L’Avventura (1961) 3
I cannot forget the time I was on a train winding through the low, old mountains between F and S—the dark, green carpet passing slowly by when out of nowhere, down below, almost within reach, was some kind of ruin—and now I can see what used to be a swimming pool. The pool had long since dried up. An empty square. Dusty white stone. Victorious jungle into all the four sides. It was only a matter of time. The last remnant of what must have been. A once great mansion, now left behind. Oh, but to imagine the days. And nights. The parties. What must have been. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald. The dried-up swimming pool had and always has a particularly strange quality, which along with its remote isolation, evoked in me a kind of melancholy and sense of time lost, which I do not claim to understand. Did you know in the palace in Monaco, they used to have lions and tigers just wandering around the royal garden? Can you imagine?
But this wasn’t the only time. A while ago a girlfriend of mine and I went to this tiny old town in actual Mexico. We found this big hotel, which was clearly much larger than it had needed to be for who knows how long. And that’s just it. There were entire floors, whose only reason for being there now was that they were there before. There was even a giant, mirrored ballroom with a huge carpet rolled up against the wall covered in dust. On the penthouse level, there was this room with sliding glass doors to a patio balcony all around. The room was the size for one bar, but there were two, separate bars. Underneath were cabinet doors left open, each with a tangle of pipes and metal like the inside of an exploded tank. There was so much dust.
What I had felt on both these occasions was the spirit of ‘what once was.’ It most often visits us through architecture, but it could also come as just a word or thought, a certain lost gesture—a stamp even. Some call it ‘The Gold Room’ as in “Hi Lloyd. Been away but now I’m back.” It is in Scarface when they visit the palatial estate in the mountains of C. It’s in the Godfather whenever they return toS, and there is the little burro, the old ways, which bring such killing power, such hold over our imagination. There is the scene in Blade Runner when she says, “We’re stupid and we’ll die,” and Rutger Hauer says, “No we won’t.” How big the room, and so baroque with ornate wood and blue light piercing through vaporous haze. So full of toys now left behind. Relics of happiness, and yet so lonely they had to make a a whole new film.
And ruins, of New York, in so many films both made and yet to be made. Any and all ruins. The scene at the end of In The Mood For Love when they drop visit Cambodia. This picture of Carthage I took on a throw-away camera, which she made us buy. I don’t buy those stupid things, though I’m glad I did. And by the way, Carthage was once ‘all that.’ And Cuba. The men, their cars, labor of love, colored laundry in the streets, the slow draw of tight tobacco. There, ‘The Gold Room’ is hopping with little nine-year old ballerinas and beautiful Ruben Gonzales, the white hairs on the back of his brown, leathery neck, quick fingers dancing over the black and whites, never staying as nothing gold can, and all of this in true color.
But L’Avventura perhaps the most of all embodies the feeling of what once was. It makes you ask if it is really like this, Southern Italy, could it possibly be this—yes, yes it can. Emptied now but it wasn’t always. Once-great city-states and the buildings they left behind. When Sandro is a ‘tourist’ in minute ninety-seven, in the town whose last tourists were a French couple one year before. That town, those heavy buildings, that expansive facade on what must have been some kind of palace. That is exactly how it is. Go there. You’ll see.
And then there is the scene where Sandro knocks over the bottle of ink, and the two men are near to fighting, when suddenly, from out of the huge, gray building in which we know there is nothing for five hundred years, bubbles forth a stream of small school children, dressed in black. Wha—? Who would have—? And so as it is an epiphany, which stops men from fighting, so too it releases us from our mental stagnation.
There is the jungle-tucked castle of her rich friends with its chessboard marble floors and overhanging passageways like tunnels linking different gerbil cages. The wide shot of the intricate inner wall in the ancient villa turned police station. The officer asks if its creator could ever have dreamed it would come to this. Antonioni is to be commended, but of course, the preparation for the filming had been going on for six hundred years.
When they drive to that old, deserted church and he wonders why it was even built. And even as they are leaving, are gone, the camera just sort of stays and lingers in the alley between the old buildings, the shadow casters. Is Anna there? Could she have just jumped off it all and become a part of a lost little town like this? Likewise, could Sandro ever settle down in marriage? There’s no certain activity to suggest any reason for this lingering. Perhaps it is the pull of the woods, like the ocean which may have tempted Anna, “lovely, dark and deep.”
To the uninitiated, the first half hour can seem, slow, slow, and slow, and even then, there are these beautiful shots, of rocks and water, boats and shacks, doorways and wigs, and even a pescecano. But truly, this lengthy segment is essential to hypnotize the viewer out of whatever frame he is in and into the right one, which is contemplative and sponge-like. Without this time, and there is no way to shortcut it, the viewer would be unable to fully absorb the journey to come. In this way, the film is not unlike other great films (Fellini, Tarkovsky). The difference is that Antonioni does a lot of the hypnotizing up front en bloc whereas Fellini does it in multiple discrete packets or jump points (a day dream or the arrival of a fantastic character). Tarkovsky uses long meditative segments (the car ride in Solaris or the push cart ride in Stalker) to soften the viewer, but then, of course, it never really stops does it? It just keeps on with every frame. It’s weird. No, really.
People have criticized the way Antonioni has characters move into and out of scenes rarely giving them his undivided attention. This is supposed to somehow reflect his ambivalence toward them. And this apparently is the wrong way to feel about your characters. Or what if the buildings, the archways and alleys have themselves become characters? Then why shouldn’t the lens stay on them? And will they not still be there long after the film has ended? No reasonable person who is honest with himself can seriously doubt L’Avventura.