Tag Archives: David Hemmings

CAPSULE: BLOW-UP (1966)

DIRECTED BY: Michelangelo Antonioni

FEATURING: , Vanessa Redgrave

PLOT: A hedonistic fashion photographer snaps some candid pictures of a couple in a park; when he looks at the negatives, he thinks he may have discovered evidence of a murder.

Still from Blow-up (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Blow-Up is only subtly weird, and its oddness only becomes truly apparent at the end. This site’s readers have never, to my memory, suggested this movie for review; and yet, Antonioni’s ambiguous examination of London mods in existential free-fall is something of a canonical art film that must be touched upon in a comprehensive survey of weird films.

COMMENTS: Let me put Blow-Up in a personal context. When I first saw this movie in my early twenties, I despised it. I can’t find my original review, but in essence, my viewpoint was that making a deliberately boring movie in order to critique the boredom of modern life—capped by the director dangling a single point of interest in front of the audience, only to snatch it away—was a reprehensible bit of auteurial sadism. Over time, however, I have to admit that several moments from Blow-Up lingered in my memory for years, like snapshots, indicating that the movie can’t be as bad, or as boring, as I originally thought it was. Seeing it again after a couple of intervening decades, I find I tolerate its (significant) longeurs much better; and, although I’ll stop short of reassessing it as a must-see masterpiece, I do reluctantly find its intellectual ambiguities (eventually) involving.

To understand the experience of Blow-Up, it’s important to point out that, for most of this film, nothing of significance happens. But a few scenes pop. There are, basically, four such sequences (leaving aside the opening where a gaggle of rambunctious mimes rampage through the streets of London, which might have been forgotten had they not returned in the coda). After a first half of the movie that features David Hemmings doing nothing other than snapping photographs of emaciated models, making snotty comments, and considering buying a propeller, the first scene of actual interest occurs when the movie is more than halfway over, when he looks at a series of photographs he snapped in the park earlier in the day. He thinks he sees something that might be a clue to a murder. What really “pops” about this scene is the photographer’s sudden look of interest as he peers at the blown-up negatives; mostly, he has appeared as bored as the audience up until this point. The fact that this monumentally jaded character is suddenly roused by this discovery makes it seem extra-important to us; the look of fascination on his face says to us “something is finally happening, the movie is starting!”

Indeed, the movie is starting, but not in the way we expect. As he blows up the photos, scanning for them for clues, the photographer is distracted by the appearance of two aspiring models, who bed him. It’s a hot scene, but the memorable part is when post-coital Hemmings suddenly glances at the photographs hanging on the wall, catches a new detail, and brusquely dismisses the birds to resume his investigation. Blow-Up‘s rhythm now requires that the photographer vacillate between intense commitment to solving the mystery and distraction by sex, drugs and the rock and roll lifestyle, so as he tries to investigate the suspected murder and convince his fellow mods to become involved, he finds himself wandering into a bizarre Yardbirds concert with a zombie-like audience. The final “popping” scene is the much talked-about finale, where, after having failed to solve the mystery, Hemmings encounters the hip mimes from the opening again. They pantomime a tennis game and ask him to fetch an imaginary ball in a final game that suggests that the thing we are seeking can be found, but we must know how to look.

Focusing on those key scenes and discarding the chaff makes Blow-Up a stronger film; the background noise of the photographer’s meaningless, fashionable mod existence is the texture from which the few meaningful moments pop. Although many movies improve on a second viewing, I can’t think of any that do so as dramatically as Blow-Up. Unlike Hemmings, the second time around we know what we are looking for. There’s nothing terribly obscure in the film’s overall design and sensibility, only in the maddening details and the quest to make sense of them. Blow-up is a foundational text of cinema d’ennui.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Antonioni pulls a Marceau-like expressionist finale in this picture, one of those fancy finishes that seems to say so much (but what?) and reminds one of so many naïvely bad experimental films.”–Pauline Kael, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)

122. BARBARELLA (1968)

Recommended

AKA Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy

“Barbarella, pyschedella,
There’s a kind of cockleshell about you…”
–Lyrics from Barbarella‘s theme song

DIRECTED BY: Roger Vadim

FEATURING: Jane Fonda, , Anita Pallenberg, Milo O’Shea, Marcel Marceau, ,

PLOT: A wide-eyed aviatrix known as Barbarella must travel to the outer reaches of the peaceful galaxy to stop rebellious scientist Durand-Durand from unleashing his weapon, the Positronic Ray. She is rescued from a gang of dolls with razor-sharp metal teeth by a man who teaches her the ways of physical love, then befriends a blind angel. Her search leads her into conflict with the Grand Tyrant in a sinful city of the future.

