Skin and Stone
Max Nelson on Michelangelo’s Gaze

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.

—Michelangelo Buonarroti

It wasn’t enough for Pope Julius II to have a tomb. He needed a monument. In 1505 he commissioned Michelangelo to build the massive edifice that would store his remains, a job that would take the artist decades of sporadic, frustrated effort. Since its completion, the tomb has stood in Rome’s San Pietro church, its center compartment occupied by a strange, towering statue of Moses. Gripping his enormous beard in one hand, his head topped by what look like two rounded horns, he stares off into the distance with a wide, inspired gaze. There was something sly about structuring a mausoleum around a shrine to the open eye, one that suggested less the stillness of death than the wide vistas of eternity.

In 2004, the statue received a visit from another Michelangelo: a 90-year-old Italian filmmaker who in his prime had been praised for almost single-handedly winning cinema a place in the cultural spotlight. He was there to film what would be his last completed work, a short called Michelangelo’s Gaze. For the film’s eighteen-minute running time, Antonioni wordlessly studies, touches, and caresses the statue’s graceful contours in near-total silence; an occasional footstep falls on the soundtrack like a stone dropped in a lake. The ambiguous title suggests the gaze of a sixteenth-century sculptor who knew he had made something timeless—and whose confidence was reflected in the work itself, with its wide, searching stare—but also of a twentieth-century filmmaker looking on with slightly sagging eyes, hopeful but cautious, longing for a legacy not yet secured.

Twenty years earlier, Antonioni had suffered a severe stroke. His physical impairment made work all the more difficult and all the more urgent: Beyond the Clouds, his troubled final feature, took a full decade to complete, and found the director learning to live vicariously through his lens. In one early scene, a solitary intellectual goes to bed with the beautiful young woman who’s been his longtime object of desire and, with infinite hesitation, runs his hand over the length of her body. An extreme, luminous close-up captures his palm hovering just above her skin, occasionally making contact and just as quickly pulling away. The memory of that shot lingers throughout Michelangelo’s Gaze, with its footage of Antonioni’s hand balancing above the statue’s surface, gently stroking the coils of its beard, the folds of its robe, the rounded cap of its stone knee. At times the only noise on the soundtrack is the smooth rustle of skin on marble. The desire for human contact is just as strong here as in the earlier film; if anything, it’s intensified by the contrast between flesh and stone. With Michelangelo’s Gaze, Antonioni had traded the gentle surface of the human body for something sleeker, colder, scrubbed clean—and with it, the tactile pleasures of analog film for the shiny new world of digital.

Much of today’s talk about the Death of Film has centered on the decline of analog celluloid imagery in favor of digital recording, a debate that often reverts back to the processes by which both sorts of images are first generated. In his 2007 book The Virtual Life of Film, D. N. Rodowick suggests that only analog images have a direct causal relationship with the recorded moment. The contact of light with a strip of film yields an image associated permanently with the instant of its creation, and, as a physical object in a time-bound world, destined to decay along with the memory of that instant. The digital image, on the other hand, consists simply of the world “quantified as a manipulable series of numbers.” The result for Rodowick is that in the capturing of the digital image “the qualities of transcription, the sense of the photograph as a document of a past state of affairs . . . are deeply attenuated”—for “once space becomes [numerical] information, it wants not to be preserved in a record of duration, but to be transformed, manipulated, and exchanged.”

Old-fashioned theorists might agree that the difference between film and digital is essentially the difference between Beyond the Clouds and Michelangelo’s Gaze: between touching (or failing to touch) a living body and feeling out the contours of a statue. They note, perhaps rightly, that there’s something lifeless about the digital image, as if it’s the ghost or shadow of an analog image it might otherwise perfectly resemble—and Antonioni delights in at once confirming and subverting that suspicion. He chose for his first digitally shot subject not a body of flesh and blood, but an inanimate representation of a body long gone—and yet the representation in question couldn’t be less ghostlike. The Moses statue is a triumph of analog representation, painstakingly hand-chipped out of marble, and filmed here with an eye for its bodily and lifeless qualities alike: it’s tangible yet completely abstracted from reality, an unrealizable physical ideal; delicate and soft in appearance, cold and inflexible in fact. If the digitally captured world can't help but feel somehow bloodless, Antonioni suggests, it might at the same time take on a new kind of being, one independent of the body but, like the Moses, nevertheless graceful and, in some sense, alive.

