Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Blow-Up (1966)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Time for a confession: I don't particularly care for Michelangelo Antonioni's films, and it's mostly because of Jean-Luc Godard. I had an English teacher in high school who noted that, given the similarities between authors Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway, people who like Melville tend to dislike Hemingway, and vice versa. I'm that way with Antonioni and Godard. For the most part, both filmmakers were part of a larger countercultural cinema, and made films that were incredibly self-reflexive. That is, their films consistently referenced other films, and the characters seemed to be cognizant that they were characters in a film. It's not really fair to compare them, though, as both men were working from different backgrounds and had different ideas. They were both blowing up (see what I did there?) conventional notions of what cinema could be, but they weren't doing it the same way.

But where Godard's films, for me at least, vibrate with his genuine love and fascination with the medium, Antonioni's films are almost too self-consciously made. Granted, they are handsomely made films (more about that in a second). But watching one of his films, be it L'Avventura (1960), Zabriskie Point (1970), or Blow-Up, you just never get the sense that he has that same love of cinema. His deconstructions are cold, clinical, and filled with impish "screw you" attitude that never really feels like such (this is also why I've never been a fan of Community, but that's for a different post). To me, at least, if Godard is the cheerleader at the pep rally trying to rile up the crowd, then Antonioni is the kid who's slouching the bleachers telling everyone about how he's "too cool" for this (maybe not the best metaphor, but you get the gist).

Despite those cold feelings, though, there's no denying that Antonioni knows how to compose a terrific image. More after the jump….

That's appropriate for a film about a London photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), who might have accidentally photographed a murder in a park one day. As in any Antonioni film, "plot" isn't really the purpose of the story so much as the framework he uses to casually toss in scenes of youth generally mucking about. The film opens with a vehicle full of young people carousing and yelling, not about anything in particular, then running through the streets of London to occasionally ask for money.

From there, the film mostly just focuses on Thomas as he goes about a normal day, shooting photographs of models in his mod studio (accompanied by Herbie Hancock's score) and shopping for new props. This early segment of the film is mostly an excuse for Antonioni to show off some nifty visuals, including the stage where he photographs a few models with screens:

The first shot, in particular, showcases his love of deep-focus photography, as the camera sits way back within the stage and filters Thomas through a few of the screens. What's interesting about this motif is how Antonioni bends it throughout the film to fit his vision. Here, in the studio, it's part of how Thomas does his job. But when he fatefully follows a couple into the park, it takes on a more sinister tone.

The camera alternates from what we presume to the Thomas' point-of-view, as the couple cavorts around the park. But then it switches to another perspective, as seen in the second shot above. Now it appears that someone is watching Thomas watching the couple, and instead of the "innocence" of the photography in the studio, Antonioni hints at the idea of Thomas being watched. It's here that it becomes clear that Antonioni is doing his own unique riff on the surveillance thriller, which is capped off with my selection for "best shot":

The composition of the shot is terrific, with lots of straight lines moving into a focal point in the background. Thomas thinks he might have been followed, and gazes down the street into a thicket of trees. But does he actually see anything? Antonioni coyly fills the frame with potential suspects, but never makes any of them clear enough for the audience to discern. We're just as paranoid as Thomas is.

I wasn't a big fan of the film, and I've had to put off spending more timing writing this thanks to the long hours I've been working. But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention two things that I did enjoy. The first is Vanessa Redgrave as Jane, the woman in the park who may have planned the murder. This film was one of Redgrave's first major roles, and she's marvelous here. I particularly enjoy the scene where she and Thomas listen to music on the radio. She bops about to the music, he tells her to slow down and dance against the beat, then gives her a cigarette. It's endearingly entertaining.

The second is a brief appearance in the third act by British band The Yardbirds. The band enjoyed some modest success in the United States during the 1960s, particularly once the British Invasion went into full swing. But they are perhaps best-known today for being the band that introduced the world to guitarists Eric Clapton (who founded Derek and the Dominos and Cream after this band's breakup), Jimmy Page (who founded Led Zeppelin after this band's breakup), and Jeff Beck (who mostly went solo).

The iteration of the band that appears in the club scene features both Beck and Page, the latter of whom gets frustrated with the feedback in his amplifier and smashes his guitar, Pete Townshend-style. Even though they play the high-energy "Stroll On," the mod crowd mostly stands still, faces frozen in bland disengagement while the band tears it up onstage.

These are the only people dancing in the audience during their performance. They're the only ones who get it, obviously.

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