Still from Barbarella (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on the French comic series of the same name, Barbarella‘s screenplay features her creator Jean-Claude Forest among its many credits, as well as novelist  (who also worked on the scripts for Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider, among others).
  • The entire film was shot on a soundstage in Italy, meaning that the wondrous, complex sets were built from scratch for every scene. An oil wheel projector was used to create the trippy, amorphous backgrounds that visually expanded the limited space into larger territory. Several of the Italian actors are dubbed in English.
  • Among the many cut sequences from the final product is a titillating love scene between Jane Fonda and Anita Pallenberg. Publicity stills of the scene exist but it was never actually filmed.
  • At the time Barbarella was shot, star Jane Fonda was married to director Roger Vadim, known as the man who discovered (and married/divorced) the young Brigitte Bardot.
  • The bands Duran Duran and Matmos took their names from this film.
  • Barbarella was a flop on release. It was re-released in 1977 to cash in on the space opera craze started by Star Wars, with most of the nudity removed to create a PG rated version entitled Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: For many, Fonda’s titillating anti-gravity striptease over the opening credits is the highlight, or her sweaty orgasmic torture under the deadly Excessive Machine. For me the most remarkable visual moment is the Great Tyrant’s Chamber of Dreams, wherein Barbarella runs around in confusion, backed by fantastic lava-lamp patterns and floating bubbles as a rambling xylophone score tinkles over the action.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Merging elements of sex-romp comedy, ludicrous science fiction, and death-defying action-adventure with memorably psychedelic imagery, Barbarella is a series of disjointed sequences that get stranger and stranger as the story progresses. The wild costumes, over-saturated color schemes, goofy dialogue, and sly winks to the audience are punctuated with weird little details, from deadly animatronic dolls to a hair-raising futuristic sex scene with minimal physical contact.


Original trailer from Barbarella (1968)

COMMENTS: Set in a wildly distant future where war and violence no longer exist, everyone has Continue reading 122. BARBARELLA (1968)

CAPSULE: DEEP RED [PROFONDO ROSSO] (1975)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dario Argento

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A pianist witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic and becomes obsessed with

 Still from Deep Red (1975)

tracking down the killer, even though everyone he associates with is being slaughtered.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not quite weird enough.  Deep Red flirts with the irrational, but at this stage of his career director Argento hadn’t fully committed to the bizarre yet.

COMMENTS: Previous to Deep Red, Dario Argento had made three stylish, well-regarded gialli (for those unfamiliar with the Italian giallo genre, imagine a slasher movie with an actual whodunnit plot and a near-Gothic atmosphere, and add bad dubbing).  With Deep Red, the director turned up the style meter several notches, and pushed further into his own esoteric brand of the fantastique: the Expressionist flowers that bloom in Suspiria grow from the blood spilled in Deep Red.  Still pitched as a traditional mystery, Deep Red does not abandon the primacy of plot, but the story becomes so convoluted, and makes so many concessions to atmosphere, that it begins to bear hallmarks of weirdness.  The film begins with a shadow-play prologue that reenacts a Yuletide murder, then segues into a parapsychology conference held inside a scarlet-cloaked opera house.  A panel of experts discuss telepathy in zebras (!) and then introduce a psychic, who senses the presence of an evil soul in the audience.  During her subsequent brutal murder, a pianist played David Hemmings witnesses the murderer leaving the scene of the crime and becomes obsessed with tracking down the killer (who strikes again several times).  Although the tale is intricately constructed and the resolution itself “makes sense,” the movie takes fairly arbitrary steps in its quest for closure.  Drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs used to have a saying, “this movie has so much plot it’s like it doesn’t have any plot at all,” an adage that fits Deep Red perfectly.  The story takes leaps that aren’t always clear to the viewer.  Barely introduced to each other at the scene of the crime, Hemmings and a female photographer (Nicolodi) suddenly begin working as a team to investigate the murder.  Hemmings is constantly following up on obscure clues, Continue reading CAPSULE: DEEP RED [PROFONDO ROSSO] (1975)

CAPSULE: EYE OF THE DEVIL (1966)

DIRECTED BY:  J. Lee Thompson

FEATURING:  Sharon Tate, , David Niven, , Flora Robson

PLOT: A happy marriage descends into an odyssey of terror when a woman’s husband is called to his ancestral estate by pagan heretics.

Still from Eye of the Devil (1966)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Eye of the Devil tells a strange story, the occult  genre always spins an unusual yarn. In this context, strange is normal. Aside from being well produced, Eye of the Devil is noteworthy only because it debuts the doomed Sharon Tate.

COMMENTS: Vineyard owner Marquis Philippe de Montfaucon (Niven) is called back to his castle when a drought withers the crop, upon which the entire region depends. His wife and children are supposed to remain in London, but of course she becomes curious and is compelled to intrude. Catherine de Montfaucon (Deborah Kerr) subsequently discovers that her husband is behaving in a secretive and peculiar manner. His personality has undergone a distinct change and he seems dreadfully grim and preoccupied. Why?

There are many mysterious comings and goings, some heavyweight clergy are milling around who appear to be legitimate, but why are the Marquis’ young cousins shooting medieval arrows at her, casting spells on her children, and trying to hypnotize her into leaping off of the castle parapets? And who the devil are those troublesome dark characters in black Franciscan monk’s robes, chasing Catherine about in the deep dark woods?

As Catherine snoops, she discovers mounting evidence of heretical pagan practices and that an extraordinary number of the Marquis’ antecedents met untimely deaths. Could there be a relation between the deaths and some profound event that her husband seems to be preparing for?

Flora Robson (The Shuttered Room) is creepy and aloof as always in her role as the Marquis’ Aunt.  Sharon Tate (in her film debut) plays a sinister and threatening witch who turns frogs into doves and seems to perversely enjoy taking a good old fashioned horse whipping from the Marquis. (Blow-up, Juggernaut) cavorts as her delightfully menacing, archery-happy brother. Eye of the Devil features crisp, striking, artful black and white cinematography by Erwin Hillier.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kerr is our only touch with reality, and she tries to carry the pic, to little avail.”–Variety (contemporaneous)