by SHELBY SHAW
That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director
by Michelangelo Antonioni, translated by William Arrowsmith
It isn’t quite a book, nor is it necessarily literature in the use of the originator’s words.
When Michelangelo Antonioni was born in 1912, there were, based on what I found on record, four Italian films made. That year the Italo-Turkish war, easily won by the Kingdom of Italy against the Ottoman Empire, ended after thirteen months. Italy gained new territories, the First Balkan War started. Antonioni was welcomed into the town of Ferrara, where he said the fog would be so thick you could not see past three feet in front of you. Antonioni’s storytelling consists of the details of the everyday that bring intrigue and interest, a sense of familiarity even to those who are unrelated. Ferrara serves as location for a number of Antonioni story capsules, and probably subconsciously laid the grounds for other stories and, eventually, films.
I keep my fingers on my mouth where they usually rest, an oral fixation to conceal myself, and try to determine the best choice of nut butters at Stop & Shop: almonds have more fiber and vitamins, but peanuts are cheaper. I want it all-natural, no sugars added. It must be unsalted because salt absorbs water and retention is unattractive.
Antonioni is best known for having captured reality in its least action-potent senses. His films lay out life as it is, rather than life as a Hollywood script. He thought out his films tirelessly, even locking himself into a room in order to finish a script. His concepts deal with the internal, the wonder of each character’s psyche and that psyche’s personal observation of the little things around them.
His films deal less with the externally obvious – they are not action flicks in which everything you need to know as a viewer is spelled out by the plot points: something explodes, people run away, they steal a car and drive somewhere, the ransom is fake, they hack a computer, etc.
At dinner with friends I have not seen in some time, we casually inform each other of the major events and minor accompanying details of ourselves which we have missed out on from following only various social media. Our voices are loud in a small Mexican restaurant where they serve avocado slices but the kitchen is out of guacamole.
One friend lifts her precariously-poised head and asks, “I told you I lost my virginity, right?” and then gingerly rests her forearm on the plastic tabletop with a delicate calmness. You would have thought she mentioned it would be warm tomorrow. I did not know she was a virgin; she had not told us of the event that changed this. She begins her story with another sip of water and another chip in salsa. She is hungry, she probably has not eaten in hours and only some salad at that. We have all been vegetarians at some point.
Antonioni sheds light on the darker, and twisted plots of a typical realism: characters and situations that are as familiar as they can be uncomfortable or timely. Even if they all speak Italian and tend to look glamorous from time to time. Antonioni films in the way of a short story – the snippet you get is lush, bursting with more than is withheld from you, making you hungry to get to the end, feeding you footage to make you start all over.
A collection of his budding concepts, initial ideas sketched out in prose detail with the occasional overlapping film term and all the engrossment of a flash-fiction serial, explains the director’s trained humanistic eye. That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, named for one of the “narrative nucleus” concepts within, was to be re-titled as A Pack of Lies, or even Nothing But Lies. But the book was already being proofed and Antonioni was left in yet another virtually-unknown mundane tragedy of his own, small in the scheme of the world at large.
Where I am visiting my mother in New York, my bed has an electric blanket because the room I grew up in has never received heat. Not enough to feel, anyhow. I wonder, as I turn the dial on the blanket to an eight and grope around for my book, if that means anything.
If the four walls I grew up in have ever meant anything to me back when I lived there when they were covered entirely with a wallpaper I made of magazine advertisements, article clippings, artwork, photographs, but which now has been replaced by a coat of beige paint, bare, and naked as an earthen cell. Nothing is in the room that I once owned except for my bed, which feels as wrong for me to sleep in now as if I were in the bed of an innocent infant, fecundity seeping into the sheets as I doze.
A number of the capsules are stories from start to finish, or at least a narrative short story that ends in a satisfyingly mysterious cliffhanger. But everything within is laid out for you to understand in a startlingly short amount of space on the page. A long descriptive lead of a character’s internal persona is followed by a quick cut to the chase of the storyline, as in “Two telegrams,” a short that seems like a cousin of Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles:
Her hand is tired. While resting it on the arm of the chair, her gaze falls on her husband’s telegram. She immediately picks up the receiver and dials another number, three numbers. After a moment, knitting her brows and slightly raising her voice as she does with her secretary, she dictates a telegram. The address is that of the building opposite her, the message a phrase which includes the word ‘immediately’ and a telephone number, her own.
An hour later the telegram is delivered. She realizes it when she sees the man standing at the window looking out. It’s obvious that he’s trying to identify her. With all the lights behind her lit, her silhouette must stand out sharply. In fact the man does see her. But instead of rushing to the telephone as she expected, he raises the window halfway and lets the telegram drop into the void.
I am reading on the plane from New York en route to Charlotte, where I anticipate a several-hour layover before continuing on to my final destination. I have an empty seat between me and my plane companion, a white-haired man who keeps to himself with his newspaper and asks for an orange juice when the flight attendant comes by with her beverage cart. He then stops her to say, “Better yet, make that a tomato juice.” Better yet, don’t get anything.
I ask for a water, finish it before the attendant even leaves, and wonder if the tomato juice is supposed to holistically help the man two seats from me get over an illness. Maybe he has adverse reactions to citric acid, or an ulcer he doesn’t think has fully healed. Maybe he thinks lycopene will help his heart, which might be ailing, which might make him feel as if he is coming upon old age.
Antonioni also invites viewers to challenge themselves by taking up his own challenges. Take “Antarctic,” for example, the second nucleus in the collective:
The Antarctic glaciers are moving in our direction at a rate of three millimeters per year. Calculate when they’ll reach us. Anticipate, in a film, what will happen.
