In 1975 Michelangelo Antonioni had completed his English language trio of films for Italian producer Carlo Ponti and MGM, an unique mainstream contract for an essentially art house filmmaker.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

His story of a fashion photographer in Swinging Sixties London, Blow-Up (1966), had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, before proving a huge international success critically and commercially, while his brilliant, beautiful but acerbic outsider’s take on contemporary American youth culture in Zabriske Point (1970)provoked controversy and poor box office returns. He would reflect, “America is a violent country. Even in the more peaceful states there is violence everywhere”(1), a statement not calculated to endear.

Zabriskie Point

Zabriskie Point

A bruised Antonioni accepted a commission from Italian state television RAI to make a groundbreaking two hour documentary in communist China. Chung Kuo Cina (1972), which however produced what he termed “that absurd reaction” (2)from the Chinese authorities, who accused the filmmaker of ‘A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks’ (3) to discredit their country, in the title to an English language pamphlet attacking the film and its’ maker. (4)

The persistent revealing gaze of Antonioni had proved too intense in both the United States and The Peoples’ Republic, regardless of which he admitted: “In America I was at home in a way. In China I was on another planet.” (5)

For the third part of his Carlo Ponti/MGM contract, he turned to a passion project which had been gestating since 1966 (when Ponti had preferred Blow-Up over it as the first production), ‘Techicamente Dolce’ (‘Technically Sweet’), the title referring to the term used by Robert Oppenheimer to describe the scientific beauty of the technology that made the first atomic bomb (contrasting with the horror of that weapon’s destructive power). Following an intense period of preparation, which included detailed location recces, the overcoming of formidable technical and logistical challenges, and the attachment of Hollywood new wave star Jack Nicholson and French actress Maria Schneider, the production, set in Sardinia and the Amazon jungle, was halted by the producer suddenly and inexplicably. (6) “After two years on ‘Technically Sweet’ Carlo Ponti said ‘no’ to that film…” (7)

(Tecnicamente Dolce: location recce still, Sardinia)

Tecnicamente Dolce: location recce still, Sardinia

Tecnicamente Dolce: location recce stills Amazon jungle

Tecnicamente Dolce: location recce stills Amazon jungle

A bitterly disappointed Antonioni was presented with an alternative project by Ponti. The Passenger (1975), written by Mark Peploe (who had done some work on ‘Technically Sweet’), would be the first film in his career where Antonioni worked from an original script other than his own. Yet the theme of the doubling up of a life and the portrayal of the central character David Locke/David Robinson (to be played by Nicholson) struck a chord; “ The Passenger was a story written by someone else. I liked the story and I liked the locations… The leading character of ‘Technically Sweet’ was very similar to the leading character of The Passenger. That’s why I made The Passenger.” (8)

Antonioni collaborated successfully with Peploe and English film theorist and critic Peter Wollen in refining and rewriting the script, and the resultant film, shot in Algeria, London, Munich, Barcelona, Almeria, Malaga & Seville, explored characteristic Antonioni motifs of identity, environment and existential crisis, culminating in the famous seven minute tracking shot that draws the film to a close. (9) According to Antonioni, The Passenger did well in Europe, less so in America. (10)

Italian Futurist aeropainting: Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens (Prima che si apra il paracadute), 1939

Italian Futurist aeropainting: Tullio Crali, Before the Parachute Opens (Prima che si apra il paracadute), 1939

Jack Nicholson as David Locke/Robinson riding the cable car over Barcelona Harbour in The Passenger, 1975

Jack Nicholson as David Locke/Robinson riding the cable car over Barcelona Harbour in The Passenger, 1975

By Spring 1975 Antonioni was out of his contract with Carlo Ponti and MGM, and still not yet ready to return to the smaller stage of Italian language filmmaking, he would continue to cast his net wide in identifying new English language projects which he could make with international stars and settings, that nevertheless would remain quintessentially Antonionian.

There would be several such projects (for instance, ‘Two Telegrams’, ‘The Kite’, ‘Destination Verna’, ‘The Fortress’, and a TV film for RAI about St Francis of Assisi, that Antonioni would develop throughout the remaining 32 years of his life, but the reality was that he would never make a full feature film again outside Italy (despite shorter length forays in India and France).

The Mystery of Oberwald (Il Mistero di Oberwald, 1981) (11), another television project (this time on analogue videotape) for RAI from a play by Jean Cocteau and starring Monica Vitti, and his original film script Identification of a Woman (Identificazione di una donna, 1982) (12) would bring him back to Italy, Rome (and Venice). However, a devastating stroke in late 1985 would impede his subsequent attempts to get feature films into production, an obstacle he overcame with Beyond the Clouds (Al di la delle nuvole,1995)(13) a portmanteau piece made in collaboration with German director Wim Wenders, and a script adapted with Tonino Guerra from four previously published short stories by Antonioni in his 1983 collection That Bowling Alley on The Tiber. (14)

There was however one English language project, ‘The Crew’ (‘La Ciurma’), that particularly preoccupied the Italian director in the years following The Passenger. It was based on a true incident which took place in the Australia of 1953, the disappearance of the skipper from his own motor yacht, and its genesis derives from an article on the affair in an Australian newspaper which caught the eye of Antonioni when he was travelling through Singapore.

Antonioni would adapt the facts of the matter into several drafts of a treatment, and then a full length script, written in collaboration with Mark Peploe. It was thus, in 1976, when Antonioni was invited to Australia as a guest of both the Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals, that he came with added purpose, to further research the project and secure backing for production of what would be Antonioni’s Australian film in Conradian mode (15) (think for instance of Joseph Conrad’s fictional short story ‘The Secret Sharer’[1909]) along with his collection of autobiographical maritime essays, Mirror of the Sea [1906]). (16)

Sydney Opera House + ship

There had of course been significant Italian emigration to Australia since World War II, and the establishment of local communities down under.

In Antonioni’s own work, Irma’s (Alida Valli) estranged factory worker husband at the opening of Il grido (1957) is reported dead in Sydney, having emigrated there several years earlier. This proves a critical event in her uncertain relationship with stonemason Aldo (Steve Cochran), and triggers his tortured pilgrimage through the Po Valley, ejected by the precipitous news from their domestic concubinage that cannot now continue. (17)

Il Grido

Il grido

While in L’avventura (1960), following Anna’s (Lea Massari) disappearance on the Aeolian island of Lisca Bianca, some of the party, including Claudia (Monica Vitta) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) seek refuge for the night in a small hut on the island used by an old man who surprises them when he unexpectedly arrives back.

Old Man: “What are you doing?”

Sandro: “Are you the owner?”

Old Man: “No. The owners are in Australia. (Looking to Sandro & Claudia) I’ve been to Australia too… Thirty years!… (Pointing to pictures on the white interior wall & speaking in English) These are my photos… This is my brother. My sister-in-law. My friends… My uncle. My mother. (In Italian again) My grandson… Good times!

Sandro: “But from where did you pop out? We looked everywhere.”

Old Man: “From Panarea,” (18).

L'Avventura

L’avventura

The web of family relationships stretching from Italy to Australia and the emigrant experience likewise have been also explored contemporaneously by a pair of locally set film comedies, one in English, the other in Italian.

