Thursday, 30 August 2012

Antonioni swings… Blow Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970)

I didn’t start out wanting to write about Blow Up. It’s a long time favourite and a film I’ve not wanted to over-analyse for fear of breaking the delicate strands of nostalgia that hold it up as one of my “favourites”.

That’s favourite as in really like… in an unquestioning and unconditional way. It’s not an overtly rational Sight and Sound poll sort of decision but one based on layers of imposed meaning at various stages of my life. I’d liked it for its hip credentials, its crystal clear view of the world I missed growing up in and its inherent cleverness… it was too smart to demolish even when I saw it as a jaundiced twenty-something.

But… I’d just watched Zabriskie Point and I wanted something to compare it with… to understand how Antonioni could go from the focus and intensity of Red Desert to the almost empty Zabriskie... 

This the very stuff of Antonioni. All film is a search for meaning and that meaning can only really be defined through sharing it with others. So… in the same way that David Hemming’s photographer wanted to show the dead body only he had seen, to someone else… I would like to share my discovery with you.
Alright, straight into pseuds’ corner with this but I’ll give it a go.

Zabriskie Point was Antonioni’s first American film and he spent almost four years on the project searching for the right story, locations, music and cast. It begins promisingly enough with what looks like a genuinely heated discussion amongst actual students about revolution and race. Over an impressively formless percussive music track from Pink Floyd, the youths argue whether white people can truly become revolutionary and whether they are willing to die for the cause (whatever it is…).

One participant, Mark (Mark Frechette) gets up and says that he’s prepared to die but not from boredom… he means it, man. We move through a series of fragmentary scenes culminating in student arrests after which Mark refers to himself as Karl Marx whilst being processed by the police. We’re not given any defined set of beliefs for Mark though, he might be a communist or he might just like the idea of revolt.

A policeman is shot during a student occupation. Mark was about to pull his trigger but someone struck first. He runs and ends up stealing a plane…

At the same time we’re introduced to a young student Daria (Daria Halprin) who is working part-time with a property company to help fund her studies. She takes to the road in a magnificent old Buick off to meet up with her bread-head boss (Rod Taylor).

Daria and Mark meet up after he spies her from above. They end up at Zabriskie Point, a quiet and exceptionally beautiful area of the Californian desert which, almost, provides the film’s visual highpoint. They make love amongst the prehistoric river beds seemingly accompanied by dozens of others… yet as the dust settles, they remain alone.

Mark explains his backstory and resolves to return the plane and, possibly, to prove his innocence in his diffident way. Yet on his return he is killed by the over-zealous police. Knowing his fate, Daria reaches her boss’s amazing desert retreat. Sickened by the opulence she leaves looking over her shoulder to imagine the house and all capitalist trappings blown to smithereens.

This is the most famous sequence in the film and rightly so. Against the menacing backdrop of a re-worked Careful with that Axe, Eugene (an immensely influential track and probably the main reason Antonioni wanted Floyd for the soundtrack), the house explodes over and over again along with its contents. It’s a powerful moment and one that gives sense to the film. But it’s also an unambiguous statement and this is problematic, anchoring the film in the anti-capitalist political rallying of the time.

Is this a warning, a revenger’s dream or is it just a really good looking pop video?

By comparison Blow Up is far more universal in its politics and philosophy – in spite of being as much bound to its time and its reputation as quintessential swinging cinema. In fact it has far more in common with Antonioni’s early 60s films in terms of its critique of social mores and the nature of identity.

Zabriskie Point is more obviously and directly political but has less impact than Blow Up, which in its own unresolved way, asks bigger questions and demands more than patience from its audience. Zabriskie may question the commitment of alternative America to a substantial agenda and it may even be a call to more direct action but it doesn’t intrigue or engage in the same way.

 Even in the unreality of a London caught up in its own myth, Blow Up hits harder. This is partly down to the considerable strength of its actors. Both Frechette and Halprin were certainly committed (the former tithed his earnings to his then commune and ended up in prison for armed robbery after a failed attempt to redistribute wealth to another) but were largely untrained. Whilst this brings a certain neutrality it’s no substitute for skill and neither moves their story forward by very much. Frechette in particular leaves us a clueless at the end as at the start.

