Right Movie, Wrong Time

A misfire with Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert

A bleak industrial landscape, with a dreary road and smokestacks

A couple nights ago, I wanted something to watch. The day’s client work was over, and I had filed one freelance piece, with a few others in appropriate phases of development. There’s a short story I’ve been trying to tie up, and I hit pause on that. I wanted someone else’s story — preferably at the atmospheric end of the narrative spectrum — in my head and in the living room. 

I’ve been slowly re-reading Fahrenheit 451 lately (in between three others books, already one more than my usual for fiction: Anya Ow’s admirably unadorned Ion Curtain, Hiron Ennes’ deep purple Leech, and Sayaka Murata’s casually unsettling Life Ceremony — all published in 2022). Ray Bradbury’s classic, which turns 70 this year, has made me quite self-conscious about the intersection of personal technology and media — both about the insulating capacity of audiobooks (Bradbury calls in-ear devices “Seashells,” and I now wonder if they informed the name of the “Starfish” at the end of Jenifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad), and about how filmed entertainment appearing on large screens in one’s home can become a matter of domestic decoration and artificial environment. 

All that in mind, I selected Red Desert (1964) by Michelangelo Antonioni, whom I know mostly from Blow-up, which was Antonioni’s subsequent film, released two years after Red Desert. His Blow-up is of particular interest because it inspired Blow-out (1981)Brian De Palma’s homage, which swapped the original’s emphasis on photography for audio recording, and thus is up there with The Conversation as a key entry in the Sound Studies Film Festival. Red Desert is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.

A woman and child approach a tiny white car on which are two megaphones. A man is exiting the car.

The opening is all bleak industrial landscape (totally my jam), but it’s also so rich with field recordings of the zone that I couldn’t really lose myself in it; I was consumed, instead, by the quietly insistent background noise. Then the credits, set to a female vocal that seemed to emulate the wavering tonality of the Theremin, announced the work of not one but two composers (Giovanni Fusco as well as, for “musica elettronica,” Vittorio Gelmetti). And then a tiny car pulled up, weighed down by two comically oversized megaphones, and I had to acknowledge that this movie was not going to be the engrossing evening distraction that I’d hoped for. It felt more like a research magnet, a sonic rabbit hole. Homework. I’ll watch it again some other time in the appropriate mood. Then I’ll report back.

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