“Eating, 3rd Edition” - Mike Anderson (2009)

Eating, a documentary film written, produced, and narrated by Mike Anderson and shown on PBS (US Public Broadcasting Service), has a blunt and straightforward thesis: America’s principal health problem is the eating habits of its people. Our eating is killing us. In fact the film cites a US Surgeon General’s assertion that every year “eating kills 2 of 3 Americans”. Why? Because Americans (and those of other wealthy Western societies) are stuffing themselves with animal protein and cholesterol, instead of eating properly: a plant-based diet devoid of any animal products.

The basic thesis of the film is centered around the fact that, despite improvements in wealth and medical care over the past half century, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of meat during this period, which has had very negative consequences on overall health. The cause for this negative health impact is based on the following argument:
  • Animal-based foods supply high levels of cholesterol to the diet – much more than is required for human consumption.
  • The high cholesterol leads to the thickening of artery walls (atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries”).
  • Hardening of the arteries impedes blood circulation throughout the body, thereby diminishing the body’s ability to respond to and repair degenerative and/or invasive tissue problems, such as cancer cells, bacterial and viral infections, or general cell damage.
Thus the #1 agent for good health, which is the body’s own ability to repair itself, has been damaged. If one follows a strictly plant-based diet (and by this I mean not only vegetarian, but a diet without dairy products or anything derived from animals, i.e. a vegan diet), so the argument goes, then the body’s self-repair mechanism will be unimpaired, and many serious health problems can be avoided.

The film’s primary thesis concerning the advantages of plant-based diets echoes the work of T. Colin Campbell, a nutritionist professor from Cornell University who documented his work in the The China Study. Dr. Campbell and his team were given access to detailed, longitudinal nutrition information from a large region of China and concluded that people who consumed less animal protein had reduced incidences of a broad ranges of illnesses and health conditions. The study was said by Jane Brody, nutrition editor of the New York Times, to be “the most comprehensive large study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.” A summary of some of the findings of “The China Study” can be found here.

Eating provides direct testimony from several people who, having been stricken with serious heart ailments and cancer, chose to ignore the conventional therapeutic programs recommended by their doctors and instead switched to strict plant-based diets. In each case, the plant-based diets let to dramatic reductions in the patients’ serum cholesterol. The results, for these people at least, were remission and reversal of their life-threatening conditions.

After outlining the case against cholesterol ingestion due to an animal-based diet, Anderson moves on to consider why meat, milk, and dairy products are so heavily promoted and subsidized in the US. It comes down to the political influence of powerful lobbies run by meat/dairy industry. They have brainwashed the American public into believing that all children should have three glasses of milk a day, which, as both Anderson and T. Colin Campbell point out, is actually harmful to childrens’ health.

Then the film briefly considers the deleterious effect of animal-based foods on global warming and the environment in general. After rapidly covering information about the dramatic impact that the animal-based-food industry has on the environment, Anderson concludes that the single most effective thing you can do to reduce global warming is to change your diet.

In terms of documentary exposition, Anderson’s narrative style in Eating is deceptively simple, but I found it highly effective and worthy of general consideration by teachers and college lecturers for articulating any argument. Unlike many documentary narrators, Anderson makes no effort to entertain or communicate in a casual, ingratiating style – instead his measured, simple, and deliberate disposition is straight to the point and relentless in the pursuit of his overall thesis. The visuals include frequent superimposed large-text titles that provide summary statements and emphatic redundancy, thereby reinforcing the main message. The cumulative effect of all the information he presents is overwhelming. A DVD of Eating can be obtained from Anderson’s Web site, "Rave Diet & Lifestyle" (http://ravediet.com), as well as from Amazon.com, for US$ 9.95. The only quibble I have is that the many factual assertions made in the film, such as
  • “85% of adults suffer from hardening of the arteries; half will die prematurely due to heart disease”, and
  • “. . .it has been estimated that excess cholesterol has contributed to more deaths than all the wars of the 20th century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents, combined!”,
need to be properly sourced. Of course there’s no place in the film for reference citations, but it would be good for the ravediet.com Web site to have a reference page that lists the sources for all the factual assertions made in the film.

From my own perspective there are four principal domains with respect to which following a vegan or vegetarian diet makes a crucial contribution:
  1. Environment. Animal farming consumes many times more hectares of land than plant-based agriculture to produce an equivalent amount of food calories for human consumption. In addition, animal farming wastes valuable fresh water resources. We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production, particularly methane, which has more than twenty times the impact on global warming than does CO2.
  2. Ethics. Every year there are roughly 50 billion animals slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
  3. Health. As outlined in this film and in The China Study, a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food is very harmful to human health.
  4. Soul. Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be.
Each of the four domains above supplies a compelling reason on its own for one's being a vegan/vegetarian, but in this film, the emphasis is primarily on health, the 3rd domain listed. Although supplementary material covering environmental effects (1st domain) and animal mistreatment (ethics, 2nd domain) was apparently added for the present edition, the main impact of the film and comes from the principal cholesterol-based thesis associated with the health-oriented material, much of which was compiled for the original 2002 edition. That emphasis on the health side of things is fine; more than 70% of vegetarians initially choose that diet just for health reasons, but they later expand their thinking to encompass some of the other reasons. Thus the move to a vegetarian lifestyle has helped them become more compassionate and responsible souls.

Everyone should see this film and think these things over.

Phenomenology and “Red Desert”

Film critic Stanley Kauffman relates the following conversation that took place over dinner with Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti during his visit to Rome in 1964, prior to the release of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964):
“After an hour or so of chat as animated as my Italian will permit, I ask, ‘Well, what about Red Desert? Antonioni smiles broadly, makes a sweeping gesture, and announces with the self-satire of the confident, ‘Un film stupendo!’” [1]
This was another instance of Antonioni’s spare but remarkably revealing comments concerning his own work, for critical reaction in this country has generally been one of stupefaction. There can be no doubt that behind the film is a great degree of cinematic control and seriousness of purpose, but there appears to be confusion as to what Antonioni is actually getting at. His three previous films had been thin in terms of the narrative content but rich in terms of the depth of the interpersonal relationships. Red Desert on the other hand, lacks even the substance of human relationships. John Simon was thus moved to write that
“the color is so eloquent and thought-provoking that it emphasizes the vacuousness of what it envelops: plot, character, dialogue.” [2]
Similarly Dwight MacDonald observed that
“the thinness of the subject matter . . . contrasts with the brilliance with which it is expressed to the eye. . . And the farther he goes in that direction [towards abstraction] without giving up the conventional kind of plot, as in his last two films, the more obtrusive is the discrepancy between the feebleness of what he has to say and the cinematic power with which he says it.” [3]
When one embarks upon the expedition of exegesis, all sorts of objections are immediately raised – particularly in connection with a visual artist like Antonioni. One is warned that the work of art is just there – take it or leave it. The feeling is that the expository analysis is ultimately reductionist and that to intellectualize a work of art is to rob it of its aesthetic mode of communication. To this feeling I am sympathetic, inasmuch as I agree that Antonioni’s film is not overtly symbolic; it does not stand for something else. Yet for one to integrate one’s experience of viewing Red Desert with his other experiences, a certain amount of analysis and systematization is necessary. Therefore my comments concerning Red Desert are to be directed not so much in terms of an explanation (or, at least, in the commonly understood sense of that word) but more in terms of an aid to relating the experience of watching Red Desert to other modes of experience.

