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Forest’s End

The Red Desert and The Question Concerning Technology – 

Even though we don’t realize it, our lives are dominated by industry. And by “industry”, I don’t just mean the factories themselves, but also their products*

The new release by Criterion of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert comes at a moment when the ecological crisis that was in its infancy in 1964 has matured into a full blown demon with multiple emanations. All cries to end the blind and ludicrous march toward oblivion that “progress” has become are drowned out by the roar of exploding oil gushers. Optimists may claim that the disasters we are seeing are the result of greed and incompetence. Technology and the science which supports it, they would argue, can also be used to solve our ecological problems and create comfort and edification.

They are all over our houses, made of plastic or materials that, up to a few years ago, were totally unknown. They are brightly colored and they chase after us everywhere. They haunt us from advertisements, which appeal ever more subtly to our psychology, to our subconscious.*

Today I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times about the beneficent use of artificial intelligence in making little critters to keep the company of patients with dementia, A Soft Spot for Circuitry. The discussion of brain science often has the feel of an excited girl telling her friend about a first date. “He showed me how a meditating brain has a different color on a CT scan or pattern of brain waves that looks different from that of a “normal” person!” This brightly colored new technology may some day–well, maybe not prove, but posit–that mind exists as an extra-organic noumenon which is at once nonexistent but detectable and measurable and, most importantly, manipulable. The kind of shallow investigation of the measurable raved about on TED, should never excuse us from questioning the phenomenological issues associated with new science in its marriage with technology. Required viewing certainly includes Antonioni’s Red Desert.

Heidegger, in his essay The Question Concerning Technology (1954), examines the troubling ontology of the industrial and post-industrial age. The essence of technology, as Heidegger explains, is exploitive and utilitarian. Instead of the field being a place where the farmer brings forth the fruit of his labors through tools and toil, the field becomes a natural resource that must be regulated and secured for the production of crops. Heidegger calls this transformed entity “standing reserve”, which assumes a position in a process of ordering and managing, cause and effect, in service of a particular set of human demands. The human becomes a subordinate to the process, and though she never entirely succumbs she also is bound into a play of illusory mastery of, or domination by the system. It is a role Heidegger defines as “enframing”. Heidegger sees dangers in this system of enframing. “The unconcealment in accordance with which nature presents itself as a calculable complex of the effects of forces can indeed permit correct determinations; but precisely through these successes the danger may remain that in the midst of all that is correct the true will withdraw.”

I would go as far as to say that by setting the story for Red Desert in the world of factories, I have got to the source of that crisis that like a river, collects together a thousand tributaries and then bursts out into a delta, overflowing its banks and drowning everything.*

The cries within Red Desert are both eery and plangent, but none articulate so well the danger within technology’s reign as the poetic juxtaposition of the sound (electronically manipulated from site sources) and image of blighted transmogrified environment with the beautiful but hysterical victim of her time, Guiliana, played by Monica Vitti. Vitti, in a performance that is at once mannered and uncannily intense, never stops moving, her nervous fingers scraping at an unseen botherer, her eyes strange and shifty. She wears inappropriately elegant shoes for the grim muddy landscape. She is unable to connect, especially with her would-be lover Corrado, played by the very sultry Richard Harris, in the most indefatigable pursuit of an object of desire ever filmed. Giuliana’s bourgeois life affords little in the way of comforts: her mental condition has deprived her of the pleasures of her rank in society and thrown her into a spiraling downward of misery. She is the sort of character contemporary marketers (or audiences in a marketing-savvy time) would reject as “not relatable”, for she remains aloof and self-involved, brittle and skittish.

The “character” with which she is set in conflict is not any of the humans, but the extraordinary environment which Antonioni has so carefully painted her into: shades of ash torn by shocking hues of red, green and yellow, massive pipes and towers, smokestacks spewing. In a tale reminiscent of one of my favorite scenes from Alice in Wonderland, Antonioni describes a night of painting a hapless stand of pines. or rather ordering a team of workers to do so. He had decided they must be white for just the right effect in the dank fog. It was a bitter cold night, with a stiff wind, and the workers were high up in the trees, clouds of white paint billowing around them, all working to exhaustion, some of the men quitting outright. But Antonioni was indefatigable, and scrupulous in describing a world which is not real, but hyper real. Alas, after the rigors of all night painting, (and his best effort at transforming the stand of pines into “standing reserve” in service of Art), his shot was ultimately ruined. The next morning the sun came out, so that the white-painted trees became black silhouettes against the sky.

The dramatic heart of the film is a strange extended scene where Giuliana and a group of her husband Ugo’s associates and friends, including Corrado, gather in a river-side hut for dinner and a swinger party. Starting with an inane conversation about the aphrodisiac effect of quail eggs, Giuliana takes over, in a forced and awkward display of uncool, a cringe-worthy Italian film version of dancing with a lampshade on her head–sexy but underlaced with anxiety. Just in time to forestall even deeper embarrassment, one of the workers walks in on them, accompanied by a sensual low-caste woman. The two are welcomed with an exchange of bawdy, coarse language, but clearly the mood is ruined.

