Blow-Up

April 24, 2017

The Criterion Collection finally has Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up out and in blu ray. While a blu ray Blow-Up has long been wished for by fans, I decided to take a look at the old DVD to see if there was a good reason to upgrade. Warner Brothers brought out a DVD in 2004. Today’s viewing confirmed that the DVD picture looks very good. There are also two special sound tracks: a music only and an excellent commentary track by Peter Brunette, author of The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni. These features are absent from the new Criterion edition.

What struck me, though, was how on top of his game Antonioni was in 1966 when Blow-Up came out.  Chabrol was then still groping along and did not master film construction until around 1980. The principle reason seems evident. Antonioni was a highly disciplined filmmaker who did all the work necessary not only so that each shot would be right but so that the film would come together. By contrast Chabrol is self-indulgent, putting himself ahead of his art. The Chabrol films, even if they unfold interesting ideas, are often wooden, clumsy or mannered. Chabrol’s motto seems to be that what is worth doing is worth doing badly, while Antonioni puts the art first. This does not at all mean that Antonioni has to suppress his personal vision.

There is another and perhaps greater contrast between the directors. More than any other of his films Blow-Up makes obvious how plugged into the cultural currents of his time Antonioni was. Perhaps this was from his origins in neo-realism, but he was able to travel to London to make his first foreign film and shoot exactly the right stuff. (I Vinti in 1953, made up of three shorts, did have a section made in England.) Chabol filmed his personal preoccupations, which put a cap on how high his films could rise. Chabrol films are always about some French not measuring up to some French conception of how they should be. As though Chabrol always said that he abhorred judgement and no one had a right to judge, that is what he does throughout all his films, so that there is a flavor of disingenuousness running through them all. The irony is that it is this quality that makes them so representatively French and therefore interesting artifacts. For what is more French than to be always judging and always in bad faith?

 


Across four and a half decades

July 9, 2012

I just watched the Blu-ray of Across the Universe, the musical featuring the troubles of the Vietnam-war era youth to the music of the Beatles. It struck me as a well-made movie and yet far removed from the era it depicted. Lucidity and clear thinking were alien to American youth of the time, and nothing shows it more than the cant that filled their speech. “Hey man, that’s a heavy trip man, blah, blah, blah.” Watch Woodstock and pay attention to the interviews. Plus there was a generational resentment at the time, where the previous generation was accused of hypocrisy and phony values that had landed the sixties generation in a mess that demanded a total break with the past. In its justification we can admit the the period of the movie was before the wave of fuzzy-headedness peaked around 1970, but still the success of The Graduate with its detestation of the Mrs. Robinson generation shows that the the generational resentment was already cresting in the movie’s period. So with its directness and simplicity Across the Universe  felt wrong. It was made with the sensibilities of another time.  The leaders of the campus radicalism (and this is something the movie seems to get right whether by design or accident) were pre-Beatles, pre-hippie people from a time when articulated theory still mattered, and by the period of the movie in graduate school. I remember when I started graduate study that the manager of the campus bookstore told me that book sales crashed with my generation. I was about a year ahead of my cohort, and the phenomenon had been around for about a year, so it was the generation graduating from college in 1972 and high school in 1968 who were the last to show an interest in ideas.

As it happens, I had just finished Richard Wolin’s The Wind From the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Once again I am impressed by the great divide between the American scene in 1968 and the intellectual ridden French events of May and following on. People in America were reading Marcuse, which seems the closest analogue, but the French nonsense did not take effect here until much later, and by then nobody who was interested in anything with relevancy paid it any heed. By then it was just a game for useless professors and their graduate students (who were mainly trying to figure how with get though life with enough income to buy fancy wines, but without have to work a real job).  While the French students obscessed with how to achieve solidarity with the workers and thus become authentic, their American contemporaries, to the extent that they had adopted the sixties ethos, wanted to distance themselves as far from Joe Sixpack as possible. (See, e.g. Joe.)

Across the Universe reflects that divide as its awareness reaches no further than Liverpool, and it only crosses the Atlantic because it is a musical based on Beatles music. Vietnam is an unpopulated cartoonish montage of previous Vietnam war movie clichés. The real universe of the movie is that of media imagery and movie quotations. It is a celebration of pop-media memories of the sixties.


