In the midst of shooting his first American production (Zabriskie Point) in 1969, Michelangelo Antonioni stopped by the Festival for a tribute. Students and film lovers flooded the Masonic Auditorium for a glimpse of their idol.
By Jennifer Preissel
In 1968, the San Francisco International Film Festival reached the peak of its dalliance with Hollywood flair. The Opening Night ceremonies, emceed by Gene Kelly, featured appearances by Rita Hayworth, Bing Crosby and Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti. The 12th SFIFF even inaugurated (with Hollywood’s seal of approval) the Samuel Goldwyn Award, to honor the best American film screened in the Festival. When Funny Girl took the prize, star Barbara Streisand, donning a white fur muff and hat and accompanied by then-husband Elliot Gould and producer Ray Stark, was on hand to collect the prize. The Festival, through the efforts of Program Director Albert Johnson and Executive Director Claude Jarman, himself a former child star, was now embraced as a platform for American films and a social event for America’s cinematic luminaries.
Despite the glitz and glam, the Festival stayed true to its role as a showcase for cutting-edge international cinema, with a program featuring the likes of Milos Forman’s Firemen’s Ball, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend and Mai Zetterling’s Flickorna. Michelangelo Antonioni, the vanguard director in global cinema at the time, would also be present for a tribute.
While his film Il Grido had its U.S. premiere at the first International in 1957 (the first screening of an Antonioni film for an American audience), the director had never made a public appearance before an audience in the United States. Program Director Johnson sought out the director, whose recent success with Blow-Up had garnered him Academy Award nominations for Best Director and Best Picture. Festival staffer Lorena Cantrell wrote the Italian filmmaker while he was visiting San Francisco to cast for his new film, Zabriskie Point; she assured Antonioni that the event would “show you the extent of the public admiration for all you have done.”
The director accepted the invitation as he was to be stateside shooting his first American film—the first of three he had been contracted to make for MGM—in nearby Southern California and Arizona during the Festival. (While shooting in Death Valley, Antonioni was said to have received several visits from acolytes Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, also in the vicinity shooting scenes for Easy Rider. Nicholson would later star in Antonioni’s The Passenger.)
Like a scene straight out of Zabriskie Point, three days before Antonioni’s visit, student protestors barricaded themselves at UC Berkeley’s Moses Hall October 23, 1968, to protest the Regents’ decision to prevent Eldridge Cleaver, a Black Panther party leader, from teaching a course. Despite the campus conflict, “The audience was composed, not only of the professional moviegoer, the mature audience who enjoy the vistas of human nature and experience Antonioni offers in his films,” the Stockton Record reported, “but also the young hippies who tend to believe the director is ‘far out’ as they like to think themselves because they enjoy his work.”
Antonioni flew up to San Francisco from Death Valley on a private plane on the evening of October 26, just before his scheduled appearance at the Masonic Auditorium. Though Albert Johnson’s tribute interviews were famous for their epic length, Antonioni, mid-shoot, had allotted only an hour of interview time in San Francisco before his return. A full house of film lovers, largely students, had gathered to pay homage to the filmmaker. Before the director’s onstage appearance, interviewer Albert Johnson warned the audience not to ask Antonioni to explain the plots of his films. “He’s not that type of director,” Johnson clarified.
“The Italian director’s first public appearance before an audience in the U.S. was conducted with a reverence usually reserved for visits of high-ranking Vatican prelates,” wrote Rick Setlowe of Variety. “To the predominantly young audience which jammed Masonic Auditorium (one of the largest for a retrospective in the Festival’s history), Antonioni is, in fact, a mystical, semi-religious presence. . . . A séance to resurrect the ghost of D.W. Griffith would have been conducted with less reverence.”
When the director came onstage, he was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. The Stockton Record noted the director’s humility, quoting him as saying, “[This is] the only one—the San Francisco audience—that I would face in person.”
Throughout the interview, Antonioni was playful and mercurial in his answers. When asked if he used drugs to stimulate the creative process, the surprised director deferred to literary masters. “You had better ask [that question of] Baudelaire or William Burroughs, or maybe Thomas de Quincy,” he responded wryly.
When asked why he had chosen to make a film in America, he answered, “I keep asking myself that question, too. The mentality is different from what it is in Italy. I want to do a film in the Italian way, though I’ve chosen an American script, by two new writers, Sam Shepard and Fred Gardner. . . . [Though] in Italy we are almost entirely dependent on American money. There is always a fight between the filmmaker and what he wants to make and the system.”
Antonioni also briefly discussed his interest in using color to convey mood in films. Although some of his most cherished films were shot in black and white, he declared he would never make another non-color film again.
On the topic of his infamous spat with Richard Harris, when the tempermental actor left the set of Red Desert with a third of the film left to shoot, Antonioni described how he coped with the lack of footage. “The ending of the film had to be invented in one night. In the love scene, as I had planned it, he was to have been in more than 40 shots. He is in seven. You can see how we tried to work around his absence if you see the film again.” The director also expressed the sentiment that actors must be managed like any component of the mise-en-scene. An actor is “an element of the image,” he said, “which must have no other personal viewpoint than the director’s.”
After the brief interview, the audience was treated to almost four hours of the director’s work: a screening of the seminal L’Avventura and clips from his other works. Jarman recalled that “Antonioni [had] a huge crowd. . . . Everyone was—particularly all the students—they wanted to be there for him.”