Ras: Doppelgangers? Antonioni and Sebald

Michelangelo Antonioni

Lately I’ve taken to watching the movies of the great Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007). Perhaps best known in the USA for the English-language Blow-Up in 1966, Antonioni had a distinctive vision of what film should be. An Antonioni movie does have characters and plot of a sort, but he seems much more interested in the landscapes through which his characters move than their particular fate. And you could say that Antonioni’s long, slow takes fetishize the buildings his people inhabit in a quest to suggest ancient forces that modern humans have lost touch with.

So it was with a déjà vu-like sensation that I stumbled upon what looks like a profound connection between Antonioni and the German novelist W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) as I recently read Sebald’s novel Austerlitz for a fiction book club. Not to get too mystical here, I couldn’t help thinking of the concept of a doppelganger – which the dictionary defines as “a ghostly counterpart of a living person.” In traditional story telling there’s something sinister about a doppelganger. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet, is reported to have seen his doppelganger a few days before he drowned off the Italian coast in 1822, a typical doppelganger sighting.

I don’t think there’s anything unpleasant about the Antonioni-Sebald parallels, however. So far my research has not revealed any personal connection between Sebald and Antonioni. Neither, as far as I know, was influenced by the other. I’m not even sure they knew each other existed. Yet it seems plausible that two artists in different media living through the same historical experiences – namely, the rise of Fascism and World War II – may well develop affinities in their work.

W.G. Sebald

Sebald, who emigrated to England in 1970, is a master of the European High Lit Tradition, modern division. He often gets compared to writers like Borges, Calvino, Kafka, and Nabokov. At times, his long sentences, broken continually by qualifying phrases in commas, suggest late Henry James, and the seamless way one of his narrator’s thoughts flows into another calls to mind Proust.

There are many points of similarity between Antonioni and Sebald. First, both are obsessed with the power of place. Much of L’Avventura, Antonioni’s 1960 version of a thriller, is set on a small hunk of rock in the Mediterranean. We get to know this little island quite well, from hundreds of different camera angles, in the 45 or so minutes of screen time – a very long time indeed in a movie – that Antonioni lingers there.

The kind of signature shot he favors is the gorgeous face of his star, Monica Vitta, in close-up, set against an open sea with a volcano rising in the distance. If you’re a hetero male, your blood pressure will surge at the elemental forces this shot stirs in you.

Monica Vitti in L’Avventura

Sebald’s correlative is extended description of places so vivid that we often feel that we are looking at a painting. One set piece is the character named Austerlitz’s fondly remembered account of Andromeda Lodge, the home of a school chum in a distant valley in Wales reachable only after a long train ride. Here’s a vintage Sebald description excerpted from a much longer segment devoted to this place:

Adela used to fetch us from Barmouth station, usually in the little black-painted pony trap, and then it was half an hour before the gravel of the drive up to Andromeda Lodge was crunching under our wheels, the bay pony stopped, and we could get down and enter into our holiday refuge. The two-story house, built of pale gray brick, was protected to the north and northwest by the Llawr Llech hills, which fall steeply away at this point. To the southwest the terrain lay open in a wide semi-circle, so that from the forecourt of the house you had a view of the of the full length of the estuary from Dolgellau to Barmouth, while these places themselves were excluded from the panorama, which was almost devoid of human habitations, by a rocky outcrop on one side and a laurel-grown hill on the other. Only on the far side of the river could the little village of Arthog be seen – in certain atmospheric conditions, said Austerlitz, you might have thought it an eternity away – infinitesimally small, with the shadowy side of Cader Idris rising behind it to a height of almost three thousand feet above the shimmering sea.

Sebald does another odd thing for a word man – he inserts black-and-white photos into his text to serve as visual commentary on the buildings, landscapes, or rooms he’s so elaborately describing. There are no captions on these mysterious photos, some of which were apparently taken by Sebald himself and some of which are objects trouves.

A corollary to the obsession with place for both artists is their passion for architecture. In L’Avventura Antonioni has his two main characters pass through a sterile Fascist-built new town, wander through the abandoned village for 5 to 10 minutes, and then move on to an ancient Sicilian city where the monumental scale of the church and civic buildings blend to create a grandeur that is lost in modern life. Without the director ever spelling it out, we as viewers get a powerful sense of the way t
he built environment influences the emotions of the characters. Similarly, Sebald’s hero Austerlitz is obsessed with making drawings and notes on railway stations, fortifications, and judicial buildings. He’s working up a grand theory on the link between capitalism and the tendency to create massive, out-of-scale buildings.

Another affinity is the unconventional story-telling techniques both artists use. Typically, we read a novel with the page-turning urge to find out what will happen next ; the impulse as we watch a Hollywood movie is very similar. But if you come to an Antonioni movie or a Sebald novel with this expectation, you will be greatly disappointed.

Vociferous arguments broke out among the audience when L’Avventura debuted at the Cannes Film Festival 50 years ago, and the same thing happened a couple weeks back when my Italian film class watched the movie. “What a bunch of nothing,” snorted the guy beside me when the movie ended. “Italian soap opera,” he said emphatically, even as a few of us fired back..

Both Sebald and Antonioni have stories to tell, but for both artists it’s less about what will happen next than taking a long, slow, piercing look at the settings of modern life. In Sebald’s novel it is not till page 44 that the main character, Austerlitz, starts telling the novel’s narrator his life story, and even then his story proceeds in starts and stops, time shifts, and fragments.

Twenty minutes into L’Avventura the film’s female lead disappears from that little island, just drops out of sight. The focus shifts to other characters who begin a search to find her. But two hours later as the movie ends we still don’t know what happened to the missing protagonist. Could anything be further from Hollywood story telling? What Sebald and Antonioni gain though these oblique methods is believability. In a sense the choppy, meandering randomness of their stories mirrors the randomness of real life.

The Australian film scholar James Brown succinctly captures Antonioi’s skewed slant:

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are aesthetically complex – critically stimulating though elusive in meaning. They are ambiguous works that pose difficult questions and resist simple conclusions. Classical narrative causalities are dissolved in favour of expressive abstraction. Displaced dramatic action leads to the creation of a stasis occupied by vague feelings, moods and ideas.

In short, Antonioni’s characters – unlike those in a Hollywood movie – don’t know what they want, and alienated as they are, spend much of the movie groping for authenticity.

Time seems to slow down in an Antonioni film and in a Sebald novel. For Antonioni it’s the long, long, long takes, often two human figures moving through a vast landscape, well past the point a more ordinary director would have cut. Sebald favors long sentences, with no paragraph breaks in the whole novel. (I never realized the instinctive psychological relief the last sentence of a paragraph brings the reader until reading Sebald.) Both Antonioni and Sebald ask their audiences to suspend judgment, learn patience, and inhabit a different sense of time.

I fear I’ve not made the work of these two great artists sound appealing. Granted, many will find their art hard to like, but in my view it’s worth the effort. If you can give up your usual expectations of film and novel, you could be moved intellectually and emotionally in unexpected ways.

The closing scene of L’Avventura

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