On directing ‘Blow-Up’: ‘I am not God, but I am Michelangelo Antonioni’
02.25.2014
08:43 am

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Michelangelo Antonioni
Peter Bowles
Blow-Up

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The actor Peter Bowles was delighted when he was cast in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, as his character had a speech upon which the whole film hinged.

Bowles was to deliver this killer speech in a scene towards the end of the movie, when the film’s star David Hemmings sought out Bowles’ wasted character at a party. When it came to the day of filming, the actor was stunned to see his speech had been excised from the script. As Bowles described it in The Guardian in 2005, “in my innocence, and no doubt arrogance, I thought that a terrible mistake had been made. So I said [...] that Antonioni mustn’t cut that speech, that it was essential to the whole film. I demanded to talk to him about it.”

Antonioni was grace itself, quite beautifully mannered. He said, “Peter, you are worried because I have cut this speech. Could you tell me why you are so concerned?”

So I launched into an explanation of why he shouldn’t cut the speech. He listened, and listened, until finally I ran out of words. There was silence. So I said, “Erm, sir, are you going to put the speech back in now?”

He replied, “No. Because, Peter, you have explained to me exactly why I should cut it. If I leave the speech in, everyone will know what the film is about, but if I take the speech out, everyone will say it is about this, it is about that, it is about the other. It will be controversial.” So it was cut.

But there is a speech, which I have, which explains exactly what the film is about. It is all there in the film, if you know where to look…

It was not the only time Antonioni had excised meaning or a central plot element from his films. The removal of a satisfactory denouement in L’Aventurra so confused audiences that it was mercilessly booed at its first screening in Cannes, reducing director and its glamourous star, Monica Vitti, to tears.

When Antonioni started making films in the early 1950s, he decided that he had to be different from his fellow Italian film-makers, who had aligned themselves to making Neo-Realist films, such as Bicycle Thieves, which focussed on an individual’s relationship with society.

I had arrived a little late on the scene, at a time when that first flowering of films, though still valid, was already beginning to show signs of exhaustion, Consequently, I was forced to stop and consider what subject matter was worth examining at that particular moment, what was really happening, what was the true state of things, what ideas were really being thought.

And it seemed to me that perhaps it was no longer so important [...] to examine the relationship between the individual and his environment, as it was to examine the individual himself, to look inside the individual and see, after all he had been through (the war, the immediate post-war situation, all the events that were currently taking place and which were of sufficient gravity to leave their mark upon society and the individual) out of all this, to see what remained inside the individual, to see, I won’t say the transformation of our psychological and emotional attitudes, but at least the symptoms of that restlessness and behavior which began to outline the transitions that later came about in our psychology, our feelings, and perhaps even our morality.

Antonioni approached film-making like an author examining the character, and how best to represent and develop a character on screen.

He also wanted to find a different way to tell his stories, something he had learnt from his time as a documentary filmmaker.

Antonioni would keep the camera running long after the actors had delivered their lines. He claimed it made the actors relax and behave more naturally, more spontaneously, as they were caught unguarded, while the over-extended pause created tension.

His actors were filmed in an exacting way, by which the framing would best explain something about their character. As Antonioni once wrote:

A line spoken by an actor in profile does not have the same meaning as one given full-face. A phrase addressed to the camera placed above the actor does not have the same meaning it would if the camera were placed below him.

Or, as Peter Bowles explained:

He wanted me to use an upward inflection on my line, which didn’t make any sense to me at all, but I was trying to do it. I have never had such close coaching from any other director, and many actors wouldn’t stand for it.

Finally, on take 13: “Cut. Print. Good. Peter, come with me.”

So he took me off set and said to me, “Peter, I understand. You wish to show the world what a fine actor you are.”

He got that right.

“When you work with other directors you give them your performance and they film it. Not with me, Peter. You see I have chosen you for how you look. I have chosen all your clothes. If I move my camera six inches, I would ask you to do that line in a different way.”

Upon this, he put his arms around me and held me close to him and said, “Peter, believe in me. Trust me. I am not God, but I am Michelangelo Antonioni.”

Blow-Up contains many of Antonioni’s trademark tropes and themes: the isolation of the individual in modern society (Hemmings’ character and his failure to connect with others); the inability to communicate successfully with other people (as seen explicitly in the party scene between Hemmings and Bowles); the disenchantment and boredom with modern life (the audience at the pop concert, the models being photographed, the party); the lack of cultural or historical significance in modern life (the crowd fight for Jeff Beck’s broken guitar neck, Hemmings fights for and wins it, then discards it in the street).

The only passion Hemmings louche fashion photographer finds is in his search for a possible murder—a passion which is ultimately taken from him. While the film’s ending (the mimed tennis match) suggests individuals only engage with that which they think see, everything else is shrugged-off with indifference—this was reflected at the time with the nightly bulletins of death, murder and destruction in Vietnam, watched by families eating their TV dinners around tables or off trays.

Blow-Up was regarded as a hip, cool and sexy film upon its original release (much was made of its so-called orgy scene), but at its heart is Michelangelo Antonioni’s pessimistic and ironic regard for life, which cuts through the swinging sixties froth to reveal the film’s seriousness of purpose and cultural relevance five decades on.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
‘A Field in England’: Director Ben Wheatley talks about his head-trip Civil War movie

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There’s an horrific scene in Ben Wheatley’s latest film, the truly excellent A Field in England, which proves the merit of the old adage that the most gruesome moments in any movie are more effectively achieved when they are suggested rather than revealed.

In this particular scene, the character Whitehead (superbly played by Reece Shearsmith) is tortured by the diabolical O’Neill (another excellent performance from Michael Smiley). Rather than showing what happens, Wheatley audaciously keeps any physical violence out-of-vision, leaving only Shearsmith’s terrifying screams to suggest the worst, the very worst. It is one cinema’s genuinely horrific and visceral moments, and yet nothing is ever seen.

A Field in England confirms Ben Wheatley as the most talented and original film-maker to come out of Britain since the glory days of Ken Russell, Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson and John Boorman in the swinging sixties.

Unlike most young directors who show flair with one type of genre film before going on to make variations of the same time-and-again, Wheatley has shown with his first four films that he is an immensely talented and important film-maker, whose movies defy easy categorization yet engage their audience with intelligent and sometimes disturbing ideas.

His first major film Down Terrace was a blackly comic tale of murder and violence set in a working class family home, which Wheatley co-wrote with the film’s star Robin Hill. It was described as being like The Sopranos as directed by Mike Leigh. It’s a nice soundbite but doesn’t quite encapsulate the thrilling intelligence that was at work behind the camera.

Wheatley’s next film was the brutal, disturbing but utterly brilliant Kill List, which contained one of the most harrowing endings ever committed to celluloid. Kill List was written by Wheatley and his wife, the writer Amy Jump, and starred Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring and Michael Smiley.

Having shown his aptitude for gangster and horror films, Wheatley then made the black comedy Sightseers, written by the film’s lead actors Alice Lowe and Steve Oram, in conjunction with Amy Jump.

Wheatley’s latest film A Field in Englandwas also written by Jump, and together this talented duo have created an intelligent head trip, a radical genre-bender, that mixes alchemy and the occult, with history, horror, psychedelia and folk tales. Starring The League of Gentleman‘s Reece Shearsmith, along with Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Ryan Pope, and a terrifying Michael Smiley, A Field in England is certainly one of the best films of 2013-14.

Without giving too much away, the movie centers around four men escaping from a battle during the English Civil War (1642-1651), when the forces of democracy or Parliament (the Roundheads) fought against the Royalist armies (the Cavaliers) for control of England. The main players in this war were the Cavalier, King Charles I and the Roundhead, Oliver Cromwell, and the poor canon fodder in-between.

Wheatley’s interest in this momentous period of English history came through his work with the Sealed Knot Society, a group of individuals who specialize in reconstructing battles from the English Civil War.
 
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‘A Field in England’ is in cinemas now, or can be watched from Drafthouse Films here.
 

 
The interview with Ben Wheatley follows after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Red, White and Blue Sleaze: Al Goldstein’s infamous ‘Midnight Blue’ cable access program

Al Goldstein holding a copy of Lenny Bruce's book,
 
The term “public” or “cable access” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, visions of two bewigged Aerosmith loving dudes in their basement immediately spring to mind, even though that film came out well over 20 years ago. (There’s a harrowing thought for you!)

For others, the term means a mode of truly democratic expression, free from Madison Avenue standards and middle-of-the-road network TV conventions. One cable access show that fit that bill to the extent of challenging community standards was Al Goldstein’s brilliant and often infamous Midnight Blue.
 
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Starting in 1974 on Manhattan cable, Midnight Blue went on to have a lifespan of over 25 years, making it more tenacious of an animal than any of its peers. Most TV shows are lucky to make it the ten-year mark, much less 25. Taking all of the cultural subversiveness and unapologetic sleaze from its progenitor, Screw magazine, Midnight Blue challenged first amendment issues, scored some brilliant interviews and featured some of the strangest commercials to have emerged in the sexual Wild Wild West era of the 70’s and early 80’s. We’re talking swingers clubs, including the notorious Plato’s Retreat, phone sex lines, some rather unfriendly looking vibrators and, my own personal favorite, synthetic cocaine. Where else were you going to see an ad for faux coke? It certainly wasn’t running during Too Close for Comfort!
 
Got a hot date? Pick up some Synth Coke!
 
The beating heart and soul of Midnight Blue was the man himself, the late, great and inimitable Al Goldstein. A larger than life figure, whose humor, rage, smarts, self-effacement and pure dedication to speaking his mind no matter what consequences may emerge, Goldstein was the living definition of brass balls. Whether it was bragging about his cunnilingus skills, ranting about any number of hypocritical politicos and Hollywood celebs, ranting about a photo lab store in Queens, ranting about the sandwich he had earlier or just ranting in general, any chance of a dull moment was neatly incinerated by the presence of Al Goldstein.
 

 
One of the hallmarks of Midnight Blue was the wild array of interviews featured on the show. Over its tenure, the guest list ranged from adult industry pioneers like Harry Reems and Georgina Spelvin to celebrities like Debbie Harry, R. Crumb and the absolute zenith, Gilbert Gottfried. The Gottfried interview is a thing of comedic divine wonder, as if the humor gods snorted a megaton of amphetamine and then touched the shoulder of the already brilliant comedian. It’s a riffing onslaught that involves oral sex and Colonel Sanders, among other topics. Seeing Goldstein laugh so hard that he can barely wheeze out a question is the proverbial cherry on that cake.
 

 
The beauty of both a publication like Screw, as well as having an access show like Midnight Blue is the proto-punk rock nature of it all. There are some that tend to write off both creatures as just another passenger car on the smut train but doing so is not only an injustice to Goldstein and company’s hard work, it is an injustice to yourself. Subversiveness and a willingness to explore sexuality as the strange, multi-faceted creature it is, ruled Goldstein’s work. The man was openly bisexual back in the 1960’s and in fact, Screw was one of the very few adult related mags that would advertise both straight and gay films. (For more information, definitely check out Mike Edison’s brilliant book, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!) If you look at Midnight Blue et al and all you see is tits, then you are only seeing the most obvious, superficial layer.

Years later, a lot of the cultural hangups that were attacked front and center on Midnight Blue are still the same. If anything, it feels like our culture has devolved a little bit since the apex of Goldstein’s work. The communication landscape has most definitely changed. Print medium, while still existent, has become more and more overshadowed by its digital counterparts. Cable access still exists, but has dwindled significantly over the years, though its seeds have sprouted into sites like YouTube, Vimeo and millions of blogs. But no matter what, the legacy of Al Goldstein and Midnight Blue will always live on as a surely pure testament to the necessity of thumbing your nose at the status quo and creating something irreverent, id driven and occasionally really sharp. Midnight Blue might be cold in the hard ground at this point but its spirit, thanks in part to DVD companies like Blue Underground and the aforementioned YouTube, will continue to live on. And with that, so will the legacy of Al Goldstein. There will never be another.

Posted by Heather Drain | Discussion
We all know Robert Shaw was a great actor, but did you know he was also a great writer?

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Robert Shaw liked to drink. Indeed, the actor, author and playwright liked to drink a lot. It could sometimes lead to near disastrous results.

During the making of Jaws, Robert Shaw had an alcohol-induced blackout during the filming of that famous S.S. Indianapolis speech. Shaw had convinced director Steven Spielberg that as the three characters in the scene (played by Shaw, Roy Scheider, and Richard Dreyfuss) had been drinking, it might be an idea to have a wee chaser before filming, just to get him in the mood. Spielberg agreed. It was an unwise decision as Shaw drank so much he had to be carried back onto the set. Hardly any filming took place that day, and Spielberg wrapped the crew at eleven in the morning.

Later that night, in the wee small hours, a panicked Shaw ‘phoned Spielberg to ask if he had done anything embarrassing as he could not remember what had happened. And would the director let him film the scene again?

The next day, a sober and contrite Shaw turned-up early for work, and delivered one of cinema’s most memorable speeches.

“Drink?” Shaw once famously said in 1977, “Can you imagine being a movie star and having to take it seriously without a drink?”

“I agree with Richard Burton that drink gives poetry to life. Drink for actors is an occupational hazard born largely out of fear.”

The stories of Shaw’s alcoholic excesses and on set pranks can sometimes overshadow his quality as an actor, and his talent as a writer. The academic John Sutherland has pointed out Shaw was a far better writer than many of the best-selling authors whose books inspired the films he starred in, particularly Pete Benchley (Jaws, The Deep) and Alistair MacLean (Force 10 From Navarone), though sadly none of Shaw’s five novels or his three plays are currently in print.

As we all (probably) know, Shaw himself was involved in the writing of the famous Indianapolis speech, as Spielberg has explained in 2011:

I owe three people a lot for this speech. You’ve heard all this, but you’ve probably never heard it from me. There’s a lot of apocryphal reporting about who did what on Jaws and I’ve heard it for the last three decades, but the fact is the speech was conceived by Howard Sackler, who was an uncredited writer, didn’t want a credit and didn’t arbitrate for one, but he’s the guy that broke the back of the script before we ever got to Martha’s Vineyard to shoot the movie.

I hired later Carl Gottlieb to come onto the island, who was a friend of mine, to punch up the script, but Howard conceived of the Indianapolis speech. I had never heard of the Indianapolis before Howard, who wrote the script at the Bel Air Hotel and I was with him a couple times a week reading pages and discussing them.

Howard one day said, “Quint needs some motivation to show all of us what made him the way he is and I think it’s this Indianapolis incident.” I said, “Howard, what’s that?” And he explained the whole incident of the Indianapolis and the Atomic Bomb being delivered and on its way back it was sunk by a submarine and sharks surrounded the helpless sailors who had been cast adrift and it was just a horrendous piece of World War II history. Howard didn’t write a long speech, he probably wrote about three-quarters of a page.

But then, when I showed the script to my friend John Milius, John said “Can I take a crack at this speech?” and John wrote a 10 page monologue, that was absolutely brilliant, but out-sized for the Jaws I was making! (laughs) But it was brilliant and then Robert Shaw took the speech and Robert did the cut down.

Robert himself was a fine writer, who had written the play The Man in the Glass Booth. Robert took a crack at the speech and he brought it down to five pages. So, that was sort of the evolution just of that speech.

 

 
Robert Shaw wanted to be remembered more as a writer than as an actor, and it’s sad to think the effort any writer puts into their body of work often ends up unread, forgotten, out-of-print, with limited availability from ABE Books or Amazon.

Shaw was born in Lancashire, England, in 1927, and at the age of six, he moved with his family to the Isle of Orkney, part of that remote and wind-swept archipelago to the north of mainland Scotland. His father was a doctor, and an alcoholic. He also suffered from severe depression. The father’s mood swings were violent and caused the mother, together with her children, to temporarily abandon their new home, only to return when his mother found she was pregnant. Though Shaw rebelled against taking-up his father’s profession, he inherited his genetic predisposition for alcohol.

As an “in-comer” the young Shaw was the focus of anti-English racism from his Orcadian classmates. He was bullied, but quickly learned to stick-up for himself. A probably apocryphal tale recounts how the young Shaw was ostracized and barred by some of the pupils from playing soccer. The canny Shaw, therefore, made friends with other outcasts, and formed his own soccer team. In a grudge match between the two, Shaw’s band of misfits thrashed the school’s eleven. Mind you, as this is a tale of a Scottish football team snatching “defeat from the jaws of victory” against a squad of “in-comers” led by an English laddie, well, it just might be true, as it fits the Scottish temperament.

His isolation on the isle was compounded by his father’s suicide (from an opium overdose) when Shaw was twelve. It was an event that had considerable effect, making the youngster emotionally withdrawn. Years later in 1965, when Shaw was becoming a movie star, the director Lindsay Anderson, who worked with Shaw in the theater during the fifties, noted (rather unfairly) in his diary how there was no “personal engagement” with the actor, which made his work:

”...deficient in real sensibility, to be studiously worked, and somehow over-conscious of effect.”

Yet, by his own admission, the waspish Anderson hadn’t seen Shaw’s spellbinding and brilliant performance as Aston in the film version of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, alongside Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance, or his “Red” Grant in From Russia With Love, or even his acclaimed turn on TV as Hamlet. In a way it’s typical of Anderson damning without just cause, but he does intuitively hit on the “temperamental clash” at work in Shaw’s life, as the actor does seem to have been driven by his own personal demons, which he spent a lifetime trying to contain.

In an interview for The Battle of the Bulge, from 1966, Shaw comes across like a very polite, clipped merchant banker, or government spokesperson. The only time he shows a glimmer of emotion, pride, is when he mentions his books.
 

 
More on Robert Shaw, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Russ Meyer’s ‘Fanny Hill’: Bosomania Gets Fancy


 
The name Russ Meyer has some striking connotations. The first being a comic-book style obsession with large, heaving, fleshy female breasts. But if all you see with the man is pendulous, heaving, busting-out-of-the screen tatas, then you are seeing only part of the picture. Meyer’s signature films boasted top notch editing that never let you finish a breath, plot lines that played out like the weirdest morality tale and characters that were so over the top and wild, that you really wished real life could be just like that.

Out of the 24 feature films he is credited with directing, there is one that has been fairly obscure and in the shadows till now. With 1964’s Fanny Hill, there are some potential reasons for this. That’s not to say it is a bad movie. It’s cute, features some lovely ladies and some fun performances. Fanny Hill stars Italian actress Leticia Roman as the very pretty, sweet natured and brain-damaged/naive titular character. Unlike the sexually precocious character from the classic 1700’s purple prose book, this Fanny Hill is about as glowy-cheeked and innocent as a Disney character.
 
Leticia Roman in Fanny Hill
 
After being orphaned by her rural parents, Fanny is taken to the city by her “friend,” whom we never meet. Abandoned, homeless and hungry, a desperate Fanny ends up at an employment office run by a hirsute woman with salacious looks. Before the living definition of mustache rides can act on any of her barely hidden impulses, Mrs. Maude Brown (legendary classic Hollywood actress Miriam Hopkins) saunters in and is flabbergasted at the eerie resemblance that young Fanny has with her late daughter.

Mrs. Brown immediately takes on the young lamb, not as a maid, but as a surrogate daughter. Madame seems a bit off, but compared to whatever fate beautiful-dim bulb Fanny has with Mustache Rides, she is in better hands with Mrs. Brown. She soon gets to stay at her new benefactress’s lovely home and her coterie of comely “cousins.” At last, the Meyer-ian buxotic factor comes into play, as each woman is gorgeous and colorful, including one acting like a crazed Lolita and another one practicing her whipping techniques on a mannequin. Russ Mayer fans will spot the uber-busty Rena Horten, whom he would go on to use in the incredible sex filled, fire and brimstone fueled Mudhoney, amongst the “cousins.”
 
The
 
After setting her up with one particularly lecherous, bewigged older man that ends up in catastrophe, Mrs. Brown realizes how genuinely virginal her new charge is. Of course, does that dissuade her from wanting to assimilate the young lovely into her roster of sexed-up, tigress-courtesans? Of course not!

However, as if Fanny’s blind allegiance to her own dim-witted naivete was not enough, soon another threat looms to wrench Brown’s plans for making the girl her next soiled dove. A chance meeting with a young sailor, Charles (future director Ulli Lommel), plunges Cupid’s arrow straight down Fanny’s heart. The young lovers announce their plans to wed to Mme. Brown. Not wanting her still untarnished future meal ticket to slip away, Brown engineers a plan to put Charles far away on an island. But you cannot keep a seafaring soul away and hijinks ensue, including one randy aristocrat named Hemingway (Walter Giller) who tries to wed Fanny, solely to get into her pantaloons. Will true love intervene or will our young heroine end up violated by a man whose sexual games involve gropey sleepwalking?
 
Hemingway sleepwalks
 
Fanny Hill is a cheeky film that is about as racy, if not slightly less so, than an episode of Benny Hill. Given that Mayer was THE godfather behind the nudie-cutie film movement, starting with the groundbreaking Immoral Mr. Teas, it is incredibly surprising that there is nary any real nudity in the entire film. There’s a decent amount of cleavage and some of the aforementioned ribaldry, but given that this came out the same year as Meyer’s far heavier and lurid Southern-fueled exploiter, Lorna, it feels unreasonably tame.

That said, Fanny Hillis a charming film with a cast that obviously had a lot of fun and relish with their roles. Hopkins, famous for her work in such Hollywood classics as 1933’s Design for Living, glams it up as the advantageous Mrs. Brown. Giller as the ridiculously lecherous Hemingway is even better, to the extent that you want more of his character. Roman is highly pretty and well suited to the supernaturally naive Fanny. Out of the canon of Meyer heroines, she is the wallflower at a swinging, claws-out-fighting party filled with women like Tura Satana, Erica Gavin, Kitten Natividad and Uschi Digard. But that’s okay because “Fanny Hill” itself is the wallflower of Meyer’s filmography.
 
Fanny & Charles rolling in the hay.
 
That said, even wallflowers have their moments and deserve love too. Thanks to the continually fine work from the folks at Vinegar Syndrome, this long obscure title is now available, spiffed up from its original negative and released on both DVD and Blu Ray. It’s great to have it, especially since the only time I ever remember seeing it beforehand was on a battered Paragon VHS at the second oldest video store in my hometown. On top of this nice release, they have also included an interview with former protege of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and director of the 1980 Richard Hell film Blank Generation, Ulli Lommel. They have also included Albert Zugsmith’s The Phantom Gunslinger as a bonus second feature! (Zugsmith who produced Fanny Hill.) Starring former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue and famed Mexican horror actor German Robles, The Phantom Gunslinger ironically looks visually more like a Meyer film, minus the breasty factor, than Fanny Hill. Splashy colors, Ala Wild Gals of the Wild West, and an over-the-top approach to characters that it feels like Tex Avery did five hits of acid and decided to make a live-action Western film with Troy Donahue. This is praise, by the way.
 
Mustache Kiss
 
Fanny Hill is a cute and interesting cinematic footnote of one of the truly most innovative, talented and wholly unique filmmakers America has produced in the last 100 years. Treat it like your charming Aunt, tipsy at a brunch after her 3rd Mimosa, telling you a PG-13 joke and giggling like she just said the nastiest thing in the world.
VHS release on

Posted by Heather Drain | Discussion
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