PEOPLE WRITE a great deal nowadays about style in the cinema. I am not always sure I know what they mean; or even whether they do. Style is one of those qualities very difficult to define. but immediately recognisable when you see it.
From the time I first saw L'A vventura. Michelangelo Antonioni became for at least ten years my most admired practising film director. Now five years since we had seen a new Antonioni (The Passenger) Oberwald Mystery ("A", Camden Plaza) turns up.
I have by no means always been enamoured of the content of his films; or even always understood it. What captivates me about Antonioni's films is their style. the magical sense of a film becoming airborne. It captivated me again from almost the outset of this new video film made electronically by RAI for Italian television in some association with West German television. The Oberwald Mystery is a banal title for this Italian adaptation from Cocteau's play The Eagle Has Two Heads and his splendid French film of it which starred superb Edwige Feuillere with Jean Marais.
Antonioni's usual long lineal landscapes are not at once recalled by the lush dark colours of the castle garden in an "unidentified kingdom" (the original was fairly clearly meant for Austria) where the widowed Queen (Monica Vitti) has lived in exile for ten years in mourning for the late King who was shot on their wedding-day. She lives as a recluse seeing only her "reader" (Elizabetta Pozzi), and the Chief of Police.
Shots again ring out when the guards see a young man scaling the castle wall. Sebastian (Franco Branciaroli). a revolutionary peasant-poet sent to assassinate the Queen. emerges into her apartment from behind the portrait of the King he so startlingly resembles. The story of this romantic melodrama could be only the banal one of the peaSant sent to be the Queen's assassin who stays to be her lover.
But the debate between the two. the struggle for power in the imaginary state of which she is the head and the intricate convolution of motives by which Sebastian's theft of the Queen's poison locket and her own deliberate deception which tricks him into shooting converge in a perfect suicide pact. The film has features not usually admirable in a movie. it is very slow, statuesque and laden with dialogue.
Monica Vitti's regal and most mature performance. however, with the romantic and revolutionary passion of her Sebastian allow Antonioni's
elegant intensity to make their story one of gripping suspense. and a dramatically if not intellectually convincing liebestod as they lie reaching for each other's hands. What is interesting about the film is what Antonioni does with the new electronic technique or system. In a statement he calls it "a new way of making films. Nottelevision. but cinematography" and adds his conviction that "magnetic tape definitely possesses all the characteristics required to replace traditional film. Within one decade, it will he done." Perhaps. Certainly he has used it to enhance his familiar style. Cocteau may not have been a great writer: he was in my view a great poet of the cinema for whom Antonioni is the right interpreter.
Steven Spielberg has also, I suppose, style of his own. His Close Encouters left me cold and even a little bored. But it was so hugely popular, and won such acclaim from critics suggesting its deep philosophical or metaphysical inspiration, that I set out for Raiders glebe Lost Ark ("A-, Empire) determined to look at it very seriously and treat it with awe and respect.
As might be expected where a co-author and co-Executive producer is George Lucas, director of Star Wars. Raiders is a triumph for special effects. I imagine tough modern children will love its spectacular explosions on sky and land and under the earth; its swift movement across the world. its violent and varied action though some of the violence may be a bit fierce for only an "A" certificate, and there are a number of nightmare-conducive images like coils and bundles of snakes, angry-looking spiders, people hurled from skyscraping cliff-tops.
The story I must admit I found difficult to follow and the characters to distinguish. Beginning with a straightforward caption "South America 1936". after a little we are in Cairo. the Middle East, Tunis.
At an initial conference of archaeologists I was filled with hope by the presence of Denholm Elliott. but he disappears until the tail end of the film. The two rival archaeologists who set out to salvage the Ark (and to dig up an occasional outsize swastika to show that war is near), are for the French villains. Paul Freeman and for the American angels. Harrison Ford. The latter has a girl-friend (Karin Allen) who turns up in various places to face torture and other fates not much worse than death.
Of course it is all meant in fun, but when a character takes out his pistol and calmly shoots another dead it is a bit much of a good thing perhaps to be greeted by hearty laughter. So certainly is the deafening sound-track. I comforted myself with hope of the return of Denholm Elliott or of the charming marmoset who gives an excellent performance.
Technically of course the film is as brilliant as a great display of fireworks and I imagine it will be our next long-running blockbuster.
After trying my best to discover any serious intent or significance in the film, I concluded more or less that it was a gigantic send-up of just about every genre of Hollywood epic: foreign legion. Nazi conspiracy, desert romance and crookery and just plain hard-slogging camaraderie and hostility. though both the foot-and-hand duels and the massed battle-scenes provide excesses of violence in the surrounding context of kid-stuff.
Any regular reader may have gathered that I am allergic to muppets. The solemn addiction, however. of thousands of my compatriots — grown-ups too made me approach The Great Muppet Caper ("U". New Classic Complex, Tottenham Court Road) in a spirit of respectful inquiry.
Having as much as possible avoided seeing them on television. I don't instantly recognise the various characters except Kermit the Frog, whom I can just bear and the repulsive Miss Piggy whom I absolutely can't. This feature film is not just a spin-off but a spin-out of the television characters. I must admit that, watching Miss P dance with live partners in dinner jackets, modelling underwear or swimming with bathing belles. if you can bear the monstrosities this is another most ingenious technical accomplishment and the dialogue and screenplay for this mix of humans and muppets in a tale of West End night-life and crime is quite often witty. But the sight of Miss Piggy still makes me queasy.
As for the new cinema "Complex" is the operative word. All right once in your seat, for me it is another sad case of a nice flat cinema — two cinemas in fact. the Continentale and the Berkeley — multiplied and put down forty steps into the bowels of the underworld.
The prospect of a film without dialogue might fill me with hope and nostalgia for silent films. But when as in Caveman ("A", Classic Oxford Street) the dialogue is reduced to primitive grunts and bi-syllabic shouts — "A touk-, "Atoukand "Honda". "Honda" uttered by bi-peds in skins interest lies in wondering whether modern linguistics could interpret these anthropod noises into human grammar. This film, too, is slow but neither elegant nor romantic. Its only attractions are a studio-built prehistoric animal more endearing than most of its predecessors and a widewinged bird ( Roc or pterodactyl?) soaring and screeching plangently over the poaching of its giant egg. And of course ex-Beatle. Ringo Starr.
Freda Bruce Lockhart