BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Jul 5th, 2010 •

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RED DESERT opens with the electronic tonalities of FORBIDDEN PLANET’s Monster from the Id breaking through the impenetrable doors of Dr. Morbius’ house on the planet Altair-4. Unintentionally, perhaps, but nonetheless there is a science-fiction edge to the world Michelangelo Antonioni has fashioned here out of paint and celluloid.

Image Entertainment’s transfer had errant specks of black dirt during the opening titles. All gone. Image’s image was severely window-boxed. This is, of course, in Standard Wide Screen, and fills the 1.85:1 monitor aspect ratio. It has received a high-definition digital remastering, and looks like it’s what Antonioni intended – which is saying an awful lot. There’s a minimalist narrative going on, but one finds oneself waiting for the next deliriously color-controlled frame to appear, so that, given the director’s languorous pacing, it can be soaked in, taking all the time one needs. The characters mean a good deal less in this film than the mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene over performance. Mise-en-scene as performance. It has such emotional resonance that it probably deserves to be thought of in that way.

They didn’t have Digital Intermediaries back then, but Antonioni’s painstaking color control is the equivalent of any DI corrections employed today. THE ROAD, for example, with its post-holocaust-blackened landscapes, seems to evoke images from RED DESERT. And it’s not that directors and art directors didn’t literally paint locations before RED DESERT. DP Jack Ashton painted the autumn leaves a more vibrant red in the outdoor scenes of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1957, and Vincente Minnelli demanded a lot of painting (and pasting of fake autumn leaves on bare trees) in THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1962), just to name two. But nothing quite encompassed the scope and control of RED DESERT’s experiment with color.
Rod Taylor told me an amusing story about Antonioni during the production of ZABRISKI POINT, a miserable attempt by the director to capture the ethos of America in the late ’60s. He saw that Antonioni was frustrated about not getting his artistic needs met and, well aware of the director’s dedication, and assuming the problem to be perhaps a cultural or language-based one, he volunteered “Is there anything I can do for you, Michelangelo? I’m pretty good at dealing with people. Maybe I can intercede?” Pointing at the city in the background, Antonioni explained, totally straight-faced, “I want that building over there painted purple.” “I’m sorry,” replied Taylor, “That’s one I can’t help you with.”

The film was made not too long after the 1962 remake of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, and Richard Harris is still doing his Brando impression. In addition, he feels completely out of place, but it’s hard to know if Antonioni intended that or not. Later, David Hemmings felt entirely in place in BLOW-UP, and Jack Nicholson felt like he belonged in THE PASSENGER, Antonioni’s unyielding take on a ‘Hitchcock’ film.

Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s muse, is compelling and enigmatic in a limited role, playing the emotionally troubled wife of a factory manager. The feeling, on seeing the film back in the day, was that her character was crumbling under the weight of a dark and threatening new, industrial environment. But Antonioni is ambivalent about that narrow an interpretation of the plot when interviewed by Jean-Luc Godard in the booklet enclosed in the BluRay box. Rather he speaks of how beautiful the devastated petrochemical landscape is. The alienation Vitti’s character feels may in part be the manifestation of her tragic inability to adapt to this new world, but in addition, he insists, she was deeply neurotic before she encountered the industrial landscape. While I think some of that response may be recalcitrance on Antonioni’s part to acknowledge the most obvious surface elements of the plot, I have to admit that the landscape is at least as beautiful as Ms. Vitti, and that’s saying a lot.

And speaking of Ms. Vitti, she appears in a brief 1990 interview (at the age of 59 and not looking it – and it’s really difficult to believe that she’s now approaching 80), discussing her and Antonioni’s relationship on and off set, her approach to acting, and his to directing. There’s also a TV interview with Antonioni filmed at the time of the film’s theatrical run, in which he reiterates the stance he took with Godard. And he even smiles once or twice. What both interviews do is to reveal how personal the film was, on the parts of both Antonioni and his star. 50% narrative, 50% memory.
Also included, two early shorts by Antonioni. One of them, GENTE DEL PO, about barge workers on the Po River, is an evocative study of lower class laborers leading relentless, melancholy lives on the river. It feels not unlike Bunuel’s LAND WITHOUT BREAD, except that it lacks the layer of brutal satire that saturates Bunuel’s film.

And there’s a commentary accompanying the film, nicely and authoritatively researched by film scholar David Forgacs, shedding light, and color, on the entirety of the production. All these supplementals are further reasons to own this gorgeous BluRay.

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