There have been typically two ways of interpreting Red Desert. The first, and one that was seized upon by those with a generally Marxist critical disposition, was to view the film as an attack on modern society and as a condemnation of the ravages wreaked upon man by modern technology. This critical approach was refuted by Antonioni just after the film's release when he was interviewed by Jean Luc Godard:
“It simplifies things too much (as many have done) to say that I accuse this inhuman, industrialized world in which the individual is crushed and led to neurosis. My intention, on the contrary, . . . was to translate the beauty of this world, in which even the factories can be beautiful.” [4]
The second manner in which this film has been considered is as a psychological case study of a neurotic girl. While this is ostensibly true, it is not particularly fruitful to think of the film in terms of psychology as it is conventionally practiced. Neither of these approaches is without some validity, but they fail to recognize the extent to which Red Desert probes the fundamental nature of experience. I suggest, instead, that Red Desert be looked upon as a cinematic exploration of the phenomenology of perception. In particular, certain ideas of Soren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Martin Heidegger can be perceived within the cinematic structure of Antonioni’s film, and these ideas lie outside the realm of traditional film-critical categories.

The breakthrough associated with Kierkegaard was the understanding of the opposition between what is called “essence” and “existence”. That is, a thing’s essence is that which determines it and distinguishes it from others; existence is that which distinguishes the thing from nothing. Existence is that which brings the thing to realization; essences are interrelations, a thing’s essence relates it to other things. In this way a system of essences can be contemplated by the mind entirely separate from existence – an abstract, universal, timeless systems of inactive essences. Modern philosophy from Descartes onward has had a strong bias towards essentialism, and this was culminated in the Hegelian system. It was Kierkegaard who recognized that philosophy concentrated exclusively on essentialism was incapable of accounting for individuation, contingency, time, and will –
“What confuses the whole doctrine about being in logic is that people do not notice that they are always operating with the ‘concept’ existence. But the concept existence is an ideality and the difficulty is, of course, whether existence can be reduced to a concept. . .

But Existence corresponds to the individual things, the individual, which even Aristotle teaches lies outside or least cannot be reduced to a concept. . . an individual man has not, after all, a conceptual existence.” [5]
Thus it was that by considering the concrete nature of existence, which he felt Hegelianism overlooked, Kierkegaard introduced the related idea of nothingness. This attack on Hegelianism was and is of considerable consequence simply because most of the established thought patterns of the present age are founded upon Hegel’s thought. In particular all the social sciences are rooted in Hegelian essentialism, and this is especially significant for an existential critic of essentialism like Kierkegaard, who would charge that it is precisely in the social sphere that the scientific method of essentialism is inadequate. In other words the scientific method applied to objects in the world may have its uses, but it does not render an accurate accounting of our experiences of objects nor of our experience of each other – each of which can only be adequately dealt with by a philosophy that considers existence as well as essence. The breakdown of classical philosophy has, say the existential critics, brought about a mass neurosis, causing people to be regarded as dehumanized conceptual quantities and leaving the individual with a feeling of homelessness and boredom. It is this malaise that Antonioni has dealt with in Red Desert, and the psychotic condition of Giuliana is an externalization of that which is implicitly present in a great number of troubled souls.
It is now evident why the above-mentioned conventional critical approaches to Red Desert are inadequate. A Marxist attack on modern capitalistic technology is founded on Hegelian principles and thus is still essentialist. Similarly a psychological case study is a social scientific treatment that also remains within the confines of pure essentialism. Antonioni’s film, however, is existentialist, and thus of a different nature altogether. [6]

Now to express the idea of existence opposed to essence verbally is difficult, since it is the nature of language to deal with essences. For example the word “tree” does not do justice to this tree, and, in fact, no matter how detailed I become in my description of this tree I can never adequately convey the this-ness, as it were, of the tree. Nevertheless post-Kierkegaardians, like Sartre and Heidegger, have invested great effort to express their philosophies, which involve important ontological distinctions, in terms of written language [7]. Consider the following passages from Sartre’s novel, Nausea:
I lean my hand on the seat, but pull it back hurriedly: it exists. This thing I’m sitting on, leaning my hand on, is called a seat. They made it purposely for people to sit on, they took leather, springs, and cloth, and they went to work with the idea of making a seat, and when they finished, that was what they had made. The had carried it here, into this car, and the car is now rolling and jolting with its rattling windows, carrying this red thing in its bosom. I murmur: “It’s a seat,” a little like an exorcism. But the word stays on my lips: it refuses to go and put itself on the thing. It stays what it is, with its red plush, thousands of little red paws in the air, all still, little dead paws. This enormous belly turned upward, bleeding, inflated – bloated with all its dead paws, this belly floating in this car, in this grey sky, is not a seat. It could just as well be a dead donkey tossed about in the great grey river, a river of floods; and I could be sitting on the donkey’s belly, my feet dangling in the clear water. Things are divorced from their names. They are there, grotesque, headstrong, gigantic, and it seems ridiculous to call them seats or say anything at all about them: I am in the midst of things, nameless things. Alone, without words, defenseless, they surround me, are beneath me, behind me, above me. . . . .

