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.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?
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.
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.