- Pass/Fail:The Antonioni Screen Test
For Carlo di Carlo,who, like Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince,gave himself to others
Screen magnetism is something secret—if you could only figure out what it is and how to make it, you’d have a really good product to sell. But you can’t even tell if someone has it until you actually see them up there on the screen. You have to give screen tests to find out.—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol
To perform in the glare of arc lamps while simultaneously meeting the demands of the microphone is a test performance of the highest order. To accomplish it is to preserve one’s humanity in the face of the apparatus.—Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”
In the mid 1960s, on both sides of the Atlantic, there emerged several experimental film projects taking the screen test as their central conceit. Also in narrative fiction films revolving around the lives and labors of the movie industry—in Hollywood, in Cinecittà—the situation of the screen test recurs. Clearly it lends itself to a focused, even existential drama in which basic forces are put [End Page 191] into play: character, role, the rise to and fall from stardom, the confrontation of the individual with the indifferent powers of the industry and with the camera that mercilessly exposes her deficiencies, her age, her weakness—her humanity, in short. In post-classical cinema, especially, such scenes erupt. Almost invariably they tell of crisis and failure, bespeaking the cinema’s heightened self-consciousness upon the decline of the studio system, the decomposition of genres and rupture of formal boundaries, and the aging and death of stars. The films with which I am concerned thematize these symptoms to reflect on the historical condition of the cinema, to foreground an existential confrontation with mass culture in late modernity. The encounter of the human subject with the apparatus—the technology, the studio, the industry—is dramatized and intensified, and yet the screen test often remains unresolved in these films: The question of the contender “passing” or “failing” the test, of a role being won or lost, is suspended or displaced onto different spheres of social being and of consciousness. The irresolution of the screen test radicalizes it as form and as idea. It blurs distinctions of “subject,” “actor,” “character,” and “role,” heightening anxieties about human agency in late modernity. It has thus prompted my return to the somewhat antiquated notion of the “person” in these pages.
With few exceptions, little attention has been accorded to the workings of the screen test as form and as trope.1 Surely its most stunning artistic appropriation to stage the confrontation of person and apparatus has been achieved by Andy Warhol: His Screen Tests (US, 1964–66) have deservedly garnered the most attention and have not been in the least exhausted by it. What powers did Warhol locate in the screen test’s laying bare of the apparatus—from technology to visuality, from market to human conditions? How did he devise the confrontational fiction of the screen test as an existential predicament in which “being” is staged and its performance is put to the test? How did it mediate Warhol’s incredible recovery of the portrait in the the history of art, confirming the moving image as a veritable “art of the person”? Elsewhere I pursue these issues as part of a study of the human face in the cinema.2 I will here direct these questions toward another work, contemporary with Warhol’s project: a minor film of a major auteur. Dubbed Il provino/The Screen Test, it is Michelangelo Antonioni’s mostly neglected Prefazione, the Preface to Dino De Laurentiis’s tri-part omnibus production, I tre volti/Three Faces of a Woman (IT, 1965).3 Il provino revolves around the screen test of a woman already singled out as a celebrity and seeking, possibly, to give some substance and meaning to her public image—and perhaps to remake her life—through movie acting (see figure 1). Antonioni parses the material, formal, and psychic coordinates intersecting...