Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Blow Up

(Note: this is laden with spoilers, but since it's for a movie released in 1966, maybe we can agree that the cat's been out of the bag long enough to not matter.)

I am a complete slut for a good time at the movies. I don't really care how you do it, how you're dressed, if you've brought beer or not - just give me a good time and I'm yours for the night. That said, I approach most acclaimed classics with qualified trepidation. I'm not sure I wanna lay down for you; I know where you've been, after all. Since classics have the stamp of approval, my expectations are a little higher, but at the same time, often the reasons something became an audience's or critic's darling can range from the most noble reasons to the most dubious.

Consider The Rocky Horror Picture Show; imagine encountering it on the library shelf (as you can at my wonderful local library), out of context, wondering why the library would deem it worthy of purchase, and you take it home and flip it on. You might worry about the future of society from that experience. But, if you were introduced like I was - dragged to a midnight showing with all the appropriate accouterments (cards, squirt gun, newspaper, lighter, toilet paper, rice, and so on) and indoctrinated on the spot (and in the proper context) - it's literally thrilling when Dr. Frankenfurter arrives, platform shoe pumping to the beat. Yes, I remember doing the timewarp.

So, when I came across Blow Up, my mind flashed on the little context I had: 1) it was loosely remade by Brian De Palma with John Travolta as a movie sound man who essentially uncovers the Chappaquiddick scandal, a great movie (a point in its favor); 2) to a person, movie critics everywhere practically needed a towel after declaring their love of Blow Up (a point slightly against, as resounding critical darlings can be some of the worse dreck you might encounter). So I picked it up not committed to finding the time to watch it.

Time was found, and with wife and child in bed, I fired it up. First I was stunned by the colors, which were like Technicolor after rehab, bravely facing the reality of each new day. I am not a fan of this current trend of muting the colors, or worse - skewing them all blue (Mel Gibson's movies), green (every "Matrix" film), or sepia. Blaring, alive colors is the way to go baby. If you wanna make a black and white film, just do it, don't fuck around with the monochromatic tinting bullshit, dear God Almighty.

Then, the narrative grabs hold, once you get past the mystifying, annoying mutant hippie mimes (more on them later) who scream and make merry whilst cavorting around in their hippie jalopy, but suddenly get all Shields and Yarnel when they disembark to terrorize citizens trying to get through the day without daddy's (or mommy's) money. We meet a photographer, nay an ARTIST with a camera, whose name we never learn, as he leaves a London homeless shelter where he's been photographing "real people" for an upcoming gig. Then we sashay into a scene that became the central cliche for fashion photography, with our artiste getting an icy supermodel to emote, driving her on with "Yes! Yes! That's it! Yeah, baby!" until we practically expect her to experience the "little death" right there on the studio floor, and when he gets what he wants, he walks away as though she were a spent condom and has a smoke and a little bubbly.

Things that have become rote, or a cliche sometimes lose their power as the media engine assimilates them into the fiber of the language. Citizen Kane is practically boring to watch for the young initiate these days, because s/he has no idea that most of the shots and compositions in that film more or less established modern filmmaking, unless it's demonstrated and explained at length (thus resolutely completing the boredom cycle). Forbidden Planet, from the Theremin music score to the WWII-esque cadence of the astronauts, to Walter Pigeon as the scientist who can explain everything, are now almost (just almost) laughable, but that's because that immediately became the template from which all later sci-fi films were cut, including Star Trek.

But on rare occasion the centerpiece of a classic film holds its charge. The dialogue and plot of The Philadelphia Story haven't aged a day. The Best Years of Our Lives has a tone that I've not seen recreated anywhere. Apocalypse Now just gets better as the years go by. Blow Up is one of these gloriously ageless movies, even though it's drenched in 60s attitudes, clothes, and sensibility (you can almost smell the Hi-Karate). It breaks from that shell and all the icons of the 60s become a charm rather than a liability. The pacing, the way the narrative moves from set-piece to set-piece, was aped by so many films after (most of the more pretentious French films, Easy Rider, even Hitchcock) that you could identify each and every tendril cast forth from this film into its myriad imitators. Yet, it still holds up, entirely, on its own.

It's very sexy as well. I was mildly surprised at the amount of nudity (that would now be considered coy) and overt sexuality. You almost wonder if the room smells like sex after a viewing. (Tip: Crack a window when watching.) The scene with the two "birds" who want Mr. Nameless to photograph them starts kind of scarily. I thought it was going to be a rape scene for a moment, but it quickly slides into "let's stop kidding ourselves about why you're here and get on with it, I'm a busy guy" vibe. It still skitters along on that uncomfortable edge because everyone's so pushy about getting what they want, but in the end, it's just a romp - and a titillating one at that. You could not get away with the audacity of this scene today; picket lines would form a week before the release. This is an adult film, in the real and proper sense of the term, and I would recommend that parents don't allow their kids to see this one until they're at least 16 - and then it's not a family movie event, if you get my drift and I'm sure you do.

As the boorish academic on the commentary track will assure you, the director was a master of his craft. I smiled at such simple touches as the actor's head sliding millimeters under a supporting beam in his loft as he cautiously moves to discover who's in his place. When you know your home that well, you can do things like that. Little details like that can infuse such life into a film, a film being an artificial experience unto itself in the first place, that the walls drop away, and you feel like you're a voyeur rather than someone looking to fill a couple hours with diversion.

As a music geek, I practically stood and clapped (in my vacant living room, which would have unnecessarily alarmed the cat) when Our Hero wanders into a Yardbirds concert, with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and Jeff Beck on the guitars. Beck clearly looks like he feels silly, especially since he has to do the guitar-destroying thing for a later plot point. Still, it's a thrill seeing these guys so young at the top of their game and in a film of this stature. It'd be like Bruce Springsteen being Jabba the Hut's house band in The Return of the Jedi. I noted something the prof. doing the commentary evidently missed: when Our Hero runs from the show and discards the guitar neck from the smashed guitar (don't ask because, kids, there is no reason), the guy who wanders over to pick it up and examine it before dropping it again is Jeff Beck (who had just destroyed the thing back in the concert hall). Read into that whatever you want. It just made me grin, which may be all the director intended.

Finally, according to Mr. Commentary, "a lot of ink has been spilled" over the noisy, cavorting mimes who swing back around to close the film; you know: what did they represent?, what is the point?, what the fuck?, etc. etc. Well, here's my take. One of the things "the master," Michelangelo Antonioni, most obviously understood was how to tell a story. The nature of the story here is that it has no ending, which is the point, because the mystery is never solved, it evaporates. Well, what the mimes do at the end is a clever (in spite of the fact that it's mimes for crying out loud) narrative trick to drag the mind to the conclusion that sometimes reality is tricky business and who's to say what it really is? As Jane Wagner put it (via Lily Tomlin): "Reality is a collective hunch." So, that's all very nice, but if these goofballs just appeared at the end of the film to make this point, it would feel more artificial than ending the film in mid-sentence, as some misguided auteurs do. Therefore, the director stuck them in at the begging, so when we come back to them, we simply accept their presence. It's just a simple framing device. But it works. So there.

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