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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 | Leave a comment
Room 666: Wim Wenders asks fellow Directors about the state of Cinema, from 1982

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During the Cannes Film Festival in 1982, Wim Wenders set-up a static camera in a room at the Hotel Martinez. He then invited a selection of directors to answer a series of questions on the future of cinema:

“Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?”

The directors, in order of appearance were:

Jean-Luc Godard
Paul Morrissey
Mike De Leon
Monte Hellman
Romain Goupil
Susan Seidelman
Noël Simsolo
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Werner Herzog
Robert Kramer
Ana Carolina
Maroun Bagdadi
Steven Spielberg
Michelangelo Antonioni
Wim Wenders
Yilmaz Güney

Each director was alloted 11 minutes (one 16mm reel of film) to answer the questions, which were then edited together by Wenders and released as Room 666 in 1982. Interestingly each director is positioned in front of a television, which is left on throughout the interview. It’s a simple and effective film, and the most interesting contributors are the usual suspects. Godard goes on about text and is dismissive of TV, then turns tables by asking Wenders questions; Fassbinder is distracted (he died within months) and quickly discusses “sensation oriented cinema” and independent film-making; Herzog is the only one who turns the TV off (he also takes off his shoes and socks) and thinks of cinema as static and TV, he also suggests movies in the future will be supplied on demand; Spielberg is, as expected of a high-grossing Hollywood film-maker, interested in budgets and their effect on smaller films, though he is generally buoyant about the future of cinema; while Monte Hellman isn’t, hates dumb films and tapes too many movies off TV he never watches; all of which is undercut by Turkish director Yilmaz Güney, who talks the damaging affects of capitalism and the reality of making films in a country where his work was suppressed and banned “by some dominant forces”.
 

 
With thanks to Tara McGinley, via The World’s Best Ever
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
The ‘lost’ Pink Floyd soundtrack to ‘Zabriskie Point’


 
Film lovers in Los Angeles will have a rare chance to see four of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films projected in pristene 35mm prints tomorrow and Wednesday night at Cinefamily.

In addition to Janus Films’ brand-new 35mm print of Red Desert—Antonioni’s first experiment with a color film in 1964—you can also catch Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger (Get tickets here). I’m hoping that “new 35mm print” = new Blu-ray DVDs of his films, especially Zabriskie Point.

And speaking of Zabriskie Point, I’ve become obsessed with a Pink Floyd bootleg making the rounds lately and chances are that some of you reading this might enjoy it, too.

Apparently the Floyd were at one point to have been the sole composer/musicians for the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. They completed eight numbers for the film, but only three were used. Antonioni added material by The Youngbloods, Roy Orbison, Jerry Garcia, The Kaleidoscope, Patti Page and the Rolling Stones to round out the film’s score. (Oddly, Antonioni visited the Doors in the studio when they were recording the extraordinary “L’America” for L.A. Woman, but the director inexplicably turned the track, which could have worked spectacularly well in the film).

Under the title 370 Roman Yards, you can hear all of the soundtrack music recorded by Pink Floyd for Antonioni that never made it into the film.  370 Roman Yards purports to be the “lost” Pink Floyd soundtrack to Zabriskie Point with all eight of those tracks recorded for the film in the order of the intended album’s run list, plus the known outtakes.

It’s an extremely satisfying listen: Some of it sounds like Atom Heart Mother, some of it like Meddle and some of it is reminiscent of “Grantchester Meadows,” Roger Waters’ dreamy, pastoral composition from Ummagumma. “Heart Beat, Pig Meat” was Pink Floyd’s first time using a human heartbeat as a musical instrument (but would not be the last). It’s one of their most monstrous numbers, truly a mind-blower. Rick Wright contributed a piano number called “The Violent Sequence” which was unused, but later retooled as “Us and Them” on Dark Side of the Moon. Parts of the score remind me of Erik Satie and it has some of the few Floyd numbers that could be described as “blues rock.” Taken as a whole, it does absolutely sound like a “lost” Pink Floyd album recorded at the end of 1969, because that’s exactly what it is…

In the summer of 1969 Michelangelo Antonioni completed the filming of his visionary and prophetic view of America and our society.  All that was left was to complete the movie with a good soundtrack.  Antonioni was interested in everything that was new and trendy among young people.  Don Hall was on the air during his nocturnal DJ program on KPPC FM Pasadena when he was contacted personally by Antonioni at the end of the summer of 1969.  Antonioni really liked Don and invited him to have some screenings of the movie.  After that Don provided a list of songs he felt would work, most coming from his program.  Antonioni asked MGM to hire Don as Music Advisor for the soundtrack and came back to Roma (Don still has a letter from Antonioni, sent from Rome with the list of the songs he’d like to be in the movie, all songs for the radio-desert sequences).

Still they had to find how to score all the main sequences: Beginning, Violent, Take Off, Love and Explosions sequences (and eventually more).  Antonioni wanted original music for those sequences.  Many artists and bands were contacted to write original music for the movie, but none of them was asked to write the whole soundtrack of the movie.

In October ‘69 Don was in Rome with Antonioni trying to find a way to score the whole movie in time for Christmas.  Near the end of the month it happened that Clare Peploe (co-writer of the movie and Antonioni’s girlfriend at the time) brought to Rome a brand new copy of the new Pink Floyd album, Ummagumma, from London.  Antonioni, Don Hall and Clare listened to the new album with a small stereo at Antonioni’s house in Rome.  Antonioni REALLY liked Ummagumma and listened several times to the whole album.  He liked “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” very much and told Don that he’d like a new version for the final sequence of Zabriskie Point. They decided to try and hire Pink Floyd to record all the original music they needed for the movie. MGM contacted Pink Floyd.  After that Steve O’Rourke came to Rome alone during the first days of November ‘69 to check and organize it all.  All was done in few days, and Pink Floyd came on the 15th of November with Pete Watts and Alan Stiles, cancelling some shows planned for their present tour.  Antonioni and Don showed the movie to them several times with some scenes already scored, highlighting those without.  At that point Steve and Roger Waters had a talk and asked Antonioni to try to score the whole movie.  He, being enthusiastic about Ummagumma, agreed.

Pink Floyd produced a large quantity of music, especially for the Love Scene but Antonioni was not satisfied and the sessions ran longer than planned.  In the end Pink Floyd went back to London with some songs to finish.  Out of all the entire production of songs, including themes and variations, Antonioni ended up using only three songs.  He kept on searching for “something better” till the last days before the premiere of the movie.  In London Pink Floyd completed their final versions of eight songs with the intent of them being their eventual album for the Zabriskie Point soundtrack.

You should not have that much of a problem, armed only with Google, of tracking down your own copy of of the amazing “lost” Pink Floyd soundtrack album, 370 Roman Yards...

“Heart Beat, Pig Meat”
 

 
“The Violent Sequence” which later became “Us and Them”:
 

 
The version of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (re-titled “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up” here) that accompanies the big explosion scene at the end of Zabriskie Point is one of the great “primal screams” in all of rock and roll (and cinema) history. With the gorgeous Daria Halprin (briefly Mrs. Dennis Hopper):
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Zabriskie Point Fallout (With Mel Brooks)

Thank you Michael Backes!

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
One of cinema’s great scenes: The final shot of Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’

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Actor Maria Schneider’s death yesterday brought to mind a film she starred in with Jack Nicholson in 1975: Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger. Like all of Antonioni’s films, The Passenger uses space, emptiness and architecture to create a sense of spiritual longing in an existential void. The film’s final scene is considered to be one of the great cinematic achievements in the history of the medium—a seamless tracking shot that moves through a gated window enters a courtyard and does a 180 pan and returns to the window from the opposite point of view from which it left, no edits.  It was quite some time after the film was released that the method in which it was done became known to film buffs who had been baffled by Antonioni’s seemingly impossible feat. The definitive description of the seven minute long scene is this Wikipedia entry:

There were a number of reasons why the shot proved so difficult to accomplish and is so studied by film students. The shot needed to be taken in the evening towards dusk to minimize the light difference between interior and exterior. Since the shot was continuous, it was not possible to adjust the lens aperture at the moment when the camera passed from the room to the square. As such, the scene could only be shot between 5:00 and 7:30 in the evening.

Difficulties were further compounded by atmospheric conditions. The weather in Spain was windy and dusty. For the shot to work, the atmosphere needed to be still to ensure that the movement of the camera would be smooth. Antonioni tried to encase the camera in a sphere to lessen the impact of the wind, but then it couldn’t get through the window.

Then there were further technical problems. The camera ran on a ceiling track in the hotel room, and when it emerged outside the window it was picked up by a hook suspended on a giant crane that was nearly thirty metres high. A system of gyroscopes had to be fitted to the camera to mask the change from a smooth track to the less smooth and more mobile crane. The bars on the outside of the window were fitted on hinges. As the camera came up to the bars they were swung away at the same time as the hook of the crane attached itself to the camera as it left the tracks. The whole operation was co-ordinated by Antonioni from a van by means of monitors and microphones to assistants who, in turn, communicated his instructions to the actors and the operators.