[later] I’m in the park. I drop into a bench between great black tree-trunks, between the black, knotty hands reaching towards the sky. A tree scrapes at the earth under my feet with a black nail. I would so like to let myself go, forget myself, sleep. But I can’t, I’m suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth . . .
And suddenly, suddenly, the veil is torn away, I have understood, I have seen.
. . .
So I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, lone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me. Then I had this vision.
It left me breathless. Never, until these last few days, had I understood the meaning of “existence.” . . when I believed I was thinking about it, I must believe that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word, “to be”. Or else I was thinking . . . how can I explain it? I was thinking of belonging, I was telling myself that the sea belongs to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. . . . And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder – naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.
I kept myself from making the slightest movement, but I didn’t need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-posts of the bankstand and the Velleda in the midst of a mountain of laurel. All these objects . . . How can I explain? They inconvenience me: I would have liked them to exist less strongly, more dryly, in a more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. Green rust covered it half-way up; the bark, black and swollen, looked like boiled leather . . .
. . .
In the way: it was the only relationship I could establish between these trees, these gates, these stones. In vain I tried to count the chestnut trees, to locate them by their relationship to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, and overflowed. Of these relations (which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the crumbling of the human world, measures, quantities, and directions) – I felt myself to be the arbitrator; they no longer had their teeth into things. . . .
. . .
In vain to repeat: “this is a root” – it didn’t work any more. I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a breathing pump, to that, to this hard and compact skin of a sea lion, to this oily, callous, headstrong look. The function explained nothing: it allowed you to understand generally that it was a root, but not that one at all. This root, with its colour, shape, its congealed movement, was . . . below all explanation. . .
. . .
Suspicious: that’s what they were, the sounds, the smells, the tastes. When they ran quickly under your nose like startled hares and you didn’t pay too much attention, you might believe them to be simple and reassuring, you might believe that there was real blue in the world, real read, a real perfume of almonds or violets. But as soon as you held on to them for an instant, this feeling of comfort and security gave way to a deep uneasiness: colours, tastes, and smells were never real, never themselves and nothing but themselves. The simplest, most indefinable quality had too much content, in relation to itself, in its heart. . . . But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city, and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float. . . .
. . .
I was no longer in Bouville, I was nowhere, I was floating. I was not surprised, I new it was the World, the naked World suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with rage at this gross absurd being. . . I shouted, “filth! what rotten filth!”, and shook myself to get ride of this sticky filth, but it held fast, and there was so much, tons and tons of existence, endless: I stifled at the depths of this immense weariness. [8]
Sartre is striving to describe a particular manner of perceiving entities, a particular awareness with which essentialism cannot cope. The character Roquentin’s feeling of nausea in Sartre’s novel is almost exactly mirrored by Giuliana’s anxiety in Red Desert. The threatening forces are not those of “technology”, but just things-in-themselves. The refuse in front of which Giuliana eats her sandwich in an early scene is not to be viewed as industrial waste, but as undefined, unexplained matter, analogous to the black root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree. And, in fact, Antonioni’s effort to bring us to Giuliana’s perceptual state by the use of cinematography is more directly successful than Sartre’s, since Sartre can only appeal to our recollections of possibly similar experiences when he expresses himself in words.

One of the techniques Antonioni used was to shoot much of the film in which Giuliana's perspective is in focus with very long (in focal length) lenses. This created a very short depth of field that results in several psychological effects. For one thing it is closer to our actual visual perception, since only a small part of what we take in in a glance is in focus. Moreover the objects that are seen out of focus tend to lose the specific functionality that we usually associate with them. When objects are seen out of focus, their outlines fuzzy and their colors blending in with color of neighboring objects, they begin to lose their conventional identities and become abstract entities. In the previously mentioned interview with Godard, Antonioni commented on the relation of Red Desert to his previous films,
“It is a less realistic film, from a figurative point of view. That is to say, it is realistic in a different way. For example, I used the telescopic lens a great deal in order not to have a deep focus, which is for good reason an indispensable element of realism. What interests me now is to place the character in contact with things, for it is things, objects, and materials that have weight today.” [9]
Thus it is not surprising that Red Desert lacks depth in its presentation of interpersonal relationships. What are significant are Giuliana’s relationship with and awareness of things – even the faces of actors like Richard Harris are deliberately muted and de-emphasized in relation to the surroundings.

Another technique Antonioni used to represent the altered consciousness was his manipulation of color. This is the most celebrated aspect of the film, but critics err when they assume that Antonioni was trying to create dynamic colorist painting. As he himself says:
“There is, in this film, no pictorial research at all; we are far from painting, it seems to me. . . . Moreover, I had never thought about color in itself. The film was born in colors, but I always thought, first of all, of the thing to be said – this is natural – and thus aided the expression by means of the color. I never thought: I’m going to put a blue next to a maroon.” [10]
The use of color was specifically intended to enhance the perceptual awareness of things. The bright, pure colors serve to detach things from their conventional environment and create new, abstract relationships with other unrelated colored objects.

Perhaps the most significant of Antonioni’s techniques was his treatment of screen kinetics. This effect necessitates on the part of the viewer a continuous struggle to orient himself with respect to the depicted environment. Elliptical action and oblique camera angles are employed not to emphasize dramatic moments but as a continuous condition of perceptual reality. An illustrative scene is the visit of Corrado and Giuliana to the radar installation [11]. A long row of skeletal radio telescope towers is the primary background material, and the viewer is continuously forced to orient the camera position and the characters with respect to his knowledge of the tower geometry. During the visit several important changes of position by the characters are omitted by Antonioni. Thus the struggle with orientation with respect to these huge, abstract edifices is forced upon the viewer, bringing him in greater sympathy with Giuliana’s struggling awareness of things. In addition Antonioni frequently uses slow disclosure by beginning a scene with a detail of an object. In almost every case the object is not seen for what it normally is, but as a quasi-abstract form. When asked by Godard about this practice, Antonioni explained that
“It’s a way of approaching the character in terms of things rather than by means of her life. Her life, basically interests me only relatively.” [12]
This is an extremely revealing statement, for it emphasizes the difference between Antonioni’s approach and the typically essentialist approach of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst would be interested in nothing but her life – except that it would be considered in terms of conceptual events. The uniqueness of her perceptual awareness would be overlooked, and it is precisely this with which Antonioni is concerned.

I have so far only mentioned the visual stylistics with which Antonioni expressed himself, but of course the characters reveal themselves by what they say as well. Ugo, Giuliana’s husband, is a kindly person, but is also the ultimate technician. As such he can be thought of as purely essentialist. A characteristic moment for him is when he shows his son the spinning yellow toy. As an explanation of the toy’s behaviour, Ugo explains that it has a gyroscope in it, the same kind things used to steer ships. This is an utterly reductionist statement, reducing things to concepts. Though the statement is correct, one feels annoyed, given the context within the film, with the complacent disregard for existence implicit in the statement. Immediately afterwards, there is a cut to a large ship, and the visual impact of it seems to bring out the poverty of Ugo’s description. Giuliana, as already stated, is extremely sensitive to and feels threatened by the existence of the concrete other, just as Roquentin did in Nausea. She tells a Turkish sailor, “if you prick me, you don’t suffer,” thereby trying to convey her feeling of separateness and isolation. At another point she says to Corrado,
“The sea is never still. I can’t look at the sea for long and not lose interest in what happens on land.”
The sea is for her not a symbol or metaphor but an ever-changing, impossible to pin down “thing”. For her it is analogous to the chestnut tree root that brings on the “nausea”, since its uncategorizable nature thrusts its existence upon Giuliana’s consciousness.

Giuliana’s story that she tells her son is further elaboration of her psyche. The entire scene is shot in bright Hollywood style "technicolor”, the depth of field is increased to that of typical films, and the screen kinetics are completely straightforward. The viewer has to do none of the struggling with reality that is necessary in the other scenes; one feels very comfortable with the environment depicted. This scene acts to convey Giuliana’s romantic yearnings for her formerly naive, untroubled consciousness that was at home in the world. All the colors belong to nature, they seem to belong, as opposed to Giuliana’s real life where colors seem to force themselves on one’s awareness. Rocks are seen not as brute existences, but in terms of human forms. The world has an existence for her – it even sings to her. But this feeling of oneness with the world is only fable; it is not possible in her real existence.

The character of Corrado is somewhat problematical. He appears discontented with his existence and feels a sympathy for Giuliana’s problems. At one point he says to her,
“You wonder what to look at, and I wonder where to live. It’s the same thing.”
In fact it’s not the same thing at all. Giuliana’s sensitivity is more developed than his. Corrado is primarily an essentialist who feels that by sufficient manipulation of the external world of objects he can eventually find fulfillment. He wishes to have adventures, like his expedition to Patagonia, hoping that change of his external environment will bring about satisfaction. Giuliana contrasts her own feelings with his when she tells him, “If I were to leave, I’d take everything.” That is to say, the few things with which she has managed to feel somewhat comfortable (as opposed to the great mass of objects by which she feels threatened) are indispensable. She must cling to them as a means of protection. Corrado, the essentialist, living in a world devoid of content is constantly looking for the external stimulus. Giuliana, on the other hand lives in a world too full of existence. She would like somehow to demystify and humanize her surroundings.

In the final scene Giuliana tells her son that birds survive by learning not to go near the poison waste gas of the plant. In other words she is resolving to be like everybody else. While this may be the advisable course for someone who is on the brink of insanity, the larger questions concerning the inadequacy of our conventional thought patterns to deal with existence are left unanswered. Is the lesson we are to learn from Roquentin and Giuliana that to see beyond the veil leads to madness? Perhaps so, as long as madness is defined in terms of the conventional thought patterns. At any rate the extraordinary thing about Red Desert is that it deals with profound aspects of existence in an immediate fashion. It concerns the phenomenology of perception and expresses itself by means of perception. The gestalt psychologist Rudolph Arnheim has made studies to show that all thinking is structurally similar to visual perception, and “truly productive thinking in whatever area of cognition takes place in the realm of imagery” [13]. If this is true, then Red Desert may be a more direct and unadulterated presentation of existential ideas of Sartre than that philosopher’s own writing was.

  1. Kauffman, S., A World on Film, Dell (1966), p. 407.
  2. Simon, J., Private Screenings, Berkeley (1967), p. 177.
  3. Macdonald, D., On Movies, Berkeley (19600, PP. 375-376.
  4. Sarris, A., (ed.), Interviews with Film Directors, Avon (1967), p. 23.
  5. Kierkegaard, S., The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, Oxford (1938), p. 147.
  6. I have taken the pains to specify what I mean by “existentialist”, since casual usage has undermined its meaning.
  7. In fact Heidegger came to despair of the possibility of conventional language to express the ultimate nature of existence and turned his attention to poetry as a possible avenue. Perhaps he might have profitably considered the film medium.
  8. Sartre, J.-P., Nausea, New Directions (1964), pp. 168-181.
  9. Sarris, A., op. cit., pp. 28-29.
  10. Ibid., p. 30.
  11. "The Visit to the Radar Station in Red Desert", The Film Sufi (2010), http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/09/visit-to-radar-installation-in-red.html.
  12. Ibid., p. 28.
  13. Arnheim, R., Visual Thinking, U. of California (1969), p. v.

“Wait for the Birth of the Husband” - Zheng Hua (2008)

The Hakka people (aka Hakka Han), a Han Chinese ethnic group primarily in southern China, have long had a peculiar tradition of marrying young girls into families who do not yet have a suitable bridegroom for the girl. The Hakka “bride” must await the future birth of her “groom”, and then further await the maturation of the boy, before the couple can finally have a truly connubial relationship. When the boy is finally of age, the girl is no longer young. Zheng Hua’s Wait for the Birth of the Husband, tells the fictional story of one such girl who went through this experience. At moments during the film, a folk song is heard on the soundtrack with the following sad lament:
An 18-year-old bride has a 3-year-old bridegroom
Thinking of this, she can’t help feeling distressed at midnight
She would be old when he is grown up,
Like a flower in blossom when the leaves turn yellow.
Wait for the Birth of the Husband has not yet been widely seen in the West, but it did secure an award for the veteran director Zheng Hua at the 2008 Monte-Carlo Television Festival and may perhaps receive the wider exposure that it deserves in the future. The film features excellent color cinematography, with the adroit use of short focal-length compositions. In addition, the acting performances are first-rate, particularly those of Yuan Zhibo (as the mature Runyue) and Dong Ping (as the well-meaning, but conservative, Taohua). The film is partly shot inside the confines of a traditional Hakka walled village, whose interesting architecture supplies a picturesque backdrop for the drama that unfolds. Although Wait for the Birth of the Husband could be viewed as simply a dramatic depiction of colorful, but curious, customs of the past, we also expect, given the Chinese restrictions concerning artistic commentary on society, that there may be metaphorical overtones in the film concerning larger themes of present-day concern.

The story begins during the 1920s, with ten-year-old Runyue traveling with her peasant father to another village where her future in-laws reside. It is evident that Runyue has no idea what is going on, since she promises her brother upon departing that she will play with him later that day. Upon arrival at the destined Hakka walled village, Runyue learns that she now belongs to another family, almost as a chattel, and must serve as a housemaid to her future mother-in-law, Taohua, who is currently pregnant. Runyue soon meets another, similarly-aged “waiting-for-the-birth-of-the-husband” (this phrase in Chinese is presumably more economically expressed and not quite so awkward) girl, A Ju, who becomes her best friend.

