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Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964)

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Per Christian's request, here's a thread on Antonioni's Red Desert. When Criterion asked actress Brie Larson to select her top 10 Criterion films, she characterized Red Desert as succinctly and as aptly as anyone has done, in my opinion. She wrote: "I felt like I was opening my eyes for the first time." I had seen what Antonioni could do with black and white, and of course I had seen countless films in color before; but it was his systematic use of color that I found so astonishing, the first time I saw the film on a BFI DVD. His use of color was both aesthetic and existential. I experienced a similar kind of amazement watching the film in high definition when Criterion released their blu-ray version, and, what's more, finally having the chance to see the film projected, in a remastered print, at AFI's 2017 film festival in Los Angeles. (I had taken a bus from my west L.A. apartment into Hollywood, and when I was at a transfer stop and realized the next bus wouldn't arrive for at least 40 minutes, I said, "forget this, I'm walking." Happily, after trekking more than a mile, I made it in time.) There's just so much to see: the red room, where Guliana (Vitti) and the other characters crowd together; the bank of fog that enshrouds everyone as they leave the shipyard; the wild geometric patterns and winding pipes that fill the vast caverns in the factory where Guliania's husband works; the room that turns pink and then red during Guliana's afternoon tryst with Corrado (Richard Harris); the whites and blues (and other colors) that appear in Guliana's home. And then there's all that visual compression that Antonioni and Carlo di Palma, the director of photography, created with long lenses, making many of the images look flattened and two-dimensional. In the film-within-a-film that takes place in a bay by the sea, there's a shot of the sand, the ocean, and the sky that looks like a color-field painting. It wasn't long after I first saw Red Desert that it became my favorite film, and I'd say that, even today, it's something I hold very close because of the experience it provided me, like the awakening that Larson mentioned.

Thematically, it does fit in with the trilogy of alienation that preceded it. Guliana is definitely harboring some kind of illness, or even madness, caused by her environment: an Italy that in 20 years past the Second World War had industrialized -- those enormous factories and machines and smokestacks, and also the billowing smoke (sometimes yellow), the toxic waste lying in pools of water, the massive ships passing through the shipyard, even those immense red radio towers that dominate an otherwise flat and brown landscape. The industrialization might be part of the cause of Guliani's illness, although the film only implies that, and, like the previous characters that Vitti played in Antonioni's other films, her Guliana is lost and disconnected, particularly when it comes to sex and love. But I see this film as markedly different than its predecessors. It's partly the aesthetic and the colors (and I wonder: did those who were already familiar with Antonioni in the 1960s expect that his first feature film in color would be disappointing, or did they expect that a director with already proven skills would do something wondrous with color? I don't know.). But, unlike L'Eclisse, and despite the fact that Guliana is sick, Red Desert is hopeful. It's all in the final shot and Guliana's metaphor about birds that learn to fly around poisonous smoke and in the shift of her gaze upward. So if we take Red Desert and put it with L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse and form a tetralogy, together the series begins with alienation and malaise and ends with optimism -- not definite or assured, but it's optimism nonetheless. Whenever I watch the film, I feel anxiety and then relief. I'm sure I could say that about a good number of films, with different premises and plots and aesthetics, but I find something unique about the experience of Red Desert. Compared to the three films preceding it, which end with sadness, then sadness, then horror, Red Desert concludes with a completely different emotion.

While browsing the internet recently for images of the film, I found this (below), and it's brilliant. I can't recall what the term is for color palettes that match this way -- corresponding colors? I'm not sure. But the image testifies to how rigorous Antonioni's use of color was. Anyway, I love this film.



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Michael, I apologize for following such a substantive post with such a banal one, but...

I could have *sworn* we had previous discussion of this film. In particular, I remember a very specific exchange where I was excited to go see the theatrical re-rerelease and was was sadden that I had a miserable experience and was unable to put my finger on why. Finally I speculated that I had gone to the dentist earlier in the day and that maybe it was just that my tooth hurt through the movie. Somebody (my recollection was that it was MLeary) quipped something to the effect that this (that there was a potential connection between physical discomfort and a negative film experience) was his favorite critical admission of mine/or of the year.

Does anyone remember this exchange or maybe it's a false memory? I guess it could also have been in one of the posts I deleted many years ago, though the Invision software doesn't let a non-administrator (I wasn't at the time) delete entire threads.

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Those are great thoughts, Michael. Not having seen the film yet, I don't have much to add, except that the still you shared is much more striking than the Red Desert clip I saw as part of one of the supplements on either the L'Avventura or L'Eclisse Criterion DVDs I devoured in the past month. I had said elsewhere on the board that the clip was a letdown after the high of watching the other two films, although I still wanted to see Red Desert. Indeed, I was considering buying it (and La Notte, also still unseen by me) blind. But I'm not working right now and am trying to be responsible with what little funds we have. That means there aren't any DVDs or Blu-rays in my immediate future (although the Criterion site's ongoing 30% Off sale is tempting). I'll get to them eventually - possibly once the library reopens (it carries DVDs of both Red Desert and La Notte) - and will post whatever meager thoughts the film(s) may generate at that time. 

Speaking of the library, one of the big shutdown disappointments has been the lack of the local libraries' used book sales. I don't need more books, although I always enjoy looking and usually justify any purchase on the grounds that I'm supporting an institution (or the Friends of the Library extension) that my family uses and loves. But those sales also include DVDs, and my dream is that I'll discover the Antonioni Blus at one of the sales someday for $2 or $3 a piece - overlooked by browsers (and even collectors who hit the sales like vultures before the public is allowed to take part) who have given up on physical media. 

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Thanks, Christian. My pleasure -- I really enjoy talking about Red Desert. I'd love to hear your thoughts when you see it, as well as your thoughts about La Notte. If you liked Antonioni's visual style in the other two films, you'll really like La Notte: some of the shots are stunning (and, as expected, Vitti's great, although she has a smaller role -- Jeanne Moreau is the female lead in that film, and she's terrific too). Good to know that your library has DVDs of both films. The interesting thing about library sales is you can sometimes find real gems, unexpectedly. Which reminds me of something that's a bit different, but it came to mind as I was reading your comments. Some years ago, I was longing to see Assayas' Irma Vep, his homage to the French New Wave. The DVD was out of print, but, one afternoon while browsing through the bins at Amoeba Music (a legendary record store in Hollywood), I found a used copy. They were asking $50 for it ... and I thought about ... and thought about it ... and then said, why not? A couple of weeks after making that purchase, guess what happened? It was re-released on DVD! Ah, well. At least I finally got to see it. :) 

I totally get the need to watch one's spending. I just cancelled my Netflix and Hulu subscriptions after doing the math in my head about the costs as they add up annually (I am keeping my Prime account, and with what I save without Netflix/Hulu, perhaps I can justify a Criterion subscription, although I might have to drop a couple of other recurring subscriptions to do that). 

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