In the DVD commentary, Nicholson states that Antonioni constructed the entire hotel entirely so that the final shot could be accomplished.

Here’s the scene. Watch it closely and be prepared to amazed. It was shot by Luciano Tovoli. The clip begins with a little bit of visual “noise” that is not part of the original film.
 

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
The Zabriskie Point Fallout (With Mel Brooks)

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A few weeks back, regarding Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, I wrote about my fascination with the great European directors crossing the Atlantic to reign in and make sense of ‘60s America.  Resigning himself to merely making a film called Made In U.S.A., Jean-Luc Godard resisted the impulse.  Michelangelo Antonioni, most spectacularly with Zabriskie Point, did not.
 
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As hatched by a team of writers that included Sam Shepard, and wife of Bernardo Bertolucci, Clare Peploe, the plot of Zabriskie Point wasn’t terribly complex.  Rebel Angelenos (my favorite kind!) Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette (who go, in the film, by their real names), hook up in the desert, have sex in the sand, then separate to meet their own explosive ends.

More complex, though, was the anger and confusion the film provoked at the time.  Typically gorgeous cinematography aside, cineasts looking for a worthy philosophical successor to Blow-Up were left disappointed by Zabriskie’s relatively unnuanced take on capitalism.  Hollywood watchers were appalled that Antonioni squandered so much time and money ($7 million in 1970 dollars) on something that, despite it’s notorious “desert orgy” sequence, managed to rake in barely a million hippie-box-office dollars.

Fortunately, 5 years later, Antonioni secured cinematic redemption with The Passenger.  Daria Halprin acted in only a handful of films, but went on to become, briefly, Mrs. Dennis Hopper.  After her marriage to Hopper fizzled, Halprin developed an interest in art therapy, and now, with her mother, runs Marin County’s Tampala Institute.

The future was far less kind to Mark Frechette.  You can read the Rolling Stone article about his “sorry life and death” here, but the shorthand goes like this:

He was the apparent victim of a bizarre accident in a recreation room at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, where Frechette had been serving a six- to 15-year sentence for his participation in a 1973 Boston bank robbery.

Frechette’s body was discovered by a fellow inmate early on the morning of September 27th pinned beneath a 150-pound set of weights, the bar resting on his throat.  An autopsy revealed he had died of asphyxiation and the official explanation is that the weights slipped from his hands while he was trying to bench press them, killing him instantly.

What the above leaves out, though, is that prior to his incarceration, Frechette was living in a commune run by American cult leader Mel Lyman.  The entirety of Frechette’s Zabriskie earnings were tithed to Lyman’s “Family,” and it’s presumed that whatever money Frechette hoped to abscond with post-robbery would have wound up there as well.

Before all this, though, back when television talk show guests could still indulge in a cigarette, Halprin and Frechette found themselves—along with Mel Brooks and Rex Reed—on The Dick Cavett Show.

As you can watch below, Cavett had yet to see Zabriskie Point—and Frechette makes him pay for it.  In defending Lyman, Frechette also goes on to argue the fine line between “commune,” and “community.”

 
Trailer for Zabriskie Point: Where A Boy And A Girl Meet And Touch And Blow Their Minds!

Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment
The Strangeness That Is Jacques Demy’s Model Shop

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I’m always fascinated when the great European directors come to work in America.  Zabriskie Point, while a hands-down favorite of mine anyway, in my eyes, almost succeeds more as a relative failure because there’s something poignant about Michelangelo Antonioni‘s need to make sense of a landscape more disjointed than Rome (L’Eclisse), more baffling than North Africa (The Passenger), and possibly more empty than ‘60s London (Blow-Up).  Antonioni might not have succeeded in making sense of countercultural America, but there’s something undeniably beautiful about his attempt.

Jacques Demy‘s nearly forgotten film, Model Shop, is another example of a perceived failure that somehow manages to succeed all the more so for it.  Released, briefly, by Columbia Pictures in ‘69, when Demy was still basking in the international glow of his Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Model Shop stars Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam-dreading drifter who starts trailing around Los Angeles Anouk Aimee’s older French woman (well, who wouldn’t?!)  Thus begins a hall-of-mirrors roundelay that, despite it’s strained dialogue and meandering plot, comes off as much a love letter to Los Angeles as it does to melancholy romance.
 
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And while Model Shop flirts with themes of the “universal condition,” it’s also wonderful to see (as it is in Don’t Make Waves or Play It As It Lays) what the city looked like back then, less burdened as it was by cars, noise, and signage.  A (typically) colorful clip from Model Shop follows below:

 
Bonus: Harrison Ford’s Model Shop Screen Test

Posted by Bradley Novicoff | Leave a comment