It soon becomes quite evident to the Western viewer that women in this society are very much undervalued and underprivileged. The principal value and virtue of a woman is to produce male offspring, and that is the obsession of the pregnant Taohua, who is a recent widow and concerned that her family line will die out without a male heir. She sees her unborn child is the last chance for salvation.. If, on the other hand, the child Taohua delivers turns out to be a girl, Runyue’s fate is quite uncertain. Fortunately for Runyue, Taohua does deliver a boy, named Sihuan, and the first crisis of the story is overcome. As it turns out, however, Runyue’s friend, A Ju, is not so lucky and must wait many years before her “betrothed” enters the world.

Time passes, and as Sihuan grows, Runyue looks after him almost like a mother, giving the boy baths and tending to his needs. The action now shifts ahead to when Sihuan is fifteen-years-old – he has reached a mature height, but he is still a child and not yet a man. Even so, Runyue is now twenty-six and impatiently starting to look at her “fiancé” as something more than a boy or a little brother.

But without having a real man around to help with the plowing, daily life is hard for Taohua and Runyue, so they are persuaded to hire an almost-deaf war veteran, Chunsheng, to assist with the farming and daily chores. While Sihuan is just a scrawny teenager, Chunsheng is a geneial, strapping, and capable young man more Runyue’s age. Thus the stage is set for the next crisis: the growing attraction between Chunsheng and Runyue. Though both Chunsheng and Runyue are shy and obedient, Taohua fears something might happen and rushes to schedule an early marriage ceremony for Runyue and Sihuan so that the traditional customs can be fulfilled before a scandal arises.

The traditional marriage ceremony is performed, but Sihuan, having lived with his “sister” all his life, has difficulty seeing Runyue as an alluring bedmate and is unable to consummate the marriage. Runyue is disappointed, but advised by Taohua to be patient. However, since the Japanese War is now raging, Sihuan abruptly decides to run away to Nanjing in order to escape being impressed into the army. Not long afterewards the news arrives that Sihuan has apparently passed away due to a fever, which renders Runyue a widow. Taohua is crushed to learn that her last chance for a male heir to her family line is gone, but after awhile she regains herself and comes up with an idea that could bring contentment all around. She goes to a village elder and inquires whether it would be possible for Runyue to wed Chunsheng, and for them to have their first male child designated with her own family name, Wang. This would provide Taohua with the sought-for continuation of her family line, and it would bring happiness to Chunsheng and Runyue. Amazingly, the village elder readily agrees to this arrangement! It seems that though the social rules and customs may be absolutely rigid for women, they can easily be bent by the male village elders whenever they see fit.

At this point things look very promising for the long-suffering Runyue and Chunsheng, but there will be a final twist of fate that dashes all their dreams. The ironic closing shots of the film bring us full circle and tie this tale of the past to the present day.

Throughout Wait for the Birth of the Husband, there are no malevolent characters. Runyue, A Ju, Taohua, Sihuan, and Chunsheng are all essentially well-meaning and innocent. They don’t complain; they struggle to play by the rules; and they learn to love and care for one another. But they live in a social prison, from which there is no escape. This prison is not material poverty, but the rules and customs imposed upon them by other people. The rules are rigid, unreasonable, and severely prejudicial against women. It is this human institution that is malevolent. In a suffocating society that denies individuality and privacy, Taohua, Runyue, and A Ju are unable to appeal to higher values or to see outside these repressive confines. Chunsheng, however, is different; he is the outlier, the symbol of authentic good will. His deafness is a metaphor for a person who is partly outside the scope of this restrictive, gossip-driven society. He is less affected by the “inauthentic otherness of the ‘they’”, as a Heideggerian might put it. His responses are not dictated by the rules, but arise from and follow the heart. Unfortunately, neither he nor Runyue is able to overcome the man-made restrictions imposed upon them. And so it is in today’s world, as well.

The Visit to the Radar Installation in “Red Desert”

The scene in Red Desert [1, 2] in which Corrado and Giuliana visit the radio telescope installation is an excellent example of the unique manner in which Michelangelo Antonioni laid out the geography in this film. By the use of oblique camera angles and elliptical action, Antonioni achieves a disorienting effect that causes the viewer to struggle constantly with the reality presented. In this way the radar structures become determining factors throughout the scene, since the viewer must constantly orient himself with respect to them. As the scene progresses, these structures, along with a striking black house in the background, take on the character of active participants. The overall effect of the kinetics is thus to establish viewer empathy towards Giuliana’s psychological dislocation.

Just prior to this scene, Corrado and Giuliana have visited the apartment of a man that Corrado is interested in interviewing as a possible employee. They go on in the present scene to seek him out at his place of work – the radar installation.

Shot 1 (355 frames)
Corrado and Giuliana enter the frame from the right in extreme long shot. A sign post about human height occupies a balanced position on the left side of the screen. The camera pans to the left so that the sign and the two characters remain in balance as they walk towards the center of the frame. Before the characters pass the sign, a man appears from the left of the frame and walks to the right, having just passed in front of a black house in the distance. The camera accelerates its panning rate at this point to reestablish a balanced frame. The sign post is now in the middle of the frame, with Corrado and Giuliana still on the right and the house along with the man who has come to greet them on the left. With the house balancing the composition on the left, the camera ends its pan as the couple reach the sign and stop. The man walking from the left finally reaches the two characters, where they apparently converse. Giuliana then walks to the left of the screen, away from the two men talking, until she passes in front of the black house in the distance.

Shot 2 (279 frames)
Cut to a closer shot of Giuliana (in long shot now) in front of the black house, which now dominates the background. As she begins to pass the house, moving screen left, Corrado enters from the right of the frame. They both continue their movement to the left, until first Giuliana walks out of frame, and then Corrado. The house remains alone for several seconds.

Shot 3
(145 frames)
Cut to a reestablishing view of Shot 1 (extreme long shot again). The house is now on the right, and a row of metal towers dominate the left of the screen. We are to learn in Shot 14 that these towers are radar telescope antennae – until that point, and thus for most of this scene, these towers remain unexplained, abstract structures. These structures, it should
be pointed out, are asymmetrical, that is, they arc somewhat to the right, and the row that we
see stretches far into the distance. Corrado and Giuliana continue their movement to the left and toward the row of towers.

Shot 4 (223 frames)
Cut to a low-angle shot of the upper part of one of the radar towers. Because of its curvature to the left of the screen, it indicates that the camera position is now on the other side of the radar installation from that of Shot 3 (refer to Topographical Chart A -- see the end of this article for an overview of the topographical charts). The camera then tilts downward to show the black house seen before in the distance on the left side of the frame. Giuliana enters the frame on the right in medium shot in front of the tower. Once again the frame is in perfect balance: the base of the structure is in center midground, Giuliana is in the right foreground, and the house is at frame left in the background.

