I spent a good portion of my non-working time last weekend watching the first ten episodes of House of Cards. The adventures of Frank Underwood are in no way boring, but neither do they take you anywhere. You just turn the show on and it flows along like a river and you with it, gliding along like a drugged zombie. And then the next episode starts up. And then the next. And you’re a little older at the end of each one. An acrid, agreeable, handsomely composed thing. Definitely engaging but to what end? Chess, power, occasional sexual favors, pressure, manipulation, setbacks, tough words, grim choices, fourth-wall puncturing, etc. Sometimes amusing, sometimes a bit draggy but not often. But it’s just plot. Not entirely but mostly. Gobs of it. A torrent. And I’ve got three more hours to go.
I’ve read a synopsis of the final three episodes and have therefore discovered there’s at least another whole season of House of Cards yet to go. I don’t know where I got the idea that Season 3 would wrap things up.
On Friday night I watched that BFI Bluray of Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Red Desert (’64). It was my first time. I know the Antonioni milieu and had read a good deal about Red Desert over the years, so I was hardly surprised that it has almost no plot. It has a basic situation, and Antonioni is wonderfully at peace with the idea of just settling into that without regard to story. And I’m telling you it seemed at least ten times more engrossing than House of Cards.
Is it the least bit fair to compare House of Cards with Red Desert? Of course not. I’m just saying that side by side there’s no comparison. One is timeless art; the other is an engrossing, good-as-far-as-it-goes cable series.
Monica Vitti plays a twitchy and obviously unstable wife and mother who’s been nudged into a kind of madness by the industrial toxicity around her, and Richard Harris is an even-mannered German businessman visiting smelly, stinky Ravenna, a port city on the Adriatic, to arrange for several Italian workers to perform a long work assignment in lower Argentina. You suspect that sooner or later Harris, whose hair has been dyed an odd brownish blonde, will make a move on Vitti but other than that nothing really happens. It’s about industrial sprawl and poisoned landscapes and a lot of standing around and Vitti’s neurotic gibberish and a certain caught-in-the-mud mood that holds you like a drug, specifically like opium.
Each and every shot in Red Desert (the dp is Carlo di Palma, whom Vitti later fell in love with) is quietly breathtaking. It’s one of the most immaculate and mesmerizing ugly-beautiful films I’ve ever seen. The fog, the toxins, the afflictions, the compositions.
Harris and Antonioni did’t get along. Harris didn’t like being told to do this or that without discussion, and near the end of shooting he walked off the set. Or was fired. Blowup star David Hemmings wrote in his autobiography that Harris left the film after punching Antonioni, reportedly with a few of his scenes left to be shot. There’s also the story about Harris having dropped acid when the film was shooting in Rome (sometime in late ’63, post-Cary Grant, pre-Beatles) and having acted eccentrically while tripping. Something to do with getting wet in the Trevi fountain and smashing bathroom mirrors.