Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Redder Than Ever and Less Deserted

Monica Vitti, l'adoro.

Last night I had the pleasure of screening BFI's new high-definition import disc of Michelangelo Antonioni's RED DESERT [Il deserto rosso, 1964] and came away with the unusual feeling that I had finally seen a beautiful woman captured in the Blu-ray format.

Of course, Monica Vitti isn't the first beautiful woman to be showcased in Blu-ray, but my own appreciation of beauty involves a woman's faults and flaws, her intensity, her fun, her mystery. Till now, I never came away from a Blu-ray experience with so many details of femininity left to savor. The freckles on her back. The fainter freckles on her cheekbones, sublimated by powder. The intoxicating auburn swell of her hair. The zipper down the back of her green dress. The wrinkling of her beige nylons. The way she gives herself to the camera, and what she withholds from the camera. The impish delight with which she bites into a quail egg when she's told it's an aphrodesiac. It's no wonder that Roger Corman once cited Monica Vitti as his favorite actress. Blu-ray brings us so close to her that we can feel all the warmth of this alleged Ice Princess of the northern Italian intelligentsia, and this startling access into her humanity brings us into deeper intimate contact with the anxieties she portrays. The film itself consequently becomes more powerful because the presentation excuses the iconography and lets us become involved with her as a flesh-and-blood being, alienated by a once-rural landscape that, with its foregrounded miniatures and electronic music, has creepily transformed into something like the alien spookscapes of Mario Bava's Terrore nello spazio.

I first saw RED DESERT (very much a science fiction film, I think) many years ago when it was released in a much inferior DVD presentation by Image Entertainment. I'd heard that the film marked an important advance in the use of color onscreen, but the Image disc did little to show why this was so. Consequently, I have long chalked the film up as my least favorite of the Big Antonionis. Today I feel quite differently. The BFI disc makes the film's innovative uses of color quite conspicuous, as it also does with what was gained from its use of heavy grain and shots lensed out of focus. Unfortunately, the richer presentation can do nothing to get the starch out of Richard Harris, whose dubbed performance isn't half the obstacle of the sheer two-dimensional look of him. Every time Harris appeared onscreen, I couldn't help thinking how much RED DESERT could have used the readier warmth and self-abandon of Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT compatriot Rod Taylor.

The movie's unusually understated climax did nothing to resolve my concerns for Vitti's Giulietta, whose expressed wish that everyone who ever loved her might form a wall around her is, I must confess, a yearning I have sometimes felt myself. For this reason, RED DESERT will probably now become one of those movies I revisit, less for cinematic reasons than because I found them inhabited by a kindred spirit -- like the calls I sometimes make on the spur of the moment to friends I've fallen out of touch with, to compare notes on how life has been treating us. Of course, Giuliana's fate will not change, but that's beside the point, because neither will mine.

RED DESERT is also available as a standard definition disc, also from BFI.

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