Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Michaelangelo, He's A Party Dude!

Yes, I am a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - especially their latest incarnation as drug-addled, hormone feuled, doubt-ridden reptiles who pick and choose the best stories to have from their various continuities. Except for The Next Mutation, the live action show famous for Venus de Milo, the female Ninja Turtle whose impossible bosom you could read a book off... I don't defend The Next Mutation. I don't think anyone can.

Anyway, this is not going to be regailing you about the time I met the guy who played Raphael in the movies after he dropped round my house for a drink with my parents and selling Amway products, this is about someone else.

Michelangelo Antonioni, an Italian film director whose name automatically makes you assume he is a cartoon anthropomorphic animal. And he's dead.

I've only ever seen one of his movies, Blowup (which I'm sure you'll all know was a crucial inspiration for Doctor Who: The Invasion, but don't hold that against him). It is an English movie from 1966, starring Michael Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave.

The thing about Blowup, well one of them - the lack of any huge explosion in the plot is another - is that it has very little dialogue. It is not quite a documentary, but does feel 'real'. Simply, there is no exposition. People have normal conversation that don't infodump who they are, what they do, what they're like or who they're going to seduce after some LSD. In fact, there's so little dialogue it was two thirds into the movie that I realized the copy I was watching was defective.

It had no sound!

To the beginning. It opens with Rag Week, an English mardi gras-style time were students dress up like clowns or in drag and perform pranks of such variety and lunacy you wonder why anti-terrorist legislation hadn't already kicked in to stop them. This bunch of mime artists, faces painted, wearing Dr Suess hats and making a huge nuisance of themselves as they motor around London with the care and finess of a Torchwood sting operation. They duck in and out of the movie in the background, seemingly to be the only ones having a good time.

Michael Hemmings (Add David McCallum to David Tennant and seriously piss off), is one of a group of blue collar workers having a smoko outside the factory in the cold, grey, windswept city. God, it's miserable - no doubt everyone who lived there at the time was waiting for Doctor Who to come on just to distract them from this barren hellhole, assuming the film tells the truth. It's a quiet, lonely city of rain-sodden brick and dirty windows. No one is outside, and everyone seems trying not to think about depressing it all is. It's like A Clockwork Orange or The Young Poisoner's Handbook or... anything starring Rik Mayall.

Swinging Sixties? Swinging from a noose, possibly.

Since police boxes aren't going to appear out of nowhere, we'll stick with Hemmings. With his surly expression and fair hair, it looks like the other workers at the factory are picking on him and jeering. But when they return to work, Hemming stays outside and strides off to go to a mostly-empty cafe where another bloke wants to talk shop. Hemmings is no blue-collar worker, but an incredibly successful photographer. He's rich if not famous, and has taken up wandering around London pretending to be other people in the hopes of snapping off an interesting photo that makes the world look vaguely worth living in.

His latest album of slightly unusual photos is now ready to publish and Hemmings is at a loose end. He's almost an idealist in his way, in his desire to prove a point to this nihilistic existance. Except, he's no Roj Blake, and if he does find the answer, he's unlikely to bother to share it with anyone else. He himself is the only person that matters.

And now Hemmings wanders the grey, cold, lonely and above all boring streets of London. No one to talk to, nothing to talk about. The world ended and no one cared. He occasionally does some proper work, in a scene we all recognize from Austin Powers: the sixties dolly birds wearing unspeakable outfits as a wacky photoman arranges them in ludicrous positions. However, Austin was far nicer to them than Hemmings. Of course, it is not unknown for creative types to start to treat their non-creative co workers as nothing but tools or slabs of raw material, but I can honestly say I've been nicer to screwdriver sets than Hemming is to the poor victims he has to deal with. Hurling abuse at them for not being able to arrange themselves in some unknown manner, he chucks them out and goes wandering again.

Still nothing.

Until, he enters a park. This is an English park, which means it's huge and full of trees and... what's this? An attractive young woman and some bald civil-servant type are running through the grass like young lovers, spinning and dancing. If there was any incidental music, it'd be sickeningly smaltsy. If someone else was filming it, it'd be like Grease. But now, just two distant stick figures moving in patterns.

Which is exactly the kind of thing that gets Hemmings going. He starts snapping off shot after shot of the couple, and since this is the time before you could just get a shot from your mobile, the noise of his camera carries far over this silent town.

The woman spots him and gives chase. Hemmings leisurely wanders off, happy to have caught some snaps and now treating the entirety of human existance as Someone Else's Problem. The woman is Vanessa Redgrave (Diana Rigg meets Jacqueline Pearce) and she begs him to hand over the film.

You might notice I haven't given these characters names. That's because they don't have any.

Moving on, Redgrave is desperate for the film. She'll pay anything. Hemmings refuses - the jollies he gets from this sort of voyeurism is beyond mere money! And why is she so upset he's taken the photos? Is she having an affair? Is the other guy? Are they worried about blackmail? Redgrave turns on her not inconsiderable charms onto Hemmings, and the guy shrugs it off.

Thanks to the doco feel, NONE of that feels important to the overall plot (which it is) and there is no hint we'll bump into this woman again. Hemmings meanwhile has discovered in a second hand shop... A PROPELLOR! From a BIPLANE! It's so screwed up, he MUST have it, and hurls abuse at the heart-breakingly-cute girl at the counter who honestly tries her best to do him proud.