Shot 5 (355 frames)
Cut to Giuliana seen from a new angle (see Topographical Chart A) though she is still on the extreme right side of the frame. This is a high-angle shot with most of the frame occupied by the lattice-like structure of the tower support, which is in the foreground and in blurred focus. The angle of view plus the visual clash between the red tower structure and the green grass behind it make Giuliana look small and insignificant. On the extreme right of the frame, Corrado is partially visible (and it is possible that he may have been entirely visible in the original 35 mm print version).

Shot 6 (175 frames)
Cut to a medium long shot of Corrado and Giuliana walking along parallel to the radar towers, Giuliana on the left and Corrado on the right. The camera tracks backward slowly following their movement. The radar towers in the background again serve as the orientational reference. As the couple walk, moving somewhat to the left, Corrado pears ahead and says:
“There he is.”
Shot 7 (139 frames)
A man is seen walking from right to left in medium long shot, the camera panning with his movement. The radar towers in the background serve as the only reference in which to locate this man. In other words, by using our knowledge of where Corrado and Giuliana are and the direction in which Corrado is looking in combination with our knowledge of the structure of the individual radar towers seen in previous shots, plus our assumption that they are all identical, we are intuitively able to figure out where this man is located. Thus, like Shot 4, the choice of camera angle forces the viewer to relate to the radar tower structures and causes the tower structures to be almost active participants in the scene. It is to be inferred that the man seen in this shot is the man whose house Giuliana and Corrado had visited in the scene immediately preceding the present one and that he is the one in whom Corrado is interested as a possible employee.

Shot 8 (495 frames)
The towers are now on the extreme right side of the screen, as the man who was seen in Shot 7 (who shall be referred to as “the worker”) comes directly towards the camera. Corrado is in the foreground on the left side of the screen, with the worker walking down a path filling the space on the right. Corrado glances briefly over his shoulder, and the camera dollies backward to take in Giuliana, such that she appears in the frame in medium close-up on the right. The worker, who has been walking forward from long shot, continues forward until he passes out of frame on the right. However, Giuliana’s presence on the right maintains a compositional balance with Corrado, i.e. Giuliana appears on the right of the frame at about the time that the worker passes out of the frame, so that, in effect, Giuliana replaces the worker as the right-side compositional element. When the worker passes out of the frame, both Corrado and Giuliana turn and stare forward and to the right of the screen to where the worker is apparently positioned. The couple briefly exchange glances, then continue to look out of frame until the worker reenters the screen from the right. At this point, Giuliana asks the worker:
“How are you? All right?”
The final composition of this shot has Corrado in the left background, Giuliana at midground center- right, and the worker on the right foreground.

Shot 9 (117 frames)
Cut to a reverse-angle shot. Corrado, however, has been moved considerably to his right from the preceding shot to enable the familiar black house to be included in the background of this shot. Thus Corrado is in the foreground in medium shot on the right; Giuliana and the worker are in long shot in the center; and the black house is in the distance on the left. These three elements form a straight line from right foreground to left background. Since the worker and Giuliana are in a conversation that continues from Shot 8, they form the principal axis for these two shots, and the angle of Shot 9 does not constitute a crossing of the axis. During this shot the worker says to Giuliana:
“I’m all right, and you?”
Shot 10 (216 frames)
Cut to a frontal medium closeup of Giuliana. She answers:
“I’m fine, too.”
She nods to her right (referring to Corrado) and says:
“He came to see you.”
Giuliana has been turned in this shot to enable the camera to include the radar tower structures in the background. Had she not been moved, the background would have been the same as in Shot 8 – looking down the pathway that runs parallel to the radar towers.

Shot 11 (198 frames)
Cut back to the same view as Shot 9. Giuliana moves to the right, down the pathway, and the worker comes forward towards Corrado. Giuliana is now walking in the opposite direction along the path from that which she and Corrado had taken in Shot 6. The worker’s movement restores the straight line formation that had existed in Shot 9, running from Corrado to the black house. The worker turns his head backward, looking in Giuliana’s direction (Giuliana is still in the frame before the cut to Shot 12).

Shot 12 (259 frames)
Giuliana is in a frontal long shot seen
through the radar tower support structure and is partially obscured by it. Due to the short depth of field, the tower girders form fuzzy red lines crisscrossing the frame. This is high-angle shot similar to Shot 5 (see Topographical Chart B). Giuliana looks straight upward and says:
“Tell me, please, . . .”
Shot 13 (642 frames)
Cut to a low-angle shot of a radar structure not hitherto seen. A man working on the structure and somewhat encaged in its girders is seen moving slightly to the left, and the camera pans to the left following the architecture of the structure. Then the camera tilts downward to reveal Giuliana in extreme long shot looking up at the man. In the background Corrado and other worker are seen conversing. The initial view and the subsequent pan are a slow disclosure and the viewer might well struggle to determine where he is in reference to the main characters before Giuliana comes into view. In particular, Giuliana’s question and glance upward in Shot 12 might possibly prepare the viewer for a low-angle shot of what she is looking at from roughly her position for Shot 13. The initial low-angle view of Shot 13 partially fulfils this expectation, but the curvature of the radar towers indicates that the camera is on the opposite side from Giuliana of the structure first seen in this shot and that the camera is in fact in the position indicated on the Topographical Chart B. Thus the viewer again orients himself with respect to the asymmetrical geometry of the radar antennae.

When the camera tilts downward to take in Giuliana, she is heard to say:
“Who owns these things?”
The man she is addressing is now no longer in view, but he answers:
“The University of Bologna.”
Giuliana asks:
“Aren’t you scared?”
The man says:
“I’m used to it.”
Giuliana asks again:
“What’s it for?”
Shot 14 (216 frames)
Cut to the man in the radar structure seen in a low-angle long shot. This time the view is from Giuliana’s side of the arching structure. The asymmetry of this arching structure enables one to locate himself here, too. The conversation between the man and Giuliana is still in progress with the man answering:
“To listen to the stars.”
Giuliana, who is not present in the shot, is then heard to ask:
“May I listen?”
The man answers:
“You’d have to climb up.”
Shot 15 (384 frames)
Cut to Giuliana seen from the rear in medium shot, with the radar structure (which she is facing) behind her. In the distant background is seen the familiar black house. Corrado enters the screen from the left side in medium closeup, again forming a diagonal composition. Giuliana turns around to face Corrado. They have the following exchange:
Corrado: “You knew him?”

Giuliana: “I just met him.”

Corrado: “No, the other one.”

Giuliana: “He was a neighbor. Did he accept?"