Is he inviting us as his audience to really create a film, or perhaps start with a script, based on this minutely frightening thought? Or is this “nucleus” more of a little reminder for himself, a Post-It note of sorts to come back to, do the math for, and then evolve into a minimum of 60 minutes worth of visuals?
I do not know how long it would take for the glaciers to reach us. Besides, is “us” meant to be Italy? Surely it would not take the same amount of time for Americans to be hit. And what about the fact of being landlocked, or at least blockaded by other countries and entire continents? I need to figure out exactly what Antonioni meant before I can even start on the math.
I check my phone for the third time, now aware of the blood not quite flowing in my left leg anymore, strung out across my suitcase – as if a thief would try his luck on me in the Starbucks of the Charlotte airport, a place that poses white rocking chairs in front of floor-to-ceiling windows to evoke a sense of the South in a place of Safety and Excitement and A/C. I should leave to find my gate now, or at least some protein. I untangle my legs and cannot ignore the burning numbness buzzing where my crotch had endured unconscious pressure from both thighs as I sat reading for hours. As I walk away I feel as though I have a secret.
In opening the collection with “The event horizon,” Antonioni doesn’t pose challenges or questions, but gives us a straightforward scenario of characters fictionalized from a fact observed in his own life as he was flying over Soviet Central Asia one November morning before shooting The Kite. After his plane survives five turbulent storms, he discovers a tourist plane had crashed in the fourth storm, killing all seven passengers including the pilot. Antonioni then goes on to lay out each passenger, the relationships between them, their internal thoughts, their last words:
A writer. He’d taken a course in rapid reading. Two hundred lines a minute. But when he was writing he was very slow. He never tired of correcting the page and then reading it over. He used to read over his published books, each time with renewed hope, and then with prompt disappointment, shelve them again. He worshipped reality, but when he wrote, all connection between reality and literary imagination vanished. He began to make less and less use of the latter. Besides, reading had been the grand passion of his youth. At the time of the energy crisis, he used to read at night in front of the window by the light of a streetlamp. At midnight only the alternate lights were lit. His was one of those that were put out. He was already famous when he met the industrialist and his wife. He immediately sent her one of his novels. He’d not seen her again subsequently, not the least word nor even a telephone call. He was surprised and flattered by the invitation to go on the trip; it might have been she who instigated it. But at the airport a glance told him how wrong he was, and that the subject of his novel wouldn’t even be mentioned. To reduce his humiliation, he chose the course of nonchalance. It lasted very briefly. Going up the hatchway, he noticed another writer’s novel in the wife’s bag. And this struck him as so tactless that he chose a seat in the rear, far away from her. Besides, he thought, I’m safer in the rear.
I glance up to see a woman, small, tiny like a teenaged bird frantically claiming one of the last seats at our gate. She seems delicate because she is petite, but yet she seems hard because she is tanned and acts with vigor when opening up the white plastic bag on her lap and uncovering a Styrofoam container from which she hastily prepares sour cream on nachos.
She eats as if she has not eaten in days. Perhaps she has not. I notice a wedding ring. Perhaps she has been with her husband, nervous in his presence, anxious in front of his family and could not bring herself to eat so here she is leaving, on business perhaps, ravenous with solitude. She makes me think of my friend who talked of sex and ate nacho chips, but this woman is flighty and my friend was collected.
Similarly, some characters are imagined by Antonioni without so much of their past coming through at once, such as with one of the longer pieces in the collective, “The wheel.” He gives us just enough to get across the present state of things without so much internalizing, so much thought and attachment to what led the characters to where we find them, but more of a line sketch giving only the bigger picture, all the variables of shading, coloring, patterns, texture yet to come.
Time passes. Their intention of getting married grows stronger. Roberto sees Olga every day, several evenings in a restaurant. In one of these restaurants he runs into Patrizia with a group of dreary people. His wife gives him an amused nod by way of greeting, and he responds hastily so as not to show the hurt he feels. He leaves the restaurant and takes Olga to another one, but the evening’s wrecked. Also because Olga makes a mistake. It’s Robert’s name-day and at the table the girl takes a package from her purse and gives it to him. A present. Roberto keeps turning the package over in his hands. They’ve been together for a year and a like occasion has never occurred. Olga doesn’t know he doesn’t like receiving presents or being feted on his name-day, that he doesn’t like saying thank you. In fact, Roberto puts the package in his pocket without opening it. He thinks of Patrizia who has her own theory on the psychology of presents.
We all wait in the vestibule between the gate and the plane, everybody in a long line as if awaiting something terrible. In front of me is a short and elderly couple, the man standing directly before me.
He is perfectly proportioned in his stature, short but not stocky, plump but not rotund. Thick white curls of downy-looking hair cover his arms, his head, the back of his neck. As he turns his face to look behind him, oftentimes, not at me but just behind, he has this wide-brimmed smile on, teeming with jovial warmth. He is like a cat, a white fluffy cat with one of those flat and mushy faces, something like a cross between a kitten and an aristocrat. His wife smiles too as they share cheerful observances with each other, laughing happily, him never downgrading his happy smile. I imagine he will be dead within the year, he has developed a stoop and a shuffle, and his wife will no longer be quick to flash that anxious smile of hers.
I felt like a traitor trying to summarize his capsules as I read through them, like befriending the livestock as I sharpened my knives. The truth of That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, is that Antonioni wouldn’t want you to read a review. Antonioni would want you to read the whole thing, all of these fictional realities of life in its honest state of interest. Because how else is one supposed to arrive at the truth if one does not obtain the whole truth?
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