Smile Politely

Tennis Anyone?

Today, I will be writing a review of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up. It will be a meandering discourse as a means of distraction, a way of blurring my own awareness of the daily slough of lies and hate in which we drown (the news).

Please take your seats.

First, a simple question. Are you happy? It is a question much in the news. Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy-Go-Lucky, is about a persistently cheerful woman. In the current off-Broadway play, Boys’ Life, an adult/adolescent male tells a girl he is trying to pick up, “Nobody’s happy. That’s the way things are supposed to be.”

Recent studies show that people are happy in Denmark and in most Latin American countries, regardless of income. Money has very little to do with happiness, despite what Joe the Plumber may have been conditioned into believing. (Sorry, I reverted to the news there for a second.) And, I was taught in Sunday School that “happiness is not promised.”

The best series currently on television is Mad Men, set in the early 1960s at an ad agency on Madison Avenue. These ad men have plenty of money and clearly are not happy. The men and women smoke and drink constantly, while holding meetings or holding their kids. The secretaries endure endless sexual harassment as a matter of course. Women pregnant out of wedlock hide their children in shame. Black people mostly operate the elevators.

(Republicans consider these the “happy days,” speaking of which, have you seen Andy and Opie and the Fonzie’s endorsement Obama?).

Then as now, the country was on the cusp of change. A great spiritual dissatisfaction with conformity erupted with the birth of a counter culture and a global explosion of culture and consciousness.

And that brings us to Blow-Up, Antonioni’s famous depiction of London in the 1960s. Blow-Up is about what happened after the culture of conformity collapsed. The commentator on the DVD notes that Blow-Up is the most philosophical movie MGM ever released. Existentialism still is a part of the vernacular and the characters in the film – like those in Mad Men – are struggling with the Beats, Jean-Paul Sartre, music, art, meaning, and reality itself. The war in Vietnam loomed over everything, even when it was suppressed into the background.

Blow-Up emerges out of the time that was lampooned in the Austin Powers movies, a time of gawdy colors, hip nonconformity, overboard pop and op fashions, marijuana parties, sexual license, rock and roll.

The most famous scene is that of the photographer (played by David Hemmings) shooting fashion model Verushka, straddling her as the two of them achieve a simulated sexual crescendo, the camera lens substituting for a phallus.

Antonioni’s first color film, Blow-Up created something of a sensation when it was released, not the least for a scene of an orgy with the photographer and two teenage girls, rolling naked on a curtain of purple paper. I know that’s what caused my high school friends and me to sneak into the Thunderbird Theater. But I digress.

There are innumerable iconic scenes and styles in Antonioni’s masterpiece, which is itself as much a visual work of art as any of the photography or paintings depicted in the narrative. Even the opening credits – across an expanse of artificially painted green grass – set the stage for a consistent canvas of broad strokes of color. Every scene is a composition, every shot a thought.

We first meet the photographer as he is secretly taking images of down and outers in a homeless shelter. Later, he thinks he is filming a man and woman having an affair in the park, but later – upon developing the film and blowing it up over and over – concludes that he may have witnessed a murder.

Or did he? Was there a dead man in the grainy enlargement? Or just a blurry image no different from the abstract, meaningless paintings made by his artist friend?

Images may hypnotize and deceive, but so do the sounds of the film. We hear the wind blowing in the trees – the only sound during long stretches of “silence” – during the opening credits, during the episode in the park, and again at the very end of the film, a haunting, ominous reminder of our ultimate powerlessness over nature and our own natures.

Then, in shocking contrast, the photographer stumbles into a dank rock and roll cave, where an impassive audience stands inert while The Yardbirds crank out a churning number, “Stroll On.” There’s Jimmy Page, biting his lip and hammering out an explosive locomotive riff! There’s Jeff Beck, smashing his guitar against the amp!

Vanessa Redgrave, the woman in the clandestine affair in the park, offers herself to the photographer in his studio, trying to get him to relinquish the roll of film. He teaches her how to listen to jazz, how to smoke against, not with, the flow of the music.

And then there is the model Verushka again, as the photographer runs into her at a stoned party. No one will listen to the photographer’s claim of having witnessed a murder.

“I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” the photographer says to her.

“I AM in Paris,” she claims, delivering the best line in the script as she walks past, statuesque and in a reality all her own.

And that is the point. Nothing is real, one way or the other, in Blow-Up. In the final sequence, a mime-playing band of hippie pranksters start a game of tennis in the park, using an invisible ball. The photographer observes. The sound of the wind in the trees is all that can be heard. Or can we hear the ball bouncing in the court?

The ball is hit outside the fence to where the photographer stands. The pranksters wait for the photographer to pick it up for them. Will he? Will he play along, rejoin the living in acceptance—or even celebration—of life’s illusion?

Is he, like the philosopher Chuang-tse, a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?

I could now attempt to draw a parallel to the contemporary situation, during which we have spent eight years in the throes of lies and illusion, at the same time war wages on in a distant country. But I’m giving that a pass.

I will add, however, that the main character in Mad Men is a dissatisfied ad exec named Don Draper, someone who in fact discusses Antonioni with the woman he’s having an affair with. He also is a phony, having assumed the identity of a fellow soldier who was killed when they served together in Korea. Even his wife doesn’t know his real name, his real story.

This, perhaps not coincidentally, is the exact premise for Antonioni’s subsequent film, The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, who plays a reporter interviewing an African warlord, who assumes the identity of a man who dies in his hotel room. But let us save that discourse for another day.

Last week, I got a letter from an old friend in Chicago, someone with whom I tromped through Lincoln Park, dodging tear gas, during the Festival of Life at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, 40 years ago.

He wrote, “Tonight on TV we saw the Chicago 10 documentary. I swear I saw you in several scenes about halfway through. You are front and center in one scene wearing your helmet (I think it’s you). In another, an interview with Allen Ginsberg, you are just to the right in the background. That is definitely you.”

I rented the DVD from Netflix and watched the scene over and over. That was definitely me, standing behind Allen Ginsberg. I think. It all seems so long ago. Was it all a dream? Are we in Paris? Am I a butterfly? Are we happy yet? Is the election over?

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