African American culture

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African American culture



    ; London was the center of the youth-oriented counter-culture of the second half of the 1960s

    (often labeled the “Swinging London” movement).

    ; The Swinging London phenomenon was a reaction to the austere conservatism of post World

    War II England. In some respects, it was also a reaction to the “angry young men

    movement.” “Don’t get angry, just get crazy”—seemed to be the answer of the Love Child

    generation to the angry young men of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The movement, and the

    entire “Hippie” movement, of course, was partially ignited by growing dissatisfaction with

    U.S., British, and French imperialism, and the Viet Nam War in particular. “Make Love, Not

    War” was the bumper-sticker philosophy of the period. (Note the “Ban the Bomb” street

    protest in the film.)

    ; It was a period of naïve optimism and hedonism, characterized by rejection of the

    establishment and authority, and experimentation with free love, drugs, and new

    “psychedelic” forms of art and fashion.

; The music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, et al, played a huge

    role in shaping the counter-culture’s “alternate reality. (The

    group in the night club near the end of the film is The


; London was also the center of “Mod” fashion. Twiggy and

    Varushka (she is in the film) become international icons (along

    with the mini-skirt).

; Peter Max’s “psychedelic” style of art (which employed a

    simplistic, colorful style) was a major influence on design,

    fashion and the graphic arts (note the colorful dresses of the

    two young girls in the film). He designed Beatle album covers

    and influenced the animation style of their film, Yellow


    ; The high priest of the drug culture was Dr. Timothy Leary. His quotation “Turn on, tune in,

    and drop out” became the mantra of the counter-culture.

; Other Swinging London films include The Knack and How to Get It (1965), Alfie (1966) and

    Georgy Girl (1966). The Austin Powers films of the 1990s spoofed this period.

    ; Blowup was Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English-language film. (He, of course, is the

    famous Italian director who began his career in the days of Italian Neorealism and worked

    with Roberto Rossellini. His most famous film is La’Adventura.) Antonioni was fascinated

    by the Swinging London “scene.”

    ; Bergman thought Blowup was Antonioni’s best film. (He thought most of his other films

    were “boring and overrated.”) Interestingly he and Antonioni died on the same day last year

    (in 2007).

Style of film

    ; When the film premiered, it was regarded as somewhat of a breakthrough in terms of editing.

    Peter Bondella (one of the most prolific Italian cinema scholars) observes that “Blowup is

    edited with the dynamic speed of a modern commercial and represents Antonioni’s attempt to

    capture the energy of the period” (Ezra 135). While the film is somewhat of a departure from

    Antonioni’s earlier style (which featured long takes, open-ended narrative lines, and a mise en

    scene that emphasized backgrounds), by today’s standards it is difficult to agree with

    Bondella’s assessment. Many viewers think the film is “slow.”

    ; The film makes little use of non-diegetic music. While it is not always clear, most of the

    music heard in the background appears to be coming from a radio or tape player in Thomas’s

    studio. At times, there is no music, which adds to the “cerebral” nature of the viewing

    experience. Antonio wants you to ponder the scenes along with Thomas, specifically the

    scenes in his studio when he blows up the photographs and tries to piece together what

    happened in the park.

    ; Ironically, while the film is largely about “alternate perceptions of reality” (more about that

    later), there is nothing “unreal” about the film—no dream sequences, no magical realism, no

    surrealismnothing that extends beyond the boundaries of a realistic narrativeexcept for

    one little device he uses at the very end of the film (more on that later).

Opening scene

    ; The opening scene tells us a great deal about Thomas, and also establishes the key themes of

    the film.

; First we see the “merrymakers” on board a military-style Jeep, weaving their way through

    what is the Financial District of London, on to The Economist Plaza (The Economist is the

    famous international financial newspaper.) The contrast is obviousbetween the Hippie-like

    merrymakers and the conservative institutions of The Economist and the military (implied by

    the Jeep).

    ; Next we see weary workers leaving a grimy factory. David Hemmings, who plays Thomas,

    emerges from the factory in the midst of the workers, clutching a paper bag, which we

    eventually learn contains his camera.