“Corrado: “Nothing doing.”
Corrado then walks rightward in front of Giuliana.

Shot 16 (202 frames)
Just as Corrado passes in front of Giuliana in Shot 15, the action cuts to a medium closeup on the same camera axis as Shot 15. Corrado, continuing his last remarks, says,
“. . . unless I dazzle him with money.”
He passes out of the frame on the right, leaving Giuliana smiling after him in the center. The black house is behind her on the right, and some radar metalwork is visible on the left behind her. She turns around, waves to the man she had been talking to, and departs screen right. This is a telephoto shot, and it causes the black house to loom massively in the background, having an effect not unlike that of the ocean-going ships seen at other times in the film. After Giuliana departs the frame on the right, the camera lingers on the black house for a moment.

Topographical Charts
The Topographical charts presented here are a schematic representation of all the camera positions for this scene. Chart A depicts the positions for the first six shots, and Chart B for the subsequent ten shots. We have attempted here not to produce a scale drawing, but merely to construct the geometry of the entire scene and locate the relative positions of the camera with respect to the basic elements within that geometry. The camera position for each shot is depicted by an encircled number, and the arrows indicate in what direction the camera was pointed. For simplicity of presentation, we have given the positions as if a single focal-length lens was used for the scene, which was not the case. Thus Shots 2 and 16 were almost certainly telephoto shots taken from the same positions as the respective preceding shots, but the camera position has been advanced forward on the chart to indicate that the image was enlarged. The movement of Giuliana, Corrado, and the interviewed worker is depicted by the lines with arrows in the charts – the dashed line portions of which represent movement that is not presented in the scene, but which must have taken place for purposes of continuity. It should be noted that the dashed line movement that Antonioni chose not to relate in this scene is precisely that which would enable the viewer, were that material present in the film, to simply locate all the action. Instead, the viewer must continually reorient himself with respect to the geometry of the radar towers and the black house. Thus the continuity of physical existence is broken down and fragmented here in much the same way as that which presumably exists in Giuliana’s mind.

  1. Red Desert, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/09/red-desert-michelangelo-antonioni-1964.html.
  2. Phenomenology and Red Desert, http://www.filmsufi.com/2010/09/phenomenology-and-red-desert.html.
  3. Mike Ceraso contributed to this article.

“Red Desert” - Michelangelo Antonioni (1964)

Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964) was writer-director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in color and came directly after his celebrated trilogy of alienation, L’Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), and L’Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). Although the color cinematography marked a new direction in Antonioni’s visual aesthetics, the film’s thematic issues represented a continuation, and even a culmination, of those covered in the preceding trilogy. As I already remarked in connection with the preceding three films, the underlying themes in those films projected a progressive pessimism concerning the possibilities of authentic human love. L’Avventura examined the ephemerality of love; La Notte resigned itself to the inevitable breakdown of the long-term (marital) romantic narrative; while L’Eclisse pondered the modern-day difficulties of even starting an authentic loving relationship. Red Desert digs even deeper still into these issues by presenting a protagonist who feels cut off from authentic connection with everything in the world. Admittedly, this protagonist is psychologically disturbed, but her character is eerily comprehensible and metaphorically represents a psychological malaise that underlies our modernist culture. These issues are explored in more detail in my essay, “Phenomenology and Red Desert [1].

The narrative flow in most of Antonioni’s films is somewhat problematical, because clear-cut goals or targets are hard to identify, and when they do appear, they are are sometimes misleading. Often the story moves in a circle, with the protagonist’s desires remaining unfulfilled and frustrations unresolved. But at the same time there has been inner journey undertaken, and by the end of the film, the protagonist has often arrived at a new understanding of the compromised world in which he or she (usually it’s a woman) must live. So it is with Red Desert.

Despite all these pessimistic observations and equivocations, let there be no mistake: Red Desert is an outstanding film, perhaps Antonioni’s best. Antonioni has explored new visual techniques here for the revelation of the inner moods and feelings of psychological narrative. Much of what is conveyed is not only not presented in verbal terms, but almost outside the scope of verbal expression. Antonioni achieves this expression not only by his use of color, but also by his comprehensive use of composition, editing, character movements, and camera techniques.

The plot (i.e. the syuzhet) of Red Desert is all about the main character, Giuliana, and passes through five stages as it follows her struggles to come to grips with her disturbed psychological condition. Her problem is that she feels isolated, cut off, from everything in the world – she feels an acute sense of separation that makes her feel disoriented and desperate for engagement. Though each of the narrative stages of “acts” may offer Giuliana some temporary relief, they conclude with a return to isolation and greater despair.
1. Giuliana’s Situation (17 minutes)
The opening section shows Giuliana (Monica Vitti) escorting her young son of about five years of age, Valerio, on foot towards the petrochemical plant that is managed by her husband, Ugo. Immediately the viewer sees that there is something wrong with Giuliana, as she nervously and impulsively purchases a half-eaten sandwich from one of the workers eating lunch outside the plant. Throughout this section the viewer is presented with unexplained shots of (to us) bizarre industrial structures and debris. It all looks grotesque and inhuman to the ordinary viewer – a representation of brute, inexplicable processes that seemingly are outside the scope of normal human activity.

We are then introduced to the plant manager, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), who is conversing with a visitor, Corrado (Richard Harris), who seeks to recruit some workers for some sort of industrial operation in far-way Patagonia, Argentina. Both Ugo and Corrado are comfortable in the noisy surroundings of the factory – they are modernists, at home in the engineered world of Western civilization. In their conversation Ugo tells Corrado that his wife, Giuliana, had a recent auto accident, and though she was physically unhurt, she has not been right mentally since then. Later, at home in their apartment, Giuliana is seen to be highly agitated and fearful, and Ugo is unable to soothe her.

2. Giuliana and Corrado (19 minutes)
Corrado meets Giuliana and is attracted to her. He visits her in an empty shop that she intends to open up, and they talk. Later she joins him on one of his worker recruitment excursions to a nearby city, and she indirectly reveals to him a few things about her mental state. She mentions that when she was in the hospital, she met a fellow patient (a made-up externalization about her own condition) who was advised by her doctors to go find someone or something to love – a husband, or a son, or a job, or a dog, or a tree, or a river, “but not husband, son, job, god, tree, river, . . .”

They then go to a radar installation facility, where a worker Corrado wants to recruit is located, and again the industrial architecture provides something of a metaphor for Giuliana’s alienated state. This section and the cinematography employed by Antonioni to convey these effects is further discussed in more detail in the article, "The Visit to the Radar Installation in Red Desert [2].

