Is Antnioni'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, a Marxist intellectuals critique of the high-end fashion industry or the most dosedly brilliant film in the world? Correct. Wrong. Pow... (no exclamation point).
1966 was a fabulous time to be young, rich and pretty in London. If you had even two of those things going on, all you needed was for some pop-eyed freak to toss you a capsule of LSD or mescaline or pass you the joint and BAM! You were one of the cool kids. The crazy scene reached out to meet you. The whole happening thing was... happening...
Words didn't work on it. Only art.
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 installations. When I worked at the Cohen Gallery dealing with Chagall oils, Sam Francis gouaches and Dubuffet mixed media, 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 where a whole collection of Chagalls were on display, suddenly I got it. Or at any rate, the tiny little lines that made up Chagall's endless drawings of floating chickens and fiddlers on 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, or I was hallucinating.
Antonioni seems to have been born with such open hallucinating eyes, and so in the newly turned-on 'scene' of 1966 swinging London, he found an audience that had at last caught up with him and his obsessive delight in the signifier-dissonance of industrial age object-making. In Antonioni's hands, the whole emerging pop scene became what only Duchamp's "Fountain" had been fifty years earlier.
I love Antonioni but, like with those Chagall, only when I'm strung out on deep art (or whatever else you got). But in the wrong mood--the "I'm an American, and I'm here to escape it" mood-- I find him pompous, monotonous and obvious. As with watching Kubrick's 2001, what might be a deep spiritual experience one night is a snooze the next. I'm also really attuned to the engagement level of those I'm watching a film with, and BLOW-UP is the sort of film destined to make a lot of guests shift in their seats, sigh, and check their Blackberry; and if they do, then I, too, am over it. So I watch it alone, late at night, when the Chagalls are squiggling and the air breathes itself through me. And if I can't get into it by the time this scene rolls up (below), then I just bail for another time.
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 the fashion photographer lead. Strutting and cocky and brutal with his unstained white pants and ruthless artist's open eye, he shags a lot of mod birds, or at least takes pics of them (and what's cool about him is that the latter is more important - he's genuinely driven by his art, the cock follows), and drives a snazzy pint-sized convertible, the kind you step down to get into, which is clearly the inspiration for the one driven decades later by Austin Powers. It's his happening and it freaks him out, in theory.
But it's not all eye-con-ography and groovy clothes; a snail's paced mid-section finds Hemmings in his dark room "blowing up" part of a shot he took in Hyde Park, which he thinks might be a body, until the pixels are shilling-size. There's no music all through this section and it's enough to drive a snail restless. With her 'working-class Garbo' hair and 'bantamweight Bankhead' shoulders, Vanessa Redgrave shows up as the desperate bird (trying to get the Hyde negative) and seems to have wandered in from a different movie. For a hot minute the film seems poised to follow her and leave Hemmings behind; the signifier chains all shudder with the weary weight of a tourist changing dictionaries at some Blockbuster aisle border --but Hemmings won't have it. Alas, to his stunned chagrin, no one in his stoner circle will believe him about the body, so his wannabe thriller never gels. He's conscripted to the hipsters not the detectives, and-- by the end--even mime tennis seems like the most leaden of federal prison chores compared to the murder mystery that's sailed on without him.
Paranoid alien hunters who spend their lunch hours looking for alien artifacts on topographical NASA photos of the moon will surely relate both to Hemming's obsession with jumping matrixes, and my frustration with Antonioni's oeuvre. Either way, the bird flies off, but Antonioni's still in the dark room... now the pixels are the size of grapefruits and yeah, there's a body there, all right. Maybe... isn't there? If there is, he'd be a fool to get involved and we begin to feel like the only one who wants to keep watching this colossal waste of cinematic time-space is Francis Coppola, so he can then go make The Conversation and De Palma, so he can make Blow-Out and Argento so he can make Bird with Crystal Plumage and then Deep Red (with Hemmings) and Elio Petri so he can make A Quiet Place in the Country (with Redgrave). The rest of us just want to get on out of that goddamned studio and soak up the sultry London air.... where the birds are, and all those valuable guitar necks just laying in the streets like found objets d'art-detritus.
What I 'mean' is that at a packed club the Yardbirds are engaging in a cutting contest between Jimi Page and Jeff Beck, which causes the latter to smash his guitar and hurl the neck into the crowd (this was a year before Monterey Pop made such acts of violence officially 'in'). The crowd flies into a mosh pit feeding frenzy to get that guitar neck. Hemmings grabs it, fights his way out, but once he makes it to the street, casts it aside like some old broken chew toy that, without other dogs scrambling for it, has no value.
Clicking with the artsy counterculture youth would never come this easy again for old Antonioni, though it wouldn't for Dennis Hopper either (Zabriskie Point is better than The Last Movie), but Blow-up is a deliriously perfect meeting between the sardonic post-structural humanist of L'Aventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse and swingin' London, like two saxophonists in a subway car, not knowing each other in the beginning, but by the end jamming together in a perfect psychic union.
Sadly, lightning never tastes as good the second time. Antonioni moved from London to Southern California for Zabriskie Point (1970) where he seems either a step behind or miles ahead of the stoned desert youths. Are the zonked flower children of America too much for him? Is he collaborating with these kids or just filming them and wondering where his translator wandered off to? Even a kinky nudist theater group rolling about in the dust can't kick up any resonance. We want to believe it's their fault not his. How many of us have gone west expecting kismet, kinsmen and kingdoms but wound up dispirited, disheartened and discombobulated? Me, whatever a "me" is these days.
Worse, Antonioni seemed to be losing his sense of humor by Zabriskie and that's something similarly disillusioned intellectual auteurs like Godard and Fellini never seem to do. One should get funnier as one gets older, irregardless of how little you connect with the stoned youths, it's your only saving grace. There's a fork in the road for every creative artist once they reach a certain amount of success: do they begin to believe their own bullshit or continue to believe only in their own absurdity? It's all up to you, man. Depression vs. enlightenment, freedom vs. ego prison, truth or illusion. If you're sure you know which is which, you're wrong. In 1966, people were just beginning to realize there was no precedent for what they were doing. It wasn't cliche 'til they realized they'd really, actually, genuinely cracked open some new bottles anf broke new ground. Optimism was actually visible in the air, something we can hardly imagine today, and yet, Antonioni was already giving up. In that, as with everything else, he was ahead of the curve, but what a curve! A curve from which no artist returneth unhackneyed.
But we're talking Blow-Up, so that first hit of LSD scored by the first pretty young Londoner is still pulsing in 1966 electric pink and Antonioni still has his deadpan jubilance and sick deader-than-deadpan sense of humor. Here is a man who creates and critiques art at the same time and yet somehow keeps it alive and swirling, like a spider riot of Chagalian ink and Dubuffet mud. His art's so on point you feel you just might disappear if--rather than get hung up on annoying slowness or Hemmings' overall brattiness--you can keep focused on framing, movement, and sensory input.
Abstract from close-up, but from far-away.... dead.... this is our plastic soldier.
RIP really means 'rewind if possible.'