Observing Michelangelo

Written by  Anna Maria Quarzi
Wim Wenders and Tonino Guerra talk of the cinema and their experience with Michelangelo Antonioni.
The director Michelangelo Antonioni, with the collaboration of his German colleague Wim Wenders and screenplay writer Tonino Guerra, has shot a film set in Ferrara called Al di là delle nuvole.
The presence in our city of such important personalities was an occasion that could hardly pass unobserved. For this reason, on the 20th of last March, the Faculty of Architecture hosted an informal encounter with Wim Wenders and Tonino Guerra, whose conversation was attentively followed by a numerous audience.

The themes under discussion, often proposed by the spectators seated in the grand hall of the Faculty, were many, although the central issue hinged upon the question "how TO make cinema today?". The presence en masse of architecture students also led the conversation around to "architectonic" themes regarding spaces, the city squares, and the city itself. In the extract that follows - an exclusive for readers of Ferrara. Voci di una città - we have chosen to preserve the vividly colloquial style that enlivened the debate during its most significant moments.

What is the relationship between Tonino Guerra, Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni?
Guerra - I have made 8 or 10 films with Michelangelo and, sure, I know him well. Even though in this precise moment he has problems, I must say that, through the expression in his eyes, I manage to understand very well what satisfies him and what he wishes to convey.

We have travelled a lot together and I want to tell you an anecdote, because I like the idea that you think of him the way he was when he was still a young director.
Some years ago we went to Uzbekistan in search of a town to use as a setting for a fable we had written together called "L'Aquilone" (The kite). We hired a little truck and we toured that extraordinary region; at a certain point we spotted three old Muslim sages walking along, dressed in traditional costume. They emanated an immense sense of nobility. Michelangelo said to me: «Let's offer them a lift».

We had an interpreter WITH us AND we asked them TO climb aboard, which they did. They didn't say much but they wore an expression, a gaze whose length was enormous, extraordinary, it was like sitting next to clouds. At a certain point they made a sign as if we should stop: we must have travelled roughly five or six kilometres.
We stopped in a town called Zurgul: a town with an extraordinary cemetery where the dead are tied to ladders - like the ones the country folk use here -, which are then stuck straight into holes. I think the ladders were to allow the bones to ascend towards paradise.

Before saying goodbye to the three old men, Michelangelo - who had a Polaroid camera with him - said «Let's take a photo». He showed them the camera AND the three stopped. Michelangelo took the snap, waited FOR the print TO emerge AND THEN offered it TO them. «It's a present». The oldest took it and had the interpreter tell us: «Why stop time?». Then they went off. We huddled up inside the truck, which was no longer a means of transport, but the coffin within which lay all our hopes.
Working with Michelangelo, who really has an eye for images, has always been a great adventure. Even today, despite his illness, he personally supervised the shooting of the episodes of the film Al di là delle nuvole by indicating where he wanted the camera to be set up. This man who - according to me - will be regarded as one of the great cinematographic geniuses of this century, has certainly brought great honour to this city.

Wenders - What the three old men in Uzbekistan said about "stopping TIME" is true. What we directors do is not about stopping time but opening up space, and I think that Michelangelo Antonioni has done this more than any other director. I have never worked as an assistant director in my life before. In this case I didn't do anything, but I watched Michelangelo at work.

Naturally I couldn't stop myself from thinking about what I would have done with this film, but I kept that to myself and did what Michelangelo told me, because my job was to see that he was able to express his own vision. And I have to say that it was a great privilege to see what he managed to do.
I had never seen anyone else using my own instruments. Many parts of the film were developed in a different way to that which I would have chosen, each shot was conceived differently. For the first time I was able to understand film as a construction made of time and space. It was an extraordinary experience, which gave me some emotions I had never felt before. It was a very important moment in my life.

I would like to ask Wenders, who is working with Antonioni in Ferrara, if he has found in this city those empty spaces he looks for in the cities he visits, the cities he works in.
Wenders - Ferrara strikes me as a very photogenic city; what impresses you most of all are the dimensions and the forms of the streets and the houses; you get the urge to take photos and to start thinking about the shots for a film. But being photogenic is not necessarily a quality: in order to stimulate and tell a story you also need other things and this - since I have been working in the cinema - has always been a mystery.
The fact is that there are places that inspire a story and others that don't. I recall the first time I came to Ferrara, about two years ago. I got the impression that this city had stories to tell, that there were houses and spaces that said «we have qualities and you can tell people about them». That was when, by means of gestures, Michelangelo told me that if I came to Ferrara I would understand about spaces. And he was right.

