Of course I’ve heard about this movie forever and always wanted to see it, and I realized I wanted to watch it before I watched Blow Out again [that is based in part on this film, as is The Conversation], and it had been a while since I’d seen a serious movie. That said, because this is a serious movie and I knew I’d have to pay close attention and probably be sure to watch it all the way through, it sat on my desk for two weeks before circumstances were right.
We open with these simple buy snazzy credits over a green field of grass that will figure in again later. We learn from the credits that the music here is by “Herbert Hancock.” Then we see a truckload of mimes yelling at the top of their lungs as they create anarchy on the streets of 60s London [it was the crazy 60s, y’all]. Next we cut to a bunch of miners or other lower-class London citizens coming out of work in the early AM. One of this group separates from them and jumps in a very snazzy-looking Rolls… this is the main character, a photographer, played by David Hemmings [who went on to be in Barbarella [I KNEW I had seen him before], Equilibrium, Deep Red, and more]. He has been pretending to be poor in order to get photos of the common working man.
He goes to his studio, where a model, Verushka, has been waiting for an hour. Thomas [so named in the credits, his name is never spoken in the film] doesn’t give a fuck. He photographs her, and during that sequence I actually had my first impression of what a good model really does, as she is a master at moving in such a way that creates a really interesting visual every few seconds. During this famed sequence, Thomas photographs her in a way that implies that the act is sexual, ending up with him straddling her and going “Yes! Yes!” then leaving her on the floor and attending to other business. He is the kind of person who takes a call from an antique shop, then hands to it his assistant to write down the address, something he cannot be bothered with. He then takes photographs of “the birds,” five models in a fashion setting, yelling pretty abusively at one. It is apparent that this movie is one of the sources Austin Powers is parodying for its swingin’ 60s vibe, and the scenes in the first two movies where he is directing models as he photographs them.
He then goes next door where a painter is working on his abstract expressionist paintings, which looks like a bunch of little dots, possibly making a picture. “They don’t mean anything when I do them,” the painter says, “Just a mess. Afterwards I find something to hold onto.” Soon after two aspiring models try their best to see Thomas, but he ignores them. By now we have noticed that Thomas is the stereotype of the fast-living, narcissistic, amoral asshole rich and fabulous person, who picks things and people up and then drops them, while considering himself as being on a search for true meaning in life.
After a few more interludes he ends up in a park, where he follows a romantic couple. The only sound during this sequence is the rustling of leaves through the trees, and it creates quite a tense effect. He takes photos of then, truly stalking them and hiding behind trees, until the woman notices him and confronts him. This is Vanessa Redgrave [YOUNG Vanessa Redgrave], and she demands the photos back. Thomas accepts no moral responsibility for taking other people’s photos, but promises her the negatives if she comes by his studio.
She does, and he makes her take her top off, but doesn’t photograph her. He also gives her the film—only it isn’t really the film of her. Then the two girls show up again and they all have wild sex, but he doesn’t photograph them. Then he starts exposing the film he shot of the couple in the park, and as he does, he sees a hand holding a gun. His first interpretation is “I saved someone’s life today,” thinking that by taking these photos he thwarted the murder. In the commentary on the DVD, much is made of the fact that the views in the photographs are not the same views we saw Thomas see.
He goes back to the park at night [this movie takes place over a 24-hour period], and sees the corpse of a man lying there. He returns to his apartment and finds that all of the photos have been taken [presumably by Redgrave once she figured out that she didn’t have the film], leaving only one very indistinct photo of the body, enlarged several times, so it looks very grainy. “It looks like one of Bill’s paintings,” says a woman [Bill is the abstract expressionist who paints with tiny drops who we saw at the beginning]. Then Thomas goes to this concert where The Yardbirds are playing. The guitarist smashes his instrument, and Thomas fights everyone for possession of the guitar neck. Once outside, with no one else competing for it, he throws it away. Then he goes to this party where everyone is smoking grass [apparently quite scandalous at the time], and runs into Verushka. “I thought you were in Paris,” he says. “I am,” she replies. He tries to get his friend to go with him to the park to see the body, but his friend is so stoned he wouldn’t be much good anyway. Thomas falls asleep at the party.
Waking the next morning, he goes back to the park. The corpse is gone. As he wanders around, the marauding mimes come back around, take to this tennis court and hold an imaginary game. One of their shots sends the imaginary ball up and over the court—the camera follows the imaginary ball as it rolls to a stop. Finally Thomas picks it up and throws it back, even following it with his eyes. Then we hear the sounds of a real tennis game being played [clearly occurring in Thomas’ mind], and we have a reprise of the shot of a field of grass from the beginning, with Thomas standing in the middle of it. He fades away… and the film is over.
Okay, so what’s going on? I think [and I’ve checked, most people think] it’s all about perception vs. reality, imagination vs. reality, personal meaning vs. shared meaning, and overarching all of this, the filmmaking process. Thomas is a photographer, so his life is creating and manipulating images that theoretically have meaning for others, but he is uninvolved and callous toward his subjects—he sees the poor workers as just fodder for his photos, and doesn’t care about the privacy of Redgrave. His painter friend talks about his paintings, saying that they are “just a mess” when he does them, and ascribes meaning to them later. When he blows up the photos, they become grainy, like his friends paintings, and the two are explicitly compared. Thomas’ sense of the meanings of the photos changes; first he thinks he prevented a murder, then later he thinks he captured the murder. But he needs the participation and perception of others in order for the photos to have meaning. Furthermore, the reality captured in the photos grows more indistinct the more he blows them up. The guitar neck that he steals is meaningless and thus worthless once it is removed from the context of the concert. He needs his friend to come see the body in order to confirm his experience and for it to have meaning, but his friend is so stoned his perception wouldn’t be worth anything. Finally, he enters into the shared but imaginary meaning of this tennis game, and the sound of the tennis game he hears in his head implies that he has entered into the mines’ reality. And all of this also revolves around in the filmmaking process… creating photographs that have both personal and shared meaning to others.
Within this, I also think there’s an undertone of Thomas searching for any kind of meaning in his own life. He sleeps with beautiful women and throws them away, he buys beautiful things and ignores them, he wants the photographs he takes to be important… I think there’s an aspect of the idle rich who have everything they want, but find a pervading emptiness in all of this. This is part of what I read as the desolation we see in his facial expression during the final scene with the tennis match.
The commentary on the disc is by Peter Brunette, and is actually quite interesting and informative, talking about the construction of the movie and offering interpretations at every turn. I really appreciate this, as when there’s a good movie that I don’t fully understand on my own, I like to know what other informed people think about it and why it’s supposed to be good. Many DVD commentaries have been terrible disappointments, as you listen to them hoping to get some insight into the filmmaking process, and all you’re fed is movie star trivia. So I can definitely recommend taking the time to listen to this one, as it will enhance your perception and understanding of a difficult film.
Overall? This one definitely got a bit long toward the end, and it certainly wasn’t a total blast to sit through, but it’s one of those that grows deeper and more layered the more one thinks about it afterward, and my fondness for it has grown a great deal in thinking about it over the past few days. But I guess that’s why essential cinema is so, you know… essential.
Yes, it is terribly interesting and beautifully constructed.