With They’re a Weird Mob (1966) English filmmaker Michael Powell, in journeyman mode working with a pseudonymous script adapted by regular collaborator Emeric Pressburger, crafts a boisterous culture clash comedy set in Sydney’s Italian community, starring Italian star Walter Chiara as a newly arrived immigrant in Australia. A British-Australian production, it was made on a budget of AU$600,000, and despite striking a strong chord with substantial local audiences and recording a good Australian gross box office, it nevertheless did not recoup the producers’ investment worldwide. With the benefit of retrospective review, perhaps this ‘fish out of water’ themed film proves an uneasy hybrid between Anglo-Saxon sense of humour (with a broad Australian bent) and Latin lifestyle. (19)

They're a Weird Mob

They’re a Weird Mob

Five years later in 1971 a more authentic and resonant picture of the Italian emigrant experience in Australia is painted in another comedy directed by the veteran Luigi Zampa, Bello Onesto Emigrate Australia Sposerebbe Compaesana Illibata (aka Girl in Australia) and features Italian language comedy stars Alberto Sordi and Claudia Cardinale. The film’s title mimics the language of a newspaper ‘lonely hearts’ad: ‘Handsome honest emigrant in Australia would marry virginal fellow countrywoman’,tapping into the real sense of isolation and loneliness felt by Italian men in Australian working class society looking for partners among the limited numbers of their own female compatriots (thus calling for uncorrupted contenders from home), rather than venturing to explore the more ample pool of potential wives to be found amongst local Australian women.

Bello Onesto Emigrate Australia Sposerebbe Compaesana Illibata

Bello Onesto Emigrate Australia Sposerebbe Compaesana Illibata

The film was released in Rome in late 1971, followed by Australia in mid-1972 where it was presented in Italian with English subtitles. With screenings mainly restricted to Italian cinemas in major cites, the dubbing of familiar Australian actors into unfamiliar Italian voices, and with a certain geographical inconsistency to the film’s narrative structure, these were a number of factors militating against its’ more positive reception by local Australian audiences. (20)

While 1977’s The Girl in Yellow Pyjamas (la ragazza dal pigiama giallo) finds filmmaker Flavio Mogherini working within the shocking Italian ‘Giallo’ genre to explore the true-life 1934 Australian murder mystery in a modishly macabre Latin take. This, interestingly, is a crime drama with no straightforward resolution, the body of the female victim preserved in formalin and put on public display seeking an identification and an identity that may solve the conundrum of her violent killing. There were Italian and English versions made of this perplexing and provocative cult film. (21)

The Girl in Yellow Pyjamas

The Girl in Yellow Pyjamas

‘The Crew’ is also based on an actual incident. James Towers was 48 years old in 1953, an Englishman from Liverpool, he had emigrated to Australia in the 1920’s, had married an Australian woman and they had had one daughter together. By 1953 he was a comfortably retired meat importer/exporter living in Bondi, with dreams of owning his own yacht and sailing round the world, a passion not shared by his family. (22)

In 1953 James Towers bought an ex-naval vessel, the Irene, a 35 foot refurbished motor cruiser in good mechanical condition, which cost him AU$3,000. Towers sailed the Irene from Tea Gardens in New South Wales at 7.00am on Saturday June 20th, 1953, heading for Sydney, having hired three casual crewmen for the short voyage covering a distance of about 150 miles. They took plenty of water, but little food, as the trip was expected to be brief. A handsome, fit, middle-aged man, Towers was reputably a strong swimmer.

By June 23rd, the Irene was overdue in Sydney and planes and ships in the area were put on a precautionary alert for the vessel. The weather was calm inshore, but blowing up off the coast. A day later there was still no sign of the Irene, and three Royal Australian Navy frigates and two RAAF Dakotas were deployed in a search for the missing craft along a section of the coast between Port Stephens and Cronulla. The wind was rising strongly now from the West.

Further days went by. The search continued with no result. There was talk of abandoning the operation, but his wife pleaded with the Navy and the RAAF to continue. On June 26th the Air Force deployed a four-engined radar-equipped Lincoln heavy bomber from the RAAF Amberley base outside Brisbane, tasked to fly down the coast towards Sydney surveying some 28,000 square miles of ocean. The search and rescue mission was unsuccessful; no trace of the Irene was to be found. The overall exercise was curtailed.

On June 29th the Irene was eventually found by a fisherman, anchored off South Solitary Island, some eleven miles north east of Coff’s Harbour. The three crewmen were on board. But James Towers was missing.

The fishing boat towed the vessel to the port of Coff’s Harbour, where the crew, weakened by dehydration and starvation, told police a story of “terror, hunger and thirst” on board the cruiser. The boat’s engine had broken down on June 20th, they said, on the morning they left port, and the immobilised motor yacht had then drifted aimlessly for days in angry seas.

The crew related (in an account accepted by the police and later a court of law) how James Towers had started to behave oddly. On Thursday June 25th he locked the three crew members in the cabin of the craft, and then pushed the cruiser’s speedboat overboard, plunging into the water after it.

James Towers was last seen swimming towards the launch. No more was ever heard of him. The family was informed of the known facts, and that was the end of the matter, it seemed.

This was the basic account of the incident that piqued Antonioni’s interest and fired his imagination. Waiting in Singapore on another mission, he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald seeking more details of the event and the people involved. The newspaper’s curt reply concluded, “’It is unfortunately impossible to satisfy your request for the simple reason that we are not equipped to handle investigations of this kind. Perhaps the Australian government offices in Singapore can put you in touch with a private detective.’ “. (23)

Antonioni enlisted the assistance of an Australian acquaintance who unearthed little save a picture of the three dishevelled survivors as they were discovered on the drifting ship, found in the files of a photographic agency in Coff’s Habour. Antonioni studied the picture closely. He did not believe these three’s version of events. To him it did not seem credible.

As he wrote in his initial treatment, “I don’t believe that a man who owns a boat like that, a fifty-foot ocean-going cabin cruiser, a fast boat which handles nicely, on which he spends the most carefree hours of his life, a man who loves the sea – I don’t believe that a man like that who wants to die chooses the ocean as his means of dying. A man like that knows that in death at sea there’s an instant when the whole world takes on the colour of a wave that smacks you in the face and smothers you. And he knows that at that instant he’ll hate the ocean. No, that isn’t the feeling a man like that chooses to die with.” (24)

His reimagined account, ‘Four Men at Sea’, published in the pages of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, was written “while driving from Tehran to Chiraz. In the desert we ran into an incredible snowstorm, but there I was, sitting quietly and writing a story about the sea!” (25) In it Antonioni transposes the story to 1969 and posits that Towers (now in his fifties and a rich businessmen from Sydney) did not throw himself overboard, rather he hid himself from the other crew during a storm, to clandestinely observe their crazed behaviour during the raging tempest and its aftermath.

Relinquishing the responsibilities of his commanding role as owner and captain of the vessel, he becomes a covert passenger on the ship. In his hiding places, watching the trio go about their wayward business on board, he gradually finds himself evolving into “a new state of mind, of doubt.”

When at the end of the cruise Towers slips unobserved from the ship, he “suddenly starts to understand something. In life he has given too much weight to everything, he always has been terribly serious, instead of taking fortune with a scornful smile, which would allow him to enjoy it better.”In the alien environment of a remote, nondescript wharf, the self made businessman Towers finds himself envying the three poor crazy creatures that were the crew of the Irene, enjoying the solitary moment of glory in their lives, and finally now a smile flickers across his lips also. (26)

It is an ending echoing Conrad’s in ‘The Secret Sharer’, where in the Gulf of Siam a young captain steers his ship dangerously close to shore to allow a secret stowaway harboured by the same captain to slip surreptitiously overboard and swim to shore, his presence unbeknownst to the rest of the crew.

“Walking to the taffrail, I was in time to make out, on the very edge of a darkness thrown by a towering black mass like the very gateway of Erebus–yes, I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.” (27)

Antonioni wrote, “I had a passion for Conrad. When I read the story of the Irene, it was precisely this Conradian atmosphere of the open sea, of men brutalised or saddened by life, but who still retained a clean idea of life, that tempted me. So much so that at a certain point I decided to grapple with it as a subject for a film. A homage to Conrad as it were.” (28)

James Towers is portrayed a hard working, respected man, straightforward and honest in his business dealings, who leads a comfortable middle class existence, wearing his status as a rich industrialist quietly. In Antonioni’s version, he does not have a family, rather his passion, his release, is the sea: “The boat is the mise-en-scène of his manhood”.