Sixties nostalgia

February 8, 2010

Long ago I had for a short time a roommate who, while totally conventional in his outlook on things, liked to go to unusual movies. Then he would come back all pumped up to tell about them. One of these was Wise Blood (which I have yet to see; I doubt it is better than the Flannery O’Conner novel), another Return of the Secaucus 7. It seemed from his telling that it was one of those generational movies where old friends get together and come to terms with how they have lived out their goals. A couple weeks ago I saw the DVD for sale cheap, so I picked it up. I expected to be annoyed, but at the same time to have some insights, even if skewed, to kick around a bit.

I got nothing of the sort. The DVD has an interview with the aged filmmakers which shows why.  They are inwardly unchanged even now and, bitter about the generations that came after them (when the slogan of don’t trust anyone over thirty became don’t trust anyone under thirty), aspire only to pass on the sixties torch to their new hope, the euro-trash who riot at IMF and world trade meetings, and who they hope will watch the movie.

The characters are university weekend radicals who would get arrested at big well-publicized protests, and in between enjoyed a life of drugs, promiscuity and hedonism, while looking down at all the more conventional people. So this sixties generation thing was mainly a matter of language and lifestyle that made a particularly sharp break with the previous generation–not only of that of their parents but of the student cohort before them. The sixties went from suits and ties to ripped jeans and tie-dyed tops. The radical style change made everyone see themselves as totally transformed. Most students, in fact the great majority, never took their focus off getting grades, graduating, getting a job, and starting out in life. But for the rest who took the sixties pop culture as the definition of their identity, a great bond was formed with those who went through this change with them. This movie is about them.

Ten years have gone by, and these characters are trying to go on being what they were, and feeling the strain a bit. They haven’t learned anything in that time, and have not doubted their fundamental choices, but only whether they dumped this or that boyfriend or girlfriend too late or too soon. Anybody who was of the same type as these characters will feel an emotional response to all this, and there are enough to make an audience for an independent film. It is not as though these people are rare or exceptional like 19th century artistic bohemians. By the end of the fifties riffraff could attend universities and get white color jobs, just because the economy had long before moved away from farm labor and was entering the post-industrial service industry and government leach phase. Five of these characters are government leaches. Two “teach” high school, though as they admit there isn’t education going on, two work as staff for a politician and another is a drug counselor.

The filmmakers, though, are just happy to show the radicals get together, get in tough with their feelings, and keep the commitment to being sixties people. For this they need each other. Apart, without their shared group experience, the memories and the experience seem less real. And that is about all the point there is to this film. But if you weren’t part of that scene, why should you care?


Godard

February 7, 2010

Lately I have been collecting Godard films, mostly because the prices have come down, especially in the used DVD market, from the unreasonable levels where the Criterion Collection kept them. Last night I finished watching Alphaville, which I had started in 1975. The clods I was with then insisted on walking out of the theatre early in the movie, and as they had the car it was either go with them or be stranded in Evanston, Illinois.

Godard strikes me as a poseur, and as someone who literally did not know what he was doing. The Criterion discs have many extras, and sometimes one can get Godard’s own take on the characters. Then I watch the film and they are not at all what Godard thought they were. Godard was completely caught up in the delusions of the sixties, and while he changes these with the cultural seasons of the era, he could not break free until the cultural flow had broken them down for everyone else as well.

The illusions of the sixties centered around the notion that through various recycled ideologies and quasi-ideologies a new generation was finally able to break free of  “the system” and live authentically. Side by side with 19th century Marxism (already shown to be obsolete by Nazi post-modernism) were various “youth culture” romanticisms of back to nature or mystical escapism (as through drug experiences). Godard films repeatedly depicts those who achieve some such gnosis and drop of the system.

So while Godard makes his sociological critiques and “exposes” the reality of his era, he actually exemplifies it, and that is what makes his films worth watching. Also he does not drag in old baggage from the fifties (“proven formulas” and clichés) to insure commercial success as the studios did with their films, so his view into the sixties is that much cleaner. Godard was onto these things before films like Blow-Up or Performance where we already feel we are seeing a redigestion of things that have been around for a while and have played out. That is, the later films depict something that has found a popular following separate from the people who created it and were driven or had a reason to do so.

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Studio Canal is bringing out in Blu-Ray films previously licensed by Criterion. Those who have seen it say that Studio Canal’s Ran is a step backward from the Criterion DVD, with a low quality transfer. Soon out will be Contempt, and wonder if it will be just as poor.