Friday, March 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Blow-Up" (1966)

It's always funny to watch a film from back when that was considered racy in its day. "Blow-Up" was the first English-language film by the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, and was picked up by MGM for release in the U.S.

But with its generous helping of nude(ish) flesh, the film couldn't get past the censors, still functioning in 1966 but wavering as more films with provocative material were becoming mainstream. MGM created a special distribution wing for "Blow-Up."

Seen today, the movie would be unlikely to get anything harsher than a PG-13 rating. The nudity is mostly oblique -- Vanessa Redgrave famously played an entire extended scene topless, but her breasts are never fully seen.

Based on a short story about a hip British photographer, "Blow-Up" is framed as a whodunit, but mostly is an exploration of swinging London of the 1960s. At the time of its release, it was viewed as a celebration of everything "mod." But I think the film, and Antonioni, paint a more critical of this movement than first glance would suggest.

Start with the fact that the protagonist, Thomas, is completely unlikeable. As played forcefully by David Hemmings, Thomas is vain, selfish, egotistical and utterly unconcerned with anyone's feelings than his own. A famous fashion photographer who yearns to be taken more seriously as an artist, Thomas treats his models as beautiful playthings to be manipulated and disposed of.

Perhaps the most famous image from the film is from Thomas' photo shoot with a supermodel (Veruschka von Lehndorff, playing herself) in a skimpy dress. At one point he straddles her on the ground while she writhes. Then he gets up and leaves abruptly: He's finished with her, and therefore she holds no more allure for him once her image has been satisfactorily captured.

At one point he complains about having to photograph women, referring to them as "these bitches." In another famous scene, he cavorts with two young girls who have come to his home studio hoping to become models, chasing them around and tearing off their clothes in a fascinating sequence that blends eroticism, subjugation and misogyny. They're all laughing, but Thomas wears a sadistic expression throughout.

Thomas doesn't seem to stand for anything, or possess any underlying principles. He's pure id, completely caught up in whatever grabs his interest in the moment, then moving on to the next thing once he quickly grows bored. He buys a huge airplane propeller from an antique store, then forgets all about it until the delivery man shows up with it.

He wanders into a park and takes some pictures of a man and woman canoodling. The well-dressed man is suspiciously older than the girl, whose name turns out to be Jane. She catches sight of Thomas taking their photograph, and confronts him to demand the pictures -- even trying to snatch away his camera and biting his wrist when he resists.

Later she shows up at his studio, again insisting upon obtaining the negatives. Thomas plays with her cruelly, thinking she's just cheating with a married man and doesn't want to get caught. She even undresses in hopes of seducing him in exchange for the photos. Thomas again resists temptation, and gives her a different roll of film.

When he blows up the pictures, he sees what appears to be a figure standing in the bushes with a gun. He returns to the park and finds the older man stone dead. Was the couple's foray into the park a set-up to kill him? Is Jane a terrified dupe or part of the plot?

Antonioni deliberately keeps the potboiler aspects of the plot at arm's length in order to explore the London scene -- the fashion, the music, the freewheeling spirit. Near the end there's an extended chase sequence where Thomas thinks he spots Jane on the street, and pursues her. This is where things really get interesting.

Antonioni depicts the twentysomethings of mid-60s England not as vibrant, brash rebels, but zombie-like figures dulling their senses with booze, drugs and emotional detachment.

While chasing Jane, Thomas stumbles into a club where a rock 'n' roll band is playing. Hundreds of young people decked out in fashionable clothes stand or sit, listening intently to the music but barely moving. They have no expression on their faces. A few heads nod almost imperceptibly in time, but otherwise everyone seems more mesmerized by the concert than enjoying it. A lone couple dance nonchalantly, their rhythmic activity serving only to underline the torpor of the rest of the crowd.

The band was played by The Yardbirds, performing their song "Stroll On." The guitarist is annoyed by static from a faulty amplifier, and starts hammering it with his guitar. Eventually he smashes the instrument and throws the battered remains of the neck into the crowd, which suddenly erupts into frenzy. The once-comatose audience scrambles for the trashed relic, which Thomas manages to grab hold of and flee the club, pursued by others who want the souvenir.

Once he gets away, Thomas looks at the half-guitar and sullenly tosses it onto the street. Another young man picks it up, inspects it, and throws it back down. It's Antonioni's comment on how the things the mod crowd value are so shallow and ultimately worthless.

Thomas wanders into a party looking for his friend and business partner, Ron, and finds everyone stoned out of their minds. He tries to explain to Ron about having witnessed a murder, but can't pierce his friend's drug-induced haze.

Returning to his studio, he discovers all the photographs but one stolen. He returns to the park to find the body gone. His chances of exposing the crime -- and gaining fame and fortune for doing so -- are gone.

Wandering around the park, he comes across a troupe of mimes riding around in a jalopy. (The same group opened the film, accosting Thomas for money, which he bemusedly gave.) He watches them conduct a mime game of tennis, even returning an errant "ball" that goes over the fence near him, and hearing the sound of nonexistent racquets.

I tend not to like rambling storylines like this, but I think "Blow-Up" is the rare film where the subtext is more interesting than the surface.

3.5 stars

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