Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Summer of my Plastic Soldier: BLOW-UP (1966)

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 critique of the high-end fashion industry, or the most psychedelically brilliant film in the world? Correct. Wrong. Pow... (no exclamation point).

1966 London was, by all the stretches, a fabulous time and place to be young, rich, artistic and pretty. 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. No turning back, or need to. The crazy scene reached out to meet you. The whole happening thing was... happening...

Words didn't work on it. Only art. Music. Sights. Images. Tactile shapes. Language was little more than a falling away booster rocket.

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 a lot of Chagall oils and Dubuffet mixed media pieces (the latter looking like scribbled magic marker people on thin copy paper taped to a canvas), day in and day out, for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, hung-over, I always wondered what in the hell could people see in these piece of shit canvasses 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. Anything would look good to me, and maybe that was the point. Was the whole art world thing that could make crap like this so valuable, just a way to show off how deep you saw, how druggy all the time your vision was, a kind micro-tripping hallucinational envy?

Antonioni seems to have been born with such open ever-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 fall-out 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" 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 in the theater of my enraptured lungs. And if I can't get into the groove by the time this early-ish scene rolls up (below), then I just bail for another time.

But hey - it abides. Argento fans will love it for it holds a key to his whole aesthetic, and for David Hemmings alone, who really sinks his teeth and little 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 a distant second, never upsetting the apple cart of his drive for great pictures), and he 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, a section of bushes under which he thinks might be a hiding a dead body. He blows and blows until the pixels are shilling-size, and Atonioni patiently follows along, hypnotized by the empty white space (and no music) of Hemmings alone in his studio, blowing and blowing. 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 still molten new set of signifier chains rattle with the weary weight of a tourist changing dictionaries at some Blockbuster aisle border --but Hemmings won't have it. It's not like he has an old cop war buddy to call on for help like Jimmy Stewart does in Rear Window. He just want to see.

Alas, to his stunned chagrin, no one in his stoner circle he runs to that night 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 personal 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; De Palma, so he can make Blow-Out; 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 objets d'art-detritus..

What I 'mean' is that at a packed rock club that Hemmings visits to find his 'friend who'll know what to do' (about the body), the Yardbirds are engaging in a cutting contest between their twin guitar soloists Jimi Page and Jeff Beck, which causes the latter to smash his guitar and hurl the neck into the crowd in frustration (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 to the busy, indifferent London street, and then--seeing no one else is around to battle for it-- casts it aside like some old broken chew toy that, without other dogs scrambling for it, instantly loses any value. Comparing with the old wooden airplane propellor he haggled over with the antique store owner earlier that same afternoon,  one wonders - if Hemmings saw that same propellor just abandoned in a back alley trash bin, would he have wanted it so badly? Or does that, with its sexy shape, have intrinsic value, where the guitar neck, the strings hanging idiotically down around it, is just trash once stripped of its rock god association. Though we can imagine him selling it in 40 years to a branch of the Hard Rock Cafe for display, he can't - he's still in 1966 and has no apparent concept of ever leaving it.

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 way 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 swinging mod 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 took his newfound counterculture clout to Southern California for Zabriskie Point (1970). The difference is like Altamont compared to Monterey Pop. It's barely been four years, but now Michelangelo seems either a step behind or miles ahead of these stoned California desert youths. Are the zonked flower children of America too much for him? Did drugs burn out the now generation so soon? Is this the devil's bargain that is enlightenment through chemicals? Is he collaborating with these kids or just filming them while 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. Me have!

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 after they move on - and they will.

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 in their own absurdity? 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 - by the time they knew how great they were, great they weren't. It wasn't cliche 'til they realized they'd really, actually plowed up new ground. As soon as they realized it, cliche hardened up the furrow behind them like a Russian winter. You couldn't plant anything, but you could see, flash-frozen, an example of optimism being actually visible in the air. It was something we can hardly imagine today ever being thawed. Antonioni to his credit never stuck around to wait. He went off to other yonders, over the rim which no traveler returneth - the priapic identity melt-down movie with the ultimate midlife crisis-bait, Last Tango in Paris' Maria Schneider.

But we're talking Blow-Up, it's still 1966 - that first hit of LSD scored by the first pretty young Londoner is still pulsing electric pink and Antonioni still has his deadpan ennui-encrusted 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 inside an empty corpse. 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. On the right mood-enhancer of course.

Abstract from close-up, but from far-away.... dead.... this is our plastic soldier.

RIP really means 'rewind if possible.'


  1. Anonymous01 July, 2013

    So Erich, you remember that brilliant TV movie with Kristy McNicol as well.

  2. Who could forget it?? Though I barely remember it, the title stuck with me, one of my first mix CDs was called "Electric Summer of my German Soldier"


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