But Towers faces an existential crisis. “It’s common belief that the problem of life is posed when something in your life goes badly. But that’s not always so. It can happen that a man poses the problem when everything’s going swimmingly and he suddenly notices that the stimulus of opposition, of an obstacle, is wanting. That’s Tower’s case. He wakes up one fine morning and feels the world around him completely lifeless. Stale. Sterile. And suddenly he has a yearning for the ocean.” (29)

As luck would have it, he had already created an obstacle for himself the previous day when he had released his regular three-man crew of the Irene. Now he’s scours the dockside for replacements, and ignoring the usual hiring agencies, he fixes on “three individuals who look like anything but sailors”.

“Conrad was right, you’re either a sailor or you’re not”. But in modern times, with the assistance of technology and likewise, recruitment of a crew can be as much on the basis of economic considerations as maritime skill and expertise. Besides, what Towers “needs is a holiday from the rules, from respectability.” In this respect these three ne’er do wells from the slums of Sydney fit the bill perfectly. (30)

Antonioni continues his speculation over the single press image of the incident; “Looking at the photograph, I imagine that, of the three, the tallest and oldest exercises a true and proper sway over the other two. He has an air of shrewdness, but not in the ordinary sense of the word. With his coarsely disillusioned and lordly look, he seems to have centuries behind him. A déclassé. An aristocrat of human misery. The man in the centre is notable for a sardonic expression clearly deriving from his satisfaction at having sur­vived god knows how many adventures. But also because of an alert mind, ready for any idea or enterprise. He’s the strong man of the trio. A man who loves an effort when it serves no purpose. The third man is the slave of the other two, he’d die if he weren’t able to serve them. Three men genuinely capable of anything, even of shaking with fear without being touched by the thought of death.” (31)

So the Irene sets sail, not before the three crew, sensing the situation, renege on their original deal, demanding more exorbitant payment. Towers capitulates to this minor piece of blackmail, in his eagerness to reach open sea with this trio in tow. “Unconsciously he was obeying a dictum by a writer – Samuel Smiles – whom Conrad had read and reread in his long ocean voyages: ‘The man who knows only reasonable or educated men, does not know Man, or only half knows him.’ In fact, to Towers, it seems that the compensation in immorality and baseness he’s getting from his fellow voyagers is so high, and that the mephitic air exuded by those three wretches mingles so well with the healthy ocean air, that he feels consoled and enlightened by it.” (32)

It is a storm that disturbs the equilibrium, and exposes “the power of baseness and stupidity.” While the ship is tossed helplessly by the waves, its engine out of commission, at the mercy of the wild weather, Towers struggles unaided to throw out sea anchors. The three crew men, lacking sea legs, are frozen in inaction, not from fear, rather than through complete lack of comprehension. They feel inchoate anger that the storm will not desist in battering their bodies and the boat, and this ire funnels towards the man yelling orders at them, trying to save them. “And so their anger, exacerbated by his reachability, merges with their class impotence, and the yacht’s owner becomes the symbol of human injustice.” (33)

Morning comes and calm; “the Irene is a corpse floating on a glassy sea.”Towers slams down the hatch, locking the three men below deck. He tries to fix the radio, the boat’s engine; the first serviceable, the second beyond repair. The men open the hatch and start to emerge. Towers forces them back down, wielding an iron bar as a weapon, closing the hatch tightly after them. He works awhile on the radio, before he hears whispering; the trio have forced open the hatch again and are roving freely on deck now.

“Towers stealthily circles round the bridge and hides. He’s still holding the iron bar. Ocean, storms, lightning, cloudbursts don’t frighten him. Men do. These men wouldn’t hesitate for an instant to throw him to the sharks.” (34)

The trio reach the galley, then the dining room, before taking possession of the owner’s cabin. Towers synchronises his movements with theirs, so that he remains out of their way. He hides in the bow, emerging to quietly find food and water. Minutes turn into hours, hours into days. He sleeps during the day, lies awake at night.

“During those hours, waiting for the sky to lighten, a bitter melancholy comes over him. This boat was something wholly his own, more his than his house in the city; now it excludes him. Relegates him to a stowaway. It’s a role he doesn’t know how to play. Also because he confusedly feels that the trio that has usurped his place has some right over the boat, if only because temporarily housed there and running it. But what most astonishes him is that at the same time this fact induces a state of mind quite new to him, a feeling of doubt. A diffidence to his own future as it were.” (35)

From his hiding place, lifting the hatch door a crack, he glimpses the three crewmen snoozing in the sun, lolling about on the deck, indifferent to his whereabouts. They’re not even looking for Towers, he is so irrelevant to them. All normal priorities seem reversed for this trio. The boat drifts for days, carried by the currents, before being picked up by a fishing boat and towed to a small nondescript sea port.

It’s here that Towers experiences his epiphany. He realises that he has taken life too damn seriously. He watches the knot of onlookers fete the three crewmen for their feat of survival. This trio of ne’er-do-wells unashamedly bask in their brief moment of glory on that remote and dreary wharf. And for Towers, “Only now does that smile finally come to him.” (36)

It is nighttime when he disembarks unseen. He comes to a motel with a glowing neon sign; surely this is where the three exhausted crew men are spending the night. In the squalid lobby are a desk and a telephone. Towers could easily call home, have a car sent immediately to pick him up, or he could wake the sleeping night porter to check the morning’s plane and train schedules.

“He has no desire to do any of these things. He doesn’t even want to sleep. But to step across the threshold of that motel—that he wants. To prolong for one night the life that he shares with those three, why not? He smiles, imagining their faces when they run into him before tomorrow. But he can’t make up his mind to ring the bell. His habitual dignified reserve holds him there staring at the night-light in the lobby, a bluish neon diffusing a halo of intimations.” (37)

Sydney Harbour

Sydney Harbour

Coff's Harbour

Coff’s Harbour

Coff's Harbour jetty

Coff’s Harbour jetty

3rd May 1976, Antonioni, who is to come to Australia to open the Melbourne Film Festival at the end of the month and participate with other Italian film folk in a ‘Salute to Italian Cinema’ at both Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals, tells the Melbourne Herald from Rome of his project to make a film in Australia based on the mystery of the Towers maritime disappearance. (38)

On 7th June 1976, Antonioni gives a rare English language interview to Claudia Wright of Melbourne radio station 3AW, where he refers to the project. (39)

Claudia Wright: “Are you going to make a film in Australia?

Michelangelo Antonioni: “Well that is a very ‘pale’ possibility.”

CW: “Why a ‘pale’ possibility?”

MA: “Because I read a story in the paper and [about] something which happened some years ago here. And I wrote my own version. Maybe it works. Maybe not… I don’t know.”

CW: “Will that be similar to a film [L’avventura] on Sicilian holidaymakers that you made once… They were holidaymakers who disappeared, I think in one of your films. Will this be similar to that?”

MA: “No.”

CW: “The possibility of making it here. Would you? Why it’s ‘pale’ because it’s difficult to work in Australia? Or you can’t…?”

MA: “Because I should stay longer in order to check if my characters can be Australian.”

CW: “The disappearance of this man. Couldn’t you make the disappearance of this man around say, Lake Como? Does it have to be Australia?”

MA: “No. I mean the real facts took place in Australia. But I made my version, maybe the Latin version, I don’t know.”

CW: “Is it important to see a lot of the country and the people before you make a film?

MA: “You know, I have to deal with them [the people]. I have to make them working, talking and behaving… How can I do that if I don’t know them?”

CW: “Does a landscape, say like Australia’s, does it give you inspiration for a film? An idea to use?”

MA: “Everything gives me inspiration for a film. Unfortunately I don’t make films everywhere. Very often I find I can get an idea from a landscape or a person.” (40)

A motor yacht moored off the islands of Dattilo & Lisca Bianca, Italy, at dawn (L’Alba) July 2014

A motor yacht moored off the islands of Dattilo & Lisca Bianca, Italy, at dawn (L’Alba) July 2014

The Australian on 8th June 1976, headlines a piece, ‘Controversial Director Lured by Landscape’, and ominously reports from the Melbourne Film Festival that, “Australia may be the setting for Michelangelo Antonioni’s next project – if the colour, texture and impressions of the landscape hold up. It is a dubious distinction. Antonioni is renowned for his use of the landscape but his interpretation of foreign countries often leaves the inhabitants fuming. Critics hailed Zabriskie Point as a masterful portrayal of America and swooned as he explored the Chinese ethic in Chung Kuo. But the popular reaction to both films was somewhat cooler and it was suggested that Antonioni portrayed only what he chose to see. If he decides to shoot here his portrait of an Australian man in the classic battle with the sea will probably be less than complimentary to the national psychic.” (41)

The article notes that Antonioni is considering Gene Hackman for the lead role, “and is evasive when asked if an Australian cast will be used.” (It is perhaps surprising that Australian actor Rod Taylor, who served so well in Zabriskie Point, was not a candidate for the Towers part). And despite the recent domestic and international success of the Australian film industry, the Italian director unwisely admits he has yet to see an Australian film. Acknowledging he is seeking funding, the piece ends by briefly observing that the director’s relationships with his financiers have always been fraught. (42)

Antonioni hoped to research some locations while in Australia. He would make a brief visit to the Sydney Opera House, and would survey Sydney Harbour as a potential backdrop for his film. He wanted to visit Coff’s Harbour, to check out that location. A full day’s drive from Sydney on the director’s tight schedule, he asks that a helicopter be made available to achieve that reconnaissance. Despite lunching with the premier of New South Wales, and being generally encouraged that Australian “government monies might be made available to ‘worthwhile’ film projects by foreign companies”, no helicopter is forthcoming. (43)

Elsewhere he would tell how assimilation with a setting was important for him as a director. “Every time I enter a room, office, public place, private house, I am tempted to change the situation that I find.I go to find someone and the conversation all of a sudden makes me uneasy. It is because I feel we have willed evil into the room.Him on a couch, while he should be on an armchair, less free, more closed. I am close by him, and instead I should be opposite. And in place of the wall at his back I would feel more right with a window or a staircase, in short, a possibility to escape. Professional deformation or instinctive need to feel myself in a physical relationship with the environment? I think more this second hypothesis. In fact, I’m not able to shoot if I don’t first spend half an hour alone in a filming location, to understand it and identify the camera angles.” (44)

Already an updated and expanded treatment of the project, now titled ‘The Crew”, was being drafted, that would set events now in September 1976. This no doubt formed part of a funding application to the newly established Australian Film Commission that was pending consideration. (45)

On June 11th 1976 in the Sydney Morning Herald noted journalist Helen Frizell presents a detailed report on the film and the incident on which it is based. James Towers’ daughter Elizabeth, a married freelance writer for TV and radio, had heard press and radio news of the project from a friend. She sought out Antonioni, whom she met, along with Frizell on Wednesday 9th June at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. Before the meeting, Elizabeth was anxious to fill in the details about her father, and correct the misapprehension that he was a rich tycoon. (46)

The real James Towers was from Wallasey, Liverpool, had served in the merchant navy as a cook and a butcher, and was “ ‘a very creative chef’ according to his daughter”. By 1953, he was a good looking fit 48 years old, having made his money as a meat importer/exporter in Australia, (‘Not an industrialist – that makes him sound like Onassis.’)”. (47)

Frizell wanted to sit in with the meeting between Elizabeth and Antonioni, but the director declared, if she did so, emphatically (and somewhat imperiously) he would not make the film in Australia, because who would want to see a film when the ending was already known? So Elizabeth met privately with the filmmaker, to tell him of her father and the anonymous phone call that broke news of the tragedy to the family. He in turn told her of his proposal, but not his alternative ending. (48)

Elizabeth clearly had mixed feelings about these ghosts from the past being disturbed, and reflects to Frizell: “Every writer’s stories have a trigger point. A writer receives similar stimuli to anyone else, but what he does with it is the creativity of it. Some would deny that their stories are based on fact but, as we live with facts, that is the stuff from which our ideas stem. Even science fiction is based on fact. But when a person is named as the character in a story, that is a different matter, one on which I intend to seek legal advice.” (49)

It is perhaps not surprising that despite the richness and resonance of the story, at the end of his visit, Antonioni’s funding application was turned down by the Australian Film Commission. The exact framing of their decision is not known, but we can reasonably speculate on their reasons based on the information available.

The recent history and box office performance of ‘runaway productions’ (non-Australian movies made in Australia) was decidedly mixed, and with the growing success of emerging Australian filmmakers such as Bruce Beresford and Peter Weir, it is likely that the national funding body was bound to funnel limited resources towards such work, as opposed to attracting in outside productions.

We know that both Tony Richardson’s Ned Kelly (1970) starring Mick Jagger (budget AU$2.5m from his company Woodfall films) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) (budget AU$1.0m) brought their funding with them from outside (50), and then performed inadequately in the domestic Australian market. Ned Kelly made AU$808,000 in 1970 (51), while it is reported that Walkabout “fared poorly at the Australian box office”. (52)

Another factor in the budgeting of Antonioni’s film, was that for his previous three productions he had been working with a relatively free rein and the generous budgets of major mainstream Hollywood studio MGM, and before that had worked with more modest Italian and European coproduction budgets in a likewise relatively protected environment. As an essentially art house auteur, he probably was simply not that experienced in the new world of national film commissions, international co-productions in the English language, and independent packaging in a free market that included bankable stars and viable business plans.

The budget that he proposed to the Australian Film Commission was reported as AU$4.5m (including more than AU$1.0m alone as Hackman’s fee to star), with AU$2.0m of this requested from the national funding body. (53) A lot of money, then and now, the refusal of the request has to be seen in the context of the then recent success of Australian films, and the scale of their production.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Peter Weir’s period piece about the disappearance of schoolgirls, never to be found, at Hanging Rock in the Victoria, was noted by contemporaneous critics to have similarities with Antonioni’s L’avventura (the disappearance of a young women, never to be found, on the Aeolian island of Lisca Bianca, off Sicily). (54)

Ayre's Rock

Ayres Rock (Uluru), Northern Territory, Australia

Lisca Bianca, Aeolian Islands, Italy

Lisca Bianca, Aeolian Islands, Italy

Roger Ebert would later recall; “The movie [Picnic at Hanging Rock] has been compared to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), a film in which a man’s wife [sic] wanders away on an island in the Mediterranean, and is never seen again. Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) involves a body which may or may not be there, and a mystery that is never solved.” (55)

But more salient were probably the facts and figures à propos of Picnic of Hanging Rock that surely would have been fresh in the mind of the Australian Film Commission when they considered Antonioni’s application. Picnic was made on a total budget of AU$450,000, the funding raised from the Australian Film Development Corporation, B.E.F. Film Distributors and the South Australian Film Corporation. (56) From this modest budget had emerged a significant commercial and critical success, nationally and internationally, that had really put Australian filmmaking on the map. Domestic box office alone stood at AU$5,120,000 in 1975, an over tenfold return on the investment in Australia alone. (57)

If we look at it in this context, it is perhaps understandable that ‘The Crew’ proposal was unsuccessful. In the funding climate of the time, a AU$2.0m investment in a single ‘runaway production’ simply was not realistic. As Gideon Bachmann reported at the time, “The 4 ½ million dollar budget (with over a million calculated for Gene Hackman’s participation) is way beyond the cost of films made in Australia, even given the current renaissance of film-making there.” (58)

Only a few years later, when the lucrative Australian 10BA tax incentive scheme was in place, there might have been the possibility of raising a significant section of a similarly scaled budget from private investment, but in 1976, there was only a very frustrated Italian filmmaker left to consider his options.