I would like to ask Wenders about the relation between space and the city.
Wenders - Every image has two dimensions, film is made of two-dimensional images. Between one image and the next, between one field of image and another there is something that adds a dimensional element; but by moving the camera a bit, even if only a little, a few feet - you create a new space. I'd like to be able to give the people who see my films the impression that they are constructing space, playing a part in this process by constructing their own spaces.
In a film, the only reason why there are big close-ups, close-ups, medium shots and so on all the way down to distant panoramas, is to tell a story. Therefore it is the story that constructs the space and creates the third dimension.

Observing Michelangelo, I realized again - even though I know his films - just what a master of space he really is. He subjected every shot to an absolute chronology, that is to say he constructed the film according to a rigid time scale: each shot was immediately followed by the shot that constituted the next element in the story. The subject was recounted in the story by means of a linear progression through the times and the places that underpinned the story itself.
I think that, all things considered, this is what telling a story is all about: crossing terrain, moving through a space.
I'd like to ask Wenders what he thinks the difference is between the European and the American cinema, and if he too maintains that it is the "SPACE" between the spectator and the image that makes the difference between the two schools.
Wenders - I think that there is a steadily growing difference between the European and the American cinema and that that difference hinges upon the idea of the journey.
It is a striking fact that American cinema is a world traveller; in any country of the world you can see the images of the American cinema. But the producers of this travelling show are a people who do not travel much at all: only 8 percent of American citizens possess a passport. Their images travel, not them: it's an enormous contradiction.

The European cinema offers excellent quality, but this is disappearing: the spectator of a European film is guaranteed a journey to the heart of the film, freedom to move within the story that the film has to tell, but Tonino Guerra is better qualified to discuss this aspect.
You can often communicate more with silence than with words, because is it possible to travel only in that white space between the lines. European cinema has this characteristic; it's a cinema that makes it possible to cross the image, to move across an image or from one image to another, as if we were in that white space between two lines. American cinema doesn't leave any spaces between one image and another any more; its images are all locked tight, seized up.

Guerra - In order to explain Wenders's point of view in my own way, I can attempt a comparison. Imagine Japanese writing for a second, you see large white spaces between one ideogram and the next. The European cinema, like Japanese writing, attaches great importance to the "white SPACE". The Americans want everything, while Europeans are always aware of the function of the spectator, they want his contribution.
A work of art is always incomplete: if it is a book, it needs a reader; if it is a film it needs a spectator. The European cinema, for example, often permits the spectator to work with the director; this is not allowed in American cinema: the director doesn't want to let you play, he wants to supply you with a soothing finished product that provides a standard dose of enjoyment, in which there is no artistic rapport, no cooperation between the director and the spectator.

I remember that Bart - given that we're in Ferrara - wrote a fantastic article on Antonioni in which he maintained that the spaces in Antonioni's films are more important than the stories themselves; the empty areas, the movements, tell more than the tale itself; the general picture is created by these empty areas. For this reason, when they leave the cinema, the spectators feel they have made their own contribution. Usually, when you leave the cinema after watching an American film, that's that; in the European cinema instead you always carry something away with you, because you feel that you have contributed, thought, had ideas.

I can add something more regarding the relationship between director and spectator. I have known many directors - including Federico Fellini, for example - who were profoundly interested in the opinions of the spectators as they left the cinemas where their films were showing; and this was not out of a need to hear people say "good" or "bad" but because they valued the suggestions and contributions that people could make.

Going to the cinema to have fun or to relax, to say «I've picked something up, I've filled my memory, something has been given to me» is a horrible way to go to the cinema.
On the other hand, for a spectator it's great to go home thinking he's "made the film" and not just "seen the film". That's how the cinema ought to be. But this also means that "good" films bore many people, because art is beautiful and good but also difficult and "boring". And this is as true for films as it is for the Divine Comedy. So watch out: being a spectator is a difficult art, as is that of the director.