Friday, March 24, 2017

BLOW-UP: Blu-ray (Premiere Productions, 1966) Criterion Collection

Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) is a movie about a sex-crazed/emotionally vacuous fashion photog who, in his spare time, snaps some fascinating pictures in the park that may or may not reveal a murder in progress. Or is it? Anyone having seen any of Antonioni’s Italian masterpieces (Le Amiche, 1955, L’Avventura, 1960, La Notte, 1961, L’Eclisse, 1962) will be inclined to disagree, or rather, knows better. Antonioni’s movies always go farther than mere plot: the director’s screenwriting skills, more intelligently focused on getting under the skin, and most intriguingly of all, between the scabs of humanity’s foibles – sifting through the puss and marrow of our communally resonating and singularly felt social angst, self-pity and disillusionment. The rancidness in this critique extends well beyond the journey at hand; tearing Antonioni’s protagonists apart as they aimlessly tumble into their emotional labyrinth, outwardly expressed by a dystopian maze of modernity, fraught with endlessly bad and occasionally very wrong life choices; all of them leading to an inescapable malaise of the mind, body and spirit. Unhappily ever after, the characters in an Antonioni movie are never more than two steps away from expiring in a lethargic quicksand of passionless regrets they have neither the social skills nor wherewithal to escape, much less understand. Once described as a “postreligious Marxist and existentialist intellectual” Antonioni’s perspective on life is perhaps more succinctly summarized by the master himself, who considered the age of ‘reason and science’ a straight-jacket of “rigid…stereotyped morality”, making cowards of us all via our “sheer laziness” to break out of the ensconced mold. For the record, Antonioni despised the notion of ‘morality’, adding “When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them.”
Despite his critical successes then, and, the renown and esteem he so rightfully holds today, Antonioni’s scrubby form and aimless characters have had their share of admirers and detractors over the years. While such emissaries in the movie world as Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick were mesmerized and perhaps even influenced by his work, others like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman thought Antonioni pretentious, dull and self-promoting of a personal style at the expense of his character-driven drama; the detached and dreamlike quality of his work, translating to less than profound revelations as tragically vacant as the characters who populate the decaying urbanity in these ethically bankrupt landscapes. Considered a ‘mod masterpiece’ in its day, Blow-Up really does not hold up as well as some of the director’s other aforementioned movies, even as it remains a touchstone of the endemic disenfranchisement of youth spreading like wildfire across America in the 1960s; ironic too, as the movie is set in London, England, looking marvelously decrepit.
For certain, Antonioni’s gratis exploitation of base human sexuality is Blow-Up’s chef de oeuvre and arguably the reason for its enduring fascination with movie historians today. Neither impinged upon nor impugned by the code of censorship, for so long stifling film makers’ visions, and then, even more shockingly frank, titillating and, perhaps a tad gratuitous, simply because it dared to fly in the face of convention, Antonioni has pushed decency about as far left of center as is deemed ‘permissible’; veering dangerously close to establishing Blow-Up as ‘art house’ – code for pornography. Interestingly, there is no sex in the movie per say; none that would satisfy this latter proclivity for smut beyond the occasional flash of some supple breast. For all his anti-neorealist ambitions, and, even more impressive on a $1.8 million dollar budget, Antonioni has brought Hollywood’s preconceived and long-standing template for prudence to a shudder, and, perhaps most impressive of all, to the nose-thumbing tune of $20 million at the box office; by far, his most profitable attempt at becoming ‘main stream’ – arguably, never his goal, though a necessary evil to remain relevant in the ever-changing and extremely volatile picture-making biz, particularly under attack in Hollywood then.
Blow-Up is an unvarnished critique of sacrificed sensations; swinging London, the epicenter of an imploding societal holocaust strewn in real human wreckage, browbeaten, back-stabbed and eventually submarined by its own constant bombardment of synthetic imagery; simulacrum substituted, then robotically ascribed to, and finally, even more disturbingly, retreated to with an almost coma-like ennui and acquiescence as the standard-bearer of the present generation. In a decade where ‘love’ (free or otherwise) was frequently the Band-Aid answer to all deeper inquiries, the real revelation in Blow-Up is just how dull and dissatisfying it can be: Antonioni’s spellbindingly offering us a glimmer beyond the hippie-infused trance of his main character, Thomas (David Hemmings) the fashion photog, briefly awakened by an adrenaline rush for the existential murder mystery seemingly at the crux of Blow-Up’s plot, yet never entirely reconciled, either in the movie or in Thomas’ own mind. Did he really photograph a murder in Maryon Park? Unimportant – at least, for Antonioni or, if actor, Ronan O’Casey (who plays Jane’s lover in the park) is to be believed, denied its denouement after Antonioni went ‘seriously over budget’. Indeed, the latter might be true, as MGM was in steep decline at the time Blow-Up went into production. Refused approval by the MPAA to distribute the picture in the U.S., MGM instead released it through a subsidiary – Premiere Productions and, however briefly, was once again able to reap the benefits of being at the forefront of a ‘new movement’ in movie-making. At this point in their sad implosion, Metro was hardly in a position to call the shots; rather, writing checks to cash for up-and-coming creative geniuses as well as old-time masters, now toiling far away from their once galvanized leadership, and, by the mid-1960's, wearily nervous, if still very watchful eyes; praying for a miracle to save the studio from sinking more deeply into the red.          
Blow-Up’s plot is suspiciously simple and very loosely inspired by the lifestyle of swingin’ London’s resident shutterbug, David Bailey: reconstituted herein as a day in the life of wildly popular fashion photog, Thomas; a really ruthless and arrogant piece of work; prick with a capital ‘P’ immediately comes to mind. Thomas arrives hours late to his studio for a prearranged shoot with supermodel, Veruschka (Veruschka von Lehndorff, posturing in two strips of slinky black fabric loosely masquerading as a dress). She is tart and coy with him, presumably miffed for having been kept waiting. Thomas is his usual sly and petulant self, critically studying her visage before cruelly inquiring, “Who were you with last night?” – a query, barely to illicit a brittle ‘hmph!’ The shoot quickly escalates from sex-kittenish eroticism to a quasi-sexual assault; Thomas getting right up and into his subject’s personal space, straddling her as she contorts on the floor, his camera lens – a Freudian phallus – almost pressed against Veruschka’s face. It’s all done ‘matter of fact’; just another day at the office, as far as Thomas and his assistant, Reg (Reg Wilkins) – who casually reloads the cameras – are concerned. Thomas’ whole day has been put into a tailspin by this unlikeliest of watershed moments; the seemingly endless parade of pretty faces he is forced to photograph leaving him utterly deflated. He makes a quick pit stop at the home of artist, Bill (John Castle) and his live-in, Patricia (Sarah Miles). She quietly offers Thomas a pint in a comfortable chair, gingerly massaging his temples with her slender fingers. Without suggesting any explanation for his actions, Thomas simply disappears, returning to his studio to discover two aspiring models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) waiting.
Instead, he callously drives off, pausing to peruse an antiques shop. With his camera still strapped about his neck, Thomas next takes an aimless stroll through Maryon Park where he spies on and, from a distance, takes photos of two lovers in their clandestine meeting. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) is furious for having the affair exposed. As nervous as a cat, she miserably attempts to bargain with Thomas for the film; then, tries to bite him to retrieve it. He forces her into retreat. However, seemingly excited by this encounter, Thomas returns to the antique shop, this time confronting its owner (Susan Brodrick) with an adamant bid for a rather large boat propeller. Unable to tote it in his sleek sports convertible, Thomas leaves the owner in the street, rather erotically clinging to the propeller; yet another of Antonioni’s phallic symbols. Next, Thomas meets his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles) for lunch. Antonioni is, in fact, a master at crafting meaning from these seemingly disparate sequences; on the surface, very much disjointed or perhaps even nonsensical. The hypnotic combination of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography and Antonioni’s sparsely constructed dialogue (co-written by Tonino Guerra) leaves the viewer with just enough tantalization to sell each moment as an intricate piece in a much larger and ostensibly never-to-be-completed puzzle.