The Passenger

The Passenger

Sydney Opera House sails

Sydney Opera House sails

If things had turned out otherwise, and ‘The Crew’ had received the green light in Australia of 1976, we can imagine, just as Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider are found amongst the sculptural chimneys on the roof terrace of Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Milà apartment block in Barcelona in The Passenger, so Towers might have been pictured silhouetted against the ivory white sails of the Sydney Opera house, appearing as if lost amongst so many sand dunes. Or that Antonioni would have chosen as the office of the industrialist a piece of architecture by Bauhaus influenced Austrian Jewish emigré architect Harry Seidler, he who was so central to the shaping of modern Sydney. (59)

Australia Square (built 1961-67) comes to mind, with its round Tower and Alexander Calder sculpture on the podium (the development of Sydney’s first skyscraper was said to be Seidler’s masterwork). Particularly notable is the expressive structural language and signature geometric patterns of the ground floor waffle ceiling designed by the celebrated Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi (he who built the distinctive Palazetto dello Sport in Rome for the 1960 Summer Olympics, and whose work would have been well know to the director). (60)

Australia Square Tower

Australia Square Tower

Australia Square ceiling

Australia Square ceiling

Studio Nervi design for Australia Square ceiling, 14th November 1963

Studio Nervi design for Australia Square ceiling, 14th November 1963

But none of this was to be. Something may have been lost in translation, Antonioni may have felt he had been misled, but whatever way, in the heat of the moment, he had rash words for the way his proposal was treated. “The Australians will have to learn that if you want to make world calibre films, you have to spend money.” (61)

Over a year later, in November 1977, Desmond O’Grady in the Melbourne daily The Age reports from Rome that Antonioni still hopes to find a backer for his Australian film, adding some more detail about the previous year’s decision: “The Australian film commission rejected Antonioni’s request for a $2 million investment in the film. The proposed film could not be considered Australian, it decided, as too many elements would be imported from Italy (director, assistant director, two other technicians, perhaps three actors) where post-production work would be done. “62)

This would do nothing to allay Antonioni’s anger. “Antonioni was highly irritated by his knockback. When he took the tiring trip to Australia he was convinced he would receive Film Commission assistance. He had been badly informed: incommunicability is not only his theme but, evidently also his problem.” (63)

And indeed, on this note, Antonioni was left somewhat like his main character in the new version of the treatment of ‘The Crew’, emerging from his hiding place in the bow of the boat to step on the quayside and watch the waving blades of the windscreen wipers of an empty car, life going on regardless.

“He walks along the dock, his hands in his pockets. He has the swaying gait of a man who is used to feeling a heaving deck beneath his feet. At the end of the dock there is a parked car, empty. Its windshield wipers are going and the man stops to look. They must have been left on some hours ago because the battery is dying. The little blades get stuck as if they had no more strength left, then make an effort and continue swishing merrily. The man looks at the car with a strange smile on his face. It’s as if he is having a conversation with the wipers, and he even bends down so that when the little blades slow down again, he can help them start up with the touch of a finger. Until they fully stop, and the man says to them, ‘Good-night.’” (64)

This 1978 version of the treatment (original treatment 1975-1976) runs slightly longer than “Four Men at Sea”, and is no longer country specific, excising references to particular Australian locations and suchlike, and also places events now in September 1976. References are made to “the harbour of a small coastal town” and “a big city about a hundred miles along the coast”and indeed blanks are left for other locations such as the placing of the coast guard station. (65)

James Towers is now Daniel Powers. Events are placed in different sequence. The Irene is found drifting and the film starts when the stricken vessel is towed into a small port. There the three bedraggled survivors are photographed in their transient moment of glory on the quayside, and then relate the strange story of their fraught voyage to the harbour master. They tell of the bizarre behaviour of the captain and owner, one Daniel Powers, before the officer has them sign a statement and let’s them go. (66)

There is short scene at a comfortable house, where “an old but carefully dressed woman”tearfully receives the news of Powers’ disappearance. She explains she was his governess, he lived alone with her, and there are no other family members to be informed.

It is nighttime on the dockside when Powers slips unseen from the Irene, coming across the parked car with the wiper blades. We cut to a newspaper editorial office in the city where the editors animatedly discuss the unusual story over the photograph of the three disheveled survivors on the quayside. Who is this Daniel Powers guy? No one can answer, there’s nothing in the files. A low profile individual, a recluse even, not worth column inches anyway. An editor tosses the photo in the bin, and they move on to the next topic in that day’s news cycle. So the filmmaker sets up an investigation that we will follow, but the journalists will not. (67)

We next see Daniel Powers in his careful, comfortable, controlled, ordinary, quiet life. “Daniel Powers is in his office. His office is in an older style building but is situated right next to a skyscraper that must ruin the view. But Powers can’t see the skyscraper from his office; he can see the sea. And the walls of his office are plas­tered with photographs of boats, motor boats and sailing boats, or of Powers himself in various poses, with the trophies of fishing expeditions or standing at the helm of a yacht. There are women in the pictures too but none are standing near him. Except for one photo, in which Powers looks more or less as he does now. It must be a recent photo.”

“Powers is in the import-export business. When we see him interact with his employees, they are very respectful towards him. He possesses an innate authority which he exercises with discretion, even if there is no need for him to do so. His busi­ness is highly successful in both good times and bad, and he has enough friends to occupy the time he is not at work. In short, he is satisfied—or believes he is satisfied with what he’s got. But such moral self-confidence rarely earns men a great reputation: Powers is liked by those who know him well, but nothing more. That’s why he is not famous.”

“It is common knowledge that people only worry about the meaning of life when there is something in one’s life that is not going well. But it’s not always like that. Such thinking may occur to a person when everything is going marvelously, and he suddenly notices that he needs the stimulus of a little adver­sity. That is the case with Powers.” (68)

We then viscerally experience the minutiae of the voyage of the Irene from Powers’ point of view, the hiring of the three casual crew men (the eldest unusually 70 years old), the fury of the storm, the conflict between Captain and crew, the angry stand off and then the indifference, the long days of privation and growing doubt as he watches the rough trio rove unfettered about his drifting ship, while he is confined to his hiding place in the bow of the vessel. And finally the rescue, a glimpse of the trio on the dockside briefly basking in the limelight of fame or notoriety, and Powers’ carefully executed escape, unbeknownst to anyone. (69)

“But he’s not looking at the wipers. He sees his own image reflected in the glass, and that is what catches his attention. His clothes are as dirty and torn as those of the three sailors; his beard is unkempt and his hair is uncombed. In short, he looks completely different. And Powers seems to regard this difference with a certain amount of pleasure. “

“As if on a screen, Powers sees himself in the car window, going back to the office to. be welcomed with sincere happiness by his staff and associates, who gather round hint and con­gratulate him on having escaped such a danger.”

“None of the newspapers carry the news of his reappear­ance. In the city, no one has even noticed it, except for his employees and his former governess. Nobody talks about it. His return has gone unremarked, and they bring him the mail that has piled up in his absence, and he begins to flip through it automatically, feeling himself slowly sinking. The banality of his life takes hold of him again.”

“But Powers is still standing there, hunched over the hood of the car, watching his reflection in the windshield. But the scene that is now projected onto it is different. Powers goes back to his office in the clothes he is wearing now, all ragged and torn. He smiles happily as he shakes hands with people who are obviously confused and mistrustful of this man who has changed so much, in that degraded state. He laughs and keeps on laugh­ing as his laughter suddenly becomes the laughter of the woman he remembers so well. It’s a brittle laughter that seems to take over the whole windshield as Powers stands there looking at it.”

“Finally, the man straightens up. In the meantime, the wiper blades have stopped, and he says to them (or is it to himself?): ‘Good-night’. As he walks off, he thrusts his hands into his pockets, walking into the darkness with the swaying gait of a man who is used to the sea.” (70)

While the story is now no longer specifically set in Australia, the new treatment is clearly infused with details, impressions and experiences gleaned during Antonioni’s researches in Sydney and Melbourne.