3. Comfort with the Group (31 minutes)
Corrado and Giuliana join Ugo along a polluted estuary where they intend to have a party with another couple in a small riverside shack belonging to the company. As Corrado and Giuliana get to know each other more, Corrado shows interest and sympathy for Giuliana. He likens himself to her, since he, too, does not feel “at home” in the world. But his alienation is only partial and not as radical as Giuliana’s. It’s summarized in his offhand comment, “you wonder what to look at; I wonder where to live.”

When the others join them in the small shack, they are all confined into a tiny room, where they engage in trifling small talk. It is a scene filled with wise-cracks, role-playing, and sexual innuendo, but Giuliana seems to take comfort in the distractions that the group provides – her sense of isolation is temporarily abated. But when a medical doctor visits a ship docked near the shack, Giuliana flees in panic, breaking up the party

4. Giuliana More Isolated (25 minutes).
After Ugo leaves on a five-day business trip, Giuliana spends more time with Corrado and reveals more about her inner anxieties. When she returns home, she is alarmed to discover that her son has apparently become suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Giuliana feels powerless, but tries to soothe him with a story that she invents. It is about a young girl who lives on an island and swims off a beach at an isolated cove. The girl is perfectly at home with her surroundings, but after a silent approach by a mysterious offshore sailing ship, all the rocks of the cove seem to come alive and sing to her in one voice.
Shortly after her story, Giuliana discovers to her shock that Valerio was only pretending to be paralyzed; and her inability to imagine why he would torture her with such a stunt brings back her sense of loneliness and isolation with a vengeance.

5. Giuliana Seeks Help (23 minutes)
Getting desperate to end her isolation, Giuliana rushes to Corrado’s apartment. Corrado succumbs to his masculine instincts and tries to force his affections on her, which the exhausted Giuliana initially tries to resist. Eventually Corrado makes love to her, but it doesn’t help. They part the next day, and the distraught Giuliana wanders to a dockside ship and self-reflectively airs her troubles to a foreign sailor, who can’t understand a word she says. “We are all separate,” she complains; “if you prick me, you don’t suffer.” She seems to be completely alone and at her lowest state.

But in the next, and final, scene, perhaps some time has passed. She is again walking with Valerio near her husband’s plant. When Valerio spies a smokestack emitting poisonous smoke, he wonders if the birds who fly near it will sicken and die. Giuliana advises him that the birds learn not to fly over there. These words indicate that her psychological depression and sense of isolation has not been cured, but she is learning how guide her mind away from those thoughts. She is trying to to cope and live in this world as best she can.
In this film Giuliana authentically faces the full horror of existential doubt, and our modernist culture offers her no solace or comfort to alleviate her anguish. Corrado is half-way to understanding her situation. Even though he is a man of action, an engineer who is comfortable in the modernist scheme, he feels some sympathy towards her and shares the feeling of being lost and that there is something missing in his life. But he doesn’t fully understand the depth of her anxiety, and his amatory advances are not what she needs.

Throughout Red Desert Antonioni uses cinematic techniques to align the “silent witness” (the viewer) with the way Giuliana engages the world. This is accomplished in various ways. For example whenever Giuliana is shown in a mentally distressed state, she is isolated from others by being the only person in the frame. This subjective isolation extends to her surroundings by having her photographed with a telephoto lens having a relatively short depth-of-field, which leaves only her in focus and everything else in a blurred, difficult-to-recognize state. Even in these situations, though, whenever the frame does include other people, the depth-of-field is greater, with much of the field in focus – hence the scene is presented as more “objective”. In the blurred world of isolation, one is frighteningly powerless; whereas in the more in-focus, objective, world, a person can take action and is more comfortable. In other words, when Giuliana is distressed, she is powerless, and her “world” has less affordance. This affordance contrast is accentuated with respect to Corrado, who is often shot with a wide-angle lens, which suggests that he is inhabiting a “world” that particularly affords wide movement and action. These contrasts of isolation and affordance are particularly evident in the brief scene in which Giuliana and Corrado visit the radar installation [2].

A further visual evocation of psychological state is accomplished in connection with the camera angles and editing. In the scenes in which Corrado and Giuliana are together, there are often jarring edits, where the camera angle is only slightly changed between two shots. This has a somewhat disorienting effect on the viewer and is ordinarily avoided by professional filmmakers, but here the cuts contribute to the feeling of Giuliana’s agitated state. By contrast in the dockside shack scene, where the confined multi-person camera setups would have been more difficult, the editing is more fluid, which accords with Giuliana’s more comfortable state, where she is surrounded by friends. In fact the two sequences in the film that have a more conventional cinematic look to them – the shack scene and Giuliana’s story of the girl in the cove – are the two sections that present Giuliana in a more “normal” (i.e. comfortable) state. In the shack scene she is comfortable, because her wished-for “wall of friends” distract and protect her from the brute reality of the world outside. In Giuliana’s story (about the girl in the cove) scene, she is describing an imagined ideal world where she can be one with all of reality.

Note that in general the worlds that Antonioni’s men and women live in have characteristic differences. The men live in worlds in which they construct their own narratives (or perhaps we could say that they play their own self-constructed games). On the other hand Antonioni’s women are more passive and tend to be seeking a given, stable world (not a self-constructed one) – a world in which they can have stable relationships. This is reflected in Red Desert in the “shack” episode in Act 3, where the other two women in the party seem to be somewhat passive pawns of the game-playing undertaken by the men [3]. Moreover, Giuliana’s story about the girl in the cove also presents a fantasized and now unattainable stable world.

Overall, Red Desert offers Antonioni’s most disturbing vision of the psychological inadequacies, and ultimately the impasse, that our Western modernist culture has left us in. It reveals a cultural neurosis that we still haven’t come to terms with, but to which other existentialist and Sufi artists have also pointed. Antonioni seems to have worked intuitively, rather than from a logical or analytical framework, and this is what makes the film original and profound. When we, the viewers, watch the film, we share and participate in the direct psychological vision of the artist – all unmediated by the mechanical artifices of the written word. This is the essence of artistic co-creation, and Antonioni’s achieved it in Red Desert by exploring new forms cinematic expression.

  1. Phenomenology and Red Desert, The Film Sufi, 2010.
  2. "The Visit to the Radar Installation in Red Desert", The Film Sufi, 2010.
  3. This is even taken to the point of their accepting the men’s versions of reality. When one of the women in the “shack” scene says she heard a cry from outside of the shack (also heard by Giuliana), the men insist that she couldn’t have heard such a cry. To the consternation of Giuliana, this woman then acquiesces to the mens’ story and concedes that she didn’t hear anything.