why blow up is still the ultimate fashion film
NYC creative gem Glenn O’Brien takes a closer look at Antonioni masterpiece of the Swinging 60s.
Photography courtesy of Warner Brothers
I was 18 or 19 when Blow Up came out and to say that it changed my life is an understatement. It's right up there with the first albums by the Stones and the Velvet Underground. 1966. That was the year of Dylan's Blonde on Blonde and "I would not feel so all alone…everybody must get stoned." And we did. We became the hipsters and then the hippies. We turned on, tuned in, dropped out and blew our minds. And that was just for starters.
Michelangelo Antonioni had been directing films since 1950 and he had his first international arthouse hit in 1960 with L'Avventura, followed by the classics La Notte, L'Eclisse, and Red Desert. I saw these and his other films a bit later, but I knew about him because of his first English language film Blow Up, produced by Carlo Ponti.
My friends and I went to see it because the Yardbirds were in it and we loved the Yardbirds, maybe more than the Stones. On that level Blow Up is historic because it shows the band during the very brief time that Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were playing in it together. The track they play in the nightclub, 'Stroll On,' was familiar to us because it was basically a more high powered, up tempo version of the band's cover of Howlin' Wolf's funky blues 'Smokestacks Lightning.' But this version was something else. It wailed with feedback and we had barely heard feedback before. There was a bit of it on, of all things, the Beatles' 'I Feel Fine' from Beatles' 65.
The film's ultra cool photographer protagonist Thomas (David Hemmings) wanders into London's op art painted Beat Club and there's a stoned, still longish-haired, Swinging London audience watching impassively (except for a hipster model chick and a black dude dancing) as the Yardbirds rock out, electrifying the shit out of the blues. Midway through the song Jeff Beck has a problem with his amp and, annoyedly chewing gum he trashes his guitar, smashing it to bits against the amp and then stomping on it. Beck then throws the neck of the guitar into the previously dead audience, inciting a riot. Thomas scrambles away with the desperately sought guitar fragment and escapes to the street where he tosses it away as trash.
Okay, that's history. Feedback and guitar smashing in 66, before, I believe, either Jimi or The Who. But this was the primer on hipness that we had been waiting for. Hey, the rest of the soundtrack is by Herbie Hancock (then 26).
The photographer Thomas is apparently modeled after David Bailey, who was the photographer of Swinging London. David Bailey told me that Antonioni had tried to convince him to play the part himself. But Hemmings does a good enough job, making fashion photography look like something you might need to do when you grow up. This guy isn't just a fashion hack. At the beginning of the film he gets out of prison, where he has been undercover shooting pictures, and he drives home in his Bentley convertible.
There he shoots Veruschka in the most intense fashion photography session ever (It's total mental sex.). He photographs a bunch of extraordinary-looking pop art girls including the famous Peggy Moffitt. He then has a stoned three-way casting couch session with two wannabe models who get naked, a 20 year-old Jane Birkin and 21 year-old Gillian Hills, wrestling in torn seamless paper.
Clearly fashion photography was quickly becoming a career choice right up there with rock star.
Blow Up was seminal in many other ways. I remember the party scene where Hemmings runs into Veruschka and says, "You're supposed to be in Paris" and Vera, smoking a reefer and very high, passes it replying, "I am in Paris." It was Antonioni's second color film, but already his palette was extraordinarily special. The grass in the crucial park scenes wasn't green enough for the maestro, so he had it painted. Everything seemed like a symbol, a hint and a clue. Even if it was sexy.
The plot, which I won't spoil, revolves around a mystery that the photographer stumbles on to that occurs in a very secluded, surreal park. At times we catch a glimpse of what seems to be a neon advertising sign shaped like a gun. I can't tell you how many times I saw the film or the hours we spent discussing the significance of that little apparent clue. But under the spell of this vision of questing hipness we must have felt, suddenly, initiated into the mysteries of existentialism. Maybe we still didn't know what we were looking for, but we knew it when we saw it.
Here's what the 1966 trailer proclaimed: "Sometimes reality is the strangest fantasy of all. Antonioni's camera never flinches at love without meaning, murder without guilt. The dazzle and the madness of London today. You are an eyewitness to what's happening in a world where the beautiful and bizarre take on new forms and hold new fascinations."
Gee, I wish something like that would happen again.
Text Glenn O'Brien
Photography courtesy of Warner Brothers