Thursday, June 19, 2008

[Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective] Blowup (1966)

Blow It Up

Presented by the National Museum of Singapore and the Italian Cultural Institute with the support of Cinecitta Holding, tonight marks the beginning of the long awaited Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective, which showcases the shorts, features and documentaries made by the master Italian filmmaker, and those about him as well. I can't recall a local retrospective film event of late which provides as comprehensive a lineup of films such as this one, and having them projected on the big screen in remastered 35mm format (save for the documentaries and some shorts in Beta or 16mm), it's nothing short of a rare treat and event for cinephiles here.

The movie to open the Retrospective is Antonioni's acclaimed 1966 movie Blowup, which was his first movie in the English language, shot in England. I thought I was in for a gem of a time, having read a couple of good things about it, and you know, having it filmed in an era of the swinging 60s of sex, drugs, rock and roll. However, my first reaction when the end credits rolled, erm, more like, flashed with a simple "End" was, that's it? Nothing happened, I felt. My attention was taken away by the varying aspect ratios of the film in the first few minutes, before settling down and following something of a day in the life of a photographer extraordinaire (played by David Hemmings).

Unfolding itself in about 24 hours, we follow Thomas (Hemmings) around in his Rolls Royce convertible, as he flits from frame to frame and scene to scene, playing up a prima-donna like attitude that we would like to generalize the skillfully famous into, jaded, and with attitude to boot. Young nubile girls throw themselves at him just to get favours and be photographed, and he couldn't care less about the perks of the job. We watch him in action, but for today's audience, I suppose I can't help but see some shades of Austin Powers in him as he directs waif like models to move according to his every wish. As he explains, he's jaded with photographing beautiful creatures, and dabbles in projects that bring out the not so flattering side of humankind.

But nothing would have prepared him later in the day for what would seemingly be two lovers enjoying some quiet time in Greenwich park, where his voyeuristic tendency broke their tranquil quality time, and more. We do not know who the 2 lovers are, or if they are lovers to begin with. We do not know what happened immediately after, but we do know that the lady, played by Vanessa Redgrave, was extremely concerned over the photographs that Thomas took, and demands the negatives. And I though it was ironic that she mentioned about peace and privacy, concepts that in today's modern age would have gone out of the window, at least in London, which is widely recognized as the most photographed city with its unprecedented numbers of CCTV cameras in every nook and corner.

And watching it in today's context, there was one scene I thought was like a reminder to oneself about stuff we call memorabilia. To those in the know, or share common interests, memorabilia have value that equates monetarily, to the amount that someone would think worthwhile to fork out in order to possess. People claw at one another to get their hands on stuff, and go absolutely crazy sometimes in order to possess. But outside of that occasional fanatical base, people don't really give two hoots about memorabilia, and it's as worthless as junk. Kind of put things in certain perspective, as I stare at my own memorabilia collection.

There are plenty of such moments, of seemingly disparate scenes spliced together in a linear timeline as we follow Thomas in his not so typical day spiced up with a sense of mystery. It's like a snapshot of his life, or anyone's life, with the little things that stuff those 24 hours, like his dalliances with a married woman, his shopping at an antique shop, buying a propeller and later we learn of an ulterior motive of being there, his toying with bimbos, and the list goes on. I think for those interested in trying to decipher and dig to get more out of such scenes, Blowup beckons repeated viewings to try and further appreciate. But I suspect it would be doing what Thomas was doing. Staring hard at a spot, and thinking that something is worthwhile exploring a little further, blows it up / zooms into the details, and stare even more, while at the same time, taking a step backward, trying to reconnect the dots and put everything into perspective.

I think some of the magic of the movie will be lost, if the story was told in today's age of digital technology. We won't experience the fascination of slow discovery, of skill and patience to get down into the details. Truth be told if remake today in today's world, it'll take no more than a minute with computer wizardry to zoom X-times to the details, and send it off to forums with experts who will analyze that photograph for you, before dispatching investigative teams to the said location armed with even more cameras and technology to put everything up online within the same period of time the movie unfolds. Obviously the charm which made the film work, will be lost.

While the movie is set in the swinging 60s era, we don't really see much of it except for a few scenes where it goes full swing (pardon the bad pun). One such scene was involving Peter Bowles as Ron, Thomas' agent. I was reading an article by Bowles which was published by Guardian Film on 24 June 2005, and reprinted in the Retrospective programme booklet (which you must get your hands on for its sheer quality!), was that a pivotal speech given by the Ron character, was left out and not filmed. It included what Bowles thought was a speech essential to the entire film and would have explained everything, which made perfect sense to Antonioni to not want to do it, therefore giving us what we have experienced today, something perplexing, and open to various interpretations.

And yes, what about the famed and widely talked about mimed tennis game? Played in silence and with plenty of imagination, I thought it was an introspective look at the film on the whole. For the most parts in the middle section, the dialogue stops, and that's when things start to get interesting, though providing absolutely no solution to the various thoughts and incidents played out, in a matter of fact manner. You'll probably have thoughts going off tangent to one another about what the film would have meant, and sometimes too, these thoughts would have bounced off the boundaries of the game, and into the realms of questioning whether certain events actually happened or is a figment of imagination of an idle mind, looking for excitement to break monotony. He's more than operating alone in his discovery, and try as he may to share them with his agent, gets brushed aside, and nobody else sees what he saw anyway.

I do not know and neither do I pretend to know. All I do know is I'll be in for a rough though intriguing ride as I take that leap of faith to experience this rare opportunity to savor all of Antonioni's films in a span of 3 long weekends. and I've just taken my first step toward this great unknown.

The beauty of cinema I guess, for those who dare to venture, and I strongly encourage anyone else to join me in experiencing this together, at the National Museum Gallery Theatre!

Blowup will be shown again on Saturday 5 July at 430pm.
More information about the Michelangelo Antonioni Retrospective can be found here!

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