Red Desert – review

Antonioni's 1964 film depicts a familiar landscape.

Some people have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation. (J G Ballard, BBC Radio, 1998)

Aesthetic analyst of the bourgeoisie, which he geometrically framed with neither absolving nor condemning tones, Michelangelo Antonioni captured the moral degradation and emotional apathy of the "affluent society" like no other. Red Desert (1964), his first film in colour, retrieves a thematic intuition dating back to La Signora Senza Camelie (1953) and Le Amiche (1955) and examines it under the artificial light of industrialisation. Women appear as the first "victims" of the anthropological mutations brought on by progress; dissatisfaction and neurosis as its most recurring symptoms. Red Desert orbits around Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a woman trapped in an altering environment searching aimlessly for a place, function and role. Oppressed by the manufactured ambience, Giuliana gasps for air as her lungs are filled with the poisonous gases from the chimneys that varnish the sky.

The film pans over a lunar landscape where sentimental immobility clashes against the soulless dynamism of technological advancement. Antonioni, though, does not denounce the injustices of industrialisation; he merely registers the inability to adapt to it, which in Giuliana’s case results in mental disturbances.

The connective texture of the film decelerates and dilates, the camera dwelling more on objects than on the people who are unable to communicate with their surroundings. Long shots depict the monumental austerity of manufacturing plants, while the traditional landscape (the old city centre) is glimpsed via fleeting details, as if the camera were chasing its vanishing remnants.

Before the "swinging" blackmail of appearances (un)seen in Blow-Up (1966), the Red Desert of affective economy made colour the primary source of communication, way more eloquent than dialogue. Words are impotent; their ability to articulate an affirmative critique is deafened by the roar of progress. The narrative is entirely entrusted to the techno-expressive apparatus of the film – form does not contain substance; on the contrary, it incarnates it. Giuliana’s world – better still, her detachment from it – is mediated in chromatic terms and subjective deformations are rendered through the set design (even the vegetation was painted before filming). Her claustrophobic wandering through the vast and barren lands of a changing society seems condemned to eternal circularity.

Today, this Red Desert feels like a very familiar place.

A newly restored print of "Red Desert" opens at BFI Southbank on 27 July.

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in Red Desert. Photograph: Getty Images
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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser