I spent two of yesterday’s most sweltering hours at New York City’s Film Forum, transported to the big black-and-white glamour of L’avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 travelogue. Many of my colleagues swoon over this film’s contribution to film grammar, its exploration of the myriad faces of love, and they’re right to do so. I sat amongst some of them yesterday and their faces looked uncharacteristically sweet, even innocent, as they watched, rapt, in that screening room. That innocence is part of why I gladly, worshipfully surrender to the Italian director’s films again and again, especially in summer. In his still and silent and perfectly framed worlds dwell the purest respite I know outside of actual nature.
For Antonioni’s films almost—almost—compensate for the terrible swamp that New York invariably becomes every summer. I know many who sing New York summers’ praises, and when I was young I was one of them. To people’s complaints that they missed nature in New York, I’d reply that in New York we humans were the nature. I still think that’s true. Bumping against each other with virtually no personal space, we prowl about, sniffing each other’s butts, brandishing our feathers and guarding our turf as fiercely as any beast in the wild. If our jungle happens to be concrete, what of it?
But every year I feel less charmed by the gorgeous mistakes we New Yorkers tend to make in our unbearably hot summers—by our flaring passions, our sticky bodies, our business exposed every which way. I long instead for the one thing that’s hard to order up in this crazy apple unless you’re on a billionaire’s budget: quiet. A silence, uninterrupted by anything except for the ripple of a pond, the warble of a bird, the rustle of wind snaking through trees. Maybe the ice clinking in your glass.
A reverent hush used to prevail in movie theaters no matter what was playing but now the volume of soundtrack-booming movies and moviehouse attendees can deafen you. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Nothing is more glorious than the denizens of Downtown Brooklyn dancing along to Step Up, and what would a crash-and-burner like Fast and Furious 6 be without the satisfying crunch of metal? But mostly the noisiness of a movie-going experience makes me feel like I’m in the middle of Times Square. Today.
L’avventura doesn’t, though. About a woman and man who fall in love while searching for his missing girlfriend, the movie is blessedly quiet, as if it doesn’t wish to miss any detail of its own sensuality. And nor should it. Antonioni’s characters are always animalistic—nearly mute in their raw expressions of envy, sorrow, fury, desire—and thereby even more purely human. With L’avventura as with all of his films, plot is to some degree besides the point and time moves glacially, if at all. What matters is staying as present as a cat, as a child, as a lover, as a beginning and as an ending. And that entails listening as well as looking.
There in Film Forum yesterday I succumbed happily and wholly to the roar of the ocean, to the shadows cast by lovers kissing against a sea wall, to the whisper of bedsheets against a woman’s skin, to the ecstasy of her legs, nude, as they kicked in the air, and to the click of her shoes upon the cobblestones of a city street. It all looked and sounded wonderfully cool and even more wonderfully lonely. Much like nature herself.
L’avventura can be seen in a lush 35mm restoration at Film Forum July 12-25. Go see it.
It all begins with a silent panoramic view of New York City and its bridges. And then, as the first bars of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” begin to thump, the camera zooms in on a 23-year-old John Travolta as Tony Manero strutting down a bustling working-class Brooklyn street. Decked out in an incongruous uniform of black leather jacket, open-collared crimson shirt, black flared trousers, and elevator shoes, he’s loose-limbed and square-shouldered, with a jive roll pimping out his step, a nod at every pretty girl who sashays by him and a bucket of paint bobbing at his side. And he’s moving so rhythmically to the music that it takes you a second before you realize the song isn’t actually playing on the street. It’s playing in his head and it’s what keeps him going. It’s how he sees himself: the king of the clubs, a player with a plan, rather than an aimless nobody hastening back to his job at the local hardware store. It’s how he keeps Saturday Night Fever in his everyday life. …
For more of my essay about why music, movies and New York are a ménage à trois made in heaven, check out my Red Bull Music Academy edification, dear Sirenaders.