In contrast David Hemmings, Sarah Miles and Vanessa Redgrave were highly adept players and are able to obscure as well as reveal. Sarah Miles gets through more genuinely moving human expression in five minutes than Frechette manages in almost two hours…  In Zabriskie there were blank faces against the desert backdrop whilst in Blow Up there are complex emotions on display against the ever-changing London scenery.

Hemmings plays a photographer in the David Bailey mould who is self-servingly documenting the visual life of swinging London. He goes under cover to photograph a doss house and then switches into Svengali mode to bully various models in his fashion shoots. He is planning a book on “real” London including the shots of the down and outs in the doss house; he is not committed to social improvement just self aggrandisement.

He is constantly on the move driving through the London Streets onto his next meeting. Antonioni spent a fair amount of time in London and he deserves credit for his selection of locations. He doesn’t go for the obvious hot spots of Notting Hill, Camden and Carnaby Street and shows us Clapham, London Wall, London Bridge, Charlton and Camberwell in a fascinating tour of a city still in mid-regeneration… establishing the more self-directed society which carries on to this day.

Wandering into a park he is attracted by a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and an older man who appear to be lovers. He follows and photographs them until the woman chases over and demands the photographs back. He refuses throwing up the kinds of justification modern paparazzi make for their activity. The girl runs back up the hill and away from him.

Later she visits his studio and the two almost make love before being interrupted. He gives her another roll of film but keeps the ones she wants. He develops the film and here begins the mystery. Blowing up the pictures he gradually pieces together the story of what he shot but not what he saw. The images get larger and grainier but in the end he is convinced he’s photographed a murder.

I’m not sure how much Antonioni “liked” the Hemmings character, but he begins to behave in a slightly more humane way, possibly humbled by his inability to control or resolve this situation.

There’s still time to take advantage of two young girls hoping for a modelling break though… one of the two is Jane Birkin and she looks like she’s giving Hemmings as good as she got in this scene. Don’t mess with “Mrs” Gainsbourg!
Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills
He goes to the park and finds the body his shots revealed and then goes off to find his publisher: somebody needs to share in this for it to become “real”. On the way he sees, or thinks he sees, the girl from the park. He gives chase and ends up walking into a gig where the Yardbirds are playing. The crowd remains pointedly silent and still – a comment by Antonioni on the shallow nature of London pop culture?  Jeff Beck breaks up his guitar and throws the neck into the audience and they suddenly go wild: everyone wants the souvenir. Hemmings wins it and runs outside, discarding it once he is clear… it was only important when everyone else wanted it and has no value on its own.

This kind of point is made so effectively and in a far more coherent and less obvious way than Zabriskie Point’s political trajectory will allow.

Hemming’s character arrives at his publisher’s house and experiences a soulless orgy of drink and drug taking… in the morning he races to his destiny at the park. The body is gone and as the film reverses itself to a finish he encounters the mimes who play a game of silent tennis that amuses and finally draws him in to their shared reality… It’s non-specific enough to allow you to place your own meaning.

One of the characters is an abstract painter and the brief scenes the cameraman has with him reveal a lot of Antonioni’s intent. The painter says that when he has finished with a painting he loses touch with them and clings on to what detail he can to understand the work. The same is true for the director and for the watcher who, like Hemming’s character, tries to find understanding in looking as hard as possible at the detail.

But maybe the answer is in not looking too hard but accepting what you can. In Blow Up’s case, that means enjoying the richness of the images, the city and the acting without having to commit to definitive meaning.  You don’t have to pin it down to “get it” and that ensures longevity for both movie and message.

None of this makes Zabriskie Point a bad film, it’s just not as good as the director’s best work. The cinematography is superb and the scenery is beautiful. But the film is remembered more for the closing scenes of destruction than for its analysis of contemporary politics.

Blow Up is available on DVD from Amazon and the version I watched had a well-informed commentary from film scholar and Antonioni specialist, Peter Brunette. Zabriskie Point is not so well served but was recently released on a basic DVD -  a decent quality print and very worth watching if you like Antonioni but it won't haunt you like his very best work...

Blow Up came through with flying colours. It’s still got more than enough to maintain my interest and grows in stature if anything. I should trust my “favourites” a little more.

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