Bright Lights Film Journal

Welcome to the Modern World: Program Notes for a Michelangelo Antonioni- Jack Arnold Film Festival

“As much as the landscape is a character in It Came From Outer Space, it dominates Antonioni’s L’Avventura . . .”

The surprising affinities between the careers of Italian “art film” director Michelangelo Antonioni and American genre film director Jack Arnold are not difficult to explain. Both were born in the same decade (Antonioni 1912, Arnold 1916).1 Both began their film careers making socially conscious documentaries. Antonioni’s first film, Gente del Po (1943), is a study of people living near the Po River. Arnold’s feature-length documentary With These Hands(1950), produced by the International Ladies Garment Workers, compares working conditions of the 1910s with the 1950s, and was nominated for an Academy Award.2 Most significantly, both men hit their filmmaking stride in the post-World War II era, the time of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the atom bomb.

Both filmmakers are fundamentally modern. More than most of their colleagues, their films acutely mirror the times they were made in, whether reflecting and commenting on UFO hysteria (Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space, 1953), teenage drug use (Arnold’s High School Confidential, 1958), the mores of swinging London (Antonioni’s Blowup, 1966), or the radicalization of American youth (Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, 1970). Even Arnold’s eight science fiction films are emphatically set in the present.

The predominant theme of both directors is alienation. You can see Arnold’s and Antonioni’s worlds intersecting and overlapping in Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), which is one-half Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man (protagonist exposed to toxic world becomes more and more isolated from family and society) and one-half Antonioni’s Red Desert (same thing!). Toxicity is represented in Shrinking Man by a cloud of glittering radioactive mist; in Red Desert by clouds of yellow smoke issuing from factory smokestacks.

However, the affinities between the two directors are not merely thematic. If there is any image that defines both directors visually, it is that of the bleak landscape — the desert, wilderness, or modernized suburb where humanity feels alien. In connection with their man-dominated-by-environment mise-en-scène, both directors favor long takes, and the achievement of effects through the movement of actors in relation to the frame.3 Here, we may also note the primary difference between them. Antonioni was a self-conscious artiste, his compositions and narrative techniques frequently calling attention to themselves.4Arnold, while carefully storyboarding all of his films, strove for an “invisible” style. Yet there are images in Arnold’s films as memorably poetic as any in Antonioni’s.

Perhaps the best way to chart the Antonioni-Arnold connection is to imagine a film festival where their films are paired on the basis of visual and thematic similarities:

It Came From Outer Space (1953)/L’Avventura (1960) — You Can’t Trust the Landscape

In Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space, the barren deserts of the American Southwest become a haven — more than that, a metaphor — for threatening alien forces. Arnold’s film is one of the three original American movies that defined the alien invasion genre, the other two being Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (both 1951). However, unlike Hawks’ film, where the aliens are here to destroy us, or Wise’s film, where they are here to save us, the aliens in Arnold’s film are neither malicious nor benevolent. They come here as the result of an accident — their spaceship crashes — and their goal is to repair their hivelike ship and leave this planet as soon as possible. They are a threat to humans only insofar as they will not hesitate to remove any human obstacle that stands in their way. Otherwise, they are coldly indifferent to us. Just like Arnold’s landscapes.

Arnold’s visual style, like Antonioni’s, is attuned to landscapes and environments. The “monsters” in Arnold’s films are linked to and emerge from the environment. Notwithstanding their extraterrestrial origin, the cyclopean aliens of It Came from Outer Space are first seen coming out of a deep pit. The gill-man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon materializes from the depths of a hidden lagoon. The giant spider Tarantula seems to emerge from the desert itself. They are all, in Shakespearean terms, “bubbles of earth.”

Arnold’s landscapes not only produce monsters; they swallow or obliterate human beings. In It Came From Outer Space, a number of the nearby small town’s inhabitants, including the hero’s girlfriend (Barbara Rush), are swallowed and then replaced by alien dopplegangers.

As much as the landscape is a character in It Came From Outer Space, it dominates Antonioni’s L’Avventura — particularly in those sequences involving the island, a landscape as cold and indifferent to the human characters as Arnold’s deserts. And as in Arnold’s film, a character (Lea Massari) is apparently “swallowed” by the landscape. After Massari’s never-explained disappearance, she too is replaced (in the eyes of her boyfriend) by a quasi-double, the character played by Monica Vitti.

Deserts and dopplegangers recur in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), in which an American journalist (Jack Nicholson) meets his English double somewhere in the North African desert, and decides to take his place.

It Came From Outer Space was the first of four films Arnold directed in the Polaroid 3-D process.5 It made Arnold more conscious, and consequently more skillful, than the usual director with regard to composition in space, a skill that persisted after he returned to making “flat” films. Among the most striking 3-D effects in It Came From Outer Space are the tracking shots of the desert from the alien point of view (surely a cinema first) created by shooting through a quivering gelatinous mass meant to simulate the lens of an alien eye. It’s as if the landscape itself were watching.