American producers were impressed and interested in the production. Antonioni would enlist the assistance of Mark Peploe to co-write the full feature film script, now transplanted to Miami in Florida. (71)

Reportedly he would come close to getting ‘The Crew’ into production in its American incarnation (the names of Robert Duvall and Dustin Hoffman were at various times attached to the project). In an 1982 Cahiers du Cinema interview with Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, on the release of Identification of a Woman, he told of progress and potential pitfalls at that time. (72)

Q: “Why are you about shoot another film in the United States? After Zabriskie Point you said you would have some reservations about doing it again.”

MA: “This time there will be no problems. The story takes place mostly at sea, on board a yacht. I met some producers who asked if I had any projects in mind. I made a proposal and it was accepted… So I accepted for practical reasons, but I have to say that I also wanted to shoot a second film in the United States. I like America a lot; I don’t want to start any polemics. I will shoot in [Miami] Florida – rather a nice place where everything is static, where everybody is wealthy, and the poor are there too, but they are Cubans and Puerto Ricans.”

Q: “Why Miami?”

MA: “Because it’s right for the story. I’ll be filming very little on land.”

Q: “Is it a major production company or an independent one?”

MA: “It’s a French-American production company with a budget of nearly eight million [US] dollars. It’s the most expensive film I’ve done to date. In America, with the unionised system you can’t make films cheaply. The actors are Robert Duvall, Joe Pesci, perhaps [Vittorio] Gassman, and another famous actor whose name I can’t reveal. There will be a woman. The title is ‘The Crew’. It will be quite a crude film, but humorous too – a strange story.” (73)

Unfortunately Antonioni was not able to get ‘The Crew’ into production in America before he was struck down by a devastating stroke (which seriously impaired his powers of speech and movement) in late 1985.

Thereafter further attempts were made to make the film (variously with actors Roy Scheider of Jaws fame, Matt Dillon and Kurt Russell) most seriously in 1988 with the support of Martin Scorsese (following his stroke Antonioni would need a co-director/sponsor for insurance purposes). Exteriors would be shot in Miami Florida and interiors at Cinecittà (with the backing of the American producers and the Italian state body Ente Autonomo di Gestione per il Cinema).

There was then talk of moving the complete production to Mexico, for both interiors and exteriors, which did not please Antonioni. In the end ‘The Crew’ never made the final mile, and by the close of 1990 it appears the project was pretty much dead in the water, the problems of production insurmountable, and the film definitively abandoned for financing reasons. (74)

However examining the second draft of the script of ‘The Crew’ by Antonioni and Peploe, we get a tantalising feel for the beauty and viscerality of this most characteristic Antonionian project. (75)However we also discover fundamental changes in his thematic exploration, which could be seen to bring it closer to the ‘Hollywood’ concept of a film.

The script opens tactilely and elementally;

“DARK BLUE WATER…

Smooth as glass..

Touched by the wind, the surface shivers into a network of tiny liquid ridges, then smooths out again. But the water beneath is always moving, constantly changing color -­green, grey, suddenly almost black. It is a wave.

In SLOW MOTION, the wave grows bigger and higher, more and more massive, until it builds into a huge moving wall of green-black water.

The SOUND of its ONCOMING RUSH is gradually joined by the soft PURR of a TELEPHONE… A RINGING which gets gradually louder, until the wave — just about to break — turns slowly into:

A FRAMED PHOTOGRAPH
Of a giant mid-Atlantic roller hanging on the wall of a bedroom.

IN THE BEDROOM – MIAMI – DAY
Early morning sun filters through the blinds which rattle softly in the breeze from the open window.
There are other photographs on the walls. One of them shows a woman, beautiful, about 30, her face laughing, half-turned, trying to drag a resisting man into the water.
The same man, middle-aged, tossing in his sleep, lies alone in a large double bed. He wears light blue pajamas with yellow piping. His name is HARRY TOWERS.”

We are introduced to Towers on his 50th birthday, awakened by a congratulatory phone call from his father, he goes on to work out in his private gym, and then eat breakfast prepared by his attentive housekeeper. The action unfolds in the elegant modernist dwelling which is his palatial home in an exclusive residential neighbourhood. Reminiscent of L’eclisse (1962), in the area, “The only SOUND is the SOFT SWISH OF WATER from the automated sprinklers on the front lawn, the only figure, far off, an English-style nanny pushing a pram…” (76)

Breakfast is interrupted by the arrival of three ‘Singing Telegrams’ in cheerleader uniforms, who serenade Towers with kicking legs, flying pom-poms, twirling batons, and an enthusiastic chorus of ‘Hap-py Birth-day to you!..’ Towers asks the girls who this animated message is from, and where. One girl checks the receipt, “Oh. It says, ‘With love from Irene.’… The booking was made in Aspen, Colorado. That’s all we have.”

Towers starts his working day as Company President of his own successful Tower Corporation, which provides security services and systems. Plush corner office adorned with maritime related pictures, one window overlooking a mirrored skyscraper, the other opening on a blue expanse of sea, “dotted with green islands and white boats”.

While deferential staff go about their business, on the special day of his half- century, he feels a certain disconnect with this controlled, comfortable, carefully constructed existence. A self made man, this rich industrialist with apparently everything, has somehow not endowed himself with a similar personal satisfaction.

On the spur of the moment, he cancels his appointments and takes off in impetuous pursuit of his major love, his passion, the sea. This is represented by his pride and joy, a luxury motor yacht, moored at a private marina. “The boats he passes are of all kinds – sloops, ketches, trimarans, motor boats, power launches, big and small, crammed together in a sea of white. Towers stops beside one of the largest, and admires its reassuring beauty… Eighty feet long, one mast, an old-fashioned cutter made of teak and brass, converted into a modern, perfectly equipped motor sailer. This is the passion of his life, the stage for his virility”.

His smart uniformed regular crew have been given the day off, and instead a motley unkempt threesome – JJ (Julius, the old man), Al and Henry – inveigle themselves into being hired as temporary hands on deck. On his 50th birthday, Towers will give these three an enormous benefit of doubt.

There follows something of an ensemble drama on the boat, a clash of characters with ongoing dialogue exchanges, which is accentuated when the Irene sails into a huge storm, the main mast is broken and the engine put out of action, before finally the weather abates. Towers tries to fix the problem with the motor, while trapping the now mutinous crew below deck. (77)

The strange trio escape to confront Towers, venting their inchoate anger and frustration by throwing him overboard. He floats for some while in the sea, drifting away then back towards the crippled craft. Tossing a coin, the threesome then decide to throw an inflatable orange life raft to Towers, not before removing the emergency supplies, and puncturing it with a knife.

Towers coasts for some further days in the leaking raft (bailing periodically with his shoe), floating across open sea protected only by the canopy, before he finds himself serendipitously bumping again against the hull of the beleaguered boat. He surreptitiously climbs aboard the Irene, sinking the life raft so there is no sign of his return. There unfolds a cat and mouse game on the yacht, as he keeps hidden from the crew, who believe he is long disappeared and dead. A strange parallel existence is present on the ship, as the vessel and its human cargo are literally and metaphorically caught in the doldrums.

Towers all the time is appearing more wild, weather beaten and bedraggled, and akin to the uncouth crew he has hired and now scrupulously avoids. He manages to work on the engine at night, which finally one day Al starts by chance, allowing the battered Irene to limp to shore, its owner still hidden in a sail locker below the bow.

