Decades before it was given a name, Michelangelo Antonioni recognized the malady we now call attention deficit disorder. In his great 1960s films, L'Avventura, La Notte, Eclipse and Red Desert, but especially in L'Avventura, his masterpiece, it wasn't diagnosed as a chemical imbalance, but as a communicable social disease.
Spawned in a psychological petri dish in which idleness, boredom and dissatisfaction with the material rewards of life combined to create and spread a chronic, generalized, mild depression, it was an ailment peculiar to the upper middle class. What made audiences susceptible was the glamour that attached to it. As I watched the attractive aristocrats and climbers in his films mope through their empty lives, a part of me wanted to be just like those people: self-absorbed and miserable, perhaps, but also fashionable and sexy.
The ever-acute critic Pauline Kael recognized this contradiction in a famous essay, "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties," which aroused the ire of Antonioni devotees like me. More than four decades later, that contradiction remains unresolved in popular culture. Such is the power of film and television imagery that glamour and sex, no matter how tawdry or morally bankrupt, command our attention and whet our fantasies.
Antonioni was the movies' first diagnostician of what back then was called alienation, anomie, angst and decadence. If his films had their silly side (the image of Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, grappling fully clothed in a sand trap in La Notte), they were also prophetic. Their melancholy poetry transmuted an overriding mood of self-pity into something deeper and closer to tragedy.
Antonioni's death on Monday, so close to Ingmar Bergman's, should give us pause. Their deaths bring down the final curtain on the high-modernist era of filmmaking, when a handful of directors were artistic gods accorded the respect and latitude of great painters or authors. Among the European masters of the 1960s, only Jean-Luc Godard, that most modern of modernists, remains.
For all their differences of temperament, Bergman and Antonioni were staunch moralists. If Bergman, the Scandinavian, was stern and austere, Antonioni, the Italian, was a sensuous aesthete who, when it suited him, resorted to painting nature the way he wanted it to look on the screen.
If both had bleak apprehensions of the decline and fall of Western civilization in an increasingly secularized age, Antonioni's vision was more urbane and cosmopolitan. The final bleak street-corner montage in Eclipse is downright apocalyptic. In that movie, the third part of the trilogy that included L'Avventura and La Notte, the world is consumed with stock-market fever. Greed trumps love. Sound familiar?
The meticulous compositions in Antonioni's films depict a shiny but flimsy new world displacing an older and more solid one. Classic stone architecture constructed to last for centuries is contrasted with bright, new high-rise skyscrapers without character. Nuns in black habits rub shoulders with avaricious starlets and shallow socialites. The affluent new generation senses its own susceptibility to corruption. Sandro, the faithless male protagonist of L'Avventura, is a once-serious architect who is bitterly aware that he has sold out his talent.