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)/L’Eclisse (1962) — Obliterated by the Modern World

The Incredible Shrinking Man is Arnold’s masterpiece. Handed the metaphoric richness of Richard Matheson’s screenplay by producer Albert Zugsmith, Arnold ran with it, creating his most enduring contribution to American genre filmmaking. Never has the blandness of a ‘50s suburban environment appeared more sterile and threatening. Never — not even in the films of Antonioni — has the gulf between a man and a woman appeared more insurmountable.

The plot — exposure to atomic radiation, insecticide, and other pollutants causes Mr. Normal Guy, Scott Carey (an excellent Grant Williams), to begin shrinking at the rate of approximately 1/4 inch a day. Medicine can do nothing for him. He gradually loses everything — his job, his wife, his sense of self. (The shots of a 3-foot tall Scott Carey sitting in a living room across from his normal-sized wife and brother are particularly harrowing, and communicate alienation as effectively as anything in Antonioni.) He is reduced to living in a dollhouse — until rousted from that domain by the family cat. Abandoned by his family — who believe he was eaten by the cat — and growing ever smaller, he lives on in the basement of the house, now from his perspective a vast hostile wilderness, “a gray friendless area of space and time,” where common objects like a pencil, scissors, and a ball of twine — not to mention a hideous spider — loom large.

Arnold’s visual strategy to make us identify viscerally with Carey’s shrinking is to make the space around Carey grow larger and larger, and to punctuate the emptinesses of giant-sized living room and giant-sized basement with hyperrealistic giant-sized props. Eventually, Carey shrinks to nothing and — surprise! — he still exists. He has dissolved/merged into the environment.

L’Eclisse

Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (“The Eclipse”) begins with Vittoria (Monica Vitti) feeling unexplainedly disassociated from her boyfriend. By the end of the film, she will be disassociated from everything. The villain, as in Shrinking Man, is the Modern World. What we see of that world is sterile, alien, antagonistic to human life. Vittoria finds brief respite with another man, a stockbroker played by Alain Delon. (Just as in Shrinking Man, a three-foot-tall Scott Carey finds temporary respite with a three-foot-tall woman, a lovely circus midget.) Vittoria and her lover arrange to meet at an intersection, but neither keeps the appointment. This leads into the film’s most remarkable sequence, a seven-minute montage of all the places — now virtually empty — that Vittoria and the stockbroker visited together. The urban landscape still exists, but it has obliterated the main human characters.

Both of these landscape-oriented directors dwell on images of emptiness and isolation. In Arnold’s The Mouse That Roared (1959) — a black comedy about the atom bomb starring Peter Sellers in three roles6 — the most characteristically “Arnold moment” occurs when Sellers and his army of a dozen or so medieval archers arrive in New York City to find its streets completely deserted.

The Space Children (1958)/Red Desert (1964) — Is There Hope for the Next Generation?

In the early ‘50s, the McCarthy era, whatever social commentary Arnold wanted to make had to be buried in subtext.7 By the late ‘50s, he was able to express his political ideas more openly. Thus, in 1957, he made Man in the Shadow, a contemporary Western dealing with racism — specifically, racism against Mexicans — and fascism as embodied by a modern cattle baron played by Orson Welles.8Man in the Shadow reiterates several motifs familiar to us from Arnold’s SF films — the house or mansion isolated in the desert, the nearby small town, the sheriff as hero or co-hero. Arnold then made two films that directly addressed the issue of nuclear disarmament: The Mouse That Roared, a comedy, as noted above; and 1958’s The Space Children, which falls somewhere between SF and allegory.

In The Space Children, most of the action takes place by the seacoast (evoking the weather-worn rocks and crashing surf of L’Avventura). A group of children — all sons and daughters of scientists working at a top-secret missile base — find themselves in telepathic contact with a giant alien brain that lives in a cave. Linking minds with the alien brain — and with each other — the children are able to telekinetically sabotage their parents’ self-destructive quest to create an ultimate weapon.9

Antonioni’s Red Desert is the closest the Italian director ever came to making a science fiction film, the impersonal futuristic nature of its strangely beautiful industrial environment emphasized by the film’s electronic score. We have already noted parallels between Red Desert and Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man. Both films chronicle a character’s growing isolation from the Modern World. Both communicate the characters’ alienation in purely visual terms — Arnold through his oversized sets and props, Antonioni by framing Red Desert‘s Guiliana (Vitti, again) in sharp focus while the foregrounds and backgrounds are softened and blurred. However, I pair Red Desert with Arnold’s Space Children due to the role of children in both films, embodying a tentative hope for the future.

In both The Space Children and Red Desert, the adults are driven by narcissistic urges, self-defeating, and corrupt. Red Desert‘s Guiliana is a basket case, a canary barely able to survive in the coal mine of modernity. Guiliana’s little son, on the other hand, seems to be adapting to modern life. A mechanical toy robot, which Guiliana finds threatening, guards the little boy while he sleeps, its eyes glowing in the dark. At the end of the film, the little boy takes Guiliana by the hand and leads her through the industrial wasteland. The sentiment is echoed at the conclusion of The Space Children When a biblical quotation appears, “Yea, I say unto you, except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.

A Consummation Devoutly to Be Wished

There are further affinities between the two filmmakers. Arnold’s creature films, The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Revenge of the Creature, and Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957) — starring the Neanderthal-browed Steve Cochran — are about the inability of a “primitive” to survive in the contemporary world. This is most evident in Revenge of the Creature, where Arnold’s creature is transplanted from his jungle lagoon to a big-city aquarium. The most memorable scenes in Revenge show the creature — with whom we identify — on one side of the aquarium glass pining impotently for the lady scientist (Lori Nelson) on the other. This evokes countless scenes in Antonioni where characters are visually separated by barriers of stone, steel, concrete, or glass.10

The inverse of Antonioni/Arnold’s alienation from landscape and environment is the longing to become one with it. Scott Carey becomes one with his environment at the conclusion of Arnold’s Incredible Shrinking Man. Compare the ending of Shrinking Man to the 6½-minute tour-de-force moving camera shot that concludes Antonioni’s The Passenger. Jack Nicholson’s character has been pursued from Africa to Spain and, like the fatalistic main character of Hemingway’s The Killers, rests on a mattress in a cheap hotel room awaiting death. As he lies there, Antonioni’s camera moves with inexorable slowness toward the window of the room, past Nicholson’s body, framing and reframing what we see outside the room through the window’s wrought-iron bars. At more or less the moment Nicholson is executed (out of frame), the camera glides through the iron bars of the window into the brightly lit outside world. Just as at the conclusion of Incredible Shrinking Man, Scott Carey glides through the wire mesh of the window that formerly kept him prisoner in his own basement, through to his backyard, the outside world, and the stars. Two remarkably similar transcendent moments from directors better known for their existential bleakness.

The most celebrated sequence in Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon shows the girl (Julie Adams) swimming on the lagoon’s surface while, unknown to her, the primordial creature swims beneath, mirroring her every move. It is a dream ballet, the unconsciously desired mating dance of a human and the natural world.

Similarly, in Antonion’s Red Desert, Guiliana tells her son a bedtime story (that we see illustrated on-screen) about a young girl swimming off the coast of a beautiful island — with rocks like “flesh.” In her mind (as in the minds of The Space Children), the girl hears something calling or singing to her. “What was singing to her?” asks the little boy. Guiliana replies, “Everything!”

It was inevitable, given their similar temperaments, that when Antonioni decided to make a film in the United States he would head for Arnold country, the American Southwest. Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, like more than one Arnold film, takes us to an isolated house in the middle of a desert. However, when the house is annihilated, it is not by a giant spider (as in Arnold’s Tarantula), but by the thought power of a girl (Daria Halprin) who imagines it blowing up in her mind. Earlier in Zabriskie Point, as the same girl makes love to her hitchhiker boyfriend, she imagines the desert around her erupting with dozens of lovemaking couples who dissolve back into the landscape after the lovemaking is done (above). “Bubbles of earth” indeed.

The similarities between Antonioni and Arnold are not superficial but fundamental. Both are chroniclers of ancient landscapes and new worlds, primarily visual artists who express their ideas through images, compelling us to see the world around us through altered eyes.

  1. Antonioni was born on September 29th, Arnold on October 14th — which makes them both Libras, if you take stock in that sort of thing. []
  2. As for their political sympathies, Arnold seems to have been a garden-variety liberal Democrat, while Antonioni was an unabashed Marxist. []
  3. Arnold’s staging abilities came from a background in New York theater. In connection with a 2006 screening of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1953) at the 2nd World 3-D Expo, Julie Adams, who starred in the film, praised Arnold for his rapport with actors and for his expertise at staging scenes where most of the action took place on a tiny boat. []
  4. I’m not criticizing Antonioni’s self-conscious framing. It’s what he does best. There isn’t a better eye in cinema. []
  5. The other three are The Creature from the Black Lagoon (‘54), and its sequel Revenge of the Creature (‘55), and Arnold’s underrated noir set in the world of live television, The Glass Web (‘53). All four films are likely to be underappreciated if one doesn’t see them in Polaroid 3-D as intended, It Came from Outer Space in particular. []
  6. Where do you think Kubrick got the idea for Dr. Strangelove? []
  7. The hysterical reaction of the townspeople to the alien presence in It Came From Outer Space Can be read as a veiled critique of McCarthyism. []
  8. Man in the Shadow was produced by Albert Zugsmith. It led directly to Zugsmith’s and Welles’ collaboration on the legendary Touch of Evil at the same studio, developing the same themes further. []
  9. Arnold’s film is an obvious precursor to England’s “damned” children cycle — Joseph Losey’s The Damned, Wolf Rilla’s Village of the Damned, and Anton Leader’s Children of the Damned. []
  10. Want yet another double bill? Try Arnold’s High School Confidential and Antonioni’s Blow up. The elements in common? Boy detective-type protagonists, eroticism, drugs, rock ‘n roll. []