August 18, 2008

Dreams of freedom

Dreams of freedom: it comes about 35 minutes in as Mark (Mark Frechette) soars over Los Angeles in his stolen plane. Antonioni has emphasised the city as all babble, or Babel – constant noise, radio talk, the drone of commerce, tightly-framed faces, the choking grid of motorways, all these words on billboards, literally a media landscape. Where Mark is heading is the complete opposite: the empty desert, the wordless state. Everyone comes with identifying words: the name of the radio station on the reporter's car, the American states on the tourist's van. When Mark flies the plane back to LA, it’s painted in psychedelic colours, with this great phrase on one side: “No words”. The failure of language to do anything but entrap us is why the dialogue can seem banal and unmemorable in this film. “I just wanted to get off the ground,” Mark says, a ponderous pun that strikes him as clever. Or: “I always knew that it would be like this. The desert.”

So one of the best things you can say about this visionary film – both sad and marvellous, optimistic and nihilistic -- is that its language is inadequate. Antonioni wanted to end it with an airplane writing a slogan in the sky -- “Fuck you, America” – but he was funded by MGM. Even without that, America hated it. Who is this foreigner to mock us? Just like the attack on Lars Von Trier’s Dogville more than 30 years later. In 1973, Frechette was arrested in a bank robbery, of which he said, "It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death”. Two years later he died in prison. And when I think about the tense and dangerous Los Angeles in this film, I also think about the last days of the ill-fated Symbionese Liberation Army, who headed south from San Francisco looking for somewhere safe, only to end up in a shoot-out. They were the last gasp of the armed student radicals Antonioni went looking for in the US, the late comers.