Beaching at a small port, they discover the hurricane force storm has wrought devastation on land; in short, the place is a disaster zone. The trio lodge in the local motel. Towers meanwhile, armed with an axe and a gun, slips ashore. He feels a sudden urge to pause amidst the wreck of a gas station to make a long distance telephone call from a still functioning public phone booth. He reaches a woman – an older Irene – in the exclusive retreat of Aspen, Colorado. (78)

IRENE
Another silence.
IRENE: You sure you’re okay, Harry?
TOWERS (V.O.): I miss you sometimes.
Long silence. Neither of them speak, until:
IRENE: (laughs) After all these years, you call me to say what? What happened to you?
TOWERS (V.O.): I’ve been in the water. Swimming.
Irene doesn’t reply.
TOWERS (V.O.): (continuing) I didn’t give you enough credit… When we were together.
IRENE: (gentle) You never gave anyone a second chance, Harry. Not even yourself.
CUT TO:
TOWERS
Holding the phone, staring towards the motel.
IRENE (V.O.): (light) Come on, Harry… Forget it.
TOWERS: I learned something, Irene. That’s what I wanted to tell you. I learned a lot.
CUT TO:
IRENE
She smiles – sad and happy at the same time.
IRENE: You should come and see us sometime. Learn to ski.
TOWERS (V.O.): Yeah? Maybe I will sometime… (pause) It’s good to hear your voice.
IRENE: You too, Harry.
Long pause.
TOWERS (V.O.) ‘Bye, Irene.
IRENE: ‘Bye, Harry.
She hangs up, lost in thought… Then brushes the hair from her face again, rises, and leaves the room.
The faint SOUNDS of the HOUSEHOLD, the TELEPHONE, the window, the mountains outside.” (79)

Towers then confronts the astonished misfits in their motel, forcing them at gunpoint to kneel on the ground, relishing the moment of their realisation that he has survived and is in charge. The last JJ, Al and Henry see of Towers is a small white hydroplane taking off from the bay and then buzzing them in the hurricane hit street.

Flying low, the small plane drops a large metal canister which bursts open when it strikes the ground. An orange life raft slowly inflates, and inside they find money and a note. Their agreed wages for the cruise with an ironic added performance bonus from Towers. The white aircraft disappears towards the horizon and the film ends with a receding aerial image of the bemused trio left behind on land.

The bare narrative of the story does not depict the symphony of colour, shape and sound that Antonioni would no doubt conjure up with “The Crew”, and which can be identified in the descriptive passages of the script. Visceral evocations of texture, surface and atmosphere, order turning to chaos then calm, stillness contrasting with kinetic action, all would be filmed in characteristic Antonioni style, focusing on the minute indicative detail of a scene rather than straightforwardly portraying the whole. (80)

The Red Desert (Deserto Rosso, 1964) and Zabriskie Point present compositions in a similar elemental vein. The explosion of the modernist desert dwelling (filmed by 17 cameras) followed by the slow motion montage of consumerist explosion at the end of Zabriskie Point, suggests maybe how Antonioni might have dealt with the taut action sequences during the storm.

And the changing continuum of ocean and sky, the mercurially shifting light and weather at sea, in colour and textural composition maybe would have evoked the paintings of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Alberto Burri or Emilio Vedova, favourites of the director. While kinetic movement might have drawn on the work of the Italian Futurist painters such as Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla with their vivid experiments in conveying motion and momentum within the frozen frame of a canvas or solidified shape of a sculpture. Dream sequences (such as the imagined idealised appearance of a young Irene in the water mid ocean), or surreal scenes such as the arrival of an abandoned submarine, might be suggested by the metaphysical imagery of Giorgio De Chirico.

'Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)’, Mark Rothko, 1966

‘Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)’, Mark Rothko, 1966

‘Abstract Speed - The Car Has Passed’, Giacomo Balla, 1913

‘Abstract Speed – The Car Has Passed’, Giacomo Balla, 1913

The audio scape would have been meticulously constructed too, between silence and noise, picking out the minutest details in an intricate collage of sonic design (likely in Dolby Surround), also signalled in the script. The shifting sounds of the wind and the water, the eerie sad songs of passing Orca whales, the creaking noises of the boat’s straining timbers, human movement and voices, loud and soft classical music from the cabin hi-fi, the rasping cries of circling seabirds, the rocketing whoosh of emergency flares, followed by their slow inevitable decay. Again the earlier experiments with sound of Italian Futurist Artist Luigi Russolo are a possible influence, along with the theories postulated in his 1913 manifesto, ‘The Art of Noises’.

There are subtle references in the script to all things Italian. The trio eek out their dwindling rations of fettucini on the drifting vessel (which at one stage they think is headed towards Italy), and osso buco is mentioned as an ironic possibility for the menu. While Henry spontaneously breaks into a fantastic full bloodied Neapolitan aria”, on the deck of the becalmed boat. And Al incessantly sucks on lemons (with which he also makes mayonnaise), whatever the weather.

However ultimately, this Florida set version of ‘The Crew’ is maybe a bit too forthright, a little too abstract and generic in its grounding, tending too much towards a more conventional thriller. I feel that Towers does not experience as profound an epiphany as previously, and I would venture the script is a little dialogue heavy, making the film uncharacteristically dependent on ensemble performance. Perhaps that was what Antonioni meant when he described, “It will be quite a crude film, but humorous too – a strange story.” (81) Nevertheless the introduction of a love interest – the old flame Irene – does seem to work, and allows the name of the cruiser to act as a ‘Rosebud’ type symbol and key to Towers’ inner passion and self.

As we have seen, despite the considerable development of the project, and the interest of American backers, the fate of the Florida set film of ‘The Crew’, was unfortunately no different from its previous incarnations.

We can but wistfully imagine with the benefit of hindsight how things might have been if Antonioni had managed to make ‘The Crew’ in its most appropriate and authentic setting (and the source of the original story), the coast of New South Wales in Australia. A conjunction of circumstances however conspired to make this not possible, but it remains a fascinating exercise to revisit the story of ‘The Crew’, this substantial unrealised footnote to the great Italian filmmaker’s career, juxtaposed against the landmark cultural and commercial developments of the Australian Film Industry in the 1970’s.

Acknowledgements: I am indebted for his assistance and good counsel in my research to Alex Gionfriddo of the AFI (Australian Film Institute) Research Collection. I am also especially grateful to Charles Staats and Josephine Kammacher-Reich of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia for enabling me to hear at first hand the archival 1976 interview of Michelangelo Antonioni interviewed by Claudia Wright on Melbourne radio station 3AW.

Endnotes

1. Michelangelo Antonioni interviewed by Claudia Wright, 7th June 1976, 3AW. Ref. 813396 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Accessed at Australian Mediatheque, ACMI Melbourne, Wednesday 4th February 2015. [Hereafter MA/CW 1976]

2. Ibid.

3. ‘A Vicious Motive, Despicable Tricks – A Criticism of M. Antonioni’s Anti-China Film China’ by Renmin Ribao, Commentator, Foreign Languages Press Peking 1974.

4. See Michelangelo Antonioni, Chung Kuo Cina, Lorenzo Cuccu (ed), Turin: Einaudi Editore 1974. Alice Xiang,‘“When Ordinary Seeing Fails”: Reclaiming the Art of Documentary in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1972 China Film Chung Kuo’, Senses of Cinema (Issue 67, July 2013). Gideon Bachmann, ‘Antonioni after China: Arts versus Science’ by Gideon Bachmann, Film Quarterly (28:4 Summer 1975) pp. 26-30.

5. MA/CW 1976

6. See Michelangelo Antonioni, Tecnicamente Dolce, Aldo Tassone (ed), Turin: Einaudi Editore 1976, especially the Prefazione to the script by Antonioni. ‘Technically Sweet’ by Michelangelo Antonioni. 58 page treatment in English held by Special Collections @ Margaret Herrick Library, AMPAS

7. MA/CW 1976

8. Ibid.

9. Professione Reporter di Michelangelo Antonioni, Carlo di Carlo (ed), Capelli Editore 1975. Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen, The Passenger: The Complete Script, New York: Grove Press, 1975. Michelangelo Antonioni, “On the Seven Minute Shot”, Film Comment (11:4 July/August 1975) p.7

10. MA/CW 1976

11. Michelangelo Antonioni, Il mistero di Oberwald, ERI/Edizioni Radiotelevisione Italiana, 1981.

12. Michelangelo Antonioni, Identificazione di una donna, Einaudi Editore, 1983.

13. Michelangelo Antonioni‘Par delà les nuages’, L’Avant-scenè Cinéma, no. 449. Paris. Wim Wenders, My Time with Antonioni, Michael Hofmann (trans), London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

14. Michelangelo Antonioni, Quel bowling sul Tevere, Turin: Einaudi Editore 1983. Translated by William Arrowsmith as That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, New Oxford and Oxford: University Press, 1986.

