Thursday, April 14, 2011

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

Is Antnioni's breakthrough 1966 English language film BLOW-UP a masterpiece, 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, yes, maybe, certainly not, and No... but yeah, baby --its date of release, 1966, tells you all you need to know. BLOW-UP was as iconic and 'scene-launching' as Andy's soup cans, the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. It was 'the' thing to see in theaters if you wanted to be 'hip'. It heralded a slew of films rife with modern/post-modernist deconstructed high fashion pretty person disaffect, art critique, ambiguity, cool music, and--depending on the country and filmmaker--draggy leftist politics. You can chart its blast radius in all genre directions, from romance to western to horror to comedy and--most of all--to artsty posing.

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. If you needed to explain, you'd already blown it. 

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. It's as if the idea of aesthetic beauty or visible talent has been forgotten, making the need to even show up to the gallery kind of passe. You can just read the description, and if you like it, buy it (the description I mean, as it might be all there is). When I worked at the Cohen Gallery dealing with a lot of Chagall oils and Dubuffet mixed media pieces (the latter clearly just childish magic marker scribble on thin copy paper taped to a canvas - probably he was doing hundreds in one sitting on large pieces of paper, which were then cut up and glued to canvasses by assistants) for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Usually 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. Most of this stuff was done by assistants, the artist maybe showing up to sign them or maybe not. The idea of one-of-a-kind masterpieces was lost in the rush to crank out maximum product with minimum effort.

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 real (as in ink and clay on canvas) Dubuffets seemed to drip mud and anger and primal gravitas. My eyes, in short, were open--or maybe I was hallucinating. Anything would look good to me, and maybe that was the point. Was the point of the whole art world thing just a means to show off how deep you saw, how druggy all the time your vision was, a kind micro-tripping hallucinational envy? The rest of the world looked at a Rothko or a Twombly and rolled their eyes - "you payed how much for this? I wouldn't even let my five year-old daughter put this on our fridge!?"

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 signifier-dissonance and juxtaposing aesthetics. In Antonioni's hands, the whole emerging pop scene became what Duchamp's "Fountain" had been fifty years earlier --a pot for the whole world to piss in. 

I love Antonioni, but only when I'm strung out on deep art (or whatever else you got). In the wrong mood---the "I'm an American, and I'm here to escape" mood-- I find his work somewhat monotonous. 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 cell phones; and if they do, then I, too, am over it. So I usually 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 after twenty minutes, then I just bail for another time. It ain't going nowhere. It's already gone. 

But hey -Blow-Up abides. Argento fans love it for it holds a key to his whole aesthetic. You can usually tell whose films were affected by it --as suddenly David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave are in just about every cool movie being made (Hemmings in Deep Red, Redgrave in A Quiet Place in the Country, etc.) And Hemmings' photographer in Blow-Up could well be the pianist in Deep Red. 

Strutting and cocky and brutal with his unstained white pants and ruthless artist's open eye, Hemmings' photographer 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 and Mars 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 (1970); Giulio Questi so he can go make Death Laid an Egg (1968) and Elio Petri so he can make A Quiet Place in the Country (1968 - 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-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), we find the Yardbirds are engaging in a cutting contest between their twin guitar soloists: Jimi Page and Jeff Beck. Page surges to victory as Beck's amp-cord-guitar connection is crackly to connect. This so frustrates poor Jeff  he smashes his guitar and hurls the neck into the crowd (this was a year before Monterey Pop made such acts of catharsis a obligatoire symbole of rebellious youth). Well, now our photographer friend is caught up in the pre-mosh/pre-slam dancing packed frenzy to get that guitar neck and he proves himself adept at the kind of selfish oomph it takes in a situation like that. He grabs it, fights his way out to the empty, indifferent London street with it, and then--seeing no one else is still around to fight over it with-- casts it aside like some old broken chew toy, an objet valuable only in relation to what the suckers, I mean the other dogs, will pay.

Comparing with the old wooden airplane propellor he haggled over with the antique store owner earlier that same afternoon, one wonders: if he saw that same propellor just abandoned in a back alley trash bin, would he have wanted it so badly?  Is it not, like the broken guitar neck, just trash once shorn of its usefulness? Would the propellor cease to be an art object once attached to a plane?

Though we can imagine him selling the guitar neck in 40 years to the Hard Rock Cafe, that would mean authenticating it, which would be hard, and keeping it safe in storage for decades on the off chance it would one day have value. 

Sadly, lightning never tastes as good the second time. 

