human-like rock formations - and is forced to overcome them with both excitement and fear. It's touching that Antonioni engages with and allows for this kind of emotional crutch, the ability to conjure up the past in an attempt to understand the present. Rather than being stranded totally in her confusion, there is this sudden moment of catharsis that is uplifting and transfixing.

Antonioni's typically impeccable mise-en-scene stretches here to a new degree of artistry. Interestingly, shots of the back of Vitti's head, with her vantage point out of focus, the kind of images that might be brief insert shots in another film, become the punctuation points to focus on here. They communicate a murkiness and unfamiliarity of vision that Lucrecia Martel certainly must have lifted as inspiration for her film The Headless Woman. His decision to convert to color was the boldest and most advantageous choice of his career, and Red Desert, his inaugural experiment with it, renders one astounding image after another. It's been argued that his integration of specific primary colors warrants a scene-to-scene symbolic or psychological value, but I take them as being an incessantly oppressive and taunting force, a reminder of the colorful allure of Guiliana's wardrobe, and hence her preferred mode of living. They seem like the last potent indicators of life and creativity in a milieu mostly dominated by unflattering grays and browns and exacting progress. It's a beautiful plea indeed, the kind of thing that conveys an even greater pain and isolation than almost anything Antonioni had done prior.