Many things set Red Desert apart from Michelangelo Antonioni’s other early sixties portraits of spiritual and social alienation (its focus on industry and environmental toxicity, for one), but none do so more strikingly than its color cinematography. It was the first time Antonioni didn’t shoot in black and white, and he wielded his newfound Technicolor palette like a true painter, forgoing reflection of reality for dreamlike expressionism.
And we’ve just discovered a terrific resource for anyone interested in learning more—a lot more—about the unique brushstrokes applied to Red Desert, which is joining the Criterion Collection in June. Murray Pomerance, a sociology professor and the author of many books, including The Horse Who Drank the Sky: Film Experience Beyond Narrative and Theory and the upcoming Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue (University of California Press), wrote a wildly vivid piece for issue 53 of Senses of Cinema last winter called “Notes on Some Limits of Technicolor: The Antonioni Case.” In the essay, Pomerance details the history and technical makeup of the traditional Technicolor process, which, the writer claims, “never did promise, nor ever did deliver, what anybody could call an accurate picture of our colorful world.” Since use of the pioneering three-strip process—in which, Pomerance reminds us, “a scene is recorded simultaneously on three rolls of special black-and-white film, all loaded into a single, rather bulky, Technicolor camera that is equipped with a prism and filter system for dividing the incoming light into its red, green, and blue components”—died out after the mid-1950s, Antonioni had to turn elsewhere for the surreal level of saturation he was after. With a stunning array of color images, Pomerance not only shows us how the director achieved this Technicolor effect in Red Desert, he also offers illustration from such rich Technicolor classics as Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Thief of Bagdad, The Bandwagon, and more.