And yet this new sort of life first requires a kind of death: it demands a complete divorce from the restrictive laws of nature and time, a turning away from the physical world. Antonioni’s stroke had long since confined him to a wheelchair, but there he is in Michelangelo’s Gaze, walking confidently and upright, a pre-film title card tells us, “through the magic of the movies” For Antonioni, digital cinema functioned less as a grim reaper than as a savior, an opportunity to abandon his severely impaired body and take his first steps in almost twenty years. Should it matter to us that Antonioni never physically made that echoing walk into the St. Pietro or stood before Moses on foot? Does it matter that the world onscreen need only have existed as a series of numbers, when those numbers—arranged in just the right order—could manage to reverse illness, aging, and even time itself? When push comes to shove, haven’t the movies always aimed at showing the world not transcribed, but transformed?

Celluloid loyalists might argue convincingly that the sight of a world transformed is only miraculous if it comes within the context of a world transcribed—that cinematic illusion astounds us because it seems to have been built exclusively out of the stuff of the time-bound, material world. It’s why, they say, so few CGI spectacles have so far been able to inspire the sort of awe George Méliès once prompted by making a woman vanish in the space of a cut. They might say that the analog filmmaker had to occupy two ways of seeing at once: to faithfully record reality with all its flaws and limitations intact, and then struggle, edit by edit and shot by shot, to escape those limits and smooth out those flaws. Digital filmmaking is impatient by comparison. It skips straight to the transformation; makes the impossible possible less by feats of editing or mise-en-scène than by the open, malleable nature of the digital image-capture process itself. Michelangelo’s Gaze draws our attention to the realities of infirmity, old age, and death, emphasizing its maker’s physical frailty and the uncertainty of his legacy—but for all that, we never actually come face-to-face with the ailing, wheelchair-bound man who sat behind the camera of Beyond the Clouds. By the time Antonioni steps into view, it’s with a body digitally constructed (or reconstructed), walking on two digitally animated feet through a digitally processed world.

We’re asked to take or leave at least one thing about Michelangelo's Gaze: that it presents us with a vision of physical reality not redeemed, but abandoned. Antonioni’s rendering of the St. Pietro church is all sleek, polished columns and overexposed pools of light; in the film’s final moments, a choir floats into earshot to score the director’s march through an open door and into the blindingly bright world beyond. We’re led to believe that the space in which the film unfurls is a stopover between mortal life and life in the world to come—and that it’s a space perhaps only digital cinema could give us. With its increased independence from the laws of time and duration, the new medium was especially well equipped to visualize eternity onscreen; it was, after all, a sort of eternity itself.

This fact had special urgency for Antonioni, who since the sixties had been trying to prove his films worthy of serious consideration as art—and by extension, to prove himself worthy of the artist’s claim to eternal life. He was always striving to place himself within an established modernist tradition, one including the architects who inspired his stark, angular landscape shots, the novelists and poets who further soured his already bleak perspective on modern urban life, and above all the sculptors from whom he drew his radical, pared-down mise-en-scène, with its great swaths of negative space. Eventually, his own legacy became embroiled with that of his medium: he’d reached his supposed creative peak at the height of the cinema’s cultural sway, and faced down death in the same era that gave us elegy after elegy for the death of film. It’s telling—and deeply touching—that Antonioni’s vision of his own afterlife sustains itself using the same technology that was said to have put the nail in film’s coffin; that this man who spent a lifetime in search of a legacy finally found one in a medium many others seemed willing to bury before its time.

There’s something steely about the way Moses’s eyes stare off into the future, something sterile about the eternal life they represent; and, by that same token, something deeply sad in the leap from film to digital. Before being swallowed up by that wide, glowing doorframe, Antonioni turns back for one last, fond look at Michelangelo’s statue, as if its status as a midway-point between digital and film was somehow inseparable from its position as a middle ground between mortal and immortal life. In both transitions something is lost, possibly forever—the small pleasures of bodily life and the tactile delights of celluloid. It would not be wrong to say that by taking that last step into the light Antonioni betrays the body altogether—but it would not be exactly right, either. Better would be to say that his final gesture represents a step beyond the body, towards the sort of life Michelangelo continues to enjoy in the form of Moses’s gaze. For Antonioni, whose second shot at life could only last as long as cinema itself, the dawn of digital was at once more and less than the end of an era—it was an answered prayer.