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And here is where the film unfolds its most brilliant and memorable sequence, the part you want to watch over and over again. Alone in his dark room, our hero blows up the photos from the park and discovers that he may have recorded something other than a tryst. Cutting between the photographer and his pictures, Antonioni nudges us ever closer until we see the blow-ups as arrangements of light and shadow, a pointillistic swarm of dots and blots that may reveal a gunman in the bushes, and a body lying on the ground. Has he accidentally photographed a murder?
Contemporary audiences watching the way Thomas, the photographer, storyboards his grainy images into “evidence” would surely have been reminded of Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy assassination in 1963: the same patient build-up, the same slow-motion shock. When Thomas returns to the park he does indeed find a corpse. It’s the grassy knoll moment. We feel both his confusion and his excitement at turning detective – he’s involved in serious work at last instead of debauching his talent on advertising and fashion. But, abruptly, his investigative work goes up in smoke.
Next morning, the photographs and the body have disappeared. The woman has gone, too. This links to larger fears of conspiracy, a sense that shadowy organisations are hovering in the background, covering up their crimes – and getting away with it.
Blow-Up looks back to Zapruder but also ahead to Watergate and a run of films that riffed in a similar manner to Antonioni, with his inquiring, cold-eyed lens: Gene Hackman, stealing privacy for a living as the surveillance genius in The Conversation (1974); witness elimination and the training of assassins by a corporation in The Parallax View (1974); later still, Brian de Palma’s homage to the sequence via John Travolta’s sound engineer in the near-namesake Blow Out (1981). But these sinister implications are not on the director’s mind. Where we anticipate a murder mystery, Antonioni balks us by posing a philosophical conundrum. “It is not about man’s relationship with man,” he said in an interview at the time, “it is about man’s relationship with reality.”
Having created the suspense, he declines to see it through and sends Thomas off on an enigmatic nocturnal wander – to a party where he gets stoned, to a nightclub full of zombified youth where, bafflingly, he makes off with a broken guitar. (The film’s other symbolic artefact is an aeroplane propeller he buys in an antique shop). Finally, and famously, he encounters a bunch of mime-faced rag-week students acting “crazy” and playing a game of imaginary tennis on an empty court. We even hear the thock of the tennis ball, though there isn’t one in sight. Antonioni seems to offer only a shrug: reality, illusion, who can tell the difference? Whenever I watch Blow-Up, I feel a sense of anticlimax, of a road not just missed, but refused. Yet as much as it irritates, it still intrigues, and asks a question that relates not merely to cinema but to any work of art: can we enjoy something even if we don’t “get” it?
Film/Style is currently at capacity. To be added to the wait list or receive notifications about our next Courses offering (coming in Spring 2017!), please email Film Streams Education Director Diana Martinez.
Film Streams Courses is a new program of themed, multi-week seminars that will provide adults with an introduction to the tools of film analysis. Every participant will leave better equipped to analyze film aesthetics and examine the tremendously important role film plays in our culture.
Step in the vivid worlds of cinema’s most stylish films.
Instructor: Diana Martinez, Film Streams Education Director
Dates: Sundays, Feb 26 – Mar 26, 2017, 11am – 2pm
There is no art form more capable of provoking our senses than film. It can create fantastic places and expose the stark reality of life. Film/Style is an introduction to the aesthetic techniques employed by some of the most influential and challenging filmmakers in the medium’s history.
Film/Style will explore the complex interplay of mise-en-scène, cinematography, sound, and editing that shapes our viewing experience. An international tour of film aesthetics begins with a classic from Brian De Palma, and will conclude with a film by the great Chinese auteur Wong Kar-Wai, with films in between from Czechoslovakia, France, and Germany.
Frames: Blow Out 1981
Rhythm: Daisies 1968
Sound: Holy Motors 2012
Color: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant 1972
Texture: In the Mood for Love 2000
Cost: $125 General, $75 Film Streams Members, $100 Student/Teacher/Senior/Military Includes Course materials and snacks
Brian De Palma first used the Steadicam, with Mr. Brown as an operator, in “Blow Out” (1981) for the opening sequence, an elaborate horror movie parody in which a slasher attacks coeds. “Choreographing the shot, getting the psychopath to hold his knife up in front of the mirror at the right time — it was a kind of joyful evening,” Mr. De Palma said by telephone. He went on to use the Steadicam in many films, including “Raising Cain” and “Carlito’s Way,” showing in the Film Society series.
For Mr. Brown, who taught himself filmmaking, movies came after a folk-singing career (as part of the duo Brown & Dana) and a stint selling Volkswagens. He found himself working in commercials at a time when the only way to create smooth camera motion was to put the camera on a dolly, in a camera car or on a crane. He was pained by the unwieldy setup of a 12-pound camera on an 800-pound dolly.
“The sight of that pinheaded little camera on that huge dolly and the attendant difficulties of schlepping it around on pickup trucks and laying my paltry rails here and there outdoors really was so absurd,” Mr. Brown said. He wanted to isolate the camera from the motions of the person controlling it — the kind that cause hand-held shots to appear shaky.
The key ingredients were a gimbal, which came from Mr. Brown’s sailing experience; counterweights, to give the camera stability; an articulated arm — an idea he got from a motel desk lamp — attached to a harness that a camera operator could wear; and a way to see through the lens. He originally used a fiber-optic viewer intended for medical examinations.
In a sense, Mr. Brown had realized a dream of filmmakers and theorists who treasured camera motion; it’s hard not to wonder what Max Ophuls or André Bazin would have made of the Steadicam. “Abel Gance — he was fabulous at moving the camera,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the director of “Napoleon,” the 1927 silent classic. “He did extraordinary things, but he didn’t have this tool for stabilizing. I would have loved to have shown up on his set.”
In the earliest Steadicam movies, Mr. Brown operated the apparatus himself, and he continued to do so for three decades. Now, he said, Steadicam operators make expert shots for TV news broadcasts and from the sidelines of sports like football and soccer.
Robert Elswit, the cinematographer on two Paul Thomas Anderson movies in the Film Society series, “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” considers the Steadicam essential. “To me, it’s not a specialty item,” he said. “It’s usually there all the time.” The results, he added, are sometimes “not even necessarily recognizable as a Steadicam shot. You just use it to get something done in a simple way.”
Mr. De Palma cautioned that the Steadicam is only a tool, a way of showing the viewer an environment. “You need a lot of sophisticated technicians to pull off a really good Steadicam shot, and that sort of comes with making movies in the studio system in Hollywood,” he said.
Digital cameras make it less complicated to light scenes, he noted, and the equipment weighs less, leading to what he sees as the Steadicam’s overuse. “You see an abundance of Steadicam shots that are completely ridiculous,” Mr. De Palma said. “God knows, in television, they do it all the time. People are always walking and talking and going around corners.”
The film critic Vincent Canby, in an essay on production design for The New York Times in 1981, noted Mr. Sylbert’s chameleonlike ability to summon up entirely different visual worlds even within similar genres. For Brian De Palma’s suspense film “Blow Out,” he evoked Philadelphia in realistic terms, but the New York in the horror thriller “Wolfen,” released on the same day as “Blow Out” in 1981, was, Mr. Canby wrote, something entirely different.
“Mr. Sylbert’s Manhattan is a fantasy island under siege by some sort of superwolves,” he wrote. “Its South Bronx is dominated by the shell of a church that seems to have been blitzed during months of air raids.”
In his review of the film, Mr. Canby praised its “otherworldly look” and wrote, “Not since Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now’ has there been such a beautifully mounted and designed scare movie.”
Mr. Sylbert received an Academy Award for his work on “Heaven Can Wait” and was nominated for a second Oscar for Barbra Streisand’s 1991 film “The Prince of Tides.” In 2009, the Art Directors Guild presented him with a lifetime achievement award.
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