"Are you an Antonioni fan?" This question, posed conversationally just before a screening of the BFI's restored version of The Red Desert, took me a little aback the other day. I paused for a moment and said "No", an answer which, in its turn, seemed to nonplus the person who'd asked in the first place.
Put as starkly as that it sounded as if I was the antithesis of an Antonioni fan. But that wasn't what I'd meant at all, and the exact nature of my feelings about Antonioni (pretty vague and formless, to be honest) weren't what had occupied the brief hiatus between question and answer. I'd actually been thinking about the word "fan" and whether I could honestly say that I was a fan of any director. What degree of commitment would it require? (Surely more than a pretty distant memory of watching a couple of films, as was the case with Antonioni.) And what if the questioner was a genuine fan and in some way tested my fanhood? Would I even be able to confidently say in which decade The Red Desert had been first released? The answer to that was "no" and so, consequently, to the other question too.
As it turned out, I am an admirer of The Red Desert –an extraordinary, unsettling, often beautiful film. But I'd still be reluctant to describe myself as an Antonioni fan. And it's the fanaticism that's the problem. That, after all, is the origin of the word, which makes its first cited appearance in the language, as "Phan", in 1682 in a verse pamphlet called "New News from Bedlam" by Theophilus Rationalis, a writer who has not otherwise troubled posterity. It doesn't really take off for another 200 years though, and it does it in America where it's initially exclusively associated with sports. Baseball fans are the spearhead troops for the spread of fanhood into other areas of life. And they pin down my anxiety about this way of characterising enthusiasm for an artist. Because what seems central to fanhood is not just that you support your own team through thick and thin but that you feel an active hostility to other teams. This might not take a very aggressive form, but your identity as a fan is at least partly dictated by the fact that you rejoice in the failures of your opponents. It's not enough for Antonioni, to win, you might say, but Tarantino has to go down to a humiliating home defeat.
Or, more troublingly, you become infuriated by anything that questions your own adherences, however politely the contradiction is expressed. That such fans exist in film is obviously true. Just check out the bulletin boards and online discussions of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. Critics of the film (who had actually seen it) provoked such hostility from fans of the franchise (who for the most part had not) that the Rotten Tomatoes website temporarily had to suspend user comments after death threats had been issued. That's the problem with fans. They so easily turn into hooligans, for whom the post-match ruck with the opposing team is far more important than the fixture itself.
I suppose there are benign forms of fandom, in which a passion for Antonioni's work can accommodate the idea that someone might legitimately not care for it at all. But malign and hysterically defensive fans seem to be increasingly common on the internet these days. So, as much as I liked The Red Desert, I don't think I'll be buying the Le Notte away strip or forking out for a L'avventura scarf. I'll stick to being a fan of cinema instead, I think, and let the directors make their case film by film.
Timely Timon's just the ticket
There was a murmur of appreciation at the opening night of Timon of Athens when a photographic backdrop showed the HSBC headquarters in Canary Wharf. The bank had been in the news because of its less than vigorous attempts to prevent drug cartel money-laundering. I wondered whether any Travelex executives in the theatre recognised El Greco's painting in the opening scene, which depicts Timon at the opening of a new wing he's endowed at a gallery. Travelex's principal business is currency exchange and they sponsor the scheme that allows cheap National Theatre tickets. Surely they could be forgiven for feeling that their feeding hand had just been given an unprovoked nip.
Too close for comfort at the Tate
I read glowing reviews of Tino Sehgal's Turbine Hall installation These Associations and I accept the sincerity of every word of them. I also know that I'm just not up to the task of adopting a patient expression and an open mind as Sehgal's planted visitors run around the space playing tag or rushing up to gallery-goers to share uninvited confidences (one woman reportedly buttonholes you about her sex life). So, if you see a man speed-walking across the space staring fixedly at the ground to ensure that no eye contact takes place it will probably be me. And should any of Tate Modern's fuggers (fine art muggers) successfully penetrate the force field they will get the standard response I give to the chuggers on London streets: “Sorry... in a bit of a rush right now.” My loss, I'm sure, but some allergies can't be overcome.