    ; The factory scene appears as if it were shot in black and white. It is a clear allusion to the

    great tradition of British Social Realism (and perhaps to Italian NeorealismAntonioni

    began his career working in INR). I believe Antonioni is suggesting that in the past,

    European filmmakers, writers and artists equated reality with social reality. They were

    obsessed with documenting the real life of common people, with the hope of bringing about

    social reform. They were greatly influenced by documentary journalists, photographers and

    filmmakers who tried to capture “life in the raw.”

; But those days are over. In the 1960s, he and other artistsfrom Peter Max to the Beatles

    were interested in the depiction of other realities and dimensions of the mind. He even fools

    us for a few minutes: we think Thomas is one of the workers. But we soon learn he is

    working as an artist undercover. At the end of the film, Thomas undergoes a tremendous psychological and philosophical evolution. When we meet him in the beginning, we learn that he is a top-notch fashion photographer (he drives a Rolls convertible and photographs the top models in London, including Varushka). He is an artist at heart, but has prostituted himself to the world of commercial photography. The way he treats his models and leaves for the park in the middle of a shoot suggests both his disdain for his work and his love for “real photography.” At this stage in his evolution, and the plot, his obvious passion is

    “socially realistic” photography, which he feels is closer to “the truth.” That is what he is

    most interested in, and ultimately, what the film is all about (i.e., “What is truth”?)

    ; As his name suggests (Doubting Thomas), he is a rationalist or an empiricist. He believes the camera is capable of capturing truth and reality (as is evident with the book of photos he hopes to publish). His entire approach to solving the basic mystery of the film is based upon an empirical approach. One might argue that he is a disciple of Bazin (who believed that photography, more so than painting, enabled artists to capture the true reality of an image).

    ; He also believes he is in total control of his own view of reality and his world. He is cocky, confident and controlling. Interestingly, we see the early scenes of the film pretty much through his eyes and his camera lens. As the film progresses, the camera’s point of view

    changes. In the park, for example, we see him from a distancefrom a God’s eye or bird’s

    eye viewas he realizes, and we realize, that he has less control over his world view (which is eventually brought into question).

; It’s also interesting to note the passers-by on the streets in the first few scenes. There are

    nuns and a Sikh (with the purple turban), with British guards in the backgroundall people

    with very different perspectives of reality. (Later in the film there is a group of Africans in native dressing walking down the street, and a gay couple with two poodles.)

    ; There is one glaring error in the first driving scene: you can see the cameraman reflected in the windshield of Thomas’ car (from a crane above the car).

Photo shoots

    ; The next few scenes show Thomas at work, first doing a solo shoot of Varushka, then a group shoot of five models. These scenes (and later scenes) tell us a great deal about Thomas and his relation with women. He is, first and foremost, an artist and thus is an observer of life, not a participant. He is only interested in seeing the world through his camera lens, and wants to control his world through his “masculine gaze” (Laura Mulvey, a noted feminist /

    psychoanalytical film theorist, has written extensively about the male gaze in film, arguing

    that it has significant Freudian undertones. One could do a feminist and/or psychoanalytical reading of the film, but I do not believe it is the primary way to “read” the film—but it would

    make for an interesting secondary reading). His session with Varushka ends with her writhing on the floor as he straddles her with his cameraan obvious simulation of (or

    substitution for, in his case) sexual intercourse, after which he is exhausted. (In a later scene, he observes Bill and Patricia having sex.)

    ; In the group scene, the models have become commoditized, held together by cloth pins. They are plastic creatures to Thomas. He has no emotional attachment to them. They are mere objects, mere products . The scene suggests his boredom with his craft, and can also be read as a commentary on the dehumanization of the fashion and modeling industries, and

    consumer materialism in general.

; As the film progresses, we realize we really don’t know much about Thomas—whether he

    has a girl friend, where he came from, anything about his parents, etc. All we know is that he

    is a photographer/artist, which seems to be Antonioni’s intention. Is Antonioni making a

    statement about the general role of the artist in contemporary society, including filmmakers?

    Is Thomas Antonioni? Perhaps.

Bill and Patricia

    ; The scene with Bill and Patricia is significant since there are elements within it that

    foreshadow the central mystery of the film, as well as important sub themes.

    ; Bill’s paintings are pointillistic abstractions. He comments that “they don’t mean anything

    when I do them…but later the details add up, like finding a clue in a detective story.” He

    then points out a detail to Thomas that he says looks like a leg. The paintings obviously echo

    the graininess of Thomas’s photos in the park, after he blows them up—and also the body

    under the tree.