Returning home, Hemmings realizes he's taken so many snaps of the couple he could make another book out of it. He rings up his publisher and sorts it out when suddenly... Vanessa Redgrave arrives at his flat. And, as if possessed by the future spirit of Chatham, takes her shirt off. The first full frontal female nudity on British film.

In yer face, Carry On Flicks!

Not even the Great Hemmings can cope with that AND Redgrave's come hither looks, and the two immediately... listen to a record and smoke a few joints and maybe have sex. Hemmings, now running low on dialogue, notes his worldview when he films a little of Redgrave smoking, drinking and bouncing her head along with the music, urging her to "go against the rhythm". Which makes it all the more cooler, you know.

The propellor arrives (after a near Mr. Bean-esque failure to strap it to the back of Hemming's car) and Redgrave slips out, saying she's off to Paris and seemingly accepting the fact she aint getting the photos back.

But Hemmings looks at the photos. You can't see the guy's face and she is barely recognizeable. Curious, he englarges/blows up (hah, the title, get it?!?) the photo. Again and again. You can now just about make out Redgrave's face, but nothing else. At that distance, it would be ridiculous to expect anything else.

So why was she so desperate to get it back when she should have been able to work out the photos were harmless? Why?

Hemmings goes out to see his publisher who, like the entire British population at night, it seems, gets incredibly stoned and listens to rock music. And there is Redgrave, acting like his publisher's girlfriend, and so comes the last dialogue in the film... and the most disturbing.

"I thought you were in Paris," Hemmings points out.

"This is Paris," says Redgrave with a smile.

That bit just gets at me, for some reason. As if reality is suddenly not certain, and you can find Paris by wandering around London. From then on, it's like everything is coming apart at the scenes. Redgrave vanishes. The publisher never seemed to notice her there.

Suffering an incredible existential angst, Hemmings runs home and looks at the photos. They exist. Ergo, so must she. Unless he's just seeing patterns in black and white that LOOKS like her. And so, Hemmings looks closer at the picture. And then he englarges it again and again and again.

It is now he realizes there were not too people he photographed, but three.

In the bushes behind the civil servant, a sniper rifle is pointing out of the leaves.

Suddenly, it all makes sense! The civil servant was doing to be assassinated, and Redgrave was luring him into a trap. There was little chance Hemmings would have been able to recognize her from the photos, but no doubt the photographer would notice the civil servant being shot dead.

Hemmings goes for the police... but it strikes him. Is it a sniper rifle? Or just a black and white blob?

Now extremely disoriented, Hemmings heads back for the park at the dead of night. He moves around, recreating the dance. And then he heads for the bush where the sniper rifle was.

And finds the body of the civil servant, eyes wide and quite, quite dead.

Reeling, Hemmings runs back to the house... and all the photos and blow ups are gone. The film removed. The only trace it ever happened the broken lock to the front door. And it's about now Hemmings realizes he should have got Redgrave's name.

He staggers, now almost out of his head and does the most stupid thing imaginable.

He goes to a Yardbirds concert.

Stupid, stupid, stupid!

When your own personal reality is crumbling to dust around you you do not, repeat NOT, check out Jeff Beck and hope everything sorts itself out. It's a true sign of Hemming's apocalypse that as he stumbles onto the dance floor where hundreds of teenagers sway unsteadily to the music, he bumps into Michael Palin.

And then Jeff Beck smashes his guitar on the stage, shattering it to pieces, Hemmings beats off Janet Street-Porter (her with the teeth) to steal the neck of the guitar and clutching it to his chest, runs out into the street as the fans scrabble for this new memorabilia which is destined for eBay.

Hemmings then realizes he just fought frantically for a smashed piece of wood. He throws it away and wander around the city until dawn breaks and returns to the park.

The body is gone.

Was it ever there?

Hemmings, borderline catatonic, watches as the Rag Week looneys arrive and play mime tennis until the "ball" goes out of the court and "lands" at his feet. Hemmings "picks up" the invisible ball and throws it over the fence, where the looneys happily begin to play.

Hemmings can only stare at his empty hand. Which was always empty. Wasn't it? Object permanence works on the idea of things continuing to exist even when the beholder has their eye on something else. If Hemmings agreed with the reality of the looneys, does that make that his reality now?

Hemmings fades away, leaving the park empty.

The moral of this story is not to look at things too closely or you'll disprove your own existence and vanish in a puff of logic.

Is it a good film? Well, it's got a naked woman, a Monty Python member, the Yardbirds, a brain-twisting philosophical premise and truly chilling moments... and that's if you get the version without any sound. I'd have a copy of it except I've no idea where it is.

It's a film that makes you think without even trying, like all the fancy "Contacts" or "Fargos" or "Momentos".

And so I post this, hoping that by doing so I don't drop out of existance myself.

Because, irony aside, that would just.. .. *.


Cameron Mason said...

The moral of this story is not to look at things too closely or you'll disprove your own existence and vanish in a puff of logic.

When I die, this is how I want to go...

Youth of Australia said...

How will we notice? Will you switch off the filter first?