Friday, March 09, 2007

That Bowling Alley On The Tiber

There’s a certain kind of book I like to read from time to time that is cinema-related but is not film criticism or biography. This is when a director writes a book that is not semi-autobiographical (such as Kieslowski on Kieslowski, or My Last Breath); is not a conversation (Cinema: the archaeology of film and the memory of a century); and is not a screenplay that has never been made into a film ( La Petite Voleuse, for instance, was a film that Truffaut died before he could film. Later, however, Claude Miller did direct a film based on Truffaut’s screenplay).

Michelangelo Antonioni’s That Bowling Alley On The Tiber is another, altogether different kind of writing. These are what he called the ‘nuclei’ of films. Re-reading this book after almost 15 years, I was struck by how unique this book is. Some of these 33 sketches are barely two sentences long, while others are three or four pages outlines or reflections. All are written in the present tense, like screenplays or story sketches usually are. What is unusual is the way in which Antonioni’s voice as director is constantly ‘seeing’ the possibilities of converting this writing into cinema.

All screenplays are provisional. The screenplay writer knows that what s/he is writing is a palimpsest upon which other things will be ‘written’. The words in a screenplay are mere pointers that lead to other things that are not verbalised: the mise-en-scène, the lighting, the use of space, the framing, and, of course, the ways in which faces convey emotions without saying a word. With no other director of his generation is the non-verbal more important than with Antonioni.

Which is why That Bowling Alley On The Tiber makes for very interesting reading. Here is a director who is a master of making the spaces he puts his characters in, say almost as much as they do; a director whose uses of silence are very, very potent.

In the sketch that the book takes its title from, Antonioni says in the first paragraph:

“When I don’t know what to do, I start looking at things. There is a technique for this too, or rather many techniques. I have my own. Which consists in working backwards from a series of images to a state of affairs.”

All the sketches in this book have this in common: they work backwards from images. They also have the author in the curious position of narrator and writer – a position not uncommon in fiction, but more unusual in what is, in effect, the notes of a director that might some day be turned into a film. But the most interesting thing about these stories is the way in which Antonioni asks himself questions that abruptly terminate the narrative, or turn it into channels that make the reader constantly aware of the unfinished nature of the writing. These are not random notes jotted down in a notebook; but they are not complete narratives in themselves. Always at the back of them is the film they might become.

One story, ‘The Silence’, is three paragraphs long and begins like this: “At the beginning a dialogue, a brief one, which will clarify a breakdown in relations concealed for years by both husband and wife. The usual habits, the usual hurt.” In another one, ‘The Dangerous Thread Of Things’, Antonioni talks about the way an image grows and changes with time. The image of a woman on a beach acquires a wealth of detail and character as Antonioni reflects on it in different places (in Rome, in Paris, in Uzbeksitan) over a period of time. The story is part reflection on the nature of writing, the intention of converting this into a film, and part narration of the image itself as it grows and transforms. Notice how this is written to approximate a screenplay, but is emphatically not one:

Paris. Same day, 9:00 A.M.

It’s morning and I’m thinking of this glimmer of a story while outside it’s snowing. I say I’m thinking because this time it wasn’t spontaneous images that took me back to the plot. I willed it myself. I suddenly noticed that the unconsciousness with which the film was coming into being would never amount to anything unless I impose limits. In other words, the moment’s come to organise the ideas and only the ideas. To transform all this instinctive material into reflective substance. To think of the subject in terms of articulating the scenes, of beginning, development, and end, in short, of structure. It’s necessary for the image-making to becomes intelligible (I was about to say “edible”); you have to help it provide itself with a meaning. Roland Barthes says that a work’s meaning can’t be created on its own, that the author can produce only conjectures of meaning, of forms if you like, and it’s the world that fills

But how can Barthes rely on so uncertain an entity as the world?

With those thoughts in my head I look at the snow coming down on the roofs and I’m tempted (more than a temptation, it’s a curiosity to verify what happens visually) to make it fall on the beach and the horses also, and to put the two female characters together at the window to look at the sight, in an atmosphere of easy surrender, or uneasiness, or anguish.

Anotonioni not only questions himself as he is writing a ‘story’, he is questioning the nature of interpretation, while also leaving open the ‘meaning’ of a visual: does a shot of two women looking out the window at snow signify ‘easy surrender, or uneasiness or anguish’? Or are they all possibilities until they’ve been made into a film?

The translator of this book, William Arrowsmith, calls these sketches a ‘kinetic potential’ in his Introduction. That apparent contradiction sums up the challenges of reading this text that is both story and a first step. Four stories from That Bowling Alley On The Tiber were included in the 1995 film Beyond the Clouds, directed by Antonioni with the help of Wim Wenders.

I missed the film at a festival long ago, though I've heard it is very uneven. It makes little difference to me, because I find the stories in the book so fascinating that I'm happy for them to be forever potential films.


Alok said...

Have you seen the screenplay of L'avventura? It is actually quite detailed. I dont know how authentic it is or whether it was written as a shooting script... it is still surprising to see so many details put in words.

I don't know if it the same story but "the dangerous thread of things" is also the title of antonioni's segment in the anthology film Eros. It is stupid but very erotic :)

Space Bar said...

Alok: Thanks for the link. Offhand, I can't say, but most likely it isn't the shooting script. Most screenplays that make it out are post-filmng scripts, or a composite of the last draft adn the film itself. They appear misleadingly accurate! But with Antonioni, I can believe that much of the screenplay is an account of what is internal.

'Yes, that Dangerous Thread' it was, in Eros (which also I haven't seen; the last series of Eros I saw had Mani Kaul's film in it) Is it erotic? I heard the Kar-Wai and Soderbergh were better.

Alok said...

yes I also felt the same about that screenplay. it reads more like a novel...also there are more psychological descriptions than actual instructions about scene construction... which also makes one suspicious. as you say watching his movies one can see that he works with a central idea and everything else feels provisional.

I love L'avventura very much, it is one of my all time favourite films.

Dangerous Thread in terms of narrative or depth doesn't work at all. But there is a lot of tasteful nudity and it never feels exploitative... it captures a feeling of freedom and abandon, which I think will appeal to women too :)

Wong Kar-wai's section is the best. It is similar to In the Mood for Love or 2046 just that it is short and those who think that his films are repetitive will prefer it to his longer films.

Space Bar said...

My personal favourite Antonioni is Red Desert; but having said that, I have to say, he's not my favourite or even my most preferred Italian director. That would have to be Rossellini.

Cheshire Cat said...

"Beyond the Clouds" is very beautiful work. I would put it above "Blow Up", which feels dated now. But my opinions should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Space Bar said...

Cat: Since you've seen the film, how much do you think Wenders imprinted his style on the film? It ought to make for very interesting viewing anyway; two directors with strong styles, and John Malkovich!

Cheshire Cat said...

I'm not sure, I haven't seen anything made by Wenders. But I suspect there was less of the alienation shtick in that movie than usual, and it was the better for it...

Anonymous said...

"Blowup" is great. A portrait of light, color, faces, people, temporal, spatial; London 1966. It recreates this place, but is not about London. It could have been in Rome or Ravenna. It's a background location not the topic. It reminds me of what many said of "Gatsby," Flaubert, Joyce and others who tell the tales of their time. Antonioni was the 20th century. Why should we fear history? Why demand that all art reflects our present society? Besides, "Blowup" isn't about London at all. It's about the process mentioned above. It's a self-reflective work about putting the pieces together afterward, finding truth in a lie. The definitive film-not of Swinging London-but of the Modern perspective Antonioni represents. That puts it at odds with our nihilistic, "postmodern" time. Read the reviews of Gatsby in the forties. Awfully condescending too. We are now both too close and too far away to see "Blowup" in proper form. It is a great film. "The Eclipse" might be his greatest-and simplest-work, though. Great man, great artist. Rest in peace, Michelangelo.