A new man is being born, fraught with all the fears and terrors and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation. —Michelangelo Antonioni
Apocalypse? Revolution? Paradigm Shift? Are we the “new man” of Antonioni’s mid-20th century pronouncement? He was basically the same man as the old one but with out the church to tell him how to behave. In our time, the self-destructive impulse has become even more supercharged by technology. The studies of modern alienation on which Antonioni focused his lens in the 50’s and 60’s are generations deep in the cinema now, energized by global terrorism, industrial greed, and the abrupt crash of our eco-system.
The new man in the movies gestating this half-century later is, like Antonioni’s man, undergoing technological assimilation, but pressed to such extremes now that a character such as Neo in “The Matrix” must resist, with nearly superhuman effort, becoming hardwired into the battery compartment of the corporate machine.
In “Red Desert” Monica Vitti plays the archetype of the Madonna in labor. In The Book of Revelation, a beast is standing by to devour her offspring the instant it slips from her womb. In that story, the child is swept up to heaven and the woman escapes to the desert. In “Red Desert” there is no heaven. Her family is absorbed by the beast of progress and the Madonna is cast adrift in an industrial wasteland where every relationship succumbs to its toxins.
Though Antonioni said he believed progress was inexorable, he chose to depict someone who was not adjusting well to the new and improved. Why was she more interesting to him than those characters in the film that readily adapted? Is she the part of ourselves we are consigning to extinction? Monica Vitti’s character Giuliana hears sounds that the others in her crowd pay little or no attention to. “My eyes don’t know where to look,” she says. She is exquisitely sensitive and seems fragile as a moth. Does she represent our humanity? No. Can we say humanity is any less incarnate in our insatiable appetite for faster and more?
I wonder if it is the sacrifice of our senses that Antonioni laments. Discernible colors in “Red Desert” occur exclusively in the new industrialized world. Antonioni instructed his art department to paint buildings, trees, and even the ground to look dull and monochromatic.
When the primeval world becomes replaced by a man made one, our sense perceptions gradually mutate and attune to the artificial. Antonioni could be said to be aiming the camera over his shoulder with a sigh for what is lost, and then forward with a nod to the inevitable fire and our moth-like advance toward it.