Wednesday, August 01, 2007

An unfinished film

Via Jim Emerson, here’s the text of a letter written by an actor named Ronan O’Casey to Roger Ebert in 1999. O’Casey played the tiny role of the corpse in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and his letter is a nice insight into how the film as originally conceived was less cryptic and ambiguous than the eventual product.
…the scenes depicting the planning of the murder and its aftermath – scenes with Vanessa, Sarah Miles and Jeremy Glover, Vanessa's new young lover who plots with her to murder me – were never shot because the film went seriously over budget…Antonioni took the bits and pieces that had been shot and wove them together in a film since hailed for its "mystery" and "enigma." Of course it was mysterious; it was never finished!

…this letter is not meant to be a vintage whine by a dissatisfied actor – rather, a reflection on how difficult it is to be precise about the meaning of art and the intentions of the artist.
(Full piece here)

With reference to that bit about “the intentions of the artist”, D H Lawrence’s “Never trust the teller; trust the tale” really is an invaluable thumb rule for criticism. It’s always interesting to hear what an auteur-director might have to say about his film, of course – his precise intentions for each shot, the purpose behind each scene – but the critic/reviewer must take an artist’s stated intentions with a pinch of salt, and the work should be allowed to speak for itself. One of my favourite film books, Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, is built on this tenet.

From Antonioni’s own words, in an interview with Ebert in 1969:
Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all, in the way you use the word. I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; thing suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together, and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.
(Needless to say, fascinating though the above admission is, it doesn't have to be taken entirely at face value.)

P.S. One of those little coincidences: when I got the news of Antonioni's passing (through a friend's SMS), I was standing at a bookstore counter holding a copy of a biography of another great director – Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford. Have just started it.

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