Michelangelo Antonioni is currently considered one of the film directors that made the history of modern cinema, his films are thought to be masterpieces, but what did his contemporaries think about him and his films?
Being Italian myself and from Ferrara, the same city in which he was born, I was keen to learn more. Living now in England, my journey into Antonioni's new way of making cinema in the 1960s started right here in Exeter, in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, which turned out to be an unexpected source of contemporary original material on the Italian film director.
It was a path of discovery through the archives: 1960s biographies and monographs, interviews, screenplays in translation, plenty of film magazines, publicity inserts and magazine covers. All about Michelangelo Antonioni and his films.
Film magazines of the time cover Italian films regularly during the 1950s-1960s, from neorealism to the Italian 'golden age' of film making. A deep interest in Italian cinema by the British audience emerges. It's an unexpected surprise. I am immediately drawn in, digging out for more articles. There are lots.
Sight and Sound, an independent critical film magazine sponsored and published by the British Film Institute, for example, seems to follow what's happening on the Italian scene very closely, with detailed features, articles, film reviews and interviews to film directors, from home and abroad, even in translation.
International films are often anticipated, reviewed and classified. Italian films get regular attention too, from 1950s neorealism onwards.
What do they say about Michelangelo Antonioni's films in particular?
Let's take L'Avventura. There is an eager anticipation for Antonioni's new film. Robert Hawkins, a Sight and Sound Italian correspondent, writes in the 'Rome Commentary' 1959 that "the long-idle Antonioni is making his return with the recently begun L'Avventura" while Fellini "is finally winding up his barbed exposé of Roman high life, La Dolce Vita" [S&S, Summer-Autumn 1959, EXE BD 24247]. It is interesting to note that the same issue of Sight and Sound also includes a detailed film review of Antonioni's Le Amiche, which was released in 1955, to brush up the readers' memory on the film director's work.
The film is tracked again in the subsequent issues of Sight and Sound covering 1960-1961. In the feature 'Cannes 1960', entirely dedicated to the film festival, Antonioni's L'Avventura together with Fellini's La Dolce Vita are covered extensively as "the festival main talking point" and again "the two most widely discussed films of the festival", [S&S, Summer 1960, EXE BD 24233]. The film reception at the festival was quite remarkable. It was one of those films that challenged and split the audience. Penelope Houston points out how, from the very first screening, "the film spectacularly exhausted the patience of its audience" with "an accompaniment of boos and jeers, yawns and laughter". However the same film actually won the Festival Jury prize and critical acclaim from many including Houston herself who refers to L'Avventura as "the one film during Cannes' second week which out-distanced the rest" and places Antonioni "amongst the artists and the bold experimenters rather than the craftsmen". The use of visual elements in the same article about Cannes festival is worth noting too. A half page size still from L'Avventura is placed immediately over the title 'Cannes 1960' anticipating the significant role played by the film at the festival. [EXE BD24233]
By winter 1960-1961 L'Avventura is considered the film of the year in the 'Front Page' editorial of Sight and Sound [S&S, Winter 1960-1961, EXE BD 24235], a landmark, and "a revelation" by Penelope Houston in her review of the film, screened this time at the London Film Festival of the same year. The film is also included in Sight and Sound 1962 top ten best films in cinema history from the critics' perspective, scoring second after Citizen Kane. An incredible achievement for a film only released a couple of years earlier! [S&S, Winter 1961-1962, EXE BD 24248]
The same issue celebrating the critical success of L'Avventura, also includes an interview to Michelangelo Antonioni in translation, first published in the French magazine L'Express and a detailed 6 pages long retrospective about his previous films. Journalist Richard Roud even writes in his retrospective of Antonioni's work that "one hopes, the triumph of L'Avventura may lead to an interest in Antonioni's earlier films" in England ['5 films', S&S, Winter 1960-1961, EXE BD 24235].
The use of visual material is very generous too: full page illustrations, photographs and stills all help fixing films, actors and scenes in the readers' memory by tickling their curiosity and interest.