    ; There is something mysterious about Patricia and her relationship with Thomas. It appears

    she is unhappy with Bill, and is interested in Thomas. She goes to his studio later in the film

    and says she needs to talk to him, but their conversationand relationshipare never

    consummated. Is Antonioni making a statement about the breakdown of human relationships

    in modern societyand that the so-called Love Generation didn’t have a clue about love?

    Possibly. His film La’Adventura explored the theme of alienated “couples”—unable to

    communicate or truly connect.

The park

    ; The central mystery of the film begins when Thomas enters the park. In the scene before, we

    see him in an antique shop searching for a landscape painting. Then he discovers, by

    accident, the entrance to the park, and strolls toward it, as if attracted by some force. This

    seems to suggest the next transition for Thomasfrom social photographer to nature

    photographer. While it is not explained, something has suddenly made him interested in

    landscapesperhaps it was a long submerged or forgotten interest. When he discovers the

    park, he is like a kid again, kicking his heels with joyquite a contrast from his cold, glib

    reaction to the models he photographs. He begins to take pictures of the park and pigeons.

; As stated earlier, this is where our perspective of Thomas changes. We now see him from a

    distance. He is now the observed, not the observer. (The film ends with a shot of him from a

    similar bird’s eye perspective.)

    ; He sees the woman in the park and begins to photograph her. She seems to be pulling the

    man in the suit in a certain direction, which arouses Thomas’s curiosity.

; The most interesting aspect of the park scenewhich suggests that there is more here than

    meets the eye, even more than what turns out to be a murder mysteryis the fence (yes, the

    fence). The park consists of a well-manicured (humanly manipulated) lawn, surrounded by a

    painted picket fence. The fence represents the boundary between the known and the

    unknown, between the world of man and nature, between light and reason and darkness and

    mystery. (It is a green fence, and thus a subtle boundary.) The park and the woman lure

    Thomas into another world, another reality, beyond his comprehension.

    ; Thomas’s “initiation” into the world of the unknown begins when he jumps over the fence

    and enters the “dark side.”

    ; The details of mystery he attempts to unravel, of course, are situated on the other side of the


“Blowup” scenes

    ; The central part of the film shows Thomas trying to literally piece together what happened in

    the park, in a rational manner. Using logic, he tries to solve the crime. He studies the

    woman’s stare, and thinks she is looking at a certain spot in the wooded boundary of the park.

    He marks that spot, takes a photograph of that section of the photograph, blows it up and

    mounts it on the wall.

    ; With each consecutive enlargement, the picture gets grainier and grainier (reminiscent of

    Bill’s paintings). In other words, instead of obtaining a clearer picture of the “the truth,” the

    picture becomes more and more ambiguous.

    ; He continues to blowup the photographs until he discovers a face in the trees and a gun.

; He then tries to piece together all the photos into a continuous narrative, or “storyboard,” to

    explain the sequence of events to his satisfaction.

CONTRARIAN VIEW: There are a few critics who question whether the face and the gun are in

    the photos, or whether he puts the “pixels” of the image together in his own mind to create these

    imagesout of his desperate need to impose rational order on what he saw. The images do appear to be somewhat crisper than the surrounding background. And at the very end of the film (without giving too much away, in case you have figured the ending out yet), his mind does distort his “visual reality.” I think the face and the gun are there. But, either reading arrives at the same conclusion about the filmnamely, the subjectivity of truth).

    ; All of this suggests man’s need (at least a rational imperialist’s need) (a) to believe that there

    is absolute truth and that it is obtainable through observation and reason, and (b) to impose

    order on the universe. Thomas’s attempt to storyboard his photographs reflects our desire to

    make sense out of disjointed images and patterns, to believe there is a unifying story that

    explains such things. Are our lives simply a random string of disconnected experiences, or

    do they comprise an integrated storyboard that tells a unified, meaningful narrative?

; He is convinced he has solved the mystery—and has saved a man’s life.

    ; He later goes to the park and sees the body beneath the tree. (Obviously, the opposite of what

    he thought—that he saved a man’s life—appears to be true.)

Searching for verification

    ; His photographs are stolen and now he has no evidence. Was it the woman in the park?

    Someone she sent?