15. Michelangelo Antonioni, “Quattro Uomini in Mare”, in Quel bowling sul Tevere, Turin: Einaudi Editore 1983, pp. 63-73. “Four Men at Sea”, in That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, pp55-64. [Hereafter QUIM/FMAS 1983/1986]

16. Lindi Lawton, ‘Conrad in Australia’, Signals 81, pp.8-12 (December 2007-February 2008). Accessed at: https://www.mq.edu.au/pubstatic/public/download/?id=43369

17. Michelangelo Antonioni, Il Grido, Elio Bartolini (ed), Bologna Capelli Editore, 1957. Robert Joseph Lyons, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Neo-Realism: A World View, New York: Arno Press, 1976, p. 57.

18. Michelangelo Antonioni, L’avventura, Tommaso Chiaretti (ed), Bologna: Cappelli Editore, 1960, p. 72. Michelangelo Antonioni, L’avventura, New York: Grove Press, 1969, p. 47.

19. “They’re a Weird Mob, Michael Powell 1966” in Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Institute, 1980, p. 309.

20. “Bello Onesto Emigrato Australia Sposerebbe Compaesana Illibata, Luigi Zampa 1971”, in Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Institute, pp. 337-8.

21. Gino Moliterno, “The Girl in the Yellow Pyjamas”, Senses of Cinema (Issue 67, July 2013).

22. The true facts of the incident are contained in ‘How I met Antonioni… and was promised first word of his plans for a film in Australia about the 1953 mystery of a missing businessman’ by Helen Frizell, Sydney Morning Herald (Friday June 11th 1976) p. 7. As Frizell notes “[Antonioni] read about it in an Italian paper six months ago he said. This sounded incredible to me, for to find the story in 23-year-old editions of the Herald (metropolitan and country) had taken me hours.”

23. QUIM/FMAS 1983/1986. See also ‘NSW mystery may be a film’ by Alex Dunster, Herald (3rd May 1976).

24. QUIM/FMAS 1983/1986

25. Aldo Tassone, “Conversation with Antonioni”, Positif 292 (June 1985). Reprinted in French in ‘Entretiens et inedits 1950/1985’, Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi (ed), Vol. 5 of L’Oeuvre de Michelangelo Antonioni, Cinecittà International 1992, p. 129. Reprinted in Italian in Fare un film è per me vivere: Scritti sul cinema, Carlo di Carlo e Giorgio Tinazzi (ed), Venice: Marsilio Editori 1994 (1991 & 1992 Cinecittà International), p. 206. Reprinted in English in The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi (ed), American edition by Marga Cottino-Jones, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 232-233.

26. QUIM/FMAS 1983/1986. See also Aldo Tassone, Michelangelo Antonioni: Un Poeta della Visione, Gremese Editore, 2002, pp.43-444.

27. Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer”. Page 47 of pdf copy accessed at: <sparks.eserver.org/books/conrad-secretsharer.pdf>

28. QUIM/FMAS 1983/1986

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Ibid.

38. Alex Dunster, “NSW mystery may be a film”, Herald (3rd May 1976).

39. MA/CW 1976.

40. Ibid.

41. John Jukes, “Controversial director lured by landscape”, The Australian (8th June 1976).

42. Ibid.

43. Gideon Bachmann, “Antonioni Down Under”, Sight & Sound (45:4 Autumn 1976), p 224. Bachmann was in Australia at the same film festivals.

44. Michelangelo Antonioni, ‘Comincio a capire’, Girasole Edizioni, 1999, p. 25.

45. Michelangelo Antonioni, ‘La Ciurma’, in I film nel cassetto, Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi (ed), Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1995, pp. 175-189. Translated by Andrew Taylor as ‘The Crew’ in Unfinished Business: Screenplays, Scenarios and Ideas, New York: Marsilio Press, 1998,pp. 181-196.

46. Helen Frizell, ‘How I met Antonioni… and was promised first word of his plans for a film in Australia about the 1953 mystery of a missing businessman’, Sydney Morning Herald (Friday June 11th 1976) p. 7.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Institute 1980.

51. Film Victoria analysis ‘Australian Films at the Australian Box Office (1964 onwards)’ accessed at: <http://www.film.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/967/AA4_Aust_Box_office_report.pdf>

52. Brian McFarlane and Geoff Mayer, New Australian Cinema:Sources and Parallels in American and British Film, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1992. No original release box office figure for Walkabout is quoted in the Film Victoria analysis cited in note 50, p. 182.

53. Gideon Bachmann, ‘Antonioni Down Under’, Sight & Sound (45:4 Autumn 1976), p. 224. See also Desmond O’Grady, ‘Angelo and his movies that got away’, The Age (November 19th 1977).

54. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, L’avventura, London: BFI Film Classics, 1997.

55. From rogerebert.com accessed at: <http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-picnic-at-hanging-rock-1975>

56. Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, ‘436 Picnic at Hanging Rock, Peter Weir 1975’, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production, Melbourne: Oxford University Press in association with The Australian Film Institute 1980, pp.367-368.

57. Film Victoria analysis ‘Australian Films at the Australian Box Office (1964 onwards)’ accessed at: <http://www.film.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/967/AA4_Aust_Box_office_report.pdf>

58. Gideon Backmann, ‘Antonioni Down Under’, Sight & Sound (45:4 Autumn 1976) p. 224.

59. ‘Harry Seidler: Painting Toward Architecture’, exhibition at Museum of Sydney, 1st November 2014- 8th March 2015.

60. Exhibition ‘ Pier Luigi Nervi: Project and Structure’, Italian Institute of Culture & Irish Architectural Archive, Dublin 17th June – 2nd September 2011.

61. Gideon Bachmann,‘Antonioni Down Under’, Sight &Sound (45:4 Autumn 1976) p 224.

62. Desmond O’Grady,‘Angelo and his movies that got away’, The Age (November 19th 1977).

63. Ibid.

64. Michelangelo Antonioni, ‘La Ciurma’, in I film nel cassetto, Carlo di Carlo and Giorgio Tinazzi (ed), Venice: Marsilio Editori, 1995, pp. 175-189. Translated by Andrew Taylor as ‘The Crew’ in Unfinished Business: Screenplays, Scenarios and Ideas, New York: Marsilio Press, 1998,pp. 181-196.

65. Ibid.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. Ibid,

69. Ibid.

70. Ibid.

71. Aldo Tassone, Michelangelo Antonioni: Un Poeta della Visione, Gremese Editore, 2002, p. 44.

72. Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, ‘La Méthode de Michelangelo Antonioni’, Cahiers du Cinema (no. 342 December 1982) pp.64-65.

73. Ibid.

74. Aldo Tassone, Michelangelo Antonioni: Un Poeta della Visione, Gremese Editore 2002, pp.45-46.

75. Original story by Michelangelo Antonioni, screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni and Mark Peploe. Second Draft, 127 pages, January 30th 1983, International Partner Productions, 310 N. San Vincente Blvd. #200 Los Angeles, CA 90048. First accessed at BFI Special Collections London, Ref. S 15769. Subsequently I was able to acquire an identical copy of the same script from a specialist collector in the USA.

76. Ibid.

77. Ibid.

78. Ibid.

79. Ibid.

80. Ibid.

81. Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, ‘La Méthode de Michelangelo Antonioni’, Cahiers du Cinema (no. 342 December 1982) pp. 64-65.