In the party’s denouement, it comes out that the owner of the hut has sold it to the intruding worker, a fact passed over very lightly. A woman complains of the cold. There is no fuel for the woodburning stove. Someone has the idea of pulling slats from an interior wall and breaking down some furniture. Madness ensues: the cruel gaiety of a mob taking delight in the destruction–of property the bourgeois has already sold to the worker–which therefore, is now worthless. Giuliana has taken part…one of the first and only times we see her happy, or at least, savagely gleeful. This orgy takes the place of the sex that never got off the ground–all of the sexual tension is released as destructive and sadistic violence.

In a pause, the party sees a great ship come to a halt right in front of the hut. It hoists a flag to signal the fact that there is an infectious disease on board. On seeing this, Giuliana becomes hysterical and forces the group to leave. Giuliana exists in a toxic world, but the toxic is far preferable to the septic. Although the others are indifferent to any danger, they follow her out–it is cold and the party a failure anyway–Giuliana drops her purse as she leaves but doesn’t realize it before the group has gotten back to the cars. Her emotional state further devolves as Corrado steps up before her husband to fetch it back, and her emotional outburst in pleading with him not to go becomes an unbearable humiliation. Shown POV of Giuliana: the party guests stand in a fog suspension, their bodies fading and blurring before her. They are at once a mob on the verge of stoning the village outcast or a coven of indifferent gaping strangers, but the unsettling shimmer between these two inflections of their gaze is a moment of pure hell and as perfect a filmed poem of alienation as you’ll ever see. Spiralling down, Giulianna gets in her car, drives off into the fog and stops just short of plunging it into the port. Giuliana has taken the scene as far as she could. She has led the action, from eating the libidinous quail’s eggs to rousting the group from its apathy over the boat’s septic threat, and now an attempted suicide shaking them from emotional torpor.

I think that in the next few years we will see some major violent transformations, both in the physical world and in man’s psyche. The current crises derive from this spiritual confusion, which is also moral, religious and political.*

1964 was the year R.D. Laing published Sanity, Madness, and the Family. In eleven case studies, Laing demonstrates the way in which families will take their most non-adaptive member and create a sort of emotional scapegoat of them, depositing in the “neurotic” (or “psychotic”) all the emotional dysfunction of the family, identifying the member as the sole one with the problems, and thus absolve themselves of any responsibility or need to examine their own behavior. This is a microcosm of the larger process of scapegoatism which Girard examines in Violence and the Sacred. Giulianna the “non-adaptive”, will continue to be in a metaphysical sense the dousing rod for the ecological-industrial travesty around her, resisting the process of enframing by failing to comply with a new normalcy, and yet, remaining capable of carrying the load of poisons that lace her environment, inasmuch as she is incapable of figuring out how to put it down.

Antonioni is not consistent in his remarks about Guiliana: sometimes he says the environment is only a trigger to her emotional breakdown–a suicide attempt that has preceded the timeframe of the film–asserting that the ground had to be fertile for her problems to mushroom as they have. In other statements he claims her neurosis is a product of her failure to adapt to her environment; a failure which he sometimes sees as social dysfunction, other times as ecological malaise, and as well in psychological terms. But the poetic truth of this first-ever film in which ecology and psychology are juxtaposed in a meaningful way is undeniably mysterious and anxious. Yes, Guiliana is non-adaptive, but it seems that if she were to “adapt”, the result would necessarily be cynicism and despair…or self-deluded complacency. In his interviews, Antonioni tries to maintain that he is not against progress, and this film is not by any stretch a moralistic diatribe against industrialization. But one needs to imagine a Giuliana who could accept the brutal beauties that meet her gaze: the fruit (painted) gray on the stand outside the empty shop she hopes in vain to open some day, the dinghy smokestacks spewing poison smoke, the brackish polluted water, the heaps of steaming refuse in vacant lots that resemble a sort of charnel ground. Only a yogi–or an artist–would see such a world as “alive and serviceable”–Antonioni’s adjectives. The question also arises, are the objects of the camera’s gaze a symbolic projection of Giuliana’s psychic malaise? Significantly, not. Antonioni is not interested in symbols, but he is keenly observing a remarkable phase of human endeavor, where the forest is just something that gets in the way of industry, and has no business being there–any more than the difficult and maladaptive Guiliana. This problem of functioning/adapting within a context of the Heideggerian “enframing” becomes even more metaphysical than psychological.

The scene of the giant oil tanker sliding anomalously, monstrously, behind the pathetic stand of pines demonstrates the visceral and unnerving process that enframing engenders; the sea transforming from living waterway (see the new dvd’s extraordinary doc fragment, Gente del Po) to standing reserve–a channel for commercial shipping that is open for exploitation. It follows thematically that Corrado, the reluctant entrepreneur with a surfeit of capital to float, finds a new business potential in the tankers for hauling his freight at low low rates–an inspiration he draws from the anchored ship of contagion outside the orgy hut.

The men who comprise the inner circle of Giuliana’s life are her husband Ugo, her 7-year old son Valerio, and Corrado, her lover. She is as it were, their “standing reserve”; for husband, a duty-bound desirable wife; for son, a serviceable mother even in her madness; and for Corrado, a mysterious challenge and conquest. In woman’s traditional role as caregiver and object of desire, happiness has never been a requirement, any more than a donkey is required to enjoy pulling its cart. It is impossible in the red desert world for love to exist, it can only or cohabit with indifference, demand or exploit. In the interpersonal, there is only the decency of exchange, and human decency is thin when it is unsupported by real compassion or ethics. The story which Giuliana tells her son, or rather which her son wrests from her, is a lyrical respite from the desaturated and raw hues of the red desert world, into a world of pink sands, fleshy rocks, and a sea of clear aquamarine…a wistful, narcissistic idyll, gathered into the bosom of a nurturing Nature. This is a world as limpid and light as the voice singing that emanates from “everything”.

I have to say that the the neurosis I sought to describe is above all a matter of adjusting.*

Corrado, after a decent amount of time stalking Giuliana in his polite and patient way, ultimately rapes her. Yes, she shows up at his hotel room, but Giuliana is incapable of wholeheartedly giving herself over to anything as simple as going to bed with a man–and indeed going to bed with a man is anything but simple given the state of things, the hidden dangers, the unspoken cries, the surrender of ego to strange and possibly alien forces. She says she wishes for a circle of people who love her to form a protective wall around her…and then…her limbs twist and fold away from Corrado at odd angles…she jumps out of the bed and must be brought back, again and again. He is never really cruel, but relentless and insentient, as he goes about stripping her and folding her into compliance. Would he be any less so if she were more complicit in his goal?

“The essential unfolding of technology threatens…that all revealing with be consumed in ordering, and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealment of standing reserve.” —Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger is speaking of technology not as the “machines” that ease, and increasingly define, our lives but the Machine that is in manifold ways pressing us into its service as it refuses to show its aims, its ends or its face–a fact Heidegger sees as the “machines” with a lower case m but the Machine that is in manifold ways pressing us into its service as it refuses to be show its aims, its ends or its face—which Heidegger sees as a great danger and one which is only to be defused by art and the questions it poses. The Red Desert is truly an answer to this call, with its sad forest of skinny pines, beings of a ghostly realm; where sailing ships linger and the yellow clouds no longer kill the little birds who now know to avoid them.

But before getting carried too away with the poetry of it all, follow this link…


*Michaelangelo Antonioni’s quotes from the interview with Jean-Luc Godard published in Cahiers du Cinema 160, Nov 1964


  1. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Beautiful piece, Rita. Red Desert has always seemed like such a mournful film it’s good to have someone make me want to revisit it.

    I think it’s interesting that technology seems, to me at least, to have lost prestige over the last decades even while it has clearly extended its reach and power. Its hold on our minds seems to have loosened since Heidegger’s time, even while it now threatens to destroy us. The Giuliannas of today will seem less Ophelia-like, is another way of saying this. Heidegger, by contrast, was writing at the height of technology’s prestige – the midnight of the world, as he called it.

    Heidegger’s always so great to read, but I’m not sure what his path out of that midnight would have been, or if I would want to find myself walking it. The beauty of poetry, and even of poetic thought, comes to seem a little suspect in philosophy, perhaps. For me, at least, what had seemed beautiful in Heidegger comes to seem too much like the semiotics of mastery, or the sado-masochism of prestige (that word again) in the mode of thought. The Other must be impressed into a silence that dare not question the Master, because the Master wants most of all to be alone. One senses this and one turns away a little bit.

    Technology makes nothing happen, literally and figuratively (and, yes, I am being polemical), and the human ego is the first technology, designed to keep the groundlessness of being at bay.
    Developments in brain science are interesting to me because they seem to indicate the kind of shift I describe above – the technological serpent eating its own tail as it turns toward human perception and cognition, where technology arises from and has it’s roots.

    In any event, looking forward to seeing this film you have praised so eloquently.

    Guy Z.

  2. Rita Valencia says:

    Ah Guy…”impressed into a silence”…it’s up to each of us to make ourselves or others into The other, to enthrone a thinker, to tremble at prestige. It’s the work to be done to unravel and unmask all those games, whether you are practicing poetry or dharma. Philosophers turn to poets far more than poets turn to philosophers, and you’ve probably hit on the reason quite squarely. I agree that technology has lost prestige since Heidegger wrote the essay,(it had not at the time of Red Desert certainly) but in its very loss of prestige, looked at through the lens of H’s thought, technology still exerts the masking power that will see mind as a quantifiable, knowable object and will never transcend itself in that practice.
    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

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