Sunday, July 11, 2010

Criterion Collection finally releases Red Desert

Red Desert (Il deserto rosso) (1964) is Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s (dec. 2007) first colour film......The film is considered both distinct in itself and loosely as part of Antonioni’s early Sixties internationally-successful trilogy of L'avventura (The Adventure), La Notte (The Night), and L’eclisse (The Eclipse) - all dealing with themes of ennui, social alienation, and the vapidness of materialism = often set against a modern urban landscape. All of these films star Antonioni’s romantic love at the time, the great Italian actress Monica Vitti. The film won the Golden Lion (top prize) at the 1964 Venice Film Festival....The last time I saw this movie was over 30 years ago at a Hamilton art house theatre. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It seemed one of those films that was going nowhere fast. I remember one of my professors being in the audience and coming up to me afterwards and asking if I liked it. I was blunt: “Not really.” He did of course and said diplomatically, “Maybe you’ll come around to my way of thinking.” I have.....In the 30 years since, I have become a huge Antonioni fan, absolutely loving the trilogy (though not so much his later English-language films like Zabriskie Point and The Passenger (with Jack Nicholson)......When I joined Canada’s answer to Netflix,, about five years ago, it was the first movie I put on my “ziplist.” The request has been at the top of the list ever since. The movie had not been released in DVD or was in shipping. Frustrating as hell! But after a June 22 DVD Criterion release it finally arrived July 2 - almost worth a party to celebrate!.....Watching all 117 minutes brought back fragments  – the shots set against the  belching fumes and noises of a sprawling chemical factory with its vibrant close-up colours of pipes and tanks often  red in colour. There was also the almost orgy-like scene of friends gathered in the absurd fishing shack by a dock where wayward (ghost?) freighters pass.....The movie revolves around the beautiful Monica Vitti (Giuliana) character, a woman not on the verge of but who definitely is going through a nervous breakdown. Surprisingly, Irish actor Richard Harris is in the film, seemingly speaking fine Italian, and plays Vitti’s would-be lover......Just like other of Antonioni’s films, Red Desert features long takes, often disconnected shots, and a dreamlike or surreal quality. But what is the movie about? Ah.....I think most people draw the conclusion (I did) that it’s about human alienation set against a soul-destroying industrial background. But the director himself said it would be “simplistic” to draw such a relationship. In fact Antonioni described industrial sites as part of the “poetry of the world” and said they can be “beautiful.” So much for my theory.) Instead, Antonioni said the film was about personal adjustment. “There are people who do adapt, and others who can't manage.”.....Vitti seems to seek solace in Harris (Corrado) and asks if he loves her. When he asks why, she responds not so much of her need for romantic love as her need for love at all. “I’d like everyone who’s ever cared about me here and around me now like a wall.” Later she says, “There’s something terrifying about reality and I don’t know what it is. No one will tell me. Even you don’t help me, Corrado”..... The final scene shows Giuliana walking with her son (who at one point she suspects of having polio or could he have been sickened by the toxic environment; the setting after all resembles Love Canal times 10) and he asks what the yellow smoke is. She says it’s poison and the little birds know to stay away.....Because the DVD is Criterion it gets the treatment it deserves. Features include chapter headings, a 1990 Vitti interview, and a second film version with overlaid critical commentary, a highly worthwhile experience even if you've seen the film.....The trailer is in typical early-Sixties format (but seems highly bizarre now) with a light upbeat jazzy score as if it’s some  Mastroianni comedy. But maybe that's Antonioni's way of saying it's absurd. Then again, probably not.

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