After the worldwide success of Blow-Up, Antonioni had such counterculture clout he could get away with almost anything. And so, whisked himself off to Southern California--where it was all happening, at least in the minds of Europeans-to make another (hopefully) zeitgeist-riding hit, Zabriskie Point (1970). The difference between that film and Blow-Up is so pronounced as to be tragic.  It's like Altamont to Monterey Pop, or The Last Movie to Easy Rider, or New York New York to Taxi Driver. Even the Brother Sun, Sister Moon to Romeo and Juliet. The list is endless, one is usually from the late-60s and accidentally hit/became the zeitgeist dead on; the follow-up presumed zeitgeist-hitting and fell on its face. We're all guilty of this sin (except maybe Quentin Tarantino). Every artist who taps the moment of their generation has to deal with the sudden shock of not tapping it a second time. It's the way of things. Once you presume you can hammer that gong at the top of carnival relevance tester as easy the second time, you barely make it to theaters. Wherece you couldn't walk down the street without being cheered, now you're ignored - people afraid to even be seen in the same room lest your bad luck rub off. You hide for a decade until your wounds heal and nostalgia makes you once again 'cool.' You try again, and maybe you hit a whole different way - a Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but mostly you just kind of come back as a craftsman, doing TV, doing other people's movies to make money for your own project, an adaptation of Dracula, or a small scale French thriller (in Paris, revered once is revered for life). 

And Zabriskie is exhibit A. It had barely been four years since the big Blow, but now Michelangelo seemed either a step behind these stoned California desert youths or so far ahead he had gotten lost in the scrub. 

The Brits of '66 were high, but they were sharp. They had a good sense of aesthetics and knew the truth behind signifiers -- at the same time! You don't get that her in the US. The kids of the American Southwest were clueless by comparison, zonked flower children who mistook rattling their capitalist dads with anti-Vietnam parroting as 'freedom'. Rather than forge new roads they stood on the old, unpaved ones and painted little flowers on the stop signs and tried to look 'engaged' over rhetoric at their college student unions. Did drugs and Vietnam burn out the 'now generation' so soon or had this wing of the family always been trend-chasing consumerist zombies? 

Is this the devil's bargain that is enlightenment through chemicals? Is Antonioni 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. But it's both of theirs. What did he think was going to happen? These kids never saw Blow-out - they were still in high school at the time, if they hadn't dropped out by then. They were going to see Planet of the Apes and Beach Blanket Bingo at the drive-in. And what they didn't know about history wasn't important. All they needed to know was that some old guard Italian guy was trying to tell them how young rebellious Californians should behave in order to look authentic. 

Ah but can we blame them, or him? 

How many of us have gone west expecting kismet, kinsmen and kingdoms but wound up dispirited, disheartened and discombobulated? 

All. All of us. 

Even 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 would. One should get funnier as one gets older, regardless of how little you connect with the stoned youth of tomorrow. It's your only saving grace after they move on - and they will. But they'll check in if it means a good laugh. 

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 do they embrace their own absurdity? Depression vs. enlightenment; freedom vs. ego prison; truth vs. illusion --if you're sure you know which is which, you're almost certainly wrong. Certainty is the sole luxury of ignorance. 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, they weren't great any more. 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. 

Well, maybe you couldn't plant anything anymore but you could still see--flash-frozen--an example of optimism being actually visible in the air. It was something we can hardly imagine today ever being thawed, no matter how warm the planet gets. Antonioni to his credit never stuck around to wait for the spring. He went off to other yonders, over the rim which no traveler returneth, to make The Passenger. That priapic identity melt-down movie with the ultimate midlife crisis-bait, Last Tango in Paris' Maria Schneider, was the furrow then. He could relax and draft behind someone else's blow-ing.

But don't let's get distracted! 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. 

Alive... in close-up, but... from far-away.... dead....So war the summer of our plastic soldier. 

Looking at it all backwards, you feel, there in 1966 (Antonioni was already 54) though it's about youth, art, and alienation in the pursuit of some ephemeral truth--old Michelangelo was already subetextually signaling the chill of old age, social irrelevance, and death (his rebellious summer was almost being shot as a partisan; idolizing the downtrodden for their spontaneity while living as a comfortable college-educated bourgeois; railing against Catholic 'morality' (then much worse). He and his generation has won these kids' freedom from the church and state, damn it. And the most they can do by way of thanks is to humor him... for now. But contrasting those amok mimes with sad grotty old timers leaving the shelter, last night's stale booze still churning in their gutty-wuts, staggering in a weary line, booted out of their nice warm cots, out into the youth colored candy streets where they no longer belong, this was no mere jab at his own penchant for slumming and happenings. He knew where he was headed. And why Hemmngs' photographer might be so upset and intrigued by his first oblique glimpse of it. Those end credits... larger and larger they grow -- until you're on the other side of them. Some other movie is starting. And it's not yours. What can you do, but laugh clown, laugh? 


  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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