    ; He looks for his friend Ron, publisher of his photo book, and thus verifier of what he

    observes and sees in life. On his way, he thinks he sees the woman in the street. Was she

    there or was it his imagination?

    ; He goes into a night club looking for her. The Yardbirds are playing. It is a dark temple of

    Rock and Roll. People are staring at the band, but not smiling or dancing (eerily similar to

    the club scene in Wings of Desire). The amp begins to go haywire, and Jeff Beck, the lead

    guitarist, smashes his guitar into pieces (reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar smashing at the

    Monterey Pops Festival one year after the film was made). Now the crowd goes wild,

    fighting over the broken guitar, which Thomas manages to get hold of and escape with. Once

    outside the club, he tosses it on the ground. A strange scene, but what does it mean? The

    people just about kill each other to get their hands on a piece of the guitar. It is suddenly the

    most important thing in the world for them. The fact that everyone wants it is the only factor

    that verifies its worth. Outside of that context, without the verification of the group, it is

    worthless trasha very postmodern metaphor of truth and value. The guitar, in itself, has no

    universal value. Only those who are fans of the band would possibly see any value to it, but,

    again, they only want it because everyone else does. Thomas, for a moment, gets caught up

    in the frenzy, but his rationalism returns when he leaves the club. He is unaware of it at this

    point, but the club scene also parallels his own situationthat what he has discovered is

    worthless unless he can get others within his group to verify his discovery.

    ; He finds Ron at a party in which half the people are stoned on drugs, experiencing

    “psychedelic” reality. He tries to tell him what he discovered, but to no avail. Ron is in

    another world. He sees Varushka, who utters perhaps the greatest line in the film. He says,

    “I thought you were in Paris.” She says. “I am in Paris.”

    ; He returns to the scene of the crime. The body is gone. Did any of this really happen?

    ; Without verification of the truth by society, there is no truth. It might well not have happened.

The ending:

    ; In one of the greatest endings in the history of film (in my humble opinion), the merrymakers

    return. Thomas watches as two mimes enter the tennis court and begin to “play” tennis. The

    rest of the merrymakers follow the flight of the imaginary ball. Thomas watches out of

    curiosity. Suddenly, one of the players hits the “ball” over the fence. They beckon to him to

    fetch it and throw it back. He runs over to a patch of grass, picks up the “ball,” and tosses it

    back over the fence. We then see him staring toward the tennis courtand we hear the sound

    of an actual tennis ball hitting rackets, back and forth, back and forth. The camera then

    zooms back to the bird’s eye view, and we see Thomas alone in the field of grassand then

    he totally disappears. The end.

; Thomas has gone over to the other side, and joined the “Magical Mystery Tour” of life. He

    has learned the immortal lesson of the Beatles—“It’s all in the mind, y’know (see the above

    poster). The reality of the merrymakers is as good as any one else’s. That, at least, seemed to

    be the attitude of the Hippie generation.

; The film, therefore, raises question, what is reality? Can we ever know the real truth about

    anything? Can we see the big picture, or only minute isolated parts of life’s mysteries? What

    does any of this matter? All that matters is what is true within your local subculture (the

    postmodern philosopher Jean Lyotard stated, “all truth is local,” and that there are no longer

    any grand metanarratives, or universal truths, only “little stories”).

    ; The film can be read as a statement on the role of the artist in society, and the correlating

    themes of the subjectivity of truth, the imposition of order by the observer, the growing

    insignificance of the author (Roland Barthe’s famous statement that “the author is dead,”

    which is alluded to by Thomas’ disappearance at the end), the social construction of identity,

    and related themes that postmodern and poststructural literary and film critics are fond of

    writing about.

    ; If you want to probe the film more deeply, there have been many excellent articles written

    about it, including one that discusses Thomas’s preference for “seeing” from an

    epistemological perspective rather than an ontological one (this essay is by Colin Gardner;

    you can find the link to it on the course Web site), and how he can be viewed as an alienated

    existential figure.

    ; It is also perfectly okay to read the film as mere social commentary on the spiritual

    shallowness of the 1960s.

    Ezra, Elizabeth, ed. European Cinema. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gardner, Colin. "Antonioni's Blow Up and the Chiasmus of Memory."

    10 April 2008 < >

Prepared by Karl J. Skutski

    Department of Modern Languages and Literatures

    Duquesne University

April 2008

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