Is Anotnioni's breakthrough English language film, 1966's BLOW-UP, a masterpiece, or a dull meditation on artifice? A sober intellectual's wrongheaded attempt to duplicate the confusion of a drug experience, or the most fucked up brilliant film in the world?
Depends, man, on where your head is at. This is a head trip so you have to make sure your head is along for the ride, otherwise it aint going nowhere but sleepsville, you dig, mate?
1966 was a fabulous time to young and pretty and living in London. All you needed was to chance on someone handing out LSD, yellowjackets, blues, or mescalin at a club and BAM! You were one of the cool kids, and could stay 'up' from then on; you could dress in tailored suits shopped for at Carnaby Street boutiques and shout at models and perhaps cease bathing altogether.
Nowadays when I go to an art gallery--even in Soho--I'm kind of amazed at all the tourists, even the Europeans, struggling to seem 'overwhelmed' by the bland conceptual art. When I worked at the Cohen Gallery dealing with Chagalls and Dubuffet mixed media oils for hundreds of thousands of dollars, hung-over, I always wondered what in the hell could people see in them that I didn't. What a lot of rot, I thought. Then one Tuesday I came back from a very long psychedelic weekend in Vermont and staggered into work, suddenly I got it. Or at any rate, the tiny little lines that made up Chagall's endless drawings of chickens and Fiddlers on the roofs finally seemed interesting, alive and swirling like a bunch of little spiders weaving wedding gowns. The Dubuffets seemed to drip mud and anger and primal gravitas. My eyes, in short, were open.
Antonioni comes from a generation of artistes that seem born with such open eyes, and so in the newly turned-on 'scene' of swingin' London he found an audience readymade to 'get' his obsessive delight in the signifier-dissonance of industrial age object-making.
I love Antonioni when I'm strung out on deep art, man, but in the wrong mood--the blase' -entertain me mood-- I find him pompous, didactic and dull. You're either on board or you're not with such things and what's a deep spiritual experience one night is a snooze the next, ala Kubrick's 2001. I'm also really attuned to the engagement level of those I'm watching a film with, and BLOW-UP, more than anything, is the film to make a lot of guests shift in their seats, sigh, and check their blackberry, and then I too am over it. So I watch it alone, late at night, when the Chagalls are squiggling and the air bends and breathes around me.
But hey - it abides. DEEP RED fans will love it for David Hemmings alone, who really sinks his teeth and body into the part of a fashion photog, strutting and cocky and brutal with his unstained white pants and ruthless artist's open eye; he shags a lot of mod birds and drives a pint-sized convertible, the inspiration for the one driven decades later by AUSTIN POWERS.
Then there's a draggy mid-section that crawls along at a snail's pace as Hemmings works in his dark room, trying to see if there's a dead body in the bushes way in the background of a park photo shot on the sly of a kind of dowdy looking (Tallulah Bankhead shoulders) Vanessa Redgrave. Lots of big pixels, or whatever they're called in photo developing Hell, which is where we find ourselves, deep reds included. Paranoid alien hunters who spend their lunch hours as I do, looking for alien artifacts on topographical NASA photos of the moon will surely relate.
The best BLOW scenes are the ones outside the studio: Hemmings, trying to find his hedonistic intellectual buddy to get his opinion on the murder photo; the onstage friction in the Yardbirds show between guitarists Jimi Page and Jeff Beck, the latter finally breakins his guitar and hurling the remains into the crowd, which causes people to fight over it in a way that resembles the big stock market flurries of earlier and later Antonioni films. Back on the empty London side street Hemmings tosses the broken neck away, forgetting even why he has it or what it is, and ends up (similar to the lovers at the end of L'AVENTURA) forgetting all about his original purpose of asking his buddy about the murder photo and going off to either smoke pot or be in an orgy or pass out, or get his queer on with the intellectual guy, whom Hemming clearly sees as an authority figure of sorts. Far out! Ambiguity!
Clicking with the artsy counterculture youth would never come this easy again for old Antonioni, though it's probably not his fault: the mainstream public just kind of stopped going to deep art house films, just as he stopped going, one presumes, to love-ins. There was a new kind of art house at the end of the 1960s: hardcore pornography.
But before then, Antonioni was on top of the world as far as the hip youth zeitgeist matching his intellectual aspirations in poker-faced absurdity. Lightning wouldn't strike twice with Southern California (ZABRISKIE POINT) but London is groovy and Antonioni swings right with it, adding his own wry touches. Like Basquiat tweaking a Warhol Esso print, Antonioni collaborates with (rather than dominates) the scene. In THE PASSENGER is Antonioni collaborating with the scene? Honey, I still haven't seen that film all the way through without falling asleep, but I'm fairly sure there ain't no scene. In ZABRISKIE POINT is he collaborating with the scene? Honey, there ain't no scene left by ZABRISKIE either. Manson and the draft took it all away. The best Antonioni can do in ZABRISKIE is film some kinky nudist theater group rolling about in the dust and pick some good songs (I have the soundtrack on LP!) like a druggy Italian Cameron Crowe.
Plus, Antonioni seemed to be losing his sense of humor by ZABRISKIE, and that's something other disillusioned auteurs like Godard and Fellini never seemed to do. One should get funnier as one gets older! There's a fork in the road for every creative artist once they reach a certain amount of success: do you begin to believe your own bullshit, or continue to believe only in your own absurdity? It's all up to you, man. Depression vs. enlightenment; freedom vs. ego prison. In 1966 people were just beginning to realize there was even a difference! There was no precedent for what they were doing, so it wasn't cliche. Optimism was actually in the air, something we can hardly imagine today, and yet, Antonioni was already giving up.
But that all came a few years after BLOW-UP, which still has the deadpan jubilance and sick sense of humor that L'ECLISSE, L'AVENTURA and RED DESERT before it had. In other words, it hums along and creates art even as it critiques it. It's alive, and if you're in the right frame of mind, swirling like a spider riot of Chagallian ink and Dubuffet amber.