Salute Your Shorts: Michelangelo Antonioni's First Films
Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.
Despite a career stretching all the way back to the early ’40s, Michelangelo Antonioni remains best-known for his ’60s trilogy (or tetralogy, depending upon who you ask). It’s a strange thing that for one of the best-known foreign directors, only seven or eight of his movies get written about with anything approaching regularity, and of those, perhaps only L’avventura is considered an unqualified success. Even our own retrospective about the director jumped straight to his ’60s works, completely ignoring his five features and dozen shorts that came before then, and this was by no means an anomaly. That being said, to gain some perspective on this, think of ignoring the first five features by some of the major filmmakers of today such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze and you’re left with literally no features at all.
Much of why, exactly, consideration of Antonioni usually begins with L’avventura (or less frequently, Il Grido) is because his style there is so different form his earlier films, or really anything else for that matter. It’s his “mature” style, consisting of extremely long takes that frequently lose focus on characters and plot. It’s a high-modernist style that’s easily parodied (and almost hits the point of self-parody in Red Desert) but is also distinctive and has had a large effect on the generations of filmmakers that came after him. This attempts to imitate the interior feelings of characters while simultaneously signaling that there are important things going on beyond the narrative, and even many filmmakers who’ve rejected the way he does have been influenced by his films by taking this central focus to heart.
This style was something he slowly developed throughout the ’50s and his last feature of that decade is often considered a transitional movie between his more-typically filmed earlier works and the Antonioni style he’s more famous for. But his ’60s and later works are particularly surprising in the context of where he came from. Antonioni began as a screenwriter and continued this and film criticism during the height of Italian neo-realism. His earliest films came from this tradition and were in fact documentaries, two of which are available as extras on the new release of Red Desert that are surprisingly revealing about the director he would later become.
Antonioni’s first attempt at directing his own films was a disastrous documentary about an insane asylum. While things began ok, when the film’s bright lights were turned on, many of the patients went into convlusions and.the entire project was soon abandoned. After moving to Rome he worked on a screenplay for Rosselini and around this same period made his first short film, which is now lost. He wasn’t discouraged, though, and went to work on another film soon afterwards, and in 1943 returned to the Po river he was raised near to shoot a documentary about its fishermen.
“Gente del Po” is very much a neo-realist work of its period, even though it’s completely a documentary rather than just having the trappings of reality. The film follows a family of fishers through their day-to-day life, inflecting a semblance of narrative onto things at the end by explaining a journey into town as a trip for medicine, but for the most part, the film is simply descriptive. Of course, Antonioni has never been particularly known for his narratives, which usually consist of little more than pretty young people angsting around, but here the difference is that the family doesn’t even approach characterization, described only as “a man, a woman, and a girl.”
In and of itself the film is not particularly interesting, but within the context of Antonioni it’s fairly enlightening. “Gente del Po” is a movie whose entire value comes from its style, and in contrast to the verite documentary style that’s best known, all of its shots are carefully composed. It’s remarkable how much the film in fact evokes Antonioni’s later works. Smoke across a river feels like a piece cut from Red Desert, while a gliding shot later in the film, with characters moving laterally while a camera pans to the side, could be pulled from nearly anything else he directed. His camera, in contrast to a lot of American documentaries at the time, not only doesn’t remain remotely still, but also gives us some canted angles and oddly-situated shots. With no real subject to constrain him, it’s a movie purely made for visual pleasure. The film’s narration in fact feels intrusive to something that perhaps should have been left as simply pictures and music. “Gente del Po” is a beautiful movie, with nearly as interesting visuals as his features, that also points to the direction his later films would take.
Unfortunately, that short took many years to create due to WWII and myriad issues with the film itself, so that the only 10-minute long film would not be completed until 1947. After its release, Antonioni worked on “N.U.” which is interesting as a counterpoint to the earlier film. If “Gente del Po” in many ways points out the direction Antonioni would take his later works, “N.U.” is an oddity in his filmography that shows an entirely different style from his later works and with it a rejected methodology.
“N.U.,” short for Netiezza urbana, the cleaning service of Rome, is not, it should be noted, particularly interested in documenting the cleaning service of Rome. Although they play a part in the film, in “N.U.” Antonioni is really just concerned with photographing the city in a sort of traditionally neo-realistic fashion and then doing something more interesting with it. The somewhat avant-garde work takes the seemingly random footage Antonioni filmed and throws it all together based not upon any narrative but rather upon how Antonioni felt their shots lined up thematically while editing, creating a sort of associative montage. Antonioni noted that traditional documentaries, like the one he had just completed, annoyed him with their sense of order. “I felt a need to break it up a little. So, having a certain amount of material in my hands, I set out to do a montage that would be absolutely free, poetically free.”
What Antonioni was fighting against at the time was the mainstream of Italian cinema, which was neo-realism and neo-realistically inflected films. Obviously he saw some value in them, but he also felt that their form was constricting. His later films can in some ways be seen as a reaction against this movement, with their meticulously-designed shots and middle-to-upper-class characters contrasting against the nearly improvised works focusing on the impoverished of the decades before. But here, he tried something different, with a film that feels closer to the Soviet works from the ’20s and ’30s than anything going on in Italy. It’s a film entirely made up of montage, with no through line or narrative whatsoever. It asks viewers to decide what to make of these shots themselves with no assistance, and while not as aggressively avant-garde as some of what was going on in America at the time, it was certainly a jolting and completely non-commercial work.
“N.U.” is a film that struggles against the norms of its time, just as his later works would struggle against the norms of narrative filmmaking. In both of these shorts you can see an early Antonioni unhappy with the current state of filmmaking and experimenting with what could be done. Neither film is entirely satisfactory but they offer up more perspective about how Antonioni eventually came upon his mature style and that it was only one option he considered. As crazy as it may sound, one of the biggest forks in the road of film history seems to have occurred here when Antonioni chose to keep exploring the direction suggested by “Gente del Po” rather than “N.U.”