What emerges from the various articles is indeed that before late 1960 Antonioni in England was already well known and appreciated by the cinema critics and journalists but he was almost unknown to the wider British public. This is mainly due to the fact that, before L'Avventura, his only previous film, which made it to England almost five years earlier, had been Le Amiche . It seems that the discovery of the director's previous work really began after L'Avventura's appearance at Cannes festival in the spring 1960 and even more at the London Film Festival later in the year, where the audience was "dazzled" by its first screening.
However things are changing and audience is widening: "Packed houses every night, L'Avventura and Rocco and His Brothers sold out on the first day of booking, wider press coverage than ever before" writes Peter John Dyer in its coverage of the 1960 London Festival [S&S, Winter 1960-1961, EXE BD 24235]. A very large publicity advert for a screening of the film at the Paris Pullman Cinema, Kensington, in the same issue, hints even more eloquently at a potential English audience very keen to see the film.
Antonioni's success at the London Film Festival triggers also an interest in his previous work. There is evidence of this in the Cinema Museum. Take for example a 1961 programme for the National Film Theatre [EXE BD 18057] including multiple screenings of the first 5 films by Antonioni and a selections of his shorts between January and February 1961 in anticipation of 'La Notte', Antonioni's following film, just completed, with a very graphically eloquent cover.
Richard Roud's hopes couldn't be more fulfilled. Biographies, monographs and screenplays in English translation about Antonioni start getting published. Michelangelo Antonioni by Pierre Leprohon, 1963 [EXE BD 35355]; Screenplays by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1963 [EXE BD 15921]; Michelangelo Antonioni, a Study, Ian Cameron's monograph for the Movie Magazine 1963 [EXE BD 32321] are just a few examples from the Museum's collections.
Film festivals are only one of the elements. There are cinemas that contribute to make films a success: "they reveal new film trends; create cults (Antonioni is the latest); exhibit controversial films and continually widen the scope of film experience. They give the public adult entertainment" [Continental Film Review, February 1961, EXE BD 33379]. Paris Pullman, in Kensington, London, is one of them and it gets duly listed in the column dedicated to London Premieres in the Continental Film review Feb 1961. It certainly contributed to make L'Avventura a cult film, I think, when I look at a photograph of the crowd gathering at the entrance of the Paris Pullman for a screening of Antonioni's film in January 1961.
In the Continental Film Review, edited by Gordon Reid, I find several monthly cinema listings including L'Avventura, on at the Paris Pullman, Drayton Gardens, Kensington, for 4 consecutive months, from December 1960 to March 1961, a "sensational run" [Continental Film Review, October 1961, p 26 caption, EXE BD 33379] . There are plenty of publicity adverts too.
[ EXE BD 33379]
Antonioni's following film, La Notte, even gets screened at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, in very central London with a full page screening publicity featuring right on the back cover of Sight and Sound, Winter issue 1961-1962 [EXE BD 24248].
What made continental films so popular was also an element of 'otherness', a mixture of glamour, sophistication, sensuality and lack of sexual inhibition which was deemed exciting and exotic to the British audiences in Post War England.
Antonioni's films were appealing to wide audiences not only because of the arty and bold experimental approach of the director to his subject, that so much appealed to the critics in Sight and Sound, but also because of the depiction of the wealthy young bohemians and their empty but nevertheless highly glamorous and inhibition-free life style, which seemed so exotic and different from everyday life in England.
Antonioni himself is immediately described as a "city director with a cool, probing, sophisticated style" as early as 1955-1956 in the feature 'New Names' [S&S, Winter 1955-1956, EXE BD 22320], entirely dedicated to Italian film directors who have attracted attention in the past ten years, with Antonioni being the first listed.
I take another look through the shelves and find Films and Filming edited by Peter Baker, for example, where this aspect is immediately more apparent. Priced at 2 shillings against the 3 shillings and sixpence of Sight and Sound, even though aspiring at critical filmgoers - "The largest sale amongst critical filmgoers" it claims in the impressum - this film magazine certainly offers a more popular approach in comparison with the sophistication of the high profile Sight and Sound. Aimed at cinema lovers, prevalently male, and at the same time, unofficially, at the homosexual community, it includes several pieces about Antonioni and his new film L'Avventura in the 'Italian Cinema number', January 1961, featuring in particular an article by Antonioni himself about eroticism in his work as an expression of the disease of his contemporaries [EXE BD 26016]. This element of eroticism becomes even more apparent in another magazine, the Continental Film Review, edited by Gordon Reid.
The idea of exotic glamour and lack of inhibition associated to continental films comes up again in the summer, while attending 'Sharing Memories' an event held at the museum, where people were asked to share their memories of cinema-going in the UK in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. That Italian films were part of the experience of cinema going is immediately apparent. A lady in the audience even remembers that she wanted to dress like the movies stars. And she wasn't the only one. This idea of foreign glamourous life style as seen on the cinema screens in the early sixties had such an impact on people that it might have played a role in the cultural and social change that followed the end of the austerity in the post war Britain and the beginning of the economic recovery. Eloquent is the still from L'Eclisse with Monica Vitti and Alain Delon on the cover of Sight and Sound, Winter issue 1961-1962 [EXE BD 24248].
Antonioni's short monographs published by film magazines like Motion [March 1963, EXE BD 28091] and Movie Magazine [1963, EXE BD 32321] also seem to sell the idea of Italian glamour and flirtation by including plenty of stills from the films, many of them full page size.
Let's take a small step in time. By the late sixties, England has become the centre of glamour, fashion and music. Modernity has finally arrived starting from the younger generation with mod culture, Mary Quant and the Beatles in what was going to be known as "the swinging sixties". It also comes with a sub-culture whose elements are heavily borrowed from the Italian glamour as seen on the big screen, including coffee drinking, scooters and fashion of course.
What about Antonioni? Is he still popular?
Antonioni, attentive observer of modernity, is once more ready to pick up the change of mood. It is not a coincidence that his 1966 film Blow-Up is shot in English, with British actors and is set in Swinging London rather than Italy. Britain is now the place to be to start his investigation of reality. Titles and comments speak for themselves in a quick flick though 1966-1967 issues of Sight and Sound. "Antonioni is scouting British locations" Penelope Houston writes in a piece about swinging British Cinema, 1966 where "London looks disconcertingly like a world film-making capital" [S&S, Spring 1966, 'England, their England', EXE BD 22282]; "Antonioni in London" is the title of another feature [S&S, Summer 1966, EXE BD 22283]. At 1967 Cannes festival "practically all the films which surprised and delighted or shocked the festival at large were British" [S&S Summer 1967, 'Festivals 67 Cannes', EXE BD 22287]; "British Antonioni" [S&S, Spring 1967, Blow-Up by Carey Harrison, EXE BD 22286]; "Antonioni in Transit" [S&S, Summer 1967, EXE BD 22287].
The British public is on his side. Blow-Up immediately becomes a cult film appealing to different audiences. Glamour, once again a key element to the popularity of Antonioni's films, representing at the same time the object of investigation but also becoming the object of cult itself even for the people in focus. "Blow-up…the film was said to be a devastating expose of the swinging scene and the lascivious world of fashion photography… however… the movie became a cult among its expected subjects" [S&S, Spring 1967, 'Blow-Up' by Carey Harrison, EXE BD 22286]. The film depicts the live of sophisticated creative young people as empty but at the same time makes them seem attractive as well.
"The biggest common factor among the 'swinging people' is their anxiety to disown all common factors between them and other 'swinging people'. Their membership card is to have joined no club, which permits each of them to deride the squalid 'scene' and look forward to Blow-Up's revelations without feeling exposed" comments Carey Harrington [S&S, Spring 1967 'Two Films(2): Blow-Up', EXE BD 22286]
Even his main actor, David Hemming, becomes a quintessentially charismatic icon of swinging sixties, thanks to this role [Blow-up and other exaggerations, EXE BD 28454].
Is this all there is to say about the interest in Italian cinema in Britain in the early 1960s? I bring up the topic with Dr Phil Wickham, the cinema museum curator, and he immediately points a new final factor: a gap in the market due to changes in Hollywood, a gap that could be filled in with independent films, like the ones from Europe.
My journey of discovery is drawing to an unexpected conclusion. By researching Antonioni I have actually found something new and interesting to me. Glimpses of the British audiences that went to see his films, here and there in the archives and a better understanding of the impact of Italian cinema on British culture in the 1960s.
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