The plot thickens, or rather, continues to expand and unravel as Thomas takes notice of a mystery man (Dyson Lovell) snooping around his convertible. He abandons Ron, seemingly without rhyme or reason; Antonioni indulging Thomas in his flagrant despondency and contempt for contemporary society. London is depicted as a decaying and isolated ramshackle of tightly woven, but generally empty streets; foot traffic practically non-existent, except for the occasional picketing peace protester, mime and isolated group of fez-wearing Afrikaners Thomas nearly mows down as he hastily speeds home.  Not long thereafter, Jane makes her not-so-impromptu visit to Thomas’ studio. Thomas is again cruelly mischievous; first, denying; then, promising Jane the film. He takes a phone call from his estranged lover whom we never meet, implying he is in the middle of a ‘delicate’ matter with some other woman. It’s an insidious game, fraught with sexual tension, confusion and, finally, acquiescence on Jane’s part. Both she and Thomas strip to their waists. He offers her a canister of film – not the one she is after, mind you; and she incessantly flirts with him, using the excuse of ‘the time’ to avoid consummating their casual assignation. He asks for her number. She gives him a phony and bolts for the door.
Afterward, Thomas sets about developing the actual roll of B&W film he shot in the park; becoming intrigued when the resultant images reveal a moment previously passed him by – a queer expression on Jane’s face and the sight of a possible killer lurking behind a tall tree, gun in hand. Unable to contain his exhilaration at having unearthed and foiled a crime, Thomas telephones Ron. Disturbed by a knock at his door, Thomas discovers his ‘birds’ - the pair of aspiring models - returned with a new inducement. As with most of Antonioni’s explorations of human sexuality, what follows is a bit of a blur and widely opened to interpretation. While the brunette hints at being a virgin, the blonde willingly strips to her waist to try on some designer clothes. Thomas accosts her, toppling the racks of clothes and angrily paws at her. Her shrieks and look of absolute terror, combined with his beady-eyed satisfaction dovetails into a sort of pseudo-rape, inexplicably turned playful; then, bizarrely grotesque. The trio romp and wrestle in the studio, Thomas even more ravenously assaulting the girls who, in turn tear at one another’s stretch pants until each is completely nude. Thomas is not particularly serious about pursuing the matter; it ends, rather abruptly with his insincere promise to each girl to photograph them both ‘tomorrow’. 
Obsessed with the photographs he has taken in Maryon Park, Thomas makes several blow-ups that appear to reveal the extremely blurry outline of a body lying in the tall grasses. Can it be? Did he really witness a murder? Now approaching dusk, and without his camera, Thomas hurries to Maryon Park where he does, in fact, discover a body in the same proximity to the location featured in his pictures; frightened off by the sound of a snapping twig in the underbrush that may or may not suggest he is not alone, or has been followed, or that the murderer has returned to cover up the evidence. Hurrying to Bill and Patricia’s flat, Thomas finds the front door unlocked and the couple in the throes of heated passion, making love in their bedroom. Although Patricia sees Thomas clearly, she keeps his presence a secret from Bill. Racing home to grab his camera, Thomas soon discovers his studio has been ransacked; all evidence of the crime – save one exceptionally grainy photo – gone. On the hunt for clues, Thomas telephones Ron; then, spies Jane waiting outside the Permutit; a swinger’s club where The Yardbirds are performing.  A buzz in lead singer Beck’s amplifier causes him to throw a temper tantrum and wreck his guitar, tossing its shattered neck into the audience. Thomas greedily retrieves it as a souvenir. But only moments later, he discards it on the pavement outside the club. A passerby examines the relic, but also sees no reason to keep it.
Now, Thomas hurries to Ron’s fashionable house on the Thames; the scene of a drug-drenched orgy where Veruschka, who lied to him earlier about going to Paris, and higher than a kite now, blatantly suggests she is in Paris.  Unable to convince Ron of his discovery, Thomas gradually succumbs to the wanton revelry, awakening hours later in a half stupor, only to return to Maryon Park and realize someone has removed the corpse. Disillusioned, Thomas quietly observes as a jeep-load of mimes, who first appeared at the start of the movie – jovial and frenetic, participating in the ‘rag’ (a charity-raising ritual popularized in Britain) now enter a nearby caged tennis court to perform an impromptu match with imaginary balls and rackets. At some point, the mimes direct Thomas to fetch their imaginary ball, presumably played out of bounds. He obliges, and the sound of a real tennis ball is heard as the pretend match resumes.  Antonioni concludes with a high overhead shot: Thomas, a mere speck on the grassy knoll, isolated, quite alone, and wholly inconsequential. In these final moments, Antonioni exposes our antiheroic protagonist for the pointlessness of his superficial lifestyle; emasculated and ultimately disposable; Thomas, fading into obscurity (literally) and obliterated by the words ‘the end’ on the screen.
Blow-Up’s finale feeds into Antonioni’s reoccurring theme of humanity’s incapacity to find pleasure outside of its collective avarice for material wealth. In this regard, Antonioni is almost Shakespearean in his storytelling, the lives of his characters ‘full of sound and fury’ or humanity’s mad inhuman noise, as unimportant in man’s evolutionary process and most certainly ‘signifying nothing’ in the end. The bleakness that saturates virtually all his movies, but most succinctly is represented with hyper-intensity herein, is counterbalanced by Antonioni’s elliptical and open-ended narrative; the vacuity of our emotional content in general, and, lovers in particular, illustrating precisely how isolated, fragile, jaded and lost humanity has become in modern times. It is this theme that remains as relevant, if not more so, today. Despite centuries of interaction we are no closer to understanding each other, and even more obscure, ourselves or purpose in this godless and abysmally unattractive world of our own design. Curiously, despite its effectiveness in conveying this absence, and, even more shocking in lieu of its social relevance amplified with each intervening decade since, and further still, because of the avalanche of critical acclaim it received back in 1966, Blow-Up is rarely discussed, not only outside of filmdom’s contemporary discourse but also from within.  
It is too simplistic to suggest the times have merely changed: that Blow-Up no longer references or resonates with humanity’s collective nervous breakdown, social angst and self-pity the way it did for the navel-gazing sixties; a counterculture it both reflected and, in some ways, helped to kick start and expose.  And Antonioni has so cleverly, if very loosely, situated his story around the conventions of the Hollywood thriller; if nothing else, a selling feature for those seeking ‘only’ plot-driven narratives to satisfy their more narrowly construed movie-going appetites.  Whether the murder is real or imagined, or perhaps, covered up by Jane, who may or may not be part of it, is inconsequential as far as Antonioni is concerned. If Blow-Up contains the kernels of a classic whodunit, it easily assuages the notion that a neat and tidy summation for the crime will follow. Rather, Antonioni’s filmic quest is for answers to other questions: about people struggling to make meaning about and for themselves in a world of unplanned and negligible variables. Thomas is neither driven my ambition, per say, nor deep enough to recognize his own thoroughly disgusting and self-destructive deficits as a human being. But he is obsessed by his muse and driven – nearly half-mad – in his pursuit to deconstruct meaning, using his craft. Under the rubric – and time-honored cliché, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, both Thomas and Antonioni illustrate the power and sway modern art possesses –  in photographic stills, and via the moving image – this potency gets reaffirmed, then muddled again, even in these inexplicable temples of half shadow and light.   
Blow-Up finds its way to Blu-ray via Warner Home Video’s licensing agreement with the Criterion Collection and the results could not be more pleasing. Sourced from an original camera negative, with a few inserts from an IP, what’s here (outside of the main titles, sourced from a dupe) is simply stunning. Prepare to be dazzled as Blow-Up’s restored 4K master represents the swingin’ sixties palette in richly textured psychedelic colors. There is some discrepancy about framing: the theatrical release was in 1.66:1. This Blu-ray is in 1.85:1. Hmmm. Contrast is perfect, as is film grain - very indigenous to its source. The overall image is slightly darker than previous SD incarnations, and, with slightly warmer flesh tones. Yeah, baby – this one is ‘fab’!  Criterion’s PCM 1.0 audio perfectly captures the mono theatrical release, with subtly balanced ‘wind effects’ in Maryon Park creating a truly haunting sense of taut aural isolation. Curiously, we get NO audio commentary to accompany the feature. But fear not: extras are rather extensive and otherwise welcome, beginning with a five and a half minute excerpt from Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema. Personally, I would have preferred the whole 2001 documentary. In lieu of this, we get a fairly comprehensive hour long documentary by Valentina Agostinis from 2016. We also get two interviews with actor, David Hemming: the first, running 5 min. from 1968, the other, a 20 min. conversation with Brian Linehan from 1977. There is a 45 min. conversation piece recorded late last year, featuring Vanessa Redgrave; 9 min. from a 1989 interview with Jane Birkin and two ‘exclusives’ produced for Criterion about Antonioni’s artistry: Antonioni's Hypnotic Vision; cumulatively, clocking in at just under an hour. Finally, we get the teaser and theatrical trailer, and liner notes by David Forgacs and Stig Björkman: also, the 1959 short story by Julio Cortázar on